The British as a result of military assessments gave considerable priority to preparations for chemical weapons civil defense. Of all the World War II beligerant countries, the British gave the most attention to preparing the public for poison gas attack, primarily aerial attack. One British historian describes the precautions taken against gas attack as an obsession and says that other important aspects of preparing for aerial attack was neglected. [Spaight, pp. 58-59.] While resources were devoted to gas masks, the construction of bomb shelters and anti-aircraft artillery were neglected. Over 50 million gas masks were produced by March 1939. When the NAZI Blitz came (September 1940), the public had gas masks, but there were few bomb sheltrs. Every British citzen, including children were issued gas masks. There were special masks for infants unavle to wear a srandard mask. These masks were of course terrifying for many of the younger children. Children in school practiced using the masks so they would be prepared if a gas attack ever came. Civilians were not only issued gas masks, but were required to carry them. There were fines for people who left home without their masks.
The British as a result of military assessments gave considerable priority to preparations for chemical weapons civil defense. Of all the World War II beligerant countries, the British gave the most attention to preparing the public for poison gas attack, primarily aerial attack. After the NAZIs announced the creation of the Luftwaffe, the British Government began to consider the possibility of a German air assault (1935). The appearance of the Luftwaffe in the Spanis Civil War only highlighted what Britain might face (1936). The gas masks were made at a factory in Blackburn Lancashire and in London. There is news reel footage about the plants' role in providing gas masks. Over 50 million gas masks were produced (March 1939). We have seen some lower quantities as low as 39 millionn. This may relect differences in dates.
Gas masks were also called ‘civilian respirators’. They had a filter to keep the poison gas out of the lungs. The masks also protected the eyes. They came in different sizes and designs. The standard type was issued to the public and was worn by adults and older children. There were more advance types for air raid wardens and other important people.
The masks looked very frigtening. Some more friendly and less intimidating gas mask was designed for pre-school children. These were brightly coloured and were intended to look like Mickey Mouse. Infants were too little for masks so they were put in a ‘protective helmet’. The baby would have been literally strapped in. Mother would then pump the air in ad out through a fliter. They were designed to work on World War I era gasses. The British were unaware of the nerve gasses that the Germans were developing.
Every British citzen, including children were issued gas masks. We do not yet have precise details on when and how the gas masks were distributed. Apparently some were distributed at the time of the Munich Crisis (September 1938). At the time there were not enough masks in stock for everyone, By the time of the outbreak of the War (September 1939), there were sufficentbmasks for everyone. We believe this was when most of the masks were issued, after the declaration of War (September 3). We do not yet have precise details on when and how the gas masks were distributed. We think that there were neighborhood distribution centrs. It was done through the family. School children went with their parents to pick up their masks and have them fitted. They then had to carry them to school. A reader tells us, "The issue was very soon after September 3, 1939. We didn't have them when war broke out, but it couldn't have been long after that we got them." Of course it would have take a few weeks to distribute them to millions of people. The masks were issued on a family basis. Another British reader writes, "I remember being issued with my gas mask as a 9-year old boy. We went as a family to a large hall, I think it was at the local seconday school. We went to long tressle tables where family by family we were fitted with the appropriate style. My sister had a Mickey Mouse one with the goggle eyes. The rest of us had the clear visor style. My brother and I soon found out we could make 'Whoopie cushion' noises by exhaling quickly with the rubber vibating as the air escaped past our cheeks. A little time after issue, we had to go back for an additional filter to be taped below the existing one. I am not sure of the reason. I seemed to remember being told it was to protect us from a new form of gas. When my brother and I were evacuated, we had to hand our gas masks in, I think as we boarded the ship. After the war they were supposed to be handed in for recycling - we called it 'scrap' in those days. Some people kept them as souvenirs." Interested readers can read about Alan and Grahm and their exploits. Sone sources say that there was a door on door distribution. Another source says that the distribution went on into 1940, although by that time, many believed that the Germans ere not going to use gas and a lot of people stoppd carrying them. The first mask was free. If you lost your mask, you had to pay for a replacement.
Reichmarshal Herman Göring announced the existence of the Luftwaffe in flagrant violation of the Versailles Trearty ending World War I (1935). This was the great fear of the time. German aerial attacks using poison gas. Soon after the German announcement, the British and French began intensifying preparations for possible poison gas attacks. Press reoorts describing people being trained in the use of gas masks and drills with gas masks. One magazine artile reported, "This year, thenations of the wirld are feverishly preparing for an expected gas assault not only on rmies, but on civilians miles behind the lines as well. .... For months, Englishmen have been hardened to gas drills. Trucks loaded with tear gas were sent throughout the kingdom. Civilians practiced donning the masks, then stepped into gas-chambers to see how they worked." ['Gas masks for all'] We note drills with school children trainng them to efficently put on gas masks correctly and quickly. We note an impressive demonstration at a Glasgow school. This was going on all over Britain at every school. We even see British children at play wearing gas maks. We note a range of drills for adults including hospital personnel, both doctors and nurses. They practed basic activities conducted with their gas masks on. These preparations intensified after Munich (September 1938).
One British historian describes the precautions taken against gas attack as an obsession and says that other important aspects of preparing for aerial attack was neglected. [Spaight, pp. 58-59.] While resources were devoted to gas masks, the construction of bomb shelters and anti-aircraft artillery were neglected. When the NAZI Blitz came (September 1940), the public had gas masks, but there were few bomb sheltrs.
There were special masks for infants unable to wear a mask and special masks for younger children. The standard mask were of course terrifying for many of the younger children. I don't think the masks were issued at school, but the children were expected to bring their masks to school and then taken back home. They caried them in card board boxes which had string to put over their shoulkders. The teachers helped teach the children how to fit and use the masks. Children at school practiced using the masks so they would be prepared if a gas attack ever came.
A British reader writes, "Back to the gas masks. First an explanation on how to fix it. Next fitting it and then lots of practice by the children fixing it. I think a timed game would have been organised once the little uns knew how to put it on. Once on the boys would have made horrible noises and scared one another and the girls, playing monsters." I am not entirely sure about this. At the time I think teachers wre more serious. I am not sure that playing around woukld have been permitted. One wonders what the teachers must have told the the younger children who must have had a multitude of questions. Imagine having to tell a 6-year old that there were people coming to gas them. Suely that must have resulted in nightmares.
Civilians were not only issued gas masks, but were required to carry them. There were fines for people who left home without their masks.
Spaight, J.M. Bombing Vindicated (London, 1953-55).
"Gas masks for all in the next war: Europe's civilians being equipped for air raids on great cities," Literary Digest (July 25, 1936), p. 10. The article did not focus on the Luftwaffe, but did describe preoaration in Bitain, France, and Germany.
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