Name of object: Mask, Gas
Photo: World War II Gas Mask on display
After the Nazis announced the creation of the Luftwaffe, in 1935, the British government took it upon themselves to assess the possibility of a chemical assault from the Germans. As a result of both British military assessments and the appearance of the Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the British began giving considerable priority to preparations for a chemical weapons civil defense. Britain, more than any other country involved, gave the most attention to preparing the public for a poisonous attack, with an emphasis placed on aerial attacks.[i]
The British began producing gas masks in large quantities at factories in London and Blackburn Lancashire. It was reported that in March of 1939, about thirty nine million gas masks were produced and handed out. In fact, it was mandatory to carry your gas mask with you at all times; if you were caught without it, you were fined by the authorities.[ii] There was a variety of different masks produced for different reasons including public use and air raid wardens. In order to not frighten the public any more than necessary, the British government also named the gas masks the “civilian respirators”.[iii]
There were a number of different designs of the mask, and the one that you were given depended on who you were. Universally, the masks were designed to protect both the eyes and lungs from the poisonous gas. In order to protect the lungs, the masks were equipped with a filter. The masks used in the Second World War were made of rubber and used cotton wool and charcoal filters. The air raid wardens, and other important people, were given the most advanced design of the masks since the possibility of coming in contact with the most lethal levels of the poison was higher than that of the general public. The standard design was issued to the public and was worn by adults and the older children. However, the design of the masks were still very frightening looking, and a friendlier design was made for the small children. The masks for the pre-school children were brightly colored and were intended to look like the popular Disney character, Mickey Mouse. Infants were too small to wear a mask of their own, so they were given protective helmets that they were literally strapped into. These protective helmets were operated by the mothers, who were responsible for pumping the air in and out through a filter.[iv]
Since the British were unaware of the nerve gasses that the Germans were developing, the masks were only designed to protect against the gases that were used during the First World War.[v] However, the effectiveness of the masks and the precautions put in place were never discovered since the gas was never actually used on the British.[vi]
Improvements have been made since the gas masks were produced during the Second World War and the modern masks are completely safe to use. Today, masks are made with rubber they are still able to degrade that can cause leaks that can be of concern. However, it is still ill advised to use the masks from the Second World War that are still in existence.