By 1940, 38 million gas-masks had been issued, in Britain, despite the use of gas being prohibited under the Geneva Protocol.
Today in 1985 the St.Helen’s [Lancashire] Star front page lead with an article which revealed that they had been inundated with evidence regarding the previous existence of poison gas works in the area.
Many complained about the ‘high proportion of the workers whom had since died suffering from lung and skin problems.’ (1)
The article had responded to a BBC Timewatch Programme of the previous week. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) denied the existence of the Sutton Oak Plant at St. Helens, which had supposedly produced phosgene gas up to the 1950s.
Between the World-Wars the UK was a major centre for the research, development and manufacture of chemical warfare agents and early in WWII Sutton Oak Plant (Chemical Defence Research Establishment (CDRE), was making mustard gas. It also pioneered research into sarin and other nerve agents.
In 1954 the St. Helens Plant had closed and work transferred to the Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE), Nancekuke, in Cornwall, where production and testing took place as well as work involving material and equipment removed from conquered Germany.
When this site closed in 1980 all the equipment was buried in an old mine shaft. The site was then reinstated as RAF Portreath.
We had been prepared for the possibility of chemical warfare for on 27th August 1939, the Treasury had applied for £546,000 to develop a top secret chemical weapons plant at Rhydymwyn near Mold, Flint, North Wales.
At the site atomic bomb and mustard gas research was undertaken after Churchill had called on ICI to find a secret location to produce chemical weapons.By 1943 it was employing 2,000.
Documents later reveal our determination to us gas for when invasion seemed imminent, after Dunkirk, General Brook in charge of anti-invasion preparations, ‘had every intention of using sprayed mustard-gas on the beaches.(2)
In April 1941 Churchill sent letter to his Secretary of State for War: ‘I remain far from satisfied with the state of our preparations for offensive chemical warfare, should this be forced upon us by the actions of the enemy..’
Later in the war Churchill is quoted: ‘I should be prepared to anything that would hit the enemy.’ However he was dissuaded from action owing to the probability of reprisals.(3)
By 1942-3 Britain had built up its stockpiles of chemical weapons, looking forward to D-Day.(4)
After the war countries were obliged to declare their chemical facilities and agree to inspections, by the Chemical Warfare Convention.
Today the site where the poison gas was manufactured in St.Helens is now a ‘clean’ Industrial Estate, called Abbotsfield Park.
It was John Davy, brother of the famous chemist Humphrey, in 1812, who synthesized phosgene when he exposed Carbonic Oxide (Carbon Monoxide), and Chlorine ( COCl2) to sunlight. It was widely used in the 19thc in the dyeing industry.
(1) The locals referred to the factory as Magnum, a former occupier of the factory.
(2) Alanbrooke Diaries (22.9.1940), 2001.
(3) Paxman, J.&Harris R. 1982, The war that never was.
(4) There were four main sites including apart from the three mention there was Randle in Cheshire. There were also four forward Filling depots, along with according to the Independent article 60 other sites where the safety policy was haphazard.
Ref: Independent.co.uk/60-secret-gas- sites-uncovered. Christopher Bellamy Tuesday, 4.6.1996.
Ref: wikipedia.org/chemical_warfare_and_uk/Britain’s plan to use gas and phosgene to repel invaders.References to many publications.
Ref: Churchill-Most -Secret PM Personal Minute to Chief of Staff, 6th July 1944.
Ref:Google phosgene gas plant in Britain.