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Porton Down book

Issue No. 1723

Porton Down book

Britain leads the world in poison gases

By Helen Shooter

WHERE WOULD you find 30,000 human guinea pigs put through chemical warfare tests in the world's longest-running programme of human experiments? The answer is not Iraq but Britain. Porton Down, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, is the oldest poison gas research establishment in the world.

"In this particular field Britain is one of the world leaders, if not the world leader," says journalist Rob Evans in his chilling new book, Gassed, which exposes Porton Down. Porton Down was set up during the First World War. It has always been shrouded in secrecy.

It was designed to test the physical and mental effects of chemical weapons on people. Porton Down hit a shortage of people to experiment on in the early 1920s as civilian and military staff became ill from carrying out tests on themselves. It began to seek volunteers from British military units. The small amount of money and time off from normal duties attracted lower ranking servicemen. The volunteers got more money the longer they stayed in the painful experiments.

One "volunteer" was young army plumber Daniel Fraser. He said, "They told you that you could refuse but then up came the sergeant major saying, 'You're in the British army. Do as you are told'." Porton Down assured volunteers that "nothing untoward will be used on you". But they put poisonous gases onto the volunteers' clothes or skin. Fraser's face still bears the marks of blisters from mustard gas over 60 years later. He believes those experiments have been part of causing his ill health and skin cancer.

Porton Down gassed to death a 20 year old airman, Ronald Maddison, in 1953. Like many others Ronald thought he was undergoing mild experiments to find a cure for the common cold or flu. But two days after he arrived in Porton Down they put him in a gas chamber, dropped nerve gas on his arm, and within an hour he was dead.

His death shook the Porton Down establishment. However, just a few years later they were back in business, testing nerve gas on volunteers. As Rob Evans says in the book, "It appears that the needs of the military triumphed over the rights of the individual."

Tory and Labour governments have justified Porton Down's existence by saying it plays a vital role in defending British forces from enemies using chemical weapons. British governments have used the establishment's research to develop weapons for attack.

Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State at the War Office, said he was "strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes" in India who were rebelling in 1919.

Porton Down's pioneering research into CS gas was exported to the US in 1958, which used it during the Vietnam War. The US military used tons of CS gas to force Vietnamese soldiers out of bunkers so they could be shot in the open. The US went on to use more deadly chemical weapons like the defoliant Agent Orange across Vietnam.

Rob Evans argues that the Western powers' use of chemical weapons has caused these weapons to spread across the world: "During the recent crises in the Gulf the Americans and British led the world in lambasting Saddam for producing chemical and biological weapons.

"Ironically both nations had been among the first countries to uncover and develop these weapons." Evans adds that developing nations rarely create their own weapons but "take them off the shelf" from the range developed by military scientists in the West.

Research continues today at Porton Down. Bruce George, Labour MP and chairman of the defence select committee, admits, "There are many things happening there which I am not certain ministers are fully aware of, let alone parliamentarians." New Labour refuses to launch an inquiry into the volunteers' claims that Porton Down ruined their health.

"Tony Blair was elected in 1997 promising to clean up government and be open and honest with the people of Britain," says Evans in Gassed. "To many volunteers this government seems no different from the previous Conservative administration."

  • Gassed, by Rob Evans (House of Stratus) �20.

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Sat 18 Nov 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1723
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