Technology of a Modern War

Technology of a Modern War

Technology in World War II


Technology played a significant role in World War II. Some of the technologies used during the war were developed during the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, much was developed in response to needs and lessons learned during the First World War, while others were beginning to be developed as the war ended. Many wars had major effects on the technologies that we use in our daily lives. However, compared to previous wars, World War II had the greatest effect on the technology and devices that are used today. Technology also played a greater role in the conduct of World War II than in any other war in history, and had a critical role in its outcome. 


Learning Objectives

  • Identify, explain, and assess the impact of the new technologies of the Second World War. 


Key Terms / Key Concepts 

atomic bomb: explosive device powered by nuclear fission, first developed by the United States through the Manhattan Project 

jet aircraft: jet-powered military aircraft developed by Britain, Germany, Japan, and the United States 

V-2 rocket: ballistic missile developed by Germany during World War II 


Summary of World War II Technological Developments


During WWII. many types of technology were customized for military use, and major developments occurred across several fields including: 

  • Weaponry: ships, vehicles, submarines, aircraft, tanks, artillery, small arms; and biological, chemical, and atomic weapons 

  • Logistical support: vehicles necessary for transporting soldiers and supplies, such as trains, trucks, tanks, ships, and aircraft 

  • Communications and intelligence: devices used for navigation, communication, remote sensing, and espionage 

  • Medicine: surgical innovations, chemical medicines, and techniques 

  • Rocketry: guided missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, and automatic aircraft 

World War II was the first war where military operations were conducted to obtain intelligence on the enemy's technology and widely targeted the research efforts of the enemy. This included the exfiltration of Niels Bohr from German-occupied Denmark to Britain in 1943; the sabotage of Norwegian heavy water production; and the bombing of Peenemunde; the Bruneval Raid for German radar; and Operation Most III for the German V-2. 


Interwar Period


In the aftermath of World War I nations responded in a variety of ways to the question of rearming for the next war. Military investments differed by nation between WWI and WWII. In August 1919 the British Ten Year Rule declared the government should not expect another war within ten years. Consequently, they conducted very little military research and development (R&D). In contrast, Germany and the Soviet Union were dissatisfied powers who, 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, they asked for access to German technical developments, as well as for assistance in creating the Red Army General Staff. In the late 1920s, Germany helped the Soviet industry begin to modernize and to assist in the establishment of tank production facilities at the Leningrad Bolshevik Factory and the Kharkiv Locomotive Factory. This cooperation would break down when Hitler rose to power in 1933.

The failure of the 1932 World Disarmament Conference marked the beginning of the arms race immediately preceding World War II. 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, was a product of French R&D based on the static warfare on the Western Front during WWI. 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 and Russia had more, and much better, tanks than Germany in 1940, right before they clashed. As in World War I, the French generals expected that armor would mostly serve to help infantry break the static trench lines and storm machine gun nests. They thus spread the armor among their infantry divisions, ignoring the new German doctrine of blitzkrieg based on fast, coordinated movement using concentrated armor attacks, against which the only effective defense was mobile anti-tank guns, as the old infantry antitank rifles were ineffective against the new medium and heavy tanks.

Air power was a major concern of Germany and Britain between the wars. Commercial trade in aircraft engines continued, with Britain selling hundreds of its best designs to German firms, who used them in the first generation of their aircraft and then improved on them for use in German military aircraft. These new inventions in aircraft parts aided German successes in World War II.

Germany was at the forefront of internal combustion engine development. The laboratory of Ludwig Prandtl at University of Göttingen was the world center of aerodynamics and fluid dynamics in general, until its dispersal after the Allied victory. This contributed to the German development of jet aircraft and of submarines with improved underwater performance.

Induced nuclear fission was discovered in Germany in 1939 by Otto Hahn, as well as expatriate Jews in Sweden. Germany lagged in this area because many of the scientists needed to develop nuclear power had escaped or migrated to other countries due to Nazi anti-Jewish and anti-intellectual policies.

Scientists have been at the heart of warfare and their contributions have often been decisive. As Ian Jacob—the wartime military secretary of Winston Churchill—famously remarked on the influx of refugee scientists into Allied nations (including 19 Nobel laureates): "the Allies won the [Second World] War because our German scientists were better than their German scientists". 


Allied Cooperation


The Allies of World War II cooperated extensively in the development and manufacture of new and existing technologies to support military operations and intelligence gathering during the Second World War. There are various ways in which the allies cooperated, including the American Lend-Lease scheme, the development of hybrid weapons such as the Sherman Firefly, and the British Tube Alloys nuclear weapons research project, which was absorbed into the American-led Manhattan Project. Several technologies invented in Britain proved critical to the military and were widely manufactured by the Allies during the Second World War. 




Military weapons technology experienced rapid advances during World War II; over six years there was a disorientating rate of change in combat in everything from aircraft to small arms. Indeed, the war began with most armies utilizing technology that had changed little from World War I, and in some cases, had remained unchanged since the 19th century. For instance, cavalry, trenches, and World War I-era battleships were normal in 1940, ; however, within only six years armies around the world had developed jet aircraft, ballistic missiles, and even atomic weapons in the case of the United States. 




In the Western European Theatre of World War II, air power became crucial throughout the war, both in tactical and strategic operations (respectively, battlefield and long-range). Superior German aircraft, aided by ongoing introduction of design and technology innovations, allowed the German armies to initially overrun Western Europe with great speed in 1940, largely assisted by lack of Allied aircraft, which in many cases lagged in design and technical development during the slump in research investment after the Great Depression. 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. Aircraft were used in anti-submarine warfare against German U-Boats, by the Germans to mine shipping lanes, and by the Japanese against previously formidable Royal Navy battleships such as HMS Prince of Wales.

Since the end of World War I, the French Air Force had been badly neglected, as military leaders preferred to spend money on ground armies and static fortifications to fight another World War I-style war. As a result, by 1940, the French Air Force had only 1562 planes and was together with 1070 RAF planes facing 5,638 Luftwaffe fighters and fighter-bombers. Most French airfields were located in north-east of France, and were quickly overrun in the early stages of the campaign. 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. Utilizing France's airfields near the English Channel the Germans were able to launch raids on London and other cities during the Blitz, with varying degrees of success. The Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom 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.

After World War I, the concept of massed aerial bombing—"The bomber will always get through"—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. However, France's bomber wing was severely neglected, while Germany's bombers were developed in secret as they were explicitly forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. German industrial production actually rose continuously from 1940 to 1945, despite the best efforts of the Allied air forces to cripple industry.

Despite the abilities of Allied bombers, though, Germany was not quickly crippled by Allied air raids. At the start of the war 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, so they failed to explode.

The practical jet aircraft age began just before the start of the war with the development of the Heinkel He 178—the first true turbojet. Late in the war the Germans brought in the first operational Jet fighter—the Messerschmitt Me 262. However, despite their seeming technological edge, German jets were often hampered by technical problems, such as short engine lives, and the Me 262 had an estimated operating life of just ten hours before failing.

German jets were also overwhelmed by Allied air superiority, frequently being destroyed on or near the airstrip. The first and only operational Allied jet fighter of the war—the British Gloster Meteor—saw combat against German V-1 flying bombs but did not significantly distinguish from top-line, late-war piston-driven aircraft. 




As with other resources, the Allies possessed quantitative superiority over the Axis nations in petroleum production. During the Axis countries had serious shortages of petroleum from which to make liquid fuel. These shortages drove Axis conquest efforts in the Middle East and east Asia. Germany also was able to mitigate somewhat this shortage through a process to make synthetic fuel from coal. Consequently, synthesis factories were principal targets of the Oil Campaign of World War II. 




The Treaty of Versailles had imposed severe restrictions upon Germany constructing vehicles for military purposes; in response, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, German arms manufacturers and the Wehrmacht had begun secretly developing tanks. As these vehicles were produced in secret, their technical specifications and battlefield potential were largely unknown to the European Allies until the war actually began.

French and British Generals believed that a second war with Germany would be fought in the same way as WWI had been – static trench warfare. Fighting on the Western Front was marked by hundreds of thousands of casualties in campaigns that lasted months for territorial gains of only a few hundred square miles, such as the Battle of the Somme, which lasted four and a half months, cost both sides close to a million casualties, and gained the British just under one hundred square miles. Beginning in WWI both sides invested in thickly armored, heavily armed vehicles, including tanks and self-propelled vehicles, designed to cross shell-damaged ground and trenches under fire, ending static trench warfare. At the same time the British also developed faster but lightly armored cruiser tanks to range behind the enemy lines.

Communication technology also varied between nations. Only a handful of French tanks had radios, and these often broke as the tank lurched over uneven ground. German tanks were, on the contrary, all equipped with radios, allowing them to communicate with one another throughout battles, while French tank commanders could rarely contact other vehicles.

World War II marked the first full-scale war when mechanization played a significant role. This meant that both men and materials would be transported by motorized vehicles, as opposed to animals or people. Most nations did not begin the war equipped for this. Even the vaunted German Panzer forces relied heavily on non-motorized 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. The U.S.  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 were the tanks, forming the armored spearhead of mechanized warfare. Their impressive firepower and armor made them the premier fighting machine of ground warfare. However, the large number of trucks and lighter vehicles that kept the infantry, artillery, and others moving were massive undertakings also. 




Naval warfare changed dramatically during World War II, with the ascent of the aircraft carrier to the premier vessel of the fleet, as well as the impact of increasingly capable submarines on the course of the war. 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. While the Germans were able to develop advanced types of submarines, this development came into service too late and after nearly all the experienced crews had been lost.

In addition to aircraft carriers, destroyers were advanced as well. For instance, the Imperial Japanese Navy introduced the Fubuki-class destroyer. The Fubuki class set a new standard not only for Japanese vessels but also for destroyers around the world. At a time when British and American destroyers had changed little from their un-turreted, single-gun mounts and light weaponry, the Japanese destroyers were bigger, more powerfully armed, and faster than any similar class of vessel in the other fleets. The Japanese destroyers of World War II are said to be the world's first modern destroyer.

Submersibles, or submarines, played an even greater role in WWII than they had in WWI. German U-boats came close to cutting off the flow of supplies from the U.S. and Canada to Britain in 1942, before Allied ships and aircraft brought an end to the Battle of the Atlantic. U.S. submarines were more successful against the Japanese in the Pacific, cutting off the flow of soldiers and supplies to Japanese-held islands. Both sides improved submersibles during the war, including with devices such as snorkels and more effective torpedoes. The success of submersibles on both sides in the war ensured their place in the planning of naval warfare in future conflicts.

The most important shipboard advances were in the field of anti-submarine warfare. Driven by the desperate necessity of keeping Britain supplied, technologies for the detection and destruction of submarines were advanced at high priority. The use of ASDIC (SONAR) became widespread and so did the installation of shipboard and airborne radar. The Allies’ breaking of the German Ultra code also contributed to the defeat of German U-boats. 


Firearms, Artillery,and Bombs


The actual weapons (guns, mortars, artillery, bombs, and other devices) were as diverse as the participants and objectives. A large array was developed during the war to meet specific needs that arose, but many traced their early development prior to World War II. Torpedoes began to use magnetic detonators; compass-directed, programmed and even acoustic guidance systems; and improved propulsion. Fire-control systems continued to develop for ships' guns and came into use for torpedoes and anti-aircraft fire. Human torpedoes and the Hedgehog were also developed. 


Small Arms Development


World War II saw the establishment of the reliable semi-automatic rifle—such as the American M1 Garand—and, more importantly, of the first widely used assault rifles—named after the German sturmgewehrs of the late war. Machine guns also improved. However, despite being overshadowed by self-loading/automatic rifles and sub-machine guns, bolt-action rifles remained the mainstay infantry weapon of many nations during World War II, most likely due to manufacturing and training issues for more advanced weapons. When the United States entered World War II, there were not enough M1 Garand rifles available to American forces, which forced the US to start producing more M1903 rifles in order to act as a "stop gap" measure until sufficient quantities of M1 Garands were produced. 


Atomic Bomb


The massive research and development demands of the war included the Manhattan Project, the effort to quickly develop an atomic bomb or a nuclear fission warhead. It was perhaps the most profound military development of the war, and it had a great impact on the scientific community, among other things, as well as led to the creation of a network of national laboratories in the United States.

While only the U.S. had succeeded in developing atomic weapons during WWII, other countries tried. The British started their own nuclear weapons program in 1940, being the first country to do so. But, due to the potential radioactive fallout, the British considered the idea morally unacceptable and put it on hold until after the war. The Empire of Japan was also developing an atomic Bomb. However, it floundered due to lack of resources despite gaining interest from the government.

The invention of the atomic bomb meant that a single aircraft could carry a weapon so powerful it could burn down entire cities, making conventional warfare against a nation with an arsenal of atomic bombs a suicidal move; this means possession of the bomb worked as a deterrent to foreign aggression.

There was also a German nuclear energy project, including talk of an atomic weapon. But it failed for a variety of reasons, most notably German Antisemitism. Half of continental theoretical physicists did much of their early study and research in Germany —including Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer; they were either Jewish or married to a Jewish person. (Erwin Schrödinger had also left Germany for political reasons.) When they left Germany, the only leading nuclear physicist left in Germany was Heisenberg, who apparently dragged his feet on the project, or at best lacked the high morale that characterized the Los Alamos work. 

In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote the now infamous Einstein-Szilard letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. The letter informed Roosevelt of what the Germans were doing to develop atomic capabilities and encouraged the president to directly and secretly invest in developing this technology. This letter contributed to FDR’s decision to proceed with the Manhattan Project.

Following the conclusion of the European Theater in May 1945, two atomic bombs produced as part of the Manhattan Project were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 by U.S. developed and built strategic B29 bombers toward the end of forcing Japan to surrender. The success of these bombs brought a final end to the war, and made the U.S. world’s first super power, defined by possession of a nuclear arsenal.

The strategic importance of the bomb, as well as its even more powerful fusion-based successors, did not become fully apparent until the United States lost its monopoly on the weapon in the post-war era. The Soviet Union developed and tested their first fire weapon in 1949, based partially on information obtained from Soviet espionage in the United States. Competition between the two superpowers played a large part in the development of the Cold War. The strategic implications of such a massively destructive weapon still reverberate in the 21st century. 




Rocketry advanced markedly during World War II, as illustrated most visibly by the German glide bombs, the V-1 flying bomb, and the V-2 rocket. V-1 and V-2 rockets took the lives of many civilians in London during 1944 and 1945. These weapons were precursors to "smart" weapons. The V-1, also known as the buzz bomb, was an automatic aircraft that would be known as a "cruise missile" today. The V-1 was developed at Peenemünde Army Research Center by the Nazi German Luftwaffe during the Second World War. During initial development it was known by the codename "Cherry Stone." The first of the so-called Vergeltungswaffen series designed for terror bombing of London, the V-1 was fired from launch facilities along the French (Pas-de-Calais) and Dutch coasts. The first V-1 was launched at London on 13 June 1944), one week after (and prompted by) the successful Allied landings in Europe. At its peak, more than one hundred V-1s a day were fired toward  south-east England—9,521 in total. This firing decreased in number as sites were overrun until October 1944, when the last V-1 site in range of Britain was captured by Allied forces. After this, the V-1s were directed at the port of Antwerp and other targets in Belgium, with 2,448 V-1s being launched. The attacks stopped when the last launch site was overrun on 29 March 1945.

The V-2 was the world's first long-range guided ballistic missile. The missile with liquid-propellant rocket engine was developed during the Second World War in Germany as a "vengeance weapon" that was designed to attack Allied cities as retaliation for the Allied bombings of German cities. The V-2 rocket was also the first artificial object to cross the boundary of space. This was the first step into the space age as its trajectory took it through the stratosphere, higher and faster than any aircraft. This later led to the development of the Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Wernher Von Braun led the V-2 development team and later emigrated to the United States where he contributed to the development of the Saturn V rocket, which took men to the moon in 1969. 




Both sides also made remarkable medical advances during the war. Penicillin was first mass-produced and used during the war. The widespread use of mepacrine (Atabrine) for the prevention of malaria, sulfanilamide, blood plasma, and morphine were also among chief wartime medical advancements. Advances in the treatment of burns, including the use of skin grafts, mass immunization for tetanus, and improvements in gas masks also took place during the war. The use of metal plates to help heal fractures began during the war. 


When World War II ended in 1945, the small arms that were used in the conflict still saw action in the hands of the armed forces of various nations and guerrilla movements during and after the Cold War era. Nations like the Soviet Union and the United States provided many surplus, World War II-era small arms to a number of nations and political movements during the Cold War era as a pretext to producing more modern infantry weapons.

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