Poison Gas: World War II in Europe (1939-45)



Figure 1.--All we know about this image is that it is obviously German (probably Bavarian) or Austrian. It looks to have been taken before or during the early years of the War. It looks to us that a Luftwaffe airman has brought his son with him on the day he was fitted for a gas mask.

Major combatant countries (America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union) had large stockpiles of poison gas in their arsenals. 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. There were even masks for babies. 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). They were also issued in France, Italy, and Germany. 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]

Britain

We have little information on British chemical weapons programs after the use of these weapons were prohibited by thev Geneva Protocol (1925). As best we can tell, Britain did not hace a major chemical weapons program, either a research progrm or a production program to stockpine chenical weapons. The British were well behind the Germans. Only after the fall of France did the British begin a crash program to produce chenical weapons. Military planners in Britain assumed that the NAZIs would ignore international conventions and use poison gas when war broke out. The superority of the Luftwaffe made this an especially terrifying possibility. As a result, the British gave considerable priority to preparations for chemical weapons civil defense. At the same time, bomb sheltrs and anti-aircraft artillery was neglected. Every British citzen, including children were issued gas masks. Children in school practiced using the masks. Civilians were not only issued gas masks, but were required to carry them. There were even masks for babies. The British evaculated children from the major cities at the onset of World War II (September 1939). The images of the evacuation all show them children and the adults with them carrying their gas masks.

Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakia among the small countries in Europe appear to have given the most attention to possible gas attack. Bordering Germany, officials were especially fearful of gas aqnd other aerial attack. And they were determined to fight counting on support from Britain and France. Part of their preparationd to defend their country was to produce a substantial number of gas masks. The Czechs could not match the Germans in aircraft production which was expectd to be the primary delivery method. The Czechs disd, however produce gas masks in large numbers. After Munich, however, the Czechs realize that wuithiut the Sudetenland and British and French support, their country could not be defended. As a result, the Czechs begn selling their gas masks to the French which had begun to realize that war was inevitable and the possibility of Luftwaffe gas attacks becoming increasingly possible. Shortly after the sale of gas masks to the French, the Germans invaded. In the end, the Czechs were the Hitler's first non-German target, disregarding explicit assurances given to British Prinemiminister Chamberlain. The Czechs were thus the first non-German to experience German invasion and occupation (March 1939). The Germans seized the stocks of gas masks not sold to the French. We are not sure yet wshat was done with them.

France

The M2 gas mask was a French-made gas mask used by French, British and American forces during World War I. Nearly 30 million were made. The French like others World War combatants were horrified by the casualties resulting from gas attacks during World War I. France along with Britain, Italy, and Germany ratified the Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical and bacterolgical weapons (1925). We have been unable to find any information about French research on gas masks and production during the inter-War era. The French were preparing for a German gas attack. France, Britain, and Germany expcted chemicals weapons to be used in any future war. The Maginot Line and of communal shelters in Paris were equipped to withstand gas attack by maintaing a sligtly higher air pressure. Some gas masks were also issued in France, but nowhere did preparations reach the level pursued in Britain where everyone was issued gas masks. The Frnch scrambling to prepare for War, purchased gas masks from the Czecha before they were invaded and occupied by the Germans. We see French school children practicing with putting on gas masks, but we are not sure to what extent they were actually issued to the children. Some may have been World War I masks. The French stockpiles would have fallen into German hands after the fall of France (June 1940). We are not sure what the Germans did with them.

Germany

Germany had chemical weapons. The weapons were outlawed by the Versailles Treaty following World War I (1919). The German military had a range of programs to evade the Versailles limitations. I am not sure to what extent they worked on gas weapons during the Weimar era. After the NAZIs seized power (1933) the Germans launched a chenical warfare program and by the start of the War (1939) had substantial stockpiles. Unlike other weapons system, however, Hitler who had been gassed during World War I did not look favorably on gas weapons. I have no information at this time on German policy discussions concerning gas weapons. One German source indicates that military and chemical experts discussed the possible usd of chemical weapons in great deail, especially the use of gas in aerial warfare. The Germans seemed to have concluded that it wa not a very effective military weapon. [Rumpf, p. 173.] The conventional wisdom is that Germany did not need chemical weapons at the beginning of the War and was afaid to use them once the Allies gained air supremecy. The military in Germany was issued gas masks. The Luftwaffe's superority at the beginning of the War made bombing attacks of less concern to civilians. Göring assured the public that it was not possible for the Allies to bomb Berlin. I'm not sure about the extent to which German civilians were prepared for gas attacks. We note photographs of Hitler Youth boys and other civilians training to use gas masks.

Italy

We do not yet have details on the Italian chemical weapons program. As far as we know the Italians still had World War I era chemical weapns like mustard gas. Italy signed the Geneva Convention outlawing the use of poison gas (1925). Even so the Italians used them before World War II. The Italians used chemical weapons on the Libyan resistance (1920s). And they used them agsinst the Ethiopians (1935). Mustard gas was extensively employed. Italian invasion forces dropped mustard gas bombs, sprayed it from airplanes, and spread it in powdered form on the ground. There were an estimated 15,000 Ethiopian casualties, mostly from the mustard gas. The chemical weapons played a substantial role in the Italian victory. This was a violstion of the Geneva Protocol which Italy had signed. Reports were publidshed in the British press, but Italians diplomats mananaged to descredit the reports (even though the reports were accurate). Here the British Government plsyd a role as at the time they were still hopeful of Mussolinin helping to moderate Hitler. We know nothing at this time about Italian research and development programs.

Japan

Japan appears to be the only World War II combatant to have employed chemical weapons. Primeminister Tōjō and other Japanese officials after the War insisted that Japan had only used tear and sneezing gases. Evidence to the contrary is overwealming that the Japanese did employed chemical weapons in China to a degree that must have been known by Government officials. There is substantial evidence that the Japanese used chemical weapons in China, including physical ecidence. Japanese experts have worked in China disarming Japanese chemical weapons still being found there. [De Blois] There was of course no reason for the Japanese to deploy chemical weapons in China other than to use them. China fid not have chemical weapms and thus there was no need to hold them for retailiation. One report describes nearly 900 incidents before 1941. Japanese aircraft dropped gas bombs on the suburbs of Ichang, the last navigable port on the River Yangtse (October 1941). Othee reports suggest use in 1942 as well. [AP Online] Once Japan launched the Pacific War, they seem to have curtailed, but not ended the use of chemical weapons. Here documentation is comolicated because Japanese officials deny that they were using chemical weapons in the first place. It is not entirely clear why they decided to curtail the use of chemical weapons. America at the time had no way of delivering substantial quantities of chemical weapons. The mere fact that America and Britain had chemical weapons, however, appears to have disuaded the Japanese. There are reports that local commanders on an isolated basis used chemical weapons, not only in China, but against the Allies as well. One report aleges that the Japanese used chemical weapons on the British in Burma. [Allen, p. 301.] There are also reports the Japanese tested chemical/bacterological weapons on Allied POWs and then evaluated the results with vivisections.

Palestine

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, after espaping from Iraq and Iran found refuge in MAZI Germany. He help recruit Muslim soldiers in the Soivuet Union and SS units in the Balkans who committed terriblke attricities. He made Arab-language propaganda broacasts for the NAZIS. He met with Hitler and other senior NAZI officials, including Himmler and Eichmann, urging thm to kill more Jews. He played a role in preventing the exchange of 4,000 Jewish children who were then transported to to Auschwitz. He also sponsored a chemical warfare attack on the Jews in Palestine (1944). Five parachutists were given maps of Tel Aviv and armed with canisters of a German–manufactured "fine white powder". The Muftiordered them to put the chemicals into the Tel Aviv water system. British policemen who discovered the men, hiding in a cave in Jericho, District police commander Fayiz Bey Idrissi reported, "The laboratory report stated that each container held enough poison to kill 25,000 people, and there were at least ten containers." [Korn]

Soviet Union

No country suffered more from gas warfare than Russia in World War I. The Germans extensively used gas on the Russians who were neither equipped with gas masks or had gas weapons of their own with which to retaliate. Thus after the War the Soviets launched an extensive chemial weapons program. This was aided by the Germans. The Germans were resricted by the Versailles Treaty. Thus they conducted research secretly in the Soviet Union as part of programs conducted under the Rapollo Treaty (1922). The only country in Europe to have developed a substsantisal offensive capability to deliver chemical weapons on the World War II was the Soviet Union (September 1939). [Dear and Foot] The Germans had a substantial stockpile (about 2,900 tons), but had not yet developed effective means of delivering them. Hitler had banned their offensive use and thus delivery methods had not been developed. . The Germans when they overrun the western Soviet Union with Operation Barbarossa (June 1941), encountered Soviet gas masks with filters for a new type of gas. The Germans were aware of the gas, but had rejected it ir military use. As a result, the Germans added a new filter on their gas masks. [Rumpf, p. 175.]

United States

The United States initiated a chemical weapon's program during World War I. President Wilson personally was involved, worrying that America did not have a poison gas weapon. I'm not sure what happened to the poison gas program durung the inter-war era. 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. A factor here was the air superority that the Allies began to develop during 1942. 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 a thousand civilians died. [Reminick]

Other Countries

The Spanish employed chemical weapons (mustard gas) in Morocco during the War of the Rif against Rif tribesmen (1920). [BWInfo Staff] We are not sure where they got the chemical ordinance, but at the time there would have been substantial World War I stockpiles absailavle from the French who joined them in the Rif War. Chinese warlord, Zhang Zuolin, contracted a German company to construct a poison gas (mustard gas) plant in Shenyang. [BWInfo Staff] It was reportedly completed in 1927. We do not know if any of the production was ever used.

Sources

AP Online. "Report: Japan found to have used poison gas in World War II" AP Online (June 14 1998). The Japanese Mainichi newspaper obtained Foreign Ministry documents about a Chinese trial of a Jappanese offucer who ordered the use of poison gas in northern China during May 1942.

Allen, Louis. Burma: The Longest War (London, 1984).

CBWInfo Staff. "Blister Agent: Sulfur Mustard (H, HD, HS)" 2005).

Dear, I.C.B. and M.R.D. Foot. "Chemical warfare." The Oxford Companion to World War II (Oxford University Press. 2001).

De Blois, Nicky. AP Writer. "Chinese, Japanese experts dismantle World War II poisin gas shells found in Chins" AP Worldstream (September 12, 2003). This reports describes the disarming of Japanese chemical shells found near Luquan.

Korn, Benyamin. "Arab chemical warfare against Jews--in 1944" The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies March).

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

Rumpf, hans. The Bombing of Germany (Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1962), 256p.

Tucker, Jonathan B. War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (Pantheon, 2005), 479p.






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Created: 6:59 AM 10/2/2004
Last updated: 9:08 AM 1/18/2017