Weapons and Tactics

Air Warfare

World War II involved both strategic and tactical air warfare. Strategic air warfare is the use of bombers to destroy an enemy's industry, cities, and morale. Tactical air warfare is the use of planes to attack the enemy's troops on the battlefield, usually in coordinated support of one's own troops. The heavy bomber was used to conduct strategic air raids, most notably by British and American forces in the war against Germany. The development of long-range aircraft made bombing raids deep into German-occupied Europe feasible, but daytime missions were dangerous, and night raids proved inaccurate and largely ineffective. The development of long-range fighter planes, which could offer protection to the vulnerable bombers, made it possible to carry out daylight raids, which were more accurate, without heavy losses. Japan was also attacked in strategic raids. (See section "The War with Japan, 1941-45," subtitle The Air and Submarine War Against Japan: Air War.)

The primary weapon of tactical strikes was the fighter-bomber. The fighter-bomber was a fast, heavily armed and armored plane, sturdy enough to withstand steep dives, rapid maneuvers, and some of the ground fire that its low-level attacks would encounter. Typical armament included bombs, heavy machine guns, automatic cannon, and air-to-ground rockets. Fighter-bombers were used to strike enemy armor and defensive positions, destroy supply and communications centers close to battlefields, and harass enemy troops behind the lines. They were often called upon by ground troops to attack entrenched enemy positions, or to lay down a barrage of fire before an attack.

The Soviet and German air forces were designed for a largely tactical role. The German Stuka dive bomber, later widely converted to a cannon-bearing anti-tank plane, at the beginning of the war was a major component of the German blitzkrieg. The Soviet Sturmovik, a heavily armored attack plane, was used with great effect against German tanks. American and British forces quickly learned the value of tactical air warfare, and employed a variety of heavily armed fighter-bombers in Europe and the Pacific.

Airborne Assault. The military value of paratroops and glider troops was first demonstrated in World War II. Airborne combat troops could be dropped behind enemy lines to seize or sabotage key positions and installations. The Germans were the first to make successful assaults with paratroops and gliders, during the Battle of Flanders, and later staged the first large-scale airborne invasion in history, on the island of Crete. The Allies employed some 700 gliders, loaded with troops and equipment, and three divisions of paratroops during the landings at Normandy.

Naval Warfare

Submarines. As in World War I, the major menace to shipping at sea was the submarine. Beginning in 1940, German submarines used the "wolf-pack" method of attack, with large groups of submarines making coordinated assaults on shipping convoys. American submarines adopted wolf-pack techniques against Japanese shipping in the Pacific with great success.

The principal weapon of the submarine, and of some surface vessels, was the torpedo. One of the most successful torpedoes was the Japanese "Long Lance," which was used to sink four cruisers at the Battle of Savo Island (1942). Late in the war, the Germans introduced homing torpedoes guided by the sound of the target ship's propellers. Aircraft Carriers. The most significant development in naval warfare in World War II was the use of aircraft carriers as capital ships—that is, as the main warships of a fleet. Before the war, aircraft carriers were generally viewed as support ships, intended to provide air protection and air reconnaissance for battleships. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor showed the carrier's potential as an offensive weapon. In May, 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought entirely by carrier-based aircraft, took place. It was the first naval confrontation in history where the opposing fleets never came within sight of each other and were never close enough to exchange gunfire. From that point on, the carrier was the dominant warship in the war in the Pacific.

Amphibious Tactics. By 1934 the U.S. Marines had developed methods for landing troops and equipment on strongly defended shores. Key elements of amphibious assault were the use of landing craft designed to be beached for easy unloading, close support by naval gunfire and aircraft, and carefully planned logistical support that allowed a rapid buildup of equipment and troops on the beachhead. Nearly all the fighting on land in the Pacific was preceded by amphibious assaults, and the lessons learned were applied to the landings at Normandy, the largest such assaults ever attempted.

Land Warfare

Tanks. Because of the different role it was intended to play, the World War II tank was quite different from the tall, unwieldy vehicle invented during World War I. Instead of being used to accompany and protect advancing troops or to break the stalemate of trench warfare, the new tanks were designed for independent offensive action as the spearheads of blitzkrieg attacks. They were fast, low, heavily armored, and armed with powerful large- and small-caliber guns. The Soviet T-34, considered by some to be the finest tank of the war, had an 85-mm main gun and two machine guns and could reach speeds of more than 30 miles per hour (48 km/h). The Germans so respected the T-34 that they copied its design to build their Panther tank.

Artillery. Advances in artillery weapons included the adaptation of artillery pieces for easy mobility, often by mounting the guns on tracked, self-propelled carriages. The recoilless rifle, a lightweight weapon capable of firing a powerful shell, was introduced. Hand-carried rocket launchers, such as the American bazooka, were widely used, especially against tanks. Larger rockets, mounted in arrays and fired sequentially, were used as anti-aircraft weapons and to lay down barrages. The German V-2 ballistic missile was used as a long-range artillery weapon against England, France, and the Netherlands.

Small Arms. In general, the firepower of the individual soldier in World War II was considerably higher than in previous conflicts. Most American soldiers, and some troops of other nations, were equipped with semi-automatic weapons. These weapons required only that the trigger be pulled repeatedly to shoot; no lever or bolt needed to be worked to reload the gun from its magazine. Many troops, particularly those of the Soviet Union, were equipped with submachine guns. Light machine guns were also more widely used than in previous conflicts.