More than any other war in human history, the Second World War was a war of advancing technology. Incredible advances changed the very nature of the warfare forever.
The 1930's was a period of military and technological stagnation due to the reduced budgets brought on by the depression. Many nations, especially Germany, developed plans in secret that represented radical departures from traditional military thinking.
The Allies were slow to implement new technologies, faced with shrinking defense budgets in the 1930's, and shrinking military intellect since World War I. Most of the British and French aircraft, and even the American aircraft, were fabric-covered biplanes as the Germans were developing and fighting all-metal monoplanes.
The French High Command in the spring of 1940 still relied on the same communications system used in World War I: motorcycle dispatch. The German Panzer legions mounted radios in each tank, and constantly provided their central commands with radio updates.
Throughout the war, the Germans and the Allies implemented more and more technology to gain an advantage over their enemy. Here are some of the more notable technological achievements from both sides.
The Ultra Secret
The Allies found a way to exploit the German radio communication. In September 1939 the Poles, on the verge of collapse, created a German Enigma machine and it was taken to France and eventually England. Virtually all the German military and diplomatic radio traffic were encoded with this device, which used a complicated system of gears and rotors to recode messages into 200 quintillion combinations. The rotor settings were easily changed, and if used properly, could not be broken.
The Poles also developed a computer, called a 'Bombe,' that could read codes by changing rotor combinations. Also, operator error increased the chances of breaking the code and reading the message. But simply possessing the Enigma machine was not enough. The German messages had to be radio intercepted first.
The British dubbed the codebreaking the 'Ultra' Secret, for months of work could be undone if the Germans found out their codes were cracked. The nondescript mansion at Bletchley Park, 40 miles north of London, became the center of Allied codebreaking. Radio masts popped up all over the grounds, and operators slept and worked around the clock in shifts.
The Ultra Secret was of immeasurable value to the Allies, if the commanders were able to take advantage of it. Thousands of messages flew around the Third Reich, and it took time to process them all. Sometimes commanders who did not have Ultra clearance did not fully appreciate the accuracy of the information; sometimes commanders who knew of the source simply did not believe it. In a hard choice, the Allies sometimes allowed the Germans to proceed with an attack, even though they knew about it through Ultra information. The Ultra Secret was considered so important it could not be compromised to protect the lives of a few ships or planes or even whole cities. Even though thousands of lives might be at stake.
The Allies used Ultra to warn of U-boat Wolf Packs, major offensives on all fronts, and to read diplomatic transmissions. Naval hunter-killer groups were tasked with retrieving German U-boat Enigmas, and the U-110 capture in 1941 by the Royal Navy and the U-505 captured in 1944 by the US Navy helped to further Enigma research.
The Germans added a fourth and then a fifth wheel to Enigma, and Bletchley Park, staffed with 10,000 American and British mathematicians and codebreakers, developed an improved Bombe called Colossus. By 1944 ten Colossus machines were working on German codebreaking at Bletchley Park, operated by Royal Navy Wrens, women sailors.
Both the Allies and the Germans invested large amounts of resources and funds inventing new weapons. The most famous and effective wizard weapon was the atomic bomb. Driven by a fear that Nazi Germany would develop and use an atomic bomb first, physicist Albert Einstein wrote President Roosevelt in 1939 to warn him of the potential threat. United States Army General Leslie Groves was tasked with creating the American program, which used a mix of eccentric academics and military spit-and-polish officers.
The Germans were focusing on a number of weapons that were retaliatory in nature. The V-weapons, or “vengeance” weapons, were high-technology guided and unguided missiles: the V-1 flying bomb began attacks on London and Antwerp, Belgium in the summer and fall of 1944, after the Allied landings. Randomly striking targets, the V-1s caused terror out of proportion to their damage, but killed hundreds. Soon the V-1s were supplemented with V-2 ballistic missiles, the first true medium-range guided missile. Developed at the Peenemünde missile complex, both missiles were soon out of range of London as the Germans fell back to their own borders. The V-3, a series of large guns built into the French cliffs and aimed at London, was never completed. Slave labor from the Nordhausen concentration camp was used to build the vengeance weapons, resulting in thousands of deaths from executions and starvations.
The other major German weapon was the Messerschmitt Me-262, the world's first operational jet fighter. In the space of seven years, the world had gone from biplanes to jet propulsion. Mounting 30mm cannon, it was a capable fighter, but dangerous to the pilot if the fuel was not handled carefully. Furious over bomber attacks on Germany, Hitler ordered the aircraft to be used as a bomber, preventing its defensive use and saving many Allied bombers. Rare metals shortages grounded many planes. If the Me-262 had been introduced a year earlier, the Allied strategic bombing offensive would have been seriously compromised.
The Allies had very different opinions on the use of technology. American combat doctrine called for very heavy firepower to be used to smash a target, even if it could not be seen. This was contrary to the basic combat instruction that taught recruits to only fire at visible targets, but the Americans eschewed most tactical technological implementations. The British, however, developed many operational weapons, most notably under the inventor Barnes Wallis, who was an explosive expert. He developed the 'bouncing bomb' that smashed Ruhr dams, and the 'tallboy' and 'Grand Slam' very large bombs that destroyed submarine pens at Lorient and sank the battleship Tirpitz.
For the Normandy invasion, the British developed a number of new technologies, including flail tanks that set off mines, swimming dual-drive (DD) tanks, and carpet laying tanks. Called 'Funnies' these tanks were not used by the Americans, except for the DD tanks. Other variants included the Churchill Armored Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE) that mounted a large mortar to assault concrete emplacements. Major implementations of new technology at Normandy included Pipe Line Under the Ocean (PLUTO) to provide the Allies with enough gas, and the Mulberry Harbors, artificial breakwaters Churchill insisted on building to facilitate landing men and materiel.
By the time the Allies landed in France, the tide of technological warfare had shifted to the Allies. Almost the entire Allied air force were modern designs created in 1940 or after. The Germans were still using the same designs created in the thirties. Also, the Germans developed several types for each role, diminishing the effectiveness of their armor and aircraft by making four or five types instead of one or two.
The use of radar in the battle of Britain was a critical factor in the British victory. The Germans, who did not have comparable radar in 1940, quickly developed better radar in the face of British night bombing raids.
Radar was mounted in every conceivable vehicle. Ships and planes carried radar sets, and mobile units with radar stations were sent to all fronts during the war. The German night fighters equipped with radar were effective hunter-killers of British and Commonwealth bombers, and the Allied use of radar to attack German U-boats turned the tide of battle.
Finally, the most decisive factor in the war was the total mobilization that the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom underwent. Everything that could be manufactured was put on an assembly line, increasing production. All three countries called large numbers of women into factories, mobilizing them before war actually started in many cases. In contrast Germany never full mobilized, believing that German Aryan women should raise babies and be mothers, and Japan did not mobilize until 1944, closing universities and requiring everyone to do war work.
The use of woman combined with radical building techniques allowed the Allies to staggeringly outproduce the Axis on every level. The technological war required workers and resources, and to get them the Allies were willing to disrupt the social structure and the Axis was not. While this would have lasting consequences for the Allied nations in the form of the social protests of the 1950's and 1960's, women war workers ensured the survival and victory of the Allies.