Navy divers help police deal with decades-old chemical weapons in Lincolnshire

Navy divers found a Great War killer at the bottom of a Lincolnshire lake when they recovered mustard gas bombs

A seven-strong team of specialists from Southern Diving Unit 2 in Portsmouth spent eight days in woodland outside the village of Woodhall Spa, southeast of Lincoln, after canisters containing the potentially-deadly gas were found by the public.

After using sonar to map Stixwould Lake, the divers had to don chemical suits before plunging into the murky waters to recover ten 6lb chemical bombs. They spent more than three hours scouring the lake bed.

The bombs were subsequently handed over to Lincolnshire Police, who are investigating how they came to be at the beauty spot - once the site of RAF Woodhall Spa, a wartime bomber base used by the legendary Dambusters, 617 Squadron.

Today it's popular with scout troops and walkers; a pair of bottle diggers found two shells containing the gas; disturbed, the noxious substance inflicted minor burns and caused them respiratory problems requiring hospital treatment.

With reports of other people suffering from mustard agent poisoning, full bio-hazard precautions were taken

Petty Officer (Diver) 'Chuck' Norris, Southern Diving Unit 2

Their unlucky find prompted a massive response from the authorities - nearly two dozen agencies were involved in all, including the Horsea Island divers who, usually, only deal with unexploded/unsafe ordnance in the sea or on the shore.

"It was a bit of a mission," said Petty Officer (Diver) 'Chuck' Norris.

"With reports of other people suffering from mustard agent poisoning, full bio-hazard precautions were taken - diving in a chemical environment wearing cumbersome personal protection equipment, then undergoing full decontamination at every stage.

"The bombs themselves were British and well over 70 years old - the UK no longer uses chemical or biological weapons."

Mustard gas shells were first used by the Germans 100 years ago in a bid to stop the British advance during the Third Battle of Ypres (aka Passchendaele).

Despite the name, the gas has a strong smell of garlic, and its effects were not always immediate. It could burn skin badly, cause breathing problems, dreadful chemical blisters and frequently kill.

Having been first used by the Germans, the Allies too produced the gas and used it extensively during the final 12 months of World War 1.

Chemical warfare was outlawed by the Geneva Convention in 1925, but countries, including Britain, continued to stockpile weapons such as mustard gas up to the end of World War 2. Saddam Hussein used the substance repeatedly in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

As for the Portsmouth-based divers, the unusual find in Lincolnshire came at the same time as more regular tasks, dealing with old ordnance like a dummy torpedo speared by a anchor in Portland.