The Burry Inlet Anthrax Bomb Test, 1942
Any inhabitant of Llanelli who happened to be looking south, across the estuary, at about 5 PM on Wednesday, 28 October 1942, would have seen a single Bristol Blenheim bomber flying at 182 MPH at about 5,000 feet. The bomber flew over the north Gower salt marshes, where it dropped one bomb. Anyone observing the scene would probably have found nothing unusual in it: a military artillery range had existed in the Penclawdd and Salthouse Point area since the early days of the war, with test firings of various types of ordnance taking place on most days. But what they were witnessing was actually one of the most controversial events in the entire history of Llanelli, north Gower and the Burry Inlet, namely the dropping of a bomb filled with anthrax spores.Rumours about secret testing of chemical and biological weapons in the inlet during World War II have been rife in Llanelli and north Gower for many years. Confirmation that an anthrax test was, indeed, carried out in the area in 1942 came in a parliamentary answer in January 1987, but further concerns continue to be raised from time to time. In 2009, for example, there was particular concern about problems with the cockle beds in the inlet, and many speculated on a link to the anthrax bomb and the chemical weapons tests; consequently, both Llanelli MP Nia Griffith and open government campaigner Mike Kenner requested detailed information from the Ministry of Defence at the time: Llanelli Star and WhatDoTheyKnow. In fact, the relevant information about the anthrax test, at least, has been in the public domain for a considerable period. It is contained within a file at the National Archives, Kew (DEFE55/120), which ceased to be 'Top Secret' in 1975, had its status downgraded from 'Secret' to 'Restricted' in 1987 (presumably coinciding with the release of the information in Parliament), and was made publicly accessible, without any restriction, in 1999, as reported in The Guardian at the time. Anyone possessing a National Archives reader's ticket (which is freely available to all who apply for it), and who can make the journey to Kew, can examine the document for themselves. This article deliberately makes no judgement whatsoever about the moral or medical issues surrounding the test. Rather, it presents a straightforward factual summary of the National Archives file, which describes how the test was conducted and its effects.
The Penclawdd test followed a series of tests of anthrax bombs on the uninhabited Gruinard Island, off the west coast of Scotland between Ullapool and Loch Ewe. These tests had produced contradictory results, primarily due to the soft, boggy ground at Gruinard, so it was decided at short notice to carry out a single replacement test at a different location, namely on the firm sand of the Burry Inlet. Two lines of sheep were placed downwind of the aiming mark, one at 100 yards and one at 300, with each line consisting of 30 animals spread at 10 yard intervals. The bomb was charged with 3 pounds 'of a 1.97% (nominal) aqueous suspension of anthrax spores'. It fell centrally, 20 yards upwind of the aiming mark (thus altering the distances of the sheep lines to 120 and 320 yards), and formed a crater about three feet in diameter with a depth of about two feet, about normal for the thirty pound bomb employed. Only two animals (sheep 23 and 53, to be exact) died of anthrax septicaemia, one in the 120 yard line and one in the 320, both on the third day after the trial, and three others were ill for a day or so before recovering entirely. Even so, the scientists at the government's Chemical Defence Establishment in Porton Down proclaimed the test result 'very satisfactory', especially as this was the first time such a bomb had been dropped from a plane flying at operational level.
According to the report, the site was 'effectively decontaminated' by the incoming tide a few hours after the test took place; this was in marked contrast to the situation at Gruinard, where the entire island was set ablaze and subsequently closed to public access for nearly 50 years. The carcases of the dead sheep were 'buried deeply at the seaward edge of the marshland area'. The remaining sheep were observed for seven days after the test, the survivors then being slaughtered and buried. The small number of 'casualties' was put down to the narrowness of the anthrax cloud, probably caused by the type of crater formed in firm sand focusing the cloud more than might have been the case on other types of ground. The report also contains considerable detail on the decontamination of the clothing worn by the personnel involved in the test, although once they had undressed, those personnel seem to have undergone nothing more rigorous than 'a hot shower'.
The National Archives contain no files on further anthrax tests in the Burry Inlet; the test of 28 October 1942 was a one-off conducted in exceptional and unexpected circumstances due to the problems experienced at Gruinard. However, the artillery range was certainly used on a regular basis for the firing of chemical shells, including ones containing mustard gas, towards Whiteford Burrows. A further National Archives file, AVIA 22/2154, provides some detail on the nature and use of this site, but contains no information about the nature of the ordnance fired. It does, however, contain a briefing paper written by a civil servant on 27 September 1944, which provides a rationale for the use of such weapons and for the retention of the Penclawdd range post-war.
Taking the short view it is of course still uncertain whether chemical warfare will start in the Pacific. While I personally doubt it, there are certain factors which might induce the Jap (sic) to embark on it. We must therefore remain prepared for such an eventuality. Taking the longer view our present stocks... will die on us in about three years time from deterioration of chemical content. I think we must assume that even in peace the Army must hold some stock of charged chemical weapons in case the next war should start with a gas attack. Experience in this war has shown the real necessity of keeping chemical ammunition production under continuous functioning proof. In this way we have, I hope, avoided serious troubles which would only otherwise have become evident later, if and when chemical warfare had started. This functioning proof should be regarded as a necessary concomitant of chemical ammunition production and should, in my opinion, be continued in time of peace. I can see no other place as suitable as Penclawdd for the purposes and recommend, therefore, retention, principally upon these grounds.
In reality, the Penclawdd range did not survive for very long in the post-war world, although a proposal to reopen it was made in 1953 (a proposal defeated in part through the strenuous opposition of the then relatively young Gower Society). A number of structures associated with the range remain visible to the present day, while shells and other munitions expended there are still exposed by the tide from time to time. In September 2014, for example, some sixty shells were exposed at Whiteford Point, and bomb disposal teams were summoned to deal with them. Otherwise, though, relatively little is known of the history of the site, although it was briefly 'home' to one famous face: the comedian Frankie Howerd was stationed there in 1942, perhaps at the time when the anthrax bomb test took place.