Winston Churchill’s Revulsion over Napalm Bombing

Winston Churchill’s Revulsion over Napalm Bombing

Excerpt­ed from “Napalm: An Exam­ple of Churchill’s Dis­dain for Ter­ror Weapons,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle and images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is not giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Napalm et al.

Much non­sense has been pub­lished about Churchill’s sup­posed enthu­si­asm for chem­i­cal weapons. Com­pil­ing an expand­ed edi­tion of my quo­ta­tion book, Churchill by Him­self, I ran across what he said about napalm. Unpub­lished until recent­ly, it illus­trates his true feel­ings. It com­ple­ments what he said about “poi­son gas” 30 years earlier—repelled by its effect on civ­il pop­u­la­tions. 

Napalm or “sticky fire” is a deoxy­genat­ing com­pound that adheres to and burns on sur­faces, cre­at­ing a con­fla­gra­tion. It was first used dur­ing an attack on Berlin in March 1944. It was also wide­ly deployed by the French in the First Indochi­na War (1946-54), and Amer­i­can forces in the Kore­an War (1950-53).

Napalm attacks did not often dis­tin­guish civil­ian from mil­i­tary tar­gets. So reluc­tance over its use arose among the West­ern allies, par­tic­u­lar­ly Great Britain. By sum­mer 1952, the U.S. press was report­ing seri­ous Anglo-Amer­i­can dif­fer­ences over napalm.

“A very cruel form of warfare”

In August 1952, Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill deci­sive­ly reject­ed the use of napalm where it might involve civil­ian pop­u­la­tions: 

I do not like this napalm bomb­ing at all. A fear­ful lot of peo­ple must be burned, not by ordi­nary fire, but by the con­tents of the bomb. We should make a great mis­take to com­mit our­selves to approval of a very cru­el form of war­fare affect­ing the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. Napalm in the [Sec­ond World] War was devised by us and used by fight­ing men in action against tanks and against heav­i­ly defend­ed struc­tures. No one ever thought of splash­ing it about all over the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. I will take no share in the respon­si­bil­i­ty for it. It is one thing to use Napalm in close bat­tle of ground troops, or from the air in imme­di­ate aid of ground troops. It is quite anoth­er thing to tor­ture great mass­es of unarmed peo­ple by it.

The state­ment about giv­ing “due warn­ing to civil­ians to evac­u­ate,” etc., is not worth much. If peo­ple have to go to their work every day and live in their homes, they have not much choice of dwelling…. I do not see how Press arti­cles and jab­ber of that kind com­pares with splash­ing about this burn­ing flu­id on the necks of hum­ble peo­ple liv­ing where they have to.

“Lachrymatory” gas is not phosgene

Churchill was con­sis­tent regard­ing chem­i­cal weapons. The Ger­mans intro­duced poi­so­nous chlo­rine gas dur­ing the Sec­ond Bat­tle of Ypres in April 1915. Out­raged, the Allies retal­i­at­ed in kind, but revul­sion over its lethal effects was widespread.

After the war Churchill head­ed the War Office. The ques­tion arose of using non-lethal gas against rebel tribes­men in North­west India and in Mesopotamia, now Iraq. It was nev­er pro­posed to use chlo­rine or phos­gene. But Churchill him­self con­fused the mat­ter when he used the term “poi­soned gas” in a depart­men­tal minute:

It is sheer affec­ta­tion to lac­er­ate a man with the poi­so­nous frag­ment of a burst­ing shell and to bog­gle at mak­ing his eyes water by means of lachry­ma­to­ry gas. I am strong­ly in favour of using poi­soned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a min­i­mum. It is not nec­es­sary to use only the most dead­ly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great incon­ve­nience and would spread a live­ly ter­ror and yet would leave no seri­ous per­ma­nent effects….

Ten days lat­er, Churchill addressed the India Office’s reluc­tance to use “lachry­ma­to­ry” (tear) gas against rebel tribes­men: “Gas is a more mer­ci­ful weapon than high explo­sive shell, and com­pels an ene­my to accept a deci­sion with less loss of life than any oth­er agency of war.”

Consistent abhorrence

Churchill sup­port­ed the use of non-lethal “lachry­ma­to­ry gas” for a sound rea­son: the wel­fare of sol­diers. In all the accounts of his sup­posed enthu­si­asm for gas war­fare, I have nev­er seen this minute cit­ed in full:

Hav­ing regard to the fact that [the India Office] are retain­ing all our men, even those who are most enti­tled to demo­bil­i­sa­tion, we can­not in any cir­cum­stances acqui­esce in the non-util­i­sa­tion of any weapons which are avail­able to pro­cure a speedy ter­mi­na­tion of the dis­or­der which pre­vails on the frontier.

If it is fair war for an Afghan to shoot down a British sol­dier behind a rock and cut him in pieces as he lies wound­ed on the ground, why is it not fair for a British artillery­man to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze? It is real­ly too silly.

Vir­tu­al­ly always absent from quotes alleg­ing Churchill’s pen­chant for gas is the first para­graph above. It tes­ti­fies that Churchill was think­ing more broad­ly than most. He was think­ing humane­ly, hop­ing to lim­it deaths by the most bar­barous meth­ods of warfare.

Further reading

Churchill and Chem­i­cal War­fare,” 2015 

“O’Reilly, Churchill, and “Poi­son Gas,” 2009.

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