by R. V. Jones and J. M. Lewis
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [USA] November 1987
The article "Churchill's Secret Biological Weapons" by Barton J. Bernstein in the January/February 1987 Bulletin is trebly disappointing. Bernstein ignores the previously published work on the subject; he ignores or overlooks some of the most important declassified material which has long been available at the London Public Record Office; and he appears to misinterpret those documents that he did assemble.
In May 1981, a British television report by Robert Harris of the BBC made international headlines for alleging wrongly, as it transpired that Winston Churchill had advocated using anthrax against Nazi Germany in response to the 1944 V-weapon offensives. The truth was that he had pressed for consideration of the use of poison gas, but had reluctantly accepted the advice of his military advisers (the British Chiefs of Staff and their subordinate Joint Planning Staff) not to take such a step under the circumstances. He had not asked for the use of biological warfare to be considered, but, in reporting back to him negatively on the gas question, the Chiefs of Staff had added a brief examination of the biological warfare situation. As Bernstein rightly notes, this report pointed out that no use of anthrax would in any case be practicable as anthrax bombs were, as yet, unavailable.
After an intense public debate in the British press, the anthrax allegation against Churchill was conclusively refuted by J.M. Lewis in the February 1982 Encounter magazine. Consequently, when Robert Harris issued his comprehensive study, A Higher Form of Killing: the Secret Story of Gas and Germ Warfare, soon afterward, he had dropped the charge against Churchill. Finally, when Road to Victory, the relevant volume of Churchill's official biography, appeared in 1986, it cited (pages 775-76, 839-42, and 864-65) and confirmed the accuracy of the Encounter research on Churchill's involvement in 1944.
These detailed accounts cover all the material reproduced in Bernstein's article. But Bernstein remarks instead that the story "tucked away at the Public Record Office in wartime British files and only partly declassified even 41 years after VE-Day, can now be pieced together".
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Further key documents are available about the wartime programme. In mid-1944, responsibility for biological warfare was transferred to the Chiefs of Staff organisation which set up a special body to deal with it: the Inter-Service Sub-Committee on Biological Warfare (I.S.S.B.W.). Although the files of the I.S.S.B.W. remain classified, their most important reports were accidentally released with a mass of other material in 1972. These were the main papers prepared by the I.S.S.B.W. for the Chiefs of Staff, and they slipped past the censors because they were duplicated in the Chiefs' series of memoranda as well as in the still secret biological warfare series. The most revealing is an overall survey of the whole biological warfare programme to date, finalised by the I.S.S.B.W. on 10 October 1944, and approved by the Chiefs of Staff three days later.
Familiarity with this report and the fact of its adoption might have saved Bernstein from such errors as his suggestion that "the British military" were actually planning on a basis of acquiring 4¼ million anthrax bombs for use against Germany. It should also have discouraged him from making various sinister insinuations which are wholly unsupported by the evidence. For example, Bernstein casts doubt on the deterrent function of Britain's wartime biological warfare programme on account of the great secrecy in which it was shrouded: "It is unclear," he claims, "how and why, given this strategy of secrecy, Germany was to be deterred by a weapon that the British chose not to acknowledge they were developing." He concludes: "Perhaps British leaders were therefore also considering the advantages of ultimately initiating bacteriological warfare." No shred of evidence is produced for this serious allegation, which Bernstein based upon nothing more substantial than a belief that it would somehow have made sense to advertise to the world that Britain was striving to develop a biological deterrent but did not yet possess it. On the contrary, nothing could have been better calculated to provoke an immediate enemy attack if they already possessed such weapons, or a redoubling of their efforts to acquire them if they did not.
Churchill's position was quite clear: when he approved the proposal to order an initial stockpile of 500,000 anthrax bombs in March 1944, he stated that he had "had most secret consultations with my Military Advisers [the Chiefs of Staff]. They consider, and I entirely agree, that if our enemies should indulge in this form of warfare, the only deterrent would be our power to retaliate". On 21 May 1944, in agreeing to transfer biological warfare responsibilities from Ernest Brown's cumbersome Bacteriological Warfare Committee to the Chiefs of Staff organisation, Churchill showed that his thinking had not changed. "As you know," he wrote to his personal representative on the Chiefs of Staff committee, General Sir Hastings Ismay, "great progress has been made in bacteriological warfare and we have ordered a half million bombs from America for use should this mode of warfare be employed against us".
Similarly, when the new Inter-Service Sub-Committee on Biological Warfare tendered its overall survey to the Chiefs of Staff on 10 October 1944, it pointed out that "there is no reliable evidence to suggest the imminent use of B.W. [biological warfare] by the enemy", and thought it "very likely that a number of reports on B.W. have their origin in the propaganda surrounding the enemy's V-campaign". However, the "possibility always exists that the enemy will try to use B.W. as a final act of desperation. Moreover, even limited production of B.W. materials would, in the hand of the saboteur, have serious consequences; a possibility that in the final stages must not be disregarded".
The I.S.S.B.W. survey went on to explain:
Only two weapons have been developed to the stage of production. As a matter of urgency, in order to have available some form of retaliation if required, 5 million pieces of cattle cake containing a dose of "N" [anthrax] lethal for cows were prepared at Porton in 1942 .... No great importance is attached to this project .... The other weapon is the aircraft bomb. This project has now reached the production stage, and an order for 500,000 has been placed in America. This initial order was based on an appreciation that the number would be sufficient for retaliatory attack on six large enemy cities. It has now been concluded, however, that it may be necessary to arrange provision of 8 times this number of bombs in order to achieve results on the scale originally envisaged .... The initial order for half a million empty bombs should be completed in the near future and the plant for manufacturing the filling of the bombs [the anthrax itself] should be in operation by the end of the year .... We could not, therefore, engage in this form of warfare on any effective scale before the spring of 1945 .... It will be seen that 4 years' work in U.K., 3 years in Canada and 1 year in U.S.A. have resulted in only two developed weapons, production of one of which [the N-bomb] has not yet been shown to be feasible. It may therefore be argued that we have not yet proved B.W. to be a practicable means of warfare, and one which warrants pursuing further. However, in our view, cancellation of the work would be unwise. We have no reason to suppose that after further study, our main weapon is not capable of production in due course .... Any country which has not taken steps to make the necessary applications may find itself in danger .... On the other hand it may be hoped that danger will not develop in the near future. (Emphasis added)
As a compromise, the I.S.S.B.W. recommended that only "the present token order for 500,000 bombs should stand, since it is estimated to be sufficient to produce a considerable effect" although falling far short of the initial plan of being capable of threatening retaliation against six German cities if the Nazis used biological weapons. The Chiefs of Staff agreed to this proposal on 13 October 1944.
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In every significant exchange on this subject, in which Churchill, Brown, the early Bacteriological Warfare Committee, Ismay, the Chiefs of Staff, and their own Top Secret sub-committee on biological warfare all at times took part, the deterrent motivation for the wartime anthrax programme is clearly evident. In an especially restricted Top Secret report to the Cabinet Defence Committee in September 1945, requesting governmental permission to continue biological warfare research in peacetime, the Chiefs of Staff described the situation:
Early in 1940 we thought that the possibilities of our being attacked by this means were sufficiently serious for us to take counter measures. It was not possible to discover which of a number of Agents the enemy might use against us and we had therefore to rely on offence as the only effective means of defence. Work accordingly started in this country on the development of a sufficiently virulent biological weapon to deter German attempts to use B.W. against us .... By 1945 there had been developed a weapon based on anthrax which, judging by its effect on monkeys, might kill half the population of a City of the size of Stuttgart in one heavy bomber raid and render the site of the City uninhabitable for many years to come. This bomb has not yet been produced in quantity .... It is clear, therefore, that B.W. is potentially a most deadly weapon and, if it is ever used in warfare, may have revolutionary effects .... The Chiefs of Staff Committee are convinced that, in the interests of National Defence, work on B.W. research should continue in peace time. As an island we are an ideal target for attack by B.W. methods as our attacker need have no fear that diseases which may spread would recoil upon himself or upon his allies.
The new Labour government's Defence Committee agreed with this reasoning, just as Churchill had done in March 1944.
As the October 1944 I.S.S.B.W. report had anticipated, and as a further report by the I.S.S.B.W. chairman, Air Marshal Sir Norman Bottomley, confirmed on 9 March 1945, the anthrax being manufactured in America had "only about 1/9th of the [originally] specified virulence". Nevertheless, he pointed out to the Chiefs of Staff, if biological warfare eventually proved feasible, it would have to be regarded as a very serious menace to the United Kingdom:
We have considered medical methods of defence against specific agents and the use of anti-gas equipment, but have concluded that any one form of defence may prove impracticable. We feel therefore that we should ensure that we are ready to counter this form of warfare by retaliation on a heavy scale at short notice.
These two papers demonstrate that Bernstein's suggestion that the British actually planned to acquire 4¼ million anthrax bombs for use against Germany has no more basis than his insinuation that deterrence was not central to the whole programme. The initial idea was that the half-million bombs ordered in March 1944 should be sufficient to threaten six German cities with retaliation if a Nazi threat materialised. But because the virulence of the anthrax obtainable was, by 1945, only between one-eighth and one-ninth of that originally expected, the theoretical total of bombs needed for a six-city attack went up to at least four million. Yet, when this became clear to the Chiefs of Staff in October 1944, they decided not to increase their order for anthrax bombs, adhering instead to what both they and their sub-committee described as "the present token order for 500,000 bombs".
The November 1945 memorandum to which Bernstein refers was drawn up to assist the non-strategic Joint Technical Warfare Committee of the Chiefs of Staff in its important post-war revision of Sir Henry Tizard's pre-Hiroshima report on "Future Developments in Weapons and Methods of War". These theoretical post-war papers and their revised calculations in no way implied any wartime British intention actually to acquire 4¼ million anthrax bombs. They merely pointed out, by way of example, that such a quantity would be needed to attack six "typical" German cities.
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It would have been fairer of Bernstein to mention that Churchill's pressure for possible retaliation with gas against the anticipated V.2 bombardment came at a time when intelligence estimates put the size of the rocket warhead at three to seven tons instead of the one ton it turned out to be, and that it was feared that each missile might cause up to 4,000 civilian casualties. The 6 July 1944 minute by Churchill, quoted in the Bernstein article, also shows Churchill's belief (however debatable) that "nearly everyone recovers" from poison gas attacks. In any case, his attitudes to gas and to the strategic bombing of cities do not justify the assumption that he would have been prepared to use anthrax in an attack killing millions and rendering the devastated regions permanently uninhabitable, unless to deter a comparable threat from being carried out against the United Kingdom. The fact that Churchill did not ask the Chiefs of Staff to consider biological warfare during the V-weapon crisis strongly suggests the falsity of such assumptions: his minutes of 6 July and 25 July 1944 concerned only the use of gas and made no reference to anthrax, even though the Chiefs of Staff had not yet given him their view that anthrax bombs would be unavailable in time to counter the rocket offensive.
Bernstein's claim that 5,000 anthrax bombs were actually delivered to Britain by May 1944 has been categorically denied by the U.S. authorities at Fort Detrick and would, if true, almost certainly have been mentioned in the comprehensive report to the Chiefs of Staff by the I.S.S.B.W. in October 1944. Bernstein also makes the following outrageous remark without a shred of documentary evidence: "Knowing Churchill's intolerance of moral and legal restraints, his military advisers, even if they had been so inclined, would not have reminded him that the first use of bacteriological warfare violated the Geneva Protocol and the moral code of war." His advisers were better men than that.
One of us (R.V. Jones) was present when Churchill put to the War Cabinet's Crossbow Committee, on 18 July 1944, his suggestion that Britain should attempt to deter the onset of the V.2 campaign by threatening the Germans with gas should they launch their rockets. Some of those present spoke firmly against it, and none spoke in favour. Bernstein disregards the significance of Churchill's giving way to opposing views on the use of gas, despite his own strong support for it.
High principles can suffer in the extremities of war, and there are circumstances when any weapon, however horrible, might be used by a desperate contestant. But that was not the situation in Britain in 1944 with respect to biological warfare; and there was little sense of desperation. While Churchill could have flashes of anger, his sense of history was too composed and generous to let them dominate his decisions.
Professor R.V. Jones was Head of Scientific Intelligence, Air Ministry, 1939-46. The author of Most Secret War (1978) and Reflections on Intelligence (1989), he was appointed Companion of Honour in 1994 and died on 17 December 1997 at the age of 86. In a tribute, former U.S. Director of Central Intelligence, R. James Woolsey, described him as the "father of modern scientific intelligence".
[POSTSCRIPT: Since this article was published in 1987, almost all of the archives on biological warfare closed for fifty years have become accessible. They repeatedly confirm the deterrent motivation for the wartime B.W. programme, as the following typical extracts illustrate:
The Prime Minister has approved a proposal that a preliminary order should be placed by this country for half a million of these [anthrax] bombs .... There can of course be no question of either country [Britain or the United States] using this form of warfare except by way of retaliation for its adoption by the enemy, and then only after consultation with one another. 1
Thank you for your minute of 9 May. I am glad to note that satisfactory progress is being made and trust you will press on with [B.W.] research, especially into countermeasures. I approve the highest priority for all that is required for the latter. 2
On 7.1.44, the B.W. Operational Panel accepted Dr Fildes' estimate that [a] half-million of the 4-lb [anthrax] bomb would be required for retaliatory attack on Germany ... 3
I had the intention of asking for the release of myself and my personal staff immediately it could be agreed that the danger of a German [B.W.] attack had passed, even before the `end' of the European War. I doubt whether anyone could suggest that the danger is very great even now, and I question whether it would be to the national advantage to keep us on this sort of work very much longer. 4
I think I should emphasise that our interest in the whole [B.W.] project is purely defensive; by that I mean that we have no intention of indulging in this form of warfare except as a retaliation for its institution by the enemy. From this point of view the less effective it is proved to be in any respect, the better we are pleased! 5
1. CAB 122/1599: General Sir Hastings Ismay (Churchill's representative on the Chiefs of Staff Committee) to Field Marshal Sir John Dill (head of the British Joint Staff Mission, Washington), 1 April 1944 (original underlining by Ismay)
2. CAB 136/13: Prime Minister's Personal Min No M.585/4, Churchill to Brown, 21 May 1944 (original underlining by Churchill) Ernest Brown, a successor to Lord Hankey as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, had just suggested handing over his responsibility for the B.W. programme to the Chiefs of Staff.
3. CAB 136/13: `Status of negotiations regarding the production of the 4-lb Chem. F. Bomb in U.S.A.', 8 July 1944
4. CAB 136/12: Dr Paul Fildes (head of B.W. research) to Captain G.H. Oswald (Secretary of the Inter-Service Sub-Committee on Biological Warfare), 3 November 1944 In the event, Fildes was still in place at the end of the Japanese war, when the I.S.S.B.W. successfully urged the Chiefs of Staff to secure `a satisfactory organisation for the continuing control' of biological warfare research. (CAB 81/58: BW(45)17(Final), 7 August 1945) The Service chiefs agreed on 13 September and Defence Committee approval was secured the following month. (CAB 81/58: BW(45)22, 14 September 1945 & BW(45)23, 8 October 1945)
5. CAB 136/12: Captain G.H. Oswald (Secretary, I.S.S.B.W.) to Colonel H. Paget, British Army Staff, Washington, 11 November 1944]