The use of poison gas in World War Two was a very real fear. Poison gas had been used in World War One and many expected that it would be used in World War Two. As a result people in Britain were issued with gas masks and gas mask drills became a routine.
The gases used in World War 1 were crude but effective. In fact, technically many of them were not gases but minute solid particles suspended in air like the spray from an aerosol can. Regardless of whether they were a true gas or not, they brought very great fear to the front line. By 1939, these gases had been refined and had the potential for being far more effective – just as fighter planes had markedly changed between 1918 and 1939, so it was believed was a military’s ability to deliver poison gas – and create new and more deadly versions.
The gases used to such effect in World War One were still potential weapons in World War Two. Mustard gas had been used by the Italians in their campaign in Abyssinia from 1935 to 1936. Chlorine was a potential weapon but it had been overtaken in effectiveness by diphosgene and carbonyl chloride. Both of these were choking gases that damaged the respiratory system. Tear gases were also available – a more potent version of it was Adamsite which not only causes the classic symptoms of tear gas but also causes respiratory problems, vomiting and general nausea.
Mustard gas blistered the skin causing extreme pain. It was also capable of soaking through material onto skin beneath a uniform. A more severe version of it was Lewisite which had the same effect on skin but also caused respiratory problems and pneumonia.
Far more deadly than these gases were cyanide, carbon monoxide and cyanogens chloride. All of these impede the ability of blood to absorb oxygen. Unable to gain oxygen, the body quickly shuts down. “Death is rapid, sure and relatively painless.” (Brian Ford)
Nerve gas was also available to governments in World War Two. One of the first to be developed was Tabun by German scientists. Nerve gases attack the body’s nervous system. The symptoms are nausea, vomiting, muscular twitching, convulsions, cessation of breathing and death. Sarin and Soman were also developed as nerve gases. Of the three nerve gases named here, Soman was the most deadly. From inhalation, it is only a matter of seconds before a victim goes into convulsions. The US Army Manual TM 3-215 estimated that a victim of Soman would be dead within two minutes.
There is no doubt that most protagonists in World War Two had stockpiles of poison gas. By 1945, the Germans had 7,000 tons of Sarin alone – enough to kill the occupants of 30 cities the size of Paris. The Americans also had sizeable quantities of poison gases stockpiled. Britain experimented with anthrax on remote Scottish islands to see its impact on the animal population there. All countries that possessed poison gas in any form also had the potential to deliver it on an enemy.
With such potency and the ability to change the course of a battle why wasn’t poison gas used – even as a last resource? It would appear certain that the fear of retaliation was the reason and the fear that the enemy may well have developed a poison gas more virulent that anything the other side had. So in a war where atomic weapons were used, napalm, phosphorous, unrestricted submarine warfare etc, where civilians were seen by some as legitimate targets, no side was prepared to risk using a weapon that had been so feared in World War One.