Germs in War

Germs in War

German forces descended on the Soviet city of Stalingrad on 24 August 1942. In their sweep across the Eurasian Steppe, the Axis forces overwhelmed and crushed the Soviet defensive lines. The attack on Stalingrad was not expected to last long. German commanders viewed the city as a subsidiary focus of the main effort. What erupted instead was a brutal struggle to seize the city from a stalwart defender who was willing to throw everything they had at against the assault. During the Battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets unleashed biological agents to help turn the tide in battle. Biological warfare is not a recent development. For thousands of years armies have used germs and biological agents on the battlefield to gain an upper hand on their enemies.

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The earliest documented use of biological warfare comes from Hittite texts of 1500-1200 BC, in which victims of Tularemia (rabbit fever) were driven into the lands of their enemy to spread the disease. In the 4th century BC, Scythian archers would dip their arrow tips in blood and animal feces, so that the wounds of their enemy would become infected. During the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for sieging armies to hurl dead corpses and rotting animals over city and castle walls to spread disease among the besieged. In 1346, during the Siege of Kafa, Tartar troops hurled the bodies of plague victims into the Mongol defenses. While not an intentional purpose to spread disease, English longbowmen drew their arrows from the ground as opposed to a quiver because of a faster firing rate. The dirt covered arrowheads made the likelihood of infection and death much higher than being hit with a clean arrowhead.

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When the Europeans began their settlement in America, blankets carrying the smallpox virus devastated the Native Americans. By the turn of the 20th century, the science of microbiology led to nations developing biological warfare. During World War I both sides used biological weapons on the battlefield. In 1925 the Geneva Protocol led to the prohibition of chemical and biological agents on the battlefield, but it did not deter nations from developing or using these weapons in battles. One of the most notorious units to use biological weapons in World War II was the Japanese Unit 731. Using prisoners of war and civilians, Unit 731 often conducted fatal testing on the subjects.

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In the years following World War II, most nations moved away from developing or using biological weapons on the battlefield. One exception was the Baathist regime in Iraq. Following Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Iraq admitted to the United Nations they possessed over 19,000 liters of a concentrated botulinum toxin. This is three times the amount to kill off the entire human population on Earth.

Look for more information regarding the Soviet use of biological weapons in the Battle of Stalingrad in the future World at War issue #46 with the article “Of Soviet Mice & Men: Biological Warfare & the Battle of Stalingrad” and join the conversation on Facebook!

About The Author

Kyle is a Military Historian and Senior Editor at Strategy & Tactics Press. A fourth-generation combat Veteran, Kyle retired from the United States Army in 2010. He specializes in military operations from 1945-Present and has written extensively regarding the future of asymmetrical warfare.

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