What do you do?

Storage tunnels, courtesy Rhydmydwn History Society

Storage tunnels, courtesy Rhydymwyn History Society

It’s been a long time since I’ve been asked ‘what do you do’ and been able to give a clear answer. First attempt normally involves ‘I’m an environmental consultant’ which frankly could mean just about anything. Although, after a fantastic two years on St Helena drawing on just about everything I ever learnt, I still wasn’t any closer to something pithy. However, I can now say, for the moment at least, I do environmental due diligence. And that, in passing conversation, is normally sufficient. What do I do? I get to pour over maps and big data sets. I find it very therapeutic. Every so often I am let out of the office to have a look around a garden due for development or an industrial warehouse and its oil storage facilities. A couple of weeks ago I got to climb up a very tall silo with an impressive view over a city, from a ladder with rather more ventilated treads than I was strictly comfortable with. However on very special occasions a job comes across my desk that just becomes more diverting than the job budget allows for. This is one of them. Let me tell you the story of World War II mustard gas in the UK.

Mustard gas was developed as a chemical agent in the 1930s, contrary to the spirit of the Geneva Protocol that banned the use of chemical agents in order to avoid the horror of the chlorine attacks of World War 1. Chemical weapons became a pressing issue when war with Germany was imminent in the late 1930s and the Chamberlain Government began to plan. The expectation was that the UK would find itself in a position to need to ‘retaliate in kind’ when the Germans deployed nerve agents.

So the plan started in Porton Down and Sutton Oak, St Helens (sic), where mustard gas was developed. Sutton Oak was the exclusive producer of mustard gas for the first six months of the war whilst three mustard factories were hurriedly constructed by ICI on the Government’s behalf at Randle, Valley and Springfields, one phosgene factory (at Rocksavage) and three factories to provide the constituents for the mustard gas factories (at Hillhouse, Royd Mills and Wade). If you plot these on a map you will see that they have been strategically located north of the line between the Bristol Channel and The Wash, considered to be beyond the reaches of the Luftwaffe fighter escorts. Along with this came thoughts about how to defend stocks as a direct hit on a mustard gas stockpile would end very badly. Randle in Runcorn became the main gas production centre but storage in a less obvious location was necessary. Along with a good railway connection and decent water supply the quite little backwater of Rhydymwyn, which had seen nothing more lively than some lead mining, suddenly found itself host to a colossal Valley chemical works nestling in the quiet valley and uninterrupted bucolic hillsides underlain by a sequence of storage tunnels for chemical weapons.

The Government’s views were charged as the potentially devastating impact of these weapons became clear. Spraying from a height of 15000 feet would cover everything in its path with tragic consequences. However, as the War ebbed and flowed the approach to deployment changed. From a stance of retaliation to one of defence crept in during the aftermath of Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. Plans to defend the beaches prone to invasion and transport corridors were made. Stores were moved out to a variety of air bases around the country. Thought was also given to chemical weapons as an offensive tactic on international fronts, but this was mostly discounted because of its indiscriminate effect. Mustard production was stepped down.

Seemingly, Hitler’s Generals encouraged the development of chemical weapons including the development of Sarin. However, there is speculation they were never deployed during the later period of German retreat because of Hitler’s personal experiences of gas attacks in the Great War.

The production of the mustard gas was not without its difficulties and there were injuries. The worst tended to be away from the main manufacture and storage as chemical weapons were often transported without identification to those handling them. Some incidents could have been worse, as workers took risks in order to protect others. Two particular incidents show this at the Randle site. In one a shell ignited during filling and the girl handling the shell immediately carried it outside where it was made safe, and the second is where key staff removed their Personal Protective Equipment so that they could dig faster and remove a blockage from the main effluent pipe.

The quantity of mustard gas is startling. Initially, 50 tons a week at Royal Oak were manufactured and by the end of the war there were 13,200 tons of mustard gas in store. Decommissioning was a slow process with early disposals made beyond the continental shelf at sea. By 1949 only 5,000 tons remained at Valley and 4,500 tons at various RAF bases. These final disposals were made by a ‘controlled burn’ at Randle with which burned continuously between 1956 and 1958.

So what is the legacy of this industry? The intensive and focused research that could have been so deeply destructive has, as is so often the case, had some up sides. Significant advances were made in medical understanding, not least in cancer and its treatment, and some of the most common pesticides including a common headlice treatment were created.

The sites still exist in one form or another. The Valley Works being the most accessible with some of the buildings and the storage tunnels having been designated Ancient Monuments. This is to preserve a history of the war that is seldom seen and where the original atomic research leading to the Manhattan Project (nuclear weapons development) was performed. The surrounding area is a flourishing nature reserve, so I’m told. If you want to you can visit, and even the tunnels that used to house the enormous storage tanks are due to be opened to the public.

And what do I do? I do environmental due diligence. Maybe that could still be just about anything. But it’ll have to do for now.

If you want to know more, there is a comprehensive repository of information here.

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