In association with The National Archive An Air Raid Warden wearing his steel helmet and duty gas mask during the Second World War. An Air Raid Warden wearing his steel helmet and duty gas mask during the Second World War.

Why Britain issued gas masks in 1939

To protect civilians from the effects of dreaded gas raids, respirators were issued to the entire population

Gas played a major role in the First World War, meaning that in 1939 a lot of men carried the horrible memories of the horrors of a gas attack. Some were blinded by gas, while countless more suffered breathing difficulties throughout their lives. The terror of gas hung heavy on the public consciousness, and with the advent of the medium bomber bringing civilian population centres into the line of fire, the government considered the threat of gas to civilian populations to be severe.

The terror of gas hung heavy on the public consciousness, and with the advent of the medium bomber bringing civilian population centres into the line of fire, the government considered the threat of gas to civilian populations to be severe.

Bombings of urban centres from the air during the Spanish Civil War - such as the bombing of Guernica, immortalised in paint by Pablo Picasso - showed the dangers that bombers could present to civilians. Coupled with the release of chemical agents, life in Britain could be severely disrupted.

A close up view of a wooden gas warning rattle, as used by Air Raid Wardens Civil Defence organisations to alert citizens to the possibility of a gas attack.

A close up view of a wooden gas warning rattle, as used by Air Raid Wardens Civil Defence organisations to alert citizens to the possibility of a gas attack. Image: D3938 Crown Copyright

To prepare for this crisis, the British government decided that every man, woman and child must have their own respirator - or gas mask - for protection against such an attack. The manufacture of these masks was no easy task – excluding the masks required for the armed services and those required for civilian services like the ARP and Fire Service, the government still needed to produce close to 38 million masks. The contract was given to a factory in Lancashire, and production started in earnest in 1938.

...the government still needed to produce close to 38 million masks.

While the masks were being made, the government were training more and more members of the civil defence organisations in procedures for dealing with gas casualties. Air Raid Wardens would carry old football rattles to sound in the event of gas being detected or suspected. Some local swimming baths had their separated male and female changing rooms commandeered for decontamination facilities.

Householders were advised to tape their windows shut as an anti-gas sealant measure, while post and telephone boxes were painted with red paint that would turn green on exposure to gas. Private firms started to manufacture gas masks for dogs and horses for sale to families who wanted them. Attempts were made to manufacture less intimidating masks for children and babies.

...post and telephone boxes were painted with red paint that would turn green on exposure to gas
Hitler will send no warning so always carry your gas mask WW2 poster.

Hitler will send no warning. Always carry your gas mask

With 1939 and the outbreak of war, these masks were issued to the public in cardboard boxes with strict instructions that they be carried at all times, without exception. Fines would be imposed if you were caught without your respirator. As such, many people replaced their cardboard boxes in time with privately available alternatives, as the government-issue cardboard boxes were prone to falling apart and were cumbersome.

Despite the government’s diligent planning, gas was never used against British civilians.

Main image: An Air Raid Warden wearing his steel helmet and duty gas mask. Image: D4045 Crown Copyright