In 1957, nineteen-year-old Richard Bonas volunteered for a “course” at Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence Chemical & Biological Research Establishment. Sixty years on, he tells his story here.
During 1957 whilst serving as a Regular soldier at 39 Base Workshop REME1, Bicester, Oxfordshire, I read a special notice on Part Two Orders concerning a forthcoming Physiological Gas Course to be held at RAMC2 Porton Down, Wiltshire, lasting one week.
Volunteers for participation in this Course were invited to register their names in the Company Office forthwith. ‘Special conditions’ were offered, plus an extra 28 shillings (£1.40p) pay and a 48-hour pass at the end of the Course as incentives.
I volunteered immediately just to get away from Bicester for a week, as it really was a bad place to be stationed. And there were some fourteen others from Bicester Garrison who had managed to get their names down in time. They were REME Craftsmen, RE3 Sappers, and some RAOC4 storemen.
“What does physiological mean?” asked one.
On arrival at Porton Down we discovered to our joy that the food and catering arrangements were excellent. The restaurant was clean and pleasant, there were no long queues of men at meal times, and we had two female cooks who catered for us only! These ladies were such a welcome change from the sour-faced Army cooks we had become used to, and this place so different from Nissen Hut Cookhouse at Bicester with its poorly cooked rations. These ladies would greet us at with a smile at breakfast, asking how did we like our eggs cooked. hard or soft boiled? And we were allowed more than one egg each!
There were separate tables for four set with clean tablecloths, cutlery and condiments. Tea was served to us in cups and saucers instead of the undersized potties we normally used.
There were no parades, no guard duties or fatigues to spoil the dream. We had a Television Room (my family didn’t have a TV until 2 years later) and a smart Snooker Room which would have normally been the Officers’ Mess. Luxury!
So these were the ‘special conditions’ promised to volunteers – and very welcome they were too. But why on earth was the Army being so kind to us? What was so special about this course? We didn’t have to wait to find out.
We were put into humid ‘Hot Rooms’ with temperatures of eighty degrees Fahrenheit and made to step up and down onto wooden benches for ten minutes. Then we had to stop for five minutes then start stepping up and down again for another ten minutes. This went on and on. Doctors and staff from the Royal Army Medical Corps were present, monitoring our rates of perspiration and heart rates and so on.
Then Mustard Gas was applied in small drops to the inside of our forearms, which immediately caused blisters to form. These were noted by the ever-present doctors. I still have the scars.
On the second or third day, we were split into two groups. I was in the second group. The first group were put into a sealed gas chamber whilst a “nerve gas” (as we were told), was pumped in over a period of about two hours. The effects of this gas on the men inside was observed from the outside of the chamber by a group of doctors and students looking in through a large window at the front of the gas chamber.
Later that day the second group, with me in it, had our turn. This time the same amount of “nerve gas” was pumped in but over a much shorter period of about twenty minutes. Its effect on us was immediate and dramatic. On taking my first breath of this gas I found I couldn’t breathe. It was as if a steel band had been clamped around my chest. The RAMC Lieutenant Colonel in with us, who wore a respirator, came over to me as I fell to my knees.
He said that the choking effect was only temporary and that it would pass. (Almost sixty years later, I still choke in panic – how temporary is “temporary”,
We were permitted to do anything in there except smoke. We played cards with the pack provided and very quickly began acting silly – laughing at nothing and behaving very foolishly, as if suddenly quite drunk. Never a gambler, I was losing money but thought it all very funny. I felt exhilarated, light-headed, and couldn’t focus my eyes properly. Looking round I could see the Lieutenant Colonel at a desk writing notes in a ledger, and as if through a mist I could see the faces of the onlookers outside peering in at us.
What was in that gas which made disciplined soldiers behave in such a way? Not until 20045 did I discover that we had been subjected to Sarin gas. Sarin is a chemical-warfare agent, a substance considerably more deadly than cyanide. It’s the gas used to great effect by terrorists on the Tokyo underground railway in 1995, when twelve people died and more than 5000 were injured, some 2500 of them needing immediate hospital treatment.
The gas ruined our eyesight for several days afterwards. (In my case, it has affected my eyes ever since.) The pupils of our eyes shrank to pinhead size and stayed like that for three whole days. Exposure to light caused intense pain and discomfort.
To strike a match and light one’s own cigarette was impossible, so we endeavoured to light each other’s fags by turning our heads away, shutting our eyes tightly, then striking the match and holding it at arms length to avoid its horrible glare. The other fellow screwed his own eyes shut, put the cigarette in his mouth and puffed hopefully in the direction of the lighted match.
We made jokes about our plight as soldiers do, but there was nothing funny about it. It was quite frightening not to be able to focus your eyes, and any light hurt them. We weren’t capable of doing much after this but we had good food and comfortable billets so we made the best of it. (At Bicester we lived in damp Nissen huts.) On the last day a civilian doctor spoke to us, thanking us for volunteering for the Course and saying that “they” (the medical people) wouldn’t be able to carry out experiments or do any proper research without men like us – “Well done!” etc. Then we were taken back to our Units with a plaster on each arm, a weekend pass, the promise of an extra twenty eight shillings, and eyes over-sensitive to light.
Mine still are.
© Richard Bonas
1 REME = Royal Electrical And Mechanical Engineers
2 RAMC = Royal Army Medical Corps
3 RE = Royal Engineers
4 RAOC = Royal Army Ordinance Corps
5 In 2004 the Coroner’s Court in Trowbridge, Wiltshire returned a verdict of “unlawful killing” caused by the “application of a nerve agent in a non-therapeutic experiment” on Leading Aircraftsman Ronald Maddison. LAC Maddison was a twenty-year old airman who died at Porton Down in 1953, an hour or so after the application of Sarin to his arm in a gas chamber.