My life inside deadly world of chemical warfare from seeing limbless kids die to holding nerve agent that could kill 1m

WHEN I heard about the Novichok poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny overseas last month, my blood ran cold.

I was instantly transported back to Salisbury, Wiltshire, where, in March 2018, I'd advised the UK Government on the very same deadly nerve agent.

'Frozen like statues'

Back then, the lethal chemical had left former MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, fighting for their lives in comas.

As my friend, in the intelligence world, chillingly told me at the time, "the doctors have never seen anything like it. They’re frozen, like statues."

That terrifying attack, which resulted in the death of an innocent mother, was a wake-up call for the UK: chemical weapons are a very real threat.

But now, following the poisoning of Putin critic Navalny – who came out of his own coma this week – it's clear we haven't seen the last of them.

As a British expert in chemical and biological counter-terrorism, I’ve spent my life fighting against these terrible – and, often, invisible – weapons.

Formerly commander of the British Army's Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment, I've worked in war zones all over the globe and experienced some unimaginable horrors.

I've stood on the edge of mass graves, watched helplessly as limbless children gasped their last breaths, and been chased through streets

I've stood on the edge of mass graves in Iraq, watched helplessly as limbless children gasped their last breaths in Syria, and been chased through the streets of Afghanistan carrying a huge fertilizer bomb.

I've also faced off against ISIS – the blood-thirsty terror group known for massacres and beheading its victims on camera – and risked my life trying to smuggle chemical samples across borders. 

During my 23-year Army career, I learned why chemical weapons are craved by dictators and despots worldwide: they can be hard to detect – sometimes odourless, colourless or easily concealed.

And if that isn't tempting enough, a tiny amount can be lethal.

Assassinated by an umbrella tip

In 1978, exiled Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov was killed on London Bridge by an umbrella tip laced with the deadly biological toxin Ricin.

Then, in 2006, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in the UK capital with a few drops of the radioactive isotope Polonium 210.

And three years ago, Kim Jong-nam – the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – was killed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with a drop of nerve agent VX, in an alleged attack by the state's secret service.

'I held poison that could kill 1m

I once held a bottle of VX myself at a secret training facility.

The honey-coloured fluid in my hand looked fairly harmless, yet a scientist told me that, if correctly distributed, it could kill a million people.

Shocked, I quickly put the bottle down, my hands shaking somewhat.

Novichok is thought to be even more toxic than VX, and very persistent.

It's astonishing to think that it was probably less than a quarter of an egg cup-full that caused such havoc in Salisbury two and a half years ago.

The poison was hidden in a perfume bottle. It looked totally innocent.

How to survive potentially lethal chemical attacks

FORMER Army commander Hamish de Bretton-Gordon provides tips on how to identify – and improve your chances of survival against – certain chemical agents in his new book, Chemical Warrior.

Among the chemicals are:


Smell and sight: Typically used as a gas. You'll usually see a green and yellow cloud, which smells like strong bleach or a swimming pool.

Exposure: Can be lethal if inhaled, especially for kids. If your mouth and nose are protected, you should not be contaminated.

Symptoms: Difficulty breathing, coughing, sneezing, nose irritation, burning sensations and throat irritation. In more serious cases, there may be chemical burns, among other symptoms.

Advice: Get to higher ground – and upwind – as soon as you can, as the gas is heavier than air and sinks to the floor quickly. If you can’t, an item of clothing, soaked in urine then placed over your nose and mouth, is a very effective way to neutralise the gas before it enters your respiratory system.


Smell and sight: Usually dispersed as a clear and odourless gas.

Exposure: This nerve agent can be inhaled as well as penetrate the skin. Also contaminates food, water and clothing.

Symptoms: Symptoms usually develop within 10 minutes, and can prove fatal. Typical signs include pinpoint pupils, coughing, a tight chest, vomiting and convulsions, among others.

Advice: Get to higher ground and reach fresh air as quickly as possible. Cut off all clothing and wash the entire body with soap and water. Because infected clothing is contagious, items should be immediately sealed in a bag.


Smell and sight: Usually smells like garlic, onions or mustard but sometimes has no odour at all. The gas appears yellow or brown.

Exposure: Can injure either by inhalation or skin penetration, so just covering your mouth and nose will not ensure protection.

Symptoms: Symptoms can take days to develop. They may include red and itchy skin, painful yellow blisters, irritated eyes, blindness, runny nose, sneezing, and sinus pain, among others. These symptoms can last for ten days.

Advice: Get to higher ground and upwind. If you are exposed, you will need to get the mustard off your body as soon as possible. Remove your clothes and wash exposed parts of your body with clean water. Eyes should also be flushed with water for five to ten minutes.

In the case of a chemical attack, seeking medical treatment as soon as possible and staying calm will also boost your chances of survival.

Novichok 'smeared on underwear'

Though it remains unconfirmed how Navalny was poisoned in the latest attack, it has been alleged his cup of tea was spiked at a Siberian airport.

However, other claims have suggested the 44-year-old father's would-be assassins smeared the toxic substance on his underwear or socks.

Neither method would surprise me. Chemicals like Novichok are morbidly brilliant weapons – if you have no morals or scruples. 

Of course, some of the worst chemical atrocities we have seen this century have been thousands of miles away from Britain and Russia – in Syria.

Some have stayed with me to this day.

The Syrian Regime and the Russians have regularly targeted hospitals to break the will of the people – something that is illegal under every rule of war. I’ve seen two children shredded by these indiscriminate attacks.

In 2014, I was training doctors in a hospital when a barrel bomb (a barrel-shaped container filled with explosives and metal fragments which is dispatched from an aircraft) was dropped on a nearby Aleppo playground.

Twenty-seven children arrived in a shocking state. All but one died.

For a split second, my eyes caught the little girl's. It was like a shot through my heart. Then I watched helplessly as she died right in front of me

As I tried to cross the border out of Syria that night, I found an ambulance trying to take a young girl to hospital for specialist treatment.

The poor child, no more than eight years old, had lost all of her limbs, and didn’t have a single family member to comfort her.

Yet the guard wouldn't give the ambulance permission to cross – even when I jumped out of my truck and protested, "She's dying!".

For a split second, my eyes caught the little girl's. It was like a shot through my heart. Then I watched helplessly as she died right in front of me.

Today, we are in the ninth year of the shockingly violent conflict in Syria.

Attacks on civilians have predominantly been chlorine, a readily available industrial chemical, dropped as barrel bombs or fired in rockets.

I investigated a number of these attacks in 2014, and unequivocally found proof such weapons had been used and that the Regime was responsible.

Sadly, it has only continued since: an attack on the town of Douma in April 2018, confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to be chlorine, killed 43 people, mainly children.  

Though Britain, the US and France subsequently launched more than 100 missiles – including against a scientific research centre in Damascus and a chemical weapons storage facility – the threat remains for Syrian families.

And those trying to highlight the atrocities are under threat, too.

Throughout the conflict, my efforts to collect evidence of chemical attacks have landed me in hot water several times.

On one occasion, I had to disguise myself as a Syrian doctor to avoid capture – not an experience I want to repeat in a hurry.

'I dressed as Syrian doctor to avoid ISIS'

Our car was stopped by an ISIS patrol and I only escaped thanks to my thick beard and fake ID claiming my name was ‘Dr Mohammed’.

Another hairy moment was when I was hauled off a plane at London Heathrow Airport by counter-terrorism cops.

They thought I was carrying illegal substances from Syria, and raided my case, apparently looking for the nerve agent sarin.

I gave an impromptu lecture to the sheepish officers on what protective items they should be wearing to avoid contamination, as well as what they should be looking for. Thankfully I was released without charge. 

My efforts have also attracted some enemies.

In 2016, I was warned through a number of intermediaries that my accusations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons were not appreciated in Moscow.

'Warned off' by Putin

As I detail in my new book, Chemical Warrior, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself even got a message to me telling me "to stop accusing Assad of chemical attacks".

Although these threats worry me sometimes, the truth must out.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’, somebody much more learned than me once said.

I believe work like my own is vital to show the world what is happening.

In fact, these shocking instances have redoubled my efforts to help the civilians in Syria – who have been almost entirely let down and abandoned by the international community – and others at risk of chemical attacks.

Today, that could mean anyone.

The poisoning in Salisbury – near where I live with my wife and two kids – brought the threat of chemical weapons uncomfortably close to home.

While Sergei and Yulia fortunately survived the attack – and are now in hiding – a civilian, Dawn Sturgess, died after being exposed to Novichok.

The incident has made all of us here in the UK aware of the dangers of chemical weapons. But are we prepared for future attacks?

For me, one thing is clear: the terror threat must not be ignored.

Biological weapons are the ultimate terror accessory, and it is unimaginable, but perhaps possible, that jihadists might get their hands on them.

Something like Novichok would be unlikely: while microscopic amounts of deadly substances are favoured in state-sponsored executions, they are difficult to get hold of and hugely expensive.

But we know ISIS have already manufactured mustard agent and have easy access to many toxic chemicals.

Biological weapons are the ultimate terror accessory, and it is unimaginable, but perhaps possible, that jihadists might get their hands on them

In reality, the prospect of an ‘I am Pilgrim’ scenario (the novel where a terrorist tries to infect the US with a vaccine-resistant smallpox virus) is not that far-fetched.

Many of us remember the Amerithrax biological attack in 2001, where letters laced with Anthrax, a biological pathogen, were posted in the US.

Five people were killed and 17 injured. 

The clean-up cost over $200m – which would be around $280m (£215m) today – and there have since been 69,000 copycat threats in the US alone.

And it isn't just the chemicals themselves that are lethal.

Two years ago, I researched the 200 most likely chemical and biological threats to US Mainland in a report for Department of Homeland Security.

Perhaps surprisingly, a Salisbury-style attack didn’t feature.

Football stadiums 'under threat'

Instead, the most likely threat appeared to be a small amount of a toxic chemical like chlorine flown into a crowded sports stadium via drone.

The chlorine would only kill a few, but the panic would wipe out many.

Similarly, we have looked at chemical attacks on the London and New York undergrounds, and panic is the greatest danger.

The level of psychological terror these mysterious substances impart is exactly what extremist groups look for in a weapon.

'Britain must be prepared'

Now that we are alive to these chemical and biological threats, the UK can even less afford to be blindsided by an attack.

For those who want to do us evil, these weapons are as good as it gets.

A policy of doing nothing will not protect us.

But if we choose, every threat can be mitigated with preparation and planning to provide the resilience the British public deserve.

It's a choice many in Syria didn't get.

Yet while I witnessed plenty of suffering in the war-torn country, I also saw remarkable courage and human spirit.

Only last winter, I was training doctors again in Idlib province when I noticed a toddler, with no legs and one arm, sitting on a bench.

The youngster, aged around two, had been caught in a Russian airstrike two weeks earlier, and had wires and tubes coming out of his tiny body.

I had just received a call from my own doctor to say I had prostate cancer and was feeling a bit sorry for myself.

But when I looked at the boy, his face creased into a huge grin. Suddenly, I realised my troubles were small compared to his.

And as we looked at each other, his pure joy made me grin too.

  • Chemical Warrior by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is out now (Headline, £20)

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