Technological escalation during World War II

Technological escalation during World War II

Technological escalation during World War II was more profound than any other period in human history. More new inventions, certainly as measured by such means as patent applications for dual-use technology and weapon contracts issued to private contractors, were deployed to the task of killing humans more effectively, and to a much lesser degree, avoiding being killed. Unlike technological escalation during World War I, it was generally believed that speed and firepower, not defenses or entrenchments, would bring the war to a quicker end.

The impact on the psychology and conduct of the war

This was perhaps the first war where military operations were aimed at the research efforts of the enemy e.g.
1. The exfiltration of Niels Bohr from German-occupied Denmark to Britain in 1943
2. The sabotage of Norwegian heavy water production
3. The bombing of Peenemunde

Military operations were also conducted in order to obtain intelligence on the enemy's technology e.g. the Bruneval Raid for German radar and Operation Most III for the German V-2.

The introduction of new weapons was so much a feature of the war that German propaganda featured wonder weapons in the pipeline as a reason why Germany would eventually win the war. In that sense, technological advance prolonged the war.

General Considerations on Wartime Innovations

Short history tends to simplify to the point of distortion. To correct this let us summarise some factors that inhibited technological innovation in WWII.
#Any innovation tended to interrupt production. In war, numbers count. It was always difficult to innovate if the war might be won or lost before the innovation bore fruit. For example, the cavity magnetron was hugely important to the allies but the Germans were so committed to the Lichtenstein radar that they seem never to have deployed their own cavity magnetrons.
#Successful innovations are remembered much more than the wasted effort on unsuccessful ones e.g. the Me 262 has a bigger and better press than the Me 163. Who remembers Pykrete, or Fire balloons?
#In war, it was often remarkably difficult to know whether a new weapon was good, or bad; the first US magnetic torpedoes usually failed to explode even if they hit the enemy ship.
#Even a sophisticated technology might be answered by a crude and simple device e.g.The Germans had an acoustic homing torpedo, which was easily countered by an acoustic mechanism towed behind allied warships.
#Innovations might be held back from use because of the fear of what the enemy might do. The Germans had a technological lead on poison gas, which they did not realise. Had they known the war might have ended differently. As it was, they were deterred by the fear of allied reprisals. Both sides held back from using chaff for some time before the British used it.
#A very great amount of the innovation on the allied side was necessitated by the needs of amphibious warfare, a need which hardly existed for the Germans.
#A lot on innovation was of the stop-gap variety. This especially true in armoured warfare as there was an escalation between gun and armour resulting in large production facilities for producing obsolete tanks. These were used by placing large guns on the chassis of obsolete tanks to produce a weapon variously known as self-propelled artillery, an assault gun or a tank destroyer. Stop-gap solutions could be rather desperate such as the single use fighter aircraft.
#There was remarkably little direct copying of weapons by one side from the other. Even where such copying existed, as with the bazooka, the calibre was increased because each side had a differing military requirement.

Between the wars

After the Treaty of Versailles the Western democracies were satiated powers and expected a general peace. Their political environment was one where the aim was disarmament. (In Britain there was the Ten Year Rule.) Consequently they conducted very little military R & D. On the hand Germany and the Soviet Union were dissatisfied powers that for different reasons cooperated with each other on military R & D. The Soviets offered Weimar Germany facilities deep inside the USSR for building and testing arms and for military training, well away from Treaty inspectors' eyes. In return, the Soviets asked for access to German technical developments, and for assistance in creating a Red Army General Staff.

The first German officers went to the Soviet state for these purposes in March, 1922. One month later, Junkers began building aircraft at Fili, outside Moscow, in violation of Versailles. The great artillery manufacturer Krupp was soon active in the south of the USSR, near Rostov-on-Don. In 1925, a flying school was established at Vivupal, near Lipetsk, to train the first pilots for the future Luftwaffe. Since 1926, the Reichswehr had been able to use a tank school at Kazan (codenamed Kama) and a chemical weapons facility in Samara Oblast (codenamed Tomka). In turn, the Red Army gained access to these training facilities, as well as military technology and theory from Weimar Germany.

In the late 1920s, Germany helped Soviet industry begin to modernize, and to assist in the establishment of tank production facilities at the Leningrad Bolshevik Factory and the Kharkov Locomotive Factory. This cooperation would break down when Hitler rose to power in 1933. The failure of the World Disarmament Conference marked the beginnings of the arms race leading to war.

In France the lesson of World War I was translated into the Maginot Line which was supposed to hold a line at the border with Germany. The Maginot Line did achieve its political objective of ensuring that any German invasion had to go through Belgium ensuring that France would have Britain as a military ally. France had more, and much better, tanks than Germany as of the outbreak of their hostilities in 1940. As in World War I, the French generals expected that armour would mostly serve to help infantry break the static trench lines and storm machine gun nests. They thus spread the armour among their infantry divisions, ignoring the new German doctrine of blitzkrieg based on the fast movement using concentrated armour attacks, against which there was no effective defense but mobile anti-tank guns - infantry Antitank rifles not being effective against medium and heavy tanks.

Air power was a major concern of Germany and Britain between the wars. Trade in aircraft engines continued, with Britain selling hundreds of its best to German firms - which used them in a first generation of aircraft, and then improved on them much for use in German aircraft.

The beginnings

Depending on one's frame of reference, one can reasonably assert that World War II began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, or as late as the last declarations of war between the United States and Germany in December 1941. Quite a bit occurred during this time to escalate technological conflict, most notably the upgrading and deployment of aircraft carriers by the U.S. and Japan in the Pacific, and invention of carrier-type aircraft such as the Mitsubishi Zero, largely considered the best plane of its time.

"more on aircraft carriers and 1930s innovations in military technologies"

Command and control

(Radio, radar, aerial photography, advanced use of cryptography and cryptanalysis)

The extraordinary increase in the use of electronic valves in warfare is exemplified in that they now began to be put into artillery shells for the first time. Vannevar Bush, head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during the war, credited the proximity fuze with three significant effects. It was important in defense from Japanese Kamikaze attacks in the Pacific. It was an important part of the radar-controlled anti-aircraft batteries that finally neutralized the German V-1 flying bomb attacks on England. Third, it was released for use in land warfare for use in the Battle of the Bulge, where it decimated German divisions caught in the open. The Germans felt safe from timed fire because the weather prevented accurate observation. Bush cites an estimated seven times increase in the effect of artillery with this innovation.

War of attrition

(Shipping, submarines, bombing, the draft, civilian labour in Germany vs. USA)


(Island hopping, seaborne invasions Dieppe, Sicily and Normandy)


(Mass tank battles, e.g. Kursk)


Extreme mobility (gliders, paratroops, bicycles, boats, landing craft,tanks)

Urban warfare

Horrifying city battles (Stalingrad, Berlin) and sieges (Leningrad, London) from ground and air.

ee also

* Technology during World War II - a comprehensive overview
* List of jet aircraft of World War II
* Ultra
* Battle of the beams
* List of World War II electronic warfare equipment
* History of computers
* History of radar and the Cavity magnetron
* Military funding of science
* Penicilin, advances in medicine and the pharmaceutical industry
* Nylon and the petrochemical industry
* Liberty ships
* Operational Research



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