Historical story

Drugged Allies. Did drugs determine the outcome of World War II?

People from the margins were addicted to it, as well as movie stars and musicians. However, it was only the Second World War that raised this drug to the heights of popularity, adding a new chapter to its turbulent history. What are we talking about? About amphetamine - favorite drug of the Allies!

Amphetamine was first synthesized in 1887, but human testing was not performed until the 1920s. Things moved faster after that. Already at the beginning of the next decade, benzedrine sulfate was marketed as a medicine for asthma, obesity, narcolepsy and depression. Over time, the list of conditions only grew longer, including migraines and impotence. Benzedrine (the trade name for amphetamine) also proved to be a miracle cure for fighting fatigue among soldiers fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

And it is hardly surprising. Under its influence, a powerful injection of dopamine is released into the body, hence the feeling of pleasure, euphoria - almost omnipotence. You can treat yourself to a similar experience thanks to chocolate, exercise or good sex - but the effect will not be that spectacular. Besides, such luxuries are hard to come by in war, and the pill can be taken even under the worst conditions.

Morale pill

By mid-1940, the Nazi war machine had consumed 60 million pills of methamphetamine (an amphetamine derivative), but by 1941 the German Ministry of Health had included the infamous pervitin containing it on the banned substances list. It quickly turned out that the negative side effects outweigh the benefits of the drug.

Ironically, at the same time, the British officially sanctioned the use of amphetamines. The Americans soon followed suit - when psychiatry went hand in hand with drug therapy to rescue the Allies fighting not only the Nazis but also sleep deprivation. The solution seemed ideal: the drug eliminated fatigue and physical exhaustion, endured symptoms of depression and exhaustion through struggle, and in the long term - as it was believed - also a mental breakdown .

The Germans quickly realized the debilitating side effects of taking pervitin regularly. They far exceeded the benefits of using it.

Given that high military morale built adequate rest, solid food rations, trust in commanders, and strong ties with comrades-in-arms in the unit, while breakdowns undermined them, it is not difficult to understand why US and British troops chose to strongly accept the use of addictive drug in their ranks.

It was not only about maintaining vigilance and readiness to fight, although this factor was brought to the fore when regular supplies of benzedrine produced by Smith, Kline &French from 1937 were ordered. There was also no research on the effects of amphetamines, which never objectively confirmed that the drug improves performance, coordination or mental endurance. What, then, was decisive? To answer this question, one has to go back a bit in time…

Tireless heroes

It all started at the end of June 1940. During the military operations over southern England, pills containing an unknown substance were found in the downed German planes. Soon Henry Dale correctly identified it as methamphetamine. This confirmed the rumors that RAF intelligence had heard before - that the Luftwaffe was high .

At the same time, further research was commissioned on the possible use of an equivalent of pervitin by the British side. In mid-1941, benzedrine seemed to be the perfect booster for aviators who could take a spectacular retaliation against the Nazis.

To reach their destination safely, the bomber pilots had to fly at high altitudes at night. Radars aided in navigation, and the new four-engine machines made it possible to move higher, faster and further deep into enemy territory. Unfortunately, as Dr. Charles Stephenson, an American Navy officer stationed in London put it well:" the machine's capabilities have far exceeded human capabilities ". The fighters achieved acceleration that made the pilots unconscious, and the bombers flew in the icy, thin air.

The exposed parts of the body were instantly freezing to the controls and metal parts in the cockpit, and there was not enough oxygen to make it impossible to think clearly. Meanwhile, one study found that, although amphetamines do not really help a rested person under normal conditions, it does a great job of preventing a decline in fitness if the same person has to spend a long time in significantly abnormal conditions.

The fact that no care was taken to see which of the desired effects were the result of the drug's direct effect on the nervous system, and which depended simply on the mood and morale of the soldiers, no one particularly cared about. It was important that the "cure for fatigue and fear" worked. Anyway, in the famous speech of Churchill, who after the Battle of Britain thanked the tireless British pilots , there is not even a hint that they could owe this tirelessly constant doses of a highly addictive substance.

Amphetamines helped combat fatigue and fear, among others, of crews flying to bomb German cities.

The end justifies the means?

His Majesty's Army was very optimistic about the results of the research and decided to try the drug in bomber pilots, who suffered not only from cold and oxygen deficiency, but also from the additional stress and tension associated with the missions. Two doses of 5 milligrams were recommended - the first was to be taken when the machine entered enemy airspace, and the second was to be taken after the bombs had been dropped.

The RAF bomber command adopted these recommendations in 1942. From then on, crew members took amphetamines for each mission , although until the end of the war there was no evidence that it measurably improves or maintains the body's efficiency in thin-air conditions.

It has also not been objectively proven to counteract fatigue - apart from keeping the body in a state of low sleep demand, which could as well be achieved with caffeine. And although we do not know how many liters of coffee the British drank on the fronts of World War II, their "demand" for benzedrine is estimated at 72 million tablets.

With time, the negative effects of taking it became more and more loud - in mid-1943, in a brochure on fatigue, issued by the high command for the RAF medical officers and squadron commanders, it was stated that benzedrine should be taken occasionally, only in emergencies, because it causes that a person "feels that he is doing great when he is actually making a lot of mistakes."

In the rationale of British paratroopers during Operation Market Garden, benzedrine tablets could not be missing.

Nevertheless, the drug was distributed to soldiers until the end of the war, as Anthony Beevor writes in his latest book , devoted to the dramatic history of the Battle of the Dutch city of Arnhem, which took place at the end of September 1944:

[For 11th Parachute Battalion landing craft - ed. aut.] The daily food ration included canned meat, concentrated porridge, hard candy, dark chocolate, cigarettes, benzedrine tablets and loose tea mixed with sugar and powdered milk.

Know about side effects before taking…

In both the American and British ranks, benzedrine was more readily available than pure water. It was issued by medics, first-aid kits contained it, and it was obtained secretly from comrades-in-arms. The only difference was that, while the British had gone to their senses at the end of the war and withdrew the addictive drug, the Americans seemed undaunted by the lack of objective evidence of the drug's effectiveness. They fully trusted the subjective judgments of the drugged soldiers.

For example, in 1943 one of the US commercials for benzedrine still read that it was "a milestone in the history of medicine." At the same time, the British have already made it clear that while amphetamine can improve performance in tests involving simple, repetitive tasks, it lowers it in complex tasks. In addition, it interferes with the ability to make rational decisions, determination and self-esteem .

Despite being aware of its many side effects, benzedrine was marketed after World War II as a miracle cure for many ailments.

Even then, there were better methods of supporting soldiers. According to the researchers, for pilots who make mistakes because of their poor mental state rather than physical condition, it was sufficient to properly train and strengthen morale. Their additional advantage is that they have no side effects. Meanwhile, as Anthony Beevor writes in "Arnhem" , benzedrine caused double vision and hallucinations, and sometimes even drove the combatants into psychotic states:

Benzedrine euphoria has led some to believe that the entire Second Army will soon be coming to their rescue. One of the paratroopers, hearing the scratch of caterpillars, shouted to his companion:"I knew they would not leave us!", And the king tiger came out from around the corner .

Interestingly, the same conclusions were drawn at the beginning of the Luftwaffe war. The Americans, on the other hand, saw no problem and blithely treated benzedrine as a great achievement of pharmacotherapy :the first psychiatric drug to treat mood disorders. Until the mid-1950s, despite subsequent studies confirming the negative effects of drug use on the body, they explained the necessity of using the drug in the army ... benefits for the well-being of soldiers.

Millions of junkies on the front

Uncle Sam's approach to benzedrine at the front is perfectly reflected in the numbers:it is estimated that between 1942 and 1945 American soldiers "ate" from 250 to even 500 million tablets of benzedrine - which is a result several times higher than in the case of the British and comparable to the consumption of pervitin by the Nazis in the peak year of 1940. During the entire period of the war, about 1.5-2 million fighting Americans tried amphetamines, and in the year it ended, about 15 percent of U.S. pilots. The Air Force struggled with addiction.

During the Vietnam War, amphetamine consumption was even greater. The fashion for it did not pass later - despite more and more credible research and an increase in social awareness. Soldiers fighting in the Persian Gulf took it, and those on the fronts of Afghanistan and Iraq took it.

Although President George W. Bush stated in 2004 that methamphetamine is a highly addictive substance that affects minds and bodies, destroys family ties and endangers society, and its use leads to aggression and paranoia, the Pentagon did not just deliver the drug to the front, but in some cases even ordered its use .

In 2002, the world was shaken by the bombing scandal near Kandahar in Afghanistan:US F-16 pilots attacked a squad of Canadians, killing four soldiers and injuring eight more. These were the first Canadian casualties during this conflict. The indignation only increased as the line of defense was revealed. According to lawyers, the airmen made the wrong decision due to pressure from headquarters to take amphetamines ahead of the mission.

It turned out that in the "most powerful army in the world" pilots who are counting on a military career are expected to use spidem, and special forces routinely take dextroamphetamine - twice as strong as amphetamine, produced by the British concern GlaxoSmithKline - before any mission requiring you to give up sleep for 48 hours or more. The army denied the allegations, arguing that the drug was completely safe, the doses were small and comparable to drinking coffee, and that the management of the Air Force's science and research department simply called it the "gold standard", saving the lives of soldiers.

Even during the fighting in Afghanistan, American pilots were regularly taking amphetamines.

Eventually, the commander of the ill-fated squad was retired, while the pilot who dropped the bomb received a reprimand and a $ 5.6 thousand fine. Not everyone agreed that it was a fair price for the lives of four people ... But the worst thing is that had it not been for this tragic accident, the age-old romance of war and drugs probably would not have come to light.

It is possible that it continues. We can only hope that the high command has figured it out and is more careful in administering potentially dangerous substances, although in 2006 medical service regulations still allowed the dispensing of so-called "go pills". Because, as the popular saying goes, in love and in war all tricks are allowed ...