The Wickham Steed affair in popular culture

Here in Australia, we're just catching up on the last two series of Foyle's War, a British detective drama which differs from the estimated 734 other British detective dramas in existence by being set in Sussex during the Second World War. This is a very large part of its charm (though due regard must be given to the performances of the three leads, Michael Kitchen, Honeysuckle Weeks, and Anthony Howell -- classic English diffidence and stiff-upper-lippery all round, if you like that sort of thing). The war is used very well, I think -- plots generally revolve around some aspect of wartime experience, such as black marketeering, conscientious objectors, homegrown fascists. The Blitz and the threat of invasion overshadow the early episodes; the Yanks turn up in the later ones and start stealing all the women.

But the episode which screened last Sunday, "Bad blood", initially didn't look very promising in terms of its use of history. There were some uncharacteristically clunky references to various battles and personalities shovelled into a couple of conversations, along the lines of 'well it looks like Russia's done for, Stalingrad will be next to fall (wink wink) and what about old Rommel, eh?' Though it does at least allow us to date one scene to a period of approximately 5 minutes on the morning of 19 August 1942, because we are told that 'it looks like things might work out in Dieppe'! But all of that was forgiven as the central plot unfolded ...

This time, it was about biological warfare experiments: the episode opens with sheep being exposed to (what we later learn is) weaponised, airborne anthrax on a Sussex beach. I'm not going to quibble and say that this episode should therefore have been set on a remote Scottish island,1 as that's where the real anthrax experiments were carried out. (OK, I suppose I did just say that.) Later, as our heroes are rifling through the house of a Quaker scientist who's legged it, they find some papers in German, which include the phrase: Luft-Gas-Angriff, or "aero-chemical attack". So the story is already starting to stray into my areas of interest. But wait -- there's more.

As one of the secretive types in charge of the anthrax project explains to Chief Superindendent Foyle, the government has to develop biological weapons in case the Germans use them against Britain. Why do they think that might happen? Because

The Germans were experimenting with bacteriological weapons on the Paris Metro and London Underground systems almost 10 years ago -- at least that's what we believe.

Ah-ha! Now that's a clear reference to the Wickham Steed affair, a fairly obscure episode in British history. Which just happens to be one of the defence panics I am researching at the moment!

Henry Wickham Steed was a famous British journalist with a reputation for scoops. He had been The Time's man in Vienna before the First World War; later he became editor of that paper for a few years, before going on to edit Review of Reviews. In 1934, he published a sensational article in Nineteenth Century and After entitled "Aerial warfare: secret German plans".2 He claimed to have received through unofficial channels records relating to German biological weapons research, including scientific experiments carried out in July 1933 by German secret agents in and around certain Paris Metro and London Underground stations (which of course had served as air raid shelters in the First World War, and would do so again in the Second). These experiments supposedly involved the release of non-toxic marker bacteria into the ventilation systems of the stations, to see how they spread. In itself this was harmless, but the point was to test whether toxic bacteria could be delivered by bombs to the city above, penetrate into the stations below, and infect the civilians huddled inside. So this is what that line of dialogue in Foyle's War is talking about.

Wickham Steed's article caused a minor sensation, which is what I will be looking at. At the time it was published, the Nazis had been in power for over a year and were widely believed to be building an illegal air force, which some people (I'm looking at you, Viscount Rothermere) claimed was already bigger than the RAF. So when that was combined with evidence of German curiosity about the vulnerability to biological weapons of what would likely be the biggest British and French air raid shelters in wartime, it's understandable that some people got nervous. The government began to take the possibility of a German biological weapons programme more seriously, and eventually started making preparations, such as stockpiling vaccines.

What are we to make of Wickham Steed's accusations? Well, in 1992 an epidemiologist named Martin Hugh-Jones took a close look at the affair and wrote an excellent history paper on it.3 He analysed what is known of the records Wickham Steed claimed to have received (the papers themselves are long gone),4 and concluded that they were scientifically worthless, because of the lack of proper controls. He speculates that the experiments were indeed carried out, but not on the orders of the German government, and not by trained scientists, but rather by over-enthusiastic students of a course on biological warfare for military personnel and civil defence workers, which was held regularly in Berlin. But it's also possible that Wickham Steed was duped and that the papers were forged: perhaps by Nazis, perhaps by anti-Nazis.

All of that is just a long-winded way of thanking the creator and writer of Foyle's War, Anthony Horowitz, for taking the time and the effort to use some obscure bits of history as colour in his show, and thereby allowing me to feel smug in the knowledge that I was one of the few people on the planet to get the reference :)

All good things must come to an end, and the next season of Foyle's War will sadly be the last.

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  1. Well, remote from non-Scottish places, anyway ... []
  2. H. Wickham Steed, "Aerial warfare: secret German plans", Nineteenth Century and After 116 (1934), 1-15. []
  3. Martin Hugh-Jones, "Wickham Steed and German biological warfare research", Intelligence and National Security 7 (1992), 379-402. A brief account of the Wickham Steed affair can be found in Ed Regis, The Biology of Doom: The History of America's Secret Germ Warfare Project (New York: Henry Holt, 1999), 14-5. []
  4. As far as is known, Wickham Steed destroyed them in 1939. It may be that the documents in German which Foyle finds in the scientist's house are supposed to be the Wickham Steed papers; the phrase Luft-Gas-Angriff did appear in them, as the title of a (possibly non-existent) department of the German War Ministry. []

6 thoughts on “The Wickham Steed affair in popular culture

  1. I thought 'Foyle's War' was outstanding, and Michael Kitchen perfect in his role. Unfortunately, we only got a short run of the shows over here, at least to my knowledge; would love to see the rest. And no, I sure didn't get that Wickham Steed reference. Thanks for an illuminating post!

  2. Be of good cheer! According to Wikipedia and the (unofficial) Foyle's War site, there will be another season, with 3 episodes. According to Wikipedia, that will be the final season. I know it looked like the end, but it wasn't much of a resolution if so, and anyway there's still 2 more years of war to go yet!

    In yet more good news, Australia's finally getting Foyle's War on DVD.

  3. CK

    That's great news. I was hurting a lot there for a while. Anyway I hope the ABC repeats it.

    By the way Brett, I've just been reading Niall Fergusson's War of the World and he's got some interesting stuff to say about RAF, army and navy funding in the 30's.

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