Technology during World War II

From Academic Kids

German Enigma encryption machine
German Enigma encryption machine

Technology during World War II played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the war. Much of it had begun development during the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, some was developed in response to lessons learned during the war, and yet more was only beginning to be developed as the war ended. Given the scope of the war and the rapid technological escalation which happened during the war, a vast array of technology was employed, as different nations and different units found themselves equipped with different levels of technology. No area of military technology went without development during the war.


Areas of technology

While nearly all types of technology was converted to participation or assistance in the war efforts of the participating nations, the most important items were those actually employed in the war. The main areas of technology which saw major developments were:

  • Weaponry; including ships, vehicles, aircraft, hand-held weapons, artillery, rocketry, and bio-chemical/atomic weapons.
  • Logistical Support; including vehicles necessary for transporting soldiers and supplies, such as trains, trucks, and aircraft.
  • Communications and Intelligence; including devices used for navigation, communication, and espionage.
  • Medical; including surgical innovations, chemical drugs, and techniques
  • Industrial; including the technologies employed at factories and production/distribution centres.


Weapons technology experienced rapid advances during the Second World War. The war began with most armies utilising technology that had changed little from the First World War, and in some cases (such as Polish lancers), had remained unchanged from the nineteenth century. The war began with cavalry, trench systems, and WWI-era battleships, but within only six years, armies around the world had come to rely on jet aircraft, ICBMs, and atomic weapons.


In the Western European theatre, air power became crucial throughout the war, both in tactical operations (battlefield) and strategically (long-range). Superior German aircraft allowed the German armies to overrun Western Europe with lightning speed in 1940, largely assisted by deficiencies with Allied aircraft.

Since the end of the First World War, the French Air Force had been badly neglected, as military leaders preferred to spend money on ground armies and static fortifications to fight another WWI-style war. As a result, by 1940, the French Air Force had only 740 fighter planes and 140 bombers, against 8,250 Luftwaffe fighters and fighter-bombers. Most French airfields were located in north-east France, and were quickly overrun in the early stages of the campaign. Britain's Royal Air Force possessed some very advanced fighter planes, such as Spitfires and Hurricanes, but these were not useful for attacking ground troops on a battlefield, and the small number of planes dispatched to France with the British Expeditionary Force were destroyed fairly quickly. Subsequently, the Luftwaffe was able to achieve air superiority over France in 1940, giving the German military an immense advantage in terms of reconnaissance and intelligence.

German aircraft rapidly achieved air superiority over France in early 1940, allowing the Luftwaffe to begin a campaign of strategic bombing against British cities. With France out of the war, German bomber planes based near the English Channel were able to launch raids on London and other cities during the Blitz, with varying degrees of success.

After the First World War, the concept of massed aerial bombing—the "Bomber Dream"—had become very popular with politicians and military leaders seeking an alternative to the carnage of trench warfare, and as a result, the air forces of Britain, France, and Germany had developed fleets of bomber planes to enable this (France's bomber wing was severely neglected, whilst Germany's bombers were developed in secret as they were explicitly forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles). Wars across the world in the 1930s, such as the Spanish Civil War and the bombing of Shanghai, had demonstrated the power of strategic bombing, and so air forces in Europe and America came to view bomber aircraft as extremely powerful weapons which, in theory, could bomb an enemy nation into submission on their own. As a consequence, the fear of bombers triggered major developments in aircraft technology.

Germany had not developed large, long-range strategic bombers as it was thought that tactical medium bombers would be much more useful on the battlefield. The Spanish Civil War had proved that tactical dive-bombing using Stukas was a very efficient way of destroying enemy troops concentrations, and so resources and money had been devoted to the development of smaller bomber craft. As a result, the Luftwaffe was forced to attack London in 1940 with heavily overloaded Heinkel and Dornier medium bombers. These bombers were painfully slow—German engineers had been unable to develop sufficiently large piston engines (those that were produced tended to explode through extreme overheating), and so the bombers used for the Battle of Britain were woefully undersized. As German bombers had not been designed for long-range strategic missions, they lacked sufficient defences, and fighter escorts could not carry enough fuel to guard the bombers on both the outbound and return journeys. As a result, German bombers were shot down in huge numbers, and were unable to inflict enough damage on cities and military-industrial targets to force Britain out of the war in 1940.

British bomber planes such as the Avro Lancaster had been designed before 1939 for long-range strategic flights, but their technology still suffered from numerous flaws. The Blenheim, the RAF's most-used bomber, was defended by only one hydraulically-operated machine-gun turret, and whilst this appeared sufficient, it was soon revealed that the turret was a pathetic defence against squadrons of German fighter planes. American bomber planes such as the B17 had been built before the war as the only adequate long-range bombers in the world, designed to patrol the long American coastlines. Defended by as many as six machine-gun turrets providing 360° cover, the B-17s quickly became an unstoppable force when used in large formations.

Despite the abilities of Allied bombers, though, Germany was not crippled by Allied air raids. The vast majority of bombs fell miles from their targets, as poor navigation technology ensured that Allied airmen frequently could not find their targets at night. The bombs used by the Allies were very high-tech devices, and mass production meant that the precision bombs were often made sloppily and so failed to explode. German industrial production actually rose continuously from 1940 to1945, despite the best efforts of the Allied air forces to cripple industry. However, Allied air raids had a serious propaganda impact on the German government, and from time to time the Allies would hit important targets, prompting Germany to begin serious development on air defence technology—in the form of fighter planes.

Aircraft saw rapid and broad development during the war to meet the demands of aerial combat and address lessons learned from combat experience. From the open cockpit airplane to the sleek jet fighter, many different types were employed, often designed for very specific missions.


The Treaty of Versailles had imposed severe restrictions upon Germany constructing vehicles for military purposes, and so throughout the 1920s and 1930s, German arms manufacturers and the German Army had begun secretly developing tanks. As these vehicles were produced in secret, their technical specifications and battlefield potentials were largely unknown to the European Allies until the war actually began. When German troops invaded the Benelux nations and France in May 1940, German weapons technology proved to be immeasurably superior to that of the Allies.

The French Army suffered from serious technical deficiencies with its tanks. In 1918, France's Renault tanks had been the most advanced in the world, easily capable of far outperforming their slow and clumsily British, German, or American counterparts. However, this superiority resulted in tank development stagnating after the First World War, and by 1939, French tanks were virtually unchanged from 1918. French and British Generals believed that a future war with Germany would be fought under very similar conditions as those of 1914–1918, and so invested in thickly-armoured, heavily-armed vehicles designed to cross trenches under fire. In contrast, the German Army invested in fast, light tanks designed to overtake infantry. These vehicles would be useless in trench warfare, but would vastly outperform British and French tanks in mechanized battles. German tanks followed the design of France's 1918 Renault versions—a thickly-armoured hull with a rotating turret on top mounting a cannon. This gave every German tank the ability to destroy other armoured vehicles, but in contrast, around 35% of French tanks were only equipped with machine-guns (again designed for trench warfare), ensuring that when French and German tanks met in battle, a third of the French vehicles could only fire machine-gun bullets, which simply bounced harmlessly off German armour. Only a handful of French tanks had radio sets, and these often broke as the tank lurched over uneven ground. German tanks were all equipped with radios, allowing them to communicate with one another throughout battles, whilst French tank commanders could rarely contact other vehicles. Britain's Matilda tanks were also designed for First World War conditions—with very thick armour. This was ideal for trench warfare, but made the tanks painfully slow in open battles. Their light cannons and machine-guns were usually unable to inflict serious damage on German vehicles. The exposed caterpillar tracks were easily broken by gunfire, and the Matilda tanks had a tendency to incinerate their crews if hit, as the petrol tanks were located on the top of the hull. Inevitably, British and French tanks were powerless against German armoured assaults, and a lack of armoured support contributed significantly to the rapid Allied collapse in 1940.

World War II marked the first full-scale war where mechanization played a significant role. Most nations did not begin the war equipped for this. Even the vaunted German Panzer forces relied heavily on non-motorised support and flank units in large operations. While Germany recognized and demonstrated the value of concentrated use of mechanized forces, they never had these units in enough quantity to supplant traditional units. However, the British also saw the value in mechanization. For them it was a way to enhance an otherwise limited manpower reserve. America as well sought to create a mechanized army. For the United States, it was not so much a matter of limited troops, but instead a strong industrial base that could afford such equipment on a great scale.

The most visible vehicles of the war are the tanks, forming the armoured spearhead of mechanized warfare. Their impressive firepower and armor made them the premier fighting machine of ground warfare. However, even more important to a fighting mechanized army were the large number of trucks and lighter vehicles that kept the army moving.


Naval warfare changed dramatically during World War II, with the ascent of the aircraft carrier to the premier vessel of the fleet, and the impact of increasingly capable submarines on the face of naval tactics. The development of new ships during the war was somewhat limited due to the protracted time period needed for production, but important developments were often retrofitted to older vessels.


The actual weapons; the guns, mortars, artillery, bombs, and other devices used to actually do the killing and destruction, were as diverse as the participants and objectives. A bewildering array were developed during the war to meet specific needs that arose, but many traced their development to prior to World War I.

Note that weapon can be taken to mean any tool used to hurt the enemy. Thus one can consider the United States' industrial might to be a weapon against the Axis. This would not be incorrect, but for the purpose of this article and sub-articles, the term weapon is taken to mean the actual instrument of destruction, and not the vehicle it is carried on.

Specific Weapons substantially invented during the war were:

Small Arms Development

Often overlooked by the general public, the state of small arms technology made a quantum leap during the period around the war. New production methods for weapons such as stamping, riveting, and welding came into being to produce the number of arms needed. While this had been tried before, during WWI, it had resulted in quite possibly the worst firearm ever adopted by any military for use: the French Chauchat light machine gun. Fortunately, design and production methods had advanced enough to manufacture weapons of reasonable reliability such as the Sten, MP 40, and M3 Grease Gun submachine guns.

World War II saw the birth of the reliable semi-automatic rifle and, more importantly, that of the first real assault rifles. The Germans essentially created and pioneered the idea of an "assault rifle" or sturmgewehr, coining the name for the species in the process. Earlier renditions that hinted at this idea were that of the employment of theBrowning Automatic Rifle and 1916 Federov Avtomat in a walking fire tactic in which men would advance on the enemy position showering it with a hail of lead. The Germans first developed the Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 (FG 42) for its paratroopers in the assault and later the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG 44), the world's first true assault rifle. The FG 42 would probably hold this place but for its use of a full powered rifle cartridge making it hard to control by an unskilled operator.

Developments in machinegun technology culminated in the Maschinengewehr 42 (MG 42) which was of an advanced design unmatched at the time. It spurred post-war development on both sides of the upcoming Cold War and is still used by some militaries to this day including the German Bundeswehr's MG 3. The G3, and many other Heckler & Koch designs, came from its system of operation. The United States military meshed the operating system of the FG 42 with the belt feed system of the MG 42 to create the M60 machine gun used in the Vietnam war.

German firearms technology was well in advance of any other nation during the war. The resulting advances in design and manufacture are still to be seen to this day around the world. Many famous gun makers arose from the ashes of their defeat. Heckler & Koch, SIG, Fabrique Nationale, all went on to produce firearms recognized by even those uninterested in the subject. The repercussions of Germany's desperate surge of brilliance in technology spawned not only firearms but jet technology and the space race.


Electronics rose to prominence quickly in World War II. While prior to the war few electronics were seen as important pieces of equipment, by the middle of the war such instruments as radar and ASDIC had proven their value. Additionally equipment designed for communications and the interception of those communications was, becoming critical.

Industrial technology

While the development of new equipment was rapid, it was also important to be able to produce these tools and get them to the troops in appropriate quantity. Those nations that were able to maximize their industrial capacity and mobilize it for the war effort were most successful at equipping their troops in a timely way with adequate material.

One of the biggest developments was the ability to produce synthetic rubber. This eased the demand on natural rubber and bolstered the production of war machines, thus allowing the Unites States to gain an edge in World War II.

See also


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