Combat Chemical Weapons – a Commentary
It’s still unclear why neither Hitler nor Stalin (who, according to claims in the liberal press, murdered even several hundred thousand of his own troops), had not used chemical weapons – both Germany and the Soviet Union were well-supplied with these weapons and their means of delivery.
[abridged discussion of Nebelwerfer-41 mortar supplies and German chemweapon stockpiles. Summary: Nazi Germany had WMD and troops trained with it]
Reading Halder’s diary for 1941-1942 we see the General-Inspector of Chemical Forces keeps trying to persuade him to use chemical weapons – but they were used only twice – on May 12th, 1942 against the partisans and on June 13th against Adjimushkai. That is it.
Note: It turns out that the weapons used were actually a mix of ethilene and coal oxide, which is actually a form of gaseous explosive, a form of early FAE, which blew up quarries and killed Red Army men. General-OBerst Jaenecke who commanded the 17th Army in Crimea was acquitted in 1955 by Soviet courts and released.
Note that he is appealing to Halder and not to Hitler and that chemical weapons units were located in the 2nd echelons of army groups. This means that using these weapons was a decision made by an Army Group commander or at best the Chief of Staff – destroying the idea that Hitler refused to use them for fear of retaliation. Actually if he had feared retaliation that much, he’d not bomb England either. And yet chemical weapons were not widely used by any side of the war or after the war in local conflicts. There were rare attempts – but it is these that remind us that the effectiveness of chemical weapons was either non-existent or so low as to persuade each side to avoid using them again in the specific conflict.
Let us try to understand the true reasons that chemical weapons were so badly received by Wehrmacht, RKKA, U.S. Army, British Army – and any other generals.
The first – and main reason – that militaries have abandoned chemical weapons is the extent to which they are dependent on meteorological conditions – i.e. weather – far more than any other weapons. Let us look at this issue in more details.
Chemical weapons depend on air movement. We will discuss two forms thereof: the horizontal and vertical.
Horizontal air movement, i.e. – wind is defined by speed and direction.
Wind that is too strong disperses the chemical weapons rapidly, reduces their concentration to safe levels and removes them from the target area. Weak, slow win causes the chemical weapon cloud to stay in place, does not allow it to cover the needed area, and if the chemical is unstable – leads to a pointless loss of attack abilities.
Therefore, a commander who wishes to use chemical weapons must wait for the wind to gain needed speed – and the enemy won’t wait. But worse yet, one cannot precisely predict wind behavior. Wind can not only rapidly alter its direction and even reverse it, it can also have an entirely different direction in a certain area, perhaps as little as several hundred meters away. Wind direction is also affected by ground relief and buildings. We can often see it even in cities, when on a windy day the wind can be in our face, then at our side when we reach a corner, and at our back on the other side of the street. The art of the yachtsman is based on being able to spot these small alterations. Wind direction can also alter at different heights – for example the wind direction at a hilltop can be reverse to that at its foot. When weather reports state a wind speed – “north-west wind, 3-5 meters per second”, they are referring only to a general trend in a great area, perhaps of hundreds of square kilometers.
All of this means that when a few hundred tons of gas are deployed from containers or an area is targeted by chemical shells, nobody can know will certainty where the cloud will move or who it will strike. But the commander must know precisely where and which losses will be inflicted to the enemy. There is no point in poisoning an enemy regiment or even division in a place where our forces cannot advance or use the consequences of the strike. No commander can or will adopt his plans to such uncertainty. One cannot have tens of thousands of troops, hundreds of tanks and thousands of cannon running about to follow a cloud of poison, or even escaping it.
And yet the air – and chemical weapons – also moves vertically. These movements are divided into convections, isothermal motion, and inversion.
In convection, warm air rises – and takes chemical weapons with it. The bigger the air temperature differences, the faster it moves – and a man is about 1.5-1.8 meters tall.
In isothermal situations, the temperatures of the air and ground are approximately equal. There’s practically no vertical motion of the air, which is optimal for chemical weapons, making the situation at least partly predictable.
In inversion the ground is colder than air, which causes the lowest layers of air to cool and press themselves to the ground, keeping the chemical weapons near the soil. This is advantageous, but it also forcs chemical weapons to flow downwards. Of course, soldiers in trenches and bunkers will be endangered by this, but men on hilltops and other heights will be protected.
Let us note that this air movement depends heavily on the time of year, time of day, and even on cloud cover, and can rapidly alter. This alone can impact the use of chemical weapons, and they are affected also by air temperature directly (low temperatures reduce the volatility of chemical weapons- someo f them cannot be used in Russian winter at all), as well as snow, rain, and fog, that wash away the poison vapors altogether.
The weather mostly affects rapidly-disintegrating chemical weapons, that act for minutes or hours. Long-term chemical weapons are likely not to be operationally viable as they will also affect friendly troops attempting to advance in the area.
Using weapons is not a goal in and of itself. Weapons are only a means of achieving victory. Victory in battle is achieved solely by precisely-coordinated actions of military units (this is what the Combat Manual of the Soviet Army says) utilizing the most appropriate weapons and munitions. The goal is not to simply kill as many enemy soldiers as possible, but to force them to act in accordance with the combatant’s needs (retreat, surrender, reconsider waging war).
Chemical weapons cannot be used as needed at the time they are needed, becoming a goal and not a tool, demanding the commander accommodate the weapon and not vice versa. Properly, the sword should serve D’Artagnan, rather than D’Artagnan becoming an appendix to the sword.
Let us look at other aspects of chemical weapons.
Technically, chemical weapons are not weapons, but poisons. To use them, you need air bombs, shells, aerosol generators, etc. – ordinary weapons re-equipped for chemical use. When a commander assigns meaningful firepower to chemical weapons, this must come at the expense of ordinary weapons, reducing the available firepower of his unit – and remember chemical warfare depends on weather conditions!
Of course, tanks and aviation are also affected by weather – but to a far lesser extent. Sometimes aviation cannot work due to weather, but such conditions do not last more than a few hours or days. Combat operations can also be planned to accommodate the time of year and general local climate – but chemical weapons are completely dependent on weather conditions, including such conditions that are almost entirely unpredictable.
To use chemical weapons one needs to use great amounts of firepower, in order to rapidly deploy hundreds and even thousands of tons of chemicals. Would any commander weaken his firepower in order to, perhaps, poison a few thousand enemy troops? Remember, his superiors require him to strike the enemy within hard time limits, something that chemical troops cannot guarantee at all.
The second issue is preparing the chemical weapons and loading them into shells. This is both expensive and dangerous. A regular artillery shell that cracks or rusts can be easily detonated at a range, and is completely safe without its detonator – while a loaded chemical shell is highly dangerous until it had been disposed of, which is in turn extremely difficult. Often chemical shells begin killing one’s own citizens long before they kill a single enemy soldier.
Every day, the front is supplies with thousands of tons of supplies. They are immediately used, and the forces do not accumulate great stocks of catridges, shells, bombs etc. Chemical weapons need to be stored until use – forcing the forces to create stockpiles, move them each time the unit moves – modern warfare is extremely mobile – guard them, and ensure their safe storage. Given their limited tactical use (not even in the First World War have chemical weapons been used for operational success) , I doubt any commander will like it.
As I said, weapons are not used solely to kill enemies, but accomplishing goals. This is often done not so much by pure slaughter, but by destruction weapons (tanks, planes, rockets), or infrastructure (bridges, roads, factories, homes). If a military unit loses its weapons or ammunition supply, it must either surrender or retreat – but even a lone machinegunner with a supply of ammunition can hold a wide area. Chemical weapons are unable to destroy a tank or even a motorcycle. The ordinary shell can destroy a tank, a DOT, a house or kill a few men – but a chemical shell can do only the latter. Thus, any commander would prefer a dozen conventional shells to a hundred chemical shells. In this sense chemical weapons are not weapons at all.
The entire history of war is a struggle between defense and offense. Shields and swords, spears and chainmail, cannon and armor, bullets and trenches, etc. There are no weapons against which there is an absolute defense. Except one type. Chemical weapons.
Defenses against chemical weapons were born almost immediately, and rapidly became near-absolute. Even with the first chemical attacks, soldiers rapidly found effective means of defense. Sometimes defending soldiers started fires on the breastworks, which caused chlorine to be carried up and over the trenches – despite the soldiers not knowing physics or meteorology. Often the soldiers used automobile glasses and handkerchiefs soaked in urine to defend sight and breath.
Soon, basic gas masks appeared, which evolved to use coal filters, and then become rebreathers. Rubber and even polyethilene can protect against skin-contact weapons, and in some cases even oil-soaked paper can be defense if it is durable enough. Today the Army has protective cloaks and suits. Horses and even dogs can be protected as well. In this sense chemical weapons are good more for intimidation.
True, many would say, but chemical defense kits limit combat readines. True. I will say more precisely – gas masks reduce the soldier’s combat readyness by a factor of 1.5-2, and a full protective suit – by a factor of 4 – but the enemy must also use these! Now they are equal again, and I am not certain that sitting in a trench in a protective suit is harder than running across a field.
Now, dear reader, imagine you are a front or army commander who needs to succeed in a set time – and tell me – do you need chemical weapons? I’m not certain you will answer unequivocally in the positive. There are too many arguments against this weapon and too few for it.
“But chemical weapons were widely used in the First World War, and had great results!” – the reader will exclaim – “Look at the numbers Kuchtenko quotes!” Let us not argue numbers – although not all affected men died. Let us argue results. Not a single chemical attack resulted in operational success, while tactical successes were modest. Chemical weapons merely added casualties to the total death toll – but did not, and could not, bring victory. For every successful attack there were dozens of failed ones if not more – and there were not many successes in total. Kuchtenko basically describes almost every successful gas attack.
Allied and German soldiers soon were disappointed in the combat qualities of chemical weapons, and continued using them only because no opportunities existed to leave the stalemate and the commanders became desperate.
We must consider here the specific circumstances that led to the use of chemical weapons in the First World War. First of all, it was the trenches that bound the fronts in months and years of almost complete immobility.
Second, soldiers were packed very densely in trenches, as attacks were mostly repulsed by small arms fire.
Third, in a stalemate one could afford to wait for proper weather for weeks and months.
Fourth, all successful attacks were surprise attacks at unprepared enemies that were often not even aware of this new weapon. Chemical weapons were successful when they were new, but this golden age soon ended.
Yes, chemical weapons were, and are, feared. There are reasons why almost the first thing that a new recruit receives in the military is a gas mask, and one of the first things he learns is putting it on -and yet, despite this fear, these weapons are not actually deployed. In the Second World War and after it the use of chemical weapons was mostly experimental, or direct at unprepared civilians, and in most cases the commanders that used these weapons were soon convinced about their unprofitability.
It appears that the treatment of chemical weapons is irrational – not unlike the attitude of cavalry, which had been doubted since the U.S. Civil War and buried as a combat branch by the First World war – and yet persisted in the Soviet Army until 1955.
If the reader disagrees, before typing up a furious reply, he should answer himself at least two questions:
1. Why tanks, whose first use was a failure, take up a leading role in the armies of the world?
2. Why does the humble landmine, which had never promised great victories, find a place in all arsenals, and yet chemical weapons, so promising, had not found a place on the battlfield?
I did not attempt to study the problem completely, but intended to answer this question not from the point of view of a scientists who counts poisoned sheep on a testing ground after detonating a chemical shell, but from the point of view of practical concerns of army-commander grade officers.
P.S. The author of these lines is an officer of the Engineering Forces, and for several years was te Engineering Officer for a regiment and later a division. I am not a chemical soldier, but, according to the Manual for Supporting Actions for the Ground Forces, Part IV my duties include preparing for the results of a WMD strike against my regiment or division. Any such defense must be based on knowledge of the weapons in question and their effects, as well as close work with the unit’s chemical service officer.
The 1970′s and 1980′s were noted by the fact that any exercise from a regimental HQ exercise to a full-scale army or front field exercise, everybody trained in great detail for acting under enemy nuclear and chemical strikes. Many generals were enraged and said they would soon unlearn all their skills as everything was reduced to maneuvering between poisoned zones.
And the commander of Army Group Center Colonel-General Yazov (that one) once looked at a map and said – perhaps hinting at the fact it was yellow from chemical contamination zones, perhaps at something else – “It seems the entire country has malaria.”
All of this training has taught the author that chemical weapons are operationally useless, and even more completely powerless against soldiers trained and equipped in dealing with them.
Nuclear weapons are almost as worthless. It’s like trying to chase a cockroach on the asphalt with a steamroller. It might work, but it is useless. The author was not the only man to think that – our commanders knew it as well, they read our reports all the time. The other side must have known that too – no side truly intended to use chemical weapons. Despite all their complexity and cost, these weapons could not give the needed result, but could easily interfere with combat control and te proper use of weaponry.
But generals on both sides needed to take into account politicians, scientists who were fans of chemical weapons – such people always have access to political power – and the military-chemical lobbies in parliaments. So they played out chemical weapon battles on maps and forced soldiers to train with these abominable gas masks and terrible chemical suits (a soldier is like a horse at a wedding – some drink, some celebrate, and the horse does all the work). And the well-known conclusions made by military scientists in 1918-1920, known to every senior officer and general, were carefully “forgotten”, to avoid upsetting “public opinion.”
1. Military Dictionary, “Ripol-Classic”, Moscow, 2001
2. A. Ivanov, German Artillery in the Second world War, “Neva”, St. Petersburg, 2003
3. F. Halder, Military Diary, 1940-1941, Terra Fantastica, St. Petersburg, 2003
4. F. Halder, Military Diary, 1941-1942, Terra Fantastica, St. Petersburg, 2003
5. B. Muller-Hillebrandt, Germany’s Ground Forces 1933-1945, A Reference Book[/o], EKSMO, Moscow, 2004
6. K. Mill, [i]The American Civil War, 1861-1865, “Harvest”, Minsk, 2002
7. Supporting Actions for the Ground Forces, Part IV: Engineering Support. Military Press Moscow, 1985
8. Kalibernov, E.S., Combat Engineer Officer’s Manual, Military Press, Moscow, 1989
Translated and abridged by MicroBalrog from this site