Spartacus Blog

Gas Masks in the Second World War killed more people than they saved

John Simkin

In 1934 the British government decided that it was possible that over the next few years it would become involved in a war with Nazi Germany. During the First World War several countries, including Germany and Britain, had resorted to chemical warfare. This included firing shells at soldiers that contained chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas. The government feared that the enemy would use aircraft to drop chemical bombs on civilians. Therefore, the British government asked its scientists at the Porton Down laboratory to design a civilian respirator which could be mass-produced at a unit cost of two shillings. The result was the General Civilian Respirator. In 1936, a disused mill in Blackburn became a gas mask assembly-plant where, by the Munich Crisis of 1938, more than 30 million gas masks had been manufactured. (1)

On the outbreak of the Second World War the government decided to issue a gas mask to everyone living in Britain. Over the next few weeks 38 million gas masks were distributed to regional centres. The government also issued a warning that people must go to their nearest air raid shelter during bombing attacks: "If poison gas has been used, you will be warned by means of hand rattles. If you hear hand rattles do not leave your shelter until the poison gas has been cleared away. Hand bells will tell you when there is no longer any danger from poison gas." (2)

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. People carried their gas masks in cardboard cases for many months. (3) Neville Chamberlain went on to radio to explain the measures the government was taking: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing." (4)

Mickey Mouse gas mask (1939)
Mickey Mouse gas mask (1939)

Joyce Storey lived in Bristol: "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. " (5)

People were encouraged to wear gas-masks for 15 minutes a day to get used to the experience. The government threatened to punish people for not carrying gas masks. However, legislation was never passed to make it illegal. The government published posters that said: "Hitler will send no warning - so always carry your gas mask". Government advertisements appeared in newspapers pleading with people to carry their gas masks with them at all times. Teachers were instructed to send children back home to fetch their masks if they had forgotten them. Entry was occasionally refused to restaurants, or places of entertainment, to patrons who were without their survival kit. John Lewis, the department store, reminded staff that "those who come without their gas mask must not be surprised if they are dismissed as unsuitable in time of war". (6)

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

Gas masks were neither easy nor comfortable to wear. The gas-like odour of rubber and disinfectant made many people feel sick. One child wrote: "Although I could breathe in it. I felt as if I couldn't. It didn't seem possible that enough air was coming through the filter. The covering over my face, the cloudy Perspex in front of my eyes, and the overpowering smell of rubber, made me feel slightly panicky, though I still laughed each time I breathed out, and the edges of the mask blew a gentle raspberry against my cheeks. The moment you put it on, the window misted up, blinding you. Our mums were told to rub soap on the inside of the window, to prevent this. It made it harder to see than ever, and you got soap in your eyes. There was a rubber washer under your chin, that flipped up and hit you, every time you breathed in... The bottom of the mask soon filled up with spit, and your face got so hot and sweaty you could have screamed." (7)

H. G. Wells, the famous novelist, and Kingsley Martin, the editor of The New Statesman, both wrote articles claiming they were unwilling to carry gas masks. Philip Ziegler, the author of London at War (1995), pointed out that the authorities in London carried out a regular survey of those carrying gas-masks on Westminster Bridge during 1939: "On 6 September on Westminster Bridge 71 per cent of the men and 76 per cent of the women carried masks; by 30 October the figures were 58 and 59; by 9 November a mere 24 and 39." (8)

A family preparing for a gas attack (1939)
A family preparing for a gas attack (1939)

A study at the beginning of the war suggested that only about 75 per cent of people in London were obeying government instructions regarding gas masks. 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. Muriel Green was in Gloucester when there was a gas leak from a building: "Very few masks were visible except soldiers and an odd child." (9)

Jessica Mitford wrote about the mood the government was creating: "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." (10)

A mother and baby both in gas-masks (1941)
A mother and baby both in gas-masks (1941)

As soon as he gained power in 1940 Winston Churchill considered using chemical weapons. He changed his mind when informed by military intelligence that Germany was capable of dropping three of four times more chemical bombs than Britain. However, plans were put in place to use gas-warfare if Adolf Hitler ordered an invasion of Britain. On 30th May, 1940, he told the Cabinet "we should not hesitate to contaminate our beaches with gas". By the end of September, with the invasion scare over, he decided against first use of the weapon. He instructed General Hastings Ismay, his Chief of Staff, that stocks should be maintained: "I am deeply anxious that gas warfare should not be adopted at the present time... We should never begin but we must be able to reply." (11)

In 1943, when it became clear that Germany's ability to drop chemical weapons on Britain had declined, Churchill began again to consider the use of poison gas against Germany. In 1943 the Cabinet agreed that if the Germans used gas against the Soviet Union then Britain would retaliate. Winston Churchill told General Ismay, "We shall retaliate by drenching the German cities with gas on the largest possible scale." (12)

On 13th June 1944, London was attacked by the first V-1 missiles (also known as a flying bomb, buzz bomb or doodlebug). It was a pilotless monoplane that was powered by a pulse-jet motor and carried a one ton warhead. Churchill argued that this gave Britain the opportunity to launch a chemical attack on Germany. The chiefs of staff rejected the idea of retaliating with gas because it would divert the bombers from their primary tasks. (13)

Churchill was however keen to act now that the British had built far larger stocks of poison gas than Germany. He wrote to General Ismay: "It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a nod of complaint from the moralists or the Church... It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women... One really must not be bound by silly conventions of the mind." (14)

Churchill also wrote to his Chiefs of Staff: "I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention... If we do it one hundred per cent. In the meanwhile, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there." (15)

The Chiefs of Staff produced their report in three days. It admitted that Britain was in a better position than Germany to use chemical weapons. However, they doubted whether it would cause many difficulties to the German authorities, but warned of serious problems if the Germans retaliated by using these weapons against the British population. After reading the report Churchill concluded gloomily, "I am not at all convinced by this negative report. But clearly I cannot make head against the parsons and the warriors at the same time." (16)

Both sides did not use chemical weapons during the war but a few year later the authorities began to have worries about the British gas masks that were produced by Baxters of Blackburn. Local GPs noticed factory workers that had been employed in making the masks were showing abnormally high numbers of deaths from cancer. It was pointed out that gas masks contained chrysotile (white asbestos) or crocidolite (blue asbestos) in their filters. One report suggested that working in gas mask factories resulted in the death of 10% of the workforce due to pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma. This rate was three times the normal incidence of lung or respiratory cancers." (17)

As Jay Hemmings pointed out: "Sometimes the hastily-developed technology turns out to be immensely effective, but other times it can backfire, putting the user in as much or more peril as the danger from which it is supposed to be protecting them. One such example of a supposed advance that actually turned out to be dangerous to the user was the British civilian gas mask of the Second World War.... While the masks were effective in terms of being able to filter out poisonous gases like mustard gas, phosgene or chlorine gas, the filters in them contained a chemical that we now know is extremely harmful to humans: asbestos... Asbestos, which was widely used as a heat-resistant insulator... before it was discovered just how harmful prolonged exposure was. It causes asbestosis, pleuritis, and lung cancer, as well as a number of other lethal and incurable diseases." (18)

Asbestos is a fibrous, naturally occurring mineral that from the late 19th century was used extensively in various construction materials. It was popular because of the material’s unparalleled fireproofing and insulating capabilities. "However, asbestos possesses other attractive qualities: it is relatively lightweight, abundant, cheap to mine and process, resistant to water and acids (and hence corrosion), durable to the point of indestructibility, electrically non-conductive, and unattractive to vermin. Finally, it can be put to an enormous number of uses (usually when blended with resins, plastics, or other materials). In many respects, therefore, asbestos is the perfect material for an industrialising and electrifying world of heat, combustion, and high speed locomotion. Not surprisingly, it came to be viewed, for the first two thirds of the 20th century, as the 'indispensable' and even the 'magic' mineral. (19)

In the 20th century asbestos companies came up with many more uses for the mineral. It was woven into fabric, used to insulate buildings. As early as 1912 the British government was being warned about the health dangers of working with asbestos. (20) Six years later the United States acknowledged the danger. (21) In 1924, the first case of asbestos-related death was recorded (Nellie Kershaw, who had worked in the spinning room of a Rochdale asbestos factory). Ironically, it was German scientists in the late 1930s who first raised the possibility of asbestos-related cancer. In fact, the Germans were so convinced of the carcinogenic properties of asbestos that they made asbestos-related diseases compensable. (22)

In 1965, scientists finally confirmed the link between asbestos inhalation and cancer, now referred to as mesothelioma. It was well-documented as a Type 1 carcinogen, but many employers continued to expose their workers to asbestos through the 1970s. "Though asbestos was officially banned outright from the UK in 1999, many employees today still fail to provide safe working environments with asbestos materials still present. In fact, between 2002 and 2010, 128 British school teachers died from mesothelioma. Seventy-five percent of schools in the UK contain asbestos, and due to recent education budget cuts, it’s likely that buildings in need of proper asbestos maintenance are lacking." (23)

It is estimated that over 2,000 UK citizens die each year from illnesses contracted by asbestos exposure. The Communication Workers Union reported: "The Health & Safety Executive warns that breathing in air containing asbestos fibres can lead to asbestos-related diseases, mainly cancers of the lungs and chest lining. Asbestos is only a risk to health if asbestos fibres are released into the air and breathed in. Past exposure to asbestos currently kills around 4,000 people a year in Great Britain.... There is no cure for asbestos-related diseases. There is usually a long delay between first exposure to asbestos and the onset of disease. This can vary from 15 to 60 years." (24)

However, the government decided not to tell the British public about the possible dangers of wearing gas-masks during the war, fearing no doubt a large number of compensation claims. It was a story that appeared in The Lancashire Telegraph in August 2013, that suggested that gas masks posed a serious health danger. Doris Timbrell died of oesophageal cancer in November 2008. Her daughter, Patricia Nicholas, claimed that this was connected to her working at Baxters of Blackburn between 1941 and 1943 assembling gas masks and fitting filters. A compensation claim was launched against the Ministry of Defence and eventually she won nearly £48,000 in damages. (25)

The following year the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says it analysed a number of vintage gas masks at the request of the Department for Education (DfE). According to the BBC schools were now being warned about the use of gas masks in the classroom: "The analysis showed that the majority of the masks did contain asbestos, often the more dangerous crocidolite, or blue asbestos.... Schools with these items in their collections are advised to remove them from use, double-bag them and send them for licensed disposal or to be made safe by a licensed contractor or arrange to have them displayed in a sealed cabinet." (26)

John Simkin (9th May, 2019)


(1) Gabriel Moshenska, Gas Mask: A Cultural Icon (3rd November, 2010)

(2) The Daily Telegraph (3rd September, 1939)

(3) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) page 555

(4) Neville Chamberlain, speech on the radio (27th September, 1939)

(5) Joyce Storey, Joyce's War (1992) page 5

(6) Juliet Gardiner, Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 (2004) pages 66-67

(7) Stuart Hylton, The Darkest Hour: The Hidden History of the Home Front (2001) page 93

(8) Philip Ziegler, London at War (1995) pages 73-74

(9) Muriel Green, Mass Observation Archive (11th April, 1942)

(10) Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960) page 174

(11) Winston Churchill, memorandum to General Hastings Ismay (28th September, 1940)

(12) Winston Churchill, memorandum to General Hastings Ismay (27th February, 1943)

(13) Clive Ponting, Winston Churchill (1994) page 627

(14) Winston Churchill, memorandum to General Hastings Ismay (6th July, 1943)

(15) Winston Churchill, memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff (6th July, 1943)

(16) Clive Ponting, Winston Churchill (1994) page 628

(17) Communication Workers Union, Asbestos Danger from WW2 Gas Masks (13th December 2013)

(18) Jay Hemmings, The British Civilian Gas Mask: Full of Chemicals As Dangerous As The Gas it Was Protecting You From (20th January, 2019)

(19) P. W. J. Bartrip, History of Asbestos Related Disease (2004)

(20) The Labour Gazette, Effect of Asbestos Dust on Workers Health in Asbestos Mines and Factories (1912)

(21) F. L. Hoffman, Mortality from Respiratory Diseases in Dusty Trades (1918)

(22) Michelley Y. Llamas, A Brief History of Asbestos: When Did We Learn It Was Toxic? (24th June, 2012)

(23) Bainbridge E-Learning, The Human Price of Asbestos in the UK (11th July, 2017)

(24) Communication Workers Union, Asbestos Danger from WW2 Gas Masks (13th December 2013)

(25) The Lancashire Telegraph (1st August, 2013)

(26) BBC news report (13th May, 2014)

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