I’m no professional historian, but I reckon a rare document from a former stately home in North Yorkshire could shed new light on one of the most frightening threats this country has ever faced – gas attack.
I’ve found 118 pages of hand-typed notes, stamped ‘For Official Use Only’ and dated 1939, which are based on what was then the government’s latest intelligence on Germany’s ability to launch air attacks and chemical warfare on Britain at the outbreak of World War II. It appears they have never been published before.
Journalism is a strange trade – just as life happens while you’re busy making plans, news stories pass you by while you’re doing other stuff and only occasionally are you lucky enough to spot them.
These notes (so far I’ve only seen the first page) were offered for sale by a collector who mentioned they came from Hawkhills. I only know its history as one of the government’s two wartime gas training schools because Hawkhills played a significant role in the Scout troop which taught me to pitch a tent, start a camp fire and tie a bowline – and for which I have become the unofficial historian.
The document, now mine and in the post, was written for gas school officials for lectures at what is described as the Hawkhills Air Raid Precaution School. They are “designed to provide a background for the study of ‘Air Warfare’ problems … and to help instructors whose duty it is to train others.”
Under the red official use warning stamp, page one warns that Britain is no longer an island protected by the sea and “public morale must be strengthened accordingly.”
And to lift the spirits of any journalist the writer warns: “Information drawn from these notes should not be attributed to the Air Staff or to the lecturer .. ” Clearly the unattributable briefing is nothing new.
At 118 pages it will be a little while before we will know what new information the document reveals. It is not classified source material – but it would undoubtedly have been drawn from the latest intelligence about threats and resilience and from cabinet decisions on how to cope.
By definition the lectures these notes underpinned would have been a mix of intelligence and propaganda – but this is a document written at the height of tensions by government officials preparing for possible invasion in a country steeling itself for a repeat of the horrors of the gas attacks witnessed in the trenches just two decades earlier.
There can’t be many jobs that make grown men want the postman to come early. Watch this space