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. We don't think 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 (1914-18)

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 (1919-25)

After the War, the major world powers outlawed the use of poison gas in war. This ban was included in several international agreements. Chemical weapons were prominently outlawed in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, formally ending World War I (1919). 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. The formal name of the treaty is the The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. It is commonly referred to as the Geneva Protocol. It prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts. The contracting powers siugbd it at Geneva (1925). It entered into force (1928). The League of Nations registered in their Treaty Series (1929). The Geneva Protocol on chemical and bacterolgical weapons is a legally a protocol or addution tgo to the Convention for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition and in Implements which followed the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The Gebeval Proticols came to be understood as a general prohibition on the use chemical and biological weapons. It did not address the production, storage or transfer of these weapons.

Inter-war Period(1920s-30s)

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 (1939-45)

Military planners as the possibility of another war increased in the mid-1930s assumed that chemical weapons would be used again as they had been in World War I. an advances in aviation convinced that this time flets of bomvbers would disperse chemical weapons on the great cities of Europe. When war broke out in Europe, the various beligerant countries braced for gas warfare. It was widely expected that the Germans would use these weapons as they did in World War I. It did not occur, and historians still debate why the Germans in particular did not use the weapons. Hitler's World War I experience and German inital successes without gas and then subsequent loss of air superority are all factors. The stunning fact is that only the Germans developed chemical weapons that were significantly more leathal than World War chemical weapns. The Germans developed nerve agents that were far more leathal than anything the Allies had. As it turned out, use was very limited. The Italians used chemical weapons before the War in Ethiopia (1935) and the Japanese used chenical and bacteroligical weapons in China (1940s). In both cases countries which had chemical weapons used them against countries that did not have either the weapons or protective gear, although the Japanese did use Allied POWs as some of the test subjects. As it turned out, the most serious incident in Europe was a German bomber which hit an Americam ship carrying chemical weaons off Italy.

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 Americans 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.


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: 2:42 PM 1/20/2017