The Secret History Behind England’s Deadly Sarin Gas Plant

During the Cold War, at a single facility, the British military covertly produced enough chemical weapons to kill every person on earth five times over – and in the process dozens of their own were left dead.

In May 1953, when Ronald Maddison volunteered for scientific tests conducted by the British armed forces, he was told the experiments were part of efforts to research the common cold.

He was lied to.

Instead, like many others, Maddison, a leading aircraftman in the Royal Air Force, became a guinea pig for chemical weapons tests. He entered Britain’s main chemical warfare lab and received, without his knowledge or informed consent, 200 milligrams of liquid sarin dripped directly onto his sleeve, which seeped through the fabric onto his skin.

Ministry of Defense (MOD) scientists used “volunteers” like Maddison to design protective equipment and improve their own sarin for potential offensive use. The doses weren’t intended to be lethal; everyone already knew sarin killed quickly. Maddison was given just enough to gather more data into how sarin worked and how it could be stopped – or so they thought.

Within minutes this “routine” experiment went horrendously wrong.

Barrels of deadly Sarin.

Years later, ambulance driver Alfred Thornhill described his trip to the hospital with Maddison: “His whole body was convulsing… I saw his leg rise up from the bed and I saw his skin begin turning blue. It started from the ankle and started spreading up his leg.” Thornhill said the effects seemed to mirror those of an electrocution.

Terry Alderson, who like Maddison was another “volunteer” around that same time, later furiously described the lies told to him: “It was Russian roulette. Reading between the lines they have got away with murder. Our health was never monitored afterwards and nobody knows how many died. This shows what liars [the MOD] were – nobody volunteered for these tests, we were sent in there like sheep.”

Forty-five minutes after being dosed, Maddison died. His death was immediately covered up. Home Secretary David Maxwell-Fyfe requested the coroner’s inquest remain secret, citing national security.

The sarin gas that killed Maddison was manufactured and tested at the “Chemical Defense Establishment,” which was set along a remote stretch of southwest England’s Cornish coast, an area of sparse employment, with a small population, far from prying eyes. Today Cornwall is best associated with stunning sunsets. Few know that it hides one of Britain’s darkest secrets.

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The recent use of sarin by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has again brought chemical weapons into the spotlight. Western governments, including the U.K., condemn the “poor man’s atom bomb,” citing international law. But the British government itself hasn’t always been quite so ethical.

After the Second World War, Britain was nearly bankrupt; the Empire was collapsing. But with the Cold War in full swing, the British military was still developing weapons, including weapons of mass destruction.

During the war against the Axis powers, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had advocated using both biological and chemical weapons, which the military was experimenting with. (The Scottish island of Gruinard became so saturated with weaponized anthrax during World War II field tests that it remained uninhabitable for decades.) But they were never unleashed in battle, partly because Churchill’s cabinet feared equal retaliation from Hitler.

After defeating Der Führer, British experts toured the former Nazi Germany, confiscating equipment and data used to develop chemical weapons, including sarin.

But if they were going to manufacture chemical weapons of their own, the Brits needed a safe, remote location to do so, someplace where, if the worst should happen, there would be the fewest possible casualties. Royal Air Force base Portreath – or RAF Portreath, for short –had opened in 1941, built on what locals called Nancekuke Common in Cornwall. It was as good a place as any. Mothballed after the war, RAF Portreath was secluded and close to the sea, which was convenient for waste disposal. The few locals weren’t bound to ask many questions either. Any potential whistle-blowers knew they faced prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Being government property, the authorities also had “Crown Immunity” to use RAF Portreath as they pleased, almost entirely without public oversight.

A scientist at Nancekuke measures out chemicals.

Still, local farmer Ernest Landry didn’t share the government’s enthusiasm for the base’s choice location. The Ministry of Supply used a compulsory purchase order to requisition much of his land to form part of the new complex. Landry was compensated, but he’d lost his farm’s water supply, which came in the form of a pond on that surrendered plot.

In a short memoir, Memories of Nancekuke, Landry described his anger when a Ministry of Supply official forced him into selling:

He said that I had a perfect right to go to arbitration, but if I did he would knock a thousand pounds off the purchase price and he would see to it [that] it cost me another 500 in expenses. This was said to me in front of a witness. I asked the witness afterwards what he thought about it. He said, “It’s no good … he would say he never said anything like that.”

Churchill was one of Nancekuke’s biggest boosters. As a battalion commander in World War I, he knew the devastating power of chemical weapons. He’d once made sure the Soviets did too. In the summer of 1919, while Secretary of State for War, his British troops fought the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. On Churchill’s orders they used large amounts of Lewisite. Numerous Bolshevik-held villages were bombed by British aircraft, and Churchill’s fondness for gas didn’t stop there. In 1919 he openly advocated gassing rebellious tribes in northern India. Furious at what he called “squeamishness” from cabinet colleagues who blocked the plan, Churchill unpleasantly asked, “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze? It really is too silly.”

Come 1950, Churchill’s keen desire for an independent British chemical weapons capability was largely inspired by intelligence reports showing the Soviets were developing their own. If, he reasoned, the Russians had it, then so should the British. According to declassified British documents disclosed in a 2001 TV documentary, Nancekuke would, in Churchill’s mind, evolve from a small pilot facility into a mass producer of sarin.

RAF Portreath became the “Chemical Defense Establishment, Nancekuke.” The factory enabled scientists to improve their production process and technology, and between 1954 and 1956, Nancecuke’s pilot plant produced 20 tons of sarin. The plant also produced several other chemical weapons like VX, Soman and Cyclosarin. Prospective employees were vetted; former staff members were reminded of secrecy laws and penalties for breaking them. The government discussed Nancekuke only when forced to, continually restricting public and press knowledge.

A range of chemicals were produced during Nancekuke’s history like VX, Soman and Cyclosarin.

In 1965, as the counterculture became increasingly vocal, and trust and deference to authorities rapidly eroded, the secret of Nancekuke was exposed. Peace News magazine ran a story in December of that year attacking Nancekuke’s safety record. The article summarized what were rather benign incidents, citing “two occasions poison gas [escaped] and gas masks [had] to be worn.”

Tom Griffiths narrowly survived one. On March 31, 1958, he was ordered to fix a pipe that ran throughout the Nancekuke factory. He immediately noticed a single drop of liquid hanging from a flange. Griffiths knew it wasn’t water; it could only be sarin.

Griffiths bellowed a warning, jumped down the ladder he’d scaled, and he and his trailing co-worker staggered away, suffering sarin poisoning through inhalation.

According to one account of the incident: “Outside in the fresh air, as their breathing returned to normal and objects stopped swimming before them, with the happy-go-lucky fatalism born of working at Nancekuke, the two men congratulated each other on an extremely lucky escape.”

They weren’t lucky for long. Griffiths became chronically ill. Secrecy laws prevented him from discussing Nancekuke, even with doctors, and in 1971 he applied for a disability pension. A medical tribunal rejected it.

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It took decades for information about Nancekuke’s WMD production to emerge. Even today some files remain classified. Over the years there have been senior government ministers that were never told about the site. In 1969 it was reported that hundreds of animals died around Nancekuke without any explanation.

As Nancekuke became increasingly exposed, pressure to close it grew, and it was shut down in 1980. The lab was virtually demolished; some equipment was buried onsite, and the rest dumped in mineshafts.

Nancekuke never employed more than 200 workers at any time. Between 1950 and 1969, nine died there, and numerous others like Tom Griffiths developed permanent health problems. Some were threatened with prosecution if they revealed anything.

But Griffiths did file a lawsuit. He claimed his medical records would have undoubtedly proved long-term poisoning. However, in the early stages of the proceedings, his filed records vanished. He settled out of court in 1976 for a mere £110, which at the time equated to roughly $60.