Twas the before Christmas at HMS Drake

A little something for Christmas Eve courtesy of the “Senior Service”.

Merry Christmas to you all and please spare a thought or prayer for our service personnel spending tomorrow on duty away from home, across the globe.


New OPVs to be fitted with Servowatch management systems


Five new Batch 2 River-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) to be built for the Royal Navy by BAE Systems’ Glasgow shipyards will be fitted with Servowatch’s Integrated Platform Management Systems (IPMS). Servowatch made the announcement that it had been awarded the contract by the MoD this week. The IPMS provides propulsion, electrical and auxiliary systems management from multi-function workstations with a high degree of automation to reduce demands on the crew.

Andrew Burns, Sales and Marketing Director at Servowatch said in a press release;

With military vessels increasing in complexity, systems integration is key to ensuring the functionality of critical components. Servowatch has introduced its most powerful IPMS solution allowing more commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) product integration. It reduces platform cost, integration time and commissioning, whilst retaining the survivability and power of the original Servowatch product.

The new Batch 2 River-class vessels will be modified versions of a similar class built for the Brazilian and Royal Thai navies. They will feature greater storage space, improved accommodation facilities and a flight deck capable of operating the Merlin naval helicopter. The first four ships of the class are already under construction with the fifth due to start this year.

Originally there were to be three ships in the class but in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review it was announced that another six vessels would be built. However, in 2016 it was confirmed that the order would be five.

Royal Navy fires flares to warn off Spanish ship in Gibraltar waters


The Royal Navy Scimitar-class fast patrol boat, HMS Sabre, was forced to fire the flares over the Spanish research vessel Angeles Alvarino after it entered the territorial waters of Gibraltar without authorisation and then failed to respond to radio calls. The incursion occurred yesterday after midday and once the flares were fired the Spanish vessel left Gibraltar’s waters without further incident.

The Ministry of Defence issued a statement saying;

The Royal Navy challenges all unlawful maritime incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters. We back this up by making formal diplomatic protests to the Spanish government.

This was the second time in three days that the Angeles Alvarino had entered Gibraltar’s waters without permission. The Angeles Alvarino, whose mission on behalf of the Spanish government is to conduct geological research of the seabed, is a frequent intruder in Gibraltar’s waters and as such the Royal Navy’s fast patrol boats are quite familiar with it. Last year a Royal Navy RHIB was damaged when it struck a survey probe dropped by the vessel.

Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo was quoted in The Telegraph as saying;

I congratulate the Royal Navy for the work they have undertaken so far in very challenging circumstances in light of the reckless disregard for safety displayed by the official Spanish vessels involved. Diplomatic and political action must now support the excellent work undertaken by the navy personnel with limited resources.


Five Of The Most Significant Submarine Attacks In History


The development of the submarine changed the very nature of naval warfare forever. Suddenly, the huge fleets of yesteryear found their supremacy threatened by an unseen force and for a long time they were largely defenceless to the new weapon. However, it took a certain type of courage to volunteer for submarine duties especially in the early days when their vessels were often as dangerous to their crews as to the enemy. As a result of this courage submarine commanders and their crews were often exceptionally daring in their efforts to fight the enemy.

Here are five of the most significant submarine attacks in history.


  1. The First Ever Submarine Attack in History

Submarine Turtle Eagle 1776Largely thought of as a 20th century invention, primitive submersibles have actually been around since the 17th century. On September 7th 1776 the submarine Turtle designed by American inventor David Bushnell was given over to the American patriot cause for use against the British in the American Revolution. Piloted by Ezra Lee, the submarine approached the British 64-gun warship HMS Eagle and attempted to plant a bomb on it. However, he was unable to secure it to his target’s hull and it fell off the British ship before detonating which saved the Eagle from destruction. Although a failure, Lee’s mission is considered the first submarine attack in history.


  1. The Cressy Catastrophe

HMS CresseyUpon the outbreak of World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy had the most powerful surface fleet in the world and the British people were confident that they were safe on their island nation as a result. That confidence was shattered on September 22nd 1914 when German U-Boat U-9 attacked a formation of three Cressy-class heavy cruisers – Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue.

When the first ship, the Aboukir, was hit the crews of the other two cruisers believed that the explosion was caused by an accident onboard and went to assist them. Seizing the opportunity, U-9 attacked the Hogue and sank it. The remaining British ship, Cressy, attacked U-9 before returning to rescuing survivors of the other two ships. U-9 attacked again and sank Cressy. In all 1,450 British sailors were killed in what was at that time an unprecedented victory for a submarine.

For more on this read The Cressy Catastrophe


  1. The Submarine That Sent A Nation On The Path To War

RMS LusitaniaOn May 7th 1915 the British liner Lusitania was travelling south of Ireland on a route from New York to Liverpool when it was spotted by the German U-Boat, U20, which was taking part in an attempt to blockade Britain’s sea lanes. At the time the US was neutral in the First World War but despite being warned by the Germans that they reserved the right to attack any ship heading for British ports a large number of Americans were aboard believing that the Germans would never target an ocean liner with 2,000 people on it.

They were wrong.

Shortly after 2pm, U20 fired on the ship and in the resulting explosion and sinking, 1,198 people were killed including 128 Americans. The attack outraged the American people who were at that time largely oblivious to the war in Europe and pushed America closer to the Allies before they eventually declared war on Germany in 1917.


  1. Submarine vs. Submarine

HMS VenturerContrary to the myth perpetuated by Hollywood movies, submarines sinking other submarines has only happened in exceptionally rare cases. In all but one of these incidents the target submarine was on the surface when it was attacked. The exception occurred on February 9th 1945 when the British submarine, HMS Venturer, detected the German U-Boat U-864 on the surface with engine trouble. The U-Boat was actually on a highly secretive mission to deliver two scientists and several key jet engine components to Japan, Germany’s ally, for use in their own jet fighter program.

Realising he had been spotted by a British submarine the captain of U-864 dived to escape. The captain of Venturer, 25-year old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, attempted to match the U-Boat’s dive and by estimating the approximate position of the German vessel, fired a spread of six torpedoes in to its vicinity. One of the torpedoes successfully struck the U-Boat destroying it and its precious cargo. It remains the only time in history where one submarine has deliberately sunk another in combat while both were submerged.

For more on this read The Only Underwater Submarine-to-Submarine Kill in History


  1. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff

MV Wilhelm GustloffFrom the outbreak of World War II Germany’s navy, the Kriegsmarine, exercised a policy of unrestricted U-Boat warfare against the Allies. This in turn dictated a similar policy amongst the Allied navies and the oceans became a brutal killing ground as a result. In January 1945 this policy was about to reach its bloody climax and it would actually be the Germans who would be on the receiving end. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a cruise liner requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine for service as a hospital ship when the war broke out. When it became clear the vessel could no longer safely go to sea it was held in port at Gdynia in German-occupied Poland where it was painted in naval grey and used as an accommodation ship for trainee U-Boat crews.

By the start of 1945 the Soviet Red Army was pursuing the retreating German Army across Eastern Europe and so the ship was pressed back in to service to evacuate thousands of German troops, Gestapo officers, officials and civilians who had made a life in occupied Poland. On January 30th 1945, the ship along with another liner, the Hansa, and a torpedo boat made their breakout attempting to reach Germany through the Baltic. Official records show that over 6,000 people were onboard but the actual number was closer to 11,000 as a large number of civilians desperately crammed aboard and in the chaos of the boarding the crew simply gave up counting.

Shortly after leaving port the Hansa had to turn back because of mechanical problems but the Wilhelm Gustloff continued on before it was discovered by the Soviet Navy’s S-13 submarine. The S-13 torpedoed the overloaded vessel which quickly sank taking around 9,500 people with it of which nearly 5,000 were children.

It remains the biggest loss of life at sea in a single incident.


Is the British nuclear deterrent relevant in the 21st century?


They sail beneath the waves almost totally unseen carrying more firepower than was unleashed in World War Two. The nuclear ballistic missile submarine or SSBN is the ultimate safeguard from direct attack by a foreign power. Not knowing where one of these Trident nuclear missile armed behemoths is at any one time means that an enemy country cannot launch an attack without sustaining unthinkable losses to their own people and national infrastructure – a concept known quite aptly in military circles as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

Vanguard-class nuclear submarine trident

It is truly stomach wrenching to contemplate just how devastating these vessels potentially are to humanity itself and it is that fact above all others that has spurred the campaign for nuclear disarmament. In Britain, the country that played a big role in developing America’s atomic bomb and the third independent nuclear power to rise, the lobby for nuclear disarmament has seen a powerful ally take prominence in British politics in the form of the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn has been a prolific anti-nuclear campaigner for many years and when he was elected to leader of the Labour Party he made it abundantly clear that if elected he planned to take the first steps to the nuclear disarmament of the Royal Navy. Corbyn even went as far as to remove his shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle, in a cabinet reshuffle because supposedly she was not against the nuclear deterrent unlike her replacement, Emily Thornbury, who is much more vocally opposed to Britain’s nuclear submarines.

In an, a post on his website entitled Nuclear Madness he says;

“Nobody is made more secure by this insane waste of resources on destruction.”

Vanguard-class nuclear submarine trident2Corbyn’s Labour Party is not alone in British politics with their anti-nuclear stance. The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are also firmly against a nuclear armed Britain. However, David Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party disagrees and have begun the process of replacing the Trident nuclear missile-armed Vanguard-class submarines with a fleet of three new Successor-class vessels believing the nuclear deterrence is key to Britain’s security.

Clearly these are fundamentally opposite opinions and this has reignited the debate with more passion than ever before. So the question becomes; is the nuclear deterrence relevant in the 21st century especially in light of the threat from the Islamic State terror group which the average person on the street views as the most immediate threat to their way of life?

To begin to answer this question one must first look at the history of the nuclear deterrence itself which can be traced back to work carried out in British laboratories before the Second World War. Like America and Germany, Britain was carrying out the ground work that would ultimately lead to nuclear weapons which Britain viewed as a way of safeguarding her empire against the ever increasing threat from Germany, Japan, Italy and the Soviet Union all of whom were expanding at the time. Winston Churchill wrote of the potential of nuclear weapons as a deterrence in the 1930s even though they were still a fantasy at that time. When war broke out in 1939 Britain lacked the resources to continue the work on her own but when America joined the fray in 1941 the scientists involved were transferred to the United States to work on the Manhattan Project which would lead to the world’s first atomic bombs which ended World War II when they were used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which resulted in almost 200,000 deaths.

After the war, Britain expected to be repaid for its part in developing its ally’s superweapon with atomic weapons for their own forces built with US support. However, the United States refused and pulled all support for Britain’s nuclear weapons program wanting to establish a nuclear monopoly. The British scientists returned to Britain and were instructed to work on the first British atomic bomb using the experience they had gained in the United States.

vickers valiant nuclear testBritain detonated its first atomic weapon on October 3rd 1952 and were soon fielding a fleet of bombers for the Royal Air Force to deliver them on to a target should World War III break out. Realising they had lost their monopoly by the 1950s the US relaxed its policy and began supplying British forces with their more advanced nuclear weapons with which to square off with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. By the late 1950s, Britain and the US developed a joint operational plan for the use of nuclear weapons against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe but the bombers that carried them were becoming increasingly vulnerable to advanced Soviet fighters and surface-to-air weapons. Therefore, the two countries began developing the Skybolt missile which was a very long range nuclear-armed weapon which could be fired by the bombers far from the target. However, when President John F. Kennedy arrived at the White House he pulled the plug on the project which left Britain’s nuclear bombers on the verge of becoming obsolete.

In order to keep Britain in the nuclear game with the United States which was (and remains) important both strategically and politically to Washington, Kennedy offered to sell Polaris submarine-launched nuclear missiles for Britain to put in its own force of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Thus the Royal Navy took over the nuclear deterrence role from the Royal Air Force in the late 1960s. By the 1980s the Polaris-armed submarines were in need of replacement and this led to Britain purchasing the UGM-133 Trident II submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for use in four new Vanguard-class submarines.

HMS Vnegeance Royal Navy

Despite the end of the Cold War the submarines continued to carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent through the nineties and the first decade of the 21st century but are now fast approaching the end of their useful lives and need replacing themselves which has led to the current debate in London. Aside from their moral implications, the cost of replacing these three vessels is one of the biggest sources for opposition with varying figures being thrown around by those for and against David Cameron’s plans. Any figures for the Successor-class at the moment are speculative but in 2014 the independent Trident Commission estimated the lifetime cost (building and operation) of a Trident replacement as being at least £100 billion. With Britain still recovering from the economic recession that blighted Europe and North America almost eight years ago it is easy to see why even leaders of the British armed forces are starting to voice their opposition with Britain’s conventional forces looking increasingly stretched having to tackle Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya as well as maintain garrisons on the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. To put this figure in to perspective it is the equivalent sum to how much it would cost to build approximately 95 Type 45 destroyers or 16 Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

That is a staggering realization so just why does David Cameron and his Conservative Party feel that the need to spend that much on a weapon system that in theory will never be used? Just what is the threat to Britain in 2016 that justifies such an expense?

The first answer that springs to mind is of course, Russia. After the initial honeymoon period of the post-Cold War years, the rise of Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the explosion of Russian nationalism has seen Russia projecting its influence beyond its borders once more to such an extent that it would not be inaccurate to say that we are truly in the grip of “Cold War II”. Russian successes in Georgia and the Crimea have only encouraged Putin further leading to his boldest step yet; putting Russian forces in to Syria to support President Assad whom the west wants removed. This has had consequences beyond Syria’s borders with British aircraft (below) and warships playing cat-and-mouse with their Russian counterparts in the Baltic and North Atlantic while the war of words becomes more bitter.

RAF Typhoon Tu-160 BlackjackBut just how far is Putin willing to push things with the west to achieve his aims? Excluding the incident earlier this year in which a Turkish fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft near the Turkey-Syria border Putin has been very careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the western powers regarding Syria. If one looks at the situation with Russia regarding Syria in a Cold War context, then both sides know the possible consequences of escalating the situation in Syria. While it is not openly admitted, the fact that the United States, Britain, France and Russia all have nuclear weapons and all have interests in Syria is what has kept these powers from reacting to one another militarily. If we take the Su-24 shootdown but without the risk of nuclear weapons, then it is likely that Russia would have responded to Turkey with military force plunging Europe in to another massive conventional war. If proof was ever needed that this could happen, you need only remember that World War I began with one man armed only with a handgun and a strong sense of nationalism.

But just as nuclear weapons have prevented open conflict with Russia thus far they have also created the problem of just what the west can do about Putin’s actions in Syria. No one wants the situation to escalate to the point of direct confrontation but with Russian forces firmly embedded in the country to meet Putin’s aims then the west is clearly in a weak position. Only time will tell how this chapter of history will ultimately play out.

Kim Jong Un nuclear missileBeyond Russia other potential nuclear threats to Britain come from China despite the recent economic progress made between London and Beijing. China is increasingly locking horns with its old enemies of Taiwan and Japan both of whom are supported by the United States and therefore by association, Britain. To the south of China, the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons and missile programs (right) while India and Pakistan still stare at one another across the border with their nuclear weapons sitting ready for the final confrontation. Then of course there is the situation with Iran’s nuclear weapons program which despite having calmed down somewhat remains a source for possible conflict in the future should relations with the west worsen again. If any of these countries utilise nuclear weapons against their neighbours, then things could start happening very quickly that could see the world’s other nuclear powers dragged in leading to the potential for an apocalypse however it is this fact that has largely kept these countries in line with their weapons.

The cynic would perhaps argue that Britain and America’s nuclear weapons have not done anything to curb these developments and may even be responsible for encouraging them. The fact of the matter is however that despite efforts to stop it, nuclear proliferation is increasing around the world. When it boils down to it nuclear weapons are simply a matter of physics rather than some state secret and theoretically, any country or even a well-organized terrorist group anywhere in the world can build them if they pour enough resources and research in to making them.

So to reference Jeremy Corbyn’s statement about how safer the world would be without British nuclear weapons we have to remember that the threat remains to us from across the globe regardless. Removing the nuclear weapons capability from the British arsenal will not change that fact but retaining those weapons will mean that Britain will be able to exert its influence on the world stage when it comes to dealing with other nuclear armed countries as opposed to surrendering it to a nuclear armed ally who may not have our best interests at heart. This, coupled with the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), means that far from being a weapon system that may never be used the nuclear deterrence is in fact in constant use by its very existence.

Vanguard class

Does that justify a £100bn price tag?

That’s a question we each have to ask ourselves regarding our view of the world since as tax-payers we are funding the weapons. The debate will never go away even if Corbyn gets his wish and the weapons are dismantled; the debate will then become about resurrecting the deterrence amid a loss of political influence and/or a direct threat to national security. Whatever your views on their use in the 21st century just remember this one undeniable fact; the threat of nuclear weapons did prevent World War III throughout the years of the Cold War and if we are truly in Cold War II then surely we should retain that asset to continue to do the same.


The Would-be Plague Ship – Operation Cauldron and the Carella Incident

The Carella Incident

The Cold War. Just the very mention of it conjures up thoughts of spies, paranoia and political brinksmanship while civilisation itself sat literally minutes away from nuclear Armageddon but there was another, perhaps even more frightening angle to the stand-off between east and west. While the nuclear arms race took centre stage, behind the scenes another just as deadly arms race was on; the development of the perfect biological weapon that could quietly, cheaply and effectively destroy the enemy and Britain was in it from the beginning.

Britain had an active biological and chemical weapons program in place since the First World War situated at Porton Down, Wiltshire. It was established in the wake of the German use of poison gas on the Western Front; an act which opened a Pandora’s Box in terms of biological and chemical warfare to break the stalemate of the trenches. The site was used to develop both new types of poison gas and employment techniques as well as developing countermeasures to an enemy’s weapons. Eventually the site morphed in to the Microbiological Research Establishment which further advanced research in to weaponised nerve agents for use on the battlefield and possibly beyond should British cities ever be attacked first – it was this threat of retaliation that eventually stopped Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany from employing biological and chemical weapons against British cities.

The romance between the east and west born out of the need to destroy Nazism died almost as quickly as the war ended and both sides viewed their former allies with suspicion over the future. Without question the spoils of the war lay in the advanced German weapons research leading to both sides scrambling to get their hands on data, equipment and of course the scientists themselves believing they would not only speed up the rebuilding process but also give an advantage over the opposition in the newly gestated Cold War.

MRE Porton Down reseacrh NBRC

Exercise at Porton Down (

German research in to nerve agents such as tabun, sarin and soman was especially sought after by Britain and the United States not just for application in their own inventories but also to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining by the technology. In the wake of the devastation of World War II which saw entire cities and their populations on the brink of annihilation a brutal theory began to develop regarding how the next war could possibly be fought. If one side could develop biological weapons that could eradicate an enemy population, then it would leave all the enemy country’s valuables intact for plundering and all this would be achieved at very little expense. It was hardly a new idea since biological warfare stretched back to antiquity when infected bodies would be dropped down wells or thrown in to besieged towns and villages to contaminate the people but now there was a very real possibility of it being perfected to a science.

The staff at Porton Down wasted no time in its race to further develop the captured German research as well as continue their own research projects. This led to a series of trials carried out in 1952 intended to test the effectiveness of various pathogens released in to the air and study how they would disperse and infect a target area. Called Operation Cauldron, the tests required cooperation between the team at Porton Down, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force (primarily for logistical purposes) and the local government in Scotland. The plan required the use of live animals, in this case guinea pigs and monkeys, to be infected out in the open air by clouds of weaponised pathogens released by the researchers in order to study the infection and lethality rates. To do this without risking contamination of the general public the tests were to be conducted at sea off the coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

The extremely secretive tests began in May 1952 and continued until September making use of the calmer weather of summer. The Royal Navy granted the team use of HMS Ben Lomond (below) under the command of Captain Phillip Welby-Everard to act both as the control ship for the tests and as a field laboratory for the scientists. The unfortunate animals used in the tests would be taken from Ben Lomond’s hold and restrained aboard a floating pontoon, in fact a converted mulberry harbour barge from the war, where they would be exposed to various pathogens.

HMS Ben Lomond.jpg

(For more details about how Cauldron was conducted you can view the video at the bottom of this article)

Among the pathogens tested were;

  • Brucellosis – A disease known under many local names such as Malta Fever or Gibraltar Fever as it was quite common in the Mediterranean. A highly contagious disease, it can be caused by the ingestion of unpasteurized milk or undercooked meat from infected animals or by close proximity with their secretions. Symptoms include profuse sweating and joint and muscle pain with a 2% mortality rate. A weaponised version could be used to incapacitate an enemy force or population reducing effective resistance.
  • Tularemia – More commonly known as O’Hara’s Fever or Rabbit Fever. Symptoms include very high temperature (fever), lethargy, loss of appetite, signs of sepsis and if left untreated death will occur. It is highly virulent in humans meaning large numbers could be infected quickly and given its long incubation period there is a reduced chance of an enemy becoming aware that their troops have been infected and taking appropriate countermeasures before large numbers of people are contaminated.
  • Pneumonic plague – One of the three main forms of plague caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis it is far more contagious than bubonic plague (v.) but fortunately much rarer. This form of plague aggressively attacks the lungs and is contracted from inhalation of fine infective droplets which can be transmitted from human to human without involvement of fleas or animals. Without urgent treatment death occurs in up to 90% of all cases even with 2015 medical technology to say nothing about 1950s medicine.
  • Bubonic plague – Perhaps the most well-known form of plague thanks in no small part to its place in history where it wiped out millions across Europe in medieval times, bubonic plague is an infection of the lymphatic system and is most predominantly contracted from the bite of an infected flea. Bubonic plague creates a vast array of painful and disabling symptoms including muscle cramps, very high fever, seizures, vomiting blood, gangrene in the bodies extremities such as fingers and toes and the decomposition of skin while the person is still alive.
MRE Porton Down research Operation Cauldron

Preparing the guinea pig boxes (Crown)

Initially the animals were infected on the pontoon by being sprayed with clouds containing the pathogens but in later tests to determine their suitability for military applications, bombs were exploded near the pontoon that contained the pathogens in an effort to disperse their spores over the target animals. These tests eerily echo similar tests carried out by the Imperial Japanese Army’s notorious Unit 731 biological research unit based in China during the 1930s up to the end of World War II except in those instances the Japanese used living humans instead of animals. 3,492 guinea pigs and 83 monkeys were used in the test program almost all of which were killed and then meticulously dissected aboard the Ben Lomond to study the effects on their bodies the weaponised diseases had.

By mid-September 1952 the tests were drawing to a conclusion. The weather was becoming more and more of an issue as a Scottish autumn set in leading to the final day of testing to have to be delayed until September 15th. Captain Welby-Everard and the research team was under increasing pressure to complete the day’s trials or scrap them and attempt again the next day; an undesirable proposition since the weather forecast showed that conditions would continue to deteriorate overnight with an unfavourable wind for the trials on the 16th. Finally, at 1800hrs the first test was allowed to begin with the pathogens being spread across the pontoon at 1809hrs. The infected test animals were then moved away and replaced with “clean” samples. A second test was carried out at 1839hrs and again the animals were replaced with a third and final batch. The final batch were to be used in the testing of an air detonated explosive device fitted with bubonic plague bacteria.

It was as the preparations for detonation were getting under way that Captain Welby-Everard was alerted to the presence of an unauthorised vessel approaching the target area. The vessel was quickly identified as the fishing trawler Carella, a nineteen-year-old, 421-ton vessel of the famed Fleetwood trawler fleet with a crew of eighteen aboard and under the command of skipper E. Harris. The ship had apparently ignored visual warnings that the area was restricted and was nearing the test site north of the target pontoon at a range of two miles. Welby-Everard ordered that the vessel be signalled away by radio and signal lamp and continued on with preparations for the test. A similar occurrence earlier in the test program had ended without incident and he saw no reason why this time it should be any different reasoning that with the Ben Lomond and two supporting vessels all displaying warning flags and hailing the fishing vessel with signal lamps that the trawler was bound to turn away before it could get in to any trouble regarding the test.

carella 2.jpg

The Carella (Fleetwood)

Captain Welby-Everard therefore ordered the test to proceed and at 1902hrs the bomb was detonated engulfing the pontoon in a cloud of plague-carrying particles which was then carried away by the wind. Efforts to signal the Carella continued to fail however forcing one of the supporting craft to intercept the trawler and try to make direct contact. The trawler continued on oblivious to the fact that it was soon two miles downwind of the pontoon and in very real danger of coming in to contact with the invisible cloud of plague particles. Lookouts aboard the supporting craft and the Ben Lomond noted that the entire trawler’s complement were below decks which goes some way to explaining why the signals were not spotted but when the supporting craft made contact with them the crew of the Carella claimed they had attempted to signal the Ben Lomond but without success. This claim has been denied as a lie by the Royal Navy personnel on watch that night.

Captain Welby-Everard couldn’t legally stop the trawler from continuing on its journey, at least not without revealing the very secret nature of the tests to the crew who remained completely oblivious to what was really going on and composed a coded, cryptic message which he sent to the Admiralty regarding the incident and requested instructions;

During Cauldron trails of Agent L at 1900hrs 15th September the steam-trawler CARELLA Number H4 of Hull bound Fleetwood from Iceland(C) disregarded signals and crossed danger area after release of agent. Vessel passed two miles to leeward position of pontoon sixteen minutes after time of release. Wind speed six knots. Consider vessel may have passed through toxic cloud.

Due to the highly secret nature of the operation the message was met with a more lukewarm response than it deserved. Just what “Agent L” referred to was known by only a few individuals even at the Admiralty and it would not be until noon the next day that a response was sent back to Welby-Everard. The Admiralty and the staff at Porton Down assessed the situation and deemed the threat to the Carella to be negligible requiring no further action on the part of Welby-Everard and his people. With a six knot wind recorded over the pontoon at the time of detonation of the weapon then the trawler would have left the danger area before the plague spore-carrying particles could have made contact with it. Even if some of the plague spores did reach the trawler then in all likelihood they would be dead by that point not having a host within which to incubate.

This sigh of relief was short lived.

A follow-up report noted that the original report of a six knot wind over the pontoon did not mean that the wind speed was consistently six knots up to the trawler’s position. It was quickly determined that in actual fact the wind speed at a distance of two miles north of the pontoon would actually be in the region of anywhere between five and nine knots increasing the chances of the plague-carrying spores reaching the Carella. To exacerbate the perceived threat to the trawler a reassessment of the distance of the vessel by the Ben Lomond showed that the crew had been in error of around 400 yards meaning it was that much closer than first thought. This meant that there was now a very real chance that the Carella had indeed come in to contact with the invisible cloud and its deadly contents.

Duncan Sandys

Duncan Sandys (commons.wikimedia)

Alarm bells within the Admiralty rang out and an emergency meeting was held by late afternoon, almost 24 hours after the incident, to assess the danger. In attendance were Duncan Sandys, Minister of Supply (and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law), and representatives of the Admiralty, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Supply who had an umbrella of authority over Porton Down and their activities. During the meeting, Sands was given all the information available and after intense debate they concluded that the likelihood of the Carella’s crew being in any danger was still remote but not beyond the realms of possibility.

The next question therefore was to how best respond to the situation. A plan was considered whereby the crew of the trawler would be ordered to a secure British port and given injections of streptomycin for several weeks under controlled conditions while the vessel itself was detained and thoroughly decontaminated. But there was a problem. If they proceeded on this course of action, then it would prevent any outbreak but it would also almost certainly blow the lid on the intense secrecy of Operation Cauldron and confirm that Britain was developing “plague weapons”. Given the low chance of the crew having been infected it was decided not to implement the plan and thus keep the secret safe from the oblivious trawler crew and the world at large.

This of course begged the question; what if? The Carella was on its way to the rich Icelandic fishing grounds and it was not uncommon for Fleetwood trawlers to dock in Icelandic ports either for rest or repairs. If the crew had been infected, then there was the chance they could infect the people of Iceland which would not only potentially kill countless innocent people but cause a major diplomatic incident and blow the secret anyway. Put simply, Sands and the Admiralty couldn’t just ignore the problem. Therefore, a plan was put in place to monitor the Carella’s crew as they went about their trade in the cold Icelandic waters.

HMS Zambesi z-class destroyer

HMS Zambesi (IWM)

A Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Zambesi, was tasked to clandestinely track the Carella with only the senior medical officer onboard knowing the exact nature of the operation. In order to maintain the secret of Cauldron’s tests even the Zambesi’s captain was kept in the dark as to why he was tracking a British trawler although he was told that there was a chance the crew were infected with a contagious virus. Zambesi’s orders required the Royal Navy ship to stay out of sight of the crew so as to not alert them to the fact they were being tracked. To keep track of their quarry therefore the ship monitored the trawler’s regular communications with the owners in Fleetwood who had been instructed to keep in contact with them by the Ministry of Supply but again weren’t told why.

The Zambesi was to only break its cover on the following conditions;

  1. If the crew signalled for medical assistance indicating that a crewmember had been infected and was showing symptoms. The senior medical officer onboard had been given a consignment of antibiotics and instructions on how to treat the crew should this happen.
  2. If the vessel attempted to dock at an Icelandic port regardless of the medical condition of the crew.
  3. The crew attempted to make direct contact with another vessel.

These instructions were memorised by the officers and then promptly destroyed.

With regards to timescale the decision was taken that the danger would not pass until October 6th by which time any symptoms would have manifested itself amongst the crew. If no symptoms presented themselves by that time, then it was clear that either the crew weren’t infected or if some of the spores did reach the trawler then they had long since died and were no a longer a threat.

HMS Truelove Algerine-class minesweeper

HMS Truelove (IWM)

The Zambesi trailed the Carella as it reached the rich Icelandic fishing grounds until on September 22nd another vessel, HMS Truelove, took over the surveillance operation. Truelove was one of a number of Algerine-class minesweepers built in Canada during World War II for the British and Canadian navies. Like a few of her sisters she had been relegated to the fisheries protection role and had become a common sight to British trawlers. Truelove was therefore a less suspicious vessel to be roaming the fishing grounds at the same time as the Carella should the trawler crew have spotted her. Truelove operated under the same orders as Zambesi and monitored the Carella’s radio transmissions and movements through until the end of September and in to October 1952 all the while maintaining a distance of around 50 miles.

In the meantime, the government was looking for someone to blame and Captain Welby-Everard found himself in the firing line. He was accused of committing an error of judgement regarding continuing the test while aware that the trawler had not yet cleared the area. He was also criticised for not highlighting the urgency of the situation in his initial dispatch, however some blame for the latter has to go to the Admiralty itself for not having officers on duty to receive the dispatch and know exactly what it meant since Welby-Everard did inform them of what had happened using legitimate coded language for the operation.

Fleetwood trawlers

Fleetwood trawlers (Fleetwood)

September gave way to early October and the Truelove reported that they were now following the Carella back to its home port at Fleetwood. They estimated that the trawler would arrive in port between the 4th and 5th of October and requested instructions since technically the trawler was not yet in the clear. With no sign of any illness amongst the trawler’s crew there was a general consensus that given the low probability of infection in the first place and with no symptoms having manifested yet that the trawler should be allowed to make port unmolested unless the situation aboard changed during the transit home. Thus the Carella arrived home with her catch on October 5th 1952. Covert measures were taken by the Ministry of Health to monitor the whole crew in the days after their return but it was clear to all concerned that the danger had passed.

All that remained now was for the Admiralty and the Ministry of Health to cover up the mess to avoid any embarrassment. Their efforts were so successful that the crewmembers of the Carella would only learn the truth of what they nearly exposed to and the military operation to track them when the BBC made a documentary on the incident some fifty years later!


Here is an official film made by the research team involved in Operation Cauldron that was not released to the public until 2012. Even then the MoD wanted part of it restricted showing just how secret the operation was.

If I have included it for those who would like to know more about Cauldron BUT BE WARNED if you are upset by the sight of animals being used in testing. It does show the animals being prepared for the tests and while it doesn’t show them getting infected there is a section showing the dissection of the poor creatures. Other than that it is quite dry in places but quite fascinating for those who have an interest in the Cold War and biological weapon research.