The Lyme Bay Trials, Dorset.
The Dorset Biological Warfare Experiments were conducted in the south Dorset area between 1963 and 1975. They took place under the control of the Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton Down. The experiments involved scores of trials in which both live and dead bacteria were sprayed from ships off the coast and from the air on to large sections of the surrounding countryside. The trials were monitored at over 60 designated detection sites. Four types of bacteria were used: Escherichia coli, Bacillus globigii, Bacterium aerogenes and Serratia marcescens. Zinc cadmium sulphide was also used as a biological weapons simulant. Clusters of health abnormalities downwind from the test sites have been reported over the last three decades. In a letter dating from 1999, the Defence Evaluation Research Agency said: ‘Ministers have made it clear that they cannot rule out conducting larger scale trials in the future to try to ensure the protection of the UK from attacks by people of states using chemical and biological weapons.’
In the 1950s, Nancekuke was the United Kingdom’s main site for the production of nerve agents. When it closed, remnants of many of the contaminated buildings and equipment were dumped in old quarries and mine shafts on and around the site, where they remain to this day. Today the site is an active military radar station. Some years ago, the Nancekuke Remediation Project was undertaken to assess the site to determine what was buried there.
Whiteford Point, Gower Peninsula, Wales.
In 1942, the Ministry of Defence dropped a 30lb anthrax bomb on to the beach here. It burst on contact and released a fine mist that infected nearby sheep, which died soon afterwards. With this proof of the effectiveness of anthrax as a lethal warfare agent, together with findings from similar tests on Gruinard Island, the military began Operation Vegetarian, producing 5 million units of anthrax-filled cattle cake – the nation’s first mass-produced biological weapon. The plan was to drop the anthrax cake on to Germany’s grazing pastures, where cattle would eat it; it would hence enter the food chain. However, by 1944, when the operation was ready to launch, the Allies were winning the war by conventional means and the plan was shelved.
Harpur Hill, Derbyshire.
In 1940, Maintenance Unit No. 28 was the biggest chemical weapons reception and storage depot in the United Kingdom. Up to 46,000 individual chemical weapons were stored on the 200-hectare site and in the surrounding country lanes. Wholesale burning of chemical weapons took place there after the war. In 1960 the site was closed. Since then the underground tunnels there have been used to store cheese and alcohol and to grow mushrooms. The site also contains a toxic quarry lake, where weapons were tested. Known to locals as ‘The Blue Lagoon’, it is very alkaline, with many warning signs to deter people from swimming in it. Part of the site is occupied by the Health and Safety Laboratory.
Gruinard Island, Scotland.
Located 1 mile off Gruinard Bay, between Gairloch and Ullapool on the northwestern coast of Scotland, Gruinard Island was the site of the first biological warfare test by British military scientists from Porton Down in 1942. Eighty sheep were taken to the island and bombs filled with anthrax spores were exploded close to where selected groups were tethered. The sheep either died during the test or were killed afterwards, as a precautionary measure. For many years it was judged too hazardous for the public to access the island. In 1981, a group of activists known as Dark Harvest, an affiliate of the Scottish National Liberation Army, left a sealed package of a soil sample from the island outside the military research facility at Porton Down; tests revealed that it contained anthrax bacilli. Dark Harvest wanted to draw attention to the contamination of the island and the failure of the authorities to deal with the situation. A few days later, another sealed package of the soil was left in Blackpool, where the ruling Conservative Party was holding its annual conference. Starting in 1986, a determined effort was made by the authorities to decontaminate the island, with 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in seawater sprayed over all 196 hectares of the island and the worst-contaminated topsoil around the dispersal site removed. On 24 April 1990, following 48 years of quarantine and four years after application of the formaldehyde solution, the island was declared safe for the public. Today the island remains uninhabited.
Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides.
Operation Cauldron was a series of biological weapons tests that involved spraying pneumonic plague bacteria on to animals caged on floating pontoons a half-mile offshore, at Tolsta Head. Nearly 3,500 guinea pigs and 83 monkeys were subjected to the experiment during the summer of 1952. On the last day of the operation, a fishing vessel strayed into the exposure area. Two naval vessels tailed the trawler for 21 days – the incubation period for plague – waiting for a distress call that could indicate a plague outbreak among the crew. No outbreak occurred. All those involved were ordered to destroy the records of their top-secret communications ‘by fire’ so that it would appear that they had never taken place; only a single file held by the Admiralty was kept.
Located approx. 2 miles from Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire, this railway siding was used for the temporary storage and then transfer of chemical weapons to so-called Forward Filling Depots. The Forward Filling Depots were remote bases scattered throughout the area that housed large stockpiles of chemical weapons which the British military would have employed against invading German armed forces. Today Kimbolton is predominantly used for pasturing cattle.
Lord’s Bridge, Cambridgeshire.
Maintenance Unit No. 95 was a Forward Filling Depot with two 250-tonne mustard gas storage pots and stocks of chemical weapons. In 1955, one of the pots exploded, vaporising 20 tonnes of mustard gas; a cloud of toxic black smoke spread over the countryside. The pots were finally removed in the 1980s. Today the site houses a pumping station for the Anglian Water Company and Cambridge University’s Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory.
Little Heath, Suffolk.
Maintenance Unit No. 94 was a Forward Filling Depot comprising three 500-tonne underground mustard gas storage pots. Decanting and burning of munitions also took place here immediately after the Second World War. Little Heath was part of a larger military base connected to the nuclear bomb store at nearby RAF Barnham. In 2009, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Porton, released a series of slides by Gareth Johnson and Mark Rogers in which they reported the discovery of several munitions including large jars of mustard gas. Today the site and its buildings are used as a wood-processing facility.
Riseley is situated 9 miles north of Bedford; the site is also known as Melchbourne Park. It was a Forward Filling Depot, containing three 500-tonne underground mustard gas storage pots and facilities for filling weapons. It also had 9,000 tanks, each holding 200 gallons of the Runcol HT/Y3 mustard gas type under pressure. After the Second World War, Operation Inkpad was undertaken, in which these stockpiles were disposed of by burning on site. Residents remembered clouds of black smoke rising from the woods for over eight months, causing their ‘net curtains to discolour and then disintegrate’. The site had been so badly contaminated that a clean-up operation was conducted and completed in 1988. Today six fenced-off areas remain contaminated, with one approximately the size of a football field. The surrounding site is now used for the breeding of deer.
Norton Disney, Lincolnshire.
Also known as Swinderby, Maintenance Unit No. 93 was a Forward Filling Depot. The site included two 250-tonne underground mustard storage pots and facilities for filling weapons. In the post-war period, large quantities of chemical weapons were sent to Norton Disney decanting and disposal. This continued well into the 1950s. At one stage a planning application was lodged to turn the site into a children’s adventure/play site. At present, the land is of mixed usage for crops and scattered woodland.
Spalford Warren, Nottinghamshire.
Maintenance Unit No. 93 in Spalford Warren was a satellite of the Norton Disney chemical weapons site. It stored weapons filled with mustard gas and phosgene during the Second World War for the supply of local airfields. After the war, chemical weapons were disposed of by burning at Spalford Warren. Areas historically used for the disposal of mustard gas at there are still fenced off today. The post-military site is on 36.5 hectares of a wind-blown glacial sand anomaly, which is one of the rarest habitats in the United Kingdom. The poor soil – derived from aeolian or wind-blown sand deposited after the last Ice Age – gave rise to a plant community unusual for an inland site. The name ‘Warren’ dates from the medieval period and refers to a place to raise rabbits for their fur and meat. From1965 onwards, the Forestry Commission planted conifers here but, fortunately for the long-term survival of this unusual habitat, many of these alien trees did not thrive. Today the site is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) with diverse, plants, bird life and wildfowl. It is popular with walkers and hikers.
This site was a United States army ammunitions storage depot during the Second World War. In 1952, it was redesignated a Central Ammunition Depot. During the war, it housed approximately 40,000 tonnes of mixed ammunition. Within its inventory at that time, it stored phosgene and mustard-gas munitions, amongst other conventional ordnance. Until 1938, it was the summer residence of the Dukes of Newcastle and is located within what was once Sherwood Forest.
Located on a back road near the Rhydymwyn Valley Chemical Works, Woodside was used as a spill-over site for the storage of bulk chemical weapons. Storage at Woodside was in partially-buried tanks: 31 containing 55 tonnes and one containing 250 tonnes. The site was experimental in that it was built as a model for other bases around the country. These Forward Filling Bases would receive and store chemicals and were ready to weaponise them in response to a chemical attack against the United Kingdom. Today the field is used for the rearing of grouse.
St Helens, Merseyside.
During the First World War, a factory here at Sutton Oak, St Helens, manufactured diphenyl chlorasine, a mustard gas precursor. It was closed for a period after the war but then reopened as a research facility. In 1932, factory employees were exposed to and experimented on with mustard gas so that its effect on skin could be tested. When the Second World War started, the nation’s stockpile of mustard gas was only 10 tonnes, and for a period of six months the entire supply came from Sutton Oak. Today the site is a vacant lot within the Abbotsfield Road Industrial Estate, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester.
Wigg Island, Merseyside.
The Randle Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) plant produced mustard gas on this site from 1938. As production increased, it soon became clear that a safer site was needed and the Rhydymwyn plant was constructed in 1939. Production at Randle ended in the 1960s. In 2002, part of the site was declared a local nature reserve. However, large parts of the site are off limits and there are numerous sarcophagi-like structures built to entomb the highly-polluted parts of the site indefinitely.
Operated by Maintenance Unit No. 80 and linked to the Forward Filling Depot at West Cottingwith and Riseley/Melchbourne Park and the Twinwood Royal Air Force base, part of the site was used for underground storage of mustard-gas munitions. The site is on the edge of the Hollicarrs Holiday Park on the Escrick Park Estate; it is planted with a mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland and is used by walkers, residents of the holiday home park and for equestrian activities.
Maintenance Unit No. 91 was a chemical weapons storage site and a sub-site of a war-time Forward Filling Depot connected to RAF Cottam. Records indicate that the burning of 65lb light-case bombs took place here. It was identified by the MoD in the ‘Project Cleansweep’ briefing document (2011) as a site where there was no ‘scientific evidence that all harmful traces of the [chemical warfare] agents were removed or disposed of’. RAF Cottam has a unique claim to fame as a ‘virtual’ airfield for RAF air traffic control. Despite being built as a bomber airfield, poor weather conditions meant it was never used for that purpose: although it was operational (on stand-by) until June 1954, it did not receive any aircraft. The runways and buildings were used for years as a storage facility for conventional bombs; Cottam’s aircraft control tower was demolished in 1980.
West Cottingwith, Yorkshire.
West Cottingwith was part of Maintenance Unit No. 80. Two large 250-tonne underground storage pots containing mustard gas were located on the site during the Second World War. The maintenance unit was closed in the 1950s. In 1991, the pots were dug out, removed, and the site levelled. However, equipment used in the removal was buried in a mound on the site, where it remains today. In 2011, one of the largest caches of live munitions (45,000 rounds) ever discovered in the United Kingdom was unearthed by the Ministry of Defence nearby. The buildings used for storage are now in a dilapidated state and used as outbuildings for the farm situated there. Today the land of the site is under agricultural use for arable farming.
This site was part of the National Smelting Company, which at one stage during the First World War was the United Kingdom’s main centre for the production of mustard gas. In 2012, workers clearing the site for the building of a large ASDA supermarket distribution facility suffered skin irritation and nosebleeds after discovering some buried munitions. Today the site has been given the all-clear and building work has recommenced.