World War II Air Campaign: Poison Gas


Figure 1.--Europe as World War II approached were obsessed with the possibility of aerial gas attack. Countries took varying measures to deal with the threat. The British prepared more than any other country. Every individual, including the children were issued gas masks. The resources devoted to the preparations for gas attack meant that inadequte attention was given to building bomb shelters and anti-aircraft batteries. Here is the type of mask issued to adults and the older children. Notice the square box, in the evacuation that commenced with the NAZI invasion of Poland (September 1939), you the children with these boxes. This image is from the Norde Castle Museeum at Weymouth.

One of the unanswered questions about World War II is why poison gas /chemical weapons was not used. Gas had been widely used on the Western Front in World War I. It had first been developed by a German Jewish scientist working for the Whermacht. The Germans first used it on the Western Front at Yrpes with devestating effect (April 1915). The British and French followed suit. I don't thaink the Americans and Russians used it, but I think the Austrians did. After the War, the major world powers outlawed the use of poison gas in war. This ban was included in several international agreements. Even so, the Italians under Musolini used it in their African campaigns in Libyia and Ethiopia. The Japanese used gas in China even before the beginning of World War II and were condemned by the United Nations. Military planners in Britain assumed that the NAZIs would use it when war broke out. Every British citzen, incliding children were issued gas masks. There wee even masks for babies. They were aklso issued in France, Italy, and Germany. Major combattant countries (America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union) had large stocks of poison gas in their arsenals. They employed gas in China. The question arrises as to why it was not employed in the War, especially in the air war.

World War I

Poison gas was first used in World War I. Poison gas was first been developed by a German Jewish scientist working for the Whermacht. Chemical weaoons were widely used on the both the Western and Eastern Front during the War. Losses were especially severe on the Eastern Front where the Russians were not equipped to take the needed counter measures and were unable to reply with gas weapons of their own. The Germans first used poison gas on the Western Front at Ypres (April 1915) with devestating effect. The British and French followed suit. I don't think the Americans and Russians used it, but I think the Austrians did. Gas because of its stealth and horendous effects was perhaps, the most terror-inspiring of all the World War I weapons. Poison gas caused only a small fraction of total battlefield deaths, less than 0.1 million, but more than 1.3 million men received terrible wounds--many never fully recovered. Countermeasures were, however, rapidly developed which reduced gas to primarily a means of harassing the opposing forces. One estimate suggests that by the end of the War in 1918, about 25 percent of all artillery shells fired contained chemical weapons.

Poison Gas Outlawed

After the War, the major world powers outlawed the use of poison gas in war. This ban was included in several international agreements. Gas was prominently outlawed in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, formally ending World War I. There were also provisions outlawing the use of poison gas in the the 1922 Treaty of Washington and in the 1925 Geneva protocol signed by more than 40 countries, including the United States.

Inter-war Period

Mustard gas was used by British forces which intervened in the Russian Civil War during 1919. We have no details at this time on the research and production prgrams for poison gas. The Germans were of course probited from manufacturing poison gas under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. After the NAZI rearmament program, poison gas was again produced. Subsequently international agreements prohibiting its use. I am not sure how this affected research and production programs. Even so poison gas was used in the inter-war period on a number of occassions. The Italians under Mussolini used it in their African campaigns in Libyia and Ethiopia. The Spanish also employed gas in their North African campaigns, both in Libya and Ethiopia. The Japanese used gas in China even before the beginning of World War II and were condemned by the United Nations. Despite the international conventions outlawing poison gas, there was widespread fear in Europe that it would be used. Advances in aviation brought the fear that gas would be used against civilian populations. One of the limitations of gas usage in World War I was the difficulty of delivering gas on enemy targets with the danger of your own forced being affected. Aerial delivery resolved this limitation.

World War II in Europe

Military planners in Britain assumed that the NAZIs would use poison gas when war broke out. Every British citzen, including children were issued gas masks. Children in school practiced using the masks. The military in Germany also was issued gas masks. I'm not sure about German civilians, although here we see Hitler Youth boys training to use gas masks (figure 1). There were even masks for babies. They were aklso issued in France, Italy, and Germany. Major combatant countries (America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union) had large stockpiles of poison gas in their arsenals. The American policy concerning poison gas after it entered the War against Germany was to create a vastly superior stock pile and improve delivery systems so that if the German military first used gas, then the United States could respond with overwhelming force. The most serious incident concerning poison gas occurred in Italy. After the Allied invasion of Italy (September 1943), the Lufwaffe attacked Allied shipping. The Allies were using the port of Bari in southern Italy. A Luftwaffe attack caught about 50 ships at Bari waiting to be unloaded (December 2, 1943). The German raid was devestating to the ships moored together in the small port. Seventeen Allied ship were destroyed. One of the ships hit was a U.S. Liberty ship laden with a secret cargo of mustard gas bombs. The ship exploded after receiving a direct hit. The crew was killed immeditely. The gas s[read across the port and into the adjoining city. More than a thousand Allied servicemen and more than 1 thousand civilians died. [Reminick]

World War II in the Pacific

None of the World War II combatant countries employed their stock piles of poison gas in World War II. The only exception was the Japanese. The Jaanese had an active biological and chemical program. The Japanese used both poison gas and biological weapons in China. The Japanese used Pows and Chinese civilians to test these weapons. Only limited information is available on the Japanse use of poison gas during World War II. One Japanese source reports that between fiscal 1937 and 1941 a total of 839,956 chemical shells were shipped overseas. Of these, 571,946 were sent to China and the remaining 268,010 went to Southeast Asia. Even larger quantities may have been shipped in 1942 and 43, but records are not available. [Tsuneishi] The Japanese appeare to have used poison gas extensively in Chima. Reports fron the Nanking Masacre indicate that this was one of the ways prioners were killed after thr fall of the city. Recent historical research suggeststhat in 1945 the United States was preparing for the introduction of chemical weapons ro support Operation Olympic, the planned invasion of Japan. [Allen and Polmer] The weapons, however, were never employed. At the time the United States was fire bombing Japanese cities causing massive civiloan casualties. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945) finally causing Japan to surrender (September 1945). After the War, the Imperial Japanese Army usually buried chemical weapons stockpiles when they evacuated China. After the War, Japanese officals have generally attempted to limit public discussion of the use of poison gas and chemical weapons as well as other Japanese attrocuties during the War. Some Japanese educators believe that there should be a fuller discussion. Prime Minister Kozume and Chinese and Japanese courts are currently wrestling with this issue. The Chinese are demanding that Japan compensate Chinese for injuries sustained because if these weapons and not only pay for the destruction of weapons found, but also assist Chinese authorities to locate other sites where the weapns were buried and pay for their disposal. [Tsuneishi]

Lack of Use

The question arrises as to why poison gas was not employed extensively in the World War II as anticipated, especially in the air war. None of the World War II combattant countries, except Japan, employed their stock piles of poison gas in World War II. The only exception was the Japanese who used both poison gas and biological weapons in China. The conventional wisdom is that the combatant countries refrained from using gas because they feared retaliation. This certainly was an important factor factor, but not the only factor. Morality has to be considered as well. The Americans considered using gas weapons, but President Roosevelt refused permission on moral grounds. Moral grounds can not be discounted, although the British considered using them in case the Germans invaded and the Ameriucans considered using them in case an invasion of Japan became necessary. Morality stragely enough appears to have affected Adolf Hitler himself. The NAZI Führer was gassed by British troops in 1918. His experience may have well caused him to decide against using the substantial German stockpile of chemical weapons in World War II. Of course morality and Hitler are strange bedfellows, bu as a result of his experiences and the fsct that Germand World War I poison gasses were developed by a Jew. For Hitler, World War I was the highlight of his early life. And he saw poison gas of a coruption of the purity of War. That of course would not have stopped him had he fully understood the enormity of the Germnan technological advantage. Another major factor was the mobility of World War II. Chemical weapons were effective on the static World war I bsattefield, but World War II was a much more mobile battlefield. And the Germans saw no need to use poison gas in the eaely campaigns because they were so spetacularly successful and by the time that the War had tune against them, having lost air suerority poison gas could not be very effectively employed. Notably the Germans had extensively used it against the Russians who had no countermeasures in World War I. The situation was different in World War II when the Soviers not only were prepared to take the needed countermeasures, but had gas weapons with which they could respond-. The Soviets did not have nerve gasses, but the Germans were not sure just wjhat the Soivirts or Western Allies had. The same senario also took place in the Pacific theater. The Japanese had no need to use poison gas in the early months of the War after Pearl Harbor. After the War turned against them, they had no means of effectively using gascweapons while America with its crushing ait superority could have effectively used them. Also notable is that the Japanese did use gas against the Chinese who had no effective countermeasures and no comparable weapons with which to respond. The stark reality of these facts are important in modern debates over weaponary and disarmament.

Sources

Allen, T.B. and N. Polmar, "Poisonous invasion prelude," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aug. 4, 1995 [New York Times special features].)

Harris R. and J. Paxman, A Higher Form of Killing (1982)

Murphy, Donald J. (Ed.). World War I: Turning Points In World History (Greenhaven Press: San Diego, Calif.)

Reminick, Gerald. Nightmare in Bari: The World War II Liberty Ship Poison Gas ....

Spiers, E.M. Chemical Warfare (1986).

Tsuneishi, Keiichi. "Disposing of Japan's World War II Poison Gas in China" Asahi Shimbun, November 10, 2003.






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Created: September 14, 2002
Last updated: 5:33 AM 3/4/2010