Deadly Smoke: The Worst Chemical Weapons Attacks of the 20th Century

Deadly Smoke: The Worst Chemical Weapons Attacks of the 20th Century

Stephanie Schoppert - April 28, 2017

Chemical warfare has long been considered as one of the worst ways to fight a war. Starting in World War I the modern age of chemical warfare was brutal, painful and unforgiving. It quickly became something that the international community saw as “crossing the line” even for counties at war. The use of chemical weapons was so terrifying to the majority of the world that in 1992 the Chemical Weapons Convention was held. It restricted the creation, stockpile and use of chemical weapons. After the Chemical Weapons Convention became active in 1997, 192 countries are bound by the rules of the convention and 93% of all declared chemical weapons in the world were destroyed.

Deadly Smoke: The Worst Chemical Weapons Attacks of the 20th Century
WWI phosgene gas poster. Slate

WWI Phosgene Gas

The deadliest chemical weapon used during the first World War was Phosgene gas. It was able to improve upon all the problems with chlorine gas and create something that was far more deadly and incapacitating. Phosgene was developed by French chemists and was first used during the war in 1915.

Phosgene gas is colorless and smells like “moldy hay.” It could be used on its own but it was more effective when mixed with chlorine. The chlorine/phosgene mixture spread better when released from canisters than the dense phosgene on its own. The Allies would call the mixture “white star” due to the white marking on the canisters.

It was not long before the Germans began using the chlorine/phosgene mix with their first use against the British in December 1915. Near Ypres, Belgium, 88 tons of the mixture was released by the Germans causing 1,069 casualties and 69 deaths. It proved to the Germans how effective the new chemical weapon was when compared to just chlorine. The one caveat to the gas was that it could sometimes take up to 24 hours for the symptoms of the gas to manifest.

Phosgene gas does not have the reputation of mustard gas or other chemical compounds but it was by far the deadliest chemical weapon of World War I. 36,600 tons of phosgene gas was manufactured during the war, making it second only to chlorine in terms of the quantity manufactured during the war. Out of 100,000 deaths attributed to chemical weapons attacks during World War I, 85,000 of them are attributed to Phosgene gas.

Deadly Smoke: The Worst Chemical Weapons Attacks of the 20th Century
Canadian soldier with mustard gas blisters.

WWI Mustard Gas

World War I also saw the use of mustard gas. The Germans developed numerous ways to deploy mustard gas using artillery shells, mortar rounds, rockets and free-falling bombs. Even landmines were rigged with the gas. It was so pervasive that in the last year of the war, the British suffered 20,000 casualties from mustard gas. It was far from the deadliest form of attack in the war or even the deadliest chemical weapon used during the war but it has a terrifying reputation all the same.

The draw to mustard gas was not necessarily the number of casualties it caused but rather the fear it caused. Only 1 to 5% of those exposed to the gas died from the attack. But there was little protection for soldiers from the gas. While their gas masks protected their lungs and typically prevented death, it did not protect their skin.

Mustard gas would soak into the uniforms and cause the skin to blister and burn. The mustard gas could also remain for days which meant that it would settle into trenches and then it would be tracked into dugouts on the boots of soldiers. At night, the mud would poison the men while they slept. The mustard gas could also get into the water supply and poison the men that way.

Once exposed the effects can take days, weeks or even months to recover from. Eyes become red, painful and runny with the potential for permanent loss of sight. Scarring over exposed areas of skin is common and the lungs are often severely damaged if they have prolonged exposure to the gas. There remains no known cure for mustard gas. The only thing that could be done for the soldiers then and for people exposed today is supportive care.

Deadly Smoke: The Worst Chemical Weapons Attacks of the 20th Century
Italian soldiers with a mustard gas bomb. Pinterest

Ethiopia 1935-1936

Ethiopia was a lone beacon in a continent of colonies. Despite several efforts by the Italians, the Ethiopians had managed to maintain their independence. However, that all changed when Italy pushed forth with a new offensive in 1935. The mustard gas worked against the Ethiopian army in much the same way that it worked in World War I. Soldiers were demoralized and living in fear over the threat of chemical weapons.

The Italians who were attacking from Eritrea under Marshal Pietro Badoglio were afraid that attacking the Ethiopians would end up much the same way it did in 1896, when Ethiopian forces destroyed a huge Italian army. In order to ensure victory, Marshal Badoglio ordered a massive mustard gas attack against unsuspecting Ethiopians. With no warning of the impending chemical weapon attack, thousands of Ethiopians were affected. They suffered burns all over their bodies and many of them painfully suffocated.

The mustard gas proved effective as one attack was able to decimate the Ethiopian forces. From then on it became the weapon of choice for the Marshal Badoglio. General Rodolfo Graziani was also moving in on Ethiopia from the Italian colony of Somalia. On his Southern front, he also found the use of mustard gas to be particularly effective against the Ethiopians. It also worked to prevent Ethiopian troops from entering an area. As the Ethiopian forces often walked barefoot or with sandals and mustard gas could stay on the ground for days, troops were not able to follow Italian and colonial forces after they had sprayed mustard gas.

The Soviet Union would later claim that there were 50,000 casualties as a result of the Italo-Abyssinian war of 1935-1936. Of those 50,000 casualties, it was believed that at least 15,000 were caused by chemical weapons. Italy would later deny using chemical weapons in Ethiopia. It was not until 1995 that the Italian government finally admitted to the use of chemical weapons during colonial wars.

Deadly Smoke: The Worst Chemical Weapons Attacks of the 20th Century
Auschwitz Gas Chamber.

WWII – Nazi Germany

In World War II, Nazi Germany was responsible for the deadliest use of poison gas in history. Using carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide millions of Jews and other victims were gassed and killed. The prolific use of chemical weapons in concentration camps to kill large numbers of people is contrasted with the limited use of chemical weapons in combat.

Nazi Germany forced concentration camp prisoners to create tabun which was nerve gas. They even used prisoners as test subjects to determine the effectiveness of the gas. Tens of thousands of tons of chemical weapons were stockpiled by Nazi Germany but it was believed that the Allies had substantially more and therefore Hitler believed that it was not worth the risk to be the first to use them in combat.

In 1943, during a meeting in the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler was told that Germany was in possession of 45,000 tons of tabun and other chemical weapons. However, he was also told that the Allies had far more. In response, Hitler ordered that the stockpiles of tabun and sarin be doubled. But he went against the wishes of his advisers and did not send any of the gas to the Russian front because he feared Allied retribution.

Despite Hitler’s reluctance for large-scale use of chemical weapons in combat, there were a few instances where it was used. In May 1942, 3,000 Red Army soldiers and civilians were hiding out in caves after the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula. They held out for three months until finally, the Germans released poison gas into the tunnels which killed most of those hiding. Thousands of people killed around the tunnels were found to have been killed due to asphyxiation from gas.

Deadly Smoke: The Worst Chemical Weapons Attacks of the 20th Century
The Unit 731 Complex.

Second Sino-Japanese War

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japanese forces used biological and chemical warfare against several parts of China. The Japanese were known to be willing to do just about anything to defeat the Chinese and they even created their own biological/chemical warfare laboratory. Unit 731 covered six square kilometers of Pingfang, a district of Harbin in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo which is now Northeast China.

Unit 731 operated from 1935 until 1945 and it is estimated that up to 250,000 men, women and children were subjected to experimentation by the laboratory. The laboratory tested out both chemical and biological agents against Chinese, Russian, South East Asians, Pacific Islanders and a small number of Allied war prisoners. The vast majority of the victims were Chinese. Some of the prisoners would be given diseases and then dissected alive in order to determine how the disease affected the body.

The Japanese used the information to experiment with germ warfare. They would place plague-ridden fleas and infected clothing and supplies in bombs and drop them on different targets. Cholera, anthrax and the bubonic plague were found to have killed as many as 400,000 civilians. Bubonic plague fleas were also spread by airplanes over coastal Chinese cities. In addition to the fleas, there was aerial spraying of the plague over cities which resulted in the deaths of thousands. The Japanese had planned a similar attack on San Diego, California in September 1945, but ended up surrendering five weeks earlier.

The Japanese were not opposed to the use of chemical attacks either. They were used up to 2,000 times in 77 different counties during the war. The chemical weapons attacks claimed the lives of tens of thousands. When the war ended, Japan abandoned much of their chemical weapons in China by burying them or dumping them in rivers. Many civilians were killed by the leaking containers and to this day not all of the canisters have been found or properly disposed of.

Deadly Smoke: The Worst Chemical Weapons Attacks of the 20th Century
A woman visits the graves of her relatives who died during the attack.

Halabja Chemical Attack

On March 16, 1988, the Iran-Iraq war was coming to a close. The Kurdish rebellion was largely extinguished by the mid-1980s, but the Ba’athist regime under Saddam Hussein wanted to remove all Kurdish resistance in the north. There was an order to strike down the Peshmerga rebels and Kurdish resistance by any means possible, including attacks on large civilian populations.

The Kurdish city of Halabja fell to the Iranians as part of Operation Zafar 7. 48 hours after the Iranians took the city the Iraqi forces retaliated as part of their Al-Anfal Campaign. For five hours, Iraqi MiG and Mirage aircraft dropped chemical bombs on the residential areas of Halabja. The bombs were dropped far away from the besieged Iraqi army base on the outskirts of the town. The attack remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.

Eyewitnesses reported a range of smells and colors of the gas. Some reported rotten eggs and others said they smelled apples. Rebel commanders in the area reported clouds of white, black and yellow smoke rising up from the city. Those who survived the attack reported that some people died instantly, others died laughing and some burned, blistered and coughed up green vomit. The ensuing panic caused many others to die as people tried to flee by car.

Between 3,200 to 5,000 people were killed in the attack. 7,000 to 10,000 were injured. Once the chemicals were dispersed, Iraqi forces were able to retake the city. Once Halabja was back in Iraqi possession, the entire town was systematically razed with bulldozers and explosives. Today people in the region suffer from increased rates of birth defects and cancer. Some doctors have become concerned that the chemicals used may have had lasting genetic effects on the population due to the increased rates of birth defects.