Victory for men used as chemical warfare guinea pigs

Sarah Dean - The-Latest - EXCLUSIVE

British defence chiefs have apologised to a group of servicemen who were told lies by officials, killed and injured during top secret chemical weapons trials during the Cold War.

Survivors have been given  £3 million compensation by the government for long-term health problems they suffered after taking part in what they believed to be tests to 'find a cure for the common cold'.

The apology by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has been called historic yet it seems a little and too late. Since the current legal case began eight years ago it is believed that as many as 12 veterans have died.

Derek Twigg, minister for veterans, said: "The life or health of participants may have been put at risk."But in fact there is no  'may have been' about it.In 1953 Ronald Maddison, 20, a serving airman died at Porton Down, the most sensitive and secretive government facility for military research in the United Kingdom. It is located near Salisbury in Wiltshire, England.

Within half an hour of 200mg of the lethal nerve gas Serin, the most deadly compound known to humans, being put on Maddison's skin by scientists he was dead.

He had taken part in the highly controversial testing of the nerve agent along with more than 500 fellow servicemen in an attempt by the MOD to find out the exact dosage which would cause incapacity or death during chemical warfare. In 2004, an inquest ruled that Maddison's death had been unlawful, a verdict challenged by the MOD.

Only now have the veterans who took part in the experiment been awarded  £8,300 each after they were left with injuries ranging from respiratory and skin diseases to cancer and psychological problems.

This amounts to around a mere 50p a day since the trials for those incapacitated in the 1950s.
The Porton Down Veterans' Group was established by Ken Earl in 1999 after he saw mention of Maddison's death in a newspaper and realised he had been subjected to the same tests, the only difference being that he lived to tell the tale.

In what Earl calls a 'gross invasion of human rights' he and hundreds of other healthy young male volunteers aged 18 to 25 were put into gas chambers. They were exposed to nerve gas, mustard gas and teargas, yet this was not what they had signed up for.

Earl, 74, from Maidstone Kent, was 19 and half way through his two years national service as an Royal Air Force (RAF) medic in 1953 when he saw a poster in a hospital appealing for volunteers to help find a cure for the common cold. They were to be given two shillings a day, which was comparatively high wages for the RAF and a weekend travel pass, which Earl thought would allow him to see his girlfriend more regularly than before.

He told me: "I wanted to be an actor. If I'd have known what it was really about I'd have never signed up, I'd never have done anything to damage my voice or lungs."

Since being duped into taking part in the trials, Earl suffered from cancer twice and has recently recovered from pneumonia.

Earl in a sense was 'one of the lucky ones'. He said his seat in the gas chambers was number four, the same one Ronald Maddison sat in three days later when he was given a fatal dose of Serin. Shocked paramedic at the scene of his death said: "His mouth was foaming as if frogspawn was coming out."

Earl walked through the barbed wire gates of Porton Down on May 2 1953. He was told where he could and couldn't go and specifically 'not to go anywhere else'. Then two days later, as he put it, 'everything started'. He had his skull measured from all angles. His height, weight and lung capacity was noted and then a full frontal naked photograph was taken. The use of which he is still unaware.

Armed with a gas mask and two pieces of khaki serviceman's clothing, attached to his bare forearm, Earl was sent into a low brick building. He recalls wanting to 'rip off the mask and get out of there' but masculine bravado kept all the men in their seats.

A colourless liquid was then dropped onto the patch of cloth on their arms and they were told to sit still for 30 minutes. As they left the building gasping and spluttering, blood samples were taken. The crucial point was that at no time were they told that this was anything other than a harmless test to 'find a cure for the common cold'.

Earl later found out the blood test was to establish how much the deadly nerve gas had disturbed an enzyme in his blood which is crucial to keeping humans alive. Years later, he found out that his results and those of Maddison's, had been alarmingly life-threatening.Undeniably these trials, which were carried out between 1939 and 1989, put every young serviceman who walked through Porton Downs doors at risk.

Many of them are not happy with the government's compensation settlement. Joe Kearns, who spent time at Porton Down in the 1970s, said he only agreed to the deal reluctantly.He said: "I haven't been able to work for 37 years...It's the pure injustice. I have no option but to sign and accept the form. Otherwise they will wash their hands of us. I just don't want the MOD to walk away from this smelling of roses."

Government minister Twigg expressed the MOD's gratitude to the veterans, saying:"The security of the country rested on these trials and the contribution of those who took part in them."

But Earl echoes the views of all the survivors when he says this is not enough. He explains: "All I want is for an apology to be read out in parliament not buried. I have written to Ann Widecombe my MP and asked for her to read it aloud."

The chemical warfare tests on humans at Porton Down are the longest running in history. Since 1916 more than 25,000 servicemen have taken part in the tests, where scientists have developed chemical weapons and protective equipment.

Since the settlement Earl has had a huge number of calls from people claiming to have been Porton Down volunteers but, though he now feels it is time to close this chapter of his life, he does encourage them to take on their own fights against the MOD. But he warns it might be a very long battle for them.