In When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank, the second installment in his outrageously entertaining series, History’s Unknown Chapters, Giles Milton shows his customary historical flair as he delves into the little-known stories from history, like when Stalin was actually assassinated with poison by one of his inner circle; the Russian scientist, dubbed the “Red Frankenstein,” who attempted to produce a human-ape hybrid through ethically dubious means; the family who survived thirty-eight days at sea with almost no water or supplies after their ship was destroyed by a killer whale; or the plot that served as a template for 9/11 in which four Algerian terrorists attempted to hijack a plane and fly it into the Eiffel Tower.
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When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank
History's Unknown Chapters
By Giles Milton
PicadorCopyright © 2016 Giles Milton
All rights reserved.
When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep
On a blustery July morning in 1943, a strange kerfuffle could be seen taking place on the shores of Gruinard Bay on the west coast of Scotland. A group of men, some in army uniform, were attempting to herd dozens of sheep into a landing craft. After much effort, the sheep were finally loaded and the little boat set sail for low-lying Gruinard Island.
The island lay approximately half a mile offshore: it was bleak, windswept and extremely remote. It was also uninhabited, one of the principal reasons why it had been selected for an experiment so secret that not even the local crofters were allowed to know what was taking place.
Alice MacIver, a young girl at the time, found all the commotion terribly exciting: 'There was lots of activity. It was great fun, when you remember this is a very quiet place. We just thought it was some military exercise.'
But it was not a military exercise and nor were the men soldiers. They were scientists – brilliant ones – and they had travelled to Scotland from Porton Laboratories in Wiltshire. Some, like Paul Fildes, worked for the Biological Department. Others were employed by the Chemical Defence Experimental Station. All of them knew they were playing for very high stakes: the tests to be conducted on Gruinard Island, known as X Base, had the potential to change the course of the Second World War.
Winston Churchill himself had led the discussions about using biological weapons against Nazi Germany. He had debated the subject with his chiefs of staff and come up with the germ of an idea. This idea was codenamed (with characteristically black humour) 'Operation Vegetarian'. Churchill wanted to know if it could be possible to contaminate the German countryside with so many anthrax spores that huge numbers of livestock and people would be instantly killed.
'It was a nasty business,' recalls local Scottish historian Donald Macintyre, then a young lad serving in the RAF. 'But nobody would have dreamt of making a protest. It was wartime and people wanted to show their patriotism and do their part.'
Paul Fildes and his team of biological scientists shipped eighty sheep to Gruinard Island in preparation for the tests. They also took a cameraman, whose task was to record everything that happened during those few days in July.
Once on the island, the sheep were herded into individual container crates and covered in fabric jackets. This was to ensure that they would contract the anthrax from inhalation, rather than from spores on their fleeces.
The anthrax chosen for the experiment was Vollum 14578, a highly virulent strain whose efficacy had already been demonstrated in laboratories. The principal method of dissemination was to fire the anthrax by mortar.
Fildes and his men took the extraordinary decision to remain on the island while the trials were taking place. Although they were wearing cloth overalls, rubber gloves and gas masks, they were nevertheless exposing themselves to unprecedented risk.
Once the equipment was set up and the cylinders of anthrax in position, the order was given to fire the mortar. In a matter of seconds, the charge was detonated and a highly toxic cloud began travelling on the stiff sea breeze towards the crated sheep.
At first, they showed no sign of having been infected. Fildes and his team were surprised to watch the sheep chewing on the stubbly grass, seemingly unaffected by the vast quantities of anthrax that had been blown in their direction. But on the third day after the experiment they suddenly began to die, keeling over as if they had been struck by paralysis. Within hours of the first death, almost the entire flock had succumbed to the anthrax. Only those at the extreme fringes of the field – and therefore exposed to limited doses – survived the experiment.
Fildes and his men were stunned by the efficacy of Vollum 14578. They realized that a mass detonation of anthrax over Germany would cause death on an unprecedented scale. But they were also alarmed by their inability to decontaminate Gruinard Island in the aftermath of the experiment. Once the anthrax spores had settled on the land, they proved impossible to remove. Even their contaminated clothes had to be burned, since washing them did not remove the anthrax.
An additional scare came when an unexpected storm swept one of the sheep carcasses over to the mainland. It instantly infected other livestock, leading to a secret cull of sheep and a swift payment of compensation to the local farmer.
Donald Macintyre was bemused by the speed with which the compensation was paid. 'It's not often that you put in a complaint and get paid straightaway.'
The virulence of the anthrax was to prove both its strength and its weakness. Churchill was alarmed by the way it spread so uncontrollably and the project was temporarily put on hold.
But by the spring of 1944, anthrax was back on the agenda. After a series of meetings with his military advisers, Churchill approved an order for an initial stockpile of 500,000 anthrax bombs. He stressed that he would only give the order for a biological strike on Germany in retaliation for a similar attack on Britain. 'If our enemies should indulge in this form of warfare,' he said, 'the only deterrent would be our power to retaliate.'
The Inter-Service Sub-Committee on Biological Warfare noted that the initial anthrax order 'was based on an appreciation that the number would be sufficient for retaliatory attacks on six large enemy cities'. But after prolonged deliberation, they dramatically increased the quantity of anthrax.
'It has now been concluded that it may be necessary to arrange provision of eight times this number of bombs in order to achieve results on the scale originally envisaged.'
The production of the initial order took time – far longer than the experts had expected. 'The plant for manufacturing the filling of the bombs [with anthrax] should be in operation by the end of the year . We could not, therefore, engage in this form of warfare on any effective scale before the spring of 1945.'
By the time the first bombs were ready, a secret report to a Cabinet Defence Committee revealed that even deadlier anthrax weapons were being trialled. These had the potential to reduce Germany to an uninhabitable wasteland.
'Judging by its effect on monkeys,' reads the report, '[it] might kill half the population of a city of the size of Stuttgart in one heavy bomber raid and render the site of the city uninhabitable for many years to come. It is clear, therefore, that biological warfare is potentially a most deadly weapon and, if it is ever used in warfare, may have revolutionary effects.'
But the end of the war was now in sight and a new deadly weapon, the atomic bomb, was in development. Anthrax was no longer required and the biological weapons project was quietly shelved.
As for Gruinard Island, it was so badly contaminated that it was proclaimed off-limits. Locals were warned not to set foot on the island and 'Keep Out' signs were erected all around the foreshore. The island was to remain out of bounds until 1990, when the removal of the topsoil and spraying of the island with formaldehyde solution finally rendered it safe.
There is still no one living on the island. These days, the only inhabitants are a flock of sheep who munch on the grass, blissfully unaware of the deadly spores that until recently infected their island home.CHAPTER 2
The Black Sheep
It was almost midnight and most of the office lights had been switched off. The secretaries and clerical assistants had long since left and headed back to their homes in the suburbs of Moscow.
Leon Trotsky remained in his office alone, although he was no longer concentrating on his work as head of the Red Army. His thoughts were focused entirely on the woman seated opposite him. Her huge eyes and high cheekbones were typically Slavic, yet there was nothing Russian about Clare Sheridan. She was half English, half American; a talented sculptor who had come to Moscow in order to undertake a number of important commissions.
Her trip, undertaken in the autumn of 1920, attracted the immediate attention of MI5. Russia was a hostile power and the British government was actively discouraging travel to the country. There were many in the security service who feared that Clare Sheridan sympathized with the new Communist government.
But there was another, altogether more compelling reason for MI5 officers to be concerned. Sheridan was the first cousin of Winston Churchill. (Her mother, Clarita Jerome, was the sister of Churchill's mother, Jeanette Jerome.) As such, her trip had the potential to be extremely damaging. Churchill was the country's most vociferous advocate of military intervention against Russia and he had made countless speeches about his loathing for the Bolsheviks.
'Of all the tyrannies,' he said, 'the Bolshevist tyranny is the worst, the most destructive and the most degrading.'
Clare Sheridan had done nothing to hide her trip to Moscow, but she had neglected to tell anyone that she had been commissioned to sculpt some of the leading figures in the revolutionary government, including Lenin, Trotsky, Dzerzhinsky and Kamenev.
Trotsky had initially resisted sitting for a cousin of the hated Winston Churchill, but he quickly changed his tune when he met Sheridan. As she measured his features with her callipers, he flashed his eyes at her and murmured in a seductive tone, 'You're caressing me with tools of steel.'
Sheridan paid her visits to Trotsky's office in the evenings, when the ministry building was deserted. Trotsky soon found himself completely under her spell. 'When your teeth are clenched and you are fighting with your work, you're still a woman,' he told her.
She had a struggle to persuade Trotsky to remove his pince-nez, but she eventually succeeded. 'It seemed akin to physical pain taking them off,' she later wrote. 'They have become part of him and the loss of them completely changes his individuality.'
It was clear to both artist and sitter that there was a chemistry between them and Trotsky was only following his instincts when, at the end of one of their late-night sittings, he agreed to undress and show her his 'splendid neck and chest'.
Clare Sheridan had long believed in free love and was quite open in expressing her views. Moscow was soon alive with rumours that she and Trotsky were having an affair.
There were also rumours that Sheridan was having a simultaneous affair with Lev Kamenev, a senior member of the Politburo. The two of them had first met while Kamenev was on a Soviet trade mission to London in the summer of 1920. He had spoiled her with expensive restaurant lunches, to the extreme annoyance of Mrs Kamenev.
'We don't live chic like that in Moscow,' was the icy greeting she gave her husband on his return to Russia. She gave an even frostier reception to Clare Sheridan, telling her that England had turned her husband into one of the hated bourgeoisie.
It is not known whether or not Clare Sheridan consummated her affair with Trotsky. If she did, it was to prove a brief liaison. She stayed just a few weeks in Moscow before returning to England. By now MI5 agents were fully on her case, tapping her phone, intercepting her mail and monitoring all her movements.
Their intelligence file on her behaviour is full of accusations of treachery. 'She has conducted herself in a disloyal manner in various foreign countries, adopting a consistently anti-British attitude.'
Every development brought new embarrassment for Churchill. In 1922, MI5 discovered that Sheridan was in contact with Indian nationalists in Lausanne and was receiving private letters via the Russian diplomatic bag.
When she undertook a trip to Italy, British agents followed in her wake, noting that she 'not only openly aired her views in favour of Bolshevism, but tried to convince some of the guests of its advantages, especially in connection with free love'.
She was certainly a practitioner of the latter. When staying in Istanbul, she took as her lover a certain Ismet Bey, a known political agitator who was vociferous in seeking the overthrow of British rule in India.
Churchill might have forgiven his cousin these indiscretions, but in 1923 she surpassed them all. As an MI5 informant observed, 'she appears to have been recently all over Germany, and was present at Munich at one of Hitler's meetings. She was very much impressed with the extraordinary enthusiasm that Hitler aroused among an audience of 10,000 people with an extraordinarily bloodthirsty speech.'
She tried to put her 'free love' ideas into practice in Germany, but met with no success. 'She found the German was nothing like so responsive to her personal charms as was the Russian, a fact she deplored.'
In 1925, telephone tapping revealed that she had passed details of her conversations with Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, to Norman Ewer, the foreign editor of the Daily Herald and a known Soviet agent. When, later that year, Sheridan moved to Algiers, MI5 concluded that she was in the pay of the Soviets.
'In view of the facts regarding her financial position [we] are strongly of the opinion that Clare is in the pay of the Russians and that she has been sent to North Africa to get in touch with the local situation and to act either as a reporting agent or possibly as a forwarding agent.'
Eventually, the head of MI5, Vernon Kell, visited Churchill and told him about the dossier of evidence they had gathered against his cousin. Churchill said to Kell that 'he was prepared to believe anything'. He also said he was 'prepared to take any action' that MI5 thought necessary.
Clare Sheridan's dalliance with Trotsky, Kamenev, Nazism and free love was a source of continual embarrassment for Churchill, yet he never completely broke relations with his wayward cousin. Indeed, by the outset of the Second World War, he had forgiven her for her past misdeeds and even allowed her to sculpt his bust.
MI5 were not quite so forgiving. They kept a close eye on the black sheep of the Churchill clan and continued to intercept her letters for years to come.CHAPTER 3
Private Boctroff and his Red Army comrades had grown used to British planes flying over their positions in northern Russia. Ever since Allied forces had landed in Archangel in the summer of 1918, aerial raids had been an almost daily occurrence.
But at around lunchtime on 29 August, the raid above Plesetzkaya was to prove rather more devastating than previous ones. As the plane passed overhead, it dropped dozens of exploding metal canisters. Private Boctroff watched in alarm as the strange-looking canisters fell to the ground. They exploded as they neared the treeline, emitting clouds of green gas.
Private Boctroff ran for safety and managed to avoid the worst of the gas cloud, yet his nose nevertheless began to stream with blood and he felt so giddy that he could hardly stand. His comrades were less fortunate. Twenty-five of them choked to death, while a further twenty lapsed into unconsciousness.
The chemical attack on Bolshevik-controlled northern Russia was undertaken on the orders of Winston Churchill. As Secretary of State for War he had argued for military action against the Bolsheviks, much to the annoyance of the prime minister, David Lloyd George. 'He has Bolshevism on the brain,' said Lloyd George after one conversation with Churchill, '[and] he is mad for operations in Russia.'
In the aftermath of the First World War there was little appetite for putting troops on the ground. Churchill was forced to look for a more creative solution when dealing with Lenin's Bolsheviks. He was an enthusiastic proponent of biological warfare and knew that scientists at the governmental laboratories at Porton in Wiltshire had recently developed a devastating new weapon.
The top secret M Device was an exploding shell containing a highly toxic gas called diphenylaminechloroarsine. The man in charge of designing the shell, Major General Charles Foukes, called it 'the most effective chemical weapon ever devised'.
Trials at Porton suggested that it had an instant effect on all who inhaled it. Uncontrollable vomiting, coughing up blood and crippling fatigue were the most common symptoms.
Excerpted from When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank by Giles Milton. Copyright © 2016 Giles Milton. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
Book I When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep
Part I When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep 5
Part II A Question of Mistaken Identity 21
Part III Kings, Queens and Madmen 37
Part IV Papal Bull 53
Part V Up and Away 65
Part VI Beauty and the Beast 79
Part VII Get Ale Out! 93
Part VIII The Bubble that Burst 111
Part IX A Child for the Fuhrer 125
Further Reading 131
Book II When Stalin Robbed a Bank
Part I When Stalin Robbed a Bank 141
Part II It'll Never Happen to Me 157
Part III Escape from Hell 171
Part IV Just Plain Weird 189
Part V Die-Hard Nazis 203
Part VI A Trio of Monsters 217
Part VII I Am a Hero 231
Part VIII Rule-Breakers 245
Further Reading 259