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Penclawdd — The Welsh Town Secretly Bombed With Anthrax

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While Gruinard Island became famous, few have heard of the WWII anthrax testing at Penclawdd

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Penclawdd © Lesbardd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, Penclawdd had a population of just over 3600 people.² A small village on the Gower Peninsula just outside Swansea, Penclawdd is best known for its cockle industry. Its history dates back to Roman times, and coal was long mined in the hills above the estuary. In the 1800s, the village — then a small town—was booming with tinplate, copper, and brassworks. The composer Karl Jenkins, of Adiemus fame, is Penclawdd’s most famous native son.

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Gruinard Island, by Kevin Walsh, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At about 5p.m. on Wednesday, 28 October 1942, a Bristol Blenheim bomber crossed the Burry estuary at a height of 5000 feet. Over the north Gower salt marshes, the plane dropped a single bomb.³ The local residents didn’t know it, but they’d just become part of the army’s biowarfare experiments.

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It wasn’t until 1982 that Keith H. Hopkins, secretary of the local Labour Party, went to the media to address local rumours about the bombing. Hopkins had three demands.⁵

  • Evidence of any anthrax-related infections in animals and people in the area
  • A public inquiry.
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To decontaminate Gruinard Island in 1986, the government used a solution of seawater and formaldehyde. However seawater alone isn’t necessarily an effective decontaminant. Studies suggest that anthrax spores can survive “from 2 to 18 years in pond water and 20 months in seawater or distilled water.”⁹ Some studies report anthrax spores remaining viable for over two years in salt water.¹⁰

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