The British government believed that some form of poison gas would be used on the civilian population during the Second World War. It was therefore decided to issue a gas masks to everyone living in Britain. By 1940 the government had issued 38 million gas masks.
Adult gas masks were black whereas children had 'Micky Mouse' masks with red rubber pieces and bright eye piece rims. There were also gas helmets for babies into which mothers would have to pump air with a bellows. Air Raid Wardens wore gas masks with a long hose and a speaking box which was attached to his belt. The tin canister at the end of the mask contained charcoal which soaked up poisons such as Mustard gas.
The government recruited qualified chemists and formed them into local Gas Identification Squads. To help them in their work the tops of Post Office pillar boxes were given a coating of gas detector paint. The government also published leaflets that helped the public to identify the various types of poisons that might be dropped by the Luftwaffe.
The government threatened to punish people not carrying gas masks. However, a study at the beginning of the war suggested that only about 75 per cent of people in London were obeying this rule. By the beginning of 1940 almost no one bothered to carry their gasmask with them. The government now announced that Air Raid Wardens would be carrying out monthly inspections of gas masks. If a person was found to have lost the gas mask they were forced to pay for its replacement.
A school child tries on a gas mask in 1939.