Gas Masks

The British government believed that some form of poison gas would be used on the civilian population during the Second World War. It was therefore decided to issue a gas masks to everyone living in Britain. By 1940 the government had issued 38 million gas masks.

Adult gas masks were black whereas children had 'Micky Mouse' masks with red rubber pieces and bright eye piece rims. There were also gas helmets for babies into which mothers would have to pump air with a bellows. Air Raid Wardens wore gas masks with a long hose and a speaking box which was attached to his belt. The tin canister at the end of the mask contained charcoal which soaked up poisons such as mustard gas.

The government recruited qualified chemists and formed them into local Gas Identification Squads. To help them in their work the tops of Post Office pillar boxes were given a coating of gas detector paint. The government also published leaflets that helped the public to identify the various types of poisons that might be dropped by the Luftwaffe.

The government threatened to punish people not carrying gas masks. However, a study at the beginning of the war suggested that only about 75 per cent of people in London were obeying this rule. By the beginning of 1940 almost no one bothered to carry their gasmask with them. The government now announced that Air Raid Wardens would be carrying out monthly inspections of gas masks. If a person was found to have lost the gas mask they were forced to pay for its replacement.

A school child tries on a gas mask in 1939.
A school child tries on a gas mask in 1939.

Primary Sources

(1) Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960).

All sorts of emergency measures were being taken by the Government to prepare the people for war. Thousands lined up patiently to be measured for gas-masks, only to find out that because of the haste with which the masks were manufactured the parts which were supposed to intercept gas had been inadvertendy left out. Trenches were dug in Hyde Park, causing mass discontent on the part of nannies, who complained that their little charges were always falling in. Apart from the bitter jokes caused by these inept arrangements, the atmosphere was on the whole one of dreary calm, of apathetic bowing to the inevitable.

(2) Government leaflet published just after the outbreak of the Second World War.

If poison gas has been used you will be warned by means of hand rattles. Keep off the streets until the poison gas has been cleared away. Hand bells will be rung when there is no longer any danger. If you hear the rattle when you are out, put on your gas mask at once and get indoors as soon as you can.

(3) Joyce Storey, Joyce's War (1992)

Elsie remarked that she had spoken to Mr. Fry, the local Councillor and her next-door neighbour, and he had told her in confidence that the first consignment of gas masks due to be delivered the following week would be far from adequate and it was a question of distribution. Whoever got there first would be lucky.

Elsie was right about the gas masks, and several weeks later there was a mad panic for these frightful looking things at local school rooms, where they were being distributed. People reacted in the most uncivilised way because they were so certain that poison gas would be used by the Germans and there were not enough gas masks issued on that first delivery. We carried them everywhere with us. In fact, it became a kind of ritual to say each time we ventured forth, 'Don't forget, Gas Mask, Identity Card and Torch.'

The Identity Cards had to be carried in wallets and handbags at all times. My identity number was TKBR/82/10. There was a brisk trade done with identity bracelets and necklaces. We bought special ones for loved ones and friends. Shelters were erected in back gardens. Ours took up all the small dirt square, with the opening coming right up to the edge of the path. Each street had an Air Raid Warden. My father was the warden for our street. He had no flowers to look at now, but spent hours looking up into the sky.

(4) Winston Churchill, letter to the Secretary of State for War (15th April, 1941)

I remain far from satisfied with the state of our preparations for offensive chemical warfare, should this be forced upon us by the actions of the enemy.

I have before me a report on this matter by the Inter-Service Committee on Chemical Warfare, together with a commentary thereon by the Ministry of Supply. From these two documents the following special points emerge:

(1) The deficiency of gas shell is still serious. Although the production of 6-inch and 5.5-inch gas shell was due to start in February, none has yet been produced. I understand that the shortage of 25-pounder gas-filled shell is due to the lack of empty shell cases.

(2) The production of 30-lb. L.C. bomb, Mark I, will not keep pace with the production of the 5-inch U.P. weapon, the new mobile projector for use with the Army. Indeed, supplies will be insufficient even for training purposes.

(3) The production of phosgene gas is inadequate. The output from the plant is now about 65 per cent of capacity, having previously been only 50 per cent over a period of some months. I propose to examine the whole position at an early meeting of the Defence Committee (Supply).

In order that this examination may be as complete as possible, I shall be glad to receive from the Minister of Aircraft Production and the Minister of Supply, for circulation in advance of the meeting, brief comprehensive statements of the position so far as each is concerned, showing in respect of each of the main gas weapons and components (including gases):

(1) Total requirements notified to them, with dates.

(2) Stocks of components in the custody of each on April 1st.

(3) Supplies delivered by April to R.A.F. or Army authorities.

(4) Estimated output during each of the next six months.

I shall be glad if these statements can be submitted within a week. They should be addressed to Sir Edward Bridges.

(5) Angus Calder, The People's War (1969)

Failure to carry gas masks was never a punishable offence though in many cases factory and office workers were compelled to bring them to work by the management, and sudden mock attacks were staged in crowded streets from time to time. Even in the first week of war, no more than three-quarters of Londoners seen in the streets were carrying gas masks. By November it was a minority habit, weaker among men than among women, some of whom had replaced the official containers with nattier ones sold by the department stores. By the following spring almost no one bothered. Meanwhile, the Government had instituted a monthly inspection of masks by the air raid wardens; the citizen would be charged for the replacement or repair of a mask which he had allowed to deteriorate, or had mislaid. (The lost property offices of the railways were stacked high with unclaimed containers.)