Chapter 5 - The Emergence of Modern War
World War II
Europe emerged from World War I almost bankrupt. While research and development into new weapons continued during the inter-war period, it did so on a much smaller scale than before the war. Overall expenditures on military equipment and manpower declined as the nations of Europe tried to find the money to repair their devastated domestic infrastructures. The political and social institutions of the European powers were badly shaken by the lingering effects of the war. The war had produced revolution in Russia leading to the establishment of a Soviet state. In Italy, Benito Mussolini deposed the Italian monarchy and produced the first Fascist state. Germany's monarchy was replaced with a weak republican government that proved unable to deal with the increasing social instability, succumbing in the end to Nazism. France's republican institutions were attacked from within by both left and right so sapping the political will of the citizenry that, in the spring of 1940, the French surrendered to the German army without hardly firing a shot. In England the hold of the traditional ruling classes was weakened considerably by an assault mounted from the left. Only America, whose losses in the war had been very light, seemed immune from the destabilizing aftershocks of the Great War.
Most of the European powers could no longer sustain large military establishments. In 1918, German military forces were reduced by the dictate of the victorious powers, and spent almost nothing on military development until 1932. England reduced her air and ground forces significantly. By 1939 her navy was a shell of its former self. France reduced her expenditures as well, choosing to concentrate on ground forces, leaving her naval, air, and armor forces too small to counter the German threat. The United States rescinded military conscription and reduced military expenditures across the board. American ground forces shrunk to under 200,000 men, armor was nonexistent, and the air force could deploy only a handful of obsolete machines. Soviet attempts at military growth were crippled by famine, political terror, and civil war. By the early 1930s, however, the new Red Army had the largest artillery and tank forces in the world. But as a result of Stalin's purges, these formations were broken up and the officer corps killed or imprisoned. When the Soviets finally came to blows with tiny Finland, they were barely able to achieve a victory.
Only in Japan and, to a lesser extent, in Italy did military expenditures and weapons development increase significantly. After 1932, Germany embarked upon a major rearmament program under the Nazis. In Japan the need to build an industrial base sufficient to maintain a modern military establishment led to the creation of a military society whose every effort went toward increasing the military prowess of the state. The Japanese reliance on overseas sources for critical raw materials forced it to engage in wars of conquest in Asia to gain control of oil fields, steel deposits, and other raw materials needed as sinews of war. Mussolini's attempt to make Italy a great power foundered on the insufficient resource base of Italy. Italy never obtained sufficient coal, steel, and oil supplies required by a first-rate military machine. By 1939 when Italian military prestige was at its highest and Italian airplanes, ships, and small arms were among the best quality in the world, the fact remained that Italy's industrial base was never adequate to sustain a large modern military machine for very long.
Yet, it would be incorrect to assume that the development of weaponry came to a halt during the inter-war years. The tank, for example, continued to improve markedly with the appearance of the low profile hull, the revolving turret, better gunsights, and improved tracks and suspension. By the 1930s the Russians had developed the famed T-34, the best tank of its day. Tank cannon grew larger to 90 millimeter guns, and new propellants and shot, the sabot round, made these cannon even more deadly. The tank called into existence the first antitank guns. The German Gerlich gun, for example, fired a 28 millimeter round of tungsten carbide at 4,000 feet per second, and was capable of penetrating any known tank armor. A later German invention, the "eighty-eight," was originally developed as an antitank weapon but doubled as both an antiaircraft and direct fire gun. It is generally adjudged the best weapon of its kind in World War II.
Developments in aircraft design -- the stressed metal skin and the monoplane -- made the introduction of fighter aircraft possible. Engines over 1,000 horsepower made speeds of over 350 miles per hour commonplace. The long-range bomber capable of flying at altitudes over 40,000 feet at ranges of 5,000 miles was developed. At sea the light and fast destroyer was built to protect the larger battleships. More sophisticated submarines could remain at sea for 60 days at a time. A new torpedo, the Type 33 Lance, driven by oxygen and leaving no track appeared with a range of 25 miles at 36 knots. Torpedoes now typically carried warheads of 400 pounds of high explosives. The aircraft carrier came into its own. The Japanese carrier, Kaga, carried 60 aircraft and displaced 39,000 tons. The American carrier, Lexington, displaced 36,000 tons and carried 90 aircraft. The integration of naval and air forces within a single combined combat arm was almost complete.
The destructive power of the combat arms -- infantry, armor, and artillery -- greatly increased in World War II. Infantry, armed in large numbers with the new all metal submachine gun, delivered firepower at rates five times greater than the infantryman of World War I. Infantry carried its own antitank weapons in the form of the American 3.5 inch Bazooka (named because of the sound it made when fired) rocket launcher or the German Panzerfaust. Dependable motorized transport, the Jeep, the "deuce and a half" truck, and the armored personnel carrier -- fully tracked, half-tracked, or pneumatic tire vehicles -- increased infantry mobility twentyfold and enabled it to keep pace with the rapid armor advance.
The tank saw a remarkable increase in its combat capability and, for the first time in almost 700 years, cavalry again played an important role on the battlefield. The Russian T-34, originally produced in 1935, was possibly the best battle tank of the war. Mounting an 85 millimeter gun with a new muzzle-brake to reduce recoil, the T-34 made 32 miles an hour with a range of 180 miles. It introduced the sloped armored glacis in front to deflect antitank rounds, and had a ground pressure of 10 pounds per square inch which, on its American-designed Christie suspension, allowed it to traverse terrain that most Allied or Axis tanks could not. The American Sherman tank introduced cast armor to replace the old welded armor, the volute-spring bogie suspension, and rubber block treads that increased track life by 500 percent. The Sherman used a revolutionary hydroelectric gun stabilizing system and improved triangle sights. Tank engines grew more powerful and more reliable, and the tank quickly became the centerpiece of the striking forces for all armies except the Japanese.
Artillery's developments came in response to the need to defend itself against armor and air attack. The result was the self-propelled artillery gun. These guns, often reaching 8-inch or 122 millimeter caliber, were mobile artillery mounted on tank chassis. Self-propelled artillery came in two forms: the assault gun and the light assault gun. The arrival of the ground attack fighter required improvements in antiaircraft guns. The Bofors 40 millimeter cannon was capable of firing two rounds per second over a slant range of 4 miles. The American M-2, 90 millimeter gun fired 25 rounds per minute to a height of 9 miles. The introduction of reliable electronic fire control systems with radar detectors and trackers linked to primitive computers provided great advances in the lethality of antiaircraft guns.
Unguided rocket artillery, first used by the Chinese one thousand years earlier, reappeared in the form of the German 15 centimeter Nebelwerfer that could fire six 70-pound rockets in less than 3 seconds. The Soviet Katusha, first at 90 millimeter and then 122 millimeter, fired over 40 rockets at once. The American entry, the Calliope, fired 60 rockets at a time. Used as area saturation weapons, these rockets caused large numbers of psychiatric as well as physical casualties. The variable timed fuse introduced by the Americans increased the lethality of artillery fire by a significant degree. Each shell contained a tiny radio transceiver within it that could be set so that the round exploded at a precise distance above the ground. This innovation increased the killing power of artillery by 10 times over shells fitted with conventional fuses.
The war at sea saw the demise of the battleship as it became increasingly vulnerable to air and undersea attack. The aircraft carrier became the major naval weapon. Carriers like the Essex and Midway class carried over 100 strike aircraft, were 820 feet long with beams of 147 feet, and could move at 32 knots. Carrier-based aircraft were remarkable machines. These aircraft carried 2,000 pounds of bombs, flew at 350 miles per hour, attacked with rockets, torpedoes, and machine guns, and ranged over 300 miles. Although submarines operated with new electrical motors to make them increasingly difficult to detect, antisubmarine technology improved markedly. Radar and radio sets allowed antisubmarine aircraft to detect submarines at night. New depth charges provided surface vessels with new means of submarine destruction. By 1944, the submarine was no longer a significant threat to surface combatants.
The air war saw the emergence of greatly improved strike aircraft. The British Spitfire and other aircraft on both sides could range outward for hundreds of miles at speeds over 400 miles per hour. Ground support tactics developed rapidly as strike aircraft made heavy firepower at close ranges available to advancing infantry and armor. The heavy strategic bomber was capable of bomb loads of 20,000 pounds. The B-29 Superfortress carried 20,000 pounds of bombs 3,250 miles at an altitude of 31,850 feet. By war's end the Germans (ME-262), the British (Vampire), and the Americans (P-59 Aircomet) had all produced prototypes of jet powered aircraft. In August 1945 the United States unveiled the most awesome weapon of war yet invented by man, the atomic bomb, and devastated the civilian population centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Warfare had undergone yet another revolutionary change.