Mustard Gas Kills Thousands in World War Two, part two

Part One    Part 3


“Gassed” by John Singer Sargent became one of the most famous paintings from the First World War. (Courtesy of Imperial War Museum)



Poison gas, which killed or wounded more than one million men in World War One, wasn’t used by the belligerent powers in World War Two–except for the Japanese who used it indiscriminately on the Chinese.  In the European Theater, the Allies pledged no first use of poison gas. However, Churchill had ordered the British Army to use mustard gas if the Germans invaded, according to Max Hastings in Winston’s War.

The Germans did not use poison gas in World War Two, either, which some attributed to Hitler being gassed in World War One. But Hitler would have used any weapon to keep himself and his toadies in power— “the grisly gang who work your wicked will,” as Churchill referred to them.

The reason Hitler didn’t unleash poison gas on the Allies was due to fierce and credible threats of massive retaliation-in-kind- by the Allies. These warnings were issued by both Allied military and civilian leaders.

In public statements, both Churchill and Roosevelt made it crystal clear to the Nazis that should they use poison gas on any of the twenty-six “United Nations” fighting against them, including the Soviet Union, that retribution from the the US and Great Britain would be massive.


World War Two gas mask drill in London

Gas masks being worn by Londoners in a practice drill.


The Germans were especially vulnerable to air attack using poison gas  from the Allies because they had not issued gas makes to their population. In Great Britain, the government provided every person in the country from infants to adults with free gas masks.


English children during gas mask drill at school.

According to the BBC,

“Gas masks were issued to all children in the United Kingdom as a precaution against attack by gas bombs. The masks came in cardboard boxes, with a strap for carrying them on the shoulder. Children were instructed to keep their masks with them at all times and were the key item of luggage for evacuees. Gas mask drill was a daily feature of life at school.”

churchill carrying his gas mask

Prime Minister Winston Churchill carrying his gas mask while inspecting men of the Parliamentary Home Guard, Palace of Westminster, London. 1940. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)


Special gas masks for infants were manufactured. Basically, you took your baby and put him or her into the container and sealed it up. Air naturally came through the filters.


Douglas Aircraft AB 26 Invader laying smoke during an operation in World War Two. The chemicals in the smoke tanks carried by the aircraft, could have easily been used for spraying poison gas. Photo and information courtesy of

In August of 1943, as the Allies were building up supplies in the south of Italy for the beginning push up the Italian peninsular, FDR gave a public statement of warning to the Nazi leadership. Should they used poison gas against the Allies, then the Germans would receive “full and swift retaliation in kind.” Prime Minister Churchill issued similar statements as did Allied military commanders.


Statement by President of the United States of America and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 8th 1943.

“From time to time since the present war began there have been reports that one or more of the Axis powers were seriously contemplating use of poisonous…gases… I state categorically that we shall under no circumstances resort to the use of such weapons unless they are first used by our enemies.

As President of the United States and as Commander in Chief of the American armed forces, I want to make clear beyond all doubt to any of our enemies contemplating a resort to such desperate and barbarous methods that acts of this nature committed against any one of the United Nations will be regarded as having been committed against the United States itself and will be treated accordingly. We promise to any perpetrators of such crimes full and swift retaliation in kind and I feel obliged now to warn the Axis armies and the Axis peoples, in Europe and in Asia, that the terrible consequences of any use of these inhumane methods on their part will be brought down swiftly and surely upon their own heads….”

FDR statement on use of poison gas by the Axis


A shell, motor round and unidentified munition left as 'iron harvest' on the side of a farm track. Even now, almost 100 years after the guns fell silent, farmers still uncover remnants of the First World War.


A shell, motor round and unidentified munition left as ‘iron harvest’ on the side of a farm track. Even now, almost 100 years after the guns fell silent, farmers still uncover remnants of the First World War. (Photo and caption by Gavin Parsons).

Photographer and writer Parsons, has an fascinating blog post on this subject illustrated with his own photographs. You can find is here:

website of photographer Gavin Parsons

Additionally, he has posted a series of twenty-six outstanding photographs he took in France of World War One of remnants of that war including trenches, stacks of unexploded shells and military cemeteries with crosses that stretch to the horizon. You can find those photographs here:

Unfortunately, unexploded mustard gas, other gas shells and artillery shells from World War One continue to be found on the WW One battlefields of France and Belgium. As the shells age, they become more unstable and more likely to be set off by any movement.


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US soldiers in France in World War One wearing gas masks.

(Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Writing in Aftermath: The Remnants of War, author Donovan Webster tells us that farmers constantly plough up unexploded shells and that a special unit of the French Army does nothing but collect and defuse these shells. (In his chapter on Russia, the author mentions that Russian farmers around Stalingrad (now Volgograd), constantly plough up bodies of German soldiers still in their tattered uniforms from the Battle of Stalingrad which lasted from 23 August 1942 until 2 February 1943. German losses are thought to be approximately 150,000 to 175,000 killed in the actual fighting and 85,000 German POWs who died in Russian captivity).

Incredibly, unexploded artillery shells, mustard gas shells and other other chemical contaminants were found in 2009 buried under a portion of one of Washington’s most expensive neighborhoods. A US Army testing facility for poison gas had been located on the property during World War One and when the war ended the gas filled shells were dumped in newly dug pits which were then covered with dirt.

The subsequent clean-up of contaminated soil has cost over 200 million and one home has been bought by the government and demolished. Many families with unexplained illnesses continue to challenge the Federal Government and the US Army. Others in the neighborhood don’t agree. A detailed article on the subject can be found in the New York Times here:

Mankind seems addicted to war. No matter how horrifying it is, we keep killing each other.


Mustard Gas Kills Thousands In World War Two, part one

part 2  Part 3

The use of poison gas in war was outlawed by the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare.

In World War One, the Germans decided to violate the terms of the these treaties and use poison gas which they did. The Allied powers followed suit. But World War Two was different for various reasons and neither side used poison gas in the European theater except by accident. This is an account of that terrible accident classified top secret for decades.


Magnificent view of Bari harbour today with the Teatromargherita (theatre) in the foreground. Allied freighter SS John Harvey carrying a secret cargo of mustard gas exploded in this harbor after a German air raid on 2 December 1943.



The same harbor on 3 December 1943, the day after the raid by the Luftwaffe.
Photo courtesy of:

In a devastating surprise attack on Allied shipping in the Italian port of Bari on the night of 2 December 1943, Luftwaffe bombers killed as many as two thousand people with half being Allied military and the other half being Italian civilians. Hundreds of the dead, no certainty over how many, were killed when mustard gas bombs aboard the American liberty SS John Harvey ship exploded after the ship was hit and set afire.


  Liberty ship SS John W. Brown.

Because Liberty ships were built to a standard design, SS John Harvey would have looked exactly like the SS John W. Brown. The numbers on the bow are Plimsoll marks which indicate how deeply the ship can be loaded depending on time of year and type of water. (Only one part of the world’s oceans are so fierce it has its own mark, Winter North Atlantic—WNA). The photo was taken on the Great Lakes in 2000. SS John W. Brown is one of only two surviving World War II Liberty Ships, the other being the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. (photo from Wikipedia, author unknown).