Beetle Bombs

If Adolf Hitler had not forbidden offensive research on biological warfare, the Germans might have surpassed the Japanese in entomological weaponry. Scholars speculate that Hitler's aversion to unconventional arms may have stemmed from having been gassed in the First World War. Others note that among Hitler's eccentricities was a phobia of bacteria, so producing pathogens by the ton might have been too much for him to contemplate.1 The Führer, however, was not entirely in control of his military.

Although Hitler's prohibition impeded progress, the Nazis were able to surreptitiously pursue offensive research under the auspices of developing defensive capabilities. Germany's research and development program was centered at the SS Military Medical Academy at Posen, under the supervision of Professor Kurt Blome—Germany's version of Ishii Shiro, but without the megalomania. As part of Blome's network, an Institute of Entomology was established within the Waffen-SS by order of Heinrich Himmler.

The entomological research initially focused on vector-borne diseases. Medical scientists tried to weaponize typhus-infected lice, using prisoners at Natzweiler, Dachau, and Buchenwald as experimental animals. Another program investigated methods for triggering plague outbreaks in enemy ports. And intrigued by the outbreak of malaria in war-torn Greece, Blome discussed whether it might be possible "to spread malaria artificially by means of mosquitoes."2

Nobody can be surprised that lice, fleas, and mosquitoes attracted the attention of Nazi war planners; these disease vectors had caused millions of deaths in previous wars. But few could have guessed that the linchpin of the German biological warfare effort would be a lethargic—albeit hungry and fecund—thumbnail-size black-and-yellow striped herbivorous insect, the

Colorado potato beetle (see Figure 12.1). This dumpy insect's military career was launched by virtue of its being in the right place at the right time.

The beetle's early years among people were rather unexceptional.3 Leptinotarsa decemlineata (the species' name being a reference to the ten lines or stripes on its body) was identified in the early 19th century, living quietly along the Rocky Mountains where it fed on prickly nightshade—a poisonous, spine-covered plant. But the nightshade family also includes species of agronomic value, including the insect's namesake (the leaves of which are toxic). So when potatoes were brought to the western frontier, the beetles flourished. The insects also found related plants quite delectable, including egg plant, peppers, tomato, and tobacco.

While pioneers followed wagon trails westward, the beetles followed a food trail eastward. In 1869 the insects reached the lush farmland of Ohio, and by 1874 they made it to the East Coast. Seeing the devastation wrought by the pest, the Europeans banned the importation of American potatoes. The wholesale destruction of potato fields struck a raw nerve on the other side

Figure 12.1. A Colorado potato beetle was the mainstay of the German entomological warfare program in World War II, although the French and Americans also pursued weaponization of this crop-feeding pest. The Nazis estimated that 20 to 40 million beetles would be needed for a major attack on English potato fields. Whether such a coleopteran assault transpired is a matter of debate, but millions of beetles had been stockpiled by the summer of 1944. (Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA/ARS)

Figure 12.1. A Colorado potato beetle was the mainstay of the German entomological warfare program in World War II, although the French and Americans also pursued weaponization of this crop-feeding pest. The Nazis estimated that 20 to 40 million beetles would be needed for a major attack on English potato fields. Whether such a coleopteran assault transpired is a matter of debate, but millions of beetles had been stockpiled by the summer of 1944. (Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA/ARS)

of the Atlantic. Not 25 years earlier, the Great Hunger had spread across the continent. Beginning in Ireland, where the suffering was most severe, a fungal disease turned potatoes into black rotting lumps. Between 1846 and 1850, a million people died from hunger and disease owing to the blight, and another two million became refugees. People do not soon forget such misery.

Europe's potato crops stayed beetle-free until World War I, when the influx of troops and supplies from the United States made the quarantine impossible to sustain. When the beetle established a beachhead near Bordeaux, France, the echo of the Irish potato famine became the drumbeat of entomological warfare.

In 1938, an eminent British scientist, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, published a paper entitled "Science and the Future of Warfare," which launched the military career of the Colorado potato beetle. This influential scientist's entomological predictions were much more accurate than his other conjectures. Haldane dismissed the possibility of developing more powerful explosives, pooh-poohed the notion of finding deadlier chemicals, and soundly renounced the idea of producing aerosols of pathogenic microbes. But he viewed insects as having the potential to play a significant, if not decisive, role in coming conflicts:

On the other hand, it is reasonably probable that some biological methods will be used. It would be very surprising, for example, if insect pests, such as the potato beetle, were not introduced into this country by hostile aeroplanes in the course of a future war. The potato beetle would not cause a famine, but it would cause a certain amount of trouble and keep a certain number of people busy who could be used for other purposes. . . . The Germans may drop potato beetles on us or the French may drop them on the Germans.4

Naming the combatants seemed a particularly bold move. But Haldane surely knew that the increasing beetle populations in western Europe would evoke agricultural anguish—and military temptation. Whether he was a brilliant prognosticator or simply an informed scientist connecting the dots, Haldane's forecast turned out to be uncannily close to the mark. France became the European center of entomological warfare in the late 1930s.5

The use of insects as weapons was broached by the French in May 1939 during a meeting of the Veterinary Surgeon's Commission for Disease Prevention in Modern Warfare. Despite the organization's apparent focus on animal health, the insects of interest were plant pests. Lieutenant Colonel Guillot proposed developing a system for dropping beetles from the air onto enemy potato fields. In light of the importance of this crop to the Germans and the demonstrable damage caused by natural infestations of the beetle, the commission approved the plan. By that September, France's program to weaponize the Colorado potato beetle was under way.

Under the leadership of Professor Paul Vayssiere, the entomological warfare program began to develop methods for producing and dispersing the beetles. Details are sketchy, but at least some progress was made, as field tests were conducted in Cazaux to assess release methods.6 How close the French came to having a viable weapon system is not clear, as the Nazi invasion cut short the program in 1940.

Despite their best efforts to destroy evidence, the French left behind enough clues for the Nazis to infer that a biological warfare program had been under way. Professor Heinrich Kliewe of Giessen University's Diagnostic Laboratory for Infectious Diseases was a member of the inspection team, and he knew that the captured equipment and confiscated records were cause for alarm. Kliewe figured that if the French were developing biological weapons, then surely the British and Americans also had active programs.7 Based on evidence from France and the Fatherland's vulnerabilities, the Germans were somewhat concerned about anthrax, plague, and rinderpest (a disease of cattle). But their deepest worries pertained to foot-and-mouth disease—and potato beetles.

The Germans had been preparing for the Colorado potato beetle well before the discovery that their enemy was weaponizing the insect. In the 1930s, Germany took a two-pronged approach to defending the nation's food against this pest. First, they aggressively pursued the development of new insecticides.8 This research led to the discovery of organophosphorous compounds, versions of which included chemicals that were quite good at killing insects—and absolutely astounding at killing humans. German chemists had stumbled onto the nerve gases—poisons based on the same general structure as two of today's commonly used home-and-garden insecticides, malathion and diazinon. With relatively minor tweaking of the basic chemistry, German scientists produced the terrible trio of tabun, sarin, and soman—a tiny droplet of which caused horrific convulsions and death within minutes. Although the Nazis had a monopoly on the nerve gases, these chemicals were not used in warfare, largely because erroneous intelligence led the German High Command to believe that the Allies had similar weapons.9

In the second prong of the defensive effort, the Germans convened an international committee to recommend countermeasures against the insect menace. By the time the French scheme was discovered, Germany's Potato Beetle Defense Service had 632 personnel engaged in monitoring more than 2 million acres of potato fields for natural infestations. Kliewe used this organization to investigate suspicious incursions of Colorado potato beetles. Major outbreaks in Bavaria and Thuringia were blamed on enemy raids, but the evidence was highly circumstantial. Soon, however, the Germans had the "smoking gun" that they needed to shift their entomological warfare program from defensive measures to offensive tactics.

On April 30, 1942, Kliewe's office received a disturbing report from England.10 According a reliable German spy, an American B-24 Liberator had delivered an unspecified number of Texas ticks (probably Amblyomma spp.) and 15,000 Colorado potato beetles to the British. Shocked by this information, the German Army High Command demanded an immediate risk assessment. Kliewe drafted a report in which he dismissed the ticks as posing a threat to Germany. He was much less certain about the potato beetles. A few thousand of these insects could not be used for mass release, but he warned that their use "by agents and saboteurs has still to be taken into account."11 The military leaders concluded that Germany could no longer rely solely on repulsing an attack. While continuing to develop defenses against insect invasions, the Nazis decided that they needed the capacity to retaliate in kind, and they put Kliewe in charge of the effort.

The Germans faced two immediate obstacles in creating an entomological weapon. Hitler had banned offensive biological warfare, but Kliewe neatly sidestepped this prohibition by maintaining that the Germans could not hope to adequately defend themselves unless they had knowledge of the sorts of weapons that the Allies might be devising. So the offensive program was cast as a simulated venture into what the enemy might be plotting. With the political problem solved, Kliewe could turn to the practical problem; he needed an infrastructure for research and development.

Kliewe transformed the Potato Beetle Defense Service into the Potato Beetle Research Institute, a subtle change in name that camouflaged a major redirection of the program.12 Under his leadership, the laboratories were converted to facilities for weaponizing, rather than controlling, insect pests. To wage entomological warfare, the scientists had to address three critical questions: which insect would make the best weapon; how could it be mass produced; and what methods would allow its dissemination into enemy lands?

As for choosing an agent, the Colorado potato beetle's record of damage gave the species a leg up on its rivals. But alternatives were proposed and preliminary experiments were conducted to explore untapped military potential. Between 1941 and 1944, at least 15 species of aphids (family Aphidae), beetles (order Coleoptera), bugs (order Heteroptera), flies, and moths (order Lepidoptera) were evaluated for their capacity to decimate asparagus, corn, pasture grasses, pine trees, potatoes, rapeseed, turnips, and wheat.13 Several plant diseases and weeds were also considered. However, little progress was made with any of these agents, so the Colorado potato beetle became the focus of research. The next challenge was large-scale production.

At the inaugural meeting of the Blitzableiter (Lightning Rod) Committee in March 1943, the scientists and strategists discussed how many Colorado potato beetles would be needed to inflict serious damage on the enemy's agriculture. One of the key scientists, Dr. Bayer, had done his homework and delivered the discouraging news: "England probably has about 400,000 hectares [1 million acres] of potato fields, for whose destruction about 20—40 million beetles would be necessary. At present the production of such great quantities is impossible."14

But, being a good scientist, Bayer converted adversity into opportunity. He claimed that the problem of production could be solved with a bit of funding and research—with his laboratory taking the lead, of course. He was clearly not a man to make vacuous assertions, for a month later Bayer informed the committee that the mass breeding of Colorado potato beetles had begun. How Bayer accomplished this remains a mystery. The first entirely successful artificial diet for this insect was not reported in the scientific literature until 2001,15 so we can surmise that the Germans used fields and greenhouses to provide a year-round supply of potato leaves.

Whatever system Bayer and his associates invented, it was tremendously productive, for he expected that enough beetles to mount an attack would be on hand by the summer of 1944. Bayer calculated that if the insects were released over the potato fields of eastern England, "[the] destruction of the fields will reduce food calories by 6%."16 While falling short of famine, this deprivation would add substantially to the suffering of an already beleaguered nation. With the insects in the production pipeline, the third question became a pressing matter: how to disperse tens of millions of beetles?

The Germans believed that a low-tech means of dissemination would be effective if the enemy were unprepared to quickly find and suppress incipient infestations. And this was precisely the state of affairs in war-torn Britain.

So the Blitzableiter Committee approved field trials to evaluate direct aerial releases.

The best documented release experiments took place near Speyer, in October 1943.17 In the first trial, 40,000 potato beetles were marked and dropped from a plane. Fewer than 100 beetles were recovered. A subsequent aerial release of 14,000 beetles yielded just 57 recoveries. These results meant that either the Germans were bad at recapturing beetles or the beetles were good at dispersing. The latter interpretation was favored. However, these sorts of field experiments were diminishing the stockpile of insects for the raid on England, so the Germans switched to using inanimate models in experiments involving the airdrop of as many as 100,000 wooden surrogates.

Interestingly, the Germans never seemed to recognize the most obvious advantage of dropping fake beetles. Releasing tens of thousands of live pests over Germany to test an entomological weapon system had the same downside as aiming a gun at one's own head and pulling the trigger to see if it is loaded. The beetles falling on the German countryside in the name of military science had no allegiance and were more than happy to bite the hand—or the fields—of those who bred them. When a major outbreak developed in southern Germany, Hermann Goring accused the Allies of waging an entomological attack, notwithstanding Kliewe's research program having released thousands of beetles in the afflicted region the year before.18

While wooden beetles were falling on German farms, live beetles were reproducing like mad in Nazi laboratories. By June 1944, the German High Command was informed that "the use [of the Colorado potato beetle] is possible at any time."19 Despite all the preparations, there is only limited evidence that the beetles were ultimately released. German records provide no clear documentation, although there was considerable incentive to destroy files pertaining to biological warfare in the closing days of the war. All we have is a single accusation from a British naturalist.

In an International Herald Tribune article, Richard Ford recounted potato beetle attacks.20 He claimed that cardboard box—bombs armed with 50 to 100 insects were dropped over English fields. The earliest incident took place in 1943 on the Isle of Wight, where teams of evacuee children—pledged to secrecy—were dispatched to the infested sites and put to work rounding up the beetles and dropping them into vats of boiling water. Ford reported that another attack took place in Sussex, although "how many of these Colorado beetle bombs were dropped in England, I do not know."21 The veracity of the retired British Museum official's testimony is diminished by the absence of physical evidence (none of the boxes were preserved), the incongruous timing with the German program (beetles were apparently not ready for full deployment until 1944, although small-scale trials on enemy lands may have been conducted before then), and the lack of corroboration by other beetle-bomb eyewitnesses.

At least the story of beetle invasions was more plausible than the bizarre rumor of entomological warfare that swept Britain in 1940. After the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk came fantastical stories that the Germans had created an omnivorous strain of grasshoppers (family Acrididae) that would be used to starve England into surrender.22 Perhaps their own military history gave the British a reason for believing this wildly imaginative scuttlebutt—after all, they had used a naval blockade in the hopes of starving the Germans in World War I. Whatever its origins, British concern for entomological warfare became an ironically self-fulfilling prophesy.

On December 6, 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill received a "Most Secret" memo from a member of his War Cabinet. Lord Maurice Hankey, head of the British biological warfare program, sounded an ominous warning:

I would not trust the Germans, if driven to desperation, not to resort to such methods [as biological warfare]. It is worthy of mention that a few specimens of the Colorado beetle, which preys on the potato, were found in some half a dozen districts in the region between Weymouth and Swansea a few months ago: although these are not important potato districts and no containers of other suspicious objects were discovered, there were abnormal features in at least one instance suggesting that the occurrence was not due to natural causes.23

The beetle outbreaks were almost certainly not the dastardly work of the enemy, given that the infestations arose more than a year before the Germans began mass-producing Colorado potato beetles. But Hankey's concerns were genuine, as his memo also requested permission to organize defensive measures against entomological attacks. Churchill authorized such a program on January 2,1942. And as part of developing this effort, the British had Colorado potato beetles flown from the United States—the shipment that the German spies discovered and interpreted as evidence of offensive preparations.24 So it was that the Allies inadvertently catalyzed the Nazi's program of entomological warfare.

While the British and Germans were unwittingly goading one another into escalating efforts to prepare for a deluge of Colorado potato beetles, the Americans were apparently plugging away with their own experiments.25 Although there is some evidence of a beetle-breeding project, nothing suggests that these insects were deployed against the Nazis. The targeting of postwar Germany is another matter, at least according to some sources.

The East Germans, along with the Czechs and Poles, periodically alleged that the Americans were using potato beetles to starve communist citizens and induce "economic collapse."26 The most explicit accusation was made in 1950, when the East German State Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry formally charged the United States with scattering beetles over potato crops. The Czech Minister of Agriculture joined the fray, claiming that "Western imperialists this year again are spreading the Colorado beetle in our fields, this time as far East as Slovakia."27 Eastern European media published photographs of "potato bug containers" allegedly attached to parachutes and balloons, and Polish and East German children were regularly dispatched to the Baltic coast in search of beetles. The East Germans took to calling the insect Amikäfer—a clever combination of the German words for "American" (Amerikanischer) and "beetle" (Käfer). The government also produced a series of beautifully rendered posters showing potato beetles with the black and yellow stripes replaced with red and white ones (along with white stars on a blue thorax) falling from airplanes and marching across a map of Germany (see Figures 12.2 and 12.3).

Cold War paranoia combined with World War II history during the 1969 Geneva disarmament conference, at which a British representative expressed his nation's fears of entomological warfare: "[It] is possible to envisage the use in war of biological agents which are not microbes; hookworm, for instance, or the worm causing bilharzia, or even crop-destroying insects such as locusts or Colorado beetles."28

The United Nations also waded, albeit awkwardly, into the issue of Colorado potato beetles being used as weapons. A 1969 UN report on chemical and biological weapons initially asserted that this insect would not be a practical weapon.29 But in a consummate example of diplomatic double-speak, the report then described how weaponized beetles might be used with impressive success:

To use it for this purpose, the beetle would have to be produced in large numbers and introduced, presumably clandestinely, into potato-growing regions at the correct time during maturation of the crop. In the course of spread the beetle first lives in small foci, which grow and increase until it

Figures 12.2 and 12.3. Propaganda posters warning that the Americans were using Colorado potato beetles were distributed in the early days of the Cold War. Although once widely distributed, these are now rare historical artifacts and high-quality images are difficult to acquire. As seen in the left-hand poster, the East Germans took to calling the Colorado potato beetle "Amikäfer"—a blend of the words for American (Amerikanischer) and beetle (Käfer). The flag-bearing version of the pest is a clever adaptation of the spotted (if not starred) thorax and the striped hind wings (see Figure 12.1). The poster on the right admonishes people to battle the insectan incursion in the name of peace. European concerns about the possibility of using these pests as entomological weapons were expressed at the 1969 Geneva disarmament conference, and as recently as 1999 Russian military leaders have implied that clandestine releases by the Americans were still taking place. (Both courtesy of the Kloss Museum)

becomes established over large territories. The beetle is capable of astonishing propagation: the progeny of a single beetle may amount to about 8,000 million in one and a half years. Since beetles prefer to feed and lay their eggs in plants suffering from some viral disease, they and their larvae may help transmit the virus thereby increasing the damage they cause. The economic damage caused by the beetle varies with the season and the country affected, but it can destroy up to 80 per cent of the crop. Protection is difficult because it has not been possible to breed resistant potato species and the only means available at present is chemical protection. Were the beetle ever to be used successfully for offensive purposes, it could clearly help bring about long-term damage because of the difficulty of control.30

Nor does it appear that the final chapter of the potato beetle's military escapades has been written. Lieutenant-Colonel Valentin Yevstigneyev, Russia's deputy chief of Radiological, Chemical, and Biological Defense Forces, made a most remarkable insinuation during a 1999 interview. When asked about the logistics of dispersing biological agents, he noted that although some insects cannot be effectively scattered from the air, "we do have suspicions about the mass emergence of Colorado [potato] beetles in Russia."31 But then, given the Soviet interest in entomological warfare that began in World War II, perhaps a guilty conscience was at the core of his suspicions.

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