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What was Mr Churchill's 1944 Planning for Poison Gas Warfare?


A sneak preview of controversies awaiting readers in Churchill's War, vol. iii



In 1981 Robert Harris, who later wrote the best-seller Fatherland, produced a BBC Newsnight segment on Churchill's plans to launch poison gas and bacteriological (anthrax) attack on Germany. There was public outcry. He defended himself in this article in The New Statesman, published ...


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for Churchill's July 6, 1944 minute on poison gas, go to this link

No. D. 217/4

10 Downing Street,


  1. I want you to think very seriously over this question of poison gas. I would not use it unless it could be shown either that (a) it was life or death for us, or (b) that it would shorten the war by a year.
  2. It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war 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.
  3. I want a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would pay us to use poison gas, by which I mean principally mustard. We will want to gain more ground in Normandy so as not to be cooped up in a small area. We could probably deliver 20 tons to their 1 and for the sake of the 1 they would bring their bomber aircraft into the area against our superiority, thus paying a heavy toll.
  4. Why have the Germans not used it? Not certainly out of moral scruples or affection for us. They have not used it because it does not pay them. The greatest temptation ever offered to them was the beaches of Normandy. This they could have drenched with gas greatly to the hindrance of the troops. That they thought about it is certain and that they prepared against our use of gas is also certain. But they only reason they have not used it against us is that they fear the retaliation. What is to their detriment is to our advantage.
  5. Although one sees how unpleasant it is to receive poison gas attacks, from which nearly everyone recovers, it is useless to protest that an equal amount of H. E. will not inflict greater casualties and sufferings on troops and civilians. 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.
  6. If the bombardment of London became a serious nuisance and great rockets with far-reaching and devastating effect fell on many centres of Government and labour, I should be prepared to do [underline] anything [stop underline] that would hit the enemy in a murderous place. I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. 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. We could stop all work at the flying bomb starting points. I do not see why we should have the disadvantages of being the gentleman while they have all the advantages of being the cad. There are times when this may be so but not now.
  7. I quite agree that 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 meanwhile, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there. Pray address yourself to this. It is a big thing and can only be discarded for a big reason. I shall of course have to square Uncle Joe and the President; but you need not bring this into your calculations at the present time. Just try to find out what it is like on its merits.

[signed] Winston Churchill [initials]


Source: photographic copy of original 4 page memo, in Guenther W. Gellermann, "Der Krieg, der nicht stattfand", Bernard & Graefe Verlag, 1986, pp. 249-251

Subsequently, Robert Harris published this Reader's Letter in The Daily Telegraph, June 2, 1981:-

'Appalling potentiality' of anthrax bombs

SIR - Mr Winston Churchill (May 29) [grandson of the wartime prime minister] appears to have completely misread my letter of May 21. It was not a "grudging retraction" of the points made in my "Newsnight" report on biological warfare. I stand by what I said, and refer him again to the documentary evidence contained in that letter. In the summer of 1944, Churchill called for a report on the advisability of using poison gas or any other method of warfare" hitherto not used against Germany. His military advisors gave him the report he wanted: the first part dealt with poison gas, the second - echoing Churchill's own instruction - was headed "Other Forms of Warfare" and dealt solely with biological weapons. "Newsnight's" interpretation of what Churchill meant was, therefore, based upon that of his own Vice-Chiefs of Staff. The decision to consider using anthrax fits in perfectly with his own stated intention (of July 6, 1944) that he would be "prepared to do anything hat would hit the enemy in a murderous place ", and that he would use poison gas not just as a weapon of reprisal for the V-weapon attacks, but if "it could be shown . . . that it would shorten the war by a year." Given that shortening the war was one of the Prime Minister's principal aims it is not surprising that his thoughts should have turned from conventional chemical weapons to anthrax (estimated to be 300,000 times as powerful as poison gas); he had, after all, personally authorised the purchase of half-a-million anthrax bombs from the United States on March 8, 1944, and had been told by Lord Cherwell that anthrax was a weapon of such "appalling potentiality" that it rivalled the atomic bomb. The report's conclusions on the advisability of using poison gas and anthrax against Germany are well known. The Joint Planning Staff advised against the former on the grounds that, far from shortening the war, it would slow up the Allied advance. On anthrax (code-named N) they reported that it would indeed have a "decisive influence on the outcome of the war" but that it would not be ready in sufficient quantities until mid-1945. What, therefore, was "Newsnight's" conclusion? Not very different from that of the historian Roger Parkinson:

"For one brief moment, Britain contemplated the use of these terrible weapons, which the Government had repeatedly declared she would never employ unless the enemy did so first. And the possibility exists that the J P S report . . . might have reached a different conclusion if Britain's development of the mysterious 'N' had been a year further advanced." (A Day's March Nearer Home, p.342) -

Churchill's response to what he described as this "negative" report was to minute that he was "not at all convinced." In your columns on May 25, Mr J. M. Lewis continued his tortuous attempts to explain this away as referring only to the part of the report that deals with poison gas. His sole piece of evidence for this is a reference in the minutes of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, noting Churchill's comments on "their report on military considerations affecting the initiation of chemical warfare." This, as Mr Lewis knows, is merely a routine acknowledgement; yet to suit his own case he loads it with enormous significance. The failure by the secretary of the C o S committee to mention the report's full title ("Military Considerations Affecting the Initiation of Chemical and Other Special Forms of Warfare") could be anything from a security precaution to a simple desire for brevity: it certainly doesn't prove which part of the report Churchill was referring to when he criticised it as "negative." In short, I submit that the "Newsnight" film was not a "grotesque exercise in character assassination," but was founded on a substantial body of historical evidence.


"Newsnight," British Broadcasting
Corporation, London, W.12.

January 3, 1997

Churchill wanted to use gas on enemies

By Ben Fenton

WINSTON Churchill championed the use of chemical weapons against what he called "uncivilised tribes", according to papers released yesterday at the Public Record Office.

Despite the horrors of the First World War, he called opposition to the use of gas "squeamishness". Churchill was Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force in 1919 when his staff were advocating that gas should be retained as a potential weapon and that Britain should oppose any international ban on its use.

In a report drawn up in late 1919 as part of Britain's contribution to discussions about the establishment of the League of Nations, an Air Ministry official wrote: "Chemical warfare cannot now be ruled out of war. Had the war continued, gas would have been almost our most formidable weapon. One shell in every four would have been a gas shell and tanks would have been using it freely."

The air staff talked of gas shells as if the substances they contained would cause only temporary disability rather than the choking death suffered by thousands of servicemen of both nations on the Western Front. The official wrote that if gas were to be banned on humanitarian grounds, so too should conventional explosives because they were ''far more terrible weapons which remove limbs, shatter bones, produce 'nerves' and cause madness'".

He added: "The elimination of this very powerful weapon from the future of war without the most careful consideration is to be deprecated." A memo by Churchill, written about the same time and signed "WSC", said: "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.

"It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and then to boggle at making his eyes water by means of a lachrymatory gas. "I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes" where it could "spread a lively terror", he added.

The Air Ministry agreed that it was most useful to be able to use gas on less sophisticated enemies who would have no idea from where the danger they faced came. The use of gas was banned by the 1925 Geneva protocol.

The papers say that a Cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, in 1946 agreed to stockpile Tabun nerve gas captured from the Germans im secret Army storage facilities in North Wales.
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