A Higher Form of Killing
The Secret Story of Chemical and Biological Warfare
by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman

'Hours after war was declared, in September 1939, the British ambassador in Berne paid a brief visit to the Swiss Foreign Ministry. He delivered a short message from the British and French governments to be passed on to Hitler. The two countries promised to abide by the Geneva Protocol and refrain from using poison gas and germ warfare, provided the Nazis undertook to do the same. A few days later the German Ambassador signaled his country's agreement.'
(page 117)

'Throughout the war, chemical weapons and stocks of anti-gas equipment were moved on to every major battlefield: there were gas dumps in France in 1940, in North Africa, in the Far East, the Middle East, in Italy, on the Russian Front and finally in 1944 in France once again... poison gas factories swallowed up the war effort of tens of thousands of scientists, technicians and skilled workers. Production never slackened, and by 1945 the world's major powers had amassed around half a million tons of chemical weapons, five times the amount used in the whole of the First World War.'
(page 118-119)

'It was the British, in the summer of 1940, who drew up the first serious plans for using gas. On 15 June 1940, only two days after Dunkirk, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, circulated one of the most explosive memoranda of the war. Restricted to a few of the country's top military commanders, shrouded in secrecy for over 30 years, it was entitled 'The Use of Gas in Home Defense' - a brief and cogent military argument in favor of spraying an invading German army with mustard gas.'
(page 119)

'After the war, in considering what might have happened if the Germans had invaded, Churchill wrote: "They would have used terror, and we were prepared to go to all lengths." '
(page 121)

'Had the German invasion come it would have been met by squadrons of Lysander, Blenheim, Battle and Wellington bombers loaded with spray tanks holding between 250 and 1,000 lb of mustard.'
(page 122)

In July 1941 Churchill wrote:

'The absolute maximum effort must be used with super priority to make, store and fill into containers, the largest possible quantities of gas.'
(page 124)

In 1942 Britain was busy building chemical warfare factories and designed new weapons to employ them. Monstrous weapons like the 'Flying Cow', a gliding bomb which rained gobbets of thickened mustard gas on the ground during its flight... the 'Frankfurter', an elongated mortar bomb for smoke; the 'Squirt', a portable high pressure projector which threw 2 gallons of liquid hydrogen cyanide in a jet to a range of about 25 yards... Perhaps the most ingenious of all the offensive devices was an anti-tank projectile which first pierced a small hole through armor-plate by means of a hollow charge of explosive and then squirted through the hole into the tank enough liquid hydrogen cyanide to kill all the crew (No acceptable nickname was ever found for this unsporting weapon).'
(page 125)

'By the spring of 1942 - thanks chiefly to the extraordinary time and trouble Churchill had gone to - Britain had almost 20,000 tons of poison gas.'
(page 125)

'But as Britain's military position improved, Churchill's willingness to use gas did not diminish. On the contrary -- within two years he would actually be pressing for the initiation of gas warfare.
As in every other sphere in the Second World War there was close co-operation between Britain and the United States over chemical warfare. Long before she entered the war, back in the winter of 1940, the Americans secretly began to supply poison gas to the United Kingdom. To preserve her image of neutrality the gas was manufactured in private US plants (which were financed by the British) and then carefully shipped to Europe in foreign-registered vessels; technically the American Government's only official connection was the granting of export licenses. At least 200 tons of phosgene a month were being made available to the British using this ruse by the summer of 1941.'
(page 126)

'In 1940 the US spent $2 million on its Chemical Warfare Service; in 1941 when the chemical rearmament program was launched, this was increased more than thirty-fold, to over $60 million; in 1942 expenditure reached a staggering $1,000 million... As a result America soon had a poison gas-producing capacity vastly in excess of anything she really needed.
In the three years from 1942 to 1945, the US opened thirteen new chemical warfare plants. The most ambitious was the $60 million Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. Construction work began on 2 December 1941, five days before Pearl Harbor, on a 15,000 acre site. Within eight months an army of laborers and construction experts had laid miles of road and railway track, built factories, storage depots, laboratories, shops, offices, a hospital, a fire station, a police building, water, gas and electricity supplies and a telephone exchange.
...Pine Bluff alone, at its peak, employed 10,000 men and women; it even made use of the labor supplied by a nearby prisoner of war camp. From 31 July 1942 when it first went into production, through to 1945, the Arsenal produced literally millions of grenades, bombs and shells filled with chemical agents, as well as thousands of tons of chlorine, mustard gas and Lewisite. At the end of the war most of it had to be dumped into the sea; its manufacture had cost the American taxpayer $500 million.
In 1942 another $60 million installation was opened near Denver in Colorado. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal occupied 20,000 acres, employed 3,000 people and produced 87,000 tons of toxic chemicals by the end of the war. The same year, the Americans opened a test site worthy of their vast investment in chemical warfare -- one of the largest gas weapons trial areas in the world, more than a quarter of a million acres on the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert, in Utah. Known as the Dugway Proving Ground, it was forty times the size of Porton Down and house test facilities that were a veritable dream for the men of the CWS. Replicas of German and Japanese houses were constructed to examine how well they could withstand chemical attack. Caves were dug into the mountains to see how a well-entrenched enemy might survive a gas shell and bomb barrage. The Americans also acquired from the British in interest in spraying mustard gas from the air; Dugway was so vast there was even room for the USAAF to experiment with high altitude spray. The tests were successful, and the United States, which had entered the war with 1,500 spray tanks, ended it with 113,000.'
(pages 127-128)

'It was not until the end of the war that the Americans discovered just how exaggerated had been the fears of Japanese gas stocks. Japanese offensive work had actually reached its peak in 1935. After that it had gone into decline, until by 1941 it had virtually stopped. In 1942 all offensive training at the Narshino Gas School was ended. In 1941 all stocks of gas were recalled by the Japanese High Command. US investigators reported that Japan had developed no gases other than those 'which had been known to the world for 20 years', they had used haphazard research methods, been given no help by the Germans, and that both offensively and defensively the country's supplies were 'inadequate for waging gas warfare on a modern scale'. At the end of the war, set against just 7,500 tons of Japanese poison gases, the Americans had 135,000 tons: 20,000 tons more than the combined total used by every nation fighting in the First World War.
Early in November 1943, First Lieutenant Howard D. Beckstrom of the US 701st Chemical Maintenance Company based at Baltimore received orders to prepare to go abroad. He was one of an elite group of chemical warfare experts. Trained at a special center at Camp Sibert in Alabama, it was one of Beckstrom's jobs to supervise the movement of chemical munitions. His destination on this occasion, he was informed, was the main supply point for the Allied armies in Italy: the Adriatic port of Bari. His cargo was part of the vast American chemical stockpile: 100 tons of mustard gas.
Beckstrom's mission was not uncommon. Throughout the war, the British and Americans moved stocks of poison gas around the world, keeping large dumps close to the various fighting fronts...
Beckstrom supervised the loading of the mustard gas at Baltimore onto the SS John Harvey, a 10,000 ton merchantman commanded by Captain Elvin Knowles, a veteran of the Murmansk convoys. In all the John Harvey carried 2,000 M47A1 100 lb chemical bombs. Just over four feet long and eight inches in diameter, each held 60-70 lb of mustard, enough to contaminate an area of forty square yards. With Beckstrom on the voyage were five other members of the Chemical Warfare Service. They had plenty to occupy them. American mustard gas was notoriously unstable, made by the cheap and speedy Levinstein H process. Each bomb contained 30 per cent impurities - gases which could build up and cause an explosion. The bombs had to be regularly vented, and the casings checked over for evidence of corrosion.
The John Harvey arrived at Bari from Sicily on 28 November. Captain Knowles found the harbor choked with Allied shipping. Officially even he was not supposed to know the nature of the cargo he was carrying; it was therefore impossible for him to plead with the port authorities to give the unloading of his ship priority. Instead he was ordered to moor at Pier 29 to await his turn.
Four days later, early on the evening of 2 December 1943, the air raid sirens began to wail. That same afternoon, British Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham had called a press conference to announce what he considered to be the total Allied air supremacy over southern Italy. 'I would regard it,' he told the reporters, 'as a personal affront and insult if the Luftwaffe was to attempt any significant action in this area.' Now, at 7:30 pm, one hundred Ju 88 German bombers roared in to inflict what proved to be the worst seaport disaster suffered by the Allies since Pearl Harbor.
The attack lasted for twenty minutes. At the end of it, seventeen ships carrying around 90,000 tons of supplies had sunk or were sinking; another eight were seriously damaged. Explosions ripped through the tightly-packed harbor, and shortly after eight o' clock a petrol ship blew up with such force it shattered windows in houses seven miles away. A few minutes later, a second explosion tore through the John Harvey. The ship listed and began to sink.
Some of the gas began to burn, some went straight to the bottom of the sea. The rest began to leak out of the ruptured hold and spread through the debris-filled harbor. It mingled with the hundreds of tons of oil floating on the surface to form a deadly mixture. Over the whole scene hung the characteristic odor of garlic - so strong that the men on one ship actually put on their respirators for half an hour. A dense black cloud of smoke mingled with gas began to roll across the harbor and over the town of Bari.
The men who were to be the worst casualties however were not those breathing in the fumes but those floating in the harbor, standing in puddles of oil in lifeboats, or hanging from life rafts: their entire bodies were being immersed in a lethal solution of mustard gas.
Neither the rescue squads operating at the port and in Bari's hospitals, nor the men themselves had any idea they had been exposed to mustard gas. No one knew what cargo the John Harvey had been carrying apart from Beckstrom and his men, and they had been killed along with Captain Knowles in a frantic attempt to scuttle the ship. The hospital was attempting to cope with 800 wounded men (more than 1,000 were already dead) and assumed that most were suffering from nothing more serious than exposure. Still wet covered in crude oil they were wrapped in blankets and given warm tea. Most sat quietly in this state for the rest of the night while the mustard gas went silently to work. As a top secret report prepared for the Allied High Command put it two weeks later: 'The opportunity for burn and absorption must have been tremendous. The individuals, to all intents and purposes, were dipped into a solution of mustard-in-oil, and then wrapped in blankets, given warm tea, and allowed a prolonged period for absorption.'
The morning after the disaster, the first of an estimated 630 mustard gas victims began to complain that they were blind. Panic swept through the hospital, and doctors had 'to force them to open their eyes to prove that vision for still possible'. Appalling burns started to develop, variously described as 'bronze, reddish brown or tan' which stripped the body of the top layers of skin. Some men lost 90 per cent of their entire skin covering. According to the report, 'the surface layers came loose in large strips' which 'often took the hair with them'. The burns were 'most severe and distressing in the genital region. The penis in some cases was swollen to three to four times its normal size, and the scrotum was greatly enlarged.' These burns were described as causing 'much mental anguish'. Out at sea, the US destroyer Bistera, which had picked up thirty casualties from the harbor at Bari before making her escape, was also in severe difficulties. By dawn the following morning her officers and crew were almost all totally blind, and many were badly burned. It was eighteen hours before they eventually landed in Taranto harbor. While the Bistera was limping into port, the first casualties were beginning to die at the hospital in Bari within two weeks, seventy men were dead. Preliminary post mortems showed the classic signs of death from mustard gas: a badly burnt and blistered skin, lungs and respiratory tract stripped of their lining, a windpipe blocked with a solid column of mucus. The only difference was the severity of the symptoms. It was as if, under test conditions, the worst possible mustard gad burns had been deliberately produced. The bodies of forty 'representative' victims - made up of men from 'at least twelve nationalities or races' - were shipped to Porton Down and Edgewood Arsenal 'for microscopic examination and study'.
In the town itself there were similar scenes of misery. More than 1,000 civilians were killed at Bari - many of them as a result of the great cloud of mustard gas which billowed over the town, others after being swamped in the oil-and-mustard tidal wave which engulfed the sea front. For weeks afterwards previously healthy townspeople lingered in their beds. For civilian and soldier alike it was a grim preview of what full-scale chemical warfare might entail.
As the confused details of the disaster reached Allied High Command there were successive waves of panic - first that the Germans themselves had initiated gas warfare, then, when preliminary investigations revealed that the havoc had been wrought by American gas, that the Germans would use it as an excuse to start an all-out chemical war...
At first General Eisenhower tried to keep the whole affair secret. The families of the men whose bodies were being dissected in England and America were informed that their son or husband had been killed by 'shock, hemorrhage, etc, due to enemy action'. For all record purposes, Eisenhower proposed to describe 'skin affliction and burns' and 'injuries to eyes' as simply due to 'enemy action'; 'lung and other complications' were put down to bronchitis. He telegrammed the Combined Chiefs of Staff that he 'considered these terms will adequately support future claims by those injured for disability pensions'. As a further security measure, complete postal censorship was imposed at every British and American military base. The policy of secrecy was approved by Roosevelt and the British War Cabinet.
Nevertheless it was soon apparent that Eisenhower had no chance of keeping what had happened at Bari a secret. Thousands of civilians had fled the town, spreading wild stories of deadly new weapons. Gas casualties had been unloaded at other ports suffering from undiagnosed wounds. By January, Allied hopes of secretly briefing commanders and doctors with details of what had happened had vanished in a welter of rumor and half-truth: 'It is believed that the knowledge is now so dispersed among divergent groups including civilians population in Bari area that no, repeat no, effective briefing can be accomplished'...
A few months after the accident, the Allies directed their area commanders to inform their chief medical officers when stories of gas weapons were moved into their localities. In the meantime, the build-up of gas stocks in Italy continued, until there were sufficient chemical weapons stockpiled to enable the Allies to wage full-scale gas warfare in the Mediterranean for forty-five days.'
(pages 129-134)

The following quotes are reproduced in full from pp. 56 of a BBC transcript:

HARRIS: In 1944 the secret weapon which Hitler had warned the Allies about at Danzig finally appeared. It was not a germ weapon. It was the flying bomb. Soon it was causing such damage in London that the British began to consider using anthrax as a reprisal against German cities. We have discovered a previously unpublished memorandum written by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to the Chiefs of Staff. From the very beginning he had taken a close interest in the development of poison gas and germ weapons. Now, he argued, was perhaps the moment to use them:

[CHURCHILL:] 'If the bombardment of London really became a serious nuisance [ ... ], I should be prepared to do anything that would hit the enemy in a murderous place. [ ... ] I do not see why we should always have all the disadvantages of being the gentleman while they have all the advantages of being the cad. [ ... ] It may be several weeks, or even months, before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas and, if we do it, let us do it one hundred percent. In the meantime I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing, uniformed defeatists which one runs across now, here and there. Pray address yourself to this.'

HARRIS [holding open file of documents]: This was the report that Churchill's military advisers produced. It's a chilling assessment of what using chemical and biological weapons would have meant in the Second World War. They advised against using poison gas on the grounds that the bombs we were dropping on German cities were already doing enough damage, but they put biological weapons in a different category.

[QUOTE FROM REPORT:] 'Biological warfare would cause heavy casualties, panic and confusion in the areas affected. It might lead to a breakdown in administration with a consequent decisive influence on the outcome of the war.'

HARRIS: Everything had been worked out to the last detail. [FRONT COVER OF DOCUMENT SHOWN] This top secret report shows how scientists reduced the mass destructive power of anthrax into a neat mathematical formula. The Allies code-named the anthrax weapon N. Each bomb weighed four pounds. They were loaded into large aircraft cluster bombs 106 at a time. N was not designed for use on the battlefield but specifically for strategic bombing against enemy cities. A few hundred feet above the target the large mother bomb would burst open and scatter the anthrax bomblets over a wide area.

Six German cities were provisionally selected as targets: Aachen, Wilhelmshaven, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin. They were all to be attacked in a single day by a force of 2,700 heavy bombers carrying over 40,000 cluster bombs. Twelve cluster bombs to the square mile; 1,273 anthrax bomblets in that square mile. An almost total saturation of bacteria. The cities would have become a wasteland. According to the scientists' report 50% of the inhabitants might be killed by inhalation, many more might die through contamination of the skin. This would have meant a death toll of around three million people.

[QUOTE FROM REPORT:] 'The terrain will be contaminated for years, and danger from skin infection should be great enough to enforce evacuation. [ ... ] There is no satisfactory method of decontamination. There is no preventive inoculation [ ... ]'

[HARRIS:] What stopped Churchill using anthrax against Germany was not moral scruples but time. His military advisers told him that the American factories were not yet producing N bombs in sufficient quantities to enable a full scale attack to be launched.

[QUOTE FROM REPORT:] '[ ... ] There is no likelihood of a sustained attack being possible much before the middle of 1945.'

[HARRIS:] Germany was saved from biological attack by her own defeat. All this took place little more than two years after Dr Fildes and his team first rode out to Gruinard with their prototype anthrax bomb. If a handful of bombs could make this island uninhabitable for forty years, what might have happened if the Allies had gone ahead with their plans to drop four and a quarter million bombs on Germany?


The following quotes are from Winston Churchill directed at General Ismay for the Chiefs of Staff Committee, July 6, 1944. (serial number was D.217/4)

1. I want you to think very seriously over this question of poison gas. I would not use it unless it could be shown either that (a) it was life or death for us, or (b) that it would shorten the war by a year.

2. It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women.

3. I want a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would pay us to use poison gas, by which I mean principally mustard. We will want to gain more ground in Normandy so as not to be cooped up in a small area. We could probably deliver 20 tons to their 1 and for the sake of the 1 they would bring their bomber aircraft into the area against our superiority, thus paying a heavy toll.

4. Why have the Germans not used it? Not certainly out of moral scruples or affection for us. They have not used it because it does not pay them. The greatest temptation ever offered to them was the beaches of Normandy. This they could have drenched with gas greatly to the hindrance of our troops. That they thought about it is certain and that they prepared against our use of gas is also certain. But the only reason they have not used it against us is that they fear the retaliation. What is to their detriment is to our advantage.

5. Although one sees how unpleasant it is to receive poison gas attacks, from which nearly everyone recovers, it is useless to protest that an equal amount of H.E. [high explosive] will not inflict greater cruelties and sufferings on troops or civilians. One really must not be bound within silly conventions of the mind whether they be those that ruled in the last war or those in reverse which rule in this.

6. If the bombardment of London really became a serious nuisance and great rockets with far-reaching and devastating effect fell on many centres of Government and labour, I should be prepared to do anything that would hit the enemy in a murderous place. I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention. We could stop all work at the flying bomb starting points. I do not see why we should always have all the disadvantages of being the gentleman while they have all the advantages of being the cad. There are times when this may be so but not now.

7. I quite agree it may be several weeks or even months before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas, and if we do it, let us do it one hundred per cent. In the meanwhile, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there. Pray address yourself to this. It is a big thing and can only be discarded for a big reason. I shall of course have to square Uncle Joe [Stalin] and the President; but you need not bring this into your calculations at the present time. Just try to find out what it is like on its merits.