Respirators: mickey mouse gas masks and baby gas masks in WW2 UK
Respirators or gas masks?
As explained on the WW2 respirator page, everyone at the time referred to these devices as gas masks, but nowadays, although respirator is the better-known word, the spirit of this website is to keep the nomenclature of the time.
So this page is about children's WW2 gas masks: mickey mouse gas masks for children and baby gas masks for babies.
Mickey Mouse gas masks for children
Like all children's gas masks, mine was supposed to look like Mickey Mouse, to appeal to children - although when I look at these gas masks in museums, the resemblance to Mickey Mouse leaves much to the imagination. Cynthia Chadwick's comment reminiscent of monsters - see below - seems far more fitting.
Breathing through a Mickey Mouse gas mask
The Mickey Mouse's nose was supposed to flutter to show that the child wearing it was breathing. In the following box Stan Clark's explains how it worked.
How the Micky Mouse nose acted as a one-way valve for breathing out
The Mickey Mouse mask had a nose piece that stuck out from the front. It was rounded where it was attached to the mask and the other end flattened and thinned out, acting as a one-way valve for breathing out.
Clearly children managed to breathe through this arrangement, but I have a clear memory from about three years of age of adamantly refusing to wear the thing, after being made to try it out. I instantly tore it off because it was stifling me. I couldn't get any breath through it! Whether this was a fault on my mask or a problem with the strength of my young lungs, I shall never know. In fact my mother did not persist and fortunately the Germans never used gas on us.
Breathing through a gas mask without its lenses steaming up
Sometimes we were made to wear our gas masks during lessons at school. Then, when we had to recite the times tables from off the black board, the lenses would steam up from our breath so that we couldn’t see a thing. We learnt that a cut potato, rubbed over the inside lenses helped to stop them steaming up.
Children's choice of gas masks bags
We girls were offered attractive girly canvas bags for our gas masks. I chose one with pink rabbits on, and I still have it all these years later.
As far as I know, my mother was not offered such a bag for me, but I was a few years younger and lived in a different area.
Trying to talk through a gas mask
Confusion talking through a gas mask
One day in class the teacher told me to answer a question on the blackboard, but the lenses of my gas mask were completely steamed up, so I couldn't see a thing. Wearing the mask was compulsory. I told her that I couldn't see, and due to my voice being very muffled through the mask, she thought that I was asking to go to the toilet. I found myself being lifted up and out from my desk by one ear, shown the door and told to hurry up.
The school toilets were at the top of the playground a good fifty yards away, and on the way I removed the mask to clean the lenses and to rub some more potato on them. That normal stopped them from steaming up. On return to my class, I was hit hard on the back of my hand with a wooden ruler for removing my mask. This hurt and made my hand bleed.
Children's alternative uses for gas mask canvas bags
I saw the older boys using their canvas shoulder bags for all sorts of things, so I did the same, with the gas masks lodged on the tops of our heads. We could fill up our boxes with hips from off the hedgerows, for which we would be paid 3 old pence a pound at every assemble in school.(Interesting that another contributor to this website was only paid 2 old pence a pound!)
I also kept my catapult and a few stones in my bag, and I went scrumping filling it with apples, or conkers. I manage to get through or destroy at least three bags a week until getting the cane at school made it too painful to continue. I did eventually start to look after my bag a bit better.
A lot of the girls at school covered their canvas bags with fancy wallpaper, and kept girly things in them. I suppose to a girl it was like having a hand bag.
Difficulty of keeping young children's gas mask at the ready
Mothers and teachers were supposed to make sure that these bags, with the gas masks inside, were always within reach, at home, out of doors, at school and in bed at night.
Yet, as far as I can remember, my gas mask never went anywhere with me even though we lived in London in the midst of the blitz. Because I was so young, my memories are of the latter part of the war, and it is quite possible that my mother did keep me and my gas mask together earlier on with the canvas bag on show.
Children's games with gas masks
If you breathed hard while wearing one of these Mickey Mouse gas masks, you could make very rude noises. By altering my breathing, I could even play tunes on mine.
Towards the end of the war once the threat of gas had receded, we played 'monsters' in the street with our gas masks. Then they were recalled and we had to hand them over - for the rubber or what, I don't know.
Baby gas masks
As I was born five months before the Second World War started, I must have been provided with a baby gas mask, but of course I can't remember anything about it.
In my early years, though, I would have remembered seeing babies in baby gas masks if there had been a gas attack. Of course there never was one. So what I know comes from what I have been told by older people and seen in museums and shows.
Babies didn't wear gas masks, it was more a matter of the baby being mainly inside the mask.
Pumping a baby gas mask to keep the air flowing
Whereas for a child or adult wearing a mask the act of breathing itself drew freshly filtered air in and expelled used air out, babies' breathing wasn't strong enough. So babies in gas masks would have had to have an adult alongside continuously pumping by hand to keep the air flowing for the baby. The pumping must have been extremely stressful and tiring for whoever was doing it. Probably adults in families had an arrangement to take turns.
The second photo is the clearest for showing how the mask worked and it enlarges on tap/click. It shows the baby sealed half inside the 'mask' with the thick pump tube in the basket beside the baby. In use, the end with the pump (just to the right of the babies knee) would have to be pulled out into a convenient position for the adult doing the pumping.