In early October 1942, the British Eighth Army was dug in along a 65km stretch of the Western Desert in Egypt, preparing for a major attack on the Panzer Army Africa. General Bernard 'Monty' Montgomery knew that when he attacked, failure was not an option. The enemy forces had to be smashed. Yet the battle ahead promised to be a gruelling one of long days, long nights and bitter, bloody attritional fighting. Fatigue had been the enemy of soldiers throughout history, but if there was a pill that could be used to help combat exhaustion, then surely it was worth using?
So it was that on 6 October, Brigadier Quentin Wallace, the Deputy Director of Medical Services for X Corps, the armoured force that would act as Monty's corps de chasse, authorised the use of 'pep tablets'. 'Recent experiments,' Wallace wrote, 'have definitely proved that pep tablets properly administered, will be a powerful weapon against the enemy.' These pills were Benzedrine, an amphetamine – better known as speed.
Stories about drug use during the Second World War have been told for decades - but how much of a role did pharmacological 'force enhancers' really play in the conflict? For a new documentary, World War Speed, I talked to scientists, chemists, neuroscientists and examined a large number of original documents to investigate the practice on both sides.
Pervitin, used by the German Army, and Benzedrine, used by the Allied forces, offered the same effect: an adrenalin substitute that kept the user awake and alert. Pervitin was a methamphetamine – crystal meth in today's parlance – and first offered to the German public in 1937. Advertising for this new wonder drug suggested men taking it could work longer and more effectively. It could be administered by injection, or in a tin foil-wrapped cylindrical packet of twelve tablets that looked much like a pack of Fruit Pastilles. For the hausfrau there were even Pervitin laced chocolates.
Benzedrine was first produced in the United States a few years earlier in 1933, and incredibly, was initially given as a decongestant. Both could be bought directly over the counter. It's safe to say that at the time of their release, little work had been done into their long-term effects.
Much has been made in recent years of the use of Pervitin by the German Army during the war. It was certainly true that a staggering 35 million Pervitin were issued. It is also true that in May 1940 the spearhead managed to travel from the German border to the River Meuse in France in just three days and get across in four. They used rotating drivers, however, and had they taken longer, the outcome would still have been the same as the French expected them to take 10-14 days to achieve such a feat. Pervitin was not responsible for the German victory.
In fact, Leonardo Conti, the Reich Health Leader, had already been working to restrict Pervitin use. In the autumn of 1939, he made it prescription only for the general public, and by the end of 1940 its use was being massively curtailed within the Armed Forces too, especially after it became apparent that officers, especially, had been taking so much of the drug, a number had dropped dead. This was the real nub: Pervitin kept people awake but it didn't combat fatigue. The body still needed proper rest.
Rather, it was used more for exceptional circumstances. We investigated a Heinkel 115 seaplane that had been recovered from a Norwegian fjord some years ago. On board, stashed in one of the wings, was an emergency escape kit containing an inflatable dinghy, caffeine-infused chocolate, brandy, a kite to lift a radio antenna – and a packet of Pervitin. Clearly, none of this was for casual use. Rather, it was to be opened only if the crew came down in the North Sea and needed to stay awake. Better to take speed than fall asleep and die of hypothermia.
Interestingly, though, as use of Pervitin was declining in the German armed forces, speed was increasingly being used by the British, and then by the Americans. The British had heard rumours of the Germans using drugs to give them a combat advantage and then, during the Battle of Britain, Pervitin had been discovered on a downed Luftwaffe. The drug was analysed and Sir Charles Wilson, physician to Winston Churchill, sent the Prime Minister a report recommending the British consider using something similar, like Benzedrine.
'Bennies' had already been used informally by pilots during the Battle of Britain – like Pervitin before the war, the drug could be bought over the counter. However, on the back of Wilson's advice, the RAF began a programme of experiments overseen by flight surgeon Roland Winfield, who actually accompanied crews on bomber missions and tested the reactions to various doses of the drug. These are the only known combat tests of amphetamines carried out by either side during the war.
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They led to the formal introduction of Benzedrine by the RAF in November 1941. Only the base medical officer could issue them, and strictly at his discretion. This was not, perhaps, quite so irresponsible as it might first seem, however. The truth is, during the war, the technological development of weapons was advancing far faster than man's ability to effectively use them. It was not natural to fly at 20,000 feet, at night, for ten hours or more, being shot at, at temperatures of - 50C in what was effectively a tin can bombing machine. What was better - to fall asleep on the return leg once adrenalin had worn off, and ditch into the North Sea, or take speed and make it safely home?
Nor was it natural to be cooped up inside a tank in temperatures of over fifty degrees, with dust, fumes, little visibility and the threat of a brutal death moments away. As the British discovered during the war, another side effect of speed was giving its user a bit of Dutch courage.
This, it was realised, could actually work against them, however. Users often became reckless. There were reports, for example, of Lancaster crews diving down and flying at rooftop height shooting at anything they saw.
Benzedrine continued to be used throughout the war by British and American forces. It was never freely available to troops and only ever issued by medical officers, but inevitably, some were more liberal with handing it out than others. Our investigation showed that use of speed was not quite as widespread as some have suggested, but certainly by the war's end hundreds of thousands had become familiar with a drug they would otherwise never have used.
By the 1950s, Benzedrine was being marketed as a diet pill and mood enhancer. Benzedrine inhalers were even available on commercial airline menu cards. John F. Kennedy, a US Navy combat veteran, had used Benzedrine during the war and took a dose before the first televised presidential debate on 26 September 1960. Richard Nixon, who had not, appeared sluggish and tired by comparison - Kennedy won hands down.
In the United States, at any rate, the use of speed during World War II had helped lead America into the first prescription drug epidemic.