According to a PBS documentary released in June, titled Secrets of the Dead: World War Speed, Nazi soldiers were given drugs to help boost performance during World War II, per Live Science. One particular drug called Pervitin was allegedly so strong that researchers have called it a “superdrug.”
During the 1940s, Nazi troops — particularly Luftwaffe (air force) members — were liberally supplied with the drug. As a type of methamphetamine, it helped soldiers push past the limits or their normal capabilities, but with serious side effects. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, methamphetamines “directly [flood] the brain, compared with other amphetamines, meaning they are longer-lasting and are potentially more harmful to the central nervous system.”
The PBS documentary claimed that it was likely due to Pervitin that German soldiers were able to march for 10 consecutive days to trap the British and French armies at Dunkirk, in a stunning victory for the Nazi regime.
According to Nicolas Rasmussen, a professor in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales in Australia, about 35 million Pervitin tablets were sent to 3 million Wehrmacht pilots and soldiers during the Blitz alone. The Blitz was a three-month offensive in 1940 in which the German air force attacked various targets in the United Kingdom. Rasmussen’s research revealed that newspapers at the time made mention of the “heavily drugged, fearless and berserk” German paratroopers that landed in the United Kingdom.
But once Allied forces realized the chemical advantage that was had by their German opponents, they also turned to drugs for an advantage. However, more wary of side effects, Allied forces focused on the amphetamine Benzedrine instead of its stronger methamphetamine cousin.
Britain’s Royal Air Force officially sanctioned Benzedrine in 1941, though it was to be supplied by medical officers rather than given freely to troops.
Though World War II historian and documentary consultant James Holland said that Benzedrine was less dangerous than Pervitin, he added that it still was not good for the soldiers.
“It stops you from sleeping, but it doesn’t stop you from feeling fatigued. Your body has no chance to recover from the fatigue it’s suffering, so there comes a point where you come off the drug and you just collapse, you can’t function,” he explained.
Benzedrine was also instrumental for American armies in Northern Africa. During the 1942 campaign in North Africa, an estimated half a million Benzedrine tablets were to troops under the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
As soldiers routinely abused drugs in the war, Holland sadly pointed out that they were left with crippling addictions after victory.
“At the end of the war, there was very little help offered for people who became addicted,” he said.