HL Deb 03 December 1936 vol 103 cc634-48

THE EARL OF HALSBURY rose to ask His Majesty's Government what protective measures against an air attack by poison gas on large cities are at present provided; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Question which stands in my name is of vital importance. I read with considerable horror a paragraph in one of the newspapers last week which was headed "Thirty million gas masks to be made for the civilian population." The paragraph went on to say that they would be of no more use than thirty million bowler hats. Unfortunately, that is absolutely and completely true. A gas mask is of no value whatsoever. You cannot possibly design any gas mask unless you know what is the gas that you want it to protect you against. We do not know what gas we are going to have in the next war, but anybody who considers the matter will realise that certainly it will not be the gas used in the last War, and therefore any gas mask used in the last War will give no protection.

I am not talking simply about what I think on this subject; I am going to give your Lordships certain facts. In 1917 America came into the War and some American troops were put into the St. Mihiel salient. They were warned both by us and by the French that the gas masks with which they were provided were of no use against the particular gas that the Germans had just begun to use. They did not take that warning. Whether it was because they did not think we knew enough, or whether it was because it was impossible at the time to change them I do not know, but the fact is that they did not change the gas masks. A gas attack was made by the Germans. It is impossible to say what exactly was the result of that attack because the Americans have never cared to publish the number of their casualties. That they were enormous is without doubt. The ordinary text-books on gas published in America always refer to them as the 10,000 martyrs, and that figure is probably not far out. A book was published two years ago by General Foulkes, who was Director of Gas Services in this country during the War. It has the short title "Gas." He tells us that at the end of the War a new gas was discovered which could penetrate any gas mask that at that time had been invented, and he goes so far as to say that its use would have put an end to the War within two or three weeks. That gas was never used because the Armistice came just before it was about to be launched.

Does anybody suppose for a moment that countries throughout the world have not been going on experimenting to see what gases could be produced, new gases against which present masks would be no protection? I do not think anybody could for a moment conceive such a thing. We know that there is a particular place in this country where such experiments are being made. I know of one in Germany and of one in France, and I know also that there is one in Italy. Only a fortnight ago an attack was made by the Red Army against General Franco's forces in Spain. It was made by a new gas which penetrated all the masks and caused casualties somewhere in the neighbourhood of 500. Test quantities of poisoned air were taken in the ordinary way and sent for analysis by chemists from Germany, from Italy and from Spain. Up to forty-eight hours ago—since then I have had no information—that analysis had not been completed, and until it is completed no gas masks can be thought of which could possibly protect men against that gas. Need I say any more with regard to gas masks than that they are an absolutely broken reed to rely on from beginning to end?

Now there is another possibility of protection, and that is by making your house gas-proof. That has been gone into very carefully by Hanslian in his Chemischer Kreig, and he, I believe, is supposed to be the greatest authority on gas throughout the world. He particularly brings forward the work done by Pavlov, the Russian, and puts that down as the best. Pavlov had an idea which has not occurred to the people in this country, and it is this. You have to have some place where your people are going to be, in the house that you are protecting. He gave as the best place the main staircase. His idea was, seal your windows by strips, which we all know is a very common thing to do; then seal the doors from those rooms into the main staircase, so that you have a double seal. The windows on the staircase are specially made so that they do not need sealing, because they are gastight, and the door into the street is to be specially made for the same purpose.

The air in the house is to be kept sweet and renewed by sucking it down through a pipe above the roof, where there would be less likelihood of the gas being present in large quantities than down below, and then filtering it through a liquid—water or something of that kind—and filters. That was to be driven by an electric pump, but there was also to be a hand winch to do it in case the electric current was cut. It was suggested that by doing it in that way you got a slightly higher pressure in the sealed part of the house than outside, and therefore there would be more chance of air passing from the inside to the outside than of the tainted air passing from the outside to the inside. That may or not be a good solution; but assuming it is a solution at all, what is it? Nothing more than a palliative for a short time. People cannot go on living in place of that kind for perhaps weeks on end without going out. Nobody has suggested that you are going to have a food supply stored in every house in case you are kept inside it.

Let us see against what you have to provide. It is an attack by poison gas on a big town. Poison gas has always to be heavier than air, or it would go right up and nothing would be seen of it. Being heavier than air it stays down and, not in exactly the same way but on the same principle as water, it will go down a channel—what is popularly known the gas world as "canalising." Take London and let us see where we are. We have a long line of hills on the south, generally known as the Surrey Hills, and we have a long line of hills on the north—Hampstead, Tottenham, and that way. In between the two there is a big channel. Down that channel the gas will go, and it will go through London. I saw in a newspaper the other day that it was suggested that they were going to make experiments by putting up smokes to see which way the smoke was carried, and therefore exactly how the gas would go. A few years ago I made some scale models of parts of London and tried them. I got certain figures which I think to a certain extent were interesting, and these I gave to the authorities to make of them what they could. However, I came to the conclusion that you would get very little result from that kind of experiment more than you would get by a consideration of contour maps and street plans. If you look at your contour maps and street plans and think of canalisation, you can see how the gas is going to go without having to try any experiments about it at all.

Furthermore, the smokes which are suggested may give you a very false result. They are definitely much heavier than gas, and they would tend to drop and you would get a false idea that your gas attack would not last over more than a certain amount of space. Let us see how far in fact it may last. In 1917 there was an attack against the French by the Germans at the Suippes. The gas canalised up the Suippes valley and there were deaths thirty miles away from the source. A few years ago there was an accident at Hamburg; a poison gas factory blew up, and Hamburg was very lucky! That poison gas factory happened to be the last house on the south-east corner of Hamburg, actually on the banks of the Elbe, just where the Elbe turns due south. There happened to be a north wind blowing, the result of which was that the gas was blown away and canalised up the Elbe. What that gas was do not know. I went out personally and saw the sole eye-witness of that accident before he died. From what he told me, and also from the symptoms of the victims later, I guessed that it was a mixture of chlorine and phosgene, but I do not know. That is only a pure guess, but it is rather likely to have been that. So that gas canalised up the Elbe, and when it had gone to a certain distance the wind suddenly veered round from north to east and it was then carried right through the outskirts of Harburg. Harburg was very lucky; it happened to be election Sunday in Hamburg, and practically everybody from Harburg was in Hamburg, so that there were very few casualities in Harburg. But then the gas went on and canalised through the ravines of the Fischebeckeheide and there were deaths there thirty-five miles from the source.

Now just consider the size of London; and take a gas attack in London. It is going right through from the west, the whole of the way through London, right out to the east and even beyond it. Does it not occur to one that something has to be considered on this? It is not like a high explosive shell which, once it has exploded, has done its damage. It is an absolute wave of death going on and on right through London, taking victims on its way and still going on for more victims right through to the end of London; and nothing is going to stop it. That is what you have to face, and that is what you have to feel is the real danger that must be faced somehow. Now, my Lords, let us see how much you want. I am going to take a fairly long trail; I am going to start from Richmond in the west and go to Barking Creek in the east, and between the two lines of hills that I have mentioned, the whole of that rectangle going down, how much gas do you want, in order to put the whole of it under a lethal atmosphere up to thirty feet high? I will tell you the answer: it is under forty tons. Nowadays all your gases come down in liquid form and go up in the form of gas. It was more than ten years ago that I gave your Lordships that figure of forty tons. I was then reproved for doing so by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, as having given figures that would unnecessarily frighten the whole country, and which were obviously wrong from beginning to end. I had to point out to the noble Marquess that my figures were taken from the Manual issued by the War Office. I hold the same book in my hand, to-day, and therefore it is no use suggesting that a figure of that kind is fantastic, or anything of the sort.

Now see where we are. We know perfectly well what is the possibility of aircraft to-day. There are plenty in the possession of other countries which could quite well come over to this country with a load of four tons, and ten of them are enough to obliterate London. Consider now what I think would happen. You would get a raid of that kind coming over London, and you would get such a raid coming over London every hour of the night and day for six weeks. What are you going to do about it? Even assuming you can shoot down 10 per cent., what are you going to do about it? The whole of this town would be obliterated, without any hope of any kind whatsoever. That is the position which we have got to face. There are many of us who have considered this question for a great many years. All of us—I mean the people I have in my mind—are certainly experts in the sense that we do know what we are talking about. We had a great deal to do with the matter during the War, and therefore we are not talking simply from guesswork. We have all tried to consider this question and not one of us, in any country, has ever succeeded in getting out any idea of a defence against attack by poison gas. There is not any. The only safeguard you have against it, is this. You must be so strong that you can make other people realise that if they do such a thing as that to you, you can go and do the same thing to them. Then perhaps, if we are happy and if we are lucky, neither side will undertake such an attack. Until you are strong enough to do that you can do nothing. At the present time we are not strong enough to do that.

As I pointed out to your Lordships last week, under our programme we have not got a single heavy bomber. There is not one in this country, even designed or about to be made. There are plenty in other countries, but at the present time I doubt whether, with one exception, they would release any to us. Nobody is going to believe that this country should be beholden for such things to another country, but when one Government after another lets this country drop into the position in which it is to-day, where we are right down below other nations and we have not got the machines with which to fight other countries, we ought not to be too proud to get help from other nations in any immediate danger. Until we are in a position to defend ourselves it is of no use talking about reprisals, because it is no use talking about a thing which you cannot do, and at the present time, unfortunately, we can do nothing against other nations, which can do everything against us. It is the most deplorable situation that one can imagine and for these reasons I ask the Government to let the people of this country know what steps they are taking to protect them and their wives and children. I move for Papers.


My Lords, I am sure I am speaking all your minds when I say that we are grateful to the noble Earl for having brought up this question this afternoon, because undoubtedly it is one of considerable importance, and although the hour is late I shall, with your Lordships' permission, take some little time to explain precisely what the Government are doing and propose to do with regard to this menace of gas from the air. I hall do so all the more readily because I would very much dislike for any of your Lordships to leave this Chamber thinking, or for any outside this Chamber to think, that the problems which the noble Earl has raised have been in his mind only. They have also been in the minds of the Government for many months. As your Lordships know, the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925 abolished the use of gas in wartime, and it is the sincere hope of His Majesty's Government that in the unhappy event of war at any rate resort will never again be had to that particular weapon. Nevertheless it is quite obvious that the risk of gas being used is one that cannot be disregarded, and precautions must therefore be taken against that eventuality, because it is obvious that nothing would be more calculated to encourage the use of gas in an attack on this country than tae fact that we were unprotected against it.

It is my purpose to show your Lordships teat in fact we are so protected, and that much of what the noble Earl has said is exaggerated and not accurate. In a the event of a gas attack, as has been suggested by the noble Earl who moved this Motion, the general advice to the public will be to get themselves into a gas-proof room as quickly as possible, and to stay there until told that the d anger of gas is passed. As I was listening to the noble Earl I could but think that he rather exaggerated the rather practical difficulties of making your own gas-proof room. There is no need of the elaborate precautions which he suggested. All that is necessary to make a room gas-proof is to prevent the passage of currents of air through it, and this may simply be done by the use of wet newspapers for the windows and brown paper across the fireplaces, and so on. The vast majority of houses in London and the great cities are in fact easily made gas-proof by these very simple devices.

That is the first and very important safeguard against attack by gas from the air, but the Government are not satisfied with that. On the contrary, as has been said, they have devised for the householder a second line of defence—namely, respirators—and it is proposed to provide respirators free of charge to any person who can conceivably be in danger from gas from the air. We do not stop at the figure of thirty millions. These respirators that we are going to issue will provide protection against any known form of gas. The filtering material, which consists of activated charcoal to absorb the true gases, such as chlorine or mustard gas vapour, and a pad which will stop the arsenical and other toxic gases, will provide the same protection as the ordinary Service respirator will do. The only difference between the Service respirator and the civilian respirator is that the Service respirator will last rather longer and is also more suitable for people who have to undergo strenuous exertion.

Of course, as I expected, the old bogey was raised of an unknown gas that will pass through these respirators and, as your Lordships will have noticed, as in all previous suggestions of this kind no gas was named. I would like to say to the noble Earl that if he cares at any time to bring any gas to the Air Raids Precautions Department they will put it through the most difficult tests possible. But it is always forgotten that the gas that is suitable for use in war has to have some very peculiar properties. It has to be toxic in action on the human body; it must be chemically stable at extremes of temperature; it must withstand the disruptive effects of a bomb explosion.


Why disruptive?


The effect a bomb has when it drops. It must also vaporise easily at normal temperature. The chemicals which belong to groups which afford these properties are perfectly well known to our chemists, and they at any rate cannot believe that any new gas can be used profitably in warfare of whose properties they are not aware. And your Lordships will not forget that in so far as these respirators which we issue to the public prevent all other gases from passing through, this mysterious new gas has not merely got to fulfil all the other tests, it has also to have this peculiar property of resisting the antiseptic qualities of the respirator. I say that because it is perfectly obvious that a very great public disservice is done by people who talk about thirty million bowler hats in that loose way, and alarm the public without the slightest foundation for what they say.

Is it really suggested that the Government are spending these millions of money in providing respirators which their chemists do not consider to be effective? I ask the noble Earl therefore as sincerely as I can to hesitate long before he raises this bogey of the unknown gas again. I have given him a straight denial and a straight affirmation, moreover, that as far as the Government know there is no gas o against which this respirator is not proof. As I said, we are going ahead as fast as may be with these respirators for the whole of the civilian population. Very soon production will reach half a million a week. Furthermore, elaborate arrangements are being made for their distribution through the country as quickly as may be; but in order to prevent their deterioration when not in use the Government propose to keep them in store and only to distribute them when they are needed, and not before.

Now I think I should say a word about the other precautions that the Government have in train for the protection of great cities against gas. In the first place a service for protection from gas by trained chemists is now in process of being organised. Their duty will be as soon as the gas is dropped to go and find out where it is, pick out the danger areas, and decide in order of priority which area should first be decontaminated if decontamination is necessary. In addition to this service, the local authorities are organising rapidly the services which will be necessary for the practical clearing up of any contamination that may have been caused by gas. Moreover, the police, fire brigades, first aid parties and other services engaged in air raid precautions are all receiving a thorough training in anti-gas measures. They go to the Civilian Anti-Gas School at Falfield, Gloucestershire, set up in April of this year. Through that school about 500 instructors of all these various services have passed, received their instructions, and gone back to their services to instruct in their turn those who are under them. We have just doubled the accommodation of that school, and it is proposed to set up another school for the same purpose in the North.

I therefore suggest to your Lordships that in view of these very elaborate and far-reaching proposals of the Government, the danger of gas, as such, can probably be mastered. The danger of gas, it seems to me, lies not so much in the physical damage it may do, but in the panic which may ensue from it. The Government are trying to spread the knowledge of gas as far as possible by instruction, by pamphlet and the like, but I do feel that everyone who over-estimates the danger of gas is really doing the public a disservice. Suggestions that forty tons of gas are going to exterminate London are mischievous and ridiculous. They presume that forty tons can be precisely distributed without reference to other aircraft. No one knows better than the noble Earl that if he were going to train an army of a million men he would not imagine that it could be exterminated with a million bullets. It will be impossible to distribute the gas accurately, and when it has fallen on London it certainly will not hang about in this great noxious cloud which the noble Earl imagines. The crosscurrents in a closely built-up area, as he knows very well, dissipate it.

Therefore I would ask the noble Earl and your Lordships to keep a very close sense of proportion between the dangers of gas and the other dangers from the air, such as incendiary bombs and the like. No good can be done by frightening the population, by telling them that London can be exterminated by a very small quantity of gas, or by telling them that the precautions the Government have taken are no good. On the contrary, the Government are confident that the precautions they are taking will make gas attacks so unlikely to succeed that no Power will care to attempt them. Therefore, with all respect, I would ask the noble Earl to withdraw his Motion, and if he refuses to do so, I would ask your Lordships to reject it.


My Lords, I was very much interested to hear what the noble Marquess said in reply to the question of the noble Earl, because in the first place it so happens that it was my duty as British delegate to sign the Gas Protocol at Geneva in 1925, and when I did so I had considerable misgivings as to whether my action on that occasion would be the final end of possible danger from gas. I rejoice to hear that, while His Majesty's Government piously hope that the Protocol may solve the problem, they are not so unwise as not to look on the other side of the question and to make preparations for a gas attack, should one occur and the Protocol not be as useful as was hoped at the time might be the case.

I agree very heartily with my noble friend in deprecating the over-estimation of the danger from gas attack. On the other hand I should very much deplore an attitude of ignoring the possibility of such a danger. My reason for saying that is this. If you over-estimate the danger—if you say that the whole of London will be destroyed in an afternoon, and Birmingham as well—people will say: "Then, what is the good of even trying to protect curselves?" On the other hand, if you say there is no danger and ignore it, people will not set to work to learn how to protect themselves in case of danger. I suggest that we should follow the motto "Aequam memento reous in arduis servare mentem." I am glad to hear what the noble Marquess has told us about the precautions the Government have taken. There is one point I would like to mention, and that is that the distribution of gas masks or respirators will need considerable rehearsing beforehand. The noble Marquess will remember how, during the War, many excellent schemes were adumbrated at the beginning, and how difficult they were to carry out smoothly later on. I think it is of the highest importance that the distribution of respirators should go smoothly from the beginning. I do not see any great difficulty about it, because, I rejoice to know, very considerable efforts have been made to enlist the support of local authorities, the Red Cross, the Order of St. John, and various other people who deal in first aid, to give instruction in anti-gas methods. I imagine that these authorities will have a full organisation, and will be in a position immediately danger is announced to make the issue of respirators to the public. I hope that the method of distribution is being very thoroughly and carefully rehearsed, because without it all your precautions would be useless.

Again I would congratulate the Government on the steps they have taken to give instructions in anti-gas precautions and also first aid in case of injury or damage through gas attack. There is one other point. It was put by my noble friend, but not at any great length, and that is the question of other means of precaution. He told us what steps have been taken to sweep up gas, if I may so describe it, and disinfect an area which has been gassed. He has told us that this matter is being carefully considered. There is one point on which he did not touch, perhaps for the reason that it was beyond his province, as it is a military matter, and that is the general question of anti-aircraft. I happen to have been connected with an anti-aircraft-searchlight group for a long time as Honorary Colonel, and I am very doubtful whether the training which is available now for anti-aircraft searchlights is adequate and sufficient. For example, Territorials only go out for short camps. It may be that the weather is bad and the aeroplanes cannot go up, and it is impossible to practice with the searchlight which, as the noble Marquess knows, is a very complicated affair requiring a great deal of practice. Now that we have taken considerable steps in the matter of antiaircraft, I hope that the question of training the anti-aircraft forces will be taken in hand very seriously. In conclusion, I think you Lordships will be grateful to the noble Earl for raising this question, and to the noble Marquess for the full manner in which he has answered it, for it is a matter of deep interest to your Lordships and to the public outside.


My Lords, in reply to the noble Marquess, there are one or two little things I would like to say. First of all, when he says you can get a gas-proof room by simply putting damp newspapers round the crevices, I can only tell him, from actual personal experience, that you can not. You can keep out something, but you will not keep out all the gas, and when you are dealing with a gas where you get a lethal dose of one in five million, you cannot afford to have a little tiny crevice open to it. When the noble Marquess doubts the figures I gave, I may say I got them from the Manual supplied by the War Office. It is called "Manual of the Medical Aspects of Chemical Warfare," and it is published by the War Office.


What date?




Pretty old.


Pretty old! It does not give the gases discovered since then. Since then they have had much worse ones. I am only giving you the figures of the comparatively mild types they had in 1926, not all the very lethal ones they have in 1936. That, is the first thing I should like to point out. Now it was stated that gas respirators will keep out any gas. I gave it as a fact that a fortnight ago they did not keep out a gas. It was activated charcoal and a pad they were using, because I took the trouble to find out what they were using, and they did not keep out that gas. Where that gas came from we do not know, but it is one that has not been known so far. Speaking just as a chemist, if I may, the noble Marquess asked me for any gas that can be tested against his mask. I will give him one right away.


Can it be used in warfare?


It can be used in warfare. I will give it him at once. It is one of the methyl arsenes. He will find that that will get through his gas mask, and very quickly, and that it is also pretty horrible when it gets through. He says they have to look out for a gas that is not going to be hurt by a bomb explosion. There is going to be no bomb explosion at all. The modern method is for an aeroplane to fly very low, about twenty feet above the housetops, and the gases are sprayed out at the back of the aeroplane. The noble Marquess says you cannot think a 1,000 bullets are going to kill a 1,000 men. That is just the difference between gas and bullets. The gas comes down and goes on by itself without hitting anybody, but gradually taking victim after victim, and going on the whole time. That is the difference between gas and an attack by bullets.


I am now advised that our masks are particularly good against methyl arsenes.


I should like to see the mask, because I do not know of one that has been used against this gas. I think I shall send some down to the noble Marquess, and perhaps he will be prepared to try his own mask against it. Quite frankly I would not risk it in any circumstances whatever. We have talked about decontaminating and mustard gas, but anyone who knows anything about mustard gas knows the time it will hang about any sort of soil for weeks on end. No matter what you do to try and get rid of it you cannot get rid of it for weeks. It gets six inches into the soil and you apparently lose it; then you get a change in temperature and it begins to come up again. Those who had anything to do with "mustard" during the War know that you cannot deal with it. Quite candidly—I am only speaking for myself and giving my personal opinion—"mustard" would never be used in the next War. It was not, as a matter of fact, one of the worst gases. It was one of the most annoying but not one of the worst. I think they have something much worse to use in the next war.

I do not know anything about the question of schools for teaching people what to do, but I do know one thing that they teach, and it is that if a person is suffering from gas he ought to walk at once to the nearest station in order to receive first aid. The person who gave that fool idea never understood anything about phosgene or knew anything about what happened in the War. The number of phosgene cases that walked to the nearest station and dropped dead on the doorstep was perfectly appalling. With phosgene poisoning and with a great many other poisonings the one thing that was never allowed was to permit the person who suffered from it to walk or move. He has to be carried and is not allowed to move, otherwise there is a very grave danger that he will drop dead. That is only one thing that does not make me any too hopeful for the wonderful success that I know the noble Marquess ought to have in his methods for protecting the people of this country.

I said last week, and I said the week before, and I have said to-day, that the one thing we want is protection by hiving a sufficient Air Force to do to others what they would desire to do to us. I said we have not got it, and it is not the Government programme that we should have it. That has never been denied by the Government. I do say that it is very lamentable that nothing should be done in order to make our Air Force strong enough to be on a parity with any other Air Force in the world. Nothing is being done to do that. No heavy bombers are being put in the programme—none. We know what is being made in England, we know what is being made abroad, we know what can be released from abroad. None are in the programme of the Government. For that reason I beg to press the Motion for Papers.


My Lords, before the Motion is put I only want to say that I do not know how the noble Earl knows what the programme of the Government is. I do not know. It has not been published. Therefore I hope the House will understand that, when the noble Earl says that nothing has been done, that is not to be taken as an accurate statement.

On Question, Motion for Papers negatived.