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World War Two: The gas and fire threat


Gas masks in World War Two Britain

Purpose of WW2 gas masks

Because of the fear of gas attack in World War Two, everyone in Britain was issues with a gas mask which was a device to filter out poisonous gas. (Strictly speaking gas masks were called 'respirators' but everone referred to them as gas masks.)

Adult gas mask on a model

An adult gas mask on a model*

There were different types including those adults, children, babies and specialist personnel. In all, 38 million were distributed.

How gas masks worked

Gas masks were made of rubber to fit closely round the face with a perspex viewer for the eys. When the wearer breathed in, air was sucked through a charcoal filter which removed the poison gas.

Expelled air forced the mask away from the face briefly, only for it to return for breathing in through the filter. I am unsure whether some gas masks had a type of one-way valve to let out the expelled breath, which was the case for children's gas masks. If you know, please contact me.

The arrangement is best explained through pictures. The following are from cigarette cards.

Heavy duty World War Two gas mask for the services

Gas masks for soldiers**

World War Two Civilian duty gas mask

Gas mask for civilians on duty*

The first of this pair of pictures shows an enlargement of the charcoal filter arrangement. This gas mask was actually for members of the forces because it had larger charcoal filters than regular adult gas masks so that the wearers could work for longer in the poison gas. Neverthelss the principle was the same for the other types of gas mask.

The other picture is better at showing the strap arrangement which held the gas mask in place.

How to put on a gas mask

How to put on a gas mask in three steps

How to put on a gas mask

The gas mask had to be correctly fitted and adjusted in order that the user could breath clean air, free from poison gas. So it was was crucially important that the mask was tried on as soon as it arrived and the straps properly adjusted for a perfect fit.

The cigarette card image shows the stages involved.

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

Peter Johnson

The legal position on gas masks for the public

Guest contribution

Standard canvas shoulder bag for a gas mask

Standard canvas shoulder bag for a gas mask

Everyone had to have their gas mask to hand, ready to put on at a moment's notice. When we went out we carried our gas masks in their brown cardboard boxes inside specially provided canvas shoulder bags. If anyone's canvas shoulder bag was not visible, they would be stopped by the police or ARP and reported.

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

Peter Johnson

In fact, the legal requirement always to have one's gas mask to hand was relaxed after a couple of years - possibly because the Germans didn't in fact drop any poison gas and possibly in view of their hidden danger - see below.

Comfort in a gas mask

Gas masks were horribly uncomfortable! Our experience with mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic may give some small indication, but gas masks were much, much worse. I suspect that if the Germans had dropped gas, there would have been fatalities as people couldn't stop themselves from tearing off their gas masks.

For a start, the gas masks were made of rubber which was sweaty, hot and smelly, and they had to be a tight fit round the face. Also breathing was not effortless. Wearers had to work to breathe in through the filter. As for my own child's gas mask, I threw mine off in disgust and refused to wear it, saying that I couldn't breathe. Even now, as I write all those years afterwards, I can remember it as if it were yesterday! It made a strong impression on me because I felt that I was suffocating. I was only three or four at the time.

The hidden danger of gas masks

Guest contribution

Unbeknown to anyone at the time, gas masks were themselves dangerous. They contained asbestos, either side the charcoal filter, intended to prevent the charcoal from catching fire in a bomb blast. Breathing in asbestos can lead in later life to asbestosis, a serious long-term lung condition.

Stan Clark

Another reason why we can be thankful that gas masks never had to be used.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

Text and images are copyright

*Photographed by the webmaster in the Imperial War Museum
**Photographed by the webmaster in Lincolnsfields Children's Centre