The weapon Britain hoped would defeat the Nazis...

Sewing machine needle tipped with anthrax was developed for war effort

Tipped with a sewing machine needle and finished with a tail made from a drinking straw, they looked more like a schoolboy's toy than a terrifying weapon. For Britain's wartime scientists, however, these tiny projectiles were the sharp end of a chilling project to secure victory over the Nazis by bombarding German troops with poisoned darts.

A secret file that details British research to develop the lethal anti-personnel darts, carrying a toxin likely to have been anthrax or ricin, casts rare light on the work that was carried out by the Allies during the Second World War into chemical and biological weapons that could be deployed against Hitler's forces.

The document, released at the National Archives in Kew, London, reveals how scientists at Porton Down in Wiltshire, the site of Britain's top secret weapons laboratory, worked between 1941 and 1944 to perfect the projectiles to ensure the maximum number of casualties and the quickest death for enemy soldiers.

Entitled Research Into Use of Anthrax and Other Poisons for Biological Warfare, the report said the idea of using darts dated back to the First World War but the novelty of adding a poison, either coated on to a grooved point or injected through a hollow needle, meant that a viable weapon to cause "death or disablement" had been created.

A memo written in 1945 summarising the project said: "The use of poison enables a much lighter dart to be used, since a slight penetration without necessarily piercing a vital organ is all that is required to implant the poison ... It seems most unlikely that any first aid measure or medical treatment could be devised which would prevent the death of a man who has received a lethal dose."

The researchers, working in conjunction with Canadian colleagues, developed a dart weighing no more than four grams which could be loaded into bombs carrying 30,600 of the projectiles at a time. The researchers carried out multiple tests and calculations to work out the chances of hitting troops, ranging from 90 per cent for a soldier lying flat on open ground to just 17 per cent for one lying in a slit trench.

The consequences of being struck were dire. If a victim failed to pluck out each dart within 30 seconds, he was condemned to a grisly death. Detailing the effects of ricin, codenamed T1123, in tests on sheep and goats, one researcher reported: "The symptoms produced are: twitching of the muscles, profuse salivation and sweating, acute defecation, micturition and retching. The pulse becomes very slow and the blood pressure falls. The subject collapses and lies on its side with twitching muscles. Where the dose is lethal, death occurs in 30 minutes, usually preceded by convulsions."

Attempts by the scientists to perfect their projectile took on a darkly comical dimension when they approached Singer Sewing Machines Ltd, based in Bristol, to supply a variety of differently shaped needles without stating their purpose.

The request was met with bemusement by the company. In one letter sent in 1941, an executive wrote: "We are afraid we do not quite understand your requirements. From your remarks it would seem that the needles are required for some purpose other than sewing machines."

Despite the assertion of the researchers that their weapon was both more lethal and cheaper to make than conventional bullets, the darts never made it into mass production.

Noting that the projectiles were useless against any form of cover, a senior officer wrote them off as "highly uneconomical" and unlikely to cause mass casualties.

Suggested Topics
News
news
Voices
voicesThe Ukip leader on why he's done nothing illegal
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Sport
video
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
News
Supermarkets are running out of Easter Eggs
Deals make eggs cheaper than normal chocolate
Arts & Entertainment
artYouth club owner says mural is 'gift from the sky' so he can prevent closure of venue
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?