A not very possible fact

Or, at least, not very likely. In June 1922, the Daily Mail printed a two-column article under the headline "Our lost air power" (a title it used for just about all of its air-scare stuff that year).1 The author's name is not given, but is described as 'An Armament Expert', who until recently was on the 'Allied Commission to Germany'. The bulk of the article concerns two types of aerial bombs he inspected while overseeing German compliance with the disarmament clauses of the Versailles treaty.

The first was the elektron bomb. Though this sounds like it might be an exotic weapon based on the latest advances in atomic physics, it's actually just an incendiary, for setting cities ablaze. But this was something special. In contrast to the crude, and fairly ineffective, incendiaries used by the Germans against London during the war, the elektron burned so hotly that it could burn through armour plate, and what's more, once ignited it could not be extinguished. As it weighed less than pound and was only nine inches long, thousands could be carried per bomber (or airliner). The German High Command thought it had a war-winning weapon, since

A fleet of aeroplanes would carry sufficient to set all London alight, past any hope of saving.

But -- fortunately for London -- the war ended before sufficient numbers of elektron bombs were available to the German forces.

The other weapon revealed by An Armament Expert was a small globe, made of glass and only four inches across. Inside the globe was a dark brown liquid: an unspecified form of poison gas (mustard, I'd guess). When the globe is dropped from an aeroplane and hits the ground, the glass shatters and generates 'thousands of cubic feet of poisonous gas'. If used against London, the gas would permeate into cellars and tunnels, and lie in the streets for weeks.

One raid using such bombs would paralyse the very heart of our Empire, and bring a horrible death to most of London's citizens.

How horrible? Imagine:

That girl with the baby sitting opposite to you on the Tube -- can you see that girl rushing wildly and blindly away, pressing that same little mite's face to her breast in a hopeless attempt to shield it from the fumes? Can you see her face drawn in the most horrible of death agonies and the baby's lips covered with blood and mucus? A horrible description? A very horrible, yet very possible, fact.

Again, London was lucky to avoid being gassed during the war. This time, Germany had sufficient numbers of gas globes, but the 'Secret Service' knew this, and made it known to the Germans that Britain had them too, and would use them in large numbers against German cities if any fell on British soil.

Here we have an expert eyewitness describing two horrible new weapons, both of which were nearly used against civilians in the last war and which will certainly be used against civilians in the next war. So what's the problem? Simply that one of these existed and the other is -- I believe -- made up!

The elektron bomb was very real, and was in fact very similar to the incendiaries used by both sides in the Second World War. (And before: the Condor Legion's elektrons set Guernica ablaze.) "Elektron" was the name given by the Germans to magnesium alloy; the bomb casing was made of this, surrounding a thermite core. When the bomb ignited, the thermite would burn hotly (up to 2500 °C) and violently, but quickly (lasting less than a minute). This would be long enough, however, to set the elektron casing on fire, which could burn for around 15 minutes at 1500 °C. Between the thermite and the magnesium alloy, the risk of fire spreading from an elektron bomb was obviously great. A householder or ARP warden who encountered one of these could control it with the use of water, sand and/or Redhill container, but as An Armament Expert quite rightly pointed out, even a single bomber could carry thousands of elektron incendiaries, and so the prospect opened up of a city being overwhelmed by fire.

But glass globes as gas delivery systems -- that's a different story. As I've written before, it can be difficult to find reliable information on early chemical weapons (outside of the First World War, of course), and I've not yet found a good description of what an aerial gas bomb actually would have looked like. Surely, though, using fragile glass globes would be utterly daft: accidents happen, and the chances of breaking one or more during transport or arming would have to be rather high. Imagine some poor erk dropping one of these on his foot! And I can't see any reason why a modification of a normal explosive bomb couldn't be used (just as artillery shells were used to deliver gas), or perhaps something like a Livens canister (basically a big metal drum, with a small explosive charge to disperse the gas). I've only ever seen one other reference to the use of glass globes as bombs, by the Swiss biochemist and pacifist Gertrud Woker. But she was actually speaking of biological weapons. Anyway, judging from my notes, she gave no indication that she knew anything specific, merely claiming that it was probably how biological weapons would be delivered.2

So on the one hand, An Armament Expert has given an accurate description of the latest thing in incendiary bombs; on the other, an apparently completely made up one of the gas bomb of the next war. And he claimed to have seen both of these with his own eyes. Was he lying? Was he mistaken? Was he hoaxed? (Or am I wrong about the globes?) It's impossible to know, now, especially as his identity is unknown. But that very cloak of anonymity would have provided cover for a knowing fabrication. Taking liberties with the truth might have seem justified (to quote the rationale for the article given by the Daily Mail's leading article writer)

in order that our people may understand calmly the dangers which threaten, and insist on the country being put in a position to repel them, and if necessary to forestall them by seeking out the enemy and destroying him in his own country before he destroys ours.3

If you firmly believe that there's a threat to your nation which requires urgent action -- 'The position is quite clear. We have lost our air-power. We must get it back quickly'4 -- isn't a little sexing-up excusable? Well, no ... but if that is indeed what happened here (and I haven't shown that) it probably didn't hurt the Daily Mail and it definitely didn't stop it from a future career in serial exaggeration, as its increasingly ludicrous estimates of German air strength in the 1930s (I think peaking at 40,000 front-line aircraft) were to show.


  1. Daily Mail, 20 June 1922, pp. 9-10. All quotes taken from this article unless otherwise specified. 

  2. G. Woker, "Chemical and bacteriological warfare", in Inter-Parliamentary Union, What Would Be the Character of a New War? (London: P. S. King & Son, 1931). 

  3. Daily Mail, 20 June 1922, p. 8. 

  4. Ibid. 

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22 thoughts on “A not very possible fact

  1. Interesting article. I didn't know that Guernica bombing was a field of experimantation with new incendiary bombs. Legion Condor's operational testing of new aircraft is widely publicised, and it only would be logical if the Germans employed other new weapons in a similar manner. Willingness to try a new weapon in lifelike conditions could be another explanation to why Guernica was bombed in a seemingly one-off operation. Incendiaries were ment to set cities on fire.

    Anyway. the "experts" assumptions about thye efecitveness of electron incendiaries seem to be exagerated - this property of magnesium alloys must have been widely known at the time (?).

  2. Anon

    There were glass "bomb" fire extinguishers that were popular in that time, filled with carbon tetrachloride. The idea was that you threw them into the base of the fire where it would break open and the contents vapourise and extinguish the flame.

  3. Post author

    Martin:

    Yes, in fact an elektron, or at least the remains of one, was one of the early pieces of evidence that the Germans had bombed the city (I mention it here). My feeling about Guernica is that the Condor Legion was probably experimenting with the mix of HE, incendiary and fragmentation bombs, to see what the effects were, but did not intend it to be anything particularly different from other raids they had previously undertaken on other Republican-held towns. I wonder when elektron-type incendiaries were first actually used in combat? Presumably before 1937.

    Anon:

    Thanks, that's interesting. The globe thing did strike me as a rather pulpy science fiction device (to be thrown by a mad scientist, possibly while cackling with insane glee) so it's useful to know that they were indeed used to deliver chemicals, albeit for a rather different purpose.

    Roger:

    So all three then?

    Alex:

    LOL! Maybe the idea was that if it was hit, it would blind the night-vision scopes on the enemy tanks as it burned like a blowtorch ...

  4. A fictional version of the super-bomb scare is the 1922 one-act play "Progress" by St John Ervine, written for the Grand Guignol season of horror plays at the Little Theatre. It's about the meeting of a weapons scientist and a mother who lost her son in the war.
    The scientist, Professor Corrie, is extremely pleased with himself for perfecting the technique for making an incredibly destructive weapon. He says, "If I had made this discovery in 1914, the war would have been over before the end of that year, and there probably wouldn't be any Germans left now. They'd be an extinct race."
    The mother is horrified by what he is saying, and eventually murders him to prevent the bomb from becoming a reality.
    The bomb will destroy a whole city in minutes, and "at the same time will release a powerful spreading gas, without colour or smell, which will spread over a wide area and poison every person who inhales it. They won't know they've inhaled it until they see their bodies rotting." It sounds uncannily like a premonition of the atom bomb.

  5. Post author

    Interesting! I hadn't come across that one before. How does the bomb destroy a city? Is it just some super-explosive or is it actually an atomic bomb? Not that there was much of a distinction in pre-1945 fictional atom bombs; the danger of radiation and fall-out were not yet recognised.

    The effects of the gas as described are not out of line with those found in other fictional extrapolations between the wars (or even before the war). Which I think gives a clue to the special horror of gas warfare: blast and fire were horrible enough, but gas attacks the body directly, worms its way inside, corrupts from within. So there are all sorts of nasty, fictional gas weapons: ones which make you sterile, ones which melt your eyeballs, ones which consume your entire body and turn it to a pile of green sludge. These don't seem to have been so popular after 1945; I guess they couldn't measure up to radiation sickness and atomic mutants.

  6. Roger Todd

    George, I'd never heard of St John Irvine or his play - very interesting, thanks!

    As for the dangers of radiation and fallout, well, as ever, the redoutable Mr Wells had some inkling back in 1913/14, in 'The World Set Free' (which actually gave us the term 'atomic bomb'). His atomic war happens in 1959, whilst the novel is an account ostensibly written by some anonymous historian many years in the future after the war, from the vantage point of a World State. Although Wells's bomb relies on a fictitious element, 'Carolinum', and is a queer cove, being a 'continuing explosive', nevertheless, his descriptions of it in action convey something of the horror of 1945...

    "...these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them... As with all radio-active substances this Carolinum, though every seventeen days its power is halved, though constantly it diminishes towards the imperceptible, is never entirely exhausted, and to this day the battle-fields and bomb fields of that frantic time in human history are sprinkled with radiant matter, and so centres of inconvenient rays…”

    “For the whole world was flaring then into a monstrous phase of destruction. Power after Power about the armed globe sought to anticipate attack by aggression. They went to war in a delirium of panic, in order to use their bombs first. China and Japan had assailed Russia and destroyed Moscow, the United States had attacked Japan, India was in anarchistic revolt with Delhi a pit of fire spouting death and flame; the redoubtable King of the Balkans was mobilising. It must have seemed plain at last to every one in those days that the world was slipping headlong to anarchy. By the spring of 1959 from nearly two hundred centres, and every week added to their number, roared the unquenchable crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs…”

  7. Post author

    Yes, Wells came closest to the reality, but as you note his weapons are still strange compared with actual atomic bombs. Continuous explosives, which diminish in power by one half every 17 days (the half-life of "Carolinum") -- they're more like runaway reactors than super-bombs. (They even start sinking into the Earth, China syndrome-style.) On the one hand he does say that because of the mathematical nature of half-lives, the bombs would always be active, which does anticipate the idea of radioactive wastelands. On the other, as far as I can recall he doesn't have any notion of radiation damage to living tissue -- it's the fire and molten rock and steam which seems to do the killing -- so there are no long term physical consequences of the remaining bombs, they are merely 'inconvenient'.

    None of which is any criticism of Wells at all, of course, but is just offered as part of an explanation why pre-Hiroshima atomic bombs couldn't compete with the horrors of gas warfare. (Aside from the fact that one existed and the other didn't, yet ...)

  8. The Doctor

    Roger, the quote from ‘The World Set Free’ is interesting. You wouldn't happen to know when the half-life concept first arose & where.
    Mind you, anything with that short a half-life would be too dangerous and unstable to actually use in something with more lethality than watch dial!

  9. Post author

    It dates to 1902, when Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy worked out the law of radioactive decay. (This appears to be an excerpt of the paper.) The half-life is effectively a term in that formula. Wells dedicated The World Set Free to Soddy's Interpretation of Radium (1909), so that may be where Wells picked up the idea.

  10. Well, yes the Germans did not use poison gas against the British, but they had no qualms about using gas against the partisans who led the Warsaw uprising.

    Churchill largely ignored this reality--I guess the Poles, having broken the enigma code and participating in the Air War during the Battle of Britian--didn't count.

  11. Post author

    Sorry, I don't understand what your point is, or how it relates to the thread? Do you have a reference for the German use of gas in Warsaw (and do you mean 1943 or 1944?) In what way was Churchill 'ignoring this reality'?

  12. Pingback:

  13. Kai

    Hello,
    i just posted this elsewhere, but it fits .. all WW1 here:

    In Germany, the 2.2 lb "Electron bomb" was available for use in July 1918 or so i read. German bombers like those Gothas (maybe also airships?) were supposed to use them in August, especially for Paris, and already loaded up with them, but in the last minute the flights were cancelled, and this type of bomb was - as far as i know - not used for the rest of the war. For whatever reason - some state because of humanitarian reasons , others say it was only because of the fear of reprisals.

    It may well be that William 2nd threw in a veto, but then his influence had almost gone towards the end of the war, he became isolated from his own people after the third rejection of his peace offers, by the Entente, and chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg resigned. Germany was now almost led alone by the general staff, the politicians had been silenced.

    "Electron" consists of 90 percent Mg, and less than 10 percent Al. It is tightly pressed into a hollow cylinder, and usually filled with an explosive substance like thermite, and once burning it is a pretty nasty stuff.

    " ... the electron-thermite stick can be regarded as a weapon of terror, it is primarily suited for the mass-killing of civilians by suffocation, or burning, due to its planned operational area of densely built city cores. Any other tactical deployment is only useful in exceptions, since the weapon is not suited for the annihilation of isolated hard targets. Only the carpet bombing of large-area targets will provide an advantageous cost-benefit ratio ... "

    England developed its own version officially in 1936, and it was soon mass-produced by the "Imperial Chemical Industries". Nine years later the city of Dresden was at the receiving end of 650.000 of those Electron-Thermite sticks.
    So it seems this weapon was unknown to the british in WW1 ?

    Thanks and greetings,
    Kai

  14. Post author

    Thanks for your comment. No, Britain didn't have an equivalent of the elektron in WWI, though it had less effective forms of incendiary. Neil Hanson makes similar claims in First Blitz (London: Doubleday, 2008), that Germany was planning to use elektrons on a large scale against Paris and London in 1918 (he suggests they may actually have been used on Paris on 15 June 1918), only by Gothas and Giants. While Hanson has done a lot of primary source research, I find his book sloppy in many places. Do you have a better source?

  15. Roger

    Sorry to "necro-post", but I'd like to chime in with a few observations about the likelihood of the glass globe delivery mechanism (hereinafter GGDM.)

    You are right to say that very little seems to be pulicly known about experimentation with aerial delivery of CW agents between the wars. We do know that the UK eventually settled on spray nozzles (similar to modern crop dusters), but that was by the late 1930s; who knows what else they experimented with for the preceding 20 years, and for that matter, what the Germans tried?

    Your remarks about the practicality of glass globes seem reasonable at first glance, but actual experience shows the issue is not as bad as you might think. For one thing, for many centuries past and continuing today, it has been routine to store dangerous laboratory chemicals in glass. Breakage is a well-understood and manageable risk, while the glass provides an hermetic, extremely durable seal that most other practical materials cannot maintain in the presence of very reactive chemicals. Indeed, the choice of glass is so routine for dangerously toxic chemicals that a military chemist might consider it the only obvious choice.

    Additionally, we know that at least two frangible CBW /were/ used in WW2. The Japanese used porcelain "bombs" to deliver biological warfare agents. And in the UK, the No. 76 SIP incendiary grenade was a stoppered glass bottle filled with chemicals which spontaneously ignited in air, with emission of toxic fumes. Two models were issued, one intended to be thrown by hand, and the other to be projected from the Northover projector. As dangerous as it may sound, over 6 million were issued to the Home Guard.

    Clearly, such a device needs to be strong enough to be unlikely to break in transit, and yet frangible enough to easily break when thrown. For a hand-thown device this requires good quality control at the bottle-making plant, to strike exactly the right balance of weak enough to smash if thrown, but strong enough to bounce if dropped. The aerial version would actually be much simpler to manage: since practically any glass object is bound to smash to flinders upon hitting buildings or paved streets after a 10,000 foot fall, the globe can be made very strong indeed. The practical upper limit is simply to avoid losing too much dead weight to the glass.

    From the point of view of a nascent aerial CW program, glass bomblets present a lot of advantages over more complex devices. The presumed objective is to maximise casualties, which -- in the absence of precision aiming -- means maximising the area over which the gas concentration is lethal. Apart from choosing an agent that is highly lethal (but still practical in other regards), this in turn means two things:
    a) maximising the mass of agent delivered per unit weight of total payload; and
    b) getting an efficient spread, so that you don't end up massively over-killing some areas and missing others altogether.
    Both these objectives are easily achieved by the GGDM, and actually quite difficult to achieve with anything resembling a conventional bomb.

    Finally, some early WWI German chemical /artillery shells/ were construced in this way, so, why not bombs? See e.g.:
    http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/world-war-i-chemical-weapons-books-llc/1022361576#

  16. Post author

    No need to apologise, Roger, that's an extremely informative comment! What you say makes a lot of sense, and the German use of glass in gas shells in your last link is persuasive -- just as the first aerial bombs tended to be conventional artillery munitions (if not hand grenades), lightly adapted or not adapted at all, it's reasonable that the same process would happen with gas bombs. (Note that the book you link to is one of those collections of Wikipedia pages somebody is trying to fob off onto an unsuspecting audience; the original is here.)

    I'm still not convinced about the veracity of this account, though. The Blue Cross shells you refer to used glass bottles, not globes (see the diagram here, p. 41). Why would they use globes and not bottles? A sphere would be stronger and less likely to break than a bottle, but they were already handling gas in bottles and it seems like it would unnecessarily complicate the manufacturing process when they could just use bottles (though, having said that, presumably gas bombs weren't being made in their tens or hundreds of thousands, these could have been an experimental batch). So I accept that my dismissal of glass as a delivery system was ignorant and unjustified, but I'd want to see more evidence that it would have taken the form of globes. Perhaps An Armament Expert knew that the bombs used glass, but hadn't actually seen them and was just guessing as to their shape.

  17. ANON above has kindly solved a question I have had in the back of my mind the last 36 years!
    On our way to the Farnborough Air Show in 1977 my colleague and I had to overnight in Calais (which is not something I would recommend to anyone). I recall our finding fire extinguishers consisting of a tray of 6 glass balls in a tray on the window sill. The instructions pinned to the wall, which were illegible unless you had a light source with you started 'In the event of a fire, do not fall into a panic...' and then you were instructed to hurl them into the fire source.
    Reading up on carbon tet, I think it might have been just as clever to try not to use them!

    For years after that we would greet each other with 'do not fall into a panic'...

    Thanks ANON

  18. Post author

    Well, if you fall into a panic there's no telling what you might do!

    But your reference back to an earlier comment about fire extinguishers in the form of glass globes being common does suggest I was off base (again) in arguing that they were unlikely to have been used for gas bombs, as per my last comment. If the manufacturing capability already existed then that would be reason enough to adapt them in wartime, even if they weren't optimal. (But equally, bottles were also being used, so that capability also existed.) Ironically, one of the problems with this type of fire extinguisher is that carbon tet forms phosgene at high temperatures, which are not uncommon in fires. So carbon tet fire extinguishers were also, in effect, weak poison gas bombs.

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