War and preparations for war create an enormous amount of waste (over and above the waste of producing the weapons in the first place), which has to be disposed of somehow. Military waste is generally toxic and costly to dispose of safely, so the solution has usually been to dump it, and the sea seemed to be a convenient place.

At the end of the Second World War Britain had over 2 million tons of munitions - artillery shells, phosphorus flares, mortars, incendiaries and cluster bombs and so on, to get rid of. Unsurprisingly, it was decided that the only economic way to dispose of this was to dump it in the sea. Beaufort Dyke, a 30-mile long trench between Scotland and Ireland became a major military dumping ground for 30 years thereafter. 14,000 tonnes of phosgene-filled rockets were just a small part of the wide variety of munitions dumped. Phosgene, a colourless poison gas which caused severe lung damage, was used by both the Germans and the Allies. It was designed to incapacitate rather than to kill.

Beaufort Dyke was only one of a number of British military dumps. Shortly after the war, in an operation codenamed Sandcastle, huge quantities of chemical weapons were disposed of at sea. These included 120,000 tonnes of UK-manufactured mustard gas and 17,000 tonnes of the German nerve gas Tabun; these were loaded into 24 redundant vessels and scuttled in deep water off the Hebrides and Land's End.

Tons of WW1 chemical weapons lie in just 2 metres of water close to popular Belgian and Dutch beaches.

Watch Troubled Waters: the hidden legacy of chemical weapos dumping.

bombs come ashore
In 1995, 4,000 phosphorus incendiary bombs from Beaufort Dyke were washed up on Mull, Oban, Arran and other parts of Scotland's west coast. A four-year-old boy suffered burns to his hand and legs when a bomb he picked up on the beach ignited. The bombs had become dislodged by British gas engineers who were laying a pipeline close to the dyke.

There may be worse to come. ‘The phosphorus bombs are just straws in the wind. They have come ashore because they are so buoyant,’ says Paul Johnston, a marine pollution expert at Exeter University. ‘It is possible that Phosgene canisters could separate from their rockets and wash ashore. The effects are unpredictable, but there is a very clear risk of personal injury.’

In 1973 two International Conventions to control the dumping of materials at sea put a stop to the sea being used as a cheap dumping ground, though Britain continues to dump some of its military waste 400 miles west of Lands End.

In the Baltic Sea, where Britain and the Soviet Union, in particular, have dumped vast quantities of toxic military waste mostly after World War Two, discharges of mustard gas, which forms a jelly on contact with water, have been coming to the surface. The Danish authorities have recorded more than 400 cases of fishermen hauling up crusts of the toxic material in their nets, and there have been deaths and injuries to those who inadvertently handled it.

Meanwhile only a few hundred metres from the popular Belgian and Dutch beaches, lying in only two metres of water, are unknown but undoubtedly large quantities of mustard gas. Some estimates put it at over 1 million litres. Unsurprisingly the Belgian government is not keen to advertise this fact.

long shadow of war
The First World War left, along with the bodies of soldiers, vast amounts of unused munitions lying about the battlefields. Millions of French, British and German shells, many of which contained poison gas, had to be disposed of. The British were the first to dump their unused ammunition into the sea. Between June and September 1919, they sent at least sixteen hundred railway carriages full of munitions to be dumped off the Belgian coast. Later that year, the Belgian army began dumping mostly German munitions that had been left behind, often still in their factory boxes and crates. It is not clear how much the Belgian army dumped into the sea. A ‘secret’ Belgian Navy report in 1972 estimated that some 340 tonnes were dumped each day; the operation lasted for six months.

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