What is the most advanced weapon in World War II

The second World War

Dr. Thomas Vogel

Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Thomas Vogel, born in 1959, is project division manager at the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr (ZMSBw), formerly the Military History Research Office (MGFA), in Potsdam. He has long been interested in the military opposition in the 'Third Reich' and the resistance of soldiers against National Socialism. For several years he has been dealing more intensively with various aspects of warfare in the age of the world wars, most recently with coalition warfare in particular. He has, inter alia. published: "Uprising of conscience. Military resistance against Hitler and the Nazi regime, 5th edition, Hamburg et al. 2000 (publisher and author); Wilm Hosenfeld:" I try to save everyone. "The life of a German officer in letters und Tagebüücher, Munich 2004 (ed. and author); Tobruk 1941: Rommel's Failure and Hitler's Success on the Strategic Sidelines of the 'Third Reich', in: Tobruk in the Second World War. Struggle and Remembrance, ed. v. G. Jasiński and J. Zuziak, Warsaw 2012, pp. 143-160; "A fruit knife for chopping wood." The battle for Stalingrad and the failure of the German allies on Don and Volga 1942/43, in: Stalingrad. An exhibition of the Military History Museum of Bundeswehr, edited by G. Piecken, M. Rogg, J. Wehner, Dresden 2012, pp. 128-141; A War Coalition Fails in Coalition Warfare: The Axis Powers and Operation Herkules in the Spring of 1942, in: Coalition Warfare: An Anthology of Scholarly Presentations at the Conference on Coalition Warfare at the Royal Danish Defense College, 2011, ed. v. N. B. Poulsen, K. H. Galster, S. Nørby, Newcastle upon Tyne 2013, pp. 160-176; The First World War 1914-1918. The German deployment into a warlike century, Munich 2014 (co-publisher and author).

Despite the prohibition by the Versailles Treaty, Germany did not completely lose the connection in armored and air armaments in the 1920s through secret cooperation with the Soviet Union. The secret research and testing in these areas were the prerequisite for Germany to be able to compensate for its international deficit by open armament from 1935 onwards. This was especially true of the new air force.

Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane (below) next to a Junkers Ju 87 dive fighter plane, early 1941. (& copy Federal Archives)

The image of the Second World War was largely determined by weapons that had already been used in the First World War. New means of war such as tanks, airplanes and submarines had shown their great military potential at that time. Tanks and aircraft in particular experienced a leap in development in the interwar period. At the same time, groundbreaking advances were made in communications, location and crypto technology, as well as in space travel. Made usable for military purposes, many of these technologies influenced the course of the
Air War over Poland: View from the bow pulpit of a Heinkel He 111 bomber in September 1939. (& copy Bundesarchiv)
Second World War considerably.

Armaments focus on planes and tanks

In Germany, the development and production of top-class military technology came to an abrupt end in 1919. The Versailles Treaty banned Germany from building and owning tanks, military aircraft and submarines. However, due to secret cooperation with the Soviet Union in the 1920s, it did not completely lose touch in the key areas of armored and air armament. The covert research and testing were the prerequisite for Germany to be able to largely make up for its international deficit from 1935 onwards through open, massive armament. This was especially true of the new air force. At the beginning of the war in 1939, she owned a superior fighter (Messerschmidt Bf 109), a powerful dive fighter (Junkers Ju 87) and a modern medium bomber (Heinkel He 111). During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) she was able to gain operational experience with all three types of aircraft.

A Junkers Ju 87 dive fighter ("Stuka") during a fall attack on a train station in a Polish city in September 1939, filmed from an airplane. Excerpt from the Nazi propaganda film "Campaign in Poland", which premiered on February 8, 1940. (© Bundesarchiv) (& copy 2015 Bundesarchiv)

Small beginnings: Panzer I (back) and II, during the western campaign, May 1940. (& copy Federal Archives)
The level of armor, however, was less convincing. The German "Blitzkriege" of the early years were based predominantly on light, partly obsolete tanks of the types I and II from German production, supplemented by better ones from Czech booty. Poland, which had only a few tanks of equal quality, was relatively easy to defeat. The starting position against well-armed France was completely different in the following year:
Sturmgeschütz III with mounted infantry in North Africa, March 1942. (& copy Federal Archives)
However, a risky plan of operations and superior leadership made the German victory possible.

It was not until 1941, against the Soviet Union, that the Wehrmacht could muster a large number of modern Type III and IV medium tanks. However, they were technically significantly inferior to the new Soviet T-34 tank. The Red Army did not yet have very many of him. On the other hand, it had a clear advantage in terms of number and quality in light tanks.
Panzer IV with crew in the Soviet Union in March 1942. (& copy Federal Archives)
Also, only they had heavy tanks. Again, the Wehrmacht initially compensated for their material inferiority through superior planning and leadership. In the years that followed, the German armaments factories delivered top-quality products such as the heavy tanks of the types V "Panther" (1943) and VI "Tiger" (1942). A new type of artillery weapon proved to be an effective and inexpensive addition to the main battle tank: the assault gun introduced in 1940. With over 10,000 units, his Type III became the most-built full-track tank in the Wehrmacht. Sooner or later the German opponents followed suit with hardly worse, and sometimes even better, tank developments. The decisive factor was that Germany could not keep up numerically in the arms race against the Soviet Union alone. To make matters worse, there was a great variety of types - and this not only in tank construction, but also in other armaments branches.
Panzerkampfwagen of the Second World War in comparison (graphic opens in PDF) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (bpb)

Structures and problems of armaments policy

As in the First World War, it became apparent in the Second World War that the success of the war largely depended on how well an economy was organized for this purpose. Because mass armies had to be armed and equipped in a modern way, the control of armaments planning, research and production represented a central challenge. In this respect, the "Third Reich" once again demonstrated its systemic weakness. It took a munitions crisis soon after the start of the war so that an armaments ministry was created as a central authority in early 1940. But it was not until 1942 that the new armaments minister Albert Speer was able to undertake more in-depth reforms under pressure from the waning war success. He withdrew arms production, initially only those for the army, from access by the military and the state apparatus, and gave industry more responsibility. That made them more efficient and increased their output considerably. However, Speer had a tough opponent in military departmental selfishness. It was not until the summer of 1943 that he was able to bring naval armaments under his control, and a year later also air armaments after the Commander in Chief of the Air Force, Herrmann Göring, had lost Hitler's trust. With that, Speer had extensive jurisdiction ten months before the end of the war, apart from the growing competition from the SS armaments industry.

The concentration under Speer by far did not remedy all structural deficits. He had only limited influence on the respective problems of the air force, the navy and the army with the determination and planning of their own needs. Air armaments, which devoured the lion's share of German armaments resources, suffered most from this weakness. Although the Allied bombing war required a strengthening of the air defense by 1943 at the latest, the air force leadership showed itself incapable of realigning its armaments policy, which was shaped by offensive thinking, especially since Hitler, in his urge to retaliate, continued to take the offensive. Serious wrong decisions were therefore made, so that some developmental lead over the Allies was lost.
The He 177 was a four-engine bomber developed by the Heinkel company. What was unusual about this aircraft was, on the one hand, the parallel engine arrangement, two on each side of which drove a propeller, and, on the other hand, the requirement that it was suitable for diving. Strict adherence to this requirement, especially on the part of the Technical Office under Udet, together with structural changes compared to the original concept, led to a highly complicated, fault-prone and, above all, very expensive development, which had its first flight in November 1939. The He 177 finally went into series production despite still existing defects. (& copy Federal Archives)
The world's first series-built jet fighter of the Messerschmitt Me 262 type was used inappropriately from the summer of 1944; its great potential as an interceptor initially remained untapped.

The unchecked design frenzy led to further remarkable engineering achievements, especially in aircraft construction. In terms of armaments policy, however, it was a bad investment because the development and production of the new types put a heavy strain on the dramatically dwindling resources without developing any greater military impact in the end of the war. On top of that, the Air Force stuck to the development and production of older and outdated aircraft types without a clear focus. The four-engined Heinkel He 177 bomber was her most expensive failure ever. Although it was recognized early on as a faulty design and rarely used, well over 1,000 copies were made between 1942 and 1944.

The organizational chaos in German armaments almost inevitably grew out of the politico-military structures of the "Third Reich". It had its cause not least in the person of the "Fuehrer" himself. Many decisions, also in detail, remained of Hitler, consequently dependent on prejudices and special requests of a non-expert. For example, Speer was the first to convince him of the advantage of modern assembly line production over traditional manufacturing methods. On the other hand, he was not dissuaded from the strong expansion of the anti-aircraft artillery, although it was demonstrably the more ineffective and inefficient means of air defense in comparison with the fighter aircraft. And finally, Hitler's gigantomania led to the waste of considerable funds on the development of militarily nonsensical, downright absurd tank projects (Panzer VIII "Maus"; 1000/1500 tonne tanks).

End of war and "miracle weapons"

When defeat began to emerge in the second half of the war, the Nazi leadership set their hopes on new "miracle weapons" that would turn the tide. Soon the propaganda could point to jet planes and super tanks. In addition, a new generation of submarines (types XXI and XXIII) was under construction in 1944, which promised to revolutionize naval warfare because they could dive for a long time and go fast. Like most "wonder weapons", however, they too were technically immature and used too late. For too long the naval command and Hitler had striven for a large surface fleet, which would nevertheless have been hopelessly inferior to the Anglo-American naval power, and therefore neglected the construction and further development of the submarines.

The Fieseler Fi 103, the first cruise missile used by the military, also referred to as V1 ("Retaliation Weapon 1") by Nazi propaganda. (& copy Federal Archives, picture 146-1973-029A-24A / Lysiak / CC-BY-SA)
Special "miracle weapons" came into play when, in view of the devastation of German cities by Allied bombers, Hitler's will for "retaliation" continued to grow. Its conventional air force was already too weak for this, as it became clear in the spring of 1944. That is why extremely complex long-range weapons projects, which Hitler had previously viewed with skepticism, are now given the highest priority as "V (ergeltungs) weapons". As early as June 1944, the Air Force deployed its "V1" cruise missile. The competing army followed in September with the ballistic surface-to-surface missile "V2". By the end of March 1945, 22,000 "V1" and 3,000 "V2" were used against English, French and Belgian cities. They killed thousands of people and caused great damage, but had no military effect. The "V3" was a complete failure. The aim was to bomb London from the French coast with this gigantic and expensive long-range gun. However, it was never used.

The enemy of the war was the last to develop a real "miracle weapon": By dropping its first atomic bombs in August 1945, the United States forced Japan to surrender. The "Third Reich", on the other hand, was still a long way from building a nuclear weapon. It is true that politics and the military soon recognized the military importance of Otto Hahn's discovery of nuclear fission in 1938 and initiated appropriate armaments research. Scientific and research policy errors as well as actions of the war opponents, however, did not allow them to flourish. For fear of a German nuclear weapon, the United States secured its "Manhattan" project from 1942 onwards with much more rigor and with
Radio operator of a communications unit working with the "Enigma" encryption device in February 1941. (& copy Federal Archives)
considerably more funds the success.

Long before the end of the war, Germany also fell behind in two other technology fields of great military importance. When it comes to location technology (radar, sonar), his British opponent was soon usually an important step ahead. On the other hand, British and Polish specialists overcame the initially superior German encryption technology ("Enigma") in radio communications during the course of the war. The Allies drew decisive advantages from both, especially in air and sea warfare.


Further reading:

  • Horst Boog, The German Air Force Command 1935-1945. Management problems, top structure, general staff training, Stuttgart 1982.
  • Ralph Erskine, The Code-Breaking War. The break-in of the British and Americans into the radio network of the German navy secured with the Enigma cipher machine in World War II, in: Akademie Aktuell, ed. from the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Munich, issue 2/2002, pp. 5-11. (www.badw.de)
  • Heinz Dieter Hölsken, The V weapons. Origin - propaganda - war effort, Stuttgart 1984
  • Rainer Karlsch, Hitler's bomb. The secret history of the German nuclear weapon tests, Munich 2005.
  • Hartmut H. Knittel, tank production during World War II. Industrial production for the German Wehrmacht, Herford, Bonn 1988.
  • Rolf-Dieter Müller, Albert Speer and the Armaments Policy in Total War, in: The German Reich and the Second World War, ed. from the Military History Research Office, vol. 5, second half volume, Stuttgart 1999, pp. 273-773.
  • David Pritchard, Through Space and Time. Radar development and use 1904–1945, Stuttgart 1992 (orig. 1989).
  • Eberhard Rössler, U-Boottyp XXI, Bonn 1986.
  • Ralf Schabel, The Illusion of Wonder Weapons. The role of jet planes and anti-aircraft missiles in the armaments policy of the Third Reich, Munich 1994.
  • Guntram Schulze-Wegener, Die deutsche Kriegsmarine-Armung 1942-1945, Hamburg et al. 1997.