Churchill Wanted to 'Drench' Germany With Poison Gas

By Mark Weber

In a secret wartime memorandum, Winston Churchill told his advisers that he wanted to "drench" Germany with poison gas. Churchill's July 1944 memo to his chief of staff Gen. Hastings Ismay was reproduced in the August-September 1985 issue of American Heritage magazine.

"I you to think very seriously over this question of poison gas," the four-page note began. Britain's wartime leader continued: "It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it [gas] in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women."

Churchill's directive bluntly stated: "I want a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would pay to use poison gas ... One really must not be bound within silly conventions of the mind whether they be those that ruled in the last war or those in reverse which rule in this." Specifically he proposed: "We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention ... It may be several weeks or even months before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas, and if we do it, let us do it one hundred per cent. In the meantime, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by the particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now here now there."

Churchill's proposal, which would have meant violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing the use of poison gas, was never adopted. His military advisers argued that gas warfare would divert Allied war planes from the more effective strategy of bombing Germany's industries and cities. Gas attacks would not be decisive, they feared, and Germany would very probably retaliate with devastating effect against Britain. Churchill complained to an associate that he was "not at all convinced by this negative report," but he reluctantly gave in. "Clearly I cannot make head against the parsons and the warriors at the same time," he complained in private.

The American Heritage article, written by Stanford University history professor Barton J. Bernstein, also reported that top American military officials urged the U.S. to begin gas warfare against Japan. Maj. Gen. William N. Porter, chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, pleaded in mid-December 1943 with U.S. Army superiors to initiate gas warfare against the Japanese, and on several occasions in 1945 Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff, urged using gas in the Pacific. There was some popular support for this view. The New York Daily News declared "We Should Gas Japan," and Washington Times-Herald agreed, explaining "You Can Cook `Em Better with Gas." But this was a minority view. About 75 percent of Americans reportedly opposed initiating gas warfare. After the war Gen. Marshall said that the main reason that gas wasn't used was opposition from the British, who feared that a desperate German might then use it in Europe.

The United States produced about 135,000 tons of chemical warfare agents during the war, while Germany turned out about 70,000 tons, Britain about 40,000 and Japan only 7,500 tons. Although the Allies had larger stockpiles of traditional chemical agents, Germany developed far more advanced and lethal nerve gasses, most notably the devastating agents Tabun, Sarin and Soman. They were never used.

After the war a British Army chemical warfare expert concluded that Germany could have delayed the June 1944 Allied cross-channel invasion by six months if it had gas. "Such a delay," he noted, "could have given the Germans sufficient time to complete their new V-weapons, which would have made the Allies' task all the harder and England's long range bombardment considerably worse." Even in March and April 1945, when German military resistance was rapidly collapsing, Germany kept its pledge not to use gas. Hitler reportedly refused to consider using poison gas in part because of his recollection of the horror of his own gassing during the First World War, which temporarily blinded him.

From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1985-86 (Vol. 6, No.4), pages 501-503.