Second Industrial Revolution (1917–45) – Warfare

“LITTLE BOY” AND “FAT MAN” First Atomic Bombs

LAND WARFARE: The most obvious change was the introduction of tanks and other motor vehicles, which helped to restore mobility to a battle-field that had turned increasingly static in the period between the Crimean War and World War I. Armored vehicles were most effective when closely coordinated via radio with ground-attack aircraft, a combination that was at the heart of the Germans’ widely copied blitzkrieg. Air-and-armor operations would eventually be used by most of the major belligerents of World War II and also by a number of postwar states. The Israeli Defense Forces proved particularly adept at blitzkrieg-type offensives in 1956 and 1967. The Egyptian and Syrian armies, in turn, had some success with this same approach in 1973 before finally being defeated in the Yom Kippur War. The Indian army staged a lightning offensive of its own in 1971. Its conquest of East Pakistan in just fourteen days gave birth to the new state of Bangladesh.

Airborne operations were another new element of warfare, allowing troops to be moved far behind enemy lines using transport aircraft, gliders, and parachutes. Large-scale airborne operations ranged from the Germans successfully dropping paratroopers on Crete in 1941 to the British and Americans unsuccessfully dropping paratroopers into Holland in 1944 (Operation Market Garden). Victorious or not, airborne troops invariably suffered heavy casualties because they lacked much firepower or mobility once they arrived. For this reason, airdrops generally fell out of favor for large-scale offensives after 1945; with a few exceptions, such as the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, they would be used primarily to infiltrate small groups of commandos or spies behind enemy lines.

Amphibious operations were less novel—Julius Caesar had invaded England from the sea in 55–54 B.C.—but they were put on a sounder basis after the failure of the Gallipoli landings in 1915. In the interwar period, the U.S. Marine Corps studied how to seize advanced island bases. This was mostly a matter of coordinating assaults with supporting fire from sea and air, but it also involved developing new equipment such as shallow-draft landing craft with quick-release ramps. The Marines’ 1934 Tentative Manual for Landing Operations evolved into the basis of amphibious doctrine not only for the Marine Corps but also for the U.S. Army and Navy. Amphibious warfare proved absolutely vital in the Pacific, where the Marines engaged in a campaign of “island hopping,” as well as in the European theater, where Allied troops stormed ashore in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and finally in Normandy and the south of France. All of the major Allied amphibious attacks succeeded but at heavy cost. (The first thirty minutes of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan is a harrowing dramatization of the dangers involved in sending unprotected infantrymen against entrenched shore positions.) The ability to insert troops by helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft led to a decline in amphibious operations after World War II. Although U.S. Marines bluffed Saddam Hussein into thinking that they were going to land on the beaches of Kuwait in 1991, their commanders concluded that such an assault would be too costly. The last great landing occurred forty-one years earlier, in September 1950, when General Douglas MacArthur’s men disembarked at Inchon to cut off the North Korean advance.

While the means of getting infantrymen into battle had improved during the Second Industrial Age, once engaged they had to make do with weapons that were not terribly novel. The typical grunt carried a rifle roughly similar to the one his father had used in World War I; some were actually issued exactly the same rifles. The Japanese armory was particularly antiquated; their main rifle dated from 1905. The best rifle of World War II was probably the U.S. M-1 Garand, a semiautomatic weapon that could fire eight rounds from a single clip with eight pulls of the trigger. General George S. Patton reportedly called it “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” Infantrymen were also armed with handheld submachine guns (such as the American Tommy gun, the British Sten gun, and the German and Russian “burp guns”) and crew-served heavy machine guns (such as the German MG34 and MG42). The most innovative weapons issued to infantrymen were shoulder-fired antitank rockets such as the American bazooka and the German Panzerfaust.

This was part of a general resurgence of a weapon that had last played a major role in warfare in 1812 when British Congreve rockets had inspired Francis Scott Key’s mention of “the rockets’ red glare” in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In addition to the German V-1 and V-2, the Red Army deployed the Katyusha, a short-range, unguided rocket that could be fired from mobile launchers in bursts of more than forty at a time. Artillery also improved with the American introduction of proximity fuses, employing a tiny radar set in the nose cone to set off the shell whenever it got close to a large object. (Previously a shell would go off only if it hit the target—a contact fuse—or at some predetermined point after firing—a time fuse.) Some field guns also became self-propelled, moving forward on armored chassis in an echo of tank warfare.

NAVAL WARFARE: For surface vessels and even submarines there was much continuity between the First and Second World Wars. The battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines of the 1939–45 period were generally bigger, faster, and better armed than their 1914–18 predecessors but not fundamentally different. Indeed, they had not changed much since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Yet naval warfare was nevertheless transformed by the introduction of aviation. Fleets that were once built around battleships came to be built around aircraft carriers instead.

Aircraft proved superior not just to conventional surface ships but also, in the Battle of the Atlantic, to submarines as well. German U-boats preying on Allied shipping were foiled through a variety of means including convoying of merchants ships and the use of radar and sonar. But the weapon that proved most effective was an aircraft dropping depth charges. The dispatch of long-range B-24s equipped with the latest radar to patrol the North Atlantic in 1943 helped turn the tide against the U-boats. The proliferation of small escort carriers also allowed air cover for convoys even in the middle of the ocean. Submarines proved more effective in the Pacific, where the vast distances precluded effective patrolling by aircraft and where the Japanese did not develop the types of advanced antisubmarine techniques employed by the Allies in the Atlantic. U.S. submarines took a heavy toll on Japanese merchantmen and warships alike once they managed to fix the problems that bedeviled their Mark 14 torpedo early in the war. “A force comprising less than 2 percent of U.S. Navy personnel,” naval historian Ronald Spector would write of U.S. submariners, “had accounted for 55 percent of Japan’s losses at sea.” The torpedo, whether launched by submarines, surface ships, or airplanes, proved the biggest ship-killer of the war.

AERIAL WARFARE: Aircraft as a component of ground and sea warfare proved indispensable, and victory often went to whichever side was more adept at integrating them into its operations.

Heavy bombers suitable for strategic bombing were utilized mainly by the U.S. Army Air Forces and the Royal Air Force. After briefly flirting with strategic bombing in the Battle of Britain, the Germans largely abandoned it. The Soviets, Japanese, French, and Italians never embraced it to begin with—a decision that some of them would come to regret. A Japanese naval aviator later wrote, “Had Japan developed such bombers as the B-17, I believe the war would have taken a different course. We did not have a single warplane comparable to these aircraft, and Japan paid a heavy price for this lack.” Germany did develop a four-engine bomber, the Messerschmitt Me-264, dubbed the Amerika because it was intended to bomb New York, but it never got past the prototype stage.

Most of the bombs used in the war were iron canisters filled with high explosives that were guided to their targets by nothing more than wind, gravity, and sheer luck. The standard armaments of all aircraft were machine guns and cannons, supplemented later in the war by rockets. By 1945, jet aircraft began to appear that were much faster than their propeller-driven predecessors, but none was deployed in sufficient numbers to make much of a difference. Nor did the long-range missiles developed by Germany, the V-1 and V-2, affect the war’s outcome. These would be the weapons of the future. Into this category also falls the helicopter, which was still in the prototype stage during World War II but would be employed on a large scale by the French in Algeria in the 1950s and by the Americans in Vietnam in the 1960s.

ELECTRONIC WARFARE: In addition to aerial warfare, the Second Industrial Age added another element to the traditional clash of armies and navies: electronic warfare. Since the dawn of organized warfare, armies had always tried to intercept the plans of the other side, usually by employing spies or capturing messengers. What had historically been a hit-or-miss business was placed on a much more scientific basis with the birth of signals intelligence. The widespread use of radios afforded virtually limitless opportunities for learning the enemy’s secrets, provided their codes could be broken. The British were pioneers at this art. The Admiralty’s Room 40 succeeded during World War I in breaking many of the Imperial German Navy’s communications, but the Royal Navy did not take full advantage of this windfall because its code breakers were not well integrated with operational commands. British code breakers did, however, score a historic success in 1917 when they intercepted and decoded a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann offering Mexico the return of the American Southwest in return for making war on the United States. The publication of the Zimmermann telegram helped convince the U.S. to enter World War I.

In World War II, the big British coup was replicating the Enigma machine used to encode most German messages. British scientists also pioneered radar and sonar. All of these inventions were shared with the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. Navy and Army cryptanalysts on their own had already broken the Japanese naval and diplomatic codes. Ultra and Magic—the code names given to the cracking of German and Japanese ciphers, respectively—gave the Allies an invaluable edge over the Axis, who never developed the same level of success in penetrating Allied communications.

Electronic warfare turned into a game of cat and mouse, pitting teams of scientists and engineers against one another. Many lives depended on the outcome of what became known as the “wizard war.” In 1942 U-boats gained a major edge in their attacks on Allied commerce when the German naval intelligence office, B-Dienst, was able to break the ciphers used by the Americans, British, and Canadians to route transatlantic convoys. This information helped the submarines sink more than 1,600 ships that year. The Allies were operating blind for most of the year because the German navy had changed its Triton cipher. It was no coincidence that the advantage in the Atlantic shifted to the Allies at the end of 1942 when they managed once again to crack the German codes and changed their own so that the U-boats would no longer be privy to information about convoy movements.

Similar back-and-forth battles raged around radar, sonar, and radio-directional navigation equipment. For instance, the RAF was able to bomb Hamburg so effectively in 1943 because it came up with a clever system of dispersing aluminum chaff (known as Window) to disrupt German radar. When the Germans developed alternative methods of detecting incoming bombers (for instance, by homing in on their “Identification, Friend or Foe” radio beacons), they in turn were able to devastate the attacking formations. Ultimately, the Allies won the “battle of the beacons”—and with it the war.

There is a tendency to see the outcome of World War II as foreordained: How could the Axis possibly have prevailed over the much greater industrial resources of the Allies? Richard Overy rightly cautions against this “hindsight bias” in his invaluable book, Why the Allies Won. As he points out, “Economic size as such does not explain the outcome of wars.” Indeed this book offers many examples of significant battles—e.g., the Spanish Armada, Assaye, Königgrätz, and Tsushima—won by the side with the smaller economy. World War II further proves the point.

The German armed forces were far more starved of resources in the 1920s than their rivals in Britain or France, yet they were able to develop the blitzkrieg while they could not legally buy a single tank. The Germans out-thought their enemies in the interwar period, which is why in 1939–41 the Third Reich was able to outfight the countries of Western and Eastern Europe even though they were in aggregate much richer than Germany itself. By 1942 Hitler was in control of most of the economic resources of Europe from the English Channel to the Urals. On paper, at least, this gave the Third Reich the potential to compete against the U.S. and USSR; today the European Union, which encompasses roughly the same area, has a GDP greater than that of the United States. Japan, too, grabbed a vast empire for itself in Asia that should have given it greater ability to hold its own. Yet by 1942 the U.S. was outproducing all of the Axis states combined. The USSR, too, staged a remarkable recovery from its devastating losses in 1941 and was soon outproducing Germany, even though the Germans had overrun two-thirds of its coal and steel industry.

The outcome of the battle of production lines was no more predetermined than the outcome of Midway, El Alamein, or Stalingrad. The Allies produced more tanks, aircraft, and ships because they were more skilled than their enemies at mobilizing their industrial base. Hitler did not even start to put his economy on a full war footing until 1942, and by the time his armaments minister, Albert Speer, was starting to implement his major reforms in 1943, Germany was already losing the war. For most of the conflict the German economy was a mess, characterized by wasteful production of too many models of everything (at one point 425 different kinds of aircraft were being made) and not enough standardization. The Japanese were even more backward. The Soviets were less advanced technologically than the Germans, but they were able to churn out greater quantities of simple and reliable equipment under the aegis of their economic planning agency, Gos-plan. The United States was able to combine quality and quantity by using the mass-production techniques pioneered by Henry Ford. American factories under the direction of the War Production Board and other bureaucracies achieved stunning leaps in productivity during the war years. And many of the machines they were producing, ranging from Essex-class fast carriers to B-29 heavy bombers, were, by the end of the war, the best in the world.

The growing complexity of warfare in the Second Industrial Age made it imperative to integrate complex systems—not only military but also industrial and scientific—into a smooth-running whole. No country had a perfect track record: The Germans did well with tank warfare and submarines but not with strategic bombing or aircraft carriers; the Americans did well with long-range bombers and aircraft carriers but not tanks. On the whole, however, the Allies pulled off the difficult feat of war management far better than the Axis. Nazi Germany was plagued by the erratic and often irrational decision-making of Adolf Hitler, who fostered an atmosphere of bureaucratic chaos and infighting. While Japan had no single leader of comparable power, it was handicapped by the lack of coordination between its army and navy. The British and Americans, by contrast, set up a Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee that, despite some inevitable friction, capably coordinated their joint war effort. Even Stalin, who often fell prey to the same megalomania and delusions as Hitler, learned as the war went along to defer to his increasingly competent general staff and to such gifted commanders as Marshal Georgi Zhukov.

This underscores a theme running throughout this volume: Having an efficient bureaucracy is the key determinant of whether a country manages to take advantage of a military revolution. Just as England was better organized than Spain in 1588, Sweden better than the Holy Roman Empire in 1631–32, Britain than the Marathas in 1803, Prussia than Austria in 1866, Britain than the Sudan in 1898, and Japan than Russia in 1905—so too the Allies were better organized than the Axis by the end of World War II. The reason German armies were able to reach the gates of Moscow and Japanese armies the borders of India before being defeated was that the Axis had done a better job of organizing before the war. This gave them an important initial advantage that they allowed to slip away through catastrophic miscalculations, which once again goes to show that the early movers in a military revolution are not necessarily the long-term winners.

The German and Japanese failure to make better use of their resources and to set reasonable war aims consigned them to defeat. So total and traumatic was their collapse that after 1945 they were forced to renounce the very idea of power politics and pledge to use force only for self-defense. Britain and France were also losers, even though they were on the winning side. They emerged in 1945 much weakened and unable to hold on to their colonies—a fate they might have avoided or delayed had they been more prepared for war. Britain, Holland, Belgium, and France would have had a good chance of defeating the 1940 Nazi offensive if they had done a better job of building armor and air forces. The British might also have been able to stave off the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific if they had invested more in modern aircraft carriers and naval airplanes. Britain was able to avoid total defeat in 1940–41 partly because of its geography but mainly because it had made some wise investments in the late 1930s—particularly in fighters, radar, and code breaking—that helped to offset some of its deficiencies. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the other nations of central and eastern Europe were not so lucky. Lacking either a favorable geographical position or modern armed forces, they were enslaved in turn by the Germans and the Russians and did not taste freedom until the 1990s.

The Soviet Union and the United States were the biggest beneficiaries of the Second Industrial Age. Their rise to global power ended the period of Western European dominance that began around 1500. Victory in the Great Patriotic War gave communism enhanced legitimacy inside the Soviet Union and made it a more attractive model for other countries from China to Cuba. Likewise the outcome of the war enhanced the power and prestige of the heavily bureaucratized American government. Federal civilian employment increased nearly fourfold between 1939 and 1945, and even after five years of demobilization the total number of civilians employed by Washington in 1950 was 100 percent higher than it had been in 1939. Total federal expenditures were almost three times higher in 1948 on an inflation-adjusted basis than they had been in 1938. Giant corporations such as Boeing, General Motors, and General Electric, which had grown even bigger to manufacture military materiel, continued to dominate the U.S. economy (indeed, the global economy) after the war.

In other words, World War II reinforced the trends toward statism and corporatism that had been given such a big boost by World War I. The enhanced power of the U.S. government could be used for ends both good (desegregation) and bad (McCarthyism). In the case of the Soviet government, the ills were much greater (the Gulag) and the benefits much less apparent. What united the two Cold War rivals was that in both the U.S. and USSR, the state reached the pinnacle of its power and popularity in the late 1940s and 1950s, largely based on its success at waging war in the Second Industrial Age. It would take two losing guerrilla struggles—in Vietnam and Afghanistan—to crack the aura of state invincibility.

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