A Sinister Canberra – British Airborne Biological Warfare Experiments


At Newark Air Museum in Nottinghamshire sits a rather odd looking English Electric Canberra bomber. Fitted with a radar from a Blackburn Buccaneer S.2 and featuring a large boom protruding under the rear fuselage, WV787 had a long and distinguished career as a test aircraft spanning 33 years since it’s construction as a standard B.2 in 1952. Among the trial work it carried out was to test the Armstong-Siddley Sapphire Sa7 engines for the Gloster Javelin fighter program before being transferred to the Ferranti company for radar testing which is how it got it’s Buccaneer nose. After that it was modified to assist in conducting ice trials with the fitting of ice spraying equipment beneath the fuselage. The Canberra would fly ahead of a test aircraft and spray it with ice to test how it reacts.

But one aspect of this aircraft’s career has been largely forgotten being buried under the weight of Government denials and public ignorance – the testing of biological weapons in which the British people themselves were unwilling participants.

WV787 CanberraThe story begins at one of Britain’s most secret facilities; Porton Down. Since its inception in 1915 in response to German troops using gas on the western front of World War One, Porton Down has been at the forefront of Britain’s biological and chemical weapons program. This understandably controversial facility has played a long and fascinating part in Britain’s defence through two World Wars (including preparations to use biological weapons against an invading Nazi German army in 1940) and the turbulent years of the Cold War. As the East and West faced off against each other for 45 years the nuclear arms race dominated the headlines while quietly behind the scenes both sides worked on biological and chemical weapons programs.

As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s and tensions rose to boiling point, efforts to understand delivery techniques of biological weapons and how an attack might spread across the UK were looked in to more thoroughly. Proposals were put forward for experiments to be carried out whereby supposedly harmless but traceable agents would be introduced to the British population. Testing stations would be set up to catch the spores ejected as part of the test to determine the distance they would travel and ascertain the possible casualty figures.

The Icewhale test vessel

The Icewhale test vessel

The first series of experiments were carried out aboard a modified ship operating off the Weymouth coast. At the time the Ministry of Defence speculated that as a prelude to all out war the Soviet Union would use its large merchant fleet to deploy biological pathogens clandestinely along an enemy coast. These pathogens would be carried by the wind on to land causing widespread sickness and death thus overwhelming social services and limiting the target country’s ability to respond when the fighting broke out. To investigate the effectiveness of this method for several consecutive nights a suitably modified ship known as the Icewhale sprayed quantities of e.coli and bacillus globigii (BG) which mimics anthrax in to the air. Known as ‘Large Area Coverage Trials’, Ministry of Defence files show that up to a million people were “infected” this way between 1961 and 1968.

This was only part of the trials however and the next step was to move to test the effects of airborne deployed pathogens. In this scenario the team at Porton Down theorized either a clandestine attack by modified Aeroflot airliners or a direct attack involving military aircraft. To that extent they enlisted the help of the ice-testing Canberra WV787 as this was already able to deploy wet or dry particles from a series of nozzles at the rear of the fuselage.

WV787 tailIn 1967 the aircraft carried out a series of “attacks” on the RAF station at Tarrant Rushton in Dorset however the Porton Down team knew that the spores released would be carried by the wind and infect large areas of Dorset and neighbouring Somerset. In this instance the tests could also be used to determine collateral damage amongst a populous from a biological attack on a military target. The aircraft carried the same mix of e.coli and bacillus globigii (BG) as the Icewhale experiments and in similar quantities although plans were drawn up for the aircraft to carry significantly more thus increasing the infection rates. These plans were never put in to practice however and the scale of the “attacks” remained limited.

After completing these tests the aircraft returned to its ice-testing role but behind the closed doors of Porton Down the results were already startling. Judging by the area these limited tests infected it was estimated that had the aircraft deployed its maximum capacity of biological agents across the south west of England it could infect approximately 38 million people. Had live bacteria been deployed in this way it would result in widespread sickness and death causing a massive drain on medical and logistical services. The psychological result of such an attack would add to the chaos with widespread panic and fear causing a breakdown of law and order.

In 1985, Newark Air Museum took on charge this fascinating aircraft but few were fully aware of its true history. As the public became more and more aware of these experiments in the 1990s an independent investigation was launched to determine how dangerous these tests were to the general public. The investigation concluded that on the whole the testing was harmless to the general population although it admitted that people suffering from chronic illnesses were more likely to contract conditions such as pneumonia from coming in to contact with the spores deployed in the test. Unfortunately it is difficult to ascertain if any pneumonia cases diagnosed in Dorset or Somerset in 1967 were attributed to the Canberra tests or were simply contracted naturally.

Either way, the Icewhale and Canberra WV787 tests prove just how vulnerable the population was and still is to airborne deployed biological weapons and in an age of increasingly sophisticated terrorism these results are more frightening than ever.

Author’s Note;
I would like to thank my good friend Tim Morley for making me aware of this unique aircraft and its history



7 responses to “A Sinister Canberra – British Airborne Biological Warfare Experiments

  1. A fascinating insight into this subject. Makes you think how many more are out there! There are suggestions that the Americans were doing similar things to try to control the weather! Hmmm I wonder…


  2. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Technology | Defence of the Realm

  3. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Royal Air Force | Defence of the Realm

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