Amphetamines and the Second World War: Stimulating Interest in Drugs and Warfare

This is one in a series of occasional posts from scholars outside of the Defence Studies Department. If you would be interested to contribute to this series please contact the editors: Dr Ben Kienzle and Dr David Morgan-Owen


James Pugh is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, UK. His research explores Modern British History in the era of the two World Wars. This includes the history of air power during both conflicts, and he has written a monograph on the Royal Flying Corps, published by Routledge in May 2017. His latest research explores the history of amphetamines in Britain between 1935 and 1945, which includes articles in the Journal of Contemporary History and War in History. You can find him on twitter @Psy_Historian

In 1992 Marek Kohn lamented that ‘drugs have lost their history’, hinting at the relatively limited scale of historiography on the subject and highlighting the detachment of modern political drug discourse from its historical contexts.[1] While historians have made significant progress in illuminating humanity’s enduring relationship with psychoactives, it is comparatively recently that scholars have come to examine the equally enduring relationship between warfare and the use of drugs.[2] While noting the taboo of drug use in wartime, especially in the military context, Łukasz Kamieński emphasises the importance of studying this intersection, not only to deepen our understanding of war, but to reimagine such history through the lens of drugs.[3] Drawing on what is a growing field of literature and my own research into the history of amphetamines before and during the Second World War, I will offer some brief thoughts on the value of exploring these histories.

In the broadest sense, war creates conditions in which drug consumption and control can become issues of national policy, especially in times of global conflicts such as the two World Wars. As Virginia Berridge has argued, prior to the First World War, the British government took comparatively little interest in regulating the supply or consumption of drugs within the UK, and the focus on controlling the sale and consumption of alcohol (and other drugs) could be seen as a psychoactive scapegoat for the military, strategic, industrial and organisational shortcomings of Britain’s war effort in 1915 and 1916.[4] The passing of the emergency measures in the Defence of the Realm Act, especially the provisions of article 40B (July 1916), came to form the basis for Britain’s approach to drug control in the post-war period; normalising the state’s adoption of an active role in policing the consciousness of its citizens. Drug use in the Vietnam conflict also helped shape drug policies around the globe, again with military drug use providing the catalyst for international and domestic efforts to pursue a ‘war on drugs’.[5] Of course, drug policies have also been used to justify war, perhaps most famously in conflicts in China during the 1800s in which Britain sought to maintain an imperial market for the supply of opium.[6] Thus, the confluence of drugs and warfare can instigate lasting social and cultural change long after the final bullets have been fired.

More specifically, militaries have always considered how to mitigate the effects of fear, boost the morale of their personnel, and help with fatigue and tiredness. The use of psychoactives in this context has an ancient history, with alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and morphine perhaps the most obvious examples.[7] During the Second World War, this included dedicated research into the use of synthetic stimulants such as amphetamine, which could modify what was a ‘malleable’ military body from the ‘inside out’.[8] This represented a cooperative endeavour between the academy, industry, government, and the military, but drug use in these contexts was also defined by a ‘bottom-up’ process, with combatants and non-combatants making conscious decisions to use legal or illegal drugs.[9]

Moving into the operational context, exploring the history of drugs and warfare enables us to engage in acts of historical recovery while contributing to and nuancing the existing historiography. In the case of amphetamines, the British army’s use of the drug compliments recent historiography that characterises the organisation as pursuing a firepower- and technology-heavy approach to warfare shaped by manpower limitations and concerns about the morale of its personnel.[10] Although not without risks or limitations, amphetamines were used by the British army from the North African campaign in 1942 through to the fighting in North-West Europe in 1944/5. As Nicholas Rasmussen argues, the effects of amphetamines, although highly subjective, appealed to commanders such as Montgomery because the ‘consciousness-altering properties’ of the drug ‘made men fight harder, and the men liked it’.[11] In other words, when facing problems with morale and the need to protect an increasingly precarious source of manpower, the British army turned to a pharmacological technology, which sustained wakefulness and provided a subjective boost to wellbeing, to help maintain the fighting abilities of its personnel. In many respects, we could cautiously consider amphetamines as a psychoactive component of Montgomery’s ‘colossal cracks’ doctrine. Similar pressures, including manpower limitations, continue into the modern context, and the armed forces of the United States are at the forefront of efforts to use a range of ‘pharmacological countermeasures’ to assist their personnel in managing and mitigating the effects of operating in a 24/7/365 environment.[12]


Image two – Amphetamines were put to a plethora of uses during the Second World War, which included as aids for escape and evasion. This image shows the package that contained amphetamine, which was found in RAF survival kits, via the Imperial War Museum.

In the case of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the process by which amphetamines were introduced as a tool to support aircrew on operations helps us understand the relationship between wider social and cultural norms that define drug use in both civilian and military contexts. The RAF articulated moral and ethical concerns about utilising drugs. However, they also faced a situation in which personnel took the initiative in purchasing and utilising a widely available legal psychoactive that possessed a high media profile. Consequently, while recognising the operational benefit in providing amphetamines to aircrews, it could be argued that the RAF took ownership of a potentially challenging situation by pursuing a pragmatic and educational policy that stressed both the value and limitations of amphetamines.[13] Significantly, the very act of conceptualising drugs as ‘tools’ or as ‘technologies of the self’ problematises how such substances are often narrated as ‘angels’ or ‘demons’. More broadly, RAF policy was also shaped by the coalition context in which research and operational data was exchanged between Britain, its Dominion allies and the United States. Given that amphetamines were utilised by British, US, Australian, German, Italian and Japanese forces, we can begin to see a global psychoactive arms race during this period.[14]

The history of the Royal Navy’s use of amphetamines illuminates commercial considerations at the heart of phasing drugs into the operational environment and the significant resources devoted to establishing a global drug distribution network, which kept Royal Navy and Merchant Navy ships supplied with amphetamines. This included placing orders for some 28 million tablets during the course of 1942 and 1943. Such figures constituted a supply sufficient to equip the ships of both fleets with thousands of tablets per vessel for use in survival at sea situations.[15] Importantly, these networks and the military’s use of amphetamines came to legitimise and spread the practice of taking such drugs, either directly or indirectly. For example, Paul Dimeo has argued that wartime drug use was an important factor in the use of amphetamines in a sporting context post-war. In addition, the roots of iatrogenic amphetamine epidemics in Japan or the United States could be attributed to the availability and widespread use of drugs in the military context.[16] From this knowledge we can reflect about ideas of legitimacy, ethics and harm in the control and consumption of drugs, using history to help understand the global and local dimensions to current policy and practice.

Images three & four – author’s collection) – Widely available as both tablets and a nasal inhaler, Benzedrine was a popular drug in the pre-1939 period. Its popularity (and utility) went some way to explaining the military interest in amphetamines. In turn, military use helped legitimise the widespread use of the drug in the post-war period.

While contributing to existing debates, it may be that the lens of drug history combined with other methodologies can help us reimagine the history of war more generally. Thinking about networks or systems, for example, can we conceptualise drugs and their history in terms of their influence on the body’s internal networks, extending the ‘network’ concept from the personal to the transnational? Indeed, Michael Howard referred to a general staff as the ‘nervous system of the army’, and so can we trace how information and culture traversed individual nervous systems, through into organisations like armed forces and into broader global networks?[17] It was via such networks that knowledge about drugs was conveyed in the form of medical research, press reporting, marketing, the role of industry, personal experience and the creation of culture.[18] Importantly, can we embrace what has been termed a ‘constructionist’ view in which ‘[d]rugs are animated by the ecology of the human settings they enter – psychosocial, cultural, and historical’?[19] Times of conflict provide perhaps the most pressurised and intense ‘setting’ in which we can highlight the subjectivity inherent in the use and conceptualisation of psychoactive substances, including the experience of their effects and their ability to shape and regulate consciousness.

Yet, there are severe limitations on our knowledge, especially when seeking to excavate the personal and often hidden histories of actual drug use in a military context. Some of this material is simply restricted because of its personal / medical nature. Paradoxically, the limited material available indicates the cultural sensitivity about military drug use as well as its normalcy in historical contexts. When speaking with a veteran in 2015, I found that he was puzzled by my interest in amphetamines. As he noted, there was no amphetamine ‘philosophy, you just took one if you were sleepy’. In contrast, another veteran interviewed by the Imperial War Museum stressed that taking and talking about amphetamines was a ‘touchy subject for obvious reasons’. In the case of amphetamines, this leaves us with a dearth of personal testimony, some of which has been cultivated in a less than empathetic fashion with one interviewer asking one veteran about his use of ‘those funny tablets’ and reminding another that amphetamines have ‘a dreadful reputation now’.[20] Thus, from what is a limited base of evidence we must be cautious in extrapolating the place of drugs in warfare and their influence over its conduct and history.

In many respects it is an exciting time to be a historian of both drugs and warfare, particularly as the weight of scholarship grows and media and popular audiences seem captivated by drug use in the context of the Second World War.[21] We must embrace the seemingly timeless interface of drugs and war, because, as Sadie Plant observed, ‘[e]ven the most sober individual lives in a world in which drugs have already had profound effects’.[22] Nonetheless, it is a subject prone to sensation and the distorting effects of contemporary drug taboos. It could be that the most valuable aspect of studying the history of drugs and warfare may be found by consciously refracting our view of the past through our understanding of the politics of drug consumption and control in the present. In the process, we can contribute to wider social and political debates in which evidence-based analysis is sorely lacking.[23]

Featured image: The only known image that purports to show an RAF Medical Officer providing a member of aircrew with amphetamines during the Second World War, via

[1] M. Kohn, Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground (London: Granta, 2001 [1992]), p.1.

[2] For important examples of drug historiography, see V. Berridge, Opium and the People: Opiate Use and Drug Control Policy in Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, 2nd Edition (London: Free Association, 1999); D. Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); J. Mills, Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928–2008 (Oxford: OUP, 2013).

[3] Ł. Kamieński, Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War (New York: OUP, 2016), especially preface, prologue, conclusion & epilogue.

[4] V. Berridge, ‘War Conditions and Narcotics Control: The Passing of Defence of the Realm Act Regulation 40B’, Journal of Social Policy, 7 (1978), 285–304; J. Greenaway, Drink and British Politics since 1830: A Study in Policy Making (Basingstoke: Palgrave 2003), chapters six to eight.

[5] J. Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).

[6] For example, see G. Blue, ‘Opium for China: The British Connection’ in Opium Regimes: China, Britain and Japan, 1839–1952, eds., T. Brook & B. Tadashi Wakabayashi (London: University of California Press 2000), 31–54.

[7] To take but one example, see T. Cook, ‘“More a Medicine than a Beverage”: “Demon Rum” and the Canadian Trench Soldier of the First World War’, Canadian Military History, 9 (2000), 6–22.

[8] E. Newlands, Civilians Into Soldiers: War, the Body and British Army Recruits, 1939–45 (Manchester: MUP, 2014), 92–93; S. Plant, Writing on Drugs (London: Faber & Faber, 1999), 115.

[9] On the idea of drug history from below, see S. Snelders and S. Pieters, ‘Speed in the Third Reich, Metamphetamine (Pervitin) Use and a Drug History From Below’, Social History of Medicine, 24 (December 2011), 686–699.

[10] J. Buckley, Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe (London: Yale University Press, 2013); J. Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein (Cambridge: CUP, 2012).

[11] On research into the British army and amphetamines, see N. Rasmussen, On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamines (New York: New York University Press, 2008), chapter three.

[12] J. A. Caldwell, ‘Go Pills in Combat: Prejudice, Propriety, and Practicality’, Air & Space Power Journal, 22 (2008), pp.97 – 104; A. Derickson, ‘‘‘No Such Thing as a Night’s Sleep’’: The Embattled Sleep of American Fighting Men from World War II to Present’, Journal of Social History, 41 (2013), 2–13.

[13] J. Pugh, ‘The Royal Air Force, Bomber Command and the use of Benzedrine Sulphate: An examination of policy and practice during the Second World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, Online First (2016): (accessed, 05/08/17).

[14] On German policy and practice, see P. Steinkamp, ‘Pervitin (Metamphetamine) tests, use and misuse in the German Wehrmacht’, in Man, Medicine, and the State: The Human Body as an Object of Government Sponsored Medical Research in the 20th Century, ed., W. U. Eckart (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006), 61–71.

[15] J. Pugh, ‘‘‘Not … like a rum ration’’: Amphetamine Sulphate, the Royal Navy and the evolution of policy and medical research during the Second World War’, War in History, Online First (2017): (accessed, 05/08/17).

[16] P. Dimeo, A History of Drug Use in Sport, 1876–1976: Beyond Good and Evil (Routledge: Abingdon 2007), chapters three & four; A. Sato, ‘Methamphetamine use in Japan after the Second World War: Transformation of narratives.’ Contemporary Drug Problems, 25 (2008), 717–746; Rasmussen, On Speed, chapters four & five.

[17] M. Howard, The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005 [1961]), p.19.

[18] Plant, Writing on Drugs, 197–199.

[19] R. DeGrandpre, The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World’s Most Troubled Drug Culture (Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 2006), 174.

[20] Pugh, ‘Bomber Command and the use of Benzedrine Sulphate’.

[21] For example, see the recent response to the work of Norman Ohler: J. Pugh, ‘Review of N. Ohler, Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany’, British Journal for Military History, 3 (2017), 160–162. (accessed, 05/08/17).

[22] Plant, Writing on Drugs, 152.

[23] For debates about modern drug policy, see P. Robson, Forbidden Drugs, Third Edition (Oxford: OUP, 2009). For progressive alternatives to current policy, see or (accessed, 07/08/17).

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