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Back Then: Nazi gas raid fear sparked call for action

Top nurse alerted nation to danger of attack from the air

One of the millions of gas masks given out to families during the Second World War
One of the millions of gas masks given out to families during the Second World War

By Eddie McIlwaine

It was the summer of 1939 and World War Two was looming when a chief nursing officer called Lois Oakes decided the time had come to alert the public to the danger of a possible gas attack by the German enemy.

So Lois sat down and wrote a detailed account of the precautions that could be taken against gas warfare, including a gas-proof room in houses.

And, of course, she also advised that everyone, including children, should never be without a gas mask like the one from wartime in my picture today worn by a girl called 'Mandy'.

The enterprising woman published her epistle in a 1939 edition of a Nurses Dictionary Handbook, which she edited. Presumably she also sent her warnings to the newspapers and the BBC Home Service radio station of that time.

Her first concern was to motivate nurses in the UK and prepare them for any danger that lay ahead from enemy aircraft, whose object would be to poison the people from the air.

Lois mentioned in particular in that essential handbook (price three old shillings from the Daren Press in Edinburgh) gas bombs complete with spray and incendiary devices.

She also stressed the need immediately for public shelters to be built and a blackout of all cities to confound the raiders in the sky.

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"We have learned lessons from the Great War," she wrote and stressed that squads of chemists should be trained to identify the types of gases that could be inflicted on the UK.

In the event, the all-out gas attack on the civilian population didn't materialise on the scale the good lady feared.

But every individual had to carry a gas mask just in case, including children.

Belfast Telegraph


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