The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
The memorial tree and plaque to the Porton Down volunteers at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire
THE NERVE GAS BOYS
The line of seven airmen shuffled to attention. These were airmen who never flew, ‘erks’ drawn from the lowest ranks of the RAF. They were all young (I was 18) and had the uncomfortable, slightly bewildered look of people who had never met each other before, gathered in an unfamiliar place for an uncertain purpose.
‘Men’, barked the Squadron Leader, standing in front of them, flanked by two sergeants and a civilian in a long white coat, ‘you are all volunteers. If any of you do not wish to go ahead with this experiment, this is your last chance to drop out. Anybody who wants to drop out, take one step backwards.’
The airmen looked surprised and puzzled. They were still uncertain what it was that they had volunteered for. They had agreed to take part in ‘experiments’ at the Chemical Warfare Defence Establishment but the nature of the experiments was still secret. Nobody moved.
‘Right then! but before I hand you over to Dr Sleznick here I have one more thing to say. We don’t know why Aircraftsman Thompson died.’
Surprise turned to shock. None of the men had heard of Aircraftsman Thompson but it was no reassurance that his death was a mystery. They had not intended to volunteer for anything dangerous, things where people died. I for one had come here for a skive.
The RAF into which I had been conscripted some months earlier was much larger than it is today. There were a quarter of a million of us, far more than was needed for any useful work we had to perform. In the Control Tower to which I was sent there was a staff of nine, with enough work to keep four people occupied on a busy day. The three NCOs were employed solely in conveying orders from the three officers to the three airmen. Eventually they set up a small workshop on the ground floor making barstools for the Sergeants’ Mess. They produced some beautiful pieces of french polishing and it kept them out of the way from the people upstairs.
I worked two days a week as an air traffic assistant in the Control Room. Air traffic was light and it was seldom hectic. On the other three days I decoded signals in a back room, signals which were mostly out-of-date before they reached me. Our base had no teleprinter, so the signals were taken down at a base 20 miles away and the print-outs were brought over daily by truck. Occasionally I encoded and sent a signal of my own, for which I had to have an officer’s signature. None ever hesitated to sign and it was some months before I discovered that none of them could read the code.
The only way to cope with the futility and boredom of working life was to find a skive. I found a wonderful skive early in my RAF career. The RAF Chaplains’ School was running one week courses on Religion and Morality in Cheltenham. I volunteered, was accepted and it was every bit as good a skive as I could have hoped. We were accommodated in a country house, Dowdswell Court, at the standard of an officers’ mess, went on walks on Cleeve Hill (to be nearer to God, I suppose), visited Gloucester cathedral and had relaxed discussions on religion and morality. I decided to keep my eyes open for the next skive.
A couple of months later a notice came round asking for volunteers to take part in unspecified experiments at Porton Down on Salisbury Plain. In later years the Porton Down Veterans’ Association maintained that some volunteers were unaware that Porton Down experimented with nerve gas, but it was an open secret at least on our base. We may have been more savvy than most, for our work was even more secret (the preliminary trials for the British H-bomb tests – I could have volunteered for Christmas Island, but that would have been a skive too far).
I was not worried about the gas. I had had gas mask drill as an infant when I first gone to school during the war and I had been exposed to tear gas as a recruit as part of my training in riot control. I trusted the RAF (perhaps naively) to look after me.
So that is how I found myself standing alongside six other teenagers in front of the theatrical Squadron Leader and the white-coated scientist. I should add that although each intake at Porton Down was small, the experiments had been running since the war and carried on into the sixties, so that in all several hundred servicemen passed through the system. The Porton Down Veterans’ Association had over 200 members, but it was not formed until the 1990’s and never gathered more than a minority of the former ‘guinea-pigs’.
The Squadron Leader handed us over to the scientist and he outlined the programme for the next ten days. The high point was, of course, the nerve gas test, but that would not be until the penultimate day. Before then we had a heavy schedule of other tests. This was not going to be a skive.
We started with the less awesome tests. Each of us was given a plastic armband which he had to wear next to his skin continuously, night and day, until the end of the programme. It was explained that we were testing a new type of babies’ plastic pants, to see if they raised skin allergies. The part of our left arms not covered by the armbands was rinsed in brownish water and we were ordered not to wash that arm until the programme ended. This, they said, was water from a quarry on an island in the Hebrides that had been used to store mustard gas. We were testing whether the ground water was still contaminated. As far as I know none of us raised any allergies or blisters.
Our first expedition to the gas chambers was simply to test us out with tear gas to see that we used our masks correctly. We went on to sulphuric acid gas, usually called smog. This was just after the last of the great London smogs, and we were testing a civilian smog mask: the little white things that are now popular in Japan. After that it was CS gas, then often known as vomit gas.
CS gas was being developed to replace tear gas for riot control. Tear gas becomes less distressing the more one is exposed to it – helpful for the riot police or servicemen if they should lose their masks but equally helpful for the more determined rioters. CS gas induces nausea and the effect does not diminish with exposure.
One of the scientific staff complained to me that they had had more than enough tests on young, healthy men. What they needed was tests on old people and babies. It was not until CS gas was used in earnest in Londonderry that it was found to be lethal to babies.
And then the nerve gas! The gas was Sarin, developed by the Nazis but never used and discovered by the Allies only when Germany was overrun. It is odourless, colourless and kills within minutes by paralysis of the nervous system.
It is perhaps unfair of me to imply that all of us in my intake were there for a skive. We were all conscripts and all had low level jobs in the service, but some of my fellow guinea pigs clearly also thought that they were doing something manly and daring. All of them were much more ‘macho’ (as they call it now) than myself and mocked me accordingly. However, the sense of daring had its disadvantages. They grew increasingly tense and depressed as the days went by, giving up going to the NAAFI and taking to sitting in the billet hut talking about death. The discussions at Dowdeswell Court were never so profound.
The programme with its grim setting, primitive accommodation, white coated observers and escalating tests seemed structured to ensure that we were terrified when the Big Test came. I cannot say I was not nervous. We each had an exhaustive series of medical checks, including a treadmill test and lung capacity checks and then we were lead to the gas chambers. This time we did not go in as a group but were called in individually, wearing our masks.
I stepped into the small chamber through the air lock to find a naval petty officer sitting behind a desk laden with papers and a stop watch, his face hidden under a gas mask. He motioned me to stand in front of the desk and he explained the procedure, his voice distant and hollow behind his mouthpiece.
‘You will have one minute exposed to the gas. When I give the signal take off your mask and tell me everything that happens to you until I give the signal to put it on again. When I give the signal don’t hesitate – put it on immediately.’
I slipped my fingers through the straps of the mask and slipped it off. There was no hissing sound or signs of gas entering the chamber. Presumably the gas was already in the air. It was indeed colourless and odourless.
For thirty seconds we looked at each other in silence. Surely it was time I felt something?
‘I think my eyes aren’t focusing properly.’
‘Eyes – not – focusing’, said the petty officer slowly to himself, as he wrote it on his spreadsheet, noting the time on his stopwatch.
The next symptoms were unmistakeable.
‘My chest is feeling tight.’
‘Chest – feeling – tight’, he repeated dispassionately, entering it on his paper and consulting his watch.
‘It’s getting difficult to breath.’
‘Getting – difficult – to – breath.’
‘I can’t breath! I can’t breath!’
‘Can’t – breath.’
By now I was gripping the edge of the desk, holding myself upright. I was going to put my mask back on whatever my orders.
The petty office slapped his watch.
‘Put your mask on.’
I have never obeyed an order with greater alacrity.
After the gas chamber sessions we were taken back to repeat the checks and tests we had taken previously. We were not given any treatment or any form of antidote. Our physical systems were left to recover spontaneously, which in the main they did very quickly. I had been able to breath normally again a few moments after putting on my mask and left the gas chamber unaided. The mask was just the simple charcoal filter model like the one I had carried to school.
The one obvious symptom which did not disappear quickly but persisted for several days was an extreme contraction of the pupils of our eyes, so that we looked like cats in strong sunshine. This caused a certain sensitivity to bright light. My companions went back to the billet hut, drew the curtains and continued their discussions on mortality in the half light.
This distinctive narrowing of the pupils is a tell-tale-sign of nerve gas and should leave no doubt that a person has been exposed to it.
A thing that the scientists at Porton Down never seem to have studied was the psychological effect of the experiments. My companions arrived at Porton Down as extrovert, boisterous teenagers: after ten days they were frightened, nervous and clinically depressed, although none of them ever considered absconding or disobeying orders. I abandoned them on the last night at the camp and went to the NAAFI for a drink and to watch television. Nobody told me not to and there clearly was not going to be an end of term party.
On the train back to London I had a compartment to myself until somewhere in Wiltshire, when a pretty girl climbed aboard and sat opposite me. At the next stop she got off, moved along the platform and re-boarded the train. I hadn’t even smiled at her! What was wrong with me? Then I remembered my cat’s eyes. They must have been the weirdest eyes she had ever seen on a human being.
That should have been the end of the story. It was not the end, of course, for the parents of Aircraftsman Thompson. He had died a couple of years earlier and already his parents were demanding a public inquest. The MoD inquest had been held in secret. It took them over thirty years to get a public inquest, longer than their son had lived. When it came the Coroner brought in a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’, on the grounds that the MoD had carried out a dangerous experiment without obtaining full consent. The MoD pleaded that they had obtained consent ‘by the standards of the day’.
The inquest never determined the actual cause of death. The young man had been exposed to nerve gas in liquid form. A few drops had been sprinkled on his arm and he had dropped dead. None of the rest of the intake suffered serious harm. My feeling is that he died of shock. Shock induces much the same symptoms as nerve gas. This is not to say he was a coward: he died doing his duty.
It was about this time that the Porton Down Veterans’ Association was formed. I read about it in the newspaper and joined out of interest, with no expectation of compensation. They advised me how to get my medical records from the MoD. They were very interesting but incomplete. There was no mention of the CS gas tests.
A while later four airmen won a case against the MoD concerning the ‘truth drug’ tests, with the help of the Association. This drug was supposed to lower a prisoner’s resistance to interrogation, although all it did was to bring on hallucinations. The airmen had been told they were testing a new asthma cure. Even the MoD could not maintain that this was consent ‘by the standards of the day.’
After this the MoD lost heart and gave up fighting individual cases. Instead they decided to buy off the Veterans’ Association with a lump sum payment to each member. There was no attempt to trace non-members. Thus it was that one day in early 2008, not long after my cancer operation, I travelled up to London for a meeting of the Association and was told I had been awarded almost £10,000. The award was doubly sweet, because the MoD insisted that all claims were extinguished by death. The surgeon at Cheltenham General Hospital had saved my life just in time.
The Association had some money left over in its fighting fund, most of which was donated to the Christmas Island Veterans’ Association, which was campaigning for compensation for servicemen exposed to radiation in the nuclear tests. Some of it, however, we thought should go for a memorial to A/C Thompson. That is why there is now a tree in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The clumsy and defensively worded text on the plaque was drafted by the MoD and makes no reference to the dead airman. It reads:
This tree is dedicated to the extraordinary young Naval, Army and Air Force personnel who were used for tests by the Government Chemical and Biological Research station at Porton Down.
These tests were to find defences against the horrific threat that such chemical and biological weapons posed to our armed forces and civilian population.
The security of the country rested on the great contribution and sacrifice of these people who took part in these tests.
‘What they did yesterday was done for you who read this today’
See also my post 2013/08/25/the-nerve-gas-boys