World War II Respirators and Equipment

The interwar years had provided Britain with a chance to improve further its respirator designs and to train its forces in the disciplines of anti-gas drills. Although chemical warfare had been banned by the Treaty of Versailles, by 1938 the British Government had started to prepare for the worst. The Munich crisis had clearly demonstrated Germany’s disregard for the Treaty, so the threat of gas being used once again on the battlefield became a very real possibility. As such, the development work at Porton Down was stepped up and the production of respirators was increased.

The same started to happen with the other countries of the British Empire. In the previous years, Britain had shared its anti-gas technology with the Commonwealth countries in an attempt to unify their standards. In 1927, both Australia and Canada sent teams to Porton Down to learn more about respirator manufacture and anti-gas equipment. The idea was for the Commonwealth countries to start manufacturing their own equipment, but to the same specs as the British. A lot of time was spent learning the same manufacturing and inspection methods, so that all new equipment would be identical and, if needs be, interchangeable. The Mk III GSR had by now been replaced by the Mk IV GSR and by the early 1930s Australia and Canada were both manufacturing identical copies of the British Mk IV GSR. To begin with, Britain supplied Australia with components that would be assembled into finished respirators. By 1937, Australia was able to produce all but two of the components, with only the laminated splinterless glass and the activated charcoal being supplied by Britain.


The Mk IV GSR was the standard-issue respirator carried by the BEF when war was declared in 1939. This particular example is dated 1938 and the filter container is painted in a brown/beige colour, quite typical of pre-war models.

It was predicted that Germany would use weapons similar to those used in the last war. However, unknown to Britain, Germany had happened across a far more deadly weapon – organophosphorus agents, also known as nerve gases. In case of an attack, Britain had also developed its own chemical weapons, which included ‘nitrogen Mustard Gas’, as well as perfecting the deployment of biological weapons such as anthrax. Fortunately, neither side used chemical weapons on the battlefield during the following war years.

The Mk IV General Service Respirator (GSR)

The Mk III GSR had helped to improve vastly the process of manufacturing moulded rubber facepieces. In 1926, it was replaced by the brand new Mk IV GSR, which would first see action in battle as the standard issue respirator of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1939.

Having originally been designed only for military use, the Mk IV GSR was quickly issued to specialist Civil Defence and Police units, with the threat of a gas attack looking ever more likely at the outbreak of World War II. Although heavier than the other civilian types being issued at the time, the Mk IV GSR would offer Police and Civil Defence wearers greater protection when their duties would require them to undertake strenuous or exhausting work in areas containing a higher concentration of gas for extended periods of time. The weight of the filter container was yet again alleviated by carrying it in a haversack in a similar fashion to that used by the SBR of World War I.

The respirator functioned in a similar fashion to the Mk III GSR, but with some significant improvements. As the user breathed in through the Mk IV GSR, air was drawn through the container, where all traces of war gas were removed by the filter container. This cleaned air then passed through a small metal valve in the neck of the filter container, travelled up the breather tube, then entered the facepiece at the bottom of the valve holder assembly. As the clean air entered the mask, the air stream divided into two and passed through moulded channels formed in the wall of the facepiece on either side of the valve holder. The two respective airflows were then directed over the eyepieces, therefore ensuring that the cool, dry, filtered air entering the mask was directed across the inside of the glass eyepieces, thus helping to prevent dimming due to condensation. As the wearer stopped breathing in, the small metal inlet valve in the neck of the container shut and locked a column of clean, fresh air in the breather tube. As the soldier breathed out, his breath passed freely through the outlet valve.


The speech diaphragm used in the Mk IV GSR was one of the main innovations that set it apart from the interwar Mk III GSR, allowing soldiers to speak whilst wearing the respirator. The ability to give audible commands on the battlefield during an attack was critical if a soldier was to carry on with his duties. Air is breathed in through the long breather hose and expelled through the green painted vent.

It was realized with the Mk III GSR that certain branches like the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and the Royal Artillery found it easier to wear the haversack mounted on the hip rather than the chest. Wearing it at the normal Alert position on the chest usually hindered the performance of their duties. A proposal to produce a long-hose Mk IV GSR, called the Mk IVa, was accepted and wearing the haversack on the left hip thus required the longer tube. The corrugated rubber breather tube measured roughly 11in (230mm) in length on the standard Mk IV. The Mk IVa was fitted with a 31in (787mm) hose and is more commonly known as the Long-Hose Mk IV amongst collectors.

The overall designs were incredibly efficient and ensured that Mk IV GSRs would see service right the way through World War II and remain in service with certain branches until the 1950s. The design was also copied by companies such as J.E. Baxter and Siebe-Gorman, which both produced civilian and industrial versions for use outside of the military.


The Mk IV facepiece was covered as per the Mk III using a tancoloured stockinet cover to offer the rubber protection from cuts or damage. The facepiece was manufactured using moulded rubber to provide an airtight seal around the face, with some of the very early facepieces being manufactured from red rubber instead of the later black. Early versions of the Mk IV had permanently fixed lenses, which had green-painted eyepiece bezels. Models after 1930 featured screw-type bezels, with the splinterless triplex glass lens being held in between two thin rubber gaskets and secured by a threaded retaining ring. This meant that damaged lenses could be replaced easily.


Replacing damaged lenses was made easier by using screw bezel eyepieces. Here we can just see the edge of the orange rubber gasket behind the lens, which ensures that a fully gas-tight seal is maintained.


All respirators were stamped by their respective manufacturers once they had been fully tested and were ready for dispatch. The faint outline of the military ‘broad arrow’ can be seen at the top left. The manufacturer’s name, ‘L&BR Co.’, indicates that this respirator was produced by Leyland & Birmingham Rubber Company. This mask is Normal size and its batch, or Lot, number is also displayed, meaning that if any faults were found during service, the faulty batch could quickly be withdrawn from service to undergo remedial work.

The front of the Mk IV also featured a cast-aluminium valve holder, fixed in the front of the rubber facepiece. The valve holder contained the air-outlet valve that had been redesigned to reduce the resistance felt when breathing out in order to make the mask more comfortable to wear and work in. The valve holder assembly also incorporated a clever device known as a speech diaphragm that would allow the user to speak reasonably clearly when wearing the mask. This feature was deemed necessary by the Army Council, having known of the chaos caused by gas attacks in World War I and the necessity of being able to communicate clearly with the troops in order to maintain control and order.

Facepieces were produced in three sizes: Small; Normal; and Large. The size name was moulded inside the facepiece between the eyes and also stamped on the outer of the facepiece (under the chin), along with the production batch ‘lot’ serial numbers.

When first issued, there was a common difficulty with the Mk IV, in that it could not be comfortably worn by all troops. Those with unusual contours of the head near the temples, soldiers who wore spectacles, or signallers who required the use of radios or telephones all needed a special facepiece. For this reason, three types of facepieces started to be produced: the standard Mk IV; the Mk IV Special T; and the Mk IV Special T-Mic.

The Mk IV Special T was produced in two sizes (Large and Small) and featured depressions at the temples, which allowed it to be worn by soldiers who wore spectacles or those with unusual head shapes. Other than this it was identical to the standard Mk IV.


The new six-point head harness offered far greater stability and support when being worn. The elastics were fully adjustable via individual clips.


This view shows the inside of the moulded facepiece. Visible here are the rear of the eyepieces and the inboard side of the breather assembly. Each facepiece was fitted and checked on each soldier to ensure that a sufficient gas-tight seal was maintained.

The Mk IV Special T-Mic was similar to the standard Mk IV, but instead came in four sizes: Extra Small; Small; Large; and Extra-Large. The T-Mic was specially developed to accommodate a radio microphone through the addition of a rubber boss positioned on the left-hand side of the facepiece. When not in use with a microphone, the mounting hole was plugged with a Bakelite cap held in place with a metal clip. The T-Mic could be used by both radio signallers and telephonists.

The production of three different types of facepiece was not very satisfactory, so Porton Down began trials in 1934 to find a single replacement, which would eventually be released as the Mk V. Both the Special T and Special T-Mic were produced in far fewer numbers, therefore are slightly rarer than the standard Mk IV GSR.

Fitting and Issuing of Respirators

To begin with, all soldiers were issued a Normal size respirator to try on. Before fitting, they would slacken off the head harness so that the ends were about 1in (25mm) away from the buckles. The respirator was then put on chin first, with the harness fitted around the back of the head. The elastics would then be tightened.

A trained instructor would then check the fit of the facepiece to each individual, ensuring that the eyes of the wearer appeared in the centre of each eyepiece, thus indicating a correct fit. If the eyes were lower than the centre of the eyepieces, the Normal size would be exchanged for a Small. If the eyes were much above, a Large would be issued.


This photograph, taken c.1934, shows two soldiers of a Vickers machine-gun crew wearing Mk IV GSR. Training in this manner ensured that (should the need arise) a soldier would not be fazed by having to carry out their normal duties whilst wearing their respirators. (Courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

The next stage was to test for gas-tightness around the face. The first basic check would be for the instructor to squeeze the breather tube whilst the soldier was wearing the respirator and then ask him to attempt to breathe in. If the facepiece was drawn into the face, a sufficient gas-tight seal had been achieved. Men would then be sent to test their masks in a tear-gas chamber as a final check that the respirator had been sized and fitted correctly.


After each respirator had been individually fitted to the wearer, the final check was for the wearer to test it inside a tear-gas chamber. As well as testing the tightness of the seal, the test also proves to the soldier that the respirator does actually work. This practice is still carried out by the British Army today as part of their chemical-warfare training. (Courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

Service Life

During service, the most serious causes of damage were:

water entering the container and affecting its efficiency

damage to the outlet valve, which might allow direct entry of gas into the facepiece

damage to the rubber facepiece or the elastic head harness

twisting of the breather pipe causing kinks that restricted airflow. Occasionally the service depots would fit the containers in a hurry at the wrong angle, causing the pipe to twist.

Inspections of respirators were carried out at frequent intervals by officers to ensure that each soldier’s kit remained in serviceable condition. Stretched head harnesses, cuts or damage to the facepiece would mean having to issue a new respirator. Cracks in eyepieces would not necessarily allow gas to enter the mask, but could obscure vision, so would need replacing. Small amounts of bubbling (caused by air entering between the triplex glass layers) were accepted so long as the air bubble did not obscure the soldier’s vision during wear.


The Mk IV Special T-Mic was the first attempt by the military to integrate a radio microphone into a respirator design. The facepiece featured a rubber moulded boss of the correct diameter to fit a radio microphone. The design was so successful that the later Mk V service mask would incorporate this feature into its standard design. This example is dated 1940, although versions dating back to the early 1930s are known to exist and are highly sought after.


When not in use, the microphone boss was sealed using a Bakelite bung, held in place using a steel clip.

More serious damage would mean the respirator having to be sent away to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) depot for servicing. However, most minor repairs could be carried out at unit level. These included:

replacement of head harnesses

Resticking stockinet covers to the facepieces

replacement of eyepieces

replacement of inlet valves

replacement of whipcord on the haversacks.

Facepieces were expected to be cleaned regularly and properly decontaminated twice a year, or every time the respirator was sent for servicing or changed owner.

Filter Containers

Many types of filter were used with the Mk IV GSR, although all worked to the same basic principles. Each filter container had blue asbestos filtering pads and the activated charcoal necessary to remove the poison gas. The activated charcoal was made from carbonized coal, wood or nutshell and treated using high-temperature steam. This was then further treated with chemicals specifically to target gases that could penetrate further into the filter. The process for the improved activation of charcoal had been patented by Messrs Sutcliffe Speakman, based in Leigh, England.

As with earlier respirators, the container was connected to the rubber facepiece by a long corrugated rubber breather tube. The design ensured that the breather tube would not only remain flexible, but that the corrugated profile of the tube would also prevent twisting and collapse of the tube, which could cause disruption to the airflow when in use. The corrugated rubber tube, which connected the filter container to the facepiece, was secured at one end to the neck of the filter container and at the other to the bottom of the valve holder assembly using a retaining wire and tightly bound canvas tape, which was then sealed with adhesive. The main manufacturer was Barringer, Wallis & Manners, a biscuit-container manufacturing company of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, which had produced containers for the World War I SBR.


Here again we see the manufacturer’s stamp under the chin of the facepiece. This size is a Large T-Mic and displays the Lot Number 867.


The Mk IVa Long Hose GSR was developed for use by the Royal Navy, RAF and gunners of the Royal Artillery, whose duties could be hindered by wearing the respirator haversack high on the chest. The longer breather hose allowed the haversack to be worn on the hip.

The arrangement of the contents varied between each type and is denoted by the letter and mark of the container. The following is a list of the most commonly used types:

Type A Up until 1939, troops were trained on respirators using the Type A container, featuring a circular inlet valve on the base. This container was similar in style to the SBR filter and designed so that troops could be trained in tear-gas chambers.


Mk IV respirator fitted with an early pattern Type A filter. (Courtesy of the Museum of Technology)


Training diagram from 1938 showing the components of the Mk IV respirator fitted with a Type A filter. A basic understanding of how the respirator functioned helped not only to give soldiers confidence in their kit, but also an understanding of how the respirator needed to be looked after. (Courtesy of David Morse)


This diagram shows the contents of the Type A container. Air enters the filter through an inlet valve in the container bottom, very similar in style to the early SBR filters.


This diagram shows the contents of the Type D container. Air enters the filter this time through two inlet valves in the top of the container. This design was an attempt to improve and extend the service life of the filter by exposing a larger portion of the activated charcoal to the war gases entering the filter.

Type D The Type D container had two inlet valves at the top. It was painted overall black with a distinguishing band of grey adhesive tape that sealed the top of the container to the body. Mk IV respirators with this container were originally issued with the World War I-style Mk I haversack. The wire platform in the haversack had to be removed to accommodate the container due to its length.

Type E The Type E container was basically an oval tin with an outlet tube at the top, with two inlet vents cut into one side close to the bottom of the container. Each inlet valve led directly into one diaphragm, containing two asbestos fibre pads in each one. The air then travelled through these and into a single diaphragm through a layer of charcoal granules and then through the last single diaphragm and finally to the breather tube. The container was attached to the breather tube with wire tied by a machine in the early stages. In 1938, the design was improved by replacing the wire with a clip that had a screw-fixed ring, which made replacement of the container easier in the field. On the base of the container was stamped the manufacturer, date of manufacture and also ‘No.4A’, which referred to the metal container style rather than the contents within it.

Type E Mk IV The Type E then proceeded to go through a series of subtle design improvements denoted by a mark number stamped on each container. The mark depended on the grade of the container’s contents. There are some examples of Type E containers with the date on the top section being later than the date on the base, which demonstrates that the date on the canister does not necessarily mean that is the filling date. There are also early issue No.4 containers of a buff colour dated 1939, with a paint-stamped date or a black line painted near the top of the canister.


Type E Mk IV container painted in early war beige paint. The Type E design was the one most commonly issued to troops during World War II. The filter container was ribbed to give it greater strength. The air inlet slits are located on the container sides to allow air to pass evenly over the filter elements.


Typical markings of a Type E filter container. This variant is the Mk IV and is clearly stamped with its date of manufacture, 1938. Most containers were produced by Barringer, Wallis & Manners Ltd of Mansfield, which also produced the filter containers for the SBR during World War I. Later versions were simply stamped with the company’s initials, BW&M Ltd.


This diagram shows the contents of the Type E container. Air enters the filter this time through side cut-outs near the base of the container. War gases are first filtered through blue asbestos pad filters and then through a dense activated charcoal mix. This style of filter was very successful and despite being modified, the filter layout remained the same across all the Type E variants.

Type EA Extension Filter In October 1939, Porton Down discovered that a captured German Army respirator provided up to ten times more protection against arsine smokes (arseniuretted hydrogen) than the Type E Mk IV container. Porton Down had not predicted the need for such a level of protection, as it had so far been unable to devise a method of deploying arsine gas on the battlefield in an effective manner, therefore assumed that the Germans could not do so either. It did, however, discover the problem in time before the BEF went to France in 1939 and so, to mitigate any risk, designed an extension piece for the respirator, known as the 1939 pattern Type EA. The additional filter container looked like an extra segment of the Type E IV and was designed to work in series with the basic E IV container. It was a priority order to begin production on 9 October 1939. The first batches went to troops already in the field and had to be applied as a local modification. To do this, the breather tube was cut between two central corrugations, with the ends pushed over the necks of the EA filter and secured at the top and bottom using steel wire.

However, it was soon discovered that for all the extra protection offered, the added filter created too many problems to continue as the standard for future models. For one, the haversack had to be worn lower to accommodate the extra length of hose, which caused the wearer difficulty when lying in the prone position. The extra length of the tube also caused the facepiece of the respirator to fall off when bending down and there was considerable increased resistance to breathing. Trials in November 1939 showed that if the hose was cut shorter, the haversack could be worn at the Alert position better, but overall the respirator would still not sit properly in the haversack. The Type EA filter was luckily short-lived, as an improved Type E canister was already approved ready to go into production.


This Mk IV GSR has been fitted with an additional Type EA smoke filter. This retrofitted filter is thought to only have been issued to certain units within the BEF in 1939. These filters are extremely rare nowadays, as many were left behind in France with the evacuation from Dunkirk. The additional EA filters did not massively improve the overall performance of the respirator and so were abandoned after only a short time in production.


Close-up of the additional EA smoke filter. The filter contains extra activated charcoal and an additional layer of cellulose wadding in order further to filter out arsine smokes. The increased resistance to breathing did not make them popular with the few units issued with them.


This Type E Mk V filter can be clearly identified by its light blue-grey paint. The design removed the need to fit the temporary Type EA filter. This example is dated 31 March 1941 and is stamped on the side ‘FOR PROTECTION AGAINST WAR GASES AND ARSENICAL SMOKES’.

Type E Mk V To allow room for the extra charcoal granules required for additional protection, the canister was made larger than the Mk IV, yet could still fit into the existing haversack. The Mk V was distinguishable by its size and new colour of light blue-grey. To indicate the reinforced protection, the words ‘FOR PROTECTION AGAINST WAR GASES AND ARSENICAL SMOKES’ were stamped on the container. January 1940 saw all previous containers removed from service and replaced with the Type E Mk V. Although better, the new container was still not reliable against arsine gases; what was needed was a canister that would give complete protection. This was provided by the final version, the Mk VI.

Type E Mk VI Identical in shape to the Type E Mk IV and only distinguishable by the new colour, brick red, the new Mk VI was brought into service in March 1940 and issued to all troops on the front line. In order to prevent the closure of the lower air-inlet slots as a result of a knock or blow, the Type E Mk VI container had a small bridge piece soldered over the inlet slot on the inside of the container to prevent it from being deformed. The Type E Mk VI remained in all theatres with no further development until the respirator was replaced by the Light Assault Respirator in 1943.


Here we see a sectionalized Type E Mk VI filter, painted in brick red and used for training purposes. The top level clearly shows the activated charcoal used to filter out the war gases. The base layer shows the blue asbestos sheets, the top two being contained within a metal diaphragm liner, where the air first enters the container. Dividing the two compartments is a layer of gauze and cellulose wool.


Shown here is a more unusual-looking Type F filter, a limited production experimental pattern filter, designed for protection against toxic smokes. All are pre-war dated, having only been manufactured between 1936–8. Not issued en masse by the military, many made their way into civilian service hands following the introduction of the improved Type E filters. (Courtesy of Haydn Gate)


This diagram shows the experimental Type F filter’s design. The idea was to increase airflow through the filter by incorporating a larger number of smaller inlet holes around the top and bottom of the filter container. Little is known about its contents and the design was not adopted en masse by the military.

Mk V Haversack

The new style of respirator now meant that the Mk I haversack was starting to show its age and was no longer suitable for the new General Service Respirators. Various trial patterns were created, resulting in a final design that would be known as the Mk V haversack. The Mk V was of a similar presentation to the Mk I, but had been redesigned to allow it to be worn in a number of different applications with little or no modification to its design. For the majority, the haversack would still be worn either ‘slung’ over the shoulder when off duty, or mounted high on the chest in the Alert position.

The new design dispensed with the leather tab of the Mk I used to shorten the sling for the Alert position, instead opting for a sling with two sliding buckles and a small fabric tab with a brass eyelet at the centre of the sling. The sling could be extended to the desired length for the ‘slung’ position and then left like this with no need to adjust the buckles again. When changing to the Alert position, the haversack was mounted high on the chest as with the Mk I, but this time the sling would stay its original length and be allowed to drop down the back of the soldier. The length of whipcord (another feature retained from the Mk I design) was then passed through the small brass hoop on the right-hand side of the haversack, up through the eyelet in the centre of the sling and tied to the similar brass hoop located on the left-hand side. When pulled tight, the long sling down the soldier’s back was pulled taut, fully retaining the haversack in position.


As with the SBR during World War I, soldiers during the early part of World War II wore their haversacks high up on the chest in the Alert position. In this case, this Mk V haversack has been cleaned using Blanco equipment cleaner, although only certain types of cleaner were actually authorized.


This typical soldier of the BEF is wearing the kit and equipment issued in 1939. The position of the haversack helped to reduce restriction to movement and meant that the respirator could be deployed quickly.


The Mk V haversack was a much-needed replacement for the ageing Mk I haversack, which was not well suited to the new Mk IV GSR. The haversack now had an extra third pocket in which personal anti-gas kit could be stored. The strap shows the two brass sliding buckles and the central brass-eyeleted tab for emergency shortening. This would be attached to the small brass hook visible at the side of the haversack. Shown here are the typical contents carried by a BEF soldier in 1939.


Whether or not the haversack was cleaned to match the soldier’s webbing usually depended on the officers or Company Sergeant Major in charge of each unit. In many cases, haversacks were left alone for fear of removing their waterproofing. Shown is a particular make of equipment cleaner produced by Pickering’s Ltd. The container states that this particular brand has been authorized for use on respirator haversacks.


This particular respirator and anti-gas kit belonged to a Major Williams who went over to France with the BEF in 1939 and later served in Palestine. The haversack came complete with 1939-dated anti-gas eyeshields, Ointment No.2 and the extremely rare Ointment No.1. Also included, but not shown in the haversack, was a postcard (the front of which has Hebrew writing) stating that Williams (by 1942 a Lieutenant Colonel) had passed his gas chamber test on 10 February 1942. An interesting and well-travelled collection of items.

Of course, this mounting method was fine when preparing to go on duty, but what if a soldier needed to get from the ‘slung’ position to the Alert position in a matter of seconds? Well, in this case, a small brass hook was provided that was attached to the point where the sling was attached to the corner of the haversack. Should a gas alarm be sounded, the sling was pulled down and the hook would engage the brass eyelet at the centre of the sling, a neat way of catering for both eventualities. Given the size of the filter and the extremely high degree of protection the respirator was designed to provide, this mounting arrangement offered the wearer the greatest possible freedom of movement.

Overall, the Mk V haversack had a greater internal volume in order to accommodate not only the GSR, but also the new personal anti-gas kit being developed, and so it featured an additional pocket inside. A small fabric tape sewn into the main compartment provided a facility to retain the newly issued anti-dimming outfit. The wire spring platform of the Mk I was fitted during trials of the new design, but was removed to reduce manufacturing time and cost with the introduction of the new Type E containers.

The Mk V was made from a waterproof canvas. To ensure that it would stay waterproof, haversacks would be regularly inspected for holes and that they were packed correctly. Restitching of haversacks could only be carried out by trained saddlers at the RAOC depot. If the haversack got dirty, cleaning was only permitted under special instruction. Haversacks could be cleaned using Mill Equipment Cleaner No.700 or Pickering’s Equipment Cleaner, Khaki Green. These types of cleaner (known as ‘Blanco’) were employed in a similar fashion to the cleaners used on a soldier’s webbing. Further treatment of the haversack would not only offer the canvas a greater degree of protection from the elements, but would also colour the haversack the same shade as the webbing, thus improving the uniformity of the soldier’s kit. This was usually down to the discretion of each unit’s officers and photographs of the BEF in 1939 show examples of both coated and uncoated haversacks. Scrubbing with water or cleaners other than those mentioned was forbidden, as it would remove the waterproofing of the haversack and also make it harder to decontaminate.

The Mk V General Service Respirator

The three separate facepieces of the Mk IV GSR were far from ideal – a standard facepiece was required that could be issued en masse. Essentially, the three facepieces were combined in order to create the Mk V GSR. A microphone boss was incorporated into the standard design and the stockinet cover removed. The stockinet was removed for two reasons: firstly, it made the Mk V GSR easier and cheaper to manufacture in a wartime economy; and, secondly, it made the respirator easier to decontaminate. Unfortunately, this means that it is harder to find clean examples of the Mk V respirator, as the facepieces are more easily damaged over time.

Because the size of the facepiece was more accommodating, the Mk V GSR was only produced in size Normal. This seems strange; however, the Mk V would not directly replace the Mk IV GSR, but instead would serve in parallel with it. For this reason, it is quite probable that any extreme cases could carry on being issued with the older Mk IV GSR as a stopgap measure.


The Mk V GSR, shown here with the red-painted Type E Mk VI filter. Unlike the Mk IV, the Mk V did not have a stockinet-covered facepiece and was better designed for production in a war economy.


Close-up view of the outlet assembly, similar in style to that of the Mk IV GSR. The central screw could be removed in order to clean or replace the speech diaphragm.


The left-hand side of the Mk V GSR permanently incorporated the microphone boss of the Mk IV T-Mic into its design. The boss could simply be cut open to facilitate the fitting of a microphone if required, otherwise it would remain redundant.


The side of the facepiece is embossed with the production date and manufacturer’s name. This example was made by Avon, January 1941.

The aluminium valve holder was again connected to the filter container via a corrugated rubber breather tube. The early production tubes had the same khaki stockinet cover as the Mk IVs, but from 1941 were removed and the masks were left as plain black rubber. As with the Mk IV GSR, a long-hose variant of the Mk V, known as the Mk Va, was also produced. Both came into service in 1940 and are commonly found fitted with the Type E Mk VI filter container painted in brick red.


The Type E container Mk VI painted in brick red. This type of filter is one of the most common to be used on GSRs during World War II. Many earlier Mk IV respirators were later refitted with this filter. The air-inlet slots are just visible at the side of the container.


This photograph shows the laboratory testing of GSRs in the search to improve the filter design. (Courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

Mk VI Haversack

By 1939, with another war with Germany looking ever more likely, more articles of anti-gas equipment had been developed. The Mk VI haversack was designed purely to accommodate all the additional personal anti-gas equipment (described later in this chapter) that needed storing with the respirator. Yet again, extra pockets were envisaged, although the exact number and their location was the source of much debate. Records from the National Archives describe how getting the Royal Navy, Army and the Royal Air Force to agree on a final design led to months of meetings and constant disagreement. All three did agree, however, that the additional pockets were most definitely required so as to store all of a soldier’s anti-gas equipment in one place, whilst not hindering access to the respirator. A lot of the disagreement came from the fact that the Army used the standard GSRs, whereas the Navy and the RAF tended to opt for the Long Hose variants, allowing the haversack to be worn on the hip.


Fitting respirator facepieces with the six-point head harnesses. The harness was held in place by small aluminium rivets. (Courtesy of Australian War Memorial)


These ladies are decontaminating used respirators after a training exercise. Here we can see a mix of both Mk IVs and Mk Vs. Also visible (second from the left) is the facepiece of the rare interwar Mk III, which can be identified by the flutter valve protruding from the air-outlet assembly. (Courtesy of Australian War Memorial)


Rear view of the Mk VI haversack showing the additional external pockets added to the back. Other than this, the construction was very similar to that of the Mk V. The slightly wider pocket was used to store the anti-gas eyeshield and the thinner pocket was for the Anti-Gas Ointment tin. The depth of the pockets did mean that it was difficult to retrieve the tin, which had usually worked its way down to the bottom of the pocket.


The Long Hose variant of the Mk V respirator, called the Mk Va, was produced and issued in the same manner as the Mk IVa respirator. Many Mk Va GSRs were issued to anti-aircraft batteries back in Britain, which were being operated by women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).

The initial proposal was simply to replace the internal pocket of the Mk V haversack with two external pockets. This idea was rejected by the Royal Navy and RAF, which required the internal pocket to store the long hose of the Mk Va respirator. Eventually a design was agreed upon whereby the internal pocket would be retained and the two additional pockets would be added to the outside of the haversack. The two pockets ran the whole length of the haversack, although it was discovered later that they were too deep for the Anti-Gas Ointment tin, which would get lost in the bottom of the pocket. The pockets had their own ‘flap’ to close them, meaning that the respirator could be used without disturbing the other equipment. An idea was proposed to produce a series of pockets that could be restitched to convert the previous Mk V haversacks. However, it was soon discovered that it was more cost-effective simply to make haversacks from new, so the project was abandoned. The Mk V would stay in service in the Royal Navy for a little while longer, as ships’ companies tended to have central stores of anti-gas equipment rather than individual issue. A modified version of the Mk V, called the Mk Va, was later issued, replacing the whipcord with a waist belt for wearing the haversack on the hip. The belt was made from the same canvas as the haversack and employed a belt buckle of the same design used on the 1937 soldiers’ webbing. The belt simply clipped to the brass hoops employed originally on the whipcord. A similar arrangement was devised for the Mk VI and unsurprisingly became known as the Mk VIa. These haversack and waist-belt combinations were only used with the Long Hose Mk V GSR and hence mainly by the Navy and RAF.

Mk VII Haversack

The next haversack development came in late 1940 in the form of the Mk VII. The first year of the war had brought home the realities of mass production in a war economy, so a simplified version of the Mk VI haversack was required. The first change was to reduce the amount of metal used in its construction, as steel and brass were required for much more important uses. The sling became permanently attached to the haversack so as to remove the brass hooks, which were replaced with basic alloy steel rings. Although the sling remained roughly the same as the Mk VI, the Mk VII version did away with the brass eyelet and hooks used to shorten the sling. Likewise, the brass loops used for tying the whipcord around the body were replaced in favour of a small steel alloy ‘wheel’, around which the whipcord could be wrapped. The whipcord was stowed in a small pouch on the left-hand side at the base of the haversack.


This ground crew Sergeant of the RAF is wearing a Long Hose Mk Va respirator, showing how the Mk VIa haversack was worn on the hip. For certain job roles, this arrangement was seen as a lot less restrictive than wearing the haversack mounted high on the chest like the Army.


The Long Hose featured a small brass hook halfway along its breather tube. This was designed to hook on to the brass buckle of the haversack, as shown.


The Mk VIa haversack was issued along with a waist belt, designed to hook on to the same loops used to hold the haversack on the chest when worn in the Alert position. The belt ensured that the haversack was kept into the soldier’s side and did not flap about when running.


This Long Hose Mk Va respirator has been stowed in a Mk VII haversack. The filter container is in the left compartment, the facepiece in the right and the extra-long hose is partly stored in the front compartment. The pressed steel ‘wheel’ used to wrap the whipcord around is visible on the left-hand side. It can be seen that the external pockets that were on the Mk VI haversack have been relocated inside. An additional smaller pocket is also visible, used to store the round tin of the Mk VI Anti-Dimming Outfit, which was permanently attached to the haversack via a string.

As well as reducing the amount of metalwork, the Mk VII also used less canvas. It did this by opting for a stronger, thicker material that was rot-proof. The design was highly efficient, especially considering that less canvas had been used despite the width of the haversack increasing to accommodate Mk IV T-Mic and Mk V respirators fitted with radio microphones. The stiffer canvas helped the Mk VII to retain a much more rigid shape and was quickly favoured by many Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) for its more uniformed appearance. The pre-coloured canvas also eliminated the need for cleaning with Blanco.

The internal layout of the haversack was revised, now moving the pockets used for anti-gas equipment from the outside to the inside, thus eliminating the need for the additional flap as used by the Mk VI. The internal pocket of the Mk VI was retained, as it was useful for stowing the gas brassard when not in use. The problem with the anti-gas kit pockets being too deep on the Mk VI was also solved on the Mk VII by simply adding a length of stitching halfway down to stop the ointment tin from falling to the bottom of the pocket. Finally, the waist-belt arrangement used on the Mk VIa for the Long Hose Mk IVa and Mk Va respirators was withdrawn from service due to the removal of the brass hoops to which it connected. From this point onwards, personnel of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force would instead use the whipcord to hold the haversack against the hip.

The Mk I, Mk II and Mk III Respirator, Anti-Gas, Light (or Lightweight Respirator)

Officially called the ‘Respirator, Anti-Gas, Light’, the Lightweight Respirator was intended to replace the GSR and become thenew standard issue to troops. The initial concept was proposedin 1938 and over the following years was developed by the team at Porton Down, initially being called the ‘Self-Contained Respirator’, or ‘Special Service Respirator’. The design was originally intended only for issue to commando units, paratroopers and tank crews, with all other units retaining the GSR. As the war progressed, the demand for a lighter respirator not only became a requirement for specialist units, but also by all arms of the forces. Thus, when finally released, the respirator was issued to all troops. Over the years, this has led to some militaria dealers referring to them as ‘Airborne Respirators’, although this is strictly speaking incorrect as they were released as the new standard for all front-line troops at the same time, although priority of issue may well have been to airborne and commando units.

As its name suggests, the main improvement was that the respirator was a lot lighter in weight, eliminating the heavy Type E filter container of the GSRs. The new filter was a lot smaller, which did mean that its service life was reduced. However, the easy screw-on filter design meant that filter changes were quicker and easier to do in the field (the Mk IV and V respirators had to be sent away for periodic replacement). The filter container was also more waterproof than its predecessors, although full immersion would still destroy it.

The filtration arrangement used in the lightweight filter was different to its predecessor in order to make the container more compact. The filter contained activated charcoal, as per the GSR Type E containers, but, instead of asbestos, the new filter used resin-impregnated wool, which, according to the manual, ‘functioned by means of an induced electrical charge on the resin’, in order to filter out potentially dangerous particles. Manufacturing these filters was more complicated than the previous filter, as the charcoal had to be both finer and activated to a higher spec to get more performance from its smaller volume. The resin-impregnated wool was also subject to a lot of testing, as the new material at first was too dense to breathe through.

The position of the filter was also changed, as the GSR hose was too restrictive and cumbersome for modern combat requirements. Therefore, the container position was relocated on the left-hand side of the respirator, giving a greater degree of freedom of movement and allowing the rifle to be fired from the right shoulder. Incoming air would therefore enter directly into the single chamber rather than around the exhale valve and up between the eyes, as with the previous respirators. Some left-handed prototype versions of the Lightweight are known to exist for those who found it easier firing the rifle left-handedly. They have the filter positioned on the right-hand side, but are extremely rare as they were not issued to troops, having failed to get past the development stages. Firing the rifle left-handedly was not something that the Army wished to advocate or encourage.


The Mk II Lightweight Respirator was a revolutionary design for the British Army, having done away with the long, heavy filter box of the GSR. The lightweight filter was deliberately positioned on the left-hand side to allow soldiers to fire the rifle from the right shoulder. Similarities can be seen between the Lightweight’s facepiece and that of the previous Mk V GSR.


Here we have a closer view of the speech diaphragm housing, also known amongst collectors as the ‘muzzle’. The Mk II featured a recessed ‘muzzle’. The Mk I had a boss in the centre of this recess that was done away with after trialling so as to simplify the design. The original Mk I needed the central boss to accommodate the old Mk V GSR speech diaphragm. This Mk II contained the new L2 diaphragm developed for much clearer speech and requiring less space.


Most Mk II Lightweights have their final date stamp located under the chin of the facepiece, as shown. This example is dated 16 August 1944. A broad arrow in a circle can be seen above it. Note how the muzzle cover is sealed to the facepiece using tapes coated with a rubber solution.

The facepiece was made in two halves, fused together with the head harness buckles being riveted to the edges. The new elastic used in the head harnesses had more rigidity and was much stronger than previous types. The head harness straps were held together with a canvas pad to save on rubber, which was now harder to obtain due to the Japanese taking over many of the rubber plantations in the Far East. As well as the other improvements, a modified version of the outlet valve used on the Mk V respirator, this time with a thinner membrane, was incorporated into the respirator’s design and helped to improve voice projection. Speech and visibility were tested by getting soldiers to read test cards into a microphone and measuring the sound levels. Once again, the eyepieces were the same as for the Mk V respirator and were made from laminated splinterless glass. Tests were also conducted to see whether the respirator could be worn in a variety of different scenarios, including being worn at night whilst driving.

The Mk I (also called the First Pattern or L1) was trialled in North Africa by selected units in 1942. These Mk I types can be identified by their outlet assembly (muzzle), which is the same as the Mk II (described later), but with a raised centre. These respirators are very rare and hardly ever appear for sale. Some final modifications were made to the Mk I prior to the Mk II being released for issue en masse. These were tested by completing 695 man-runs over an assault course in the presence of a lachrymator gas to test for leaks. The trial reports suggest that 11 per cent of minor leaks occurred during the test, but serious leaks were found in less than 1 per cent of the total man-runs. The British Mk V GSR and an American Light type respirator were also included in the trials for comparison. The British Lightweight Respirator was found to be superior to both, although on the grounds of comfort, the British Mk V GSR was favoured and the American Light type was the second choice.


The side of the respirator is embossed with the facepiece maker’s name, as it was with the Mk V GSR. In this example, the facepiece is dated July 1943 and manufacture was by the Leyland & Birmingham Rubber Co., thus proving how the date of individual components does not necessarily tie up with the date that the actual respirator was finished.


View on the inside of the Mk II facepiece. The filter inlet port can be seen on the left-hand side. The outlet and rear of the speech diaphragm can be seen positioned straight in front of the wearer’s mouth. Note also the yellow broad arrow stamp and the strengthening ribs moulded between the eyepieces.


As with the Mk V GSR, the Lightweight Respirator used a six-point head harness, although the design was again simplified for war production. The cloth pad at the rear was normally stamped with its own manufacture date.


The major breakthrough with the Lightweight was its new compact filter. Here we see two 1944-dated filters showing both the top (with the small inlet hole) and bottom (showing the thread that screws into the facepiece). Storage corks were issued with every filter and were to remain in place until ordered to be removed. These corks are often found to be missing today. Note the ribbon of the corks is stamped ‘JUN 44’ and also shows a broad arrow.


This Lightweight filter has been partially cut away to show the contents. The whitecoloured, resin-impregnated wool of the filter makes up the first layer, followed by the finer-grain activated charcoal of the second layer. Both are separated using expanded metal gauze.

Minor modifications to improve comfort were made, leading to the Mk II (or L2) being announced on 27 March 1943 by the Army Council and shortly thereafter issued to all combat troops. Introduction was slow at first; however, production numbers meant that this model was carried by all British troops landing on D-Day in June 1944. By the late summer of 1944, every soldier had been issued with a Lightweight Respirator. In rare occurrences, reports had come back from the field suggesting that the new rubber moulded facepiece could cause dermatitis for certain people with sensitive skin. The Army approached the various manufacturers to come up with a solution, with the result that a number of ‘safe’ facepieces were created using a different rubber composition. These facepieces were only produced in very limited numbers and can be identified by the word ‘DERM’ stamped inside the facepiece.


Lightweight filters were tested during development in order to establish what particles were capable of penetrating them. Reports suggest that, for unknown reasons, particles no smaller nor bigger than half a micron (0.0005 of a millimetre) penetrated the filter the most. After this was established, a range of gases was tested to see which had the most penetrating power. This original photograph of c.1943 shows a Mk II Lightweight respirator being tested under tropical conditions for use in the Pacific. (Courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

The Commonwealth countries also started producing their own versions of the respirator. The Australian Army even developed its own facepiece, similar in style to the British type, but camouflaged for use in the jungle. This was difficult to perfect at first, as colouring the rubber led to more problems with skin irritation when worn.


Here we see a Private of the 1st Batt Leicestershire Regiment in Holland, 1944. He is wearing the uniform and equipment typical of the unit at that time. The Lightweight Respirator’s compact design allowed greater freedom of movement to soldiers later in the war than was previously experienced by soldiers using the early GSR.


Close-up of the Mk II respirator being worn. Once it was issued, each man would be given an extra red dog tag that would remain permanently attached to the muzzle of the respirator, in case the wearer was unlucky enough to be killed in a chemical attack. The dog tags were made from rubberized asbestos, designed to be fire-retardant.


Unlike previous haversacks, the lightweight haversack was designed with webbing clips, allowing it to be fixed to the belt of the soldier’s webbing. The haversack was also provided with a shoulder strap so that it could be worn as per the previous haversacks.

The Mk II was eventually superseded by the Mk IIA and eventually the Mk III. The Mk IIA permanently took care of the dermatitis issue by employing a slightly different rubber composition and the Mk III saw the introduction of a new outlet assembly (or muzzle) design. The Mk III muzzle incorporated a screw thread on to the front of the breather and speech diaphragm, which was intended as a provision for use with a modified No.7 microphone. However, there is no evidence that the authors have found which suggests that such modified microphones were used on these respirators. Most manuals suggest that signallers in static positions retained the Mk IV T-Mic and Mk V respirators (permanently fitted with a microphone) and because the threat of gas use by the enemy after June 1944 seemed extremely unlikely, the War Department never developed microphones specifically for this respirator.

The Lightweight Respirator design was very innovative compared to the previous designs of respirator and, as such, was retained by the British Army long after the war had finished. In total, there were seven marks of Lightweight Respirator produced, each being a slight improvement on the previous one. It is very hard to tell individual types from each other, as the differences are extremely subtle. Because of its long service with British forces, it is also becoming very difficult to find fully original war-dated Lightweight Respirators. The main reason for this is that old marks of respirators were usually sent back to be upgraded and retrofitted with modern parts. Facepieces were designed to have an effective service life of fifteen years, so it is not uncommon to find 1944-dated facepieces fitted with 1950s-dated head harnesses and outlet assemblies. Some Mk II Lightweights during the war were also retrofitted with Mk III valve holders (usually stamped ‘L3’) with the mic thread attachment.


The Mk III respirator was a late war version introduced to incorporate a number of improvements to the design. The main difference from the Mk II is the new muzzle, incorporating a screw thread designed to accept a microphone.


Close-up view of the muzzle of the Mk III. The screw thread for accepting a microphone can be clearly seen, although evidence of the actual microphone attachment designed to be used on these respirators is unknown.


View inside the Mk III facepiece. The only noticeable difference that can be seen is the increased number of breather outlet holes in the rear of the speech diaphragm holder, designed to reduce exhalation resistance and improve the audibility of the wearer’s speech.


View on the right-hand side of the facepiece showing the eyepieces. As with the Mk V GSR, the size is embossed in the facepiece, in this example, Normal.

To add even more confusion for the collector, many World War II original respirators were also sold in the 1950s to the Danish Government for its Civil Defence units. The Danish purchased a variety of surplus respirators from numerous countries as a cost-effective way of kitting out their Civil Defence units. Respirators and haversacks sold to the Danish can usually be identified, having been restamped with a Danish crown and the letters ‘C.F.’ marked underneath them. The initials come from the Danish Civil Forsvaret, which literally translates as Civil Defence. Many of these masks are making their way back to Britain via militaria dealers, who are selling them as World War II respirators. In some cases, they are even sold with Danish filters fitted, or come with Danish user manuals.


During the 1960s, the Danish Government sought to kit out its Civil Defence units by buying surplus equipment at a reduced rate from other countries. Many wartime Lightweights were sold to the Danish and restamped with a red crown with the initials ‘C.F.’ Many of these respirators are finding their way back to the UK via the collectors’ market. Also shown here is a Danish user manual, describing the care and maintenance of the British Lightweight.

Technically speaking, the Lightweight Respirator was the last true gas mask, that is, a respirator solely developed for the removal of war gases. In the late 1960s, the new Service Respirator Mk 6, known more commonly as the SR6, replaced the Light-weight Respirator, which was subsequently withdrawn from service. Post-war tensions with the Soviet Union, plus the increased threat of nuclear attacks, called for a new type of respirator to be developed to cater not only for chemical weapons, but also nuclear and biological ones.

Lightweight Haversack

The reduced size of the Lightweight Respirator also meant that there were lots of opportunities to remove material, cost and production time from the haversack design. The new haversack (officially called the Light Mk II) was made from the same gauge canvas as the Mk VII haversack and was additionally treated to ensure that it remained rot-proof. The new design was a simple box-shaped haversack with two external pockets, just the right size to house the anti-gas ointment tin in one and a handful of cotton waste (used to soak up blister-gas liquid) in the other. Inside the haversack, a large flat pocket to house anti-gas eyeshields and gas brassards was included, as was a small pocket in the base of the haversack used to secure the small round Mk VI Anti-Dimming Outfit.

A thinner shoulder strap was provided with the haversack, as were a pair of brass loops that could have whipcord attached to them for tying the haversack close to the body (these were rarely used). A set of belt attachments was provided at the back of the haversack, allowing soldiers to mount the haversack directly on to their webbing belts. When this was done, the shoulder strap could be removed, rolled up and stowed in the bottom of the haversack using a small white strap with a press stud. The lid of the haversack was secured using a webbing pull tab with a brass end through a metal loop attached to the main body. Later editions used alloy metal in place of brass. The whole arrangement was very compact and efficient and would stay in use with the Army well into the post-war years.


Here we see the typical contents of a soldier’s respirator haversack from 1944. As well as the respirator and filter, each haversack would contain: a packet of anti-gas eyeshields; a Mk VI Anti-Dimming Outfit; a blue tin of Anti-Gas Ointment No.5; and a handful of cotton waste. Filter storage corks were to be fitted at all times to prevent the filter from being damaged by water when not being worn.


View inside the lid/flap of the haversack showing the maker’s stamps. This example is stamped with the haversack mark and the date of manufacture (January 1944).


View looking inside the haversack, fully packed but with the respirator and filter removed. Here we can see how the anti-gas eyeshields were stored at the back of the haversack in their dedicated pocket. In the base of the haversack, a small pocket was provided in which the Mk VI Anti-Dimming Outfit was stowed. A strap with a press stud was also provided and used to store the haversack’s shoulder strap when not fitted.


The sides of the Lightweight haversack featured two pockets. One pocket would contain the first of the ointment tins issued per man (the other tin was stored in the gas cape pocket). The second pocket was used to store a handful of cotton waste used to soak up gas spray should it fall upon the soldier’s skin, weapon or clothing.


Typical contents of a Lightweight haversack used in Burma in 1945. A dark-green version of the haversack, made from a rot-proof canvas, was specially produced for tropical climates. Also note the green tin of No.6 Anti-Gas Ointment marked ‘Tropical Pack’, specifically developed for use in countries with higher ambient temperatures and humidity.

Other Anti-Gas Equipment (1939–45)

In October 1937, the Chemical Defence Establishment Porton Down suggested that future warfare would see more use of blistering gases, being sprayed from overhead aircraft. At the time, little progression had been made in the way of producing better personal anti-gas equipment to protect ground forces. A blister-gas attack could potentially leave thousands of soldiers unable to carry out their normal activities and they would be in no fit state to fight. For this reason, each soldier by 1939 was issued with not only a respirator and haversack, but also the following items of anti-gas equipment: anti-gas eyeshields; anti-gas cape; gas sleeve detectors; anti-gas ointment; anti-dimming outfit; and cotton waste. In addition, officers and NCOs would carry one pad of ground gas detectors (detector papers). Because eyeshields, gas capes and gas sleeve detectors were primarily issued to protect against blister agents released as spray from aircraft, they were encouraged to be worn habitually when in the field during the early part of the war.

Over time, these anti-gas items have become collectable, along with the respirators that they were used in conjunction with. The following section describes this World War II personal anti-gas equipment in more detail.

Anti-Gas Ointments

Having learnt from the experiences of Mustard Gas during World War I, a series of anti-gas ointments was developed to help protect soldiers from blistering gases. The idea behind the anti-gas ointment was to provide a compound that could be used by a soldier in two ways: either as a Preventative (applied in anticipation of an attack to offer protection); or as a Curative (applied to a burn to reduce burns and blistering). Like most blister-gas antidotes, it relied upon a strong alkaline content to neutralize the acidic gas. Not only could the ointment be used to protect human skin, it could also be applied to weapons and equipment in order to decontaminate them after an attack. For this reason, two anti-gas ointment tins were issued per man, one kept with the respirator in the haversack and the other in the anti-gas cape. Nearly all the tins are made by the Metal Box Co. (sometimes stamped ‘M.B.’, or the factory code, No.12) and the ointment was predominantly made by British Drug Houses consortium (sometimes stamped ‘B.D.H.’).

The following is a list of the most common types issued from1939–45:

Anti-Gas Ointment No.1 This was the first type of ointment, supplied in a round 2oz (57g) tin with a paper label on the lid.


Anti-Gas Ointment No.1 was the first blister-gas ointment to be issued to the Army. Supplied in 2oz (57g) tins, it marked a milestone in personal anti-gas protection. It is believed only to have been manufactured during a few months prior to World War II, so tins like this are now extremely rare and highly collectable.

Believed to have been issued only for a limited time during 1939, the base ingredients of Anti-Gas Ointment No.1 started as a white mineral jelly and bleaching powder. Most of these tins were retained and disposed of by the Army, therefore are extremely rare.

Anti-Gas Ointment No.2 This type of ointment was the most popularly used during the war and could even be privately purchased by civilians in their local pharmacy. Initially supplied in glass jars (sometimes brown glass, sometimes white), but later supplied in flat rectangular tins containing eight lead tubes. This format would remain the standard for all later versions. Each tube and tin was painted a cream colour with ‘No.2 Anti-Gas Ointment’ written on it. The glass jars issued to the Army during the months prior to the start of the war carried on being issued to the Police and civilian organizations such as the ARP whilst the tins were issued in the armed forces.

The ointment consisted of a mixture of Chloramine-T and vanishing cream (an oil-in-water emulsion consisting of a stearic acid, an alkali, polyol and water). The date of filling is always stamped with ink on the inside of the lid. Some manufacturers of the compound mix included: Boots (Nottingham); the British Drug Houses (London); Co-operative Wholesale Society Drug Works (Manchester); Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd (London); and County Perfumery Co. Ltd (London), which incidentally created Brylcreem in 1928.

Anti-Gas Ointment No.3 No.3 Anti-Gas Ointment came in a grey tin. Tubes were no longer painted or labelled, but instead were plain for war economy, simply being produced with a name band on each tube stating that it contained No.3 Ointment. As well as this, the effectiveness of the ointment had been improved.

Anti-Gas Ointment No.3a The No.3a ointment came in a grey tin with ‘TROPICAL PACK’ written diagonally across the front in red. The tubes were plain and not marked for this pack. This was the first ointment specifically developed for use in the tropics. Work with the Australian chemical warfare labs had revealed that the normal anti-gas ointment was no good under tropical conditions. This was because Mustard Gas was found to be at least four times as effective at climates greater than 32°C with a relative humidity greater than 80 per cent. At these temperatures, Mustard Gas burns could develop in a matter of seconds, rather than minutes. The chemical make-up of the paste appeared to be based on a captured Japanese ointment, although neither performed well when tested.

Anti-Gas Ointment No.5 There is little evidence showing that there was an Anti-Gas Ointment No.4; instead, the next issue was No.5. This was issued in blue tins, once again with unlabelled tubes. Half-tins containing four tubes rather than eight tubes do appear sometimes, although they are rare. The standard eight-tube tins were issued prior to the D-Day Landings in 1944.

Anti-Gas Ointment No.6 This ointment was issued in a green tin with plain tubes. It was made from mid to late 1944 onwards. Details of improvements are unknown.

Anti-Gas Ointment No.6a This came in a green tin and was used for tropical climates only. It was made from 1945 onwards. The pack was stamped ‘FOR TEMPORATE AND TROPICAL USE’ in red lettering printed under the tin’s identification text. The temperate and tropical contents were similar to those of the normal tubes, with the addition of another white mineral jelly that provided long periods of storage. Unlike Anti-Gas Ointment No.3a, No.6a was far more effective at treating burns in tropical climates. Many tins continued to be produced post-war for use in Burma and Malaya.


During the war years, numerous versions of anti-gas ointment were developed. This picture shows the main types. From left to right: Anti-Gas Ointment No.2 (round glass jar, yellow lid), pre-war; Anti-Gas Ointment No.2 (yellow tin), 1939; Anti-Gas Ointment No.3 (grey tin), 1941; Anti-Gas Ointment No.3a (grey tin with ‘Tropical Pack’ stamped in red), 1942; Anti-Gas Ointment No.5 (blue tin), 1944; Anti-Gas Ointment No.6 (green tin), 1945; Anti-Gas Ointment No.6a Tropical (green tin with ‘Tropical Pack’ stamped in red), 1945.


Rear view of Anti-Gas Ointment No.2, showing the usage instructions. This text and explanatory diagram stayed consistent on all following variants.


This image shows how anti-gas ointment would be applied to a blister. This particular photograph was taken during the live testing of the No.2 Ointment during its trial stages and is being applied to a real Mustard Gas burn. (Courtesy of Australian War Memorial)


Although individual anti-gas ointment outfits were issued to each infantryman, other areas of the armed forces were issued with large stoneware jars filled with it. These tended to be issued to ships’ companies, vehicle teams or gun crews. This particular example contained Anti-Gas Ointment No.5. (Courtesy of the Museum of Technology)

Cotton Waste

Cotton waste was issued in order to mop up blister-gas spray before applying anti-gas ointment. It is quite literally cotton thread, off bobbins or offcuts, and is a by-product of spinning-mill operations. Cotton waste was issued at 1oz (28g) per man to be broken up into small swabs. One half of the cotton waste was carried in the respirator haversack and the other half in the cape pocket. In each case, half the swab was placed under the ointment tin, with the remainder on top, ready for immediate use.

Anti-Dimming Outfits

The problem of respirator lenses dimming during World War I had led to the development of Glasso Anti-Dimming Paste, an oil paste smeared over the lenses to prevent condensation buildup on the eyepieces. The main basis of most anti-dimming compounds was Turkey Red Oil, a sulphonated castor oil. In 1938, two new types of anti-dimming samples were tested by the Admiralty: Liquid (G1) and Paste (P1). G1was a brown, alcohol–water solution, which, according to the Admiralty report, consisted of soda-neutralized sulphonated fatty oil dispersed in a solvent. P1 consisted of a soft brown paste and was the same sulphonated oil, but made into a paste with alcohol.


Shown here is a variety of anti-dimming outfits. The bottom outfit is a Mk III produced by Barringer, Wallis and Manners Ltd, dated 1940. The two middle ones are both variants of the Mk V outfit (one dated 1936 and the other 1940), the most common type issued during the war. The top outfit is a Mk 7 dated 1952, which carried on being produced right the way through until the 1980s. The Mk 7 is included in this photo purely to demonstrate how little the design and style changed over fifty years of production.

The anti-dimming efficiency of each compound was tested using a machine that replicated human breathing by blowing an airstream, saturated with water at 25°C, on to one side of an eyepiece treated with the compound, with the other side of the glass lens being cooled to 8–10°C. The results revealed that both gave satisfactory visibility for a period of one hour plus. The paste gave a slightly better performance, as it did not dry out so quickly. Various testing continued throughout the interwar years, but the Turkey Red Oil always yielded the best results, so was used as the basis for the anti-dimming outfits issued throughout the war. The compound was improved so that the Turkey Red Oil was mixed with an undiluted ‘water glass’, a name given to a compound containing sodium oxide and silica (silicon dioxide). Sulphuric acid was also added for neutralization to prevent the compound from corroding the metal rims of the respirator eyepieces. Many companies submitted their own compounds for testing and trialling with varying degrees of success, including Kleeneze Super Products Ltd.


One end of the tube would contain a plain white cleaning cloth and the other end would contain the anti-dimming compound, which was normally painted red for easy identification. Both ends were fitted with screw-on lids, fitted with a cork gasket to prevent the entry of moisture.


Shown here is the Mk VI Anti-Dimming Outfit, most commonly found on the inside of the Mk VII haversack via a length of cord attached to the lid. The haversack included an extra pocket specifically to contain the tin. The cloth this time had instructions printed on its face as well as on the outfit’s lid. This particular example is dated 1942. These anti-dimming outfits were also used with the Lightweight Respirator and were stored in a pocket at the bottom of the haversack.

With the compound decided upon, the idea was to issue each respirator with an anti-dimming outfit that would be used to clean the respirator lenses every time the respirator was used or removed so that it was ready to wear on the next occasion. The anti-dimming outfit went through four marks (Mk III, Mk IV, Mk V and Mk VI) during the period of 1939–45, although the main reason for this was more to do with changing the compound manufacturer rather than changes in the chemical mixture. The difference between each mark is not totally clear, as there are some Mk III Outfits that appear to be dated later than some of the later Mk V examples.

The Mk III, IV and V Outfits were all small green-coloured tubes with a screw lid at either end. One end of the tube contained the anti-dimming compound, while the other end contained a lint-free cloth used to apply the compound to the respirator eyepiece. These cylindrical tube types tended to be used with the Mk IV and V GSRs. The Mk VI Outfit, which instead of being cylindrical was a flat, round tin, contained a cloth that had been pre-treated with an alcohol solution. The eyepiece had to be wetted before the cloth was used. When not in use, the lid of the Mk VI tin had to be screwed down tight to prevent the cleaning solution from evaporating. The Mk VI Outfit was used predominantly with the Mk V GSR and the later Lightweight type.

Anti-Gas Eyeshields

Eyeshields were a simple plastic visor designed to protect the eyes from gas spray. Although overall the design stayed very similar over the course of the war, there were three subsequent types issued: Mk I; Mk II; and Mk III. The Gas Training 1942 manual states that eyeshields should be worn at all times along with sleeve detectors when not under cover and that one pack was issued to each man. Each pack contained six eyeshields, with three being clear and three being tinted. The Mk I shields came in a very basic light-brown cardboard packet simply displaying the item’s name.

The Mk II packet was changed to include basic decontamination instructions and was printed left to right on the front, with the opening on the right of the packet. The Mk III had the same, but printed in the vertical orientation. The instructions for decontamination followed a common procedure known as ‘COECDO’: Cotton waste, Ointment, Eyeshields, Clothing, Detectors and weapons and finally Ointment again.


Demonstrating how the anti-gas eyeshields were worn in the field. Early anti-gas training manuals recommended that troops should habitually wear the eyeshields when out in the open. Towards the end of the war, many troops had either discarded them, or left them in their haversack having never used them.


Mk II anti-gas eyeshields and their original cardboard container, dated 1942. Each packet contained six eyeshields, each packed in brown paper to prevent them from sticking to one another, usually caused by the protective oil used on the brow shield at the top.

The eyeshields were made of acetate and had a plain edge across the top, on to which a waxed fabric was glued along with two female press studs and an elasticated headband. To stop the waxed fabric from sticking, each eyeshield was separated from the next by brown paper. The acetate lenses on all marks have two male press studs at the top corner, for bending and fastening to the female on the fabric. Behind the acetate lens is a felt pad held in place with three staples. The headband came in two types – one made from two sections of elastic joined together with a ring and an adjustment buckle on the right, while the other had a hook and eye fastening. Most headbands had the maker’s initials and a number then a date printed in white on the left-hand section of elastic. Most eyeshields date from 1941 up until 1944 and many can be found with post-war paper inventory labels showing they were retained in service until the mid-1950s.


1944-dated packet of Mk III anti-gas eyeshields. The instructions for decontamination are printed on the front of the cardboard sleeve. The square paper label on the front of the packet is where the eyeshields have been reissued in 1953. The eyeshields did not have a specified shelf life, so were simply inspected periodically to ensure that they were still in serviceable condition.

Gas Rattles

A wooden rattle was issued to every platoon and every equivalent subunit HQ to warn everyone if gas was detected by a gas sentry. The gas sentry was a soldier specifically posted to check for gas around the platoon’s camp or harbour point. It was a throwback to World War I and the position became fairly insignificant by 1944 as it was apparent that gas was not going to be used. Larger camps would be issued with hand-operated sirens, a continuous blast of which would be used to warn of a gas attack.


This 1939-dated example of an anti-gas rattle is typical of the style used during World War II. Unlike earlier versions, these rattles were a lot wider and were fitted with a metal panel to increase sound levels. Clean examples like this can still be found, although many were painted and used by football supporters post-war.

Anti-Gas Capes, Covers and Boots

Anti-gas capes were developed to provide protection against blister gases, with one being issued to each man. Early war types were brown, while later ones were green in colour. In an attack, the cape was capable of withstanding blister gas for up to forty-five minutes if left contaminated. The term anti-gas cape is rather misleading, as the actual design incorporated sleeves, allowing it to be worn as an overcoat on top of the soldier’s kit. The cape was made from oilskin with press studs down the front and at the neck. Attached to the cape were two white tapes that would allow it to be rolled up in readiness, and, during the early war years, it was secured on the top of the soldier’s webbing when not being worn.


This is the typical equipment worn by the BEF in 1939 when gas was considered a very likely threat. As the war progressed, the threat of gas seemed ever less likely, so the amount of anti-gas kit carried by each soldier was reduced to the bare essentials. This soldier is wearing his haversack with Mk IV respirator in the Alert position, gas cape worn rolled up on the top of his webbing and his anti-gas brassard. Note the white tapes used to hold the gas cape in place behind the head. This arrangement meant that the gas cape could be deployed in a matter of seconds if needed.


Close-up of the anti-gas cape resting on top of the soldier’s webbing.


Soldier wearing the anti-gas cape, showing the large panel in the back, allowing it to be worn over the top of the soldier’s webbing. A pocket in the front of the cape was used to store the second tin of anti-gas ointment issued.


Original photograph showing the full anti-gas suit being worn, including: anti-gas cape; anti-gas boots; and helmet cover. Notice that this soldier is wearing a Long Hose Mk IVa GSR fitted with the additional Type EA filter.


Anti-gas boots were designed to be worn as part of the anti-gas suit, along with the gas cape. These over-boots were very basic in design, made from rubber and worn over the top of the soldier’s normal boots. They were very burdensome to wear and restricted movement.


Protective Dubbin No.1, produced by Carr & Day & Martin, was formulated to offer a soldier’s ammo-boots protection against vesicant blister-gas spray.

Later in the war, the gas cape was rolled up and simply tied to the soldier’s webbing belt. A pocket at the front of the cape was designed to hold the second tin of issued anti-gas ointment and a handful of cotton waste used to soak up blister-gas liquid. Two press studs were also fixed to the bottom edge of the cape, allowing it to be pinned back when marching. The use of oilskin to protect against blister gas was originally trialled during the latter years of World War I. The anti-gas cape of World War II was an improved oilskin, further impregnated with a chemical known by its codename ‘anti-verm’, which was specifically designed to help neutralize blister gas.

As well as the anti-gas cape, helmet covers made from a similar material were also issued, along with a pair of rubber over-boots. When worn together, the uniform was known as the ‘Anti-Gas Suit, Light’ and was usually worn by gas sentries when on duty.

Anti-gas bags, also made from the same material as the gas cape, were issued to units and vehicle crews so that contaminated clothing could be bagged up and sent away for cleaning. Each bag was large enough to contain six complete Anti-Gas Suits, Light.

Respirator Spectacles

Wearing spectacles with the SBR of World War I was not so much of a problem due to its baggy facepiece, but it was much more difficult with the new respirator because of its moulded rubber facepiece. On 28 February 1938, a meeting was held in London to discuss the proposal for a new design of spectacles designed for wearing under a respirator. Attending this meeting were representatives from all branches of the armed services, including some ophthalmic specialists from each organization. It was decided that work on ‘respirator spectacles’ should be carried out by the Chemical Defence Research Department at Porton Down in order to develop side-members of the frame that were flexible enough to be worn underneath the respirator facepiece. Trials were completed using a few handmade spectacle frames until a final design was decided upon. The trialling of frame side-members involved looking into the hardness and flexibility of various metal alloys that would be tough enough to withstand service in the field.

The final frame design was made from white metal with circular eyepieces and with the side-members being approximately 3in (76mm) long. The side-members were flattened along the length to fit closely to the side of the head and give a gas-tight seal where they passed out from the side of the facepiece. The earpieces were tubular and flexible to grip behind the ears. The nose bridge was made narrow, with the nose grips being made from one piece of white metal with elongated teardrop-shaped ends. The nose bridge would be stamped with the maker’s name.

All tests were carried out with the new design of frame and side-members, using plain lenses, on Mk IV GSRs and it was found that soldiers were able to operate effectively in a gas environment. A design was eventually chosen and a bulk order placed, ensuring that the design would become the standard across the armed forces.

It was decided that four sizes of spectacles were needed to cover all extremes. A development designer by the name of Mr Newbold came up with a special measuring device that enabled medical officers to choose the correct size of frame for each individual soldier. It was estimated that about 200 of these measuring devices would be needed by all the services. Medical officers were kitted out with the necessary tools for the fitting and final adjustment of the frames. These consisted of two patterns of pliers used for minor adjustment of the frame to ensure comfort and a gas-tight fit on the individual.

By the end of 1938, most soldiers who required spectacles had been issued with two pairs; one was worn and the other carried in a stout case. A slight change to the design of the side-members in December 1938 meant that one pair of the two issued would need exchanging. By 1939, the new spectacles had been issued en masse to all troops who required them. Some of the main manufacturers were: United Kingdom Optical Co. (London); Hadley Co. (Surrey); and M. Wiseman and Co. (London).


Here we see the standard-issue respirator glasses being worn. The glasses were made with flexible side-members, allowing the respirator to be easily worn over the top of them. It was not until the late 1960s that respirators were purposely made with fittings in them, allowing a set of prescription-corrective lenses to remain permanently mounted inside the respirator’s facepiece.


Here we see the respirator glasses in their original issue case. The label inside the lid reads: ‘This spectacle frame is designed for ordinary use and for use when wearing a respirator. When the respirator is fitted the spectacle sides are adjusted to the correct setting for the wearer’s face. Care must be taken to keep the sides at the correct setting, otherwise gas may leak in when the respirator is worn. If in any doubt as to the fitting of the spectacles the matter should be reported to the medical officer.’

Gas Detection Methods

In order to give soldiers the best chances of survival, a series of gas-detection methods were developed to give an early warning to troops. The following were the most common types.

Gas Brassards

Officially known as ‘Detector, Gas, Individual, or sometimes referred to as ‘sleeve detectors’, the gas brassard was worn on the arm and was made from a stiff brown paper coated in a chemical that would turn red if blister-gas spray landed on it. To begin with, two pairs were issued per man, one pair worn and the second pair to be carried in the respirator haversack. NCOs wore one detector only on the left arm, badges of rank on the right arm thereby remaining visible. The gas brassard was used throughout the war, but ceased to be worn habitually after D-Day as it hindered movement.


Gas brassards (sometime called ‘sleeve detectors’) were issued two per man and one per NCO. They were held around the arm and additionally secured at the top of the sleeve using a loop of material that sat around the epaulette of the soldier’s battledress jacket. The brown paper would show bright red spots if gas vapour was present in the air. When not in use, the brassard was stored in either the pocket of the GSR’s haversack, or in the bottom of the Lightweight Respirator’s haversack.


This is a Pocket Vapour Detector Kit, a tin containing an array of detector papers used to check liquids suspected of being blistering agents. These kits were issued during the early part of the war to gas sentries, men whose main responsibility was to keep watch for suspected gas attacks. The kit was also issued with a small pump, used to take vapour samples from the air.

Vehicle Equipment

All vehicle units in 1939 were issued with vehicle detector paint, normally yellow in colour but which would turn red if gas was present. A square was painted measuring roughly 18sq in (11,600sq mm), usually on the bonnet or a place where the 60 driver could see it. Some aircraft during the early part of the war also received a similar square patch on the wings. After being decontaminated, the painted square had to be cleaned off using paraffin before it could be repainted again. Each vehicle would normally carry a large container of bleaching powder (antigas ointment) that was used for decontamination.

Unit Gas Detectors

These basic gas detectors were normally carried by unit transport and would be sited around areas where the unit had dug in. Obviously the logistics of this and the fast movement of front lines meant that they were abandoned pretty early in the war, although many did remain in use around larger permanent camps. The detectors were basically metal frames containing slots into which detector papers could be fitted. Two pads of detector papers were issued with every frame. Depending on the camp size, the frames would be positioned every 50–80yd (46–73m) and checked by the gas sentries at regular intervals.

Warning Signs

To warn of areas contaminated with gas spray, warning signs were carried by unit transport when gas attacks were suspected. Gas warning signs were made from steel cut into triangular pieces and painted bright yellow. The word ‘GAS’ was then written on the sign in red paint. Any area contaminated with spray would be cordoned off using rope and the signs would be placed 20yd (18m) away from the contaminated zone.


Gas detector papers were issued to NCOs and officers in addition to the gas brassards. These small booklets contained sheets of treated paper that would turn red if gas vapour was detected. These detector papers could be used by the individual, or slotted into metal unit gas detector frames and positioned around the perimeter of the camp. Each frame would then be periodically checked by the gas sentry on duty.

Anti-Gas Pathways

In the event that an area became contaminated, the chances are that troops would still need to pass through the area to get to their objectives. For this reason, the Army devised a series of anti-gas pathways. These were basically lightly oiled fabric walkways that could be laid down over contaminated ground.


Some of the best information sources about anti-gas equipment are the original training manuals from the period. The two main pamphlets issued during the war were Field Service Pocket Book No.8 (1939) and Gas Training (1942). Some post-war manuals from the early 1950s are also useful references, as they usually contain many of the lessons learnt during the war.


Every soldier would have undergone anti-gas training before serving overseas. As a reminder of this, each soldier was issued Army form ‘A2022’, which was sized so that it could be kept in the back of the soldier’s ‘AB64’ (a soldier’s pay and service record book). A special anti-gas wallet was also made to protect the ‘AB64’, which was a crucial form of identification for each soldier and was always carried in the left breast pocket of the battledress jacket. The first side details the ‘COECDO’ procedure used for decontamination.


Having learnt many hard lessons during World War I, Britain pulled out all the stops in order to avoid similar situations from occurring during World War II. Despite the numerous types of anti-gas equipment developed by Britain, none ever saw use in anger on the battlefield. Despite chemical weapons not being used, the preparation, training and anti-gas equipment developed was not totally in vain. Post-war reports proved that Germany did indeed have a stockpile of chemical weapons that could have been deployed.

The exact reason why the enemy did not use chemical weapons during World War II is the source of much debate amongst historians, especially considering that the Nazis had shown such a disregard for humanity in other areas of the war. Chemical weapons had been banned at the Treaty of Versailles, although the Treaty had little relevance since by this time all its conditions had been broken. Adolf Hitler, himself a World War I soldier, had been wounded by gas, so some speculate that he may have been personally averse to its usage based on his own traumatic experience. However, the most logical theory is that the use of chemical weapons would not integrate well with the Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) tactics used by the German Army throughout the war. Chemical weapons are very unpredictable once deployed and the fast-moving fronts of World War II were a far cry from the stalemate of the trenches in World War I. Any ground contaminated with Mustard Gas, for example, would become impassable to the advancing Army as well as for the defenders.

Another theory is that because both the Allies and the Axis had made preparations for the use of chemical warfare, any advantage of using them was thwarted by the deterrent of a retaliatory attack from the opposing side. The bombing of Britain’s cities during the Blitz, for example, had been quickly avenged and German cities would have been well within range for British bombers to have dropped chemical spray from the air. Another point to note is that Britain and Germany were both primed for the possible use of chemical weapons and thus had prepared their respective populations for it, too. The fact that every British soldier and civilian (adult or child), had been issued with a respirator and was fully trained in its use could also have acted as a deterrent. After all, there was little point in launching a gas attack when the majority of the population or military forces would more than likely survive it.


The second side of Army form ‘A2022’ details the alarm signals to be given in the event of a gas attack.

Even after victory was declared in 1945, the fear of chemical weapons continued for years afterwards into the Cold War years. The dropping of the atom bomb and the development of nerve gases lead to the ambiguous term ‘gas warfare’ being renamed Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare (NBC). This heralded the introduction of a new series of equipment, designed to cope with multiple threats. The British Army still undertakes training in this field today, known more commonly nowadays as Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) training. Interestingly enough, the diversity of post-war NBC/CBRN kit also has its own following of collectors – an area that has already started to attract quite a following.

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