A Twentieth Century Conflict

Old and new technologies take to the battlefield

The Second World War was the largest and deadliest conflict in human history, lasting from 1939 to 1945. It involved more than 30 countries, with an estimated 50 million to 85 million fatalities.

The war saw significant advancements in weapons and tactics, leading to a shift in the balance of power on the battlefield. Weapons and tactics were developed and refined throughout the war, introducing new technologies and strategies on both sides.

The evolution of conflict

World War II marked a significant shift in the way wars were fought, with new weapons and tactics that had not been seen before. This was a stark contrast to the static trench warfare and outdated tactics used in World War I. One of the most significant changes was the use of combined arms tactics, which involved coordinating infantry, armour, artillery, and airpower, while previous era cavalry units and observation balloons found themselves increasingly obsolete.

The introduction of more advanced tanks played a vital role in this shift towards more mobile warfare. They were quicker, heavily armoured and much more reliable and numerous, providing a significant advantage over the infantry. The increased use of tanks also required a change in tactics, with armies developing new methods for supporting and protecting them on the battlefield.

The use of airpower was also a significant change from World War I. Monoplanes were now the norm, quicker, more powerful and reliable able to be used for longer-range reconnaissance and bombing missions, while fighter planes – aside from duelling in the air - were developed to provide air support to ground troops, escort bombers on lengthy missions or take off (and land) from aircraft carriers.

The Battle of Britain in 1940 marked the first time that airpower was used extensively in a battle, and it showcased the importance of controlling the skies.

Naval warfare also saw significant changes in World War II, with aircraft carriers now playing a crucial role while the previous dominant vessel of the sea- the Battleship – saw its importance slowly but steadily decline. The development of sonar and radar technology allowed submarines to detect enemy ships and remain submerged for longer periods, making them more effective in their role.

The foot sloggers

Infantry played a crucial role in almost every major battle. As the war progressed, the use of infantry evolved in terms of equipment, tactics, doctrines, and technological advances.

Infantry equipment during the Second World War ranged from bolt-action rifles to machine guns, grenades, and anti-tank weapons. As the war progressed, new technologies were developed, including semi-automatic rifles, assault rifles, and submachine guns.

The United States' M1 Garand rifle was a semi-automatic rifle that gave soldiers a faster rate of fire. The German army developed the StG 44 assault rifle, which was a fully automatic rifle that gave soldiers an even greater advantage on the battlefield. The Soviet Union's PPSh-41 submachine gun was also an effective weapon for close-quarters combat.

Machine guns played a significant role in the Second World War, with the British Bren gun and German MG 42 machine guns being particularly effective. The MG 42 had a high rate of fire and was able to suppress enemy positions. The United States' Browning Automatic Rifle was also an effective machine gun, with a bipod that allowed it to be used as both a light machine gun and a rifle.

Infantry tactics during the Second World War underwent significant changes as new strategies were developed to counter the enemy. The "fire and movement" technique involved one squad firing while the other moved forward. This allowed soldiers to advance while suppressing enemy positions. The technique was used by the United States and other Allied forces.

Infiltration tactics involved small groups of soldiers sneaking behind enemy lines and attacking from the rear. This was a risky strategy but could be very effective in disrupting enemy positions. Infiltration tactics were used by both Allied and Axis forces.

Infantry doctrines during The Second World War varied between countries. The United States' doctrine focused on mobility and firepower, while the German army's doctrine emphasized aggressive tactics and the use of combined arms.

Technological advances also played a significant role in the evolving use of infantry during The Second World War. The introduction of tanks, airplanes, and artillery changed the battlefield, and infantry tactics had to adapt accordingly. One significant technological advance was the development of the bazooka. The bazooka was an anti-tank weapon that could be carried by infantry, giving them the ability to take out enemy tanks from a distance.

Armoured warfare

During The Second World War, tanks and armoured vehicles played a crucial role in many of the major battles. As the war progressed, the use of tanks and armoured vehicles evolved in terms of equipment, tactics, doctrines, technological advances, and specifications.

At the start of The Second World War, tanks were primarily used for infantry support and reconnaissance - mainly to support infantry and if possible, break through enemy lines. The French army of 1940 based their entire strategy around this. However, as the war progressed, tanks became larger and more heavily armoured, with greater firepower. The introduction of the Tiger and Panther tanks by Germany and the T-34 tank by the Soviet Union revolutionized armoured warfare.

The German Blitzkrieg, or "lightning war," was a new tactic that relied on the use of tanks, armoured vehicles, and aircraft to quickly penetrate enemy lines and cause chaos in their rear. This tactic was very effective in the early years of the war, but eventually, the Allies were able to develop countermeasures.

Combined arms tactics involved the use of multiple types of vehicles, such as tanks, infantry, and artillery, working together to achieve a common objective. This tactic was used by both Allied and Axis forces and proved to be very effective in many battles. The Germans – with their gift for battlefield improvisation – proved to be particularly adept at this throughout the war.

Technological advances played a significant role in the evolving use of tanks and armoured vehicles during The Second World War. The introduction of the Sherman tank by the United States and the T-34 tank by the Soviet Union revolutionized armoured warfare. The Sherman tank was reasonably well-armed and armoured, but with a high, top speed and great manoeuvrability and reliability. It was mass-produced and used by the United States and other Allied forces in many of the major battles of the war.

The T-34 tank was designed by the Soviet Union to be a simple and reliable tank that could be mass-produced quickly. It was heavily armoured and armed, with a sloping design that made it difficult for enemy tanks to penetrate.

In contrast, whilst usually impressively hard-hitting and well-armoured, later German tanks were more complicated to produce and began to suffer in quality as German access to raw materials began to be restricted as the tide of the war turned against them.

The big guns

At the start of the war, artillery consisted mainly of heavy guns and howitzers, which were used to provide long-range fire support for ground troops. As the war progressed, new types of artillery were developed, such as self-propelled artillery and rocket artillery.

Self-propelled artillery, such as the German Sturmgeschütz and the Soviet SU-76, were vehicles that mounted artillery pieces, allowing them to move more quickly and easily across the battlefield. Rocket artillery, such as the German Nebelwerfer and the Soviet Katyusha, fired multiple rockets simultaneously, providing a rapid and devastating barrage.

A 5.5-inch gun crew from 75th (Shropshire Yeomanry) Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action in Italy, September 1943. 

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Technological advances played a significant role in the evolving use of artillery during The Second World War. The introduction of radar and other artillery-spotting equipment allowed for more accurate and effective fire, while new types of ammunition, such as high-explosive and armour-piercing shells, increased the destructive power of artillery. For example, the German 88mm gun had a range of over 12 miles and could fire up to 15 rounds per minute, while the Soviet 76mm gun had a range of just over 4 miles and a rate of fire of up to 25 rounds per minute.

One of the most significant technological advances in artillery during the war was the development of proximity fuses. These fuses allowed artillery shells to detonate at a precise distance from the target, increasing their effectiveness against enemy personnel and equipment. The use of proximity fuses was first demonstrated by the Allies during the Battle of the Bulge, and they proved to be a significant factor in their victory.

Another technological advance was the use of computers to calculate firing solutions. This allowed artillery crews to aim their guns and adjust for variables such as wind speed and elevation. The introduction of computers also allowed for faster and more efficient communication between artillery units and their command centres.

In addition, artillery units had to be capable of quickly moving their equipment across the battlefield, often in adverse conditions. This required the use of specialized vehicles, such as trucks and tractors, as well as skilled drivers and mechanics.

Air power

Aircraft played a crucial role in military operations, with their use evolving significantly throughout the course of the war. The evolving use of aircraft was marked by advancements in equipment, technological innovations, and changing specifications.

At the start of the war, aircraft were mostly used for reconnaissance and observation or short-range offensive operations. The German, Italian and Soviet air forces had even been able to practice some of these tactics during the Spanish Civil War as they sent air components to fight alongside the Nationalist or Republican forces. The Battle of Britain saw medium-range German Dornier DO-17s, Heinkel He-!!!’s and Junkers Ju-88 bombers clash with British Hurricane and Spitfire fighters while Messerschmitt 109s and 110s tried to defend them.

However, as the Second World War progressed, new types of aircraft were developed for various roles, such as longer-range bombers, fighters, and transport planes. Bombers, such as the heavily armed B-17 and the enormous B-29, were used for strategic daytime bombing campaigns, while the hefty British Lancaster and Halifax bombers attacked German targets at night, decimating German cities such as Cologne and Dresden. The Pacific theatre saw US and Japanese fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombs clash in a series of intense, brutal engagements.

Technological advances continued to improve and refine aircraft performance throughout the war with maximum speeds increasing to well over 400mph for most single-engine propellor fighters (in comparison, the British Hurricane MK1 had a top speed of around 315-320mph in 1939) and the ranges steadily increasing throughout the war – sometimes with the aid of drop tanks. In addition, aircraft increasingly had to be capable of operating in a variety of environments and conditions, from extreme heat and cold to high altitudes and rough terrain. This required the use of specialized equipment and technology, such as de-icing systems and oxygen tanks.

One of the most significant developments in aircraft equipment during The Second World War was the introduction of jet engines. Jet engines allowed aircraft to fly at higher speeds and altitudes, making them harder to detect and intercept. The German Messerschmitt Me-262 was the world's first operational jet-powered fighter, while the British Gloster Meteor was the first jet-powered aircraft used by the Allies.

On the ground, technological advances included improvements in navigation, weapons systems, and communication. The introduction of radar allowed aircraft to detect enemy planes and ground targets, while advances in radio communication made it easier for pilots to communicate with their ground crews.

Controlling the waves

The Second World War was a defining moment in the history of naval warfare, as it saw the use of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers evolve significantly from their predecessors of World War I. During the early years of the war, battleships were still considered the primary capital ship, but the rapid advancement of technology and the changing nature of warfare led to the increasing use of cruisers and destroyers.

Battleships were still the backbone of the world's navies at the start of The Second World War. They were the largest, most heavily armed, and most armored ships in any fleet. They were designed to engage other battleships and coastal fortifications, and their primary weapon was their massive guns. Battleships typically had eight to ten main guns, with a caliber of around 14 inches, and they could fire shells weighing up to 1,400 pounds at a range of up to 20 miles.

However, the advent of aircraft carriers and the rise of aerial warfare shifted the balance of naval power away from battleships. The Battle of Midway in June 1942 marked a turning point in naval warfare, as US carrier-based aircraft defeated a Japanese carrier task force, sinking four Japanese carriers and damaging a fifth. This demonstrated the effectiveness of carrier-based air power and its ability to neutralize battleships. As a result, battleships were often used in a supporting role, providing heavy fire support for amphibious landings or acting as escort ships for aircraft carriers.

Cruisers were smaller and faster than battleships, and they were designed to perform a wide range of roles. They were used for reconnaissance, to protect convoys, to bombard enemy positions, and to engage enemy surface ships. Cruisers typically had six to eight guns, with a calibre of around 6 inches, and they could fire shells weighing up to 130 pounds at a range of up to 15 miles.

During The Second World War, cruisers saw significant advancements in their equipment and technology. They were equipped with radar and sonar, which allowed them to detect enemy ships and aircraft from greater distances. They were also equipped with anti-aircraft guns and torpedoes, which made them more effective at defending against enemy attacks.

Destroyers, Corvettes and Frigates were the smallest and most numerous of the major warship types used during the Second World War and were essentially the workhorses of the naval conflict. They were designed to provide anti-submarine and anti-aircraft protection for larger ships, engage in surface combat with enemy destroyers, and conduct independent patrols and raids. These smaller vessels were typically fast and highly manoeuvrable, with a mix of torpedoes, guns, and depth charges for anti-submarine warfare.

Destroyers also played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic, where they were used to protect convoys from German U-boat attacks. They would hunt for and attack U-boats with depth charges, while also providing escort for the merchant ships. Another significant role of destroyers was their use in shore bombardment during amphibious landings. They would provide naval gunfire support for troops on the shore, using their guns to destroy enemy fortifications and artillery.

Aircraft carriers became a vital component of naval warfare – particularly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, playing a significant role in many battles in both the Pacific and Atlantic theatres. The use of aircraft carriers saw significant technological advances, which helped shape the outcome of the war. The steam catapult allowed for the launching of heavier aircraft, such as bombers and fighters, which increased the range and firepower of carrier-based airpower.

The specifications of aircraft carriers also evolved during The Second World War. Larger carriers were built to support more aircraft and larger flight decks, which allowed for more efficient launch and recovery of aircraft. These larger carriers also allowed for more comprehensive air defence, with increased numbers of anti-aircraft guns and radar systems.

Submarines played a crucial role in naval warfare during The Second World War, with both Axis and Allied powers using them extensively. They were primarily used for reconnaissance, attacking enemy ships, and disrupting enemy supply lines. 

During the war, submarines saw significant technological advancements, including the development of more advanced torpedoes, improved sonar technology for detecting enemy ships, and the introduction of snorkels that allowed them to remain submerged for longer periods of time.

One of the most important technological advancements in shipbuilding during The Second World War was the development of the Liberty ships. These were mass-produced cargo ships that were built to support the war effort. They were built using prefabricated sections and were capable of carrying large quantities of troops, equipment, and supplies. The Liberty ships played a crucial role in the transportation of troops and supplies, and their production helped to ensure that the Allies had the necessary resources to fight the war.

New technologies

The Second World War saw the use of several new technologies that played a crucial role in the outcome of the war. These new technologies included advances in radar, sonar, jet engines, and rockets. Radar was used to detect incoming enemy aircraft and ships, allowing for advanced warning and enabling defences to be put into place. It was first developed in Britain and was used to great effect during the Battle of Britain, allowing British pilots to intercept incoming German planes.

Sonar technology was also developed during The Second World War. Sonar used sound waves to detect the presence of submarines, making it easier for allied ships to locate and destroy enemy submarines. This technology played a crucial role in the Battle of the Atlantic, helping the allies to gain the upper hand in the fight against German U-boats.

Jet engines were another significant technological advancement. Jet engines allowed planes to fly faster and at higher altitudes, making them harder to detect and intercept. The German Messerschmitt Me-262 was the first operational jet-powered fighter and it gave the Germans a significant advantage in air combat, with a maximum speed of 540 mph and a range of 652 miles.

The conflict also saw the advent of the first guided missiles, with the crude German V-1 and its successor, the highly advanced V-2. These missiles were capable of carrying high-explosive warheads over long distances, making them a significant threat to enemy targets.

Of all the technological advances though, few could match the development of the atomic bomb for sheer impact. The United States developed this technology in secret as part of the Manhattan Project, and in 1945, it dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, devastating both and bringing an end to the war.


The tactics used during The Second World War were influenced by the weapons and technologies available. Both sides developed new tactics to gain an advantage on the battlefield. The German Blitzkrieg was a fast-paced, coordinated attack that used combined arms, including tanks, infantry, and aircraft.

The Blitzkrieg was used to devastating effect in the early stages of the war, allowing the German army to quickly defeat Poland, France, and other European countries. Static defences like the formidable Maginot line were simply bypassed by rapidly moving German tank forces leaving the defenders isolated and unable to effectively participate in the battle.

The convoy system was an essential part of naval strategy during The Second World War. It involved groups of merchant ships being escorted by warships, which provided protection against enemy attacks. The convoy system helped to protect ships from submarine attacks and other threats, ensuring that vital supplies and troops could reach their destinations safely.

Technological advances, such as the use of radar and improved communication systems, helped to make the convoy system more effective. The use of aircraft and long-range patrol vessels also helped to identify and neutralize threats before they could reach the convoys. The use of the convoy system was a critical factor in the Allied victory, ensuring that vital supplies and troops reached their destinations safely.

Island-Hopping became a key tactic used by the Allies in the Pacific theatre of the war. It involved capturing key islands, one by one, to gain a foothold closer to the Japanese mainland. Here, the effective use of carrier forces and their air component – along with decisive leadership - became key to success.

In the same theatre, the notorious Kamikaze tactic was used by the Japanese in the later stages of the war, a desperate, last throw of the dice as any chance of victory slipped away from them. It involved using suicide pilots to crash planes into Allied ships. The tactic was effective, causing significant damage to Allied ships and morale, but it also resulted in many Japanese casualties.


The strategies used during The Second World War was influenced by the weapons and technologies available, as well as political and economic factors.

The Axis Powers, led by Germany, Japan, and Italy, had a strategy of aggressive expansionism and conquest. Germany's strategy was to quickly defeat its enemies in Europe through the Blitzkrieg tactic and then turn its attention to the Soviet Union in the east. Japan's strategy was to establish a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which would give it control over Asia and the Pacific. Italy's strategy was to create a new Roman Empire in Africa and the Mediterranean. Although they experienced many early successes, as the war dragged on, they were unable to maintain this momentum and were gradually forced to give ground.

The Allied Powers, led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, had a strategy of defeating the Axis Powers through a combination of military force and economic pressure. Initially, the European Allies were unprepared for war and struggled to deal with the aggressive and modern combined arms tactics used by the Germans. However, with Britain and its empire able to hold out – thanks in part to the Lend-Lease program and the USA and Soviet Union entering the war on the Allied side in 1941, the tide began to turn.  

General Dwight D Eisenhower and his senior commanders at Supreme Allied Headquarters in London, February 1944. 

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A widespread day and night bombing campaign slowly sucked the life out of the Axis ability to wage war and the U-boat menace was finally brought to a halt thanks in part, to technological advances and intelligent use of the convoy system. The Axis ground forces were slowly but inexorably whittled down by relentless pressure on both the Eastern and Western fronts, as the combined might of the US industrial capacity paired with the sheer manpower of the Soviet Union took its toll. The US strategy of ‘Europe First’ meant that the peoples of Europe soon found themselves being liberated only a few years after triumphant German forces occupied their countries.

The Pacific theatre saw the Axis powers slowly but steadily lose their island gains as the US carrier fleets retook island after island and improved training and resources saw the Allies push them out of the jungles of Borneo and Malaysia. China’s ability to hold out against the Japanese invaders – basing their strategy around holding the countryside while the Japanese held the cities - helped tie up a large number of Japanese troops who could have been used elsewhere.