Inside Out West

Controversial footage showing Britain’s attempts to develop a “plague bomb” during the Cold War is to be revealed on the BBC’s regional current affairs series Inside Out West.

The film has been kept secret for more than half a century but it was uncovered by an amateur historian in Dorset after a three year campaign of dogged letter writing using the Freedom of Information Act.

The footage shows scientists from the government’s Porton Down facility in Wiltshire, testing biological weapons on live animals on a pontoon moored off the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

The experiments were carried out in great secrecy in 1952, a time when paranoia about the Soviet Union was at its height.

Codenamed Operation Cauldron, the experiments used 3,500 monkeys and guinea pigs, all of which were killed after exposure to clouds of bacteria released by a small bomb.

The benefits of the research were judged to outweigh the risk of the biological agents being blown onshore.

Amateur historian Mike Kenner became aware of the footage after researching details of Operation Cauldron when it became declassified.

He says: “So many animals were killed that they had to set up an assembly line of scientists. It’s more like looking at a fish processing factory with people just filleting fish and it does become quite gory”.

Dr Brian Barmer, an expert on biological warfare who has written extensively about Operation Cauldron, says the footage: “captures a particular moment in the Cold War where biological weapons were certainly on a par with atomic weapons in British defence policy. Getting hold of this film now you forget quite how top secret this area was at the time – really, none of this was known about.”

Animal rights campaign group the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection points out that the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down is still experimenting on animals today. Last year 8,168 animals were used in research, including 35 pigs for studies using explosives.

BUAV Chief Executive Michelle Thew says “This sort of cruel and grotesque research behind closed doors simply has no place in a modern society.”

The Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory has issued a statement defending its work: “As a direct result of the research undertaken by DSTL, that involves animals at its Porton Down site, vast improvements have been made to the physical protection and the medical care received by UK armed forces in Afghanistan, and other theatres of conflict – and many men and women have been able to return from the frontline to their families, rather than being mere casualty statistics.

“This work – which represents less than half a per cent of all UK research conducted on animals – undergoes a full ethical review including an assessment of the balance between benefit to man and the welfare of the animals.

“DSTL does not recognise today any of the practices shown in the 1952 film footage.”

Inside Out West can be seen on BBC One in the West region of England at 7.30pm on Monday October 18.

The programme is also available across the whole country on BBC iPlayer for seven days following the original broadcast.

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