Since the First World War the British Army has relied on scientists and research to help them counter enemy threats and develop new weapons and techniques for use against the foe. Although civilian scientists have been essential in this, the Army has also maintained its own selection of military personnel trained to conduct scientific research and facilities such as Porton Down are still essential to the country’s defence. Items of specialist military laboratory clothing are unusual, being made in small quantities and of little interest to the average collector. Being a lover of the weird and obscure however I was pleased to be able to pick up this laboratory cap recently:The cap is made of an olive drab nylon and is of a very simple design, being basically a cylinder with a circular crown:The cap has a straight side all around. A white tape edges the brim and a small piece of elastic in the rear provides a bit of size adjustment and ensures the cap does not come off:A standard label is sewn inside, with an NSN number indicating it is British military issue:Back in 2016 the BBC ran an article from a scientist who was invited to visit Porton Down and see what was happening there as it celebrated 100 years:
Porton Down – also known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory – is where much of our top-secret military research is concentrated. It has a budget of £500m a year and employs more than 3,000 scientists. It is the most controversial, most misunderstood and, some say, most-feared scientific institution in Britain. Though many will have heard of Porton Down, few will have much idea about what goes on inside.
So I was delighted when I was invited to go behind the fence, make a documentary about the research that goes on there.
Set in more than 7,000 acres of English countryside, Porton Down was created 100 years ago in response to the German gas attacks of World War One. The first of these attacks against British troops involved the use of chlorine. Thousands of soldiers, who had no idea what they were facing, suffered severe chemical burns or died in agony. Chlorine was soon joined by mustard gas and phosgene
Lord Kitchener, Britain’s secretary of state for war, demanded an immediate response. This led to the setting up of Porton Down. Scientists based there swiftly developed gas masks and began testing ways to launch similar gas attacks against the Germans…
We were the first television crew to be allowed into one of Porton Down’s most secure laboratories, where I watched a chemist carefully make up a bath of VX. The reason chemical agents such as VX and mustard gas are still manufactured on site is to test that equipment issued to troops is proof against attack. And that is because these chemical agents are still being used, particularly in the Middle East.
In March 1988 at least 5,000 Kurds, men, women and children died at Halahbja after being attacked by Saddam Hussein’s forces with sarin and mustard gas. More recently there is evidence (collected by Porton Down scientists) that sarin was used against civilians in Syria.
Porton Down’s mission is, these days, purely defensive. They are there to develop better ways to protect British troops and civilians against attack. Some of what they are doing feels distinctly sci-fi.
They are, for example, working with Birmingham University on a device that can detect tiny fluctuations in gravity. The hope is that this will, in the future, enable them to see through walls and deep underground.
Other research likely to have a more immediate impact is the use of “synthetic biology” to create body armour which would be more lightweight, flexible but which would still stop bullets. The idea behind synthetic biology is that by studying how animals create protective shells we will be able to grow ceramic body armour from first principles.
One of the most chilling bits of research I saw, however, was their work studying potential biological threats. There is, for example, concern that a terrorist group might decide to attack us using a “dirty bomb” containing something like the ebola virus, which has a mortality rate of up to 90%.
An experiment I watched in a Category IV laboratory (the highest level of security) suggests that ebola does indeed have the potential to be used as a weapon, although fortunately there are currently significant technical and practical barriers to its use.
I am also cheered by the thought that looking forwards and successfully responding to new threats is what the scientists of Porton Down have been doing for the last 100 years.