Week 8 Preparedness Blog: Great Britain's World War Two Bioterrorism Program

Week 8 - April 6, 2018

by David Culp, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, Illinois Public Health Association

Great Britain's World War Two Bioterrorism Program

By the end of Queen Victoria’s extremely successful reign in 1901, the British Empire had grown to be the world’s most dominant nation; trade with both colonies and allies providing raw materials necessary for exponential growth of British manufacturing. The British Empire stretched from British Isles across Africa, Asia, North and South America with its highly advanced industrial technology, providing a wide range of manufactured products for profitable exporting, as well as necessary munitions and armaments for military domination. However, two world wars in the first half of the 20th century, though Great Britain would lead coalitions of victorious countries, was to severely drain it of resources and capital leading to increasing challenges of maintaining the vast empire it had built.

During World War Two, Great Britain was, for eighteen months, the sole Nation fighting against Nazi Germany. Notwithstanding its powerful navy and gallant air force; land armies are the instrument of territorial occupation and defense, Britain only surviving through the support and sacrifice of Australian, Canadian, Gambian, Ghanaian, Indian, New Zealander, Nigerian, Pakistani, Sierra Leonese and South African soldiers. This was especially true in the Mediterranean and Asian theatres of the war where severely troop strapped British desperately needed their colonial troops to stave off defeat by the combined forces of Germany, Italy and Japan. Surrounded by German forces and increasingly isolated, Great Britain was very concerned about the potential threat of chemical and biological attacks; especially as German conventional warfare elements were proving unable to conquer the British Isles.

Great Britain would institute their bioterrorism program in response to fear of bio agent utilization by Axis Powers; however, the British program would prove to be more offensive than defensive, retaliatory rather than preventive. British forces dropped cakes laced with anthrax on Gruinard Island, killing dozens of sheep and leaving the island so inhospitable that it was not until 1986, after a series of formaldehyde and seawater treatments, the island was deemed safe. Communicable disease dangers of bioterrorism are demonstrated by an anthrax infected sheep from Gruinard Island washing up on a mainland shore and being eaten by a dog leading to subsequent infection of twenty-four more animals; noting respiratory transmission numbers would have been substantially higher and deadlier than gastro intestinal transmission. Despite these dangers, the British pursued development and testing of biological weapons; deeming the threat of foreign adversary utilization outweighing the risk of self-contamination of its own civilians, military personnel and territory.

World War Two was extremely costly to Great Britain and, by the end of the war in 1945, it was at a cross roads. The British Empire had grown and thrived for over three centuries, but it was no longer profitable, reasonable nor cost effective to maintain control over colonies. Alliances for mutual support with nations of similar interests were more beneficial to national security. Trade agreements with nations of similar and not so similar interests, as well as those with different governing philosophies, were more economically profitable.  Yet we should not naively view that the transition from British Empire to British Commonwealth was a kind one or that it was equally implemented across the globe. Australia and Canada had been given progressively greater independence during the latter half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, both being provided sovereignty in 1931. South Africa would achieve independent governance in 1934; yet apartheid, established with support of the British government, with severe and extensive persecution of the majority population African citizens would be maintained until 1994. In 1947 first Pakistan later India would gain independence only after extended struggles. Israel would be formed from the former British colony of Palestine in 1948 after much reluctance and interference from Britain.

Great Britain, whether thru forced decision or thru voluntary acceptance, would see the value of being partners with countries it had formerly dominated; forming coalitions of allies and trading cohorts. The British increasingly realized building and supporting alliances was more productive than alienation and standing alone; notwithstanding any governmental monetary expenses. The British Commonwealth would find strength thru diversity and provision of opportunities to people for self-determination and advancement across its dominion. Much like funds invested in prevention and screening activities for health conditions diminishing needs for treatment; funds invested in building partnerships and alliances with other nations provide for a more robust economy and a more militarily strong and secure nation, as opposed to searching for adversaries around the globe, while alienating former allies and instigating conflicts counterproductive to a nation’s progressive advancement.


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