Gas Masks (WW2) Fact File

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In Key Stage 2, children study the social history of World War II and learn what it was like to live through the war.

They may have seen pictures of evacuees being sent out to live in the country and will be familiar with the little cardboard box that every child wore. Gas masks were issued to children (and grown-ups) in case the Nazis unleashed a gas attack on Britain.

Your kids might be more familiar with the facts around the world war, thanks to the VE Day celebrations, but here we will focus on what they need to know about gas masks.

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What Were Gas Masks Used For?

Every adult and child in Britain was given a gas mask in September 1939. That means that around 38 million masks were issued.

The gas masks were needed in case the Germans dropped gas bombs over Britain.

During World War 1 gas had been used in the battlefields, and many British soldiers were badly injured or killed in these gas attacks. The gas that was used was called mustard gas. It was hard to detect as it had barely any odour but had terrible effects. It attacked the eyes, lungs and respiratory attack and soldiers who were not killed could be left blind and disabled from the effects.

Thankfully, despite concerns that gas attacks were going to be carried out on British civilians, this didn't happen and the gas masks were not needed.

Who Made The Gas Masks?

Scientists at the Porton Down laboratory were first asked by the British government to work on a design for a gas mask that was capable of being mass-produced and which cost two shillings (10p) each. The 'General Civilian Respirator' was made at a disused mill in Blackburn, Lancashire. Production began in 1936 and by 1938 they had made 30 million.

gas masks ww2
Image © Imperial War Museum

What Did A WWII Gas Mask Look Like?

The gas mask was made out of rubber. Some had one transparent panel to see through, others had two 'eye-holes'. All of them had a filter over the mouth area, which filtered out the gas. The gas mask was pulled over the head and the straps tightened. The rubber did not smell nice and made some people feel ill.

When you blew out, the mask would pull away from the face. Children soon discovered that it made a rude noise when you did that!

There were Mickey Mouse masks for small children, with red panels, and babies' gas masks, which looked like a giant hood that went right over them. There was a see-through panel for their face, and the mum was required to first put the mask on and then pump air into the baby's mask with a bellows.

gas masks ww2
Image © Imperial War Museum

Keeping Everyone Safe

Everyone had to carry their gas mask at all times, in a cardboard box with a long string strap over your shoulder. You could be fined if you were caught without your gas mask, and made to pay for a new one if you lost it! Posters were put up reminding the public to carry their mask, and how to put it on in case of an attack. The government advised everyone to put on their gas mask for 15 minutes each day so that they got used to it.

If you turned up at school without your mask, the teacher would send you back home to fetch it, and even some shops refused admission to customers caught without their gas masks. Schools held regular gas attack drills, a bit like a fire drill.

Air Wardens, who made sure everyone got to air raid shelters in case of bombing raids and ensured that people's homes did not show lights at nighttime (which could help enemy bombers identify towns in the dark) had a special rattle to warn of a gas attack. It looked like an old-fashioned wooden football rattle.

However, the gas masks ended up killing more people than they saved! The filter of a gas mask was made from asbestos, and sadly local GPs around Blackburn recorded abnormally high numbers of cancer deaths of workers from the gas mask factories.

gas masks ww2
Image © Imperial War Museum

Extended Learning

Get your kids to think around the subject by asking these questions:

Imagine what it was like to wear the gas mask. How do you think it would make you feel?

How would you help a younger sibling or friend who was scared of the masks?

How do you think the 38 million masks got to every person in Britain?

How would you remember to take your gas mask out with you every day?

Disclaimer

Disclaimer

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Naomi MacKay
Mum of one

Mum of one teenage boy, near Leighton Buzzard, Beds. Born and raised in the Home Counties, Naomi has explored much of London, along with Beds, Herts and Bucks, with her son and husband. When she’s not driving to various skateparks around the UK, Naomi loves finding somewhere new to explore or a new activity they can all try.