1934-1940: NERVE GAS / REVIVAL OF GAS WARFARE
- Gas warfare continued to evolve without Haber. Another German chemist, Gerhard Schrader?, was honestly working on insecticides when he developed a highly lethal organo-phosphate compound in December 1936, which he named “tabun”. He found out how potentially deadly it was in January 1937, when he and an assistant accidentally spilled a drop of it. Their pupils constricted to pinholes and they suffered shortness of breath. Had the spill been slightly greater, it would have killed them.
Tabun was the first member of a fourth class of poison gases, known as “nerve gases”, or more correctly “nerve agents”, since they were dispersed as a fine aerosol of liquid droplets, not a gas. The Germans discovered a few years later that tabun worked by interfering with the transmission of nerve impulses across synapses. Victims lost bodily control until they were no longer able to breath, causing suffocation. Tabun was invisible, odorless, and could kill in extremely tiny quantities. A gas mask was little protection, since tabun could be absorbed through the skin.
Tabun was far too dangerous to be safely used as a pesticide. Although Schrader had not been looking for a weapon, he realized the military potential of his discovery. He was a dutiful German and reported his discovery to the authorities, as required under Nazi law of any discovery that might have military applications. Schrader was not enthusiastic about developing chemical agents like Haber, but he did it anyway. The Nazis set him up in a secret military research lab. In 1938, he discovered an even more lethal nerve agent similar to Tabun, which he named “Sarin”.
- In the meantime, CW had resurfaced. The Italians used mustard gas during their campaign in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1937. They introduced the new trick of dropping it from airplanes in gas bombs. World opinion condemned Mussolini. Beginning in 1937, the Japanese also began to use gas weapons against the Chinese. China was remote and backward, and so information on the Japanese use of gas was sketchy, but reports trickled out of mustard gas attacks on Chinese soldiers and citizens.
CW was coming back into style. A big conflict was coming, and chemical weapons were expected to be used, both on the battlefield and against civilian populations. The British distributed 30 million gas masks, not knowing how useless they would be if the Germans used their secret new Tabun gas, and implemented an exhaustive CW civil defense program. Governments also ramped up development and production of chemical agents.
One of the more bizarre bits of evidence of the fear of chemical warfare in the prewar period was a gas mask designed for children by the Walt Disney company in the United States. It was in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head, with a picture of Mickey labeled on the filter canister, and was clearly intended to make children more enthusiastic about wearing the thing. It never went into production, and in hindsight lends a certain creepy black humor to the whole matter.
- Tabun wasn’t available for operational use when war broke out in September 1939, but the Germans had a chemical corps, which conducted field exercises using mustard gas. However, gas is basically a siege weapon, intended to root out troops dug into trenches and fortifications, and the German Blitzkrieg was war of rapid mobility. Gas could hamper the attacker as much as it hurt the defender, and so it was not used as a firstline weapon, though there are tales that it was used in a few cases against Soviet troops holed up in fortifications.
The Germans stockpiled poison gases in bulk anyway. In January 1940, the Germans began high priority construction of a huge Tabun plant at Dyenfurth-am-Oder in Silesia, now part of Poland. The plant was designed to perform all phases of tabun production, though a long series of production glitches kept it of operation until April 1942.
Producing tabun was no simple task. Some of the intermediate chemicals were extremely corrosive, requiring vessels lined with silver or made of quartz. The final product was so incredibly toxic that final production was in rooms with double glass walls, with pressurized air circulated between the walls. Sarin was even harder to manufacture, and though a pilot production facility was built at Dyenfurth, sarin never reached production status during the war.
The production spaces had to be decontaminated every now and then with steam and ammonia. The workers had to wear rubberized clothes with respirators, and the suits had to be disposed of after their tenth use. If a worker was contaminated, his protective clothes were quickly stripped off and he was dunked in a sodium bicarbonate bath. There were a number of accidents at the Dyenfurth plant that killed at least ten workers. One had two liters (half a US gallon) of tabun pour down the neck of his suit. He died in two minutes, despite all attempts to save his life.