War in the East

The books generally say that biological warfare is ineffective, but then they would say that, wouldn’t they? There is reason to think it has worked, and it may have made a difference.

Once upon a time,  it was spring 1942, and the Germans were on a roll. Timoshenko had attacked from an already-established bridgehead across the Donets (the Izium salient) with about 750,000 men.  He made a bad choice, since the Germans had already begun concentrating their forces for a planned southern offensive. After some initial Soviet gains, the Germans brought in Luftwaffe reinforcements and achieved air superiority. The 1st Panzer army counterattacked and cut off much of the Russian forces, who lost a quarter of a million prisoners (according to Beevor), many dead and wounded, and most of their armor.  There was a huge hole in the front, and the Germans advanced towards Stalingrad.

We know of course that this offensive eventually turned into a disaster in which the German Sixth Army was lost. But nobody knew that then.  The Germans were moving forward with little to stop them: they were scary SOBs.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The Soviet leadership was frightened, enough so that they sent out a general backs-to-the-wall, no-retreat order that told the real scale of losses.   That was the Soviet mood in the summer of 42.

That’s the historical background.  Now for the clues. First, Ken Alibek was a bioweapons scientist back in the USSR.  In his book, Biohazard, he tells how,  as a student,  he was given the assignment of explaining a mysterious pattern of tularemia epidemics back in the war. To him, it looked artificial, whereupon his instructor said something to the effect of “you never thought that, you never said that.  Do you want a job?” Second, Antony Beevor mentions the mysteriously poor health of German troops at Stalingrad – well before being surrounded (p210-211). Third, the fact that there were large tularemia epidemics in the Soviet Union during the war – particularly in the ‘oblasts temporarily occupied by the Fascist invaders’, described in History and Incidence of Tularemia in the Soviet Union, by Robert Pollitzer.

Fourth, personal communications from a friend who once worked at Los Alamos. Back in the 90′s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a time when you could hire a whole team of decent ex-Soviet physicists for the price of a single American. My friend was having a drink with one of his Russian contractors, son of a famous ace, who started talking about  how his dad had dropped tularemia here, here, and here near Leningrad (sketching it out on a napkin) during the Great Patriotic War. Not that many people spontaneously bring up stories like that in dinner conversation…

Fifth, the huge Soviet investment in biowarfare throughout the Cold War is a hint: they really, truly, believed in it, and what better reason could there be than decisive past successes?  In much the same way, our lavish funding of the NSA strongly suggested that cryptanalysis and sigint must have paid off handsomely  for the Allies in WWII – far more so than publicly acknowledged, until the revelations about Enigma in the 1970s and later.

We know that tularemia is an effective biological agent: many countries have worked with it, including the Soviet Union.  If the Russians had had this capability in the summer of ’42 (and they had sufficient technology: basically just fermentation) , it is hard to imagine them not using it. I mean, we’re talking about Stalin. You think he had moral qualms?  But we too would have used germ warfare if our situation had been desperate.

In my picture, it probably wasn’t used in 1941 because of surprise, the fast-moving front, crushing German air superiority (after the initial airfield strikes), and winter. I think that the Soviets were probably hesitant in 1942, since detection would have probably led to German efforts along the same lines, doubly dangerous because Germany was the world leader in bacteriology in those days, and because Moscow was within easy reach of the Luftwaffe. Tularemia, though, is easy to misdiagnose, and the Germans didn’t have much experience with it. Moreover, Germans in Stalingrad never had a chance to be fully debriefed back in Germany.  Risky in the long run, but you first have to survive in the short run.

Maybe those PO-2s carried something special on their nuisance night raids.

I could be wrong, but it looks likely, and it’s what should have happened.  If biological warfare played a role in the Stalingrad campaign, it may have changed history.

About these ads
This entry was posted in World War Two. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to War in the East

  1. spandrell says:

    And you may have changed history by telling us all.

    Good stuff.

  2. JayMan says:

    Makes one wonder about research into a communicable form of H5N1, which was recently censored (with good reason) with the fear it might aid malicious forces in unleashing such a virus on the world. This makes one wonder how worried about that should we be about that?

  3. dearieme says:

    I had a friend who worked in Zurich in the 70s: he told me that, reflecting on some technical conversations, he’d concluded that either Switzerland “had” the atomic bomb, or wished other countries to wonder whether it had the atomic bomb.

    • Tschafer says:

      Yes, that’s one of the issues that a lot of people don’t get about both nuclear and biowarfare technology – it’s not that hard to get. This is 1940′s technology, and countries actually accrue a lot of advantages by having it, or by being thought to have it.

  4. dave chamberlin says:

    Such an interesting read I had to follow up and see what wikipedia had to say about tularemia and Ken Alibek. Cool stuff. I suggest you follow this story up with more research, but if you are right, you may be approached by shady types who make a similar suggestion “you never thought that, you never said that, can we buy your manuscript?”

  5. Bruce G Charlton says:

    This reminded me of a paper I published when I used to edit Medical Hypotheses:


    Siro Igino Trevisanato The ‘Hittite plague’, an epidemic of tularemia and the first record of biological warfare Medical Hypotheses 2007; Volume 69, Issue 6 , Pages 1371-1374, 2007

    A long-lasting epidemic that plagued the Eastern Mediterranean in the 14th century BC was traced back to a focus in Canaan along the Arwad-Euphrates trading route. The symptoms, mode of infection, and geographical area, identified the agent as Francisella tularensis, which is also credited for outbreaks in Canaan around 1715 BC and 1075 BC. At first, the 14th century epidemic contaminated an area stretching from Cyprus to Iraq, and from Israel to Syria, sparing Egypt and Anatolia due to quarantine and political boundaries, respectively. Subsequently, wars spread the disease to central Anatolia, from where it was deliberately brought to Western Anatolia, in what constitutes the first known record of biological warfare. Finally, Aegean soldiers fighting in western Anatolia returned home to their islands, further spreading the epidemic.

  6. Sean says:

    Given that the Soviets used germ warfare and that was the ‘hitherto unrecognized disease’ , I think the nutritional status of the Germans was mainly responsible for the effectiveness of the tactic. Can’t preview all relevant pages of Beever’s book but as I recall it says one QM cut back on rations during the early days and that unit suffered far worse mortality than any other; presumably its troops went into the siege with lower reserves. Extra calories seem to make a big difference to the chance of surviving infectious disease to someone with marginal nutrition status. Especially under cold stress. Maybe the calories in milk were important to the Kurgans for that reason.

    Military professional on Reinterpreting Operation Barbarossa, he says Germans missed their chance in summer 1941 .

    • gcochran says:

      Sean, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Anybody exposed to an aerosol form of tularemia is likely to get it: 10-50 bacteria are enough to give a 50% probability of infection. You do not need to be sickly, starved, or immunosuppressed in order to contract it, although those factors probably influence its lethality. The same is true of anthrax: if it starts growing in your lungs, you get sick. You’re not born immune. There are in fact some diseases that you _are_ born immune to (most strains of sleeping sickness, for example), or at least have built-in defenses against (Epstein-Barr, cf TLRs).

      A few other facts I’ve just found: First, the Soviets had a tularemia vaccine, which was used to an unclear extent at Stalingrad. At the time nobody else did.

      Next, as far as I can tell, the Stalingrad epidemic is the only large-scale pneumonic tularemia epidemic that has ever occurred.

      Next cool fact: during the Cold War, the Soviets were somewhat more interested in tularemia than other powers. At the height of the US biowarfare program, we produced less than two tons per year. The Soviets produced over one thousand tons of F. tularensis per year in that period.

      Next question, one which deserves a serious, extended treatment. Why are so many people so very very good at coming up with wrong answers? Why do they apply Occam’s razor backwards? This is particularly common in biology. I’m not talking about Croddy in Military Medicine: he probably had orders to lie, and you can see hints of that if you read carefully.

      • Sean says:

        Young men are more vulnerable to many infectious diseases. WW1 was the first conflict in which soldiers deaths in combat outnumbered deaths from disease (about 60/40 I think).. You’ve added supporting detail to the original post and now making a good case, getting there, but still not yet the most plausible explanation I think. I wonder about home grown Russian technology being that effective; was there something about conditions in Stalingrad that enhanced the effect of aerosol delivery or, that weaponized it, like anthrax does with silica. Smoke and fine dust perhaps? Aerosols are tricky to get right in things like fuel-air bombs ( there are rumours the Germans used F-A bombs used in front of Leningrad , or so I read years ago).

        The way I weld Occam’s razor works fine for me, take this biologic problem; two species with the longest longevity quotients Heterocephalus glaber and Brandt’s myotis.
        What’s the connection between a a mole rat that lives underground and a bat that lives by night.?

        Endocrine function in naturally long-living small mammals. “Here, we examine the available endocrine data associated with the vitamin D, insulin, glucocorticoid and thyroid endocrine systems of naturally long-living small mammals. Generally, long-living rodents and bats maintain tightly regulated lower basal levels of these key pleiotropic hormones than shorter lived rodents”.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Generally, young men are less vulnerable to infectious disease than old men or young boys. I know of one major exception – the 1918 flu, where death usually seems to have been a consequence of an immunological overreaction (‘cytokine storm’). That is to say, you’re wrong.

      • Sean says:

        A lot of the deaths on the Donnar Party were young men on their own. In normal circumstances young men are less vulnerable than old men but more vulnerable than young women to many infectious diseases. Anyway it was not a normal situation but soldiers on campaign, packed together in conditions that form an ideal breeding ground for the evolution of virulent strains of disease ( like the 1918 flu). WW1 was unusual in how few soldiers died of disease. Disease & Infection in the American Civil War. Epidemic disease halting a successful campaign is not unusual in history. The 1918 stormtooper offensive being halted by the 1918 flu epidemic was a late example. The conditions for natural selection to come up with a devastating epidemic were there at Stalingrad. The possibility of a familiar disease or diseases becoming so virulent they were unrecognizable to German doctors can’t be discounted.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Sean, the disease was eventually identified as tularemia – by the Russians. There is no person-to-person transmission with tularemia, thus no tendency for it evolve greater virulence. You are repeatedly making incorrect statements. Check more carefully.

  7. ziel says:

    These guys believe the tulameria outbreaks at Stalingrad were natural – unharvested crops leading to rodent infestations, etc.

    • gcochran says:

      The official position of the US is that it didn’t happen because they don’t want it to have happened. That is a surprisingly ineffective method of getting at the truth. Cf the Vela incident. I am reminded of Meselson’s article in Science about anthrax in Sverdlovsk: complete bullshit. I thought so at the time it came out.

      Of course they did it.

      • Tschafer says:

        By the way, speaking of useful idiots, does Meselson still stand by his story that the “Yellow Rain” in SE Asia was lethal bee poop?

        Ah, the ’80′s. For you younger people, I guess that you just had to be there.

  8. j says:

    The artificial dispersion of tularemia on Nazi occupied territories would have made, I think, little difference. Tularemia is a naturally occurring organism, one of the thousands all around us all the time. Soviet effort to make them available to the foreign young men in the area may have had only a marginal or no effect. The fact that the effort was secret makes it more more interesting, but not more effective. Well known and non-secret factors perfectly explain the infectious diseases among the troops: they were extremely tired, they were under prolonged physical and mental stress, and the cold! all the stories mention that terrible Russian winter. The Germans were well aware of the danger posed by infectious diseases to their troops and they tried to isolate outbreaks (like typhus in concentration camps) but Wehrmacht soldiers in Stalingrad were in a very weak physical and mental condition. Anything would have killed them by then and did. And their horses too.

    • gcochran says:

      Tularemia is not spread from person to person: it is spread either by arthropod bites or by water. It can, however, can be spread very effectively as an aerosol. Only 10-50 bacteria are required to infect, and it is highly incapacitating.

      A. We know tularemia is an effective biological weapon. We weaponized it in the 1960s.

      B. We know that the Soviets were researching tularemia (as a weapon) in the 1930s, in Suzdal.

      C. We know that there was a tularemia epidemic in the battle of Stalingrad 1942, that eventually hit both Germans and Russians.

      D. We know that German disease mortality was way up as early as July, well before any food shortage or extreme cold. The Russians were puzzled at all the illness among the Germans. Later, in investigations, German doctors were also puzzled.

      E. We know that the Soviets had their backs to the wall and were mortally afraid of the German offensive.

      F. We know the key decisionmaker was Joseph Stalin. I assumed that people knew what he was like, but that was silly of me. He was was one of the most ruthless killers in world history.

      G. We know – or I do, at any rate – that the Russians had little biplanes, Po-2s, (later used for many years as cropdusters) flying over the German forces every single night.

      H. And I have (second-hand) personal communications from Russians saying that they damn well did drop tularemia, and not just at Stalingrad.

      It is impossible to imagine that Stalin did _not_ order its use, and we know that it works.

      • j says:

        The Sun of the Peoples was a strong leader, if that’s what you meant. But the issues are if the disease was (a) natural, artificial or both, and (b) how much difference spraying the population and the invaders made to the war effort.

  9. Ralph Hitchens says:

    Very interesting. While stipulating the plausibility, let me be the one who takes a shot at the messenger. Can’t speak for the mysterious friend at Los Alamos, but Ken Alibeck was well known within the intelligence community back in the 90s, and while he had some fervent believers he also had more than his share of skeptics. Biological warfare was, for Alibeck as well as a few others, The Next Big Threat, much as Brazil was always The Country of the Future. I suspect that conditions inside Stalingrad in the fall of 1942 were such that outbreaks of Tularemia and other debilitating diseases were likely, and even if it was a successful example of biological warfare, I doubt that it really “changed history.” The Germans were dangerously overextended in southern Russia, and even though the 6th Army managed to occupy 9/10 of the city on the west bank of the Volga, they had little hope of pushing across the river. The well-designed deep envelopment counteroffensive executed by the Soviets was what changed history.

    • Tschafer says:

      If it was just Alibek saying this, maybe, but there’s a lot of other evidence as well. It’s really remarkable how many people REALLY do not want this to have happened, for reasons that I’m not quite sure of. In addition, we have it on the authority of hundreds of people (not just Alibek) that the USSR had a massive bioweapons program, and as odd as the commies were in lots of ways, it’s hard to believe that they would have poured billions of dollars into something that they were not pretty sure of, with regard to efficacy. And of course no one disputes that the Japanese tried biowarfare over China in the 1930′s, which is one of the reasons that the ChiComs were so paranoid about it in Korea. Why not the Soviets? Stalin would have had no moral qualms (fighting the Nazis, I’m not sure I would have, either) and we know that the Soviets pulled out all the stops in Summer/Fall 1942. It seems reasonable that they at least would have tried it. And after all, the anthrax did spread pretty effectively at Sverdlovsk…

    • dave chamberlin says:

      I don’t know what happened regarding Stalingrad but there is a long history of distorted history regarding an advancing military stopped in it’s tracks by disease outbreak. History has been Hollywoodized, people getting blown up looks better on the big screen then people coughing to death. Germany was winning World War One until the Influenza outbreak stopped them in their tracks. Union civil war generals are painted as utter incompetents, out foxed by General Lee at every turn, but rarely is it mentioned that a good portion of the union army contracted malaria once it crossed the Mason Dixon line. The list goes on and on, it has been conjectured that World War Two was the first war where more soldiers died in battle than from disease. While we may never know the details surrounding the cause of tularemia at Stalingrad we do know that disease outbreak has changed military history far more than has been given credit.

      • billswift says:

        >Germany was winning World War One until the Influenza outbreak stopped them in their tracks.

        Nonsense. The war had settled into a vicious stalemate for years before the influenza outbreak.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        The flu outbreak during World War One is called the Spanish Flu. Why? Did it originate in Spain? No, but because Spain was nuetral during the war it’s newspapers reported on the flu outbreaks there while the countries involved in the great war censored all information fearing it would hurt morale of the troops. I was wrong to state that Germany was winning the war when they were struck by a particularly virolent strain of the Spanish Flu in April 1918 and I appreciate the correction. What did happen was the last great German offensive-Germany’s last chance to win the war (or force a further stalemate) was stopped after the Germans had broken clean through the oppositions lines because the troops were too sick to continue the offensive. I cite as my source page 171 of the book “The Great Influenza” by John Barry. The German commander Erich von Ludendorff blamed influenza for the failure of the offensive, but who knows. I am not trying to argue anything absolute, just that disease outbreaks have commonly helped to stall military offenses. I highly reccomend the book because it is one of those big history books, it isn’t just about the Spainish Flu in world War One, it is about the development of modern medicine and how it has impacted our lives so greatly.

  10. Nanonymous says:

    Tularemia outbreak in a region where it is endemic and very common, under conditions most conductive to the disease spread (huge population of rodents, high density of weakened humans)? Does not sound like a biological warfare to me.

  11. gcochran says:

    Tularemia is not spread person-to-person. For an epidemic, you need water transmission or aerosol infection.

    The form of tularemia is influenced by the means of transmission. By mouth, you often see oropharyngeal ulcers. For example, in a recent [2006] waterborne epidemic in [ex-Soviet] Georgia, out of 26 cases, there were 21 oropharyngeal cases and 6 glandular cases. No pulmonary cases.

    In Stalingrad, the great majority of cases suffered from the rare pulmonary form of tularemia. That’s what would happen with a biological attack. There have been cases in which people managed to contract pulmonary tularemia, evidently by cutting or threshing contaminated grain [which raised contaminated dust] , but you know, I don’t think that your typical Feldgrau spent a lot of time bringing in the harvest in 1942. This pulmonary transmission is what made Alibek think it wasn’t an accident. Now what makes lots of people think it was? Crowding has nothing to do with it. It started well before any food shortages …

    You know, somehow I feel I’ve had this same argument on 47 other subjects.

    • Tschafer says:

      Well, maybe it was a natural outbreak of tuleremia, but it seems to have had the fingerprint of aerosol biowarfare, and the Soviets had the means, the motive and the opportunity. As I noted above, there seem to be an awful lot of people who don’t want to believe that biowarfare might work, and I’m not quite sure why. I mean, no one has any problems admiting that nuclear bombs go off, although, I’ll bet that if Stalin had developed an atomic bomb in 1942, and used it on the Wehrmacht, and never admitted it, there would be people arguing that the huge blast at a crucial point in the German supply lines behind Stalingrad was some kind of natural event, or an ammunition dump exploding, or something…

    • Nanonymous says:

      For an epidemic, you need water transmission or aerosol infection.

      Lots of soldiers stationing in the field. That will do it. Sanitary conditions around 1942 Stalingrad were a little compromised, I’d think.

      • gcochran says:

        There has never been another such large pneumonic tularemia epidemic. But there are plenty of people like you.

      • Nanonymous says:


        “Clinicians should be aware that primary pneumonic tularemia can occur after activities that aerosolize the organism from the environment.”

        1942 Stalingrad’s conditions might have been a little worse than on 2000 Martha’s Vineyard. Almost makes me wonder if there was any organism aerosolization going on around Stalingrad.

  12. isamu says:

    Why are chemical and biological weapons banned?

    Because they are crappy weapons.

    • Tschafer says:

      Well, the Soviets didn’t think so, which is why they violated the ban. They tested the damned things repeatedly and were convinced enough by what they found that they developed a huge bioweapons program. Also, even if bioweapons are crappy weapons, that certainly doesn’t negate the possibility that they were used by the Soviets on the Eastern front. In 1942, Stalin was throwing everything he had at the Germans, crappy or not. Obviously, I don’t know wheter Stalin used bioweapons or not, but I utterly fail to see why it’s so unbelieveable that he did.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      if you were in the trenches in World War One you wouldn’t think chemical wepons were crappy.

      • isamu says:

        Initial chemical weapon casualty rates during WWI were quite high until counter-measures (e.g. gas masks) were developed at which point they plummeted. This is the problem with these weapons; they are dramatically less effective on a prepared enemy. An enemy may be surprised with chemical/bio weapons but unless it totally knocks them out of action they can adapt and then retaliate with their own. It is with this understanding that the major power banned them while secretly developing deadlier ones.

        In the two major conflicts where they were used, WWI and Iran-Iraq, chemical weapons were a deciding factor in neither. They aren’t any kind of super-weapon comparable to an atom bomb.

  13. B says:

    A friend’s greatgrandfather was a Soviet medical service major general, who specialized in epidemiology. In 1941, he was awarded for fighting a plague outbreak in the Moscow oblast. More research is obviously necessary.

    As far as the supposed ineffectiveness of biological warfare, ask Sennarechib.

  14. MikeP says:

    Ah, yes, the dreaded “wabbit fever”. I had no clue that it had been looked at as a possible bioweapon. It does seem a good candidate, though, especially for the Soviets at that time. After their initial catastrophe in the south in 1942, the Soviets pretty much left Ukraine and southern Russia to the Germans. The Germans were happy for the territory, but disconcerted that no further great encirclements materialized. Russian strategy of 1812 became Soviet strategy in summer 1942. Let the invaders extend their lines of supply and exhaust themselves. The use of weaponized Tularemia would certainly fit in with that strategy.

  15. dave chamberlin says:

    The best way to catch pneumonic tularemia in the United States is to pulverize a dead infected animal with either a weed wacker or a power lawn mower. Now I know Stanigrad circa 1942 was a vermin infested shit hole where stuff was getting blown to kingdom come all day everyday but still you would not get a 70% infection rate via the lungs for hundred of thousands of solders no matter how many infected critters you blew apart. Alibeks’ principle argument rings true and Cochrans’ follow up argument that we would be bullshitted by our government also rings true. I say build your case and get it published. Tularemia isn’t the excellent weapon it once was, it is treatable by antibiotics, so talking about what happened shouldn’t be censored. Hell of a story, hell of a story.

  16. dearieme says:

    The main defect with bio weapons is (I assume) that they may infect your troops too. So to use them requires someone who worried if lots of his own troops die. Stalin, say.

    • billswift says:

      That is only a problem with contagious organisms, which tularemia isn’t, it cannot spread person to person. In many ways, aerosoled tularemia would act like a slow acting poison gas with a very small lethal dose (since the organism does reproduce in the body once it gets there).

    • Nanonymous says:

      A no brainer – vaccinations. The Soviets actually had quite an effective tularemia vaccine by 1940 (first successfully tested in 1936), yet they were similarly affected at Stalingrad.

      • s.cutca@gmail.com says:

        I don’t give the Soviets much credit for original technical achievements but they wouldn’t necessarily have given a vaccine to the cannon fodder of the Red Army. The Soviets assumed units committed to battle would be destroyed and made no provision for them surviving until midway through the war. They cleared minefields by herding their own civilians through them. (according to Ellis in ‘Brute Force’)

  17. dearieme says:

    Oh Lord: I meant ” someone who ISN’T worried if lots of his own troops die”.

  18. Tschafer says:

    Given the savagery of the war on the Eastern Front, it has always surprised me that gas and bioweapons were not used. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising to find out that both the Germans and Russians used them, as quietly as possible so as not to court retaliation. And no, Isamu, bio and chemical weapons are nowhere near as effective as atomic bombs – but in 1942, neither Germany nor the USSR HAD atomic weapons, and you use what you’ve got. Giver the characters of both Stalin and Hitler, I would not be stunned to find out they both had used them, at people who couldn’t hit back at any rate…

  19. Pingback: The turning point of World War II - Page 27

  20. Pingback: Biowar in World War II? | pelekesi

  21. Pingback: Perfect Health Diet » Around the Web; Happy Valentine’s Day!

  22. Social Pengler says:

    I don’t know if this qualifies as biological weapons, but the english, always a classy lot, used to dip their swords into a latrine before going to the field of battle. Qualifies in my mind, even if it is less impressive than aerosol germs.’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s