A History of Nerve Agents - with Dan Kaszeta

A History of Nerve Agents - with Dan Kaszeta

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00:05
[Music] i was asked to come tonight because i've just written this book uh toxic the history of nerve agents and i'm going to talk a little about it about this topic because it it hits the present day with the navalny poisoning the scruple event in uh in salisbury several years ago now uh it's not ongoing chemical warfare in syria this is not something just out of history it's a bit of history from the 30s and 40s that reaches the present day and so i'm going to start this
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presentation here um let me see there we go there we go hopefully if everybody can see that i'm here because the royal institution asked me and i actually i want to thank all of you i can see that there's something like 338 of you have joined i want to thank them for the opportunity here and you should if you feel so inclined give them a bit of a donation i also like to thank my publisher hearst before we go any further and tonight's talk i'm going to talk a
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little about who i am that's not so much i mean lisa already covered the highlights of that i'm going to talk about the history of chemical warfare really at its beginning because i want to put my book in the right proper context and then i'm going to talk about where nerve agents come from a little bit what they are what happened in the 1930s and how they really got their start in the second world war there's a lot happening in the immediate aftermath of the world war
01:41
world war ii and then the cold war and the present day and hopefully well we'll have plenty of time for questions here and so i'm going to try to weave a couple different things into this narrative and that hopefully that uh gets you interested enough and answer some of the basic questions uh about you know why nerve agents are still important they're not just of historic interest and i'm gonna start well like i said uh with a little bit of introduction i've spent 30 years working in this field um i've evolved into practically the
02:14
only historian of this subject uh you know i'm not actually a chemist i'm not a chemical engineer i got into this almost by accident the us army stuck me in this and i thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to me but somehow i've managed to make a career out of it i'm not here to talk about myself so much there's a good little introduction to myself in the in my book and and all that so i'll you know i'm not happy to answer questions about my career uh later on and how it's relevant to all of this so i want to start with some history uh
02:45
it's it's a rare thing to come to the royal institution and talk about the history more than the science but you know my book is my book is a history book with science in it as opposed to a science book with a little bit of history in it we're now up on the sort of 102nd anniversary within days now 102nd anniversary of the end of the first world war uh the people who remember it the people who fought it they're all they're all they've all passed away uh you know this is going out of human memory but it's very important in our
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consciousness and it's very important our history because it was a technological war uh the military historians will argue whether or not the crimean war the american civil war was the first so-called modern war um but we all know that the first world war is where we started having things like airplanes submarines uh tanks uh machine guns predated the war but it was the first huge prevalence of machine guns and machine guns on every side of the conflict not
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just in colonial conflicts where one side had machine guns and the other side didn't so that's the context in that you know in the early 19 the early 1900s you know the war starts in 1914 it's a it's a technological era and new things are happening okay and you know various different aspects of technology are being applied to warfare i mean it's always been the case in warfare where people try to make better offense and better defense arms and
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armor it goes all the way back to antiquity but by the first world war we had you know by that point we'd had 70 80 90 years of a industrial revolution we had lots of science and engineering being applied to this and so on this slide you see several other things that are with us still today the major navies still have tank uh submarines the armies have tanks there are such a thing as an air force and airplanes machine guns are in practically every army
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uh but there's also some things that didn't work out as well you know for example we could talk about chemical warfare all right chemical warfare is one of those things that worked out a bit but didn't work out so much possibly uh in the way that people expected um chemistry was one of these things just like metal work and electricity that was one of those things that was really in a in a state of transition
05:25
and there's this whole chemical arms race that goes on in the first world war uh these two gentlemen here that fritz harbor on the left and victor grignard on the right these are two rival scientists fritz is in germany uh victor is in uh is in france and these two are engaged in what is effectively of war wits starting late 1914 early 1915 to try to take poisonous gases and turn them into effective weapons um and in that context you know
05:58
what you have is you have a footprint really of chemical warfare everybody uh everybody has seen this probably this famous picture here the sergeant painting ghast i've seen the original that hangs in the imperial war museum and i'm not sure everybody can read the fine print down here the thing is the impact in popular culture the impact in literature the uh impact of people's memories of chemical warfare in the first world war are actually broader and deeper than the actual direct impact on the war
06:30
something like you know 20 million people died in that war yet you know this study here on the bottom this is taken from these statistics you see here are taken from something called the gilchrist study done in the 1920s you know where somewhere between 78 000 and 91 000 people died of directly from chemical warfare that's comparatively a drop in the bucket um more people were killed with cavalry savers going back to an older technology they were killed by by chemical warfare but we don't think
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about the cavalry savers in the first world war we think that's old technology and we put that beside us um but it was one of those things where at the end of the war it had not really you know chemical warfare the poison gas had none of the chemicals used in that war were game changers europe it's really hard for any military historian to point to a single battle a single campaign where it was really truly the deciding factor so it goes down in the annals of you
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know military history as a bit of unfinished business um things were clearly on a trajectory for more and more improvements there were things that were being worked on at the end of the war that were you know improvements in chemical warfare um but the war ended all right and in the aftermath of the war it's it's important to see that people learn some interesting uh lessons from this and so it's in this it's in this period after the war where
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there's a lot of unfinished business okay uh i don't think any nation in in europe really thought that this was really going to be the warden in all wars everybody was thinking of the next war almost at the point at which this war was done um in fact you know wars were continuing elsewhere on the european continent anyway uh war between greece and turkey the russian civil war these things ground on uh but the trajectory technologically was that these things that people had
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worked on during the war whether it be zeppelin airships or you know machine guns or aircraft improvements continue to be made and countries learn lessons from that first war and they assume that these things were all going to get used in the next war whenever that wax war come it comes whenever that if it's going to be five years from now if it's going to be 50 you know germany germany belgium france italy everybody assumed that another war was eventually gonna come now this picture you see here is part of
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the blockade squadron uh the british blockade squadron of very effectively with with help from the french bottled up and blockaded germany so germany during the first world war couldn't import things it was cut off it was reduced to smuggling blockade runners were a thing but by and large 99 nearly 100 of the commerce into hamburg and bremerhaven was cut off now this is important as a context to
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see where nerve agents came from and nerve agents come out of a combination of things and i'm going to take a little while to unpack this because people always ask why why nerve agents and they happen by accident but they happened by accident in a context that is i think easy to understand if you pick it apart into its pieces one is this fact that germany has learned from the fact that it is easily blockaded and cannot rely on imports in case of another major european war particularly a war against somebody with a big navy
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now there's another there's another there's another factor that's food supply now one of the immediate causes for the end of the first world war was not an overwhelming victory on either the western and eastern fronts to be honest in germany had one on the eastern front uh the russians had surrendered there was the whole treaty of breslau toss uh they've been able to move their entire well most of the eastern front soldiers to the west and we're you know quite early on in 1918 we're actually doing quite well
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until relatively late in the war it could have gone either way but poorer food supply is one of the immediate causes that did for the uh did for the germans in the first world war uh military mutinies because soldiers were not being fed was a thing so germany understands that it is only one bad harvest away from collapsing into war logistics are important you have to feed the population you have to feed the army now what you see on this slide here on the top right is a colorado potato
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beetle all right uh and on on the left you can see this diagram of its gradual you know uh spread across europe having been introduced in the accidentally in bordeaux uh having come over and some imported potatoes from the u.s and so the germans are absolutely paranoid about this not just the potato beetle but other other forms of pestilence affecting their agriculture they have to protect their agriculture this is a point at which crop protection
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is very important going back to this previous slide because they are so heavily blockaded it's important that they come up with ways of protecting the crops that don't require imports now you get into this whole interesting issue of pesticides in fact i'm not going to go to that slide just yet the pesticides and the era are mostly made either from oil petroleum products and germany famously doesn't have much of a domestic petroleum supply
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or the other great pesticide of the era was nicotine the same stuff that people smoke in tobacco guess what it kills insects but the state of the art at the time for using nicotine was to dissolve it in kerosene and kerosene is a petroleum product so petrochemicals were extremely important to crop protection one way or the other so there was a push for import substitution if germany was going to have to fight this next war it was going to have to save the oil for
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tanks and airplane fuel and you know diesel fuel for its submarines um and so every bit of oil that wasn't used for crop protection was going to something else so there was a push to come up with ways and means of doing this now germany in this era and germany has always since its unification particularly since since late since uh since the late 1800s germany had been an industrial giant all right the industrialization of germany was one of the great
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was one of the great accomplishments of the kaiser era of imperial germany its universities were very good its industry was very good in particular its chemistry departments its physics departments top notch so this picture here on the left is is billy longa uh he worked in uh he worked in berlin uh and on the right i wish i had a picture geared to von kruger it was one a phd student working for him a very rare thing at the time a woman studying uh
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chemistry at the phd level in germany as her dissertation there they worked on phosphorus compounds and they did some work in the late 1920s we're not even into the nazi area yet the nazis were a smaller political party they were contesting elections this is still the weimar republic they come up with this whole new thing they can't take full credit for it but they can take good partial credit for inventing a category of chemicals called the organophosphates and what they
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what what they come up with is this new category chemicals and to synthesize the organophosphates you're not necessarily using petroleum products so we have this technical development on top of this you know you know agricultural requirement on top of a geopolitical necessity now this leads to some work now by this point now by this point um we're in the we're in about 1935 now the nazis have taken over um the gentleman you see here in both
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pictures is gerhard schroeder and that funny icon you see there is the uh is the logo of the german chemical company ig farben ig farben had was perhaps 80 or even possibly even 90 percent of the german chemical industry at this time um the german chemical industry had been very consolidated with a view possibly depending on which political party came into power some of the political parties in the weimar republic were
15:29
actually quite left wanted to nationalize it and run it as a national industry the socialists surely did so the chemical industry got consolidated but it didn't get privatized so what you had was a very large near monopoly in the chemical industry still in private hands but it realized that you know things like crop protection were important uh important and more important than some other things and so it put this gentleman and a small group of other guys
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on the issue of developing new chemical compounds based on this organophosphate work done by longa and ed krueger and so schroeder and his assistant klein house started working in their lab synthesizing literally hundreds of chemical compounds from that new family of chemicals i think during the course of his career and his career spanned the war and even went after the war uh by the time
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by the time the war ended uh the second world war ended schroeder had synthesized at least 2 000 2 000 organophosphate compounds some of which completely useless his notebooks were found in his dustbin his dustbin was collected by british intelligence his um his notebooks are therefore down in the national archives in queue and i've looked at them and i've counted and there's over 2 000 compounds in them but more importantly he started actually
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quite successfully synthesizing some of these compounds some of them worked quite well as as uh pesticides i had a whole protocol if he thought something was good he tested on aphids or even a small sample of colorado potato beetles that was kept on their lock and key make sure that they didn't escape uh and he in late 1936 he came across this chemical compound at the time he called it le100 and since after that took on other names
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it was very good it killed all the aphids he diluted it it killed all the aphids he diluted it again so he starts engaging in practically homeopathic dilution of this thumbs and even quite diluted this new substance kills all the aphids however uh it makes it makes dr schroter quite quite ill uh driving home one night he even though it was dark uh his vision dimmed and he he gets a torch out of his glove
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box in his car and he examines himself in the mirror uh and realizes that even though it's dark out his pimple his pupils have pinpointed and to this day that is one of the telltale signs of exposure to nerve agents um and he had a terrible headache that went on for days he had some memory loss ended up in the hospital for ten days nobody know what to do with him and he was actually disappointed he felt that this was probably too dangerous of compound to uh to to work with however he said well maybe
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if we dilute it enough we can you know still use it so he set it off for product safety testing in the industrial safety lab at ig farben where it killed the guinea pigs it killed a barbary ape imported from spain it killed you know even in quite dilute things it killed all the safety test animals this is caused actually quite alarm bells uh one of the things was that in sort of the military industrial complex of germany one man's alarm bells are another person's um
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idea of interest so um in fact i think i probably put this slide in the wrong place but i'll talk about here what what uh gerhard schroeder had done and continued to do while working on these things has he come across the um he come across the intersection of several types of chemistry uh he'd been working firmly in this big organic phosphorus chemistry and he started playing with other things hanging things on the uh sort of the end of one of the one or the other
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bits of the uh the organic phosphorus uh molecule uh and that very first compound that really became the problem the one that made him sick is in this bit where it's it intersects with cyanide chemistry and that chemical chemical compound became known as the chemical warfare agent taboon um these other two stars you know where he starts to intersect with the interesting and odd world of fluorine chemistry are the next two chemical warfare agents
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in this category sarin and soma and we'll get to those in a little bit but what you have here in fact these chaps are the management okay they are in upper management above gerhard schroder and what they what they have done is they have the secret memorandum from berlin berlin has this whole idea that you know industry is going to make us new things
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and new important technology and goods and services to help us win the next war germany is spending a lot of money rearming itself and it issues a secret memorandum berlin the uh the uh the defense ministry out to all the heads of industry uh takes these guys like heinrich horonline and this other chap otto ambrose gives them secret security clearances and gives them a secret memo and this memo is basically a laundry list it's a fishing list you know these are the things we're interested in industry it's things very boring from
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better lubricants to better ways of sharpening bayonets to better ball bearings all the way up to gee if you have anything that might possibly maybe be useful as a chemical warfare agent um we'd really like to know and so the minute they see the safety report from schroeder and the dead animals these guys are on the next train to berlin and they convinced berlin that this is an idea worth investigating now berlin is all you know the the scientists in berlin
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the the german army has got some very good chemists of his owner they're curious about this they don't understand how it's worked how this stuff works okay this new chemical taboo and about a year later a new one sarin they're playing around with trying to find ways to mass produce it not with much success at first but you know it clearly shows potential as a weapon and they give it to this other guy uh dr kuhn richard kuhn uh by the way he got awarded a nobel prize in 1938 had to turn it down
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because by that point the nazi germany had decided that nobel prizes were a foreign plot you know they were they were a globalist you know who can't have that sort of thing so he was at his work on vitamins that he was doing he had to turn down the nobel prize in 1938 but one of the things he did is he figured out how nerve agents work and so i want to take a little you know somebody's going to ask in the comments so i better say how nerve agents work uh the human nervous system was not hugely well understood
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in you know the 1930s there's still lots of things we don't know about the nervous system but i i guess one of the ways that you can describe it is that the it's a the human nervous system is a chain of electrical circuitry that runs from your brain down through your spinal cord out to every organ and bit of your body and sends signals up and down that pathway but unlike a proper sort of you know artificial electric circuit made out of copper wire or something like that
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it uses a hybrid of things it uses nerve cells which operate pretty much like it's a copper wire but it's not a continuous chain of nerve cells there's these gaps between the nerve cells that's what you see in that diagram there it's called the synaptic gap and there's these chemical compounds called neurotransmitters that send signals backwards and forwards across this gap and there's a complex balance of chemicals to send signals and then to stop the signals from from from going and so what cune
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discovered is effectively that there's a there's a thing called acetylcholine it's one of the key it's one of the it's one of the key neurotransmitters it's not the only one this is a complex area of chemistry but acetylcholine works in conjunction with this other thing called the acetylcholine esterase all right uh acetylcholinesterase works to shut down the acetylcholine when after a signal is sent now nerve ages what they do nerve agents are extremely powerful binding agents what they do these all
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these different organophosphate compounds including the pesticide ones they bind to the acetyl cholinesterase so it can't turn off uh the acetylcholine and so acetylcholine builds up and you get something called a cholinergic crisis this idea that the nerve agent shut down your nervous system is absolutely wrong it causes the other problem it causes your nervous system doing it overdrive and it was first it was first this guy uh cune by the way was chair of the german chemical society not every one of these scientists i
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mentioned was a nazi but cunes certainly was um he was quite a key nazi um and actually he developed a third of the nerve ages this chemical substance called soman which turned out to be just too expensive to uh to produce so it became it was a bit of an oddity um but anyway that's how nerve agents work and so this this knowledge came about as part of this this this work here now we're going to go to the we're going to go to the german government now what you see on the left there is spandau castle
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and the right is an ammunition storage bunker at a place called rob camera now they've been work rob camera was the proving ground for chemical weapons uh to this day it's still the artillery range for the german army uh spandau castle on the left was where the german armies they called it a gas protection laboratory um and that was the branch of the german army that was designed to do both offensive and defensive work uh they were working on trying to find a way to take this chemical warfare agent taboon that was the first
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one that was the one that was easiest to manufacture and trying to scale it up and turn it into weapon uh the problem was like everything in defense bureaucracy it competed for money with everything else and they weren't getting a lot of money for their work because money was going into building tanks and making the army bigger uh things like that but then the war happened in on the first of september 1939 the germans went to war invaded poland
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and all of a sudden now the war is actually happening and people are shooting each other uh german industries sees this and quite rightly from their perspective as a license to print money uh anybody with a cunning wheeze to do something for for for the war effort descended on on berlin and so did i'm gonna go back one so did this guy otto ambrose the guy on the right always known for his being a very snappy dresser by the way otto ambrose
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he's literally the a in sarah sarah being an acronym s for schroeder and you know conveniently the r i n for our various procurement officers in the german army always better off the contracting officer it seems otto ambrose basically went and told the german government and told the third reich give us suitcases full of cash and we will give you thousands of tons of nerve agent miracle weapons basically was the deal and the german army very quickly signed an open-ended contract that was to the end
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of to the tune of uh we'll give you as much money as you want as long as you come up with the goods and so i and i go through this in some great detail in my book i'm not going to go into it much here but what happened was ig farben built a huge industrial empire uh involving the equivalent of these days of billions of pounds of dollars um at least 12 000 highly skilled you know yeah as in sort of degree degree level you know employees are higher
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and many thousands more unskilled labor and many thousands more convicted prisoner labor uh building a vast industrial empire and spending huge amount of money not just to build nerve agents but to also to make the other chemical warfare agents do because you know germany also wanted to make sure that it had adequate supplies of the older what we call the first generation warfare against the the mustard gas the fosgene the stuff that was used in the first world war as this nerve agent stuff was not quite a proven thing yet so
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ig farming builds this massive commercial empire to to do this and it builds several factories it it builds it builds a nerve agent factory a place called iron firth uh they are in the process of building a nerve agent factory uh at a place called falcon hagen to produce sarin they don't get very far because even by the end of the war they hadn't worked out the mass production route for for sarin um i'll spare you some of this
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uh but basically what i'll what i will tell you is that a lot of people got very rich on this including otto ambrose he got very rich quite personally on this this diagram down in the bottom is is an attempt uh to make out an org chart of how this stuff works and how the money went and in reality it was much more complicated than that because on top of everything else the directors at ig farben didn't want to be seen to be directly doing this so there was a huge web of cover
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companies shell companies joint ventures deliberate obfuscation money laundering tax evasion uh it would take me five years and a bunch of german-speaking forensic accountants to go through the records and the records are there you can go find them in queue it's amazing to leave through them but what happens is by by the end of the war the germans have maybe 10 tons of sarin not much but they have 12 600 or so probably
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maybe a little bit more but the exact inventory is lost of this chemical warfare agent taboo and so the question is why didn't hitler use this stuff and some i better answer that because somebody's going to ask that at the end and i go into great detail in my book on this uh but to summarize um germany was afraid of retaliation in kind for various reasons that you know i explained in greater detail uh you know in the earlier chapters of
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my book several key figures were convinced that the allies had the same technology it turns out that they had it uh there's reasons why that was a logical guess i can see how they added to two and two and got seven and so that was part of the problem is that they realized that they thought they thought that the vast weight of american industry in particular possibly the british with ici but in particular america with monsanto and dupont and shell oil and companies like that they reckon that
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the vast weight of the american industry obviously would have come up with a nerve agent another factor was because of shortages of rubber rubber winter tires the german army was very short on gas masks throughout the whole war struggled to field gas masters troops so it's worried about protecting itself and particularly struggles to protect its civilians it wants to do like the like britain is doing and give a gas mass to every household and the entire war is struggles and
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struggles greatly to do this so the idea that well we'd best not start this chemical warfare stuff because we can't really protect ourselves it's a thing another factor is even though there is such a thing as a gas mask for a horse horses don't like wearing them nerve agents actually absorb through the skin of a horse not just the respiratory tract so you it's hard to protect a horse against nerve agents and even to the very end of the war the germans are very much more reliant
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on horses than than the british or the american army are so that's a factor and so you know getting into chemical warfare is going to endanger their logistics some people talk about whether or not hitler is very personally against chemical warfare having been having been uh allegedly having been gassed in the first world war don't really know about that uh um hitler was also quite one for you know exaggerating his own war career uh don't know he certainly had no
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confunction with using hydrogen cyanide a which is a not a nerve agent but it's a hydrogen cyanide is very much a deadly deadly poisonous gas used terribly in the concentration camps so whether so i don't know this i i don't know how much to put behind this uh hitler uh was afraid of chemical warfare thing i don't know uh and there are a lot of other sort of fundamental logistical reasons uh why chemical warfare was going to be hard for the germans to pull
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off not impossible but hard and not to put too fine a point on it if if you think about it if you if germany were to say in late 1944 early 1945 start to use the nerve agents it's not going to win the war it's just going to delay the war okay it might delay the war by months but even so little as a three-month delay to the war is going to end up with that first atom bomb being on berlin because that was the plan all along so instead of hiroshima it would have been berlin so
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who knows how that would have changed the the context of modern history towards the end of the war uh there is a great russian germany to hide this stuff to get rid of it to stash it away more importantly if if nothing else keep it away from the soviets so all sorts of interesting things happened in the end of the war where a lot of resources and manpower tied up shuffling this stuff moving it further west further north in germany to get it away from the
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advancing red army i think some of this was a military plan because various bits of the military high command even to the end of the war were terribly hopeful that they can negotiate a settlement on the west and continue fighting the east they could come to some sort of arrangement with the western allies and keep fighting the soviets it wasn't going to happen you know churchill stalin roosevelt had all agreed that that wasn't going to happen but you know the germans thought that that might be the case after all i mean they managed they managed to pull that off in the first world war they managed to get russia out of the
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war in the first world war so the idea is that we've got to keep this stuff away from the advancing russian army the soviet army so various things happen here there's an interesting story in my book about a commando raid uh pictured here is max saxenheimer there was a commando raid on the on the sarin factory because i'm sorry the tabon factory because it got stuck behind allied allies and it wasn't destroyed yet so the there's a fascinating tale about something called operation barbara
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um that's also in my book i don't think i have time to really dig deep into detail on that here and then at the end of the war there's this great epiphany the allies both the western allies you know france britain uh the united states the in the east the soviet union are stunned shocked appalled amazed at these new nerve agents now it's a myth that the allies didn't know about it uh the allies knew about it and filed a
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way a bit like the uh the ark of the covenant in indiana jones because actually the the allies had captured a a german officer who knew about the nerve agents and interrogated him in 1943 in north africa but i don't think they believed him they just wrote up a nice six-page memorandum and filed it away and it collected dust for the rest of the war but at the end of the war there's a massive struggle to exploit the technology of germany and that exploitation technology
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certainly extends into chemical warfare the chap you see on the screen there is a very young photograph of a guy named edmund tilly he's a bit of a ghost uh he was a major than a lieutenant colonel at the time we're talking about that photo is much earlier he worked for the intelligence corps in the british army spoke fluent german and turns out he was the great interrogator and a pretty good detective he ran around like ran around occupied germany finding these guys and locking them up including
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otto ambrose who was a very very evasive character otto ambrose had taken something like 19 000 pages of documents and had them buried in the forest and you know it was edmond tilly who found them that dug up the paint barrel and that paint barrel is still to this day in the imperial war museum the papers are down at q and i managed to read them so thanks to edmund tilly i was able to write this book now if anybody here knows anything about lieutenant colonel edmund tilly
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um i'd be desperate to find out about him because i i've really drawn a lot of a blank on his career and what he did uh his ex boys in this particular niche are famous and then he disappears out of the record again and i'm i'm just dying to find out about him now the the place you see on the right there is a place called schloss cransberg which is where the allies locked up these scientists and interrogate the interrogated they make great at great length uh some of them gerhard schroeder
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uh he sang like a canary he filled hundreds of pages of the interrogation others were you know made up stories you made up excuses told tilly he was uh yeah he tried to tried to tell lies to tilly till he sort of basically got the truth out of everybody eventually something cracked in 10 minutes some it took 30 days but he did it but what you end up with at the end of the war is an arms race between west and east
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both sides of the both sides of the cold war spend their time absolutely convinced that the other side is ahead in this new chemical arms race the the factories are pretty much destroyed but were captured by the the soviets um the west doesn't realize how thoroughly they destroyed the war assumes the worst case scenario and thinks that well okay they've gotten tagged factories over there or the the the the west assumes that the east
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has the staff directories and he knows all the people that are working these factories and takes them off the list and realizes has very few of them they've all gone west okay so the the they're they're left with guys who turn wrenches and swept up you know they have a lot of staff capture but very few of them know very much about it the scientists all saw what was going on and fled west okay uh gerhard schroeder yeah otto ambrose klein ends all these other guys they're in the west uh only one scientist goes east i don't even i'm still having to figure out how
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glonbach ended up uh ended up in the soviet union uh interestingly he ends up in the soviet union not as a not as a prisoner but as a paid employee so maybe all along he had perhaps you know sympathies that way maybe they blackmailed them maybe you know who knows there's a story there i'm told but what happened was with this knowledge uh in both both east and west having part of the knowledge an arms race to make nerve agents involves what you see here uh these photographs
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here neither these buildings exist anymore but what you see is this is part of the us industrial complex to make nerve agents the us takes this other nerve agent sarin which had not been you know the secret to making siren had it really really been cracked at least not mass producing it and spends seven years and a lot of money to crack the uh the crack the secrets to making sarin and develops a very large chemical warfare arsenal mostly out of serenity later in conjunction with the british a
40:24
a uh a chemical called vx i just did a huge threat on twitter about vx today so some of you may have seen that um the soviet union well this is this this slide here shows part of the us arsenal the soviet union was into it too um the soviet union did the same thing uh was further behind each each each side in the war thought the other side was further ahead in reality the soviets were actually right that
40:55
this was further ahead um there was a bit of a british there was a bit of a british angle on this most of the nerve agent from the german effort uh in the second world war was in the form of aerial drop bombs uh britain ended up uh holding on to those things in an airfield in wales pictured top left there until a point at which they had to get rid of them the tail the tail how they got rid of them it's you don't want to know but it's in my book
41:25
um bottom left is a place in cornwall it's called it was called cde chemical defense establishment nanskuke and that picture there you have is one of the few surviving photographs of the uk's sarin factory it wasn't very big compared to say the u.s sarin plant and actually at the point at which they cracked the code to making sarin britain was broke the suez crisis has just happened um it's the late 1950s and
41:56
sarin turns out to be a hugely expensive thing to make so the the britain gets out of the offensive chemical warfare program on the basis that we're gonna they're gonna specialize in defensive research share information with the americans and the canadians and the australians uh and the idea is that if they ever need offensive chemical weapons the americans will supply them now some of this some of this defensive research was not really what you would call ethical by modern standards you know uh this guy here madison
42:29
uh he died as a result of saturn exposure at porting down uh and his legal case dragged on for decades in the court before his family finally got some sort of settlement out of the mod uh his his particular circumstances uh you know bear i mean there's probably a whole book to be written there about about private medicine and so what that gets us now is you know the the cold war happens um basically chemical weapons are our footnote during
43:02
the cold war uh the great third world war between uh the west and the soviet union never happens but what happens is a bunch of proxy conflicts all around the world these so-called brush fire wars and the korean war the vietnam war uh but you know dozens of other conflicts as well too where east and west are fighting through sort of third parties and you get the occasional flare up uh the occasional hint aroma of
43:32
of nerve agent use of these conflicts but i mean one of them for example the rhodesians used a commercial pesticide during their quite dirty bush war um there is rumors probably unsubstantiated that the egyptians used nerve agents in a war in yemen in the early 1960s it's quite clear that they used they used the older chemical warfare agent mustard gas now one of the legacies of the cold war is that these industrial complexes to to make
44:06
chemical warfare agents and to test them and you know in the end to try to get rid of the weapons we don't need them all this becomes a huge environmental health and safety debacle the us ends up even before they get officially out of chemical warfare they have many thousands and tons of older chemical weapons they don't know what to do with them they ended up putting them in old merchant vessels and sinking them in deep spots of the ocean where they still sit and they did i think by the stands
44:41
of the day a reasonably good job of it they took the shells and rockets all that encased it in concrete and then put these encased concrete in the ship and then poured more concrete and then sank the whole thing so there's lots of stuff entombed uh five six seven thousand feet down mostly in the atlantic a few places in the pacific um there were a couple great big industrial accidents uh one was a huge massive fish kill in the volga river called the white sea incident where basically you know
45:12
hundreds of thousands of fish including very expensive and commercially valuable sturgeon were killed in a in an accident downstream from the the soviet sarin factory uh the photo you see bottom right is a accidental um killing of sheep outside dugway proving ground in the us in the late 1960s that really started a chain of events in the us that eventually led to president nixon in 1969 basically ordering the us to stop testing chemical weapons and putting a moratorium on offensive chemical and
45:43
biological research so you know president nixon's legacy is mixed but his legacy in chemical arms control and environmental stuff is actually quite positive now i understand i'm getting towards the end of my hour i want to wrap this up um the tale of nerve agents makes its way out of the sort of the the the the rump end of the cold war into other conflicts and actually the the most statistically significant use of nerve agents
46:13
has been was in the iran-iraq war where the where the iraqi military faced by a numerically superior but less less well-equipped iranian force uses chemical warfare agents including including nerve agents to fight many battles um it's one of the few instances actually in military history where you really can point to specific battles and military campaigns for chemical weapons performed as needed by the commanders that used them and
46:44
you know actually made a significant operational difference um this is all happening at a time where the east and the west are negotiating the chemical weapons convention all that um there was a several horrific massacres of uh largely kurdish civilians including places like halabja that that uh the graveyard picture there is halabja the palm jam massacre is still quite an infamous incident possibly the largest use of nerve agents um again
47:14
depends how you compare it to some use of nerve agents on the battlefields near the chantal arab but that's for another story but what you get is you get actually chemical arms control out of this eventually the end of the cold war the realization in the west particularly that these are not useful weapons so there wasn't it wasn't a single military in the west that was advocating to keep these things for battlefield use and so it became much of the rest of the world trying to handle down the uh
47:44
haggle the uh angle the soviet union uh into it and eventually the collapse of the soviet union rise of boris yeltsin in russia then you get actually in the 1990s the chemical weapons convention and an organization behind it the opcw to enforce this and although there have been instances afterwards uh i'd have to say that this is clearly a a case mostly good most of the chemical weapons around the world have been identified seized destroyed demilitarized under
48:16
opcw certification so there is there is some good in this story but what you have is you have a secret program that continues despite the chemical weapons convention in in and started out in the soviet union ended up in post-soviet russia uh the so-called nova chucks and they they uh they wear their ugly head also you have a cult in japan in the 1990s the alm cult the shinrikyo the
48:47
almond supreme truth cult used nerve agents in a two attacks actually the lesser known matsumoto siren attack uh and then a the the infamous one later on in 1995 in tokyo up to this point it had been really considered that nerve agents were too difficult for so-called you know non-state actors to get terrorist groups to acquire um i would say that you know alm is kind of the exception proves the rule it was such a large group that it
49:19
effectively was the equivalent of a small country uh at one point they had over a hundred thousand members uh their membership was heavily intellectual uh they managed to assemble a you know a chemical warfare research and development team uh of phd level chemists and chemical engineers who were ideological true believers really wanted to do it they spent a lot of money uh they set up front companies to buy uh buy precursor chemicals they
49:50
spent a lot of money in cash in the former soviet union to get some interesting information on how to make sarin and the information they got on how to make sarin was about 80 percent correct it wasn't you know you know it got them a good long way towards making the siren they had to do some some particular work on that but i would say the level of effort they put to it the amount of money they spent they spent somewhere between 50 and 90 million us dollars at the time okay uh that the the effort and the amount of money they spent was the equivalent of one of the smaller
50:21
nerve agent programs from a nation-state standpoint it wasn't any it wasn't any smaller than the yugoslav the uh nerve agent program under under marshall tito and they they managed to make sarin so just try to say oh well no nerve guys and non-state actors you know can't do it they largely can't these guys got to enough critical mass where they were the equivalent of a small country and then we have the syrian war
50:52
uh you can read my posts in bellingcat where you know uh i spent a lot of time nitpicking the chemistry on this stuff uh and there's a whole chapter in my book on the syrian war uh the use of sarin the nerve agent sarin is part of a broader context in the in the syrian civil war the majority of the chemical warfare stuff done in syria is chlorine uh i mean some of that is the fact that chlorine is less strictly controlled by the chemical weapons convention and and the syria has been caught out several times on the saren front and had
51:22
have been slapped around for it but the international community seems less exercised about chlorine but there are two particularly big sarin incidents one in gouta involving rockets that's the left-hand one and a later one in a place called khan sheikhoun which involves at least one aerial dropped bomb that's the crater thereof both involving sarin and the syrians by the way their program is actually quite old this is not a new thing for the syrians the syrians have been working on nerve agents since at least the early 70s possibly the late
51:54
60s and i'm about at the end of my time here but this stretches in the modern day here the events of salisbury uh the uh yulia and sergey skripal uh charlie rowley dawn sturgis who died from exposure um detective sergeant nick bailey who was affected by it so we uh you know it happens here in the uk and i'm not sure i have a picture of it
52:24
no no no i don't have a picture of mr navalny i probably should put one in the revelation that uh mr navalny was poisoned um you know in circumstances they're heavily controlled by their by the russian government that's you know this is this all kind of shows that you know this is not stuff that's just antiquity it reaches from it reaches you know it reaches from the 1930s you know from its evil wicked nazi origins to today so there was a thread running from colorado potato beetles to
52:56
the streets of salisbury and so here's my shameless plug for my book then i'll take some questions i mean there's a lot of things going on in my book is bad people doing good things there's good people doing bad things uh gerhard schroder that scientist all he ever wanted to do was protect crops you know as soon as he had a chance he got out of nerve agent weapons went back to pesticides there's a couple bad people that did some good things uh really really difficult technology and i talk about how how the
53:28
technology is actually quite difficult i talk about the collaboration with industry because all all of these successful nerve agent programs required a a combination of ideology in form of the government that wants to use this stuff and an industry willing and able to cooperate and even the auction regular thing is they well they didn't have an industry willing to cooperate so they built their own arms races have talked about that there's a whole theme of there's a whole theme of
53:59
technology used for good and evil there are certain chemicals in the nerve agent category that are actually useful as medicines so it's not like this entire category is evil so there's and you know you can you can argue the environmental merits of organophosphates as pesticides but clearly they've they've helped crop production i've got spies i've got secrecy i've even got a good commander rate in there i've got some treachery double doing um deterrence you know deterrence is a thing
54:30
deterrence deterrence mostly kept chemical warfare from happening uh most most of the possible chemical attacks that could have ever happened in history never happened because the other guy was convinced of retaliation kind uh and i've got interesting anecdotes and environmental disasters and so there's something for everybody in in toxic and i hopefully i haven't given stolen my own thunder so much i'm almost exactly on one hour uh there is a link here by the way i think
55:01
this will be available for all of you um if you go to if you use the toxic 25 at checkout at my publisher you will get a you'll get a uh i believe a 20 25 discount something like that and there's uh that's only for uk delivery uh non-uk customers can still order through through hearst and they will ship it's not stupidly expensive uh north american customers we are awaiting at some point soon an announcement for a oxford university press to uh announce the release date for a u.s
55:33
and canadian edition and on that note i am happy to take questions you

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