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World War Two: The gas and fire threat


Preparations for the threat of poison gas in WW2

threat of poison gas in WW2


By the webmaster, a child in WW2, with additional research and firsthand contributions

The fear of mustard gas was very real in the UK in WW2. This page describes what it was and why it was so feared and how the Government prepared civilians for a gas attack with gas detectors on the streets, leaflets, posters and cigarette card pictures. Gas masks for adults and for children and babies.

Why the threat

As the Germans had used gas warfare in World War One, it was feared that they would drop poison gas from aircraft on British civilians in World War Two. So every precaution against a gas attack was taken. The cost of it all astounds me, but there was little alternative if the public were to be kept safe.

What the poison gas was

The gas threat was 'mustard gas' which got its name from its mustard-like smell. It was actually a liquid at room temperature but it vapourised easily causing blisters and severe irritation on contact with the skin, eyes and lungs. The pain and damage was longlasting and life-changing if not lethal. It was used extensively by the Germans in the First World War, and, as a child in the 1940s, I often heard personal recollections of WW1 veterens still suffering from it.

Consequently it was feared and dreaded as a serious threat in the Second World War, even though there had been a 1925 international treaty prohibiting its development and use in warfare. In practice, it was never used.

In the event, gas attacks never came.

Gas detectors and advance warnings of gas attacks

The gas detectors were large square boards painted yellowish green on top of poles. To me they looked something like large bird tables. Gas sensitive paint on the boards would change 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 where I lived, 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 themselves 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**.

Publicity to prepare for gas attacks

There was a great deal of publicity about how to recognise and cope in a gas attack. For example: Even before the war started in 1939, a leaflet on how to store and use a gas mask was distributed to the public. There were also warning posters publicising the danger.

WW2 poster warning everyone to carry their gas mask

Poster warning everyone to carry their gas mask*.

WW2 poster showing people what to do in a poison gas attack

Poster on what to do in a gas attack* Tap/click for an enlarged image.

Kissing through gas masks: Christmas WW2

Poster of kissing through gas masks reminds me of touching elbows in the pandemic.

Cigarette cards, which have their own page and came in sets dedicated to different interests, had a set was what to do in an air raid and gas attack. It was excellent at reaching the wider public because smoking was so widespread, and collecting cigarette cards was a common hobby for children. It was a rare household where no-one smoked and at the time every packet contained a cigarette card. The fact that a buyer had no idea what card was inside any packet led to considerable bartering - and hence gas attack publicity.

Gas masks ordered well in advance by Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister in 1937 has widely been accused as an appeaser, i.e. going along with Hitler's demands rather than fighting. This is untrue and unfair - see the following box.

10 million gas masks were ordered by Neville Chamberlain as early as 1937. He knew then that war was coming, played for time as we were not yet ready, and we owe him an apology for regarding him as an appeaser.

Tim Topps
edited extract from The Daily Telegraph 21 November 2019

Gas masks for adults and for children and babies have their own pages.

Text and images are copyright

*Photographed by the webmaster in the Museum of Nottingham Life
**Photographed by the webmaster in Lincolnsfields Childrens Centre

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