Defending against CHEMICAL WARFARE

Britannia and Eve magazine June 1936 p.25.

It can truthfully be said that nowhere, outside the Government Schools, are such facilities available as are offered by the Central Gas School of the Legion of Frontiersmen.

Topic June/July 2017.  We covered the Legion’s work in anti-gas warfare to a certain extent in GAS!!.   Further research recently has shown the extent of the fear – almost terror – of chemical warfare being carried out particularly against Great Britain. This has encouraged us to expand the story of what the Frontiersmen were doing to support the general public and give them advice and help. The use of chemical warfare in countries such as Syria and the warnings that terrorists might attempt to use small scale chemical weapons make this story even more topical. In the years leading up to World War 2, the extraordinary knowledge and skills of the Frontiersmen in dealing with chemical weapons is something which needs further explanation. The story applies mainly to Great Britain as planes had not then been developed with the capability to easily cross large oceans and return.

Replying to a question in the House of Commons in May 1935, the Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, said:

I understand that the Legion of Frontiersmen like some other voluntary organisations is in touch with the Order of St. John and the British Red Cross Society with a a view to assisting those bodies for the alleviation of the consequences of air attack. I have informed the Legion that, in my opinion, assistance of this nature would be of national importance.¹

The British government did everything it could to calm public feeling, but there was deep concern, especially in big cities:

Mrs J Gubbins, a Kensington Councillor it is reported has stated, “I’ve travelled a lot abroad lately – and wherever you go they are working overtime at the manufacture of gas for War purposes.

In consequence a small guest room has been prepared ready to complete in five minutes a gas-proof shelter for about eight people with a safety margin of twelve to sixteen hours. Mrs Gubbins wants every householder in the country to know how simple and cheap it is to gas-proof a room…²

The Legion of Frontiersmen Central Gas School at Edmonton (London) was fully equipped with:

…Gas Masks, Decontamination Suits, Oxygen Breathing Apparatus, Charts, Visual and Smelling Sets, Asbestos Suit.

All the best standard books on Gas Warfare and A.R.P. have been purchased and are available for reference.

A complete set of all the Home Office publications, including Memorandums etc., are held and copies of new issues purchased immediately on publication, so that the school is kept constantly up-to-date.

Even books written against A.R.P. are purchased and studied, so that instructors are not only cognisant of what is stated therein, but are prepared to answer.

In addition a unique collection of photographs has been obtained. These have proved invaluable as authentic reference.

The German publication “Die Sirene” is subscribed to so that instructors are informed of what is being done abroad.

Another important feature of the school’s equipment is a collection of old and modern gas masks. These have proved to be of exceptional interest and frequent requests have been made for their loan to A.R.P. exhibitions. Instructors from the school attend these exhibitions and explain the various exhibits…

Many A.R.P. officers and C.A.G.S. [Civil Anti-Gas School]³ instructors have applied for copies [of “The Frontiersman” magazine] and expressed their appreciation of their value. One C.A.G.S. instructor stated: “You people have forgotten more than I know.” Others ring up regularly asking for advice…

The Central Gas School have undertaken and completed with success the training of the staff of a well-known Government contractor.

Lieut. Bushell, the officer in charge, has been selected to attend an extensive course at Porten [probably Porton Down in Wiltshire], his qualifications making it unnecessary to take an examination first. He is at present training the staff of the R[oyal] A[rtillery] Records Office at Sidcup.

2nd Lieut. Gunn has rendered inestimable service to the Legion. Samples of all the latest Gas Masks – German, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Dutch, etc. are regularly provided by him for inspection. His expert knowledge is a great asset.

It can truthfully be said that nowhere, outside the Government Schools, are such facilities available as are offered by the Central Gas School of the Legion of Frontiersmen.

Strict discipline is maintained and enthusiasm is great. All dues to I.H.Q. are paid. There is a credit balance. Accounts are audited by three officers and certificate sent to I.H.Q.

All this has been achieved without one penny grant from I.H.Q. funds, the school being entirely self-supporting.

Much has been done by the school to uphold the prestige of the Legion.

Fees are charged, but Instructors have been able to recover much more by payments for lectures. Positions have been obtained and promotions secured as a direct result of the training given at the school.⁴

Legion of Frontiersmen gas warfare display with 2/Lieut. Gunn inset

As can be seen from the illustration, 2nd Lieut. Gunn designed and made an asbestos fire-proof suit. In those days nobody was aware of the serious harm to the lungs caused by asbestos. An advertisement in “The Frontiersman” magazine shown here illustrates the different gas masks that were available. What has not been publicised is that the main gas protection agent in the masks was also asbestos. Eventually every citizen of Britain was issued with one and ordered to carry it around with them in its box. There were “Mickey Mouse” ones for children. Those of us who were around at the time recall the unpleasantly strong rubber smell of them and how difficult it was for a child to breathe through them. Nobody was aware that they were breathing in dangerous asbestos which could have an effect in later life. The main public concern was that most families could recall the horror of gas warfare of the First War and the men who came home with their lungs ravaged by gas fumes. The advertisement from a Derby newspaper shows the concern – and how some firms were able to profit from it.

3 advertisment in Frontiersmen magazine

Gas mask advertisement which appeared in copies of “The Frontiersman” magazine.

What happened to that irreplaceable collection held at the Legion of Frontiersmen Gas School? Some of it can just about be seen in the photo shown here. Nobody knows, except that like many Legion assets the collection has vanished. From the end of 1937 “The Frontiersman” magazine contained extensive details about various war gases covering their history, effects, first aid, treatment and protection. Among the gases covered were “The Blister Group” such as Mustard Gas, “The Tear Group” of Tear Gases, “The D.M. Group” of nose gases which contained arsenic, “The Choking Group” of Phosgene, also basic chlorine gases. There was also a detailed article on incendiary bombs and how to deal with them and extinguish the fires. Fortunately, all this training apart from dealing with incendiary bombs was not needed as the Germans did not start gas warfare. Did they have the facility other than the gas they used in the gas chambers? Of course they did. They were trying to manufacture a more stable, deadly and reliable form of gas for warfare but, again fortunately, they did not succeed. Their stockpiles were discovered when the British army entered Germany:

Concentrated in a big forest covering an area of four square miles is one of the greatest stocks of poison gas in Germany, wrote a Daily Telegraph special Correspondent with 21st Army Group on August 6, 1945. He tells of the fate intended for it, and of the chambers where it was housed…

Dotted over the forest which I visited were strongly built storage sheds, very commodious and above ground…In each of these sheds thousands upon thousands of gas-filled shells were lying horizontally in wooden frames. There is ample evidence of Hitler’s preparations to use gas.⁵

What happened to this deadly store? It was sent to the coast and loaded on board a ship, crewed by Germans, and dumped into the sea 200 fathoms deep not too far from the Channel Islands. Although the shells were of three-quarter inch steel it was estimated that even this would corrode in some 200-300 years time. Possibly an environmental time-bomb for some future generation.

Although the Frontiersmen did not need to utilise their specialist anti-gas warfare skills, a far higher proportion of those too old to join the armed forces joined the A.R.P. rather than the Home Guard, particularly in big towns and cities. After being out at night dealing with the results of German bombing they carried on their normal daytime activities and those who could do so kept up their Frontiersmen links. Harry Erswell had served many years in the army retiring as a senior n.c.o.. After a night’s bombing he would laboriously pick his way past bombed London buildings, often by strange alleyways and back passages to the Legion offices then in Bedford Street. Although the front of the building had been blown out, he was still able to get through to the offices at the back of the building and carry out duties at the Legion office. Sometimes he was prevented by some unexploded time bomb until it was made safe, but he never had need of his gas training. As he wrote to Canada in 1941 with customary Frontiersmen optimism, “Still, there’s a lot of London left and will be even when this show is over.”

Will today’s terrorists try to use chemical weapons and if they do, will they use the more modern gases or the simpler older ones? The Legion still has full training details archived on how to deal with those older gases, but not the modern complicated lethal ones. We must hope that none of this will ever happen.

Advertisement from a Derby newspaper.

¹ “The Times” May 24, 1935, p.8.

² Quoted in “The Frontiersman” January 1939, p.9.

³ The British Government set up the Civil Anti-Gas Schools. Their name was later changed to the Air Raid Precautions Schools and the duties became more generally air raid precautions.

⁴ “The Frontiersman” March/April 1939, pp.18/19.

⁵ “War Illustrated” October 12, 1945, p.378.

© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.


About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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