RAF Servicemen Unlawfully Killed By British Government

Roundup: Talking About History

Cahal Milmo, The Independent (London), 16 Nov. 2004
November 16, 2004, Tuesday
SECTION: First Edition; NEWS; Pg. 6
HIGHLIGHT: Lillias Craik, sister of LAC Ronald Maddison, with his picture, taken more than half a century ago PA
A 51-YEAR search for the truth about the death of a young serviceman during secret nerve-gas experiments ended yesterday when an inquest jury decided that he had been unlawfully killed by the British Government.

Ronald Maddison, 20, died in 1953 at the Porton Down research complex in Wiltshire after he and 348 other volunteers were exposed to massive doses of the sarin nerve agent during tests to establish its lethal dose.

His death resulted in one of the most enduring cover-ups of the Cold War after an initial inquest, held behind closed doors for"reasons of national security", returned a verdict of death by misadventure: it ruled that Leading Aircraftsman Maddison had died by choking. At the time, government lawyers recommended offering the dead man's relatives a pension to"dispose of the case", noting,"Least said, soonest mended".

But yesterday a jury of six men and four women, who spent 66 days hearing evidence in one of the longest post-war inquests, took less than five hours to decide LAC Maddison was killed by those in charge of the tests and, ultimately, the Ministry of Defence. The verdict will reopen the debate about the treatment of 3,400 servicemen who passed through Porton Down during the nerve gas experiments, in particular the 349 in tests to"discover the dosage of GB sarin which would cause incapacity or death".

Some 600 former military personnel have lodged compensation claims with lawyers amid calls for a public inquiry.

Ken Earl, spokesman for the Porton Down Veterans' Support Group, who underwent a similar experiment 12 days before LAC Maddison, said last night:"We hope the MoD will listen to this verdict and finally lift the restriction that for so many years has prevented us from seeking redress.

"This verdict shows illegal experiments were being carried out on unknowing servicemen who were being exposed to unacceptable risk of injury and, in the case of Ronald Maddison, death."

Terry Alderson, 74, another veteran who was in court to hear the verdict, said:"This shows what liars the MoD were. Nobody volunteered for these tests. We were sent in there like sheep. They treated us like human animals and we that are still alive are the lucky ones."

There was little immediate sign that the MoD would meet the veterans' demands. A spokesman said:"We will be seeking legal advice on whether we wish to consider a judicial review. We don't believe the verdict has implications for other volunteers." The decision may hinge on directions given by the Wiltshire coroner, David Masters.

The six-month-long inquest at Trowbridge heard that LAC Maddison, a fit ice-hockey player from Co Durham, had volunteered for the tests in return for a weekend pass and extra pay. Fellow veterans claimed they had had responded to notices at their bases advertising research into a cure for the common cold, although an MoD historian said no such link had been found.

When LAC Maddison arrived for his test on morning of 6 May, 1953, he was made to sit in a sealed chamber while wearing a gas mask and had 20 drops or 200mg of sarin, a colourless, odourless liquid, dropped onto a piece of cloth on his arm.

Each man in the group of five was given a pencil and paper on which to play noughts and crosses. After 23 minutes, LAC Maddison said he was feeling"pretty queer". Soon afterwards he collapsed and within 30 minutes he was dead.

Witnesses at the inquest, held after long legal battle culminating in a High Court ruling that the original proceedings had been seriously flawed, said staff had been unable to cope with the emergency. Alfred Thornhill, one of the ambulance drivers called to LAC Maddison's aid, said:"He was convulsing and foam was coming out of his mouth. They just threw him on to the bed and gave him a big injection. It was a terrible atmosphere; they were all panicking."

One expert told the hearing that the scientists had been"acting on the edge of their knowledge" and exposed the volunteers to"uncontrollable danger". The inquest was told that even after the government ordered a halt to experiments on people, further sarin tests were done in 1953 as Britain, America and Canada raced to develop a nerve gas capacity to counter the threat from the Soviet Union.

Lawyers for Lillias Craik, LAC Maddison's 70-year-old sister, who recently suffered a stroke after long years of campaigning, said she was pleased with the verdict and would now be seeking compensation.

Alan Kerr, representing the Maddison family, said:"The family now know how and why Ronnie died and they are pleased that the jury's verdict is unlawful killing by the state."

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