Since the end of World War I, the only substantial chemical attacks in warfare have occurred in East Asia and the Middle East. Japan poisoned Chinese troops with gas in the 1930s. Egypt dumped poison gas on Yemen in the 1960s, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein killed thousands with chemical weapons in the 1980s. Most recently, chemical attacks have occurred in Syriaand Iraq.
But how is it that chemical weapons were rarely used during World War II in Europe, when both Nazi Germany and the United Kingdom possessed vast stockpiles of these weapons of mass destruction?
It retrospect, it’s clear that had either side used chemical weapons, the war could’ve rapidly changed — and escalated — into a chemical conflict neither side was confident they could win. Think of it as a precursor, of sorts, to the nuclear standoff between East and West during the Cold War.
Germany’s chemical arsenal at the onset of World War II was both much larger and deadlier than what its military had during the First World War. In 1939, Germany for the first time weaponized sarin, a highly volatile, odorless liquid that turns into a gas, attacks the nervous system and kills quickly.
Between the wars, Britain considered using poison gas to suppress rebellious tribesmen in northwest India and Iraq. Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State at the British War Office, favored chemical weapons and believed them to be more humane than conventional bombings.
“Gas is a more merciful weapon that high explosive shell and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war,” Churchill argued . “The moral effect is also very great. There can be no conceivable reason why it should not be resorted to.”
Churchill favored lachrymatory agents, hence tear gas, for the most part. While Churchill did contemplate using mustard gas in Iraq, ultimately Britain did not resort to chemical attacks on the “recalcitrant natives.”
Italy did use mustard gas on a large scale in Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936, and Japan used poison gas in its war in China but opted not to against the Western powers. In 1942, Britain secretly supplied chemical weapons to Australia, which stored them across the continent as part of a contingency if Japan gassed the country first.
Following the evacuation from Dunkirk, the British military readied chemicals to defend the British Isles in case of a German invasion. “We should not hesitate to contaminate our beaches with gas if this was to be to our advantage,” Churchill told his cabinet in May 1940 . “We have the right to do what we like with our own territory.”
In 1942, British scientists from the Porton Down military research center began experimenting with anthrax as a biological weapon. In one infamous case, they tested this bio-weapon on sheep on the uninhabited island of Gruinard off the Scottish coast. A government quarantine of Gruinard did not end until 1990 following extensive decontamination efforts.
These experiments were in preparation for the grotesquely named Operation Vegetarian, which aimed to to scatter anthrax-infected linseed cakes across Germany. Had the plan been put into action, cattle would have eaten the cakes, died and spread the anthrax into the civilian population, while also depriving Germany of an important food source.
And though the British had vast stockpiles of gas — and were well capable of dropping them on German cities, which they were firebombing — the Soviets did not have such a program, nor did they possess an air force with the range and strength needed to penetrate German air defenses.
Thus, it would have made more sense for Germany to deploy gas against the Soviets, especially after the war shifted to the Red Army’s favor. Nazi Germany was, after all, utterly unscrupulous when it came to scorched earth tactics on the Eastern Front. But Germany did not — at least on a large scale .
Here, Britain’s stockpile may well have saved untold numbers of Soviet soldiers. In 1942, Churchill stated publicly that Britain would use its chemicals against Germany if it were to turn such weapons against the USSR.
“We know the Huns, which is the reason why we are keeping up our effort and why we are building up our storage of chemical weapons,” Churchill declared in a May 10, 1942 radio address. “I would say that should Germany again attack our ally, Soviet, with more chemical weapons, then we will start using such gas in our attacks on German cities and towns.”
Churchill later insisted to Gen. Hastings Ismay, his chief military assistant, that it was “absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a nod of complaint from the moralists of the Church. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women.”