As well as the armed forces personnel of every nation involved in the Second World War, the weapons they brought to the battlefield proved crucial. On the ground, in the air and on the seas, many billions of pounds, dollars, marks, roubles and yen were spent arming millions of men and women in the pursuit of victory.
Throughout the conflict, new armaments were brought to battle. Some were deemed a complete failure, while others were effective but not dramatically so. At times, however, a weapon was introduced that was a game-changer – and these were ultimately the weapons that won the war.
They may not be the weapons that brought the biggest change in numerical superiority, or even technically the best of their type, but they are the most famous, iconic and influential – and played a vital, victorious role in the most brutal, bloody war the world has ever seen.
The Spitfire was the only plane to remain in continuous production for the duration of the Second World War, and for good reason. It was a single-seat fighter aircraft that served the Allies in every theatre of war including Europe, the Mediterranean, the Pacific and south-east Asia, and is as iconic a plane as the Concorde or the Jumbo Jet.
It was designed by Reginald Mitchell as a response to a 1934 Air Ministry specification that asked for a high performance fighter plane armed with eight wing-mounted 0.303 in (7.7mm) machine guns. The first incarnation of the short-range interceptor flew in March 1935 and, after extensive testing, the first planes were delivered to the RAF in the summer of 1938.
The Spitfire had a stressed-skin aluminium structure and an elliptical wing with the thinnest possible cross-section to allow for high speeds at high altitudes. Although the Hawker Hurricane was more active during the dogfights against the Luftwaffe, the Spitfire benefitted from a lower attrition rate and a higher victory-to-loss ratio.
By the end of the war there were over 20 fighter versions of the Spitfire, as well as bomber versions carrying 250-500lb bombs under the fuselage and 250lb bombs under each wing. Known the world over as a nimble fighter plane, one of its most underrated yet important roles was as a reconnaissance aircraft.
Fuel tanks replaced the wing-mounted guns and ammunition bays giving it long range capability. Coupled with the fact that it performed so well at high altitudes, it was all but invisible to the enemy’s primitive radar systems. It’s been estimated that 36m photographs were taken, allowing the strategists to plan bombing targets with unprecedented precision.
Like the Spitfire, the M4 Sherman tank was deployed across all theatres of war. By no means the best tank used in the Second World War – it was outclassed by German Panzer tanks in terms of turning circle, armour protection and armaments, including a potent main gun – but it became a vital weapon in the ground offensive due to its speed, battlefield reliability, cost and ease of maintenance.
The M4 Sherman was produced very quickly and in massive amounts, and it was said that it ‘[was] an easy to use combat system that more or less won the ground war for the Allies through sheer numbers’.
The single most impressive element of the Sherman’s dominance on the battlefields of Europe, North Africa and the Pacific was that they didn’t see any action until early 1942. When Germany invaded Poland to kick off the war, they ran rampant with their Panzerkampgwagen V medium tanks through Polish defences, which weren’t seen as particularly strong at the time. But it was when the Germans did the same thing to the French – who were seen as strong fighting force – that the Americans sat up and paid attention.
As Paris sat under control of the Nazis, Congress had little choice but to release the millions of dollars needed to quickly revamp their armed forces that had stayed ostensibly the same since the end of the First World War. Designs for the M4 Sherman started in August 1940, and to save time, the tracks, engine, transmission and suspension of its interim predecessor, the M3 Lee, would be used. However, they had upgraded armour protection; a 75mm main gun in a full-traverse turret; and a reduction in crew from six to five. Further armament additions were added until it went into full production on September 5, 1941.
The British, Americans and Russians all used the M4 Sherman to devastating effect. Numerical superiority is vital in ground combat, and it was especially useful on D-Day during the Normandy campaign where the sheer numbers overwhelmed depleted German panzer divisions, leading the Allies onto a clear and resounding victory just under a year later.
‘Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us’ said Eisenhower. ‘If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we could never have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different’.
The Higgins Boat was an LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel) designed by Andrew Higgins, a flamboyant entrepreneur and owner of Higgins Industries, a New Orleans-based company that designed and built amphibious boats. It quickly became one of the most iconic and strategically important elements of the entire Second World War.
Built from plywood to save on essential materials needed for war production, the Higgins Boat came about as a result of the US Navy’s failure to produce a boat that could quickly and easily land troops on beaches. It outperformed every Navy effort during testing in 1938, and again in February 1939. Loaded with machine gun positions to the rear and a full-width ramp to allow 36 troops (and a small vehicle if necessary) to disembark quickly and en masse, the Higgins Boat was a devastating weapon.
To demonstrate the urgency and need of the Higgins boats, in 1938 Andrew Higgins had one boatyard employing about 70 people. Five years later, he had seven full-scale manufacturing plants and 25,000 on the payroll including, which was highly unusual at the time, black people, women, senior citizens and people with disabilities, all on equal pay. They obliterated production targets, churning out over 20,000 by the end of the war.
It was 36’ 3” (11.05m) long, 10’ 10” (3.3m) wide and could carry a payload of up to 8,100lb (3.7 tonnes). It carried troops to shore at a speed of nine knots (17 km/h), and on D-Day they did exactly that. Some of the most famous photographs taken, not just of the Second World War, but ever, are of the D-Day landings. The boats in the pictures? Higgins Boats.
LITTLE BOY AND FAT MAN
Little Boy and Fat Man were the names of the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945. It’s the only time nuclear weapons have been used in the history of war.
Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt in August 1939, warning him of the impending threat of the Germans arming themselves with an atomic weapon. Eleven months later, Einstein was in the US working on their version, codenamed the Manhattan Project. Alongside eminent scientists J. Robert Oppenheimer (considered the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ and chief architect of the project), Enrico Fermi, Chien-Shiung Wu, Leó Szilárd, Niels Bohr, Otto Frisch and others, they developed a working bomb that could be used to devastate entire cities.
As the war in the Pacific carried on after the war in Europe had ended, the US, Britain and China called for Japan to unconditionally surrender according to the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945 with the warning of ‘prompt and utter destruction’ if they didn’t. The US estimated that a full-scale ground offensive against Japan could result in a further year of fighting and the loss of up to a million lives. Ultimately, President Truman decided – against the grave moral reservations of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, General Eisenhower and many of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project – to use the atom bomb to end the war swiftly and decisively.
At 2.45am on August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, a highly modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets, took off from a small Pacific island to make the 1,500 mile trip north to the Japanese city of Hiroshima. On board was a 10’ long, 28in diameter, 9,700lb (4.4 ton) nuclear weapon called Little Boy filled with 64kg of enriched uranium-235. Fifteen minutes into the flight, weaponeer Captain William S. ‘Deak’ Parsons started the arming process.
At 8.15am local time, the cargo doors opened and the bomb was dropped. Missing its intended target by just 800ft, 60,000 of the 90,000 buildings within a three-mile radius were destroyed and 65-70,000 people died instantly with around the same number of injuries, most of whom would die within five years from radiation poisoning, burns and other assorted injuries and diseases.
Three days later, while Japan was still coming to terms with what had happened, Bock’s Car (often referred to as Bockscar) – another highly modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress – left from the same airfield as Enola Gay, on route to the city of Kokura. Haze prevented a view of the target area, so it continued onto Nagasaki. Fat Man, a 10,300lb (4.7 ton) plutonium weapon, detonated 1,650ft above Nagasaki, killing 35,000 and injuring 60,000 instantly, and wiping out close to 40% of the city.
Six days later on August 15, 1945, the Empire of Japan unconditionally surrendered and signed the Instrument of Surrender two weeks later. The war was over.
Known as the backbone of the British infantry, the Bren gun replaced both the Vickers medium machine gun and the Lewis light machine gun. The Vickers was complex and heavy and the Lewis overheated during sustained rates of fire and had to cool down before it could be used again.
In their search for a new weapon, the British Army found the quite excellent Zb vz/26, a Czechoslovakian light machine gun made by the Brno Company. Modified to shoot the British standard .303 calibre ammunition with a 30-round magazine, along with a number of minor alterations, the newly- designated ZBG 34 was ready to be mass-produced.
Called the BREN after Brno in Czechoslovakia and Enfield, after the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock, the Mark 1 was semi- or fully-automatic, 45.5 inches long, and had a barrel that could be changed very quickly for sustained fire. It weighed a touch over 22lb and could fire 500 rounds a minute.
Not only was it an excellent gun, it was reliable, easy and quick to repair in the field. The ammunition had a 2,400ft/sec muzzle velocity, and there were various versions of the Bren gun produced throughout the duration of the war. Every British infantry section of 10 men was constructed around the Bren, with riflemen complementing the machine gunners. Each section had a seven-man rifle group and three for the Bren. While the Bren teams provided the principal power, they were ably backed by the rifle crews.
The Bren gun was used through the 1950s but was replaced late in the decade by the L7. The L86 followed in the 1980s (while some vehicles still carried the Bren as a pintle mount), but its legacy as a vital tool in the Allied march to victory will never be forgotten.
Manufactured by Avro, a family-run British aircraft manufacturer owned by Alliott and Humphrey Vernon Roe, the Lancaster was a four-engined heavy bomber designed in response to the RAF’s call for a twin-engined bomber. The resultant Manchester was a disaster, and was redesigned with four 1,460hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. It was renamed the Lancaster.
The first production plane was flown on October 31, 1941 and it entered service with No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron in their first operational missions on March 3, 1942 in a raid on the German city of Essen. Four weeks later, ‘Lancs’ from 44 and 97 Squadrons bombed a diesel engine plant in the city of Augsburg.
Perhaps the two most famous and daring of all Lancaster bomber missions were those of 617 Squadron’s ‘Dam Busters’ raids in Operation Chastise, along with the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz in a remote Norwegian fjord by 31 planes dropping 5,400kg bombs.
Luftwaffe general Adolf Galland said the Lancaster was ‘the best night bomber of the war’. Equal praise was conferred on it by Marshall of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who called it Bomber Command’s ‘shining sword’.
Virtually all of the 7,300+ Lancaster bombers were committed to night raids on German cities and, all told, approximately 156,000 sorties were flown dropping well over 600,000 tonnes of bombs in the three years between 1942 and 1945. A little over 3,200 were lost in action, and just 35 planes completed over 100 missions each with the most successful flying 139 sorties.