The Times – 8 April 1982

A Higher Form of Killing, by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, Chatto & Windus, 1982, £9.95 hdbk.

Writing about the importance of poison gas as a possible counter to invasion in June 1940, Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, declared:

‘At a time when our National existence is at stake, when we are threatened by an implacable enemy who himself recognizes no rules save those of expediency, we should not hesitate to adopt whatever means appear to offer the best chance of success.’

What the authors of this book clearly demonstrate – albeit reluctantly and with various critical asides – is the sheer irrelevance of unenforceable conventions aimed at limiting the application of science to warfare.

In the First World War, over a million men had been gassed – 91,000 of them fatally. The 1925 Geneva Protocol on Gas and Bacteriological Warfare was to have negligible influence upon the conflicts that followed. Its prohibition of the first use of Chemical weapons did nothing to deter Mussolini in Abyssinia in 1936, and would probably not have prevailed with the British had an invasion been mounted after Dunkirk.

Hitler’s failure to exploit his monopoly in nerve-gases was likewise determined by purely military factors, principally the mistaken belief that the Allies must also have discovered them. In reality they had no idea of the German breakthrough.

Faced with the problem of retained documents and incomplete archives, Messrs Harris and Paxman inevitably tend to stray into the realms of speculation. Heydrich’s assassins used a biological grenade, it is suggested on the basis of no solid evidence – and in apparent ignorance of the fact that the man who threw it was himself injured in the blast without subsequently contracting any infection. Anthrax might well have been use in mid-1944 if the biological warfare programme had been a year further advanced, it is claimed – clearly in ignorance of the papers showing that programme to have run into serious trouble by October 1944, which had yet to be resolved by the end of the war.

At least Robert Harris’s notorious televised claim that Churchill pressed for a biological attack which would have left German cities indefinitely contaminated, is not resurrected. The Prime Minister’s advocacy of gas retaliation to the V-weapons is now carefully distinguished from questions of germ warfare. It is good that this error has been rectified, so that there is no need for detraction from the authors’ achievement in piecing together generally inaccessible facts about a subject of deadly significance.