Take a deep breath

Uxbridge Gazette - - Past Times -

Gas masks be­came es­sen­tial wear for young and old 80 years ago. MAR­ION McMULLEN looks at how the na­tion dealt with the threat of chem­i­cal warfare

THERE were “Mickey Mouse” gas masks for chil­dren, domed masks for ba­bies and even gas masks for dogs.

Close to 38 mil­lion gas masks were is­sued to Bri­tain’s civil­ian pop­u­la­tion on July 9, 1938, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of war with Germany.

Lead­ing Bri­tish car­toon­ist and il­lus­tra­tor Ger­ald Scarfe re­mem­bered: “All the chil­dren had to wear a gas mask in case of a gas at­tack by the Ger­mans. They tried to make the masks like Mickey Mouse faces so the chil­dren would like them. But I didn’t. They had big ears on them.”

Hitler’s wor­ry­ing rise to power in Germany and his talk of a Third Re­ich that would last for a thou­sand years fu­elled fear among many in Bri­tain, that war was on the way and gas at­tacks were a real pos­si­bil­ity.

Many re­mem­bered the hor­rors of the gas at­tacks of the First World War, which left sol­diers blinded or with life-long breath­ing prob­lems.

Ger­man troops used tear gas for the first time in 1915 against Rus­sian sol­diers and the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment de­cided the best way to tackle the emerg­ing threat in 1938 was to is­sue ev­ery­one with their own per­sonal gas mask in a card­board case.

Peo­ple were urged to carry their gas masks at all times, al­though there was no le­gal re­quire­ment to do so, and posters warned: “Hitler will send no warn­ing – so al­ways carry your gas mask.”

The in­struc­tions urged users to: “Hold Re­s­pi­ra­tor by straps. Put on by first putting chin into the face­piece and then draw the straps over the head. Ad­just straps to ob­tain close but com­fort­able fit. Take off by pulling the straps over the head from the back.”

Schools car­ried out gas-mask drills for pupils and workers were en­cour­aged to take their gas masks to work with them and have them al­ways ready in case of an at­tack.

From Post Of­fice staff to ho­tel kitchen workers, peo­ple were pic­tured with their black rub­ber masks. Demon­stra­tions were held across the coun­try to show peo­ple the cor­rect way to put on their masks and there were even test cen­tres in parts of Lon­don for any­one wor­ried about their gas mask not fit­ting prop­erly.

Ev­ery­one from chil­dren to the el­derly were in­cluded in the gas mask pro­gramme. Pa­tients wore them in their hospi­tal beds and blind young­sters at The Sun­shine Home in Sus­sex were en­cour­aged to take part in a drill. They fol­lowed in line with hand on shoul­ders, but were not told the real rea­son for the gas mask. They be­lieved they were tak­ing part in a new game.

The Mickey Mouse gas masks were is­sued to chil­dren aged be­tween two and four and there were spe­cial con­trap­tions for young ba­bies that en­closed the en­tire top half of the child while a spe­cial hood was also de­signed to go over prams.

Air Raid War­dens car­ried wooden gas warn­ing rat­tles to alert peo­ple if there was an at­tack and post and tele­phone boxes were painted with a spe­cial red paint that would turn green if ex­posed to gas.

Peo­ple were ad­vised to make sure their win­dows were air­tight and the chang­ing rooms at some lo­cal swim­ming pools were com­man­deered for pos­si­ble de­con­tam­i­na­tion ar­eas.

Gas-proof cloth­ing be­gan to be man­u­fac­tured and an­i­mal lovers looked at ways to keep their pets safe and there were gas masks avail­able for dogs and horses.

Lieu­tenant Colonel Ed­ward H Richard­son was the lead­ing au­thor­ity when it came to train­ing ca­nines for bat­tle and be­gan his ground­break­ing work dur­ing the First World War. He was be­hind the Bri­tish War Dog School at Wok­ing in Sur­rey and used gas masks for some of the dogs. One of his Airedale ter­ri­ers was even pic­tured wear­ing a spe­cial gas mask while the other car­ried ra­tions for a wounded sol­dier.

For­tu­nately all the coun­try-wide pre­cau­tions for a chem­i­cal at­tack proved un­nec­es­sary and gas was never used against civil­ians in Bri­tain.

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain said in 1938: “How hor­ri­ble, fan­tas­tic, in­cred­i­ble, it is that we should be dig­ging trenches and try­ing on gas masks here be­cause of a quar­rel in a far­away coun­try be­tween peo­ple of whom we know noth­ing. It seems still more im­pos­si­ble that a quar­rel which has al­ready been set­tled in prin­ci­ple should be the sub­ject of war.”

He went to Mu­nich to ne­go­ti­ate an agree­ment say­ing on his re­turn on Oc­to­ber 1 that peo­ple could look for­ward to “Peace for our time.”

Hitler in­vaded Poland the fol­low­ing year and Bri­tain de­clared war on Germany on Septem­ber 3. The con­flict ev­ery­one had long feared had fi­nally ar­rived.

Bet­ter safe than sorry – and it prob­a­bly cut down on talk­ing in class

Kiss­ing, left, or cook­ing, right, – it could all be done safely Blind chil­dren at The Sun­shine Home in Sus­sex thought it was all a game Workers in Sun­der­land sit in an air raid shel­ter wear­ing gas masks and gas-proof cloth­ing

Masks were made for chil­dren and ba­bies Even dogs had safety equip­ment

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