CR GAS: The battlefield chemical weapon used in Long Kesh. – by Michael Lagan


CR Gas’ or Dibenz Oxazepine, also referred to as ‘DBO’, is a chemical weapon developed by the British Ministry of Defence as a battlefield control agent – “Known as RCAs (Riot Control Agents), they are dispersed as aerosols or sprays, causing irritation of mucous membranes of the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin.”  – Handbook of Toxicology of Chemical Warfare Agents, 2009.

Ten times more potent than CS gas, it was developed by Porton Down Chemical Warfare Laboratories in the late 1950s into the 1960s and first synthesised in 1962.  However, contrary to its common name, it is not a gas but a solid at room temperature, though it could, if one should wish, be delivered in aerosol form or in a water solution earning it the names ‘fire rain’ and ‘fire gas’.

So why then was a battlefield control agent used in Long Kesh in 1974? Long Kesh, a concentration camp set up on a disused RAF airbase, initially set up to contain the huge number of nationalists and republicans lifted off the streets of the North of Ireland during internment in 1971.  It was later to be used for housing sentenced republican and loyalist prisoners from 1972 who were initially granted ‘Special Category Status’ essentially affording them many of the privileges available only to internees.

In October 1974, with tensions at their limits over the appalling conditions and daily confrontations with screws, republican prisoners initiated what has come to be widely known as a pivotal event in the troubles of the time – ‘The Burning of Long Kesh’.  During the actions that ensued the republican prisoners armed only with basic weapons, fought running battles with British soldiers.  Actions which are now seen as some of the largest engagements between republicans and British soldiers in the context of the troubles.

The CR gas came into play on the 16th of October 1974 on the playing fields, almost as if it had been planned, an opinion widely held by many who were there that day, with evidence suggesting CR gas had been stockpiled within Long Kesh itself almost in the hope this situation would arise.  According to Army papers, initially some 1,371 CS gas canisters and grenades were deployed against the republican POWs.  However, in the final actions of the battle, some 350 republican prisoners were cornered in one corner of the playing fields, and it is thought that was when the CR gas was deployed, unleashing its full and devastating effects on the republican prisoners.

According to the British Government’s own records in a report titled –

‘Report on Helicopter Activities in Support of Operations in the Maze Prison – 15/16 October 1974’ – “The helicopter returned to base to collect 15 new canisters and grenades which it then dropped on the remaining prisoners”.  Prisoners speak of these canisters being dropped in cluster type munition cases spreading the CR gas over the entire field ensuring no prisoners could escape, which would seem to correlate with Porton Downs preferred method of delivery which suggests “CR can be delivered as an aerosol, in smoke grenades or handheld spray cans.  For gas it is usually fired in canisters (LACR) either singly or in cluster formation that heat up producing an aerosol cloud at a steady rate.”

It was then that the full dreadful effects of this experimental battlefield chemical weapon was felt by the prisoners.  Effects felt within seconds, were ten times the strength of CS gas.  Intense skin irritation, around the mouth, eyes and nose areas, violent vomiting, temporary blindness and coughing, gasping for breath, and induced panic. CR gas is capable of causing immediate incapacitation. It is also a carcinogen. It is toxic, but less so than CS gas, by ingestion and exposure. However, it is lethal in moderate to large quantities. In a poorly ventilated space, an individual may inhale a lethal dose within minutes with death usually delivered by asphyxiation. 

Interviews by prisoners after the riot had ended give an explicit look into the effects of CR gas.  One prisoner stated “I thought my face was going to explode”.  Another said: “I remember not being able to breathe. The gas was so thick I tried to prise my throat open in an attempt to increase the air passage”.  This deployment of CR gas was seen by many as a test of its capabilities on the battlefield which clearly doesn’t make sense as it was tested in the context of a prison riot.  British military documents, now declassified and in the public domain held in the records of the UK Ministry of Defence at the National Archives, London, state that the British Army did indeed deploy and use CR gas in Northern Ireland but hold short of specifying ‘Long Kesh’.

The subsequent deaths in later years of many of those republican prisoners who came into contact with CR gas during the event known as the ‘Burning of Long Kesh’, has led many within the republican community to come to the conclusion that the side effects of CR gas are to blame.  Many of those who succumbed to the gas developed aggressive cancers in later years with many dying relatively early in life.  Many more have reported major and debilitating lung problems.

The deployment of CR gas in Long Kesh was a test.  It was a battlefield test on a civilian prison population which the British security apparatus approved yet denied.  Only through secret and restricted files and government documents being quietly released into the public domain has any of the above come to light.  

Had it not been for the likes of ex-POWs like Jim McCann, Joe barnes and Joe Doherty incessantly striving for the truth to be known, the use of CR gas in Long Kesh would still be a secret.  This entire ordeal, the entire Operation was codenamed ‘Pagoda’ and is something to be discussed in public rather than the secret pages of British files. For now, what is in the public domain is enough to warrant a full and public investigation into why the British government authorised a battlefield chemical agent to be used on a civilian prison riot.

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