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Operation Sandcastle

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Operation Sandcastle was part of a larger scheme to dispose of unwanted chemical ordnance left over from World War II. The operation took place between 1955 and 1956, and was conducted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in deep water off the west coast of Scotland.

For the overall operation, see the page on Chemical Munitions Dumping in the Atlantic.

Background

At the end of World War II, some 250,000 tons of chemical weapons had been uncovered and seized from German ammunition dumps, with Britain holding about 71,000 250 kilogramme bombs filled with the nerve agent tabun, a clear, colourless, tasteless, and highly toxic liquid. The stocks also included sarin, another nerve agent, a colourless, odourless liquid, with a colourless, odourless vapour, both of which are highly toxic. Most of this stockpile was destroyed, and the remainder divided between Britain and America. The Americans took the sarin, leaving the British with some 14,000 tons of tabun.

The material was first transported from Hamburg to Newport, then taken to temporary storage at Llanberis, where the RAF had a strategic reserve ammunition store. Permanent storage was planned to be on open runways at RAF Llnadwrod, a disused airfield, where it was hoped that the prevailing wind would take any leakage out to sea. Transport of the the material by road took from August 1946 to July 1947. Inspection of the weapons quickly discovered that they were both fuzed and leaking, after which they were defused and sealed in wax preservative at a rate of 500 per week. Despite the preservative, the weapons continued to deteriorate as a result of being stored outdoors, leading to the construction of 21 Belman hangars on site in 1951, to shelter the bombs from the weather.

In June 1954, the weapons were considered to be of no military vale and to have become a liability, resulting in the decision to dispose of them.

The resulting operation was confirmed and summarised in a MoD reply to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000:

There was no dumping by the UK of Sarin (GB). However there was dumping of another nerve agent Tabun (GA) in 1956-1957, Operation SANDCASTLE, when 71,000 German aircraft bombs charged with this agent were scuttled in decaying hulks in at least 1000 fathoms of water.

In 1945, these German bombs had been transferred from Hamburg to Newport Docks in South Wales, in Operation DISMAL, then by rail to Llanberis in North Wales by rail and finally to RAF Llanwrog by lorry for storage. In the 1950ís, when there was no further reason for their retention, the decision was taken to dump them. In 1953-1956 the bombs were shipped from Llanwrog by sea to Cairn Ryan near Stranraer, Wigtownshire in Scotland for transfer to ship hulks for sea dumping.

- MoD FoI disclosure letter, August 2, 2006.[1]

Dumping operation

The operation had two distinct phases: transport by sea from the Welsh storage site to Cairnryan, followed by transfer of the weapons into old ships which could then be scuttled after being used to transport the material the dumping area.

Initial transport was by six LCT (landing craft tank), but this caused a problem as the first phase of the move called for 16,000 bombs to be moved by the middle of 1955, but each LCT could carry only 400 bombs, meaning the schedule could not be met. The problem was solved by removing the fins from the bomb casings, which increased the LCT load to 800 bombs, and allowed the schedule to be maintained.

The first load was carried by the SS Empire Claire. 16,000 bombs were loaded by July 23, 1955, three TNT scuttling charges were fitted and the ship departed with a nine man crew. Initial departure was delayed when the ocean going tug Forester, which was to escort the convoy, was trapped in dock for a time due to industrial action on the Clyde. Accompanied by navy escorts Mull and Sir Walter Campbell, the four ships left Cairnryan on July 25. Empire Claire soon broke down, and had to be towed to the scuttling point. On July 27, the ships waited for the arrival of an RAF photo-reconnaissance flight to observe the sinking, which was due to take place at 10:00 am. The first two charges failed to sink the ship, however the third completed the task, sinking the ship and its load in some 2,500 metres of water

The second load was carried by the MV Vogtland, scuttled on May 30, 1956, at the same point as the first, with 28,737 bombs on board.

The third load was carried by the SS Korska, scuttled on July 21, 1956, at the second scuttling point, with 26,000 bombs, 330 tons of arsenic, and fifty cases of material not further identified on board.

References

1 Mod FoI disclosure letter, August 2, 2006.

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