Air Raid Precautions

Gas Masks

The fear of gas attack was very real. Thousands of crippled ex-servicemen were living reminders of the horrors of the gas attacks on the Western Front during the First World War; gas had been used by the Italians in their invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. ARP volunteers were drilled in anti-gas measures, gingerly sniffing tiny phials of the poisonous stuff to learn how to distinguish the distinctive odours of each type. In February 1938 the Daily Express reported:

Great doings in Paddington last night. Mythical enemy bombers wrecked houses, ripped (in theory) fifteen foot craters in the road and sprayed the Borough with mustard gas. It was the first air-raid demonstration conducted by a Borough Council in London and was designed to test the Air Raid Precautions service. Girls who had been ‘burned' by mustard gas were rushed to the first-aid station in Paddington Central Baths. The first thing to do in such a case is to remove contaminated clothing. Two hundred people in the gallery saw nurses deprive the girls of their clothes. The organisers had previously warned ‘casualties' to wear bathing costumes underneath. Paddington had been divided into twelve areas for Air Raid Precautions work. In last night's scheme only six areas took part. Home Office inspectors commented - ‘Not bad for a first effort.'

Gas masks came in an amazing array of shapes and sizes. New born babies had a ghastly one-piece mask that covered the whole body. The baby was strapped into a small airtight chamber into which filtered air was pumped by means of a hand bellows. It is claimed that most babies fell soundly asleep when placed in these helmets - (probably close to suffocation) - fortunately apart from a few publicity photos these helmets were never needed. Only God could have helped any baby whose mother was rendered unconcious through injury or fatigue.
Child's Mickey Mouse Gas MaskYoung children took quite happily to the special ‘Mickey Mouse' gas masks designed to give this macabre precaution the appearance of a game, its google eyes and snout-like filter resembled the famous cartoon character. They soon found that they could infuriate their parents and elders by making a 'raspberry' noise, like breaking wind, every time they breathed out.
Older children and adults had the most boring of gas masks. It was made simply of rubber, webbing and a one piece acetate visor that had a habit of crackingStandard Civilian Gas Mask
Civil Defence personnel were issued with a more robust design, similar in appearance to the ‘Mickey Mouse' gas masks for young children, but much less colourful.
The police and service personnel were issued with a more substantial gas mask, normally carried in a haversack which contained the gas mask and a separate, interchangeable, filter unit connected by a length of tubing.
Gas masks were also available for horses and dogs and, later in the war, a type of helmet more suitable for the elderly which was also operated by a hand bellows.
Many inventors adapted and added to the official issue of Gas Masks. Mr E. W. Mills, a nurseryman of Hextable, Kent, invented a gas-proof perambulator, approved by the local ARP. It was built of wood with a triplex glass window, air valve, a filter from a gas mask and a large bulb at the rear to pump out the air - ‘when the bulb is pressed, air is forced out via the valve, and the air is let in via the filter.'
Everyone had been issued with a gas mask by the time of the Munich crisis in September 1938. For many people the sensation of clammy breathlessness and smell of rubber and disinfectant they experienced when donning the mask was the first intimation of the approaching war; the distribution of the masks by thousands of volunteers was their introduction to the communal effort which was to characterise the Home Front during the war years.

Copyright © 2002 Peter N. Risbey.