Thursday, 15 April 2010

Weapons in 1939 - Continuity and Change

World War Two opened with a spectacular run of successes for the Axis Powers.  Those victories were the result of a revolution in weapons and tactics that gave the Germans and Japanese a startling battlefield supremacy over their enemies. By the summer of 1942 it looked as if nothing could stop a rapid victory for the Axis.

The armed forces that went to war in 1939 were deceptively similar to those that had ended the last great war of 1918. In many respects the weaponry and supply systems had not changed very much. A majority of the senior commanders had held command at divisional level in the earlier conflict and their views on tactical and strategic questions had been conditioned by their experiences twenty years earlier.

This continuity was more pronounced among the states that had won World War I. They had ended the war with vast amounts of military equipment of all kinds and, with peacetime budgets cut to the minimum, there had been little opportunity or enthusiasm to replace it. Moreover, the victors were inclined to think that they had the key to victory. Those countries that had been defeated were less affected. They were building up their armed forces from scratch with the most modern equipment. Moreover, their commanders were more inclined to be open to new ideas and concepts since the methods they had used in World War I had failed so obviously.

At sea the big-gun battleship was still considered to be the key weapon in achieving and maintaining control of the shipping lanes. Submarines, cruisers, destroyers and other craft were considered useful for attacking merchant ships, undertaking small actions and other secondary roles, but it was the battleship that was seen as the final arbiter of naval power.

A typical example would be the five battleships of the Queen Elizabeth Class of battleships in the British Royal Navy. These ships were built between 1912 and 1916, displacing 35,380 tons when fully loaded. The main armored deck was 5 inches thick, while the turrets had 13-inch armor and the conning tower 11-inch armor. The main weaponry consisted of eight 15-inch guns for use against enemy battleships and eight 6-inch guns for use against other targets. In the early 1930s the ships were modernized to take account of changing ideas on naval warfare. The engines were replaced with more powerful models to give the ships a top speed of 23.5 knots while the 6-inch guns were removed and replaced with ten antiaircraft guns. Otherwise the ships entered World War II as they had left World War I.

On land the combination of artillery and infantry that had dominated the earlier conflict was still relied upon by most armies. The majority of senior commanders envisaged a similar sort of warfare to that of 1918: static defenses would dominate with only limited assaults led by tanks and supported by heavy artillery being possible.

British and French tanks had performed well in 1919 in two key roles. The first was to accompany infantry as they advanced to break through trench and bunker defense lines. The second was to push through any gaps that opened in enemy lines to disrupt advancing reinforcements and hinder the formation of a new defensive line.

A typical infantry support tank was the French Char B1bis. This weighed 32 tons and had armor up to 60mm thick. It was designed to be able to clamber over all manner of field obstructions and defensive works. It had a 47mm gun mounted in a turret plus a huge 75mm howitzer firing directly forward from the hull. Because it was intended to aid infantry attacking fixed defenses it was slow and had a limited range.

The smaller tanks designed to race through gaps in enemy lines was typified by Italy’s Fiat Ansaldo. This tank weighed only 3.2 tons and had armor 15mm thick, which was adequate for stopping bullets but not much else. The two-man crew consisted of a driver and a gunner – the latter having as his weapon a pair of machine guns, a 20mm anti-tank gun or a flamethrower. With a top speed of 28mph and a range of 78 miles the Ansaldo was expected to create mayhem behind enemy lines.

In the air most air forces envisaged undertaking similar missions to those of 1918. Bombing raids would be undertaken in daylight against specific military targets, though more daring advocates of long range bombing suggested attacking weapons factories in enemy towns that lay within range. Because the emphasis was on precision bombing of small targets, the actual weight of bombs to be carried was generally quite low.

The Soviet Ilyushin DB3 can be taken as a typical bomber. It had twin engines developing 960hp each giving it a top speed of 267mph, a range of 1600 miles and a ceiling of 32,000 feet. It could carry 2,200lb of bombs and was protected by three 13mm machine guns.

Italy’s G50 Freccia fighter entered service in 1938 as a low-wing monoplane powered by an 840hp Fiat A74 engine. This gave the machine a top speed of 293mph, a ceiling of 33,000 feet and a range of 620 miles. Nimble and quick the Freccia was much admired at home and abroad. It was armed with twin 12.7mm machine guns.

Hitler, it was said, had “missed the bus” by attacking Poland on 1 September. It was confidently predicted that the Poles would be able to delay the German advance in a series of defensive battles until the winter weather came. By spring of 1940 the British and French would be fully mobilized and would launch an assault into Germany in the west. Faced by a war on two fronts, it was expected, Germany would collapse just as she had done twenty years earlier.

That this did not happen was due to the concept of blitzkrieg, developed and perfected in the 1930s by a small group of younger German officers. Hitler recognized the advantages of the idea and used his power as dictator to impose the doctrine on his older and more senior commanders who recognized only the inherent risks of the new concept.

The key tank in the new battle plan was the Panzer IV manufactured by Krupps. This weapon entered service in 1936 and remained in production through to the closing days of the war with almost 9,000 being produced. There would be considerable variation between the different models of the Panzer IV with different guns, various levels of armor and assorted secondary armament. The models with which Germany went to war were models A to D. These generally had 30mm armor and were armed with a 75mm general cannon plus a 7.92mm machine gun.  The tank could manage 20mph on roads, less cross-country, and had a range of 200 miles.

The lighter and faster Panzer III made by Daimler-Benz was produced in larger numbers. It was equipped with a lighter gun and armor-piercing ammunition. The Panzer III was tackle enemy tanks, artillery and bunkers while the Panzer IV got on with the main fighting.

Perhaps the key features in these German tanks have been often overlooked. They were equipped with a two-way radio and large enough to carry a tank commander whose sole job was to use the radio and command the other crewmembers. In nearly all other tanks the commander also had to man the gun, drive or carry out some other task. The commander was thus not distracted by other tasks in battle and could fight his tank more effectively. The provision of radios allowed the tanks to keep in touch with each other and with other units – crucially with the Luftwaffe.

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