VE Day 70th Anniversary: The Weapons that Helped Win the War

Without the courage and skill of soldiers, weapons are useless in any closely fought contest. At the same time, American superiority in firepower played a major role in the Allied victory in Europe.

By Rachel Alexander Published on May 8, 2015

May 8 marks the 70th anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe, when Germany surrendered, bringing about the end of World War II in Europe. Although it was not the end of all hostilities — the U.S. was still at war with Japan — it was the beginning of the end for the Axis powers. The war began in 1939 when German dictator Adolf Hitler thought he could invade Poland with few repercussions from Britain or the former USSR. This miscalculation launched the most widespread war in history, with people from over 30 countries participating.

Many advances in weapons were made during World War II, ushering in a new technological age. Some of them, such as assault weapons as standard issue for infantry, are still around today. The development of technology was sped up due to the war, with changes made midway that directly contributed to victories. Much of the technological competition came down to American vs. German weapons. The weapons from these two countries were, for the most part, far superior to others. Ultimately, the United States helped win World War II due to the quantity and quality of its weapons, supplying firepower to Britain, Russia and its other allies.

Nordafrika, Panzer II, Kraftfahrzeuge

German Panzer II with 20 mm (0.79 in) gun and machine-gun in rotating turret. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-783-0110-12)

Early on in the war, although the Germans had only half the number of field guns (generally cannons) as the Allies, they were able to “neutralize the disadvantage with their tactic of blitzkrieg (lightning) warfare, which exploited weaknesses in the allies defensive lines with rapid strikes by their panzer (tank) corps.” The Germans were much more organized, with each tank assigned to a division. German dive bombers would  attack and disrupt the enemy’s supply and communications lines, causing chaos and confusion.

This is how the Germans were able to take over Poland. Although Poland was able to mobilize a million soldiers, they were sorely lacking in tanks, armored personnel carriers and anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. Instead, they relied heavily on horsed calvary, no match for the German panzers and German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, which was almost 10 times as strong as the Polish Air Force. In 1939, the Luftwaffe had planes superior to almost all Allied planes. The Allies had more planes, but many of them were obsolete, and were not updated until later in the war.

The tank became a primary weapon in WWII. In WWI, it had served a background role, as support for infantry. The Germans had a formidable machine gun, the MG-42, mounted on its tanks, along with the 88mm, considered one of the best artillery weapons of the war. The U.S. 90mm anti-aircraft gun was comparable. However, the 88mm proved deadly during the Battle of the Bulge in Christmas 1944, where the Allies, particularly the U.S., suffered a crushing defeat.

The U.S. entered the war with Stuart light tanks, which were no match for the German panzers. Once they replaced them with the heavier, Sherman series medium tank, the U.S. Army began defeating the Germans. General Patton came up with a method that worked: “first hit the German tank with a high explosive  projectile and then follow with a white phosphorous shell that was an incendiary that would ignite any excess oil or gas on the enemy tank and create the dreaded fire in the cabin.” The Americans used this strategy on the beaches of Normandy, where they successfully established a beachhead and began their long, slow push inland, bringing them to Paris on August 25, 1944.

M-1 Garand - wikimedia

An American soldier demonstrating the use of the M7 grenade launcher to fire a practice grenade with a wire or rope attached using his M1 Garand. (wikimedia)

A famous gun introduced during World War II that helped the Americans recover was the M-1 Garand. When the war began, the U.S. Army was still using the 1903 Springfield, a five-round, bolt-action rifle. Some American servicemen — the infantry officers, tank crews and pilots — carried pistols, the .45 caliber M1911, which weren’t as accurate as the longer guns and had a shorter range. The semiautomatic M-1 Garand enabled them to shoot a flurry of bullets at once, was quite accurate and less prone to jamming, with a range of up to 5,500 feet. The M-1 Garand eventually was replaced by “assault weapons,” characterized as semiautomatic firearms with detachable magazines and pistol grips and sometimes fitted with a scope and other add-on parts. They combine the accuracy and range of a rifle with the ability to rapidly shoot multiple rounds. The Germans and Soviets relied more on submachine guns to arm individual soldiers, which could shoot more bullets but had a shorter range. Toward the end of the war the Germans started using the STG 44 rifle, a type of assault rifle, but by then it was too late.*

The Germans began the war with superior aircraft, and the Allies ultimately surpassed them through sheer numbers. Britain and France had developed massive aerial fleets in order to focus their efforts on bombing instead of using ground troops. Since Germany had put only one long-range bomber into production, the Heinkel He 177 Greif, it was forced to rely primarily on medium-range bombers. They were slow and lacked sufficient defense, so short-range British fighters such as the Bristol Blenheim were able to outmaneuver them.

There were many other technological advances that aided the Allies in their victory over the Nazis, including more sophisticated fighter planes. Without the diligent work of American and Allied scientists and engineers, and the diligent line work of “Rosy the Riveter” and her many co-laborers, it could have been far worse and gone on far longer.

*This article has been updated with information from Cecil Beal to reflect a more accurate portrayal of the sidearms carried in World War II

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