North Russia 1919: Britain’s first air-dropped chemical weapons

Grantham N Russia RE Lib resDuring the closing stages of the military intervention in North Russia in 1919, British chemical munitions were improvised as effective aerial bombs for the first time in history. Here is a shorter version of my article published by the Imperial War Museum in 1999.

In July 1917, the Germans introduced a new type of chemical munition.  The Blue Cross shell was a ‘mask-breaker’ which could penetrate a soldier’s respirator filter causing temporary incapacity from choking and severe sinus irritation. The wearer would also tear off the gas mask and succumb to the effects of simultaneously fired lethal gas shells. The chemical was diphenylchlorarsine (DA), embedded in solid form in a glass bottle in the explosive of the shell. It would be pulverised into a fine dust by the detonation but the particles were mostly too large to be really effective.

Blue Cross Shell

The German ‘Blue Cross’ chemical shell containing DA in a glass bottle.

A more successful method was discovered by a British Gas Directorate officer at GHQ who placed a pinch of DA on his stove: the smoke from the heated chemical caused the evacuation of the entire building. The British developed a thermogenerator which heated the chemical to create a highly toxic smoke lasting for about two minutes. They also identified an improved substance, diphenylaminechlorarsine (DM or Adamsite), and the two thermogenerators were loosely known as the ‘M Device’. Though the effects were not thought to be permanent, test conditions caused in human subjects ‘the most appalling mental distress and misery’ and pain  such that soldiers ‘had to be prevented from committing suicide; others temporarily went raving mad…’.

Q 16329-cr-generator-br

The ‘M Device’ Smoke Generator (IWM Q 13629)

Brigadier-General Foulkes, the Director of Gas Services in the British Expeditionary Force, hoped to use the M Device to implement his ‘favourite plan’ of discharging chemical weapons on a stupendous scale before a major attack. Troops wearing a respirator with a special filter which protected against the smoke would ignite and throw the smoke bombs before capturing positions on which the defenders were incapable of resistance. The Armistice in November 1918 however prevented such an attack from taking place.

M Device Foulkes-cr

Aerial view of a field trial of the M Device
(from Foulkes, GAS! The Story of the Special Brigade, 1934).

In early 1919, a North Russia Relief Force was assembled to enable the withdrawal of British forces, sent to Murmansk and Archangel in 1918 to prevent military stores from falling onto German hands, which was now threatened by the Bolshevik Red Army. The force was to be equipped with chemical munitions employed by both the Royal Artillery and the Special Brigade of the Royal Engineers. Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War and Air, offered the commander of the force, Major-General Ironside, the ‘very secret’ M Device which he should only use ‘if specially necessary’. Ironside asked how well it worked in areas ‘closely shut in by forest’ where the wind was non-existent. This question was to be answered by sending a Special Brigade expert , Major Thomas Davies, who would sail in advance of the M Device to explain the new weapon.

Davies was a Tasmanian chemical engineer with extensive experience of gas attacks on the Western Front. His health damaged by poison gas, he had nevertheless helped to develop the M Device because of his firm belief that it would end the war. However, a road accident prevented Davies from sailing in advance the despatch to Archangel of 50,000 M Devices in May 1919. By July, Davies and nineteen other Special Brigade officers had also arrived at Archangel without knowing whether it was suitable for use in that theatre.

Map of European Russia Showing Railways Waterways Situation in Russia from Information Received up to Aug 12th 1919-macrepo_4080-crbr

The Murmansk and Archangel fronts, August 1918.
(Detail from https://digitalarchive.mcmaster.ca/islandora/object/macrepo%3A4080)

Prior to visiting the front, Davies planned to make an attack using 15-20,000 M Devices per mile but he found it thickly wooded, with the only clear area a 30 yard wide strip along which the railway line was constructed, permitting little or no breeze to carry the smoke towards the enemy. The terrain could not have been more different to the open agricultural land of northern France and the use of the M Device to cover the withdrawal of the North Russia force was nothing like that envisaged by Foulkes in his plans for a great break through assault. From late July to mid-August, Davies attempted to use the M Device in conjunction with infantry raids but always the wind strength and direction was always unsuitable.

Q 92426-SERVICE OF MAJOR MOORE VC 2ND BATTALION, THE HAMPSHIRE REGIMENT, NORTH RUSSIA 1919

Men of the 2nd Hampshires, Archangel front, 1919.
Davies tried unsuccessfully to carry out a raid using the M Device with this battalion.
© Imperial War Museum Q 92426

Undeterred by the lack of wind, Davies began trials to improvise M Device bombs which could be dropped from the air. When the Royal Air Force refused to allow its aircraft to be used, Davies obtained permission from Ironside. His Adjutant, Lieutenant Alderson, made twenty flights testing bomb designs until he was injured in a crash when DM got into cuts on his arms, causing skin eruptions. The trials were halted until Davies contrived to use newly-assembled aircraft at Archangel but the proximity to houses meant that DM had to be substituted for brick dust, a highly unpleasant task which fell on his officers.

Q 16330-cr

The ‘M Bomb’ made by adding a retarding vane and padded nose cone to the M Device.
© Imperial War Museum Q 16330

Eventually, Davies perfected a vane and retarder to control the descent of the bomb and a padded nose to prevent damage on impact. His servant, a plumber, made the prototypes and Ordnance Workshops in Archangel and a Royal Navy repair ship ultimately manufactured fittings for 1,500 bombs.

Thomas Davies and his servant (who is nowhere named in the records) display their M Bomb, North Russia 1919.
© Imperial War Museum Q 16330

slides-007

Special Brigade officers and Davies’ servant (shirtsleeves) assembling M bombs at Oberskaya Airfield on the Archangel front, 27 August 1919.
(UK National Archives WO106/1170)

Ironside wished to use the ‘M Bombs’ to support an attack on 10th August. Bomb racks were prepared on DH9 and DH9A aircraft but bad weather prevented their use. Eventually, on 27th the first M Bombs were used on the villages of Emtsa and Chunova, as preparation for an attack by Russian forces. At 12.30pm, 57 were dropped on Emtsa railway station, followed by another 62 at 7.30pm. The airmen reported the town obscured by the smoke and saw panicked troops fleeing into the surrounding woods. Red Army prisoners later described the effects. Private Kashevnikoff said that, when three aircraft dropped ten bombs about 40 yards from him, the smoke made his eyes water, he coughed badly, suffered head pains, and was ‘walking about as if drunk’. Thirty men of his company were also affected although he said that none were sent to hospital or died. He surrendered two days later, finding he was now frightened of shell fire.

slides-005-crbr

The first DH9 aircraft to take off from Oberskaya airfield carrying M Bombs, 27 August 1919.
Six bombs were carried externally (arrowed), 34 internally.
(UK National Archives WO106/1170)

The next day, 62 bombs were dropped on Emtsa and 69 on Plesetskaya. Four bombs fell near Private Leeposhkin, one about 10 yards away, causing him head pains, watering eyes, a sore throat, breathing difficulties and copious vomiting. Unable to stand, he lay down until carried into a barracks. Sickness and coughing prevented him from sleeping and he surrendered after three days.  On the day of the actual attack, on 29th, mist prevented further bombing but Russian troops captured Emtsa, taking 550 prisoners and all the forward artillery. The railway station remained held by an armoured train and bombing with the M Bombs was resumed in the evening.  Nine days later, a Special Brigade officer found a number of civilians in Emtsa ‘somewhat gassed’, while prisoners described gassed men lying prostrate on the ground, bleeding from the nose and mouth. Some still had fits of bleeding and were ‘in quite a useless state’.

Q 16329-cr bomb

A spent M Bomb after dropping.
© Imperial War Museum Q 16329

The village of Chunova was again bombed at the end of August and early September although the actual attack was postponed. Two more villages were bombed on 4th September in preparation for raiding. The attackers were warned not to enter the ‘smoked area’ until one and a half hours after the last bomb had been dropped, to avoid cellars, not to drink water and avoid skin contact with earth where the bombs had dropped. If the smoke was inhaled, they were told that a chloroform solution or cigarette smoking gave relief.  The tactics were refined, with the bombs dropped in a semicircle around the windward edges of the villages and some in the trees to the leeward where it was anticipated the victims would flee.  When Brigadier-General Grogan learned that only three of the expected six bombing aircraft would be available he limited the attack to the village of Pocha. Four aircraft bombed Pocha, the smoke obscuring it from view, and all fire quickly died away beneath the drifting clouds but resistance from outside the poisoned area caused Grogan not to launch the infantry attack.

Q 16148

General Rawlinson (light coat) with Ironside (dark coat) interrogating a Bolshevik prisoner, September 1919.
© Imperial War Museum Q 16148

The M Bombs were soon relied on by commanders to incapacitate the Red Army troops before the launch of the small-scale attacks. On 7th September, General Rawlinson, recently arrived as Commander-in-Chief in North Russia, inspected prisoners poisoned by the bombs and reported to the War Office that the M Bombs had been mainly responsible for the success of operations around Archangel.  The lack of fatal cases however left the chief Medical Officer about the effect of the ‘gas’. He visited Emtsa with the Consulting Physician who examined 46 affected prisoners and reported that the symptoms were temporary with most beginning to feel normal again after several days. This was to miss the point that temporary incapacity was all that was needed for the capture of positions. Davies examined the same prisoners and reported to Rawlinson:

I consider the results excellent and a definitive proof that in the Smoke Generator we have an extraordinary powerful weapon [sic].

Ironside also reported the bombs ‘a great success’, with the caveat that the results were small and local, ‘there is no doubt that the moral [i.e. psychological] effect on the enemy was very great and materially assisted the operations.’

Q 16759-Fairy 3c seaplanes preparing for flight from Lake Onega, Medvedje-Gora, 1919

Fairy IIIC seaplanes preparing for flight from Lake Onega, 1919.
© Imperial War Museum Q 16159

With Ironside’s operations around Archangel ending, on 9th September, six of Davies’ officers were sent with 250 M Bombs to assist the force around Murmansk, 150 miles to the southwest. The force commander, General Maynard, had been informed that Rawlinson was ‘very anxious for you to use this Gas’. Maynard planned to use the M bombs in an attack in mid-September to cover his withdrawal. Fairey IIIC seaplanes, based on Lake Onega, would each carry 40 bombs.

High winds negated the effect of bombs dropped in 12th and 13th. The village of Mikheeva Selga, attacked with 16 bombs on 13th and 30 the following day, was captured without resistance. On 14th, 30 bombs were dropped on Lijma and in still air the effect was reported by the RAF observer as ‘very good indeed’. A Special Brigade officer, Lieutenant Grantham, visiting the targets five days later found that strong defences appeared to have been hurriedly abandoned. After speaking to British officers and Bolshevik prisoners he concluded that the effect was ‘totally demoralising’. Maynard’s advance covered 20 miles in a day and further attacks were briefly postponed ‘until the arrival of more gas’.  Prisoners did not exhibit the usual symptoms of poisoning and the ‘moral’ effect seemed caused troops to abandon their positions.

Grantham N Russia RE Lib res

Special Brigade officer Lieutenant Grantham holding M Bombs, standing on the float of a Short 184 Seaplane, Lake Onega, September 1919.
© Royal Engineers Museum

High winds negated the effect of bombs dropped in 12th and 13th. The village of Mikheeva Selga, attacked with 16 bombs on 13th and 30 the following day, was captured without resistance. On 14th, 30 bombs were dropped on Lijma and in still air the effect was reported by the RAF observer as ‘very good indeed’. A Special Brigade officer, Lieutenant Grantham, visiting the targets five days later found that strong defences appeared to have been hurriedly abandoned. After speaking to British officers and Bolshevik prisoners he concluded that the effect was ‘totally demoralising’. Maynard’s advance covered 20 miles in a day and further attacks were briefly postponed ‘until the arrival of more gas’.  Prisoners did not exhibit the usual symptoms of poisoning and the ‘moral’ effect seemed caused troops to abandon their positions.

Q 16818-Bolshevik prisoners at Lijma Station waiting for instruction, 15th September 1919

Bolshevik prisoners at Lijma Station the day after capture following an M Bomb attack, 15th September 1919.
© Imperial War Museum Q 16818

Q 16821-A British sentry on the main street of Lijma, 16th September 1919

A British sentry on the main street of Lijma, 16th September 1919.
© Imperial War Museum Q 16821

On the 15th, the bombs again led to a Bolshevik withdrawal. The following day, however, advance by British forces ceased, to be continued by White Russian forces alone.  An attack on 20th without M bombs was ‘half-hearted’. On 22nd two seaplanes dropped forty bombs each, the smoke enveloped a village, surrounding trenches and a headquarters. No Bolshevik fire was reported but it was unclear if an attack was made. On 17th, the British dumped 47,000 remaining M Devices in the White Sea but seem to have left some for the White Russian forces after their final departure from North Russia on 12 October.

M Bomb test-001-cr

An M Device tested from a motorboat on Lake Onega, September 1919, photographed by Pilot Officer Blampied.
(Author/ B C Blampied)

On 23rd September, one of Davies’ officers, Major Saunders, inhaled smoke during a demonstration of the M Device to the general commanding the White Russian forces at Murmansk. He quickly suffered pains in his legs, head and back, then extreme debility, anaemia and diarrhoea.  In England three months later he could not lie down without feeling giddiness while another officer was still hospitalised with lassitude and fatigue four months after being exposed. The longer-term effects of DM exposure were felt by other Special Brigade officers. Davies had been incapacitated while demonstrating the M Device on 9th September. In March 1920 doctors found him:

pale, nervous, and suffering from various ‘phobia’. He would like to go back to Australia but dare not go on board ship.

DM, the only major novel chemical warfare agent developed by the British during the First World War, failed to live up to expectations. Heralded as offering a breakthrough, its effect in practice was limited and local. In 1937 the British downgraded its status as a principal chemical weapon after trials found it less effective than the standard tear gas.

All references are in the full version of this article published in the Imperial War Museum Review, available via this link.


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