White Phosphorus and War



I would like to discuss this and focus on its use since WW II, especially by US forces.
What do you think? Is it a chemical weapon, a smoke weapon, an incendiary weapon or all of the above for you.

Is it effective at all or can the effects be disregarded? Who can provide background info on its use in terms of modern times.

IM if you please also.
Thank you.

And pics would be nice.


Dragontooth–In Viet Nam we used white phosphorus in canisters that screwed into the ends of napalm bombs as igniters for the napalm.


Back when I was in college, and in in Naval ROTC, one of the courses in naval gunnery was taught by the typical grizzled old Navy CPO lifer who had been a gunner’s mate. I still remember him always calling White Phosphorous (WP) shells “Willy Peter” I guess that was what the Navy called it. He told tales about shelling Pacific island beaches with WP during WWII. I don’t remember details, but they were not pretty.

Another WP story. Back in my high school days, I worked doing odd jobs for a guy who went all over the country buying stuff at government surplus auctions and re-selling it. He concentrated mainly on medical equipment One time, he bought cases and cases containing many thousands of white phosphorous first aid kits. The idea of these kits was to treat someone who had been hit by burning WP. The kits were in a small cardboard box, about the size of a 20-round .223 box, and contained three items: a small glass screw-top bottle of copper sulphate solution, a pair of tweezers, and a cotton ball. The idea was that if you have burning phosphorous on your skin, you opened the box, opened the bottle of solution, wet the cotton ball with the solution, covered the burning phosphorous with the wet cotton, and plucked it off with the tweezers. I know that because the instructions were printed on the box. I am not sure I would have the presence of mind to do all that while a chunk of burning phosphorous was going through my skin, but I guess someone must have thought it would work. I never did know why copper sulphate solution worked better than plain water, but maybe it was more effective as an extinguishing agent.

Anyway, my job was to open each box and remove only the tweezers, which were neatly packaged in cellophane (something else to do while you were screaming from the burning WP was tear off the tweezer wrapping). Everything else went into the dumpster. Tweezers were of very high-quality, not cheap stamped-out things, and he ended up selling them somewhere. I wish now I had kept a few of those kits.

That story should provide an idea of how WP was intended to be used, both incendiary and anti-personnel.


As far as I can remember, in the Brit Army, WP Grenades were to be used only as smoke screens, although I believe that tossing a WP Gren into a trench would make the bad guys run away quick smart.


It’s basically a smoke-screen / illumination device for anybody who uses it, and chemical or incendiary warfare is usually a secondary or more often a completely unintended consequence of using them. There are a bunch of nations who do keep dusty stockpiles of this stuff as artillery shells to use supposedly in a last-ditch defense sort of role whereas they can be fired over vast areas of approaching ground troops. Why Gaddafi did not resort to using these I don’t know - he had them, as well as Napalm. I know that red phosphorous is also used for smokescreens and magnesium is used in illumination flares, but I don’t know what percentage of either is in the inventories of large armies as compared to W.P. The continued use of W.P. is mostly the result of so many nations having stockpiles of it and not wanting to waste it and invest in a replacement especially since W.P. works so well as a smoke screen agent. Many of the other smoke generating chemicals used in munitions are just as toxic, but not quite so nefariously incendiary to flesh in the way they are deployed:

Zinc Chloride, Chlorosulfuric acid, Titanium tetrachloride, Burning oil

There is some information at Wikipedia.org, but it mostly turns into what seems like a politically-charged anti-Israel diatribe:

I also find that on Wikipedia that the descriptions of alternatives to W.P. seem to be written in a way as to subtly imply that not using them and instead using W.P. is both inexplicable and irresponsible (who knows). Ultimately, W.P. is the most effective smoke-screening agent known with regard to use in munitions-deployed smoke, and I suspect this is why it is used.


[quote=“DennisK”]Back when I was in college, and in in Naval ROTC, one of the courses in naval gunnery was taught by the typical grizzled old Navy CPO lifer who had been a gunner’s mate. I still remember him always calling White Phosphorous (WP) shells “Willy Peter” I guess that was what the Navy called it.

Former Gunners Mates are typically suave, handsome, ladies men. If your ROTC instructer was grizzled, he must have been a Bosuns Mate or a Machinists Mate.

Willy Peter is, of course, Phonetic for W and P - William Peter. Every sailor boy was required to memorize them all, from Able to Zebra.



No ladies’ man, this one. He wasn’t physically large, suave, or handsome, and I remember he had fairly thick glasses. After 50 years, I don’t remember much else except his Honolulu stories. But he knew his ordnance. He was one of only two noncoms in the Ohio State Navy ROTC detachment (which at that time was very small), the other one being a Marine Gunny Sgt. Now, he really was a grizzled vet of the Pacific war. I remember he had a bullet hole through one hand, and several more not showing. Both of them were basically in pre-retirement mode, or what they now call ROAD.


Ray, you’re showing your age! Its Alpha to Zulu these days…



I saw WP used for marking targets in Viet Nam from M79 grenade launchers, LAW rockets, 60mm, 81mm, 105’s and bigger. But not as primary anti-personnel weapon. Forward air controllers (from O-1’s to OV-10’s) WP rockets from Huey and Cobra gunships,and artillery forward observers would mark targets and /or make target corrections from WP impacts.
A defective WP artillery round that had been stored in a container of water awaiting disposal by the EOD folks at the huge ammo dump on hill 327 in Danang was responsible for millions of dollars in ordinance blowing up in April of '69. The container developed a leak and the water dropped exposing the WP to the air. One of the most incredible fireworks shows ever.
As a FMF Corpsman I was provided as part of my Unit 1, copper sulphate packages. You were shown movies on how to mix this in a canteen. I can assure you that when the need to do so arises, it doesn’t work like the training film. It does neutralize the WP quickly. Water alone will only work if the WP remains completely submerged.
Nasty stuff.


During WW2 the British developed two types of phosphorus grenade. The No.76 Grenade was in effect simply a glass bottle sealed with a conventional crown cap, containing white phosphorus along with benzine and a strip of crude rubber, which dissolved in the mixture during storage and rendered it more sticky. This grenade was intended to be hand-thrown against tanks, though a version in a more robust bottle could be fired at tanks by the Northover Projector. Both of these were mainly issued to the Home Guard, so saw little service use.

The No.77 Grenade was a cylindrical grenade made of tinned-plate and containing white phosphorus. It was detonated by an “Allways” fuse, which fired a small bursting charge on impact. This was the standard smoke grenade used by the army, though it was reported to have doubled as an anti-personnel grenade when used against fixed enemy positions. The demoralising effect of burning white phosphorus was considerable.

I also believe that white phosphorus was used as a constituent of smoke 3-inch and 4.2-inch mortar bombs, but have seen no documentary confirmation of this.

John E


I believe there was, and still is, a WP round for the 155 Howitzer, used by US forces. Also, about 4 or 5 years ago I recall a stink about the Israeli forces using them in Gaza or somewhere.


The British used WP in smoke shells for the 18pdr Field Gun during the latter stages of WW1. However the problem with WP is that as it burns, the heat tends to make the smoke rise in a column rather than spread out as required. Consequently smoke shells for the WW2 25pdr, and the post-war 105mm Light Gun, were charged with 3 or more canisters of smoke-generating material, often based on hexachlorethane. These are usually ejected through the back of the shell during flight, by a charge fired by a time fuse.

John E


Many WP mortar bombs are currently advertised from manufacturers in several countries, sold as smoke rounds.

The current US Army 120mm model is the M929A1, which was type-classified in 1996. There is also the 81mm M375A3 although the main smoke bomb in this calibre is now the M819 filled with Red Phosphorus. The British Army has the 81mm L42A3 WP smoke.

In 60mm the US has the M722 WP.