Gruinard Island: Operation Vegetarian

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Gruinard Island: Operation Vegetarian

Suited scientists remove anthrax-infected sheep carcases for burning

In 1942, with the Second World War in full swing and increasingly sophisticated exploration of both chemical and biological warfare, scientists from Porton Down conceived of an operation to kill millions of German civilians through the use of anthrax.

The plan did not involve attacking the population directly, but instead hinged on the idea of dropping linseed cakes infected with anthrax spores into German cattle fields. Cattle would eat the cakes and thus anthrax would enter the human food chain and potentially result in millions of deaths as the infection spread.

The conception of such plans is unexceptional in military circles - with many theoriticians given a brief to 'think the unthinkable' in an effort to stimulate new lines of thinking for military doctrine. Most such plans remain on paper but are never seriously considered, but in 1942 it was decided to test the idea of weaponising anthrax in the wild.

The remote, uninhabited Scottish island of Gruinard was chosen for the ironically named 'Operation Vegetarian'. The scientists were well aware that the trials would contaminate the land for decades at minimum.

60-80 sheep were taken to the island, where they were exposed to clouds of anthrax spores released through the detonation of small bombs loaded with the virus. Quickly, all the sheep contracted the disease and died. The scientists concluded that such devices coule be made viable for use on civilian populations and could be used to cause death to millions and render entire cities and regions uninhabitable for decades.

Exactly how long the effects could last was proved when attempts were made to decontaminate the island. It quickly became apparent that there was no simple way to eliminate the disease and the island was purchased outright by the MOD and placed under strict quarantine. Concerted efforts at decontamination did not recommence until 1986 and the island was finally declared free of the disease in 1990 - some 48 years after the Operation Vegetarian began.

Quite how prepared Britain was to actually use weaponised anthrax is a matter of some debate. Operation Vegetarian certainly showed that the defence establishment was prepared to countenance it - and continued research into biological and chemical warfare at Porton Down demonstrates that that interest did not end with the Second World War. Churchill himself was fully involved with the anthrax experiments and had determined after long discussion with aides and chiefs of staff that Britain would be prepared to use anthrax as a retaliatory attack if Germany deployed anything similar against Britain.

In the end, when the implications of Vegetarian were understood - that it would kill millions and render whole regions uninhabitable for decades - Churchill ordered that priority be given to poison gas. Nonetheless 500,000 anthrax bombs were produced and stockpiled by the war's end until the project was quietly dropped.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 17th December 2012 | © Weird Island 2010-2019
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Footage of the trials

This fragmentary colour footage was recorded during the trials and shows how Operation Vegetarian was carried out.