World War II Air Campaign: Poison Gas Theater Developments

Figure 1.--Here girls at Hallow School wear their gas masks as they walk to school through Hallow Village Green. Britain was the country best prepared for gas warfare. The Governent issued masks to civilans and were quite insistent that the masks be kept at the ready for the first year of the War. When the Blitz came and the Germans did not drop gas bombs, the masks were largely forgotton. This photograph is not dated, but looks to have been taken about November or December 1939. Even at the height of the gas scare, British school children did not normally walk to school like this. This was either a staged image or the school authorities had the children do this to famiarlize them with the masks.

Military planners as the possibility of another war increased in the mid-1930s assumed that chemical weapons would be used again as they had been in World War I. an advances in aviation convinced that this time flets of bomvbers would disperse chemical weapons on the great cities of Europe. When war broke out in Europe, the various beligerant countries braced for gas warfare. It was widely expected that the Germans would use these weapons as they did in World War I. It did not occur, and historians still debate why the Germans in particular did not use the weapons. Hitler's World War I experience and German inital successes without gas and then subsequent loss of air superority are all factors. The stunning fact is that only the Germans developed chemical weapons that were significantly more leathal than World War chemical weapns. The Germans developed nerve agents that were far more leathal than anything the Allies had. As it turned out, use was very limited. The Italians used chemical weapons before the War in Ethiopia (1935) and the Japanese used chenical and bacteroligical weapons in China (1940s). In both cases countries which had chemical weapons used them against countries that did not have either the weapons or protective gear, although the Japanese did use Allied POWs as some of the test subjects. As it turned out, the most serious incident in Europe was a German bomber which hit an Americam ship carrying chemical weaons off Italy.

World War II in Africa

Poison gas was used in several instances during the inter-War era including the early Fascist agressions leading up to World War II. The Italians were the primry country using chemical weapons in Africa. The Italians under Mussolini used chemical weapon in their African campaigns in Libya (1920s) and Ethiopia (1935). We have no information about an Italian chemical weapons industry. They mave used stocks of mustand gas provided by the Allies during Workd war I. This is a topic we need to persue in more detail.

World War II in Europe

Military planners in Britain assumed that the NAZIs would use poison gas when war broke out. Every British citzen, including children were issued gas masks. Children in school practiced using the masks. The military in Germany also was issued gas masks. I'm not sure about German civilians, although we see Hitler Youth boys training to use gas masks. There were even masks for babies. They were also issued in France, Italy, and Germany. Major combatant countries (America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union) had large stockpiles of poison gas in their arsenals. The American policy concerning poison gas after it entered the War against Germany was to create a vastly superior stock pile and improve delivery systems so that if the German military first used gas, then the United States could respond with overwhelming force. The most serious incident concerning poison gas occurred in Italy. After the Allied invasion of Italy (September 1943), the Lufwaffe attacked Allied shipping. The Allies were using the port of Bari in southern Italy. A Luftwaffe attack caught about 50 ships at Bari waiting to be unloaded (December 2, 1943). The German raid was devestating to the ships moored together in the small port. Seventeen Allied ship were destroyed. One of the ships hit was a U.S. Liberty ship laden with a secret cargo of mustard gas bombs. The ship exploded after receiving a direct hit. The crew was killed immeditely. The gas spread across the port and into the adjoining city. More than a thousand Allied servicemen and more than 1 thousand civilians died. [Reminick] The stunning fact is that only the Germans developed chemical weapons that were significantly more leathal than World War chemical weapns. The Germans developed nerve agents that were far more leathal than anything the Allies had.

World War II in Asia

None of the World War II combatant countries employed their stock piles of poison gas in World War II. The only exception was the Japanese. The Jaanese had an active biological and chemical program. The Japanese used both poison gas and biological weapons in China. The Japanese used Pows and Chinese civilians to test these weapons. Only limited information is available on the Japanse use of poison gas during World War II. One Japanese source reports that between fiscal 1937 and 1941 a total of 839,956 chemical shells were shipped overseas. Of these, 571,946 were sent to China and the remaining 268,010 went to Southeast Asia. Even larger quantities may have been shipped in 1942 and 43, but records are not available. [Tsuneishi] The Japanese appeare to have used poison gas extensively in Chima. Reports fron the Nanking Masacre indicate that this was one of the ways prioners were killed after thr fall of the city. Recent historical research suggeststhat in 1945 the United States was preparing for the introduction of chemical weapons ro support Operation Olympic, the planned invasion of Japan. [Allen and Polmer] The weapons, however, were never employed. At the time the United States was fire bombing Japanese cities causing massive civilian casualties. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945) finally causing Japan to surrender (September 1945). After the War, the Imperial Japanese Army usually buried chemical weapons stockpiles when they evacuated China. After the War, Japanese officals have generally attempted to limit public discussion of the use of poison gas and chemical weapons as well as other Japanese attrocuties during the War. Some Japanese educators believe that there should be a fuller discussion. Prime Minister Kozume and Chinese and Japanese courts are currently wrestling with this issue. The Chinese are demanding that Japan compensate Chinese for injuries sustained because if these weapons and not only pay for the destruction of weapons found, but also assist Chinese authorities to locate other sites where the weapns were buried and pay for their disposal. [Tsuneishi]


Allen, T.B. and N. Polmar, "Poisonous invasion prelude," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aug. 4, 1995 [New York Times special features].)

Reminick, Gerald. Nightmare in Bari: The World War II Liberty Ship Poison Gas ....

Tsuneishi, Keiichi. "Disposing of Japan's World War II Poison Gas in China" Asahi Shimbun, November 10, 2003.


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Created: 3:07 PM 1/20/2017
Last updated: 3:07 PM 1/20/2017