SHADOW OF A GUNMAN
THE RISE AND FALL OF A SCORNED PATRIOT
There is a picture in the files of a hundred media organizations and, no doubt, those of a score of foreign intelligence services, as well. It shows the hallway of a luxury apartment building at 28 Avenue François Folie, in the Uccle district of Brussels. Outside the door of a sixth-floor apartment, a vase of flowers stands beside a dark, dried stain, on a carpet that was already red. For the assassin or assassins, it is a final proof that the mission was accomplished. According to the Brussels police, “A person or persons not currently known to the authorities” walked down that hallway early in the evening of March 22, 1990, and fired five shots from a silenced pistol into a Canadian businessman who was about to open his apartment door. The body of Gerald V. Bull was still warm when a horrified woman, who was to have joined him for dinner that night, found him scant minutes later. The killer, or killers, left behind a corpse with about $25,000 in its pockets, and a still-unresolved murder case, which sparked a series of sensational revelations by the global media about a cannon so gigantic it could shoot around the world.
For once, truth exceeded the fantasies of pulp spy thrillers. Tales of “superguns” were followed by exposés of secret arms transfers to Third World nations and missile warhead designs for Iraq. The stories led to numerous examinations of the career of a true Canadian prodigy. National hero and space researcher, weapons designer, convict and bankrupt, Gerald Bull was also a multi-millionaire arms dealer and a technical prophet.
Scarcely a week after his assassination, stories appeared in the British press about a series of gigantic tubes being produced in the English steel-mill city of Sheffield. According to the stories, a British company had been involved in a deal that could have given the militarily ambitious Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, access to a so-called supergun, with which he could bombard his neighbors’ cities.
The reports emerged after customs officers searched a ship that had been loading cargo for Iraq at the North Sea port of Middlesbrough. The officers seized a number of pipelike sections, 39 inches in internal diameter and fabricated from high-grade steel. Their destination was the “Republic of Iraq Ministry for Industries and Petrochemical Projects, Baghdad, Iraq.” But the customs men, and officials from the British ministry of
By last year, Gerald Bull probably knew that his work for Iraq had put his life at risk. Israeli agents had urged Bull to stop work on the Iraqi supergun, which eventually could have been capable of firing shells at targets in Israel. When Bull persisted, the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, appears to have sent two teams of agents to Brussels with orders to kill Bull. In the following excerpts from Wilderness of Mirrors, author Dale Grant describes Bull’s assassination, and the events that led up to it.
Copyright © 1991 Prentice-Hall Canada Inc.
defence’s Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment, whose advice they sought, were in no doubt that they had an altogether more sinister purpose. The “pipes,” they said, were, in fact, sections of a huge barrel.
The British customs men had exposed only the tip of an iceberg. As the weeks passed, there were further seizures of heavy steel parts produced to fill orders for Iraqi “petrochemical projects.” Components of the gun were found in Italy, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Switzerland and Germany. A mysterious Athens-based company called Advanced Technology International was found to be co-ordinating the effort. But Gerald Bull’s Belgium-based Space Research Corp., and affiliated companies,
were soon identified as the suppliers, and the investigations into his activities continue to this day.
Bull was part of a great sea change in human affairs. His activities went beyond the mere sale of cannon-making machinery. Bull was a heretic. He was an individualist in a technical era that, for all the blathering about the importance of freedom to the inventive and developmental process, demands a collectivist mind-set. His mind belonged in a past when individual, mercurial thought and disturbed brilliance still had a place in Western affairs.
While studying for his PhD in aerophysics at the University of Toronto in 1951, Bull went to work as a research scientist at the Canadian government’s Armament and Research Development Establishment near Valcartier, Que. There, he became fascinated by military artillery. In 1961, he left Valcartier to become a professor of engineering science at Montreal’s McGill University, where he began work on a Project that became a lifelong crusade. Bull dreamed of using giant guns, instead of rockets, to fire satellites and other objects into space.
Bull’s arrival at McGill marked the start of a high-profile research effort in gun-launched projectiles, which would win fame as the High Altitude Research Projectile (HARP) program. For two decades, McGill had been running climatic and agricultural research stations on the Caribbean island of Barbados. Bull gained the enthusiastic support of Barbados Prime Minister Errol W. Barrow, and was given use of a piece of land near Foul Bay, on the southeast comer of the island. It provided a 5,000-mile test range, stretching across the Caribbean Sea and the South Atlantic Ocean, to the coast of Africa.
While fiveand seven-inch-diameter launch tubes were also set up on the site, it was the firing of a mighty 16-inch-diameter gun for the first time, in January, 1962, that dramatized HARP. The gleam-
ing white tube was elevated skyward. In the control bunker, reinforced with sandbags and heavy timbers, Bull watched nervously as retired Canadian Army colonel Roy Croft, the range safety officer, flipped a final switch. With a roar that could be heard for miles around, the gun fired, and a dramatic mushroom cloud of smoke and fire issued from its muzzle. A crowd of fascinated Barbadians, watching from the nearby bluffs, joined the cheers of the HARP crew. By November, 1962, projectiles shot from these systems were reaching altitudes of 215,000 feet, proving that electronics could stand up to the high accelerations and still produce useful information.
Compared with the cheapest research rockets at around $75,000 apiece, exclusive of support costs, the cost of a HARP launch was about $5,000. By the end of the atmospherics program, close to 1,000 shots would be fired. At the time, nearly half the world’s database on upper atmospheric conditions was HARP-derived. Said George Lindsey, formerly a senior scientist with Canada’s Defence Research Board: “What Bull was promising to do was to put small satellites into orbit fired from a gun.”
The Canadian and U.S. governments stopped funding the HARP program in 1967. Bull then established his own firm, the Space Research Corp., on the Quebec-Vermont border near Highwater, Que. During the 1970s, SRC
developed a revolutionary new gun named theGC-45 (for Gun Canadian, .45 calibre), which is still considered one of the best howitzers ever designed. As well, Bull’s firm developed high-performance artillery shells. One of his customers in that period was the Israeli government.
Sometime in November, 1973, Bull made at least two trips to Israel to discuss how his new shell could fit Israeli needs. The Israeli experts were impressed and the Israeli government quickly approved the purchase of 50,000 of Bull’s shells. With a firm deal established, Israel and SRC lobbied the U.S. and Canadian governments to approve the manufacture of the shells in North America. By the middle of 1974, the first shipments were on their way to Israel, and before Yom Kippur rolled around again, Palestine Liberation Organization bases near the Lebanese port of Sidon were suddenly struck by a short but deadly rain of fire and steel. From far beyond the range of any normal gun, artillery barrages wrecked supply depots, barracks and training areas, as well as killing and wounding scores of civilians living in the area.
After SRC began selling artillery and shells to South Africa, a court in Rutland, Vt., sentenced Bull in June, 1980, to a year in prison for violating the U.S. embargo against weapons sales to that nation. After
serving 4V2 months, Bull was released and took his wife, Mimi, and five of their seven children on a vacation to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. During that holiday, Bull decided he would leave North America for Europe, where he spent the remainder of his life, developing and selling arms.
Reports vary on what Bull did after he left Saint Martin. According to Mimi Bull, who remained at the family home in St-Bruno, Que.,
Bull “went to Paris for several months, then to London for several months.” Bull still owned his 45-per-cent interest in SRC-International, which was one company in the SRC group, and there were to be yet further arguments with his Belgian partners.
As his son Michael described it, “After my dad got out of jail, he realized that his partners had taken the opportunity to screw us good.
Meanwhile, we had settled down again in Belgium, because we needed a temporary home, and it turned out to be permanent. In the summer of 1982, we finally decided to finalize the divorce from SRC-International. So we set up our own company in Belgium, called Space Research SA. It was just me and my dad in those days, that was the company.” From a business perspective, all that was left was Bull’s knowledge and research skills.
By the end of the decade, however, Bull’s fortunes had changed considerably. On May 30,1989, Bull wrote to his old HARP colleague,
Sannu Molder, a professor of aerophysics at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. Datelined Brussels, the letter was headed “The SRC Group of Companies,” and listed “G. V. Bull” as president. In the letter, Bull told Molder that “our operations are spread over some eight countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Travel is a pain. I live in airplanes. Secretaries keeping track of my movements have figured out that over the last five years, I have not spent more than 60 days in any one country in a year. This makes me eligible for residence in the sky.”
The company, besides maintaining its headquarters in Brussels, now had offices or subsidiary firms in Austria, Greece, Yugoslavia, Spain, Switzerland, England, Liechtenstein, the Channel Islands—and Canada. The result was a web of deals and interests that was truly global in scope. Outside of the Bull family members directly involved in SRC’s operations, anyone who claims to fully understand what was going on is deluded.
Asked when their companies began doing business directly with Iraq, Michael Bull replied: “Our first contract, our first real visit, business-wise, to Iraq was in January, 1988.
That was sort of first investigations sort of thing. The first contracts became effective in September, late September, 1988.” As to the nature of the business, he said: “Well, unfortunately, I can’t divulge everything. I’m still under an oath of secrecy.”
Other sources have suggested a more intimate relationship between SRC and Iraq, involving an extensive transfer of machine tools, design and technical assistance to the burgeoning Iraqi munitions industry which began at least a year earlier than Michael Bull says. He was evasive on the role SRC played in these transactions, but a nation that was straining every effort to develop military and civilian technology was sure to appeal to Bull.
Here, finally, was a country that was willing to take risks, to invest money in a unique way
to orbit satellites. Project Babylon, Bull’s proposed supergun, the gigantic smoothbore cannon whose parts would be discovered all over Europe following Bull’s death, is the stillborn proof of that desire. In August and September of 1988, when the contracts for Project Babylon were signed between Iraq and Bull, design work began immediately in Brussels.
Whoever was directing the effort, the Babylon projects were certainly on a developmental fast track. The previous February, SRC placed an order with its former partner and old nemesis, a Belgian company called Poudre réunion de la Belgique, for 235 tons of a high-energy propellant. An order was also placed for some 26 tons of propellant. So urgently did the client want the material that the first part of the shipment was flown out in a chartered Belgian air force C-130 transport in March. Its destination was Amman, Jordan.
Hedging its bets, SRC also placed an order with the French explosives company SNPE for $5.5 million worth of similar propellants, which were scheduled for delivery in October, 1990. Bull’s death, and the discovery of Project Babylon, led the French government to cancel the sale.
Among the SRC staff assigned to the project was Christopher Cowley, a 52year-old native of Liverpool, England, and an extremely competent metallurgist. Cowley would later tell the press that he resigned from SRC in April, 1989, the month that tests of a 350-mm smoothbore artillery-tube
system began in northern Iraq.
In 1990, the British customs investigators, with Cowley’s assistance, soon came to the realization that there were two barrel systems involved in Project Babylon: the 39-inch tube, and a smaller, 350-mm version. With a 27.5-m barrel, “Baby Babylon” would be capable of hurling a heavy shell several hundred miles.
In an article on Nov. 7, 1990, the British newspaper The Independent reported that American intelligence sources had informed it that Iraq had received enough parts to assemble three of these devices, before the customs officials moved in, and that it planned to deploy 75 of them along its border with Iran. It is said that these cannons were to be mounted on railway tracks, enabling them to withdraw into hardened, underground shelters. The weight of the shells was given as 115 lb., and the maxi| mum range as 1,000 miles, g Cowley has also revealed I some details about the big Baby5 Ion program that make startling sense. In a conversation aired Feb. 13, 1991, by the CBC’s Frenchlanguage public affairs program Le Point, Cowley told interviewer AnnMarie Dussault that the 39-inch gun was to be stationed on a mountainside in northern Iraq, in a location about 70 km northwest of Mosul. Strongly denying any weaponry use for Babylon, Cowley said that it would be pointed south, to fire research shells into a test zone in northcentral Saudi Arabia. The distance between the given firing point and the target zone measures out at approximately 470 miles.
If deployed, the giant gun inevitably would have hurled its projectiles a lot farther than that. For, if one accepts Cowley’s statements, Bull was, once more, thinking ahead. Plotting the geographic positions Cowley gives on a globe of the world reveals an interesting fact. Within the fan of angle possibilities, from the gun location to the almost unpopulated central Saudi desert, lies the optimum bearing for insertion into polar orbit.
desert, optimum bearing insertion into polar orbit. Because it is so difficult to think of a gun as anything but a weapon, the idea that this big piece of pipe was some sort of ultra-long-range siege gun, for chemical, biological,
Yet, try as they might, military analysts can find no utility in Babylon as a weapon. A system that weighs 5,000 tons, and whose barrel cannot be trained or elevated once it is emplaced, does not make sense as a weapon, unless one plans to orbit the warhead.
Babylon, like the HARP launchers or, indeed, the American and Soviet space shuttles, must be seen as a delivery system, capable of delivering a wide variety of payloads into orbit at very low cost. Hardened commu-
gun, chemical, biological, nuclear or conventional highexplosive shells fired against neighbors such as Israel or Iran, still has wide credence.
nications satellites and fuel, air or water supplies for manned space missions are possibilities, and so are weapons of mass destruction. It all depends on the user.
Contrary to popular belief, and press reports about Babylon’s being a “super-secret” undertaking, Bull made no effort to hide the project. He even gave interviews about Babylon in 1989, and a scale model of it was publicly shown at a May, 1989, armaments exhibition in Baghdad.
Michael Bull says he warned his father against taking part in the Babylon project. He told him it was an unwise move politically, and that the views of outside powers towards Iraq’s possessing such a system might be severe. Since SRC was already heavily involved in Iraqi military projects, Michael’s advice was sound. But, according to Michael, Gerald Bull ignored him and went his own way.
Considering that Iraq represented Bull’s last chance of ever building his dream and proving the doubters and skeptics wrong, no one, least of all Michael, can be surprised that he went for it. Indeed, in retrospect, there is a doomed inevitability to it all. At 62, Bull was no longer his youthful self and, impatient as he was, he saw his own mortality, and heard the ticking of the clock. One line in his letter to Sannu Molder sums it up: “As I get older, everything takes longer, it seems, and weeks become like days.”
Unfortunately for Bull, his timing was once again faulty. Nations, east and west, were waking up to the fact that Iraq was out of control. It was one thing for Baghdad to acquire weapons for its eight-year war against neighboring Iran, but it was another thing for Iraq to develop weapons that could hit Moscow or Washington. The question of what Iraq was doing, and who was helping it, was being asked by a score of intelligence and espionage services.
Michael Bull has confirmed reports that his father had aided the University of Mosul in setting up an aerophysics course and had given lectures there. This university is responsible for directing all scientific work at the infamous Saad-16 missile development complex, outside of Mosul.
What Bull was actually doing became less important than what others thought he was involved in. Rogue and rebel that he might have been, his genius was acknowledged far and wide. His capability for brilliant improvisation and simple, inspired solutions to technical problems was so well-known that, once the missile question arose, his services to Iraq could only arouse deep suspicions in nations both far and near.
But, as Michael Bull keeps reminding us, most of this is hindsight and the reporting of opinions and estimations. Back in 1989, the truth, to Bull, must have appeared quite different. His life’s dream, the mighty orbital gun, was no longer a matter of sketches and engineering diagrams. Piece by piece, it was at last becoming a reality. In England, the barrel sections were leaving Sheffield on a regular basis. In Spain, the rollers to support the mighty tubes were being machined, and in Italy, the breechblocks had already been forged. Switzerland and Germany were providing hydraulic cylinders and other components. Powder
charges were being produced in Belgium and, from Greece, a steady stream of purchase orders and technical data packages went out on a daily basis. And somewhere, a rocketboosted shell was being designed, and the problems of guidance and telemetry return addressed. It must have seemed like the days of the HARP project had returned and more, that vindication was at hand.
Other eyes saw it differently. In the shadowy fraternity of Western and allied intelligence agencies, a storm of questions was swirling around Bull’s activities. Like any herd activity, the knowledge that inquiries were being made set other investigations in motion. The storm became a hurricane, with Bull seemingly oblivious to it all in the calmness of the fury’s eye. It even reached Canadian army intelligence in
Germany. As one enlisted man, stationed there in 1989, put it, “Everybody was talking about Bull. There was endless speculation as to what he was up to.”
Why was Bull seeking information about liquid rocket propellants? Could he really supply Iraq with advanced guidance technologies for ballistic missiles? Just how much help was he giving the University of Mosul’s aerophysics department? The deadly potential of Bull’s genius, as distinct from what he was or was not doing, began to play a larger role in the assessments. What would this man do next? By the beginning of 1990, the question shifted again. Now, for some, the question became, How is this man to be stopped?
Many theories have evolved about who killed Bull.
Reports have surfaced saying the Iraqis killed him because he was an Israeli spy, or that it was other Arab nations, jealous of Iraq. But Israel, and its dreaded Mossad intelligence service, head the list. Considering that Israel has traditionally targeted technology development as the weak link in the acquisition of indigenous military power by its Arab neighbors, it is the logical candidate.
The Israeli bombing of the Osirak nuclear-reactor complex outside of Baghdad on June 8, 1981, is the best-known case of such action, but there have been many others. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Egypt of President Gamal Abdel Nasser launched an ambitious and, in the end, futile program to develop indigenous ballistic missiles. Many of the foreign scientists recruited were exNazis who had worked on Heinrich Himmler’s missile experiments during the Second World War. When anonymous threats did not deter these men, a series of deadly letter-bomb explosions and mysterious accidents did. When the survivors were informed by unsigned letters, some found on their beds in tightly guarded Egyptian compounds, that they and their families were next, enough left to ensure the collapse of the missile project.
Shortly after Bull’s death, Saddam Hussein delivered a speech in which he threatened to “burn half of Israel with chemical fire.” In the same address, he mentioned Bull. “A Canadian citizen with U.S. nationality comes to Iraq. He is a scientist. He might have benefited Iraq, I don’t know.
They say the Iraqi intelligence service is spread over Europe. But nobody spoke of the human rights of this Canadian citizen of U.S. nationality. After he came to Iraq, they killed him.”
Stories about Bull’s supposed meetings with Saddam Hussein are legion. Some reports in Canadian newspapers have said that Bull met Hussein as early as 1981. The Iraqi government supposedly sent a special plane to take him to Baghdad for a clandestine meeting with the Iraqi leader in the
back of a Baghdad tailor’s shop. Michael Bull agrees that his father did visit Iraq in the year after his release from jail, but says that it was nothing more than an exploratory business trip, and that he did not meet with Hussein. Added Bull: “My dad rode on a regularly scheduled Iraqi airliner.”
On March 31, 1990, while the press furor still raged over Gerald Bull’s death, his family brought his body home to the country he had tried so hard to make a leader in technology. The scorned patriot, the boy who had dreamed his dreams in an apple orchard, and found pleasure in the sleek shapes of model aircraft, was returned at last to the soil from which he came. That it was a country which, in its own blundering way, had driven him away, was no longer of any consequence.
Bull now rests in a cemetery in St-Bruno, Que. His passing was mourned by more people than the hundreds who attended his funeral. Thousands of men and women who worked with him, who knew him, or just understood the wide range of his dreams, grieved over his passing.
Others were not so charitable. People have called him a monster—a mass murderer—a merchant of death. Derek Blackburn, a New Democratic Party member of Parliament and onetime NDP defence critic, struck a common chord when he said: “People who design weapons are morally deficient. A person like that is worse than a drug dealer.”
Such harsh criticism may serve to obscure the element of tragedy in Bull’s life. He possessed a brilliant scientific mind, energy and a talent for innovation. But Bull could not accept the rejection of his dreams by the North American defence establishment. By selling his services to Iraq, he set the stage for his own violent death. His assassination in Brussels left many riddles unanswered, I not least of all the intriguing question of I whether others may take up work on a o supergun where Bull left off. □