WW2: Missed technological opportunities

I was interested in air war history and aviation technology during the 90's. One of the most staggering discoveries was the extreme failure of air forces in the exploitation of state of the art technology in WW2.

The air forces were successful in its exploitation in some areas (radar and radio navigation technology, for example) and failed almost entirely in others (aerial refueling, guided munitions).
Other technologies were not fully exploited (dive attack and small fin-stabilized rockets).

Let me show you what I mean:

* Dive attack:
Most dive attacks were done at no better than 60° angle (poor accuracy), the miss distances and hit percentages against large ships in the pacific theatre were ridiculous in many Pacific campaign attacks. The single decisive dive attack during the battle of Midway is an exception to the rule.

The German Luftwaffe, famous for its dive-bombers, actually used quite few of these very efficient attack aircraft. Most air attacks early in the war were done with two-engine light/medium bombers and most late in the war were done with fighter-bombers.
German Stuka were more probably more effective as PsyWar weapons than as killing weapons over France, for example.
The critical Meuse crossing after the push through the Ardennes in 1940 was supported by a huge bombardment (including Stuka). The bombardment knocked out almost no artillery or bunkers, but it caused a mass panic in the French division (in combination with a tank breakthrough rumour).

* Small fin-stabilized rockets:
These were used for air-air combat with limited success (credit goes to the Russians) and with air-ship and air-ground missions with greater success. The Luftwaffe tested 65mm rockets early on, but they were spin-stabilized and not convincing.
The Luftwaffe finally got the R4/M "Orkan" (hurricane) in 1945, when it was too late. This weapon was incredibly, unbelievable effective against the clumsy four-engined bombers at daylight. Combat records of that period aren't fully trustworthy, but the lethality was approximately like one kill per salvo.

This simple and cheap ammunition - it could have been deployed in 1930 as there was nothing special in it - effectively killed the idea of bombers with four piston engines. The lesson was so incomplete and late that the Americans and Russians didn't get the message and developed this doomed species up to Tu-85 and B-50 after WW2.

* Aerial refueling:
Basic aerial refueling experiments happened shortly after the First World War, but the technique was not employed to any relevant extent in WW2.

Granted, the front propellers of WW2 fighters were a safety hazard, but this problem could have been circumvented in many ways. The huge range challenges that limited fighter and other missions so badly in WW2 could all have been solved with the adoption of relatively simple aerial refueling tools and techniques.

* Guided ammunitions
The British Royal Air Force got beaten up in primitive, amateurish daylight bomber attacks by the Luftwaffe - again and again. They quickly limited their medium (and later heavy) bombers to nighttime attacks, preferring to terrorize the German population with very little utility for the war.

The Americans didn't trust the British advice and attempted to bomb at daylight nevertheless - and got beaten up as well. That didn't stop them, though - they used their dominant 20th century war strategy on it: Throw more resources at your problem.
Four million bomber and fighter sorties later the war was over. The German arms and ammunition production was actually increased till mid-1944 when finally the extreme effort showed effect. The Strategic Bombing Survey Europe is an interesting (albeit not fully correct) literature on the subject.
The Luftwaffe also failed to use proper technology and techniques in its few anti-ship and strategic air attacks. It nevertheless used guided munitions to a larger extent than other air forces - late in the war.

Strategic bombing wasn't the only bombing that suffered from low efficiency; air attacks on ships were also generally disappointing and bridges often proved to be very resistant to bombing as well.

That wasn't necessary at all. I already described events of guided munitions history in an earlier text. The first guided bomb prototypes ("X 0") were tested in 1938, merely one year after the proposal of Dr. Max Kramer that led tot he tests.

The accuracy was quite the same as with good dive attacks - and attacks were possible at an altitude of 4,000 - 9,000 meter altitude. The later "Fritz X" gave a CEP of 14 m in tests (1942), no functioning bomb fell farther from the target than 26 from the target. Wartime experience under adverse conditions showed a technical failure rate of about 1/4. The Allies claimed to have jammed the command guidance successfully, but the Germans didn't observe this. Technical and aeronautical problems were enough explanation for the relatively few failures and misses.

So let's think about it; guided bombs were so terribly efficient that the Americans (who had their slower AZON and Razon projects) could had achieved almost the same quantity of hits with about a tenth of the resources spent, a tenth of their losses and that all in 1943.
Ship killing in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere could have been extremely more effective as well - my guess is a factor of four. Torpedo bombers could have doubled as guiding bombers, with battleship deck-penetrating 800 kg bombs instead of 800 kg torpedoes.

The production of aircraft types was also a form of trial and error - with errors on the scale of thousands of aircraft.

- - - - -

There were important theories about air war in the interwar years and many experiments as well as limited war experiences over Spain and China/Manchuria.
This wasn't enough, though. Air forces world-wide applied and developed many innovations, but still failed badly in such major areas like bomber interception, strategic bombing and air-ship attacks. The failure was enough to achieve very much because of the immense amount of resources spent, but it fell short by an estimated factor of four (bomber vs. ship) to more than ten (fighter vs. heavy bomber).

Can we expect to exploit technology better today than was done in 1938?

I'm pessimistic about this (and I've got some ideas what we might be missing).
Keep in mind that such hyped-up technologies like stealth and supercruise are actually early 70's ideas (well, radar stealth is a 40's idea - its application as a supposedly dominant tool for air combat is an early 70's idea).

The self-image of Western air forces today is that they're state-of-the-art or at least that they understand state-of-the-art. I'm not so sure about this, and WW2 air war history shows us how far air forces can be off the mark.

Sven Ortmann


  1. 20-20 hindsight is a wonderful advantage, don't you agree?

  2. The point is to learn from history, to recognize that air forces for example can fail to exploit even old and publicly known innovations - and to minimize such failures in the future.

    We would never learn if we assumed that pointing out past errors is objectionable.

  3. But there are always thousands of potential innovations and technologies available. There is no way to know which will turn out to be dead ends, and which will become important in the future.

    Of course, with hindsight it's easy to say that these particular technologies you mention should have been given more attention and resources. But at the time, they were competing with countless others that ultimately didn't lead anywhere. Only time and much deliberation and experimentation will sort the important ones from the dead ends.

    Oh, and to explain this late comment, I recently discovered this excellent and thought-provoking blog and I am now reading through all the old entries.

  4. That's why I wrote my conclusion (the Italic text at the end). An example of failure seemed to be a good choice to demonstrate that we're probably too complacent today.

    Good decision on reading the old stuff; my blog is less than 20% about news, most could have been written just days ago as well.


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