Canada’s Plan to Unleash a Bacteriological Apocalypse

Grosse Île lies 50km east of Quebec City, one of 21 islands in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Though its name means “Big Island” in French, Grosse Île is barely two kilometres square, home to a small collection of buildings from its days as a quarantine station for Irish immigrants arriving in Canada. Designated a National Historic Site in 1974, today the island is open to tourists and hosts a museum, guided walking tours, and other activities. Yet this seemingly idyllic little island holds a dark secret. During the Second World War, a team of Canadian scientists used Grosse Île as a secret laboratory to study and weaponize some of the deadliest diseases known to mankind – biological weapons which, if used, could have unleashed a bacteriological apocalypse.

When one thinks of Weapons of Mass Destruction, one is unlikely to think of Canada. Yet in the buildup to the Second World War, Canada was among the first western nations to push for the development of chemical and biological warfare. And the unlikely champion of this initiative was a man more associated with saving millions of lives than ending them: Sir Frederick Banting. In 1923 Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for the discovery of insulin, used in the treatment of diabetes. Warily observing the rise of Nazism and Europe’s steady march towards war, in the late 1930s Banting became gravely concerned about Germany’s potential use of chemical and germ warfare in the coming conflict. Germany had pioneered chemical warfare during the First World War – first deploying chlorine gas against Canadian and French troops at the Battle of Ypres in April 1915 – and its microbiologists were among the finest in the world. Around 1.3 million casualties – including 90,000 deaths – were inflicted by poison gas during the conflict; newer, more potent gases developed since then had the potential to kill millions more – and biological weapons even more than that. So obsessed was Banting with halting the Nazi war machine that in 1939 he wrote in his diary: “We need to kill 2 or 4 million young Germans without mercy- without feeling. It is our duty to eliminate them.”

The Nazis and him apparently would have gotten along swimmingly if he’d been German instead of Canadian….

In any event, soon after Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Banting met with senior Government officials and convinced them to back a more intensive chemical and biological weapons program. Limited research on bacteriological warfare agents was already underway in Canadian universities since 1937, but these programs were severely underfunded. Turning to the private sector, Banting managed to secure a half a million dollars – an unprecedented amount in those days – from Samuel Bronfman, head of Seagrams Distillery; and John David Eaton, owner of Eaton’s department stores. With this infusion of cash bioweapons research in Canada kicked into high gear, and a special body known was the M-1000 Committee was formed to direct it. But Banting would not live to see the fruits of his initiative, dying in a plane crash in Newfoundland in February 1941 while flying to meet with British biological weapons experts.

In December 1941 the project took on a new urgency as Japan entered the war on the side of the Axis. Japan was even more advanced in its use of biological warfare, having established the infamous Unit 731 in occupied Manchuria to test biological weapons on live Chinese POWs and civilians – the test subjects often being dissected alive without anaesthesia. The Japanese also deployed anthrax, cholera, and bubonic plague against Chinese villages, killing over 400,000 civilians.

The M-1000 committee considered dozens of potential bacteriological warfare agents for development, including bubonic plague, typhus, tularemia, psittacosis, rocky mountain spotted fever, botulism, salmonella, glanders, and African horse sickness. But early on two clear frontrunners emerged: Rinderpest, a disease mainly affecting cattle, and Anthrax. Anthrax was particularly well-suited to biological warfare as it formed hard, resilient spores which could resist extremely high temperatures. This allowed Anthrax spores to be packed into air-dropped bombs and dispersed using explosives. As an added bonus, Anthrax was treatable using Penicillin, which unlike the Germans the Allies would soon have in great supply.

But the same properties which made anthrax so easy to weaponize also made it extremely persistent – a fact British scientists would soon learn the hard way. In 1942 the war was going badly for the Allies. The British Army was shut out of mainland Europe, U-boats were sinking hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping off the coast of the United States, the Eighth Army was being pushed out of North Africa, and German forces were advancing ever deeper into the Soviet Union. About the only weapons the Allies had to strike back against the Axis were the bombers of the Royal Air Force, and to maximize their destructive power the British began planning a massive biological warfare campaign against Nazi Germany. Code-named Operation Vegetarian, the plan called for RAF bombers to drop millions of Anthrax-infected feed cakes across Germany. These would be eaten by cattle and other livestock, contaminating their meat and causing widespread disease and famine. The resulting disruption of civilian life was expected to cause Nazi Germany to collapse within months.

To test this weapon, scientists at the biological warfare centre at Porton Down acquired the remote island of Gruinard in Northern Scotland. A flock of sheep was transported to the island and various designs of anthrax bombs and anthrax-cake dispensers were exploded among them. The effects were chilling: within three days every single sheep was dead. The contaminated corpses were buried by piling them under a cliff and dynamiting the cliff on top of them, but a single corpse managed to float away and washed ashore on the mainland. This touched off an anthrax outbreak that killed over 100 livestock and pets. Thankfully, the Porton Down scientists were able to contain the outbreak before it spread to the human population, though due to wartime secrecy it would be decades before the locals discovered just what had killed their animals. But Gruniard Island was found to be hopelessly contaminated, and after disinfecting the soil as best they could with fire and formaldehyde, the scientists suspended all further experiments and sealed off the island indefinitely.

The Gruinard Island incident convinced the government that it was too dangerous to manufacture and test biological weapons on British soil. For an alternative site, they turned to their colony across the Atlantic. It would not be the first or last time Britain looked to Canada to help test dangerous weapons. Following a series of experiments at Porton Down where British soldiers were exposed to mustard gas, Britain ordered all further testing moved to Suffield, a Canadian military base in Alberta. Here in May 1942, 712 volunteer Canadian soldiers were marched out onto the proving grounds wearing only gas masks and regular combat gear and ordered to stand at attention while aircraft flying at 1000 feet sprayed them with mustard gas. Once the gas had fully penetrated their clothing, they were marched back to base and the effects studied. Mustard gas is a vesicant or blister agent, which when absorbed by the skin inflicts severe, extremely painful chemical burns that can take months to heal. Participants were paid $1 for volunteering and $20 for each burn that appeared, though given the horrific effects it is debatable whether these rewards were worth it. Similar experiments were later carried out on troops in Inisfall, Australia and Karachi, British India, making Britain and her Empire the only belligerent nation other than Japan to test chemical weapons on human subjects during WWII. Incredibly, in 1950 Canada would offer to allow Britain to test its first atomic bomb in the Canadian north near the town of Churchill – an offer Britain declined in favour of Australia.

Meanwhile, in the months following Sir Frederick Banting’s death, biological weapons research in Canada began to languish. Then, in October 1941 U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging the creation of a U.S. bioweapons program. Due to the more advanced state of the Canadian program, an agreement was reached whereby the U.S. would bankroll Canadian development of bioweapons until their own development centre at Fort Detrick, Maryland was up and running. This coincided almost perfectly with the British request for an alternate weapons development centre, and with $200,000 of US Government funds in hand, project directors E.G.D Murray and Otto Maass began searching for a suitable site for a secret bioweapons lab.

They quickly found one in the former quarantine station at Grosse Île, a place with an already dark and tragic past. Grosse Île Station was established in 1832, replacing the older Pointe-Lévy station. And just in time, too, for in the late 1840s Canada was inundated with hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the great potato famine. Many of these immigrants arrived aboard so-called “Coffin Ships” – lumber freighters offering cheap transatlantic passage – and the crowded, unsanitary conditions in their holds lead to frequent outbreaks of disease like typhus and cholera. In 1847 alone more than 100,000 people arrived in Quebec, with up to 40 ships lining up for 3km along the river waiting to unload their cargoes. This massive influx quickly overwhelmed the island’s limited facilities. Its hospitals were soon filled to bursting, forcing many of the sick to fend for themselves in the mud outside. Eventually 22 150ft-long “fever sheds” were built on the mainland to accommodate the overflow, but this lead to diseases spreading to the rest of the city. When the local population rioted, threatening to push the sheds into the river, the military were forced to cordon off the area. It would not be until 1854 that improved sanitation and a reduction in immigration finally brought an end to the epidemics. Between 1832 and 1932, around 500,000 immigrants entered Canada via Grosse Île, making it – along with Pier 21 in Halifax – the Canadian analogue of Ellis Island in New York. Of these new arrivals, around 5,000 died of disease, their bodies buried in mass graves on the island itself and on nearby Point Charles.

The island was an ideal site for bacteriological research for several reasons. First, it was remote and relatively inaccessible, the closest population centre being the small village of Montmagny just across the river. Second, it was entirely self-sufficient, with its own working power plant, boilers, dormitories, churches, and hospitals. But most attractive of all was the decontamination building, which featured a pair of massive steam-powered sterilization chambers. Immigrants arriving on Grosse Île were required to remove their clothes and place them in the ovens before proceeding to the showers, on the other side of which they would collect their newly lice-and-flea-free clothes. These chambers, thought Murray and Maass, would be ideal for growing large quantities of anthrax.

But some weren’t so sure. Charles Mitchell, Canada’s Chief Veterinarian, objected that the island wasn’t isolated enough, being only 6 kilometres from the nearest riverbank. To be sufficiently safe, he argued, the site would have to be at least 80 kilometres offshore. But as no alternative site could be found, Mitchell was overruled, and in 1942 the Grosse Île laboratory commenced operation under the cover name War Disease Control Station. The island, under the command of Major Richard Duthy and guarded by a garrison of 100 soldiers, was divided into two main areas. The west of the island was occupied by Project R, studying rinderpest, and the east end by Project N, studying anthrax. Anthrax was grown in flat trays in the two decontamination ovens, which for safety reasons were kept locked shut with the scientists inside. Many scientists found working in the ovens in full protective gear unbearable, leading many to adopt the curious practice of working naked except for a gas mask. This practice also had the added benefit of making their bodies easier to decontaminate. But even measures such as these soon proved grossly inadequate. In an early report on Grosse Île’s operations Major Duthy complained that the island was infested with flies, which could easily land on lab equipment and carry deadly spores to the mainland. Then, in August 1943 several scientists came down with mysterious illnesses and had to be isolated at a hospital in Quebec City. Tests later confirmed they were infected with anthrax. The incident raised alarm bells among the project directors, many of whom called for the island laboratory to be shut down. But they were ultimately overruled for political reasons, as many in the project wanted to prove that Canadian scientists were every bit as good as their American counterparts.

And there were other dangers to worry about. In the fall of 1943 German U-boats began penetrating deeper and deeper into the St. Lawrence estuary, raising fears that they would discover the Grosse Île station. Isolation also began to take its toll. Due to the top-secret nature of the project the island garrison were unable to bring their families along; bored and restless, they acted abysmally while on leave in neighbouring Montmagny. This lead to concerns about the island’s secrets leaking out, though by this time the residents of Montmagny already suspected something was amiss and began avoiding the island’s staff like, well, the plague.

Yet despite these difficulties anthrax production forged ahead, and by the end of 1943 Grosse Île was producing 120kg of anthrax spores every week – enough to fill 1,500 standard aerial bombs. In August 1944 these bombs were extensively tested at the Suffield proving grounds, despite the fact that, unlike Gruinard island, Suffield had no natural geographic barriers to prevent deadly spores from drifting into populated areas. The extent of the site’s contamination remains classified to this day – a somewhat alarming fact given that anthrax spores can survive in the soil for up to 100 years. In any case, the British were impressed with the results, and ordered 500,000 anthrax bombs from Suffield and Grosse-Île.

But while the scientists perfected their deadly creations, Allied leaders dithered on how or whether to use them. Despite the Gruinard fiasco, planning for Operation Vegetarian continued, though it was only to be carried out in retaliation for a German anthrax attack on Britain. Then, on the eve of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, a new plan was proposed to drop anthrax and rinderpest on the German cities of Aix-la Chapelle, Wilhelmshaven, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Berlin. But this too was shelved for fear of reprisals, and reserved only as a retaliatory measure. At the same time, Allied intelligence began to learn of two advanced secret weapons being developed by the Germans: the V-1 flying bomb and V2 ballistic missile. Both had the range to reach London from launch sites in occupied France and the Netherlands, but only had an accuracy of 8 kilometres and a payload of 1 ton. This would make an explosive or chemical warhead all but useless, leaving only one possible payload: a biological weapon. In response, Allied scientists began producing large quantities of botulinum toxin – better known as botox – a poison so potent that one gram can kill one million people. As with anthrax, this choice was predicated on the fact that the Allies had a botox antidote and the Germans did not.

But in the end all these plans came to nothing as attacks using conventional weapons finally forced Nazi Germany to surrender on May 8, 1945. And when the conquering armies inspected Nazi battle preparations, they were shocked by what they found. Despite Allied fears, in reality Germany had no biological weapons program to speak of. And while German scientists had developed the deadly nerve gases Sarin and Tabun, military leaders had opted not to use them for fear of Allied reprisals. Even the vaunted V-weapons carried only high explosive and not biological warheads as many had feared. For all the paranoia which had driven the Allied WMD programs, even the Nazis found the prospect of chemical and biological warfare too terrible to contemplate.

But even if the Allies had opted to use biological weapons, Canada would only have been a small part of the overall effort. Of the 500,000 bombs ordered by Britain, only 5,000 were produced by Grosse Île and Suffield by the war’s end. Still, this alone accounted for 439 litres of spores or 70 billion lethal doses – enough to kill the world population at the time 30 times over. But by 1944 anthrax production at Fort Detrick was in full swing and quickly eclipsed the Canadian facilities, causing the United States to break off its partnership with Canada. Research at Grosse Île continued until 1956, when the station was finally shut down and decommissioned. In 1957 it became a veterinary research centre, while in 1965 it was once again used as a quarantine station – though this time for imported animals.

But the story doesn’t quite end there. On March 24, 1970, George Ignatieff, Ambassador to the United Nations Conference of the Committee on Disarmament delivered a speech in which he claimed: “Canada never has and does not now possess any biological weapons or toxins.”

It was a bold-faced lie, as declassified government documents would reveal just two years later. While the Canadian government’s official story was that chemical and biological weapons research had ended with the Second World War, in reality it had quietly continued for decades afterwards. In 1951 and 1952, extensive tests with Sarin nerve gas were conducted at Suffield, while between 1962 and 1973 Canada participated in Project 112, a U.S. Department of Defence program wherein simulated biological agents were sprayed over American and Canadian cities. Meanwhile, Suffield amassed massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons including 637 tons of mustard gas, 30 tons of Sarin and VX nerve gas, 200 tons of phosgene, 2,800 pounds of botulinum toxin, and 200 pounds of ricin – the majority of which was not disposed of until 1989.

1974 brought to light another dangerous legacy of Canada’s biowarfare project. In that year the Federal Government, unaware of the island’s secret wartime role, designated Grosse Île a National Historic Site and began developing it for tourism. In 1988, after thousands of tourists had already visited the island, the story of its use as an anthrax factory finally broke. And while scientists working at the station in 1956 claimed to have thoroughly decontaminated the island with Formaldehyde, no records could be found confirming this. Worse still, some sources indicated that the anthrax growing trays had simply been tossed into the St. Lawrence or even into the bushes, meaning that the entire island might be contaminated with deadly spores. Whoopsie-doodle! Acting quickly, Government closed the site and passed it over to Environment Canada, who thoroughly decontaminated the site before handing it back to Parks Canada. That said, to this day, no person is known to have contracted anthrax from visiting the island.

Many of the details of Grosse Île and Canada’s bioweapons program may never be known, for most of the archival records were accidentally lost in the early 1990s. But what is known remains a dark and disturbing chapter in Canada’s history, one that runs counter to the popular image of that nation. But it is perhaps also a cause for hope, for despite the cruelty and depravity that characterized the deadliest conflict in modern history, most of the belligerent nations were wise enough to know that biological warfare was a horror too far, even for a group like the Nazis.

Speaking of the Nazis, Adidas and Puma, started by two feuding Nazi brothers. Click the video here for more on this rather fascinating story.

Expand for References

Bryden, John, Deadly Allies: Canada’s Secret War 1937-47, McLelland & Stewart, 1989

Fournier, Sylvain, Il y a 75 ans : 1942, ouverture dun laboratoire militaire ultra secret à Grosse-Île, en face de Montmagny, Le Kiosque Médias, April 22, 2017, http://lekiosquemedias.com/2017/04/22/il-y-a-75-ans-1942-ouverture-dun-laboratoire-militaire-ultra-secret-a-grosse-ile-en-face-de-montmagny/?doing_wp_cron=1613065121.3969039916992187500000

Bruemmer, Rene, Seeking Hope, They Found Death, The Gazette, May 31, 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20090601112744/http://www.montrealgazette.com/Seeking%2Bhope%2Bthey%2Bfound%2Bdeath/1645325/story.html

Perron, Normand, Grosse-Île, Entre la Quarantaine et L’anthrax, Encyclobec, October 2016, http://encyclobec.ca/region_projet.php?projetid=578

Duchesne, André, Le Projet N: le Secret de Grosse-Île, La Presse, May 31, 2010, https://www.lapresse.ca/arts/television/201005/31/01-4285306-le-projet-n-le-secret-de-grosse-ile.php

Projet N (Anthrax) – Reportage Complet (Documentary), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDxIfiW8v8A

Walkom, Thomas, Canada Played Key Role in U.S, U.K. Biological Weapons Programs, Toronto Star, June 23, 2013, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/06/26/canada_played_key_role_in_us_uk_biological_weapons_programs_walkom.html

Valjak, Domagoj, Operation Vegetarian: in 1942, the British Planned on Killing Millions of Germans by Dropping Anthrax Onto Their Pastures, The Vintage News, January 10, 2018, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/01/10/operation-vegetarian/

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