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June 2009

Revealed: Secret WWII Sewing Needle Bomb

By Sewing needle

During World War II, British scientists developed a new, extremely deadly secret weapon: a bomb that released a cloud of sewing needles, stuffed with deadly poison.

The weapon is disclosed in the last dissemination of declassified documents from the National Archives of the United Kingdom. It was developed at Porton Down, which today houses Defense science and technology laboratory – but remains known for testing chemical and biological weapons on unsuspecting troops during the Cold War. The work on the darts was carried out with the help of Canadian and American researchers.

Each dart consisted of a hollow steel needle with a paper tail. The tip of the needle was filled with toxin and a dense “inertia pellet” above it. When the needle struck a target, the pellet continued and forced the toxin out of the needle. It was enough to break the skin to inject a lethal dose.

The needles were tested on sheep and goats under “realistic” conditions, sometimes covered with two layers of clothing and protected by trenches. The researchers concluded that if a needle “penetrates[ed] in the flesh, it will cause death if it is not ripped off within thirty seconds.

Media reports (including the BBC) claim that the chemical agent was mustard gas; this is extremely unlikely as the required dose would be much too high. In fact, it would be one of the new nerve agents which were first deployed during WWII. The lethal dose of Sarin is 30 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, so three milligrams would kill most people. For Mustard gas, the required dose would be about two hundred times higher. The effects reported in animal subjects (contractions and convulsions followed by death) also strongly suggest a nerve agent.

The program called for the production of thirty million darts. This would require a large number of specially designed needles; the UK project manager contacted the obvious source: the Singer Sewing Machine Company, in a letter apologizing that: “It’s a little hard to explain what I want sewing machine needles for …”

Singer’s response was helpful, albeit bewildered: “From your remarks, it would appear that needles are needed for purposes other than sewing machines. Either way, we would like to help you out, if possible.

The weapon never went into production, possibly because the darts had very little penetrating power. As soon as its effects were known, scientists said people would start taking shelter under trees or in buildings or vehicles, making the rain of darts ineffective. The report also notes that the dart bomb would have been a “very uneconomical weapon”. It may have sealed his fate.

Nowadays, no one in the Western military would dream of using poison darts. But darts filled with a non-lethal “calming” agent are another matter. British researchers were examining non-lethal dart guns for crowd control in 1972; it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination to make one non-lethal artillery shells. I wonder if they still have the Singer quote?

[Picture: British National Archive]

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