Troops of a cavalry unit advancing during the Campaign in the West, 1940. An Obergefreiter and an Oberfeldwebel naps on the back of a wagon. They were probably up early, and now the advance along French country roads lulls them to sleep. War can be tiring, with odd hours, long days, great physical exertion, and “months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror”, to use a phrase coined during WW1. There was a need to have troops alert and ready for action, and the solution was… methamphetamine! Yup, the Third Reich wasn’t just bad, but breaking bad!
Amphetamine was invented in 1887, but it took a few decades before the medical industry found a use for it. In the early 1930s, it was a component of the asthma drug Benzedrine. Soon the effects of amphetamine became apparent: it raised awareness, made the user awake, dulled hunger and pain, and alleviated boredom. It was soon modified into methamphetamine. In 1938, it was marketed under the name Pervitin in Germany, and sold over the counter at chemists. It attracted the attention of the German Army, but it was already used by some troops as early as the invasion of Poland in 1939. Pilots and tank and truck drivers were among those who found most use of the drug. The authorities made so it wasn’t sold over the counter anymore, but the Army is said to have distributed 35 million Pervitin and the similar Isophan pills during the campaigns of April – July 1940 alone!
Drug addiction wasn’t unknown; drugs of choice in the first half of the 20th century were cocaine and morphine. “Meth” wasn’t an exception, and as it was increasingly abused, the Army became very restrictive in its use from the spring of 1941. Historian Lukasz Kamienski says “A soldier going to battle on Pervitin usually found himself unable to perform effectively for the next day or two. Suffering from a drug hangover and looking more like a zombie than a great warrior, he had to recover from the side effects.” Some soldiers turned very violent, committing war crimes against civilians; others attacked their own officers. Still, it was issued throughout the war, and one can only wonder what it did to its users.
The Allies used meth, too, in the shape of Benzedrine, also known as “wakey-wakey pills”. The British used it primarily to keep bomber pilots alert, but also aircrew on submarine-hunting missions, which demanded sharpened wits for hours at an end. Ground troops, too, were issued Benzedrine, and it is said that large quantities were ordered before the showdown at el-Alamein. After some initial skepticism, the Americans followed suit and issued Benzedrine to the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. The drawbacks of the drug became apparent, though, and it was a known fact that the self-confidence felt by the users wasn’t reflected in actual performance, where all sorts of mistakes were made. After the war, amphetamine-based drugs were sold to truck drivers and as a weight-loss drug to housewives, but abuse called for restrictions and legislation.