October 28, 2001, St. Petersburg Times, Island with a lethal legacy; Nearly 60 years ago, Gruinard Island was the test site for an anthrax bomb, by Susan Taylor Martin,
GRUINARD ISLAND, Scotland -- Low, mean clouds scud overhead, precursors of the gale building off the northwest coast of Scotland.
In another hour, this tiny island will disappear from sight, shrouded by torrential rains and seas whipped white by 40-mph winds.
For now, though, all is calm. And eerily quiet.
No birds wheel overhead, few rabbits bound among the heather and bracken. The shepherd's hut stands empty and abandoned, the sheep long gone.
So, too, are the signs that helped give this place its other name: Anthrax Island.
"THIS ISLAND IS GOVERNMENT PROPERTY UNDER EXPERIMENT
THE GROUND IS CONTAMINATED WITH ANTHRAX AND DANGEROUS
LANDING IS PROHIBITED BY ORDER 1987"
In 1942, during the dark days of World War II, the British government took over Gruinard Island and tested what may have been the world's first anthrax bomb.
The tests killed dozens of sheep and convinced the British that anthrax spores -- lethal, hardy and easy to transport -- could be an extremely effective weapon against the Germans.
Within a few years, though, the Allies had repulsed Hitler's forces by more conventional means, and no anthrax bombs or other biological warfare were ever used. Gruinard was cleaned up in 1986, and for the next 15 years no one paid any attention to a small, unpopulated island not unlike dozens of other small islands off the rugged Scottish coast.
Then came the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks on the United States and the discovery of anthrax-laced letters that have killed three and infected 13 others. Remembering Gruinard's past, a London tabloid dispatched a reporter in gas mask and biohazard suit, and headlined his account: "My Nightmare Hour on Anthrax Island."
Suddenly, the media rush was on. That has angered nearby residents, who say the greatest threat isn't from anthrax; it's from the scare stories that could be killing the local tourism industry.
"I was there every day during the cleanup and I never once had a suit or mask on," says Peter Deakin, who ferried scientists and contractors to Gruinard while it was being decontaminated.
Suggestions that Gruinard is still dangerous "are nothing but rubbish," Deakin says. Still, he worries about their effect on business at his gift and tea shop.
Along with fishing, tourism ranks as the major source of livelihood in northwest Scotland, where visitors are drawn by the majestic lochs and mountains, the wild, romantic weather and the soul-piercing solitude. The area is so remote that the nearest airport is 70 miles away, and the only first-run movies are in a mobile theater that rolls into local villages every month or so.
The desolation of the Scottish Highlands was one reason British scientists chose Gruinard for the anthrax tests. And despite assurances the island is safe, some still wonder exactly what went on there 60 years ago.
"There have always been rumors that the tests were a coverup for something else," says Jeanette Blackley, who works at a local hotel. "It was all very hush-hush."
At the very least, Gruinard continues to intrigue for two main reasons. The tests showed that the threat from anthrax, although just recently recognized by the public, is both real and overblown. But while no humans are known to have died from the Gruinard experiments, they also showed that even a principled nation like Britain was prepared to use an awful, outlawed means to destroy its enemy.
'Frothing at the mouth'
In its crudest form, biological warfare is nothing new. Centuries ago, the Mongols and other invading armies catapulted disease-ridden corpses into towns and villages they were trying to conquer.
Although there is no evidence biological weapons were used in World War I, the very thought of them was so abhorrent that they were outlawed under the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Yet the ban only served to whet the interests of certain scientists, who saw the potential of turning natural substances into weapons of war.
In the 1930s, the Japanese began developing a variety of biological agents to use against its far bigger foe, China. And soon after entering World War II, the British started experimenting with anthrax as a possible weapon against the Nazis.
Anthrax, derived from anthrakis, the Greek word for "coal," is naturally found in soil and many animals, including sheep. Humans generally contract the disease through an open wound, with the infection causing a small blister that progresses to an ulcer black as coal. Most cases of this "cutaneous anthrax" can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
However, in the late 1800s, medical science identified the far more lethal "inhalational anthrax," first noticed among English wool workers. Within days of inhaling anthrax spores, victims develop flulike symptoms followed by a fluid buildup and hemorrhaging in the lungs. Even with aggressive treatment, this type of anthrax is often fatal.
Excited by the potential of inhaled anthrax, the British government in 1940 established a biological warfare research unit at Porton Down, not far from Stonehenge in southern England. With help from the United States and Canada, scientists set out to test the effects of anthrax on various organisms and to develop ways of spreading the spores through sprays or exploding munitions.
Although the project was highly secret, it reflected widespread fears among the British that the enemy could be gaining the upper hand.
"In some ways, '41 and '42 were the low points of the war," says Philip Towle, a professor of 20th century history at Cambridge University.
"In December 1941, the Japanese joined in, and we didn't know then that the Russians would do as well as they would. In the Mideast, Rommel was taking over from the Italians and pushing us back there. 1941 and '42 were very bad years."
By the summer of 1942, British scientists were ready to conduct actual tests of an anthrax bomb. For a site, they looked far to the north -- to the rocky little island of Gruinard.
Just 520 acres, Gruinard seemed the perfect place. It was unpopulated and more than a mile from the nearest house, yet it was close to the big Allied military base at Loch Ewe, the rendezvous point for U.S. and British convoys bound for Russia.
As mainland residents watched and wondered, boats carrying men and equipment began making regular trips to an island few had ever bothered to visit. Next, sheep were brought in, 60 in all.
"The first weapon tested on Gruinard used a modified 25-pound chemical bomb, 18 inches high and 6 inches in diameter, loaded with a "brown, thick gruel' of concentrated anthrax spores," said an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
"Filled with slurry, the bomb was ferried from the Scottish mainland to Gruinard, and then dropped from a Wellington bomber."
Within a few days, all five dozen sheep had died. As the tests continued, people on the mainland began noticing strange things, too.
Alice Maclean grew up in the tiny village of Mellon Udrigle, about a mile and a half across the bay from Gruinard Island. Although she was away at the time training to be a nurse, she remembers her father talking about what happened to his livestock.
"He had a mare that was sick for a few days, then died. It was frothing at the mouth and had trouble breathing. It must have been the inhalation kind of anthrax," says Maclean, now 90.
"My father also had a beautiful red cow. He found it dead in the stall. There had been nothing wrong with it the day before. And 10 sheep died and are buried down there," she adds, pointing to a grassy area near the beach.
Scientists later confirmed at least one outbreak of anthrax on the mainland. It apparently was caused by an infected sheep's carcass that had been buried on Gruinard but was unearthed in a storm and carried across the bay.
The tests continued for another year, their success buoying British military and political leaders. Declassified accounts of the trials "demonstrated to (Britain) and its allies that biological warfare was not only feasible, but practicable and potent."
Concerned about spreading anthrax to populated areas, the government stopped the tests on Gruinard in 1943 and closed the island to boat and air traffic. But Britain's fascination with anthrax didn't end there.
About the same time they were testing the anthrax bombs on Gruinard, the British were manufacturing 5-million anthrax "cattle cakes" that they planned to drop on Germany. Dubbed "Operation Vegetarian," the plan was that German beef and dairy herds would eat the cakes and then spread the disease to humans.
"With people having no access to antibiotics, this would have caused many thousands -- perhaps millions -- of German men, women and children to suffer awful deaths," the Sunday Herald of Scotland reported, citing official documents.
By the time Operation Vegetarian was to start in the summer of 1944, the Allies had invaded Normandy and the tide was turning against the Nazis. The plan was scrubbed and the cattle cakes were eventually incinerated.
But British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wasn't taking any chances. That year he ordered 500,000 anthrax bombs from the United States, although the war ended before delivery could be made.
In 1944, the British also considered sending an undercover agent to kill Hitler by impregnating his clothing with anthrax, hidden in a fountain pen, hollowed-out spectacles or even a pair of false teeth. The so-called "Operation Foxley" was rejected, partly from fear of making Hitler a martyr, partly because he was proving so inept a military strategist that he was actually helping the Allied cause.
Even after the war's end, as Britain began to worry about the Soviet Union, scientists continued studying the possible effects of anthrax. In the '50s and '60s, they secretly released harmless powder in the London Underground, British trains and the British Museum to gauge how far real anthrax spores might spread.
The scientists' conclusion: "The potential for clandestine biological warfare attack is considerable."
And to this day, there is heated debate over whether Churchill considered using anthrax as an offensive or defensive weapon during World War II. Some historians think he would have turned to biological and chemical weapons only if the Germans had employed them first.
However, in a controversial BBC documentary, Robert Harris noted that Churchill said he was prepared to use chemical weapons if they would shorten the war by a year. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude he would have been willing to use anthrax or other biological agents as well, Harris later wrote:
"Given that shortening the war was one of the prime minister's principal aims, it is not surprising that his thoughts should have turned . . . to anthrax (estimated to be 300,000 times as powerful as poison gas).
"He had, after all, personally authorized the purchase of half a million anthrax bombs from the United States and had been told that anthrax was a weapon of such "appalling potentiality' that it rivaled the atomic bomb.' "
'Welcome back Gruinard'
Assured of its quirky place in the history of weaponry, Gruinard Island slumbered on through the rest of World War II and most of the Cold War. Finally, in 1986, the British government hired a private contractor to decontaminate "Anthrax Island."
Workers in protective gear injected 280 tons of formaldehyde, diluted with seawater, far into the ground. Tons of topsoil were removed in sealed containers.
In July 1989, the government lifted the flight restrictions over Gruinard. A year later, an official of the Ministry of Defense took down the last of the "Landing is Prohibited" signs. In its place, a small plaque was laid in the ground. It read:
For airOnce again, Gruinard Island was deemed fit for humans.
and the equilibrium of understanding
welcome back Gruinard
Until Sept. 11, few cared. Then the journalists began arriving, and Freddy and Mark Wiseman, father and son, discovered they could earn as much taking reporters to the island as they could fishing for prawns and scallops.
The beach at Gruinard is so rocky that the boat must anchor 20 yards off shore; from there, the trip is completed by small inflatable dinghy. Once past the beach, the pace is tough going through thigh-high bracken and heather so spongy you can quickly sink to your ankles. Dead-looking tufts of rushes stick up through preternaturally green patches of moss dotted with tiny mushrooms.
The only sign of human life is the shepherd's cottage, made entirely of stone but for the wooden door long opened to the elements. Inside, there's a bottle of Schweppe's tonic water, a copy of John Grisham's The Chamber, and an unopened can of peaches. A tabloid newspaper dated April 6, 2001, seems to bear out what nearby residents say: that locals come here to picnic without any fear of anthrax.
By 4 p.m., it is blowing so hard the rain shoots sideways. It is time to leave.
Anthrax aside, Gruinard in a gale is no place for humans.
-- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.