In 1941, in the midst of World War II, the United Kingdom deployed all its military and scientific strength to prevent, at all costs, a possible invasion by Nazi Germany and the use of a biological weapon against the British. Faced with the threat, the Prime Minister of the time, the emblematic Sir Winston Churchill, ordered the scientists of a secret English facility called Porton Down to work on an offensive against the Germans: thus, Operation Vegetarian was born.
The tactic, devised by scientists after studying the poison gas used in World War I, was to use a virulent strain of Bacillus anthracis – also known as anthrax – against the German population.
Once the plan was devised, the British authorities looked for an isolated, uninhabited, but easily accessible place to test the strategy. This is how the island of Gruinard, northwest of Scotland, was selected as the ideal site to use the weapon of mass destruction.
It was purchased from its owners, Molly Dunphie and her husband, Colonel Peter Dunphie, a Churchill confidant, for £500 in 1942. Once there, Porton Down scientists transported 80 sheep to the island, lined them up and lined them up. individual boxes and bombarded the site with a cloud of anthrax.
The experiment was successful and the sheep died within three days.
However, the scope was such that after carrying out several tests, the scientists found that most of the island’s soil was contaminated and that the pollution had spread to the Scottish coast; which caused the death of between 30 and 50 sheep, seven cows, two horses and three cats in six months.
Despite the ruling, it was not known what had actually happened on the island until years later. “They sent agents up north to look into everything and paid compensation to the farmers, but they had a cover for what happened. They were told that the compensation was coming from the Greek Government, because the anthrax came from a Greek ship that passed by and infected the area, instead of saying that it was an experiment by the British Government. This way they could evade responsibility for what happened,” historian Rory Scothorne told the BBC.
In 1944, entry to Gruinard Island was prohibited, without mentioning the reason. Photo: PA Media
In 1944 entry to the island was prohibited, and just 24 years later, the cartels began to point out the reason behind that measure, while the area was placed under strict quarantine.
“People knew that the island was contaminated, but it was not reported in the media. There was a time when the Government considered decontaminating the island. It was in 1971 and they looked into it, but they came to the conclusion that it was too expensive and there wasn’t enough pressure to do it,” continues Scothorne.
That “extra” pressure appeared in 1981, when a clandestine cell known as the “Dark Harvest Commandos” shipped contaminated soil from Gruinard Island to Porton Down. The tension increased when a second assignment was made to the Conservative Party congress in the city of Blackpool.
After the appearance of the command, and the realization of new investigations, it was found that thanks to technological advances the island could be decontaminated for “only” 500,000 pounds. The land was treated with a solution of salt water and the chemical compound formaldehyde until in 1990, the British Ministry of Defense declared the territory “free of anthrax”.
The island was reacquired by the heirs of the original owner and today looks barren and serves as a reminder of the consequences that chemical and biological warfare can cause.
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