Anthrax Island: The Secret Dreadful 196 ha Biological Weapons Test Site


About half-mile off the coast of Scotland, in the United Kingdom’s northwest regions, is an island that was once so contaminated with bioweapons that no one was allowed to set foot on it for fear of spreading anthrax throughout the world.

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The official name for the Anthrax Island is Gruinard Island, and it is only 1.2 miles long. In the 16th century, it was considered as the ideal hideaway for thieves and rebels because it was once densely forested. There were as many as six persons recorded to have lived on the island at one time, but no one has resided there since the 1920s, according to current records.

There has been little or no life on the Scottish Gruinard Island, or the Anthrax Island, also known as “The Island of Death”. Even now, the isle is rarely visited, with the exception of the occasional curious kayaker lapping at its shores or a fisherman gathering a floating buoy.

After becoming a top-secret UK government test site for biological weapons during World War II, Gruinard has basically been a no-go zone for almost 80 years.

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Military personnel travelled to Guinard Island in 1942, during the Second World War, in the aim of developing a germ bomb to use against the Germans. With Operation Vegetarian, they hoped to infect the Nazi beef supply with deadly anthrax bacteria, crippling their rivals.

The strain they chose, Vollum 14578, grows more virulent when more individuals are exposed, causing an infection snowball effect. It was transmissible through eating the meat of infected animals, and it was lethal to the animals themselves, just like other types of anthrax. The effort became two-pronged as a result of this issue. It would infect German humans as well as cattle, denying nourishment to their army.

British military scientists from Porton Down travelled to Gruinard Island.

Germ bombs were dropped on sheep on the Island to see how dangerous the highly infectious disease may be in a war situation.

Locals describe the Gruinard island being a buzz of activity in the generally calm region as a result of the continuous work, which involved a team of 50 scientists.

During the summers of 1942 and 1943, sheeps were placed in open fences and then exposed to anthrax spores spread throughout the area by bombs dropped from a Vickers Wellington bomber plane.

The strength of anthrax was soon revealed when the sheep began to die after three days, and the potential for worldwide death was summarised in the test report.

“The report of the Gruinard experiment indicated that biological weapons are highly effective and can paralyse or render cities inhospitable.”

Sharad . S . Chauhan‘, In his book ‘Biological Weapons

The team immediately discovered their approach was too deadly, despite thoroughly decontaminating their equipment and incinerating the sheep’s bodies.

The tests in the Gruinard Island were soon abandoned as World War II came to a conclusion, and also with the island’s owner demanding that the island be given to them.

Because the Anthrax Island had become badly contaminated, it was agreed that it would be sold back to the owner for £500 after the disease had been eradicated.

What happened to the Anthrax Island after the World War II ?

There was little they could do once the anthrax had been released. Cities that are attacked with biological weapons would have had to be made uninhabitable for decades. Though they were able to save mainland Europe from a tragedy, Guinard Island was too late. It was necessary to isolate the small landmass.

‘No-Go-Zone’ signboards were placed all along the shore of Anthrax Island.

For fear of terrorist organisations travelling to the island to obtain samples of the deadly bacteria, access to the island became highly restricted, and it was even erased from some maps.

However, it seems there was almost no effort made to clean up the test site.

Once a sheep infected with the Gruinard anthrax was washed up on the mainland. And according to witnesses, a dog was seen eating the corpse before becoming violently ill. Several agricultural and domestic animals died since then, and farmers were quickly compensated by the government.

For 20 years, inspections of animals exposed to Gruinard showed the continuing toxicity of the spores left behind.

Residents in the neighbourhood were mostly clueless of the government’s work on Gruinard at the time.

In 1981, however, an environmental protest put Gruinard back into the spotlight. Almost everyone had forgot about the Anthrax Island, until mysterious packets containing contaminated mud from the Gruinard Island showed up at government offices. The parcels were titled “Operation Dark Harvest,” and they demanded that the government clean up the island.

Although it did not contain anthrax, a sealed bag of soil was also dropped in Blackpool, where the Conservative Party was holding their party conference.

And finally what happened? Is it clean now?

In 1986, a method of sterilising the topsoil was devised where the land is washed with formaldehyde and sea water. Over 300 tons of formaldehyde along with sea water was poured on the island to try and kill the anthrax spores.

Sheep were ferried daily from the mainland to graze on the island for a year after the decontamination to ensure it was now safe. After four years, in 1990 the quarantine was lifted and the island was declared safe. The government put a stop to Gruinard’s gloomy chapter by sending junior defence minister Michael Neubert to smile for photographers while removing the caution signs from the shoreline.

The family that was compelled to give up the land to the government in the 1940s was also given the opportunity to repurchase it for £500.

Given the horror of its past, Gruinard still stands lonely and unloved today. Many people are still afraid of Anthrax Island, worrying that the biological weapons have evolved or are still lurking in tiny form.

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