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.
- Daily Mail, 20 June 1922, pp. 9-10. All quotes taken from this article unless otherwise specified.
- 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).
- Daily Mail, 20 June 1922, p. 8.
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