*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- technology land campaigns weapons

World War II Technology: Land Warfare Weapons

Sherman tank
Figure 1.--The M4 Sherman tank was the iconic American tank of World War II. This particular Sherman was an early one--M4A. Notice the small size of the gun. It saw service in the North Sfrican campaign. Here in 1943, some of the actual tankers, Allied servicemen, and Scouts are using a Sherman in the Third War Bond Drive. Scenes like this played out in frot of court houses all over the country. The Sherman was far from the best tank of the War. It was highly mobile, but it had a high profile, weak armor, and an under-powered gun. American tankers, however, developoed effective tactics for the Sherman and the numbers conmibed with air support helped overwealm dogged German defences. Put your cursor n the image for a closerview of the Scouts helping out.

World War I began as a war of movement, but after the Miracle on the Marne became a static war of attrition as the Aliies and Germans built a parallel system of trenches from the Swiss border to the English Channel. New weapons such as the machine gun, poison gas, tanks, and airplanes appeared, but the war was largely an infantry war, decided by the superior resources of the Allies and the arrival of the American infantry. Not fully realized at the time was the importance of a new weapon--the tank. It was a British creation and helped crack open the German defensive lines. The horrors of trench warfare caused military planners to focus on new weapons to restore mobility and to avoid a future war resulting in mass losses of foot soldiers. It was the Allies that developed tanks and won the World War I air war. It was the Germans, however, that after the War gave the greatest attention to developing new weapns, especially the tanks and air planes that would dominate the World War II battlefield. All the major countries worked on moderizing werapons, but the NAZIs after seizing power (1933) launched upon a massive military spending program that provided them for a time the world's most poweful air force and most competent armored force. Here the effective tactics adopted were the key to their earlky successes. Although not often conceived as a a makor weapon system, the truck proved to be along with the tank, played a critical role in the allied victory. Germany did not have the capacity to out produce the enenies it created. Hitler had no ideal of the productive capacity of the Soviet Union. And the productive capacity of the United States amazed its Allies and were beyond the imagination of Axis leaders. Germany developed many of the highest quality, most techically weapons used during the War. The problem for the Germans was that many of their weapons were complicated and difficult to mass produce. In addition, Germany did not have the same industrial capacity as the Allies (America, Britain, and the Soviet Union). And the NAZIs found to their horror that other countries could develop effective military weapons and in far greater quantities than Germany.

Science and Engineering

The Germans had some of the fieesst engineers in the world backed by an impressive scientific community. Hitler iherited all of this when he was appointed chncellor. And as chancellor he began ythrowing vast amounts of money as what we now call the military industrial complx. He could have priortized an atomic program to build an atmoic bomb and he provably coukd have won the War. Instead he priortized a campsaighn aginst the Jews. Msany nuclar scientists were Jews. Germany's leading scientist, Max Plank warned him that he was disaming Germany in physics. That sent Hitler into a tirade. He faioled to understanbd what he was doing. He saw nuclerar physics as 'Jewish science' withouit anyy real value. The Jewisdh scinetists fleeing Germany wouyld join the secom generaion of Jews fleeying the Tsar eould play ky roles in bulding the atomic bomb, but for the Americans. Even without the Jews, Germany possessed ,manytslented engineers ans scorntudts. Before World War II, it led the world in Nobel Prizes--although less than Britain n France combined. The mobey Hitler threw at weapons development produced a range of exceedingly advanced, powerful weapons. This gave Germany, despite its many strategic limitations ahange of winning the War. A range of matters prevented Hitler from making full use of the weaons created by all these highly capable scientists aad engineers. First, there was no overall coordintion. Hiytler's penchny for dioviding uthority mean that many institutes were doing the sam wir, wasting precous resources. Second, there no one making coherent decisions. Thus many weapons projects were authorized leading nowhere. Again wasting respurces. Hitler did make some decisions, he often chose weaons that could reach Britain with no consideration as to the cost nenefits. . Third, the NAZI regime was littered with cronyism. Göring was put in charge of the economy. And he put his chrony i Ernst Udet in charge of Lufwaffe weaons development. Udet was dissaster. Fourth, German weaons systems were over-enginnered. Little consideration was given to the needs fir mass oroduction or msintenence. The result was that while the Germans created some remarkble futurisuic weapons (the jet air plane, the V-1, and V-2, as well as guided missles). It was the Allies that created weaopns that actually had battefield impact (the cavity magetron, the proximity fuse, and of course the atomic bomb).

Industrial Capacity

All the major countries during the inter-War era worked on moderizing weapons. These programs were poorly financed in all democratic countries, but well financed in Japan and the Soviet Union. The German military during the Weimar era, adopted a range of programs aimed at evading the restructions of the Versailles Treatty. The NAZIs after seizing power (1933) and launched upon a massive military spending program. The massive spending thus after only a few years led to a military that was more modern than any other country. It provided them for a time the world's most poweful air force and most competent armored force. Here the effective tactics adopted were the key to their early successes. World War II would be a war of movement in which industry would play a more important vrole than ny other war in history. Germany did not have the capacity to out produce the enemies it created which would have given a normal leader pause. His plan was defeat his enemies one by one. Hitler seemed to think that his targets like his domestic opponednts would not figure this out or have the will to fight. He also had no ideal of the productive capacity of the Soviet Union or of the ability of the United States to convert its industry for war. The productive capacity of the United States amazed its Allies nd were beyond the imagination ofAxis leaders. Germany developed many of the highest quality, most techically weapons used during the War. The problem for the Germans was that many of their weapons were complicated and difficult to mass produce. In addition, Germany did not have the same industrial capacity as the Allies (America, Britain, and the Soviet Union). And the NAZIs found to their horror that other countries with greater industrial capacity could develop effective military weapons and in far greater quantities than Germany. The British by the time of the Battle of Britain has significantly expanded arms production. Germany had a greater industrial capacity than Britain. But American industry changed everything. German indusdtrial production as impressive as it was was only a fraction of American industrial output. And even worse for the German war effort, the Germans did not gear up for total war until the War had already been decided in the East. Soviet arms production waa impaired by having to move plants east, but by 1943 the Soviets alone were outproducung the Germans.


World War II tactics reflected the development of mew weapon systems. They also varied in the differeht theaters. The European theater fought over relatively flat terraine was dominated by what came to be known as Blitzkrieg. It was the Germans who first conceptualized and employed how to most effectively use the new weapons systems (especially tanks and aircraft) developed during World War I. German commanders srtuggling to explain why they lost World war I, conceived of an innovative method of effectively employing the new weapons, a combined arms tactic which has come to be known as Blitzkrieg. In many was Blitzkrrieg involved employing the new weapons in the historically aggresive tactics and high mobility of the Prussian Army. The NAZIs seemed to have believed that racial superiority meant that Germany would be able to create the most poweful weapons. We are not sure Hitler believed this, but his strategy was to divide potential adversaries and striking before his targets were prepared for war. Unfortunately his failure to defeat Britain and the Soviet Union meant that major industrial powers had the time to develop weapons that could match the Germans. And the entry of the United Srtates into the War meant that the enemies Hitler created had had the industrial capacity to produce weapons in quanties beyond the capability of Germany, beyond rge capacity Germany could only dream of building. But it was not just tanks that were needed for mobile warfare, it was other tracked vehicles and the prosaic truck. Blitzkrieg not only involved panzers to pierce the enemy front line. Tanks after the early Blitzkrieg victories proved vulnerable. Infantry weapons were developed allowing a single infantryman or pair to destroy a rtank. Tanks thus needed infantry soldiers to protect them as well as to exploit the gaps opened in the enemy line. And the infantry as well as tanks needed supplies that had to move as rapidly as panzers. The achelies heel of the Wehrmacht was that 1) it was not fully motorized and 2) Germany lacked domestic petroleum resources. The Wehrmacht did not have the trucks needed to fill the logiistical demand of Blitzkrieg. This weakness was not immediately apparent in the short early campaigns conducted on relatively small areas. This changed dramatically with the invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941) and the declaration of war on the United States (December 1941). Barbarossa was Hitler's supreme gamble and it failed largely because of the Whermacht's logistical weaknesses. It was Germany's undefeated adversaries that had the industrial capacity to build both armored vehicles and trucks in huge numbers. The United States not only supplied vehiches in large numbers to its own military, but to its Allies as well. While the Wehrmacht did not have the mobility needed for Blitzkrrieg against an adequately prepared abn armed opponent, the armies fielded by the Allies did. The Soviets were not impressed with American tanks, but they were with American trucks. The NAZIs at the beginning of 1944 still held much of Europe, but the fully mobilized Allied armies in the east and west by the end of the year with the mobility provided by the American trucks not only liberated the occupied territories, but brought the war to the borders of the Reich. In Asia tactics were different. This was in part because The Pacific War was primarily a series of relatively small amphibious operations. The fightingin China and Burma was more conventional, but the teraine and indusrtrial capacity of major participants (China and Japan) resulted in tactics fundamentally different than in Europe. The war did end with a European-style Soviet Blitzkrieg in Japanese held Manchuria.

Types of Land Weapons

The principal types of of weapns of weeapns in history were small arms. mening clubs, spearsmaces, swords, and bows and arrows. Artillery was also developed, at first the teroche to hurl rocks. Gunpoder changed this with tyhe inventuin of nuskets.rulles sand casnnon. rtillery became the major killer. In the 20th century, the internal comystion enine ushered in a whole new class id weapons--motor vehickes. The tank abnd truck aoppoared uin Wirks War I, but were centrak to mot Workd War II nttles. Land mines were xako mprtant, but wwre aefensive weapon, not a war-winning wereapon. German weaponry dominated the early battlefield, but not fully understood at the time, it was not the speriority of theo weaonsd, but more thr tactical dicrine tht ies them togther--Blitzkrieg.

Motor Vehicles

Motor vehicles powered by intenal combution engines appeared in World War I, but horses domionated. Toward the end of the War, they became increasingly important, both British and French tabks and Americn trucks. Germanby did not have a substabtial motor vehicle industry or access to the oil needed to fuel a large fleet of vehickes. Motor vehicles became important in World War I. They were fundamental in World War II. Both wheeled and tracked vessels played a huge role in the war. Tanks made to most heaflines. The greatesrt tank bttles of history werefoiught vduring the War and had a major impact on the outcome of the War. The most important wheeled vehicle was the truck. It has a much lower profile, but was abolutely vital nfor mobile warfare. The Germans had excellent engineers and produced some of the best tanks of the War. They have, however, been described as 'over enginneered', meaning changes that may have improved the tank slightly, but ignoring the impact on prouction, especiallhy mass production lines. The Germans has several problems impacting the production of tanks and trucks. These also impacted oyther aspects of the Herman war economy such as aircraft, but had devestating impacts on motor vehicle production. For these reasons the Germans actually used more horses in World War II than they had in world War I. Thanks in part to NAZI Propganda Minister Josef Gobbels who wanted tanks not horse carts photographd, this is not well understood today. The Germans did not invade the Soviet Union with huge a huge motorized force. Some 80 percent of the Ostheer was unmotorized infantry moving east on foot with horse-drawn carts. The Deutche Ostheer which would fight the the single most important campaign okf the War would be not only poorly equipped, but also not adequteky supplied and supported. No single matter impacted the outcome of the Ostkrieg more than this single fact. It was why Operation Brbarossa failed (1941) and why the American Arsenal of Democracy had time to gear up for war.


Artillery, as was the case since the 16th century, one of the primary weapons of World War II. The advances in motorized vehicles gave the artillery unpecedented mobility. The tank was essentially motorized artillery and there were a range of self-propelled guns. The Germans began the War,however, still dependent on horses to move artillery. This impeded their mobility and was a factor in the failure of Barbarossa. German draft animals were unable to withsand the rigors of the Russian winter. Artillery was a strong point of both the Soviet and American armies. Rommel noted the effectiveness of the American artillery in his initial confrontation with the U.S. Army at Kaserine. It allowed the Americans to quickly recover. The expansion of air power to an extent cut into artillery operations. At the beginning of the War, the Germans used the Stuka as mobile artillery. The Allies beginning in North Africa followed the German example and won air superority. The Allies were about to pound German positions well beyond the range of artillery. Japanese artillery was inferior, but effective enough to cause substabtiak casualties in several island campsign. The Japanese became very adept at concealing their artillery pieces. There were three types of artillery used during the War, not counting tanks. 1) field, 2) infantry, and 3) emplaced. Field artillery is what one usually thinks of when discussing artillery. Field artillery served both offensive and defensive funtions. It was use to prepare or soften up an area to be attacked or to help hold a defensive position. American use of field artillery and its mobility at Bastoign helped save it during the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944). Field artillery fired various projectiles (high explosive and covering smoke to anti-aircraft and armour-piercing, anti-tank rounds). Unlike World War I, poison gas shells were not used. There were various types of guns including howitzers and mortars. Three of the best known guns were the German 88-mm, the American 105-mm, and the British 17 pounder. The German 88 was probably the single best artillery weapon of the War. It was developed as an anti-aircraft weapon. Rommel found during the campaign in France that it was a highly effective ati-tank weapon. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Allied strategic air campaign forced the Germans to deploy many of their 88s in massive FLAK batteries around German cities rather than on the Eastern Front to destroy Red Army tanks. 2) There was also infantry artillery. Infantry units were provided light mortars, giving them their own artillery coverage. 3) Emplaced artillery was of less importance. Enplaced guns were used by the French on the Maginot Line. They were never tested as the Germans went around the Maginot Line. The Gemans wasted enormous resources in building huge railway guns. Other resources were wasted in static batteries on the Atlantic Wall. The Germans were not impressed with American tanks, but American artillery was a very different matter. Not only were American artillery excellent weapons, but they were produced in great quantity. Even more important to the effectiveness of American artillery was the large number of field radios which American units had from the beginning of the War. Virtually every American leiutenant had the ability to call in for artillery support. The Germans also had radiod, but in much smaller numbers.

Small Arms Infantry Weapons

World War II saw the perfection of many older weapons system as well as the introduction of many entirely new weapons system. Perhaps no changes were more profound than the fire power which could be provided the individual infantry soldier and small unit teams. This included both auomatic weapons, arillery, and tank killing weapons. And the indistrial capacity of the major combatants mean that these weapons could be supplied in quantity. World War I inantrymen had bolt-action rifles, no easily portable artillery that could be carried, and no way of stopping tanks. The World War II infantryman, despecially after the first 2 years of the War had tremendously increased firepower capable of stopping majpr attacks with rmored support even if air cover and artillery were unavailble. Infantry units received light-machine gun and asault rifles asx well as heavy rifles like the American BAR. The Americans hesitated to use the BAR in World War I because it used so much amunition and might fall into enemy hands. Therecwere no such hesitation in Workd War II. And the American M-1 Grand was argubly the best infantry weapon of the War. Infanyry units also got mortars which were light and coulkd be operated by awo-man team. This provided infantry units their own artillery that could provide immefiate fire. The tank was aeapon thst infahtru men had no way of resisting in the first years of the War. This was the case in Poland, thecLow Countries, France, and the Balkans. This changed with the invention of the merican Bazooka and German Panzerfaust. This gave a single infantryman the ability to stop a tank in its tranks. And as a result, tanks could not be sent into battle without infntry support. Other imprivements were weapons like flamethrowers and grenade lsuncjers. The Germans built some of the finest weapons, but theyu were often complicted nd difficult to mass produce. Here Hitler intervened. He often resisted the massproduction of weapons that did not have the look and feel od axfinaly grafted weapon.

Land Mines

The landmine was not invented in the 20th century. The Germans devoped land mines during World War I, primarily to stop British tanks. It was not until World War II, however, that they were employed in large numbers and the techololy developed an increased leathality and effectiveness. As a result, some authors insist that the modern landmind was developed during the War. The primary focus was on stopping tanks which enmerged as a key weapon during the War. The early anti-tank (AT) mines were were large, heavy weapons. And they were not uncommonly dug and redeployed by the enemy. This was the initial impetus for the much smaller anti-personnel mine (AP). They were deployd to prevent enemy soldiers from removing the AT mines. The Germans launched the War without giving much thought to landmines. They did not fit it to the German concept of blitzkrieg with its offensive, highly mobile foundation. The Germans had just two types of AT mines and one AP mine. German concepts chabnged sharply as their stunning early victories ceased and major defeats were exoerienced in the East and North Africa. Germab sciebtists developed new mine tyoes which were produced un large numbers. After 1942, the Germans were forced to fight a largely dfensive war, with the exceotion of Kursk. And German commabnders clammored for huge quabtities of mines to defend their positions. German scientists developed 16 types of anti-tank mines and 10 different types of anti-personnel mines. German soldies thought up many different types of improvisesd booby traps. An estimated 300 million AT mines were used during World War II, mostly by the Germans. Other millions of AP mines were also layed. One of the most effective AP mines was the German 'bouncing betty' which was designed to shoot up from the ground to hip height and then shooting out hundreds of jagged steel fragments. World war II commanders began usingblandmines as weapons in their own right.


A range of animals were used by the various belgerant powers during World War II. The principal animal used in warfare had fot millenia been the horse. Horse calvalry had been proven obsolete in World war I. Even so there were calvalry units utilized to a minor extent. More importantly, horse were used as draft animals. Britain and the United States were the only two countries entering the War with fully medchanized aermies. The German Wehrmascht despite its mechanized reputation laubched the War heavily dependent of horses as draft animsls. German industry did not have the capacity to fully mchanize the Whermacht. A mahor problem for the Germans was the inability of German horses to withstand the rigors of the Russian winter. As winter set in at the end of barbarossa, huge numbers of German horses died. Dogs were also important during the War. The Germans based on theor World war I experiences trained an incredible 200,000 dogs for the military. The fact that the Germans occupied many countries, meant they were operating in unfriendly bid not necesarily hostile territorty. The dogs proved useful in security duties. This included the vast system of labor and concentration cmps established throughout NAZI-occupied Europe. The dog forces of other countries were much smaller. The United States did not begin to train a Canine (K-9) Corps until after Pearl Harbor (December 1941). This began with the civilian Dogs for Defence Inc. training nione dogs. Eventuially the military trained more than 10,000 dogs. As in World War I, the dogs were used for sentry duty as well as scouts and messengers. They also proved useful in finding mines and booby traps. They were deployed domesticlly, especially with Coast Gusrd coast waters. They were also deployed in both the European and Pacific theaters. Other animals were used. Carrier pigeons were used, although because of the developmednt of radio, were much less important than in World War I. The United States experiment with bats to use in an aerial weapon.


Navigate the CIH World War II Sections:
[Return to Main World War II land technology/tactics page]
[Return to Main World War II technology/tactics page]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]

Created: 4:50 AM 10/8/2009
Last updated: 11:48 PM 8/12/2022