The use of chemical weapons was widespread during World War One, and even the inter-war years had their fair share of chemical weapons use. In 1919, Great Britain used gas against the Boshevik Red Army in Archangelsk during the Russian Civil War, while the Soviets supposedly used gas against rebels and insurgents in Central Asia in 1920 and again in the 1930s. France mustard gassed Moroccans in 1925, and Great Britain used chemical weapons to police their Middle Eastern colonies between 1920 and 1925. The Italians used tear-, mustard- and phosgene gas against the Ethiopians between 1935 and 1936, and the Japanese did not mind using chemical weapons against the Chinese from the late 1930s on to the end of World War Two.
At the outbreak of World War Two, the actual quantities of chemical weapons in the hands of the Axis and Allies were fairly limited, although both sides claimed that the other side had vast quantities at hand. There were several kinds of delivery systems available, though, and these included aerial bombs and sprays, mortars, artillery shells and canisters as well as torches and projectors. Multiple rocket launchers were added to the array of delivery systems as the war progressed. Once war broke out, the stockpiles increased radically, and by 1945 Great Britain had 36,000 tons of chemical weapons, Japan 8,000 tons, the United States 50,000 tons, and Germany more than 70,000 tons. The Soviet production was considerable as well. It is worth noting that the weights listed above include the weight of the ordnance itself, and not just the weight of the chemical agent. It is also worth noting that the US stockpile skyrocketed to 150,000 tons just before V-J Day, presumably to support an invasion of Japan.
All participants in World War Two planned for or against chemical warfare, and the approximately 1.3 million chemical warfare casualties of World War One were comparatively fresh in the memory of decision makers, not to mention the memory of how chemical warfare helped slow down the operational pace of the Western Front. Using chemical weapons to support the fast-paced deep operations conceived by Germans and Soviets in particular could be seen as negating the advantages of speedy advances and deep strikes. There was much discussion regarding the use of chemical weapons against civilian targets, but the consequences were seen by many as unpredictable and terrifying.
German chemical warfare vehicles.
There were minor cases of the use of chemical weapons in Europe during World War Two, most notably on September 8, 1939, when Polish troops defending a bridge near the village of Jasno had rigged a bridge with explosives and mustard gas. As German troops from the first company of Gebigs-Pioniere Battailon 82 attempted to clear the bridge the charge detonated, and 14 German soldiers were affected by mustard gas, two of them fatally. The German High Command investigated the incident but deemed it to be of local character.
Another more destructive chemical warfare event took place December 2, 1943, when the American Liberty ship SS John Harvey was hit by a German bomber while at the Italian port of Bari. The vessel had a secret cargo of mustard gas, and the explosion spread the agent around the stricken ship. The Office of the Chief of Naval Operations claimed that there were 628 gas casualties. Sixty-nine of these casualties were fatalities.A number of Italian civilians were affected as well, but the Allies denied that this was due to mustard gas until 1974.
The chemical structure of Sarin.
The Third Reich had one potentially significant advantage over the Allies regarding chemical weapons: nerve gas. The nerve agent Tabun (Ethyl Dimethylphosphoramidocyanidate) was discovered in Germany by accident in 1936, when a scientist by the name of Gerhard Schrader was doing research on pesticides on behalf of industrial giant IG Farben. By 1942 the Third Reich started industrial scale production and further research led to discoveries of even more lethal agents, Sarin and Soman. However, since the original research regarding the class of compounds called organophosphates that are essential for the production of nerve agents was done by a A. E. Arbuzov, a Soviet chemist at the school of organo-phosphorous chemistry Kazan, the Germans assumed that the Soviets had access to nerve gas. They had not.
Also, according to Hitler's nerve agent expert Otto Ambros, the Allies stopped publication of research regarding organophosphates, and considering the size and capacity of the U.S. petrochemical industry, Ambros came to the conclusion that the United States had nerve agents as well. They also did not, and the lack of publication on organophosphate research was actually to protect research into DDT. It was of course fortunate that many German leaders believed that the Allies had nerve agents, and that any use of chemical weapons on behalf of the Germans would involve Allied retaliation. The Allies were well aware of the German chemical warfare capabilities, and one of the many concerns facing Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on D-Day was a German gas attack on the crowded beaches of Normandy, and Allied intelligence were concerned about chemical warfare attacks on the invasion beaches in Italy as well.
158th Regimental Combat Team Bushmaster unit, equipped with M1A2 gas masks, training in Panama, 1942.
As the fortunes of the Third Reich declined, Hitler was pressured to deploy chemical weapons in general and nerve gas in particular to defend the crumbling Reich. Three leading Nazis, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Reichsleiter Martin Borman and the head of the German Labor Front, Robert Ley, were particularly outspoken in support of the use of chemical weapons, especially in late 1944. Armaments minister Albert Speer quoted Ley as saying "You know we have this new poison gas - I've heard about it. The Führer must do it. He must use it. This is the last moment." Yet, Hitler did not allow the use of chemical weapons, although he is supposed to have hinted at using such weapons to stop the Soviet advance.
In retrospect it may seem a tad odd that a dictator with the ruthless characteristics of Adolf Hitler would refrain from using chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadhafi and in all likelihood Bashar al-Assad are amongst the users of chemical weapons, but Hitler is not. Can it be that his own experiences from World War One made him more than a little wary of the gas weapon?
Children wearing gas masks during WW2.
Austin Bay. Chemical Warfare: Perspectives and Potentials. Strategy & Tactics, Nr. 81, Jul/Aug 1980.
WWII German Chemical Warfare Plans Released after 72 Years of Secrecy. www.wnd.com/markets/news/read?GUID=18826614