Sally Pook – Telegraph.co.uk Aug 31, 2001
THE heavy rainfall and flash floods that struck the Devon village of Lynmouth nearly 50 years ago, killing 35 people in a single night, may not have been a natural disaster, it was claimed yesterday.
Newly declassified documents have been produced to back suggestions that the RAF was involved in rainmaking exercises during the period that the floods took place.
Former RAF servicemen have described how they took part in the experiments in the years running up to the flood, a claim consistently denied by the Ministry of Defence.
A 50-year-old radio broadcast has also been discovered that alleges just such an experiment, officially called cloud seeding, took place in the same month as the Lynmouth tragedy.
On the night of the flood in August 1952 nine inches of rain fell, swelling the East Lyn and West Lyn rivers until they broke their banks.
A wall of water carrying boulders and trees swept down the valley and into the fishing village from the moors above.
Thirty-five people died, hundreds more lost their homes, while bridges, shops and hotels were destroyed.
Alan Yates, a senior lecturer at Cranfield College of Aeronautics and a glider pilot, claims that he was asked by an international team of scientists to inject salt into clouds in the summer of 1952. The project was said to be called Operation Cumulus.
In a 1955 radio transcript unearthed by the BBC, Mr Yates said the scientists told him the experiment had led to a heavy downpour 50 miles away over Staines, Middlesex.
“I was told that the rain had been the heaviest for several years. There was no disguising the fact that the seedsman had said he would make it rain, and he did. Toasts were drunk to meteorology.”
Mr Yates said the BBC had been filming the experiments, but the resulting programme was abandoned when the country awoke to news of the Lynmouth flood the day before it was due to be broadcast.
Although the Ministry of Defence said yesterday that no cloud-seeding experiments had taken place before 1954, a BBC Radio 4 programme last night broadcast claims that documents released by the Public Record Office show that they were going on from 1949 to 1955.
Group Captain John Hart recalled the success of the early experiments in 1949 in the north of England. His logbook refers to “seeding dry ice into cumulus clouds to produce rain”.
He said: “We flew straight through the top of the cloud, poured dry ice down into the cloud. We flew down to see if any rain came out of the cloud and it did, about 30 minutes later, and we all cheered.”
His Squadron Leader, Len Otley, told the BBC that they referred to the exercise as Operation Witchdoctor, “because witchdoctors make rain”.
Declassified minutes from an Air Ministry meeting held at the War Office in 1953 disclose the reasons why there was such interest in rain-making experiments.
The list of possible uses included “bogging down enemy movement”, “incrementing the water flow in rivers and streams to hinder or stop enemy crossings” and clearing fog from airfields.
Other documents express concern by the ministry over who would be financially liable if such rainmaking experiments went wrong.
A United Nations ban prohibiting the use of cloud seeding or any other weather modification techniques for combat purposes has been in force since 1978. But scientists have been conducting such experiments for several decades.
The technique involves firing particles of salt, dry ice or silver iodide into clouds so that they become heavy enough to produce rain.
Tom Henderson, who runs a company in America that conducts research for the government and industry, said cloud seeding was used during the Vietnam War, to prevent army vehicles getting to their destinations.
However, Dr Giles Harrison, a meteorologist at Reading University, said he was highly sceptical that anything other than nature was behind the Lynmouth flood.
He said: “A lot of natural factors conspired which led to a terrible tragedy.”
The British Geological Survey has recently examined soil sediments in the district of Lynmouth to see if any traces of silver iodide, a salt used in cloud seeding, remain.
The tests were inconclusive, although silver residue has been found in the catchment waters of the River Lyn.
In a statement yesterday, the Ministry of Defence said: “There is no evidence to support claims that the RAF and the Meteorological Office were somehow responsible for the Lynmouth floods in 1952.
“A search of documents in the National Meteorological Library revealed just one item, an article published in the Royal Meteorological Society Journal in 1956.
“It clearly states that the Met Office was not involved in cloud-seeding experiments until 1954, two years after the floods.”
The statement added: “Cloud seeding has rarely been successfully anywhere in the world. Consequently the Met Office had not pursued this line of research for many years.”