Take a deep breath
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