If you blow out through the rubber in a certain way, it would make rude noises!
The gas drills brought laughter to British schools during the Second World War: if you blow out through the rubber in a certain way, it would make rude noises! Drills were held every month, even though gas attacks never actually happened—a double blessing as the mask filters were erroneously made with asbestos, a material that we now know would have induced serious long-term health problems.
Gas attacks seemed a worrying possibility at the beginning of the war. During the First World War, mustard gas had killed and injured thousands of troops. Only small quantities of this powerful gas were needed, added to high explosive shells to devastating effect. It was almost odorless and took only 12 hours to work, making the government wary of the havoc it could cause.
At the beginning of World War II, 38 million gas masks were handed out, most of them to families, house by house. Each one came in a box with a string so that you could wear it around your neck or over your shoulder, and people were fined if they were caught without their gas masks. There were plenty of posters reminding people to always take them along and describing how to use them properly.
“If I put it on even for a minute, it would make me feel sick,” my grandmother told me. Made out of black rubber, they were hot and smelly and made breathing difficult, as the front of the mask pulled in when you breathed in and then was forced back out as you exhaled. Wearing one over an extended time would be exhausting.
There were special gas masks for children, some called the Mickey Mouse gas mask, mainly because of the two big eyes and long nose, and babies were placed in a special bag which acted like a mask.
To warn people that there was a gas about, the air raid wardens would sound a wooden ratchet, to distinguish from the siren used for air raids. To tell people that it was all clear they would ring a bell.
Through the horrors and chaos of the Blitz (1940-41) and in the absence of any gas attacks, people began leaving their gas masks at home—they had enough to cope with as it was, without a clunky box hanging around their neck. The Air Raid personnel—also run off their feet—stopped fining so vigilantly, and by the end of the war, only the most scrupulous of souls would have still carried one.
We don’t know why Hitler never chose to use mustard gas, but we can only be glad; it would have devastated a country already weakened by war and led to the unknown horrors of asbestos poisoning from the masks themselves.