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Preparations for the threat of
poison gas attacks on World War Two Britain

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The threat of poison gas

WW2 poster warning everyone to carry their gas mask

Poster warning everyone to carry their gas mask photographed in the Museum of Nottingham Life.

As the Germans had used gas warfare in World War one, it was assumed that they would drop poison gas onto British civilians in World War Two.

So every precaution that could be taken against a gas attack was taken, and the cost of it all astounds me!

In practice a gas attack never came.

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Detectors and warnings for gas attacks

Gas detectors

A gas detector was a large square board painted green, on top of a pole. To me it looked something like a large bird table. Gas sensitive paint on the board would change from yellowish green to red in the presence of mustard gas.

Gas detectors were located outside observation posts, which were underground bunkers dug very deep into the ground, probably over twelve feet or so deep, and manned by the ARP and the Home Guard who reported on the numbers and direction of enemy planes overhead,

Gas detection paint was also applied to the tops of Post Office pillar boxes to alert the public to a gas attack.

In Edmonton one of the observation posts was in Pymmes Park and another at the Cambridge Roundabout.

Peter Johnson

As a child, I remember dustbin lids painted with gas detection paint fixed to the walls of the houses in our neighbourhood. I was told that they would change colour in the event of a gas attack and that I should immediately put on my gas mask.

John Benson

If the Germans had dropped gas, I suspect that the effects would have had a fairly short range, as the noise of the wooden 'clackers' designed to warn of a gas attack must have had a fairly short range.

World War Two gas rattle or clacker for alerting to the presence of poison gas

Rattle or clacker alert, held by handle and whirled round to alert for poison gas. Photographed in Lincolnsfields Childrens Centre, Bushey.

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Publicity about a gas attack

Front cover of WW2 Civil Defence Leaflet no 2 - thumbnail

One of a series of information leaflets , distributed to the public.

There was a great deal of publicity about how to recognise and cope in a gas attack. For example:

Information leaflets

Even before the war started in 1939, a leaflet on how to store and use a gas mask was distributed to the public.

Gas masks

Everyone was issued with a gas mask, with different types for adults, children and babies, and it was a legal requirement to have it close to hand at all times.

Yet in spite of what Peter Johnson writes in the following box, when I went out shopping with my mother and in my first year of school - which was the last year of the war - I never saw anyone carrying their gas mask. I was of course younger than him. The reason, which I only found out after drafting this page was that the requirement was relaxed after a couple of years. I don't know why.

The ever-present gas masks

Everyone always carried their gas mask in its brown cardboard box and shoulder bag when out in public. If anyone failed to do so, they would be stopped by the police or ARP and reported.

When we went to bed our gas mask had to be within reaching distance in the dark.

Lessons were giving at school on how to put on a gas mask as quickly and correctly as possible, even with one's eyes closed. This was to simulate putting it on in the dark.

Peter Johnson

WW2 poster showing people what to do in a gas attack

Poster on what to do in a gas attack, photographed in the Museum of Nottingham Life.


Warning posters publicised the danger.

Cigarette cards

Cigarette cards featured what to do in a gas emergency.

The cigarette card picture below shows how to put on a gas mask. On the back of the cigarette card are the following instructions - but note that although everyone used the term 'gas mask', the official name was 'respirator'.

Great care must be taken to see that the respirator is correctly fitted and adjusted, in order that a supply of pure air, quite free from gas, is ensured for breathing. The respirator is made so that it fits closely round the face, and is provided with adjustable straps to hold it in the correct position. It is important that the respirator be tried on and the straps properly adjusted to the requirements of the wearer (see picture), so that it may be put on at a moment's notice.

How to put on a world war two gas mask (respirator)

How to put on a gas mask, one of the cigarette cards in the war preparations album.