Small innovations

Small things that made (or could've made) a big difference.

It's about time to pay attention to the potential of small, unspectacular innovations that often pay off much more than costly, complex ones. Here's a list of examples:

Allied countermeasures to German WW2 submarines concentrated largely onc atching the submrines on the surface twhen they were cruising or recharging their batteries. The snorkel (a refined design, much better than the slightly older primitive Dutch snorkel) bought several months time for the subs by allowing them to recharge batteries at speriscope depth.
Snorkels are still standard equipment on modern conventional subs.

Tarent 1940, Pearl Harbour 1941. Both times a proper employment of torpedo nets would have prevented most of the damage. They were actually a 19th century innovation, but apparently not sexy enough to get due attention.

The principle was extremely simple and cheap: Keep a net between the anchored ship and the torpedo launcher. it did usually work fine.

Durable, portable, stackable (x5), cheap - and avaialable in numbers that allowed the parallel refuelling of vehicles at a quick pace. It's incredible how such a simple piece of metal was able to speed up motorised and armoured divisions by 1940.
Armies that relied on dedicated fuel trucks with pumps readied their forces much slower for action, at times wasting decisive hours with slow refuelling.

The use of petrol cans and barrels instead of dedicated tankers also had a huge effect on logistical demands. Fuel demand varies a lot between heavy fighting (breakthrough) and rapid movement (pursuit, exploit) phases. This wasn't well-understood till well into WW2.
A simple truck could load either ammunition, fuel or almost any other supplies while dedicated fuel trucks couldn't even load drinking water. This specialisation disadvantage persists till today and suggests that an army should have enough dedicated vehicles for basic supply needs and versatile carriers for the additional, situation-specific supply needs.

* R4/M "Orkan" rocket

A cheap 20 mm grenade fuse, a long-known solid rocket propellant, a pound of explosives, some cheap metal and a folding mechanism. Voilà, you've got a revolution in air war.
I'm writing about the 55 mm R4/M Orkan (hurricane) supersonic salvo rocket of late WW2. It was able to slaughter 4-engined bombers mercilessly from well beyond the bomber's defensive weapon's range.
German late WW2 reports are mostly lost and reports about the effectiveness of these rockets are not 100% reliable, but it's for sure that the lethality of these simple rockets exceeded everything ever seen before to such an extent that all piston engine-driven heavy bombers were immediately obsolete by late '44 (a single hit almost ensured a kill even of the largest and most sturdy aircraft). Such bombers stayed relevant till the Korean War only because way too few such primitive rockets were used against them.
(photo: R4/M at the WTS Koblenz, copyright D.P.)

* DROPS / MULTI / PLS / Ampliroll

Self-unloading and self-loading trucks for palletised and container cargo. One of the greatest things in logistics since the introduction of trucks.

* Anti-freezing lubricants

Vehicles, machine guns and much else ain't worth anything if they stopped working because of terrible sub-zero temperatures. Good luck of the Russians: Germans only understood this in the Winter of 1941/42.

* Interruptor gear / machine gun synchronisation

Early WWI aircraft weren't particularly well-suited for air combat because only a few pusher propeller types were able to mount a decent forward-firing machine gun. The propeller was usually blocking the field of fire of the natural machine gun position; in front of the pilot, where he could fix jams.
Then came three engineers and developed an interruptor gear - this enabled the machine gun to fire only between the propeller blades. Problem solved, and Germany enjoyed air superiority in late 1915.

* Highly selective radio channels

Advances in radio technology during the inter-war years had enabled the design of radio sets with many, well-separated channels. This was more important than much if not all hardware stuff that you can find much more easily in books about WW2 hardware!

* "schwere Flak Doppelzünder" (heavy anti-air artillery dual mode shell fuses)

Germany's heavy AAA faced its greatest test in 1943-1945 against 4-engined bombers. The very elaborate air defence technology of that period used searchlights, visual tracking devices, stereoscopic rangefinders, radars, tube-based computers and automatic time fuse setting devices. The mission was to fire a shell on an intercept to a heavy bomber and to set its time fuse exactly to the right time to hit the bomber with fragments.
The air defence troops required a double fuse, one that could double as point detonating impact fuse. The procurement people weren't convinced and held this type of fuse back till very late in the war.
Finally, the double fuse arrived at the AAA troops and immediately proved that it was a great thing. The effect was dramatic - multiplied kill chances against the large bombers. Especially the smaller calibres (88 mm) became much more effective. Accurate and reliable figures are not available, but the effect was on the order of threefold to sixfold lethality against heavy bombers for the 88mm gun.
The double fuse was not exactly simple, but much less complicated than the "VT" radio proximity fuse used by the Allies with good effect (greater fragmentation effect) against small Japanese aircraft mostly (large calibre benefitted the most from the VT fuse).
(Photo copyright Harry)

* LUT & FAT torpedoes

German submarines faced mostly convoys of ships in WW2. The development of guided torpedoes led to quite elaborate and easily deceived torpedoes, while another approach was no more susceptible to countermeasures than old dumb ones; torpedoes that followed a pattern after a set distance. This pattern greatly increased the chance of a hit against a ship in the convoy.

* Padded winter clothes

Much lighter than wool and other classic materials, these were a great innovation.

* Riegelmine / bar mine

This seems to be an Italian invention. The idea of a bar anti-tank  mine with full-length pressure fuse allowed for a multiplied chance of hitting a tank (at least if the direction of approach could be guessed correctly in advance). The early model Riegelmine 43 was unreliable (hazardous fuse), but the principle was a success and still popular decades after WW2. The bar (instead of circular) shape was especially well-suited for rapid minelaying with a tool that looked like a plow.

The Americans invented this in the 1943-1952 period; fibreglass plates, Nylon fabric and Aluminum/Nylon combinations that were (submachinegun) bullet resistant. Small plates were sewed into body armour vests and immediately proved to be a great success during the Korean War, where a great deal of fragments-induced casualties were avoided thanks to these vests. Later advances such as Kevlar didn't add much protection value.
The same could have been done with aluminum plates in WW2, of course. To equip two million soldiers with such vests would have required about 10,000 tons of aluminum; a fraction of the air force's aluminum consumption in Germany, Britain, Russia and the U.S.. Hundreds of thousands of infantrymen, artillerymen and engineers more could have survived with such vests (in order to die on another day).
(Photo: copyright "Ironmonger")

* Stahlhelm / steel helmet

A steel helmet based on a 15th century helmet reduced the lethality of WWI grenades greatly. This was certainly one of the most cost-efficient military innovations of modern times. The introdution of these helmets reduced Entente artillery firepower by the equivalent of several thousand guns. Millions of soldiers had to wear this really uncomfortable piece of kit well into the our time, even though modern examples are a bit improved with usually better suspension, protection and materials.

* Bayonet (Musketeers)

Back in the 17th century, there were musketeers in the army that provided mostly gunfire (and very little fencing) while they were guarded against enemy cavalry and melee troops by pikemen. Elaborate tactics and formations were developed for this combination.
Then, one day, someone attached a long knife to a lighter musket and the 18th century infantry was born. Soldiers who had both the firepower of a musket and the ability for melee combat and deterring cavalry with a wall of spear-like bayonets.
The firepower of such forces was improved, their melee capability was improved and tactics were simplified. The effect was probably greater than the move from (skilled) bowmen to musketeers in the first place.

* Radio, 3-man turret and tank commander's cupola with mirrors on 1930's tanks

Few things on tanks have been as badly under-reported as this combination. It was (in combination with elaborate gyro compasses) the formula for success in the German armour companies. These tools enabled the tank commanders to observe and lead instead of being busy loading or aiming. Even badly outgunned, ill-armoured tanks of inferior mobility (such as early Pzkw IV with low velocity 75 mm gun vs. T-34/76) were incredibly successful weapons of war thanks to this combination of features.

* Central firing and fire control on dreadnoughts

Battleships of around 1900 were capable of firing very far, but their accuracy sucked. The solution was the observation fo the falling shot fountains in order to correct the aim. This was impossible if turrets or even guns were fired individually, for the fire control crews did not know whose shot was creating the splash.
The problem was solved by aiming all guns together, and firing all at once in a salvo. This technique was introduced very shortly before WWI and became a self-evident procedure until radars and computers took over.
The central firing technique required salvoes of at least six guns (to get a meaningful splash pattern), which influenced ship design.
The hidden feature of central firing was much mroe important for a battleshi's firepower in WWI at ranges greater than 10 km / 6 nmi than the number of guns itself. Now gues which you'll find more easily; the quantity of guns or the date when central firing was introduced on a specific battleship!?

By the way; the problem persisted if more than one ship fired on a target. The French solved this (I think in the inter-war years) by firing shells that created splashes of different colours.

* Aiming periscopes

Aiming machine guns, sniper rifles, Panzerfaust and even infantry guns from behind cover - thanks to a device simple enough that I could improvise one in a few minutes.
The success of this idea still doesn't seem to have won over Rube Goldberg solutions for the same problem, though: Ever since the "Land Warrior" project of the 90's, several armies attempt to enable infantrymen to shoot from behind cover using complex, heavy, expensive and battery-depenent camera/monitor combinations. They should by now understand that you really don't need much more than mirror technology - see Parascope.

* Folding roadway systems / runway mats

The rapid construction of safe airfields and solid approaches to fords by engineer carpets saved thousands of aircraft and pilots, facilitated many rapid river crossings and generally was a huge help.
The notoriously poor conditions of airfields on WW2's Eastern front and the resulting horrendous landing and take-off accident rates could have been prevented if this technolgoy had been used. Many trucks that got stuck on worn riversides could easily have negotiated that obstacle with the help of such a mat, not slowing down their unit's advance.

* Panzerfaust

Well, this innovation got enough attention already. Its simplicity and effect were entirely disproportionate.

We can expect a decade of tightening military budgets all over NATO. That should be a great time for more attention to cost efficiency. These 20 examples show for sure that we don't always need gold-plated solutions if we want to realise huge improvements.

Sven Ortmann



  1. It's always amazed me how long it took for the bayonet to be invented. Many of the early firearms were combination weapons of some sort, with axe blades and the like sticking off. It seems truly remarkable to me that the idea of a detachable blade took so long to come up with.

    The stirrup is an older example of a small innovation that had fairly dramatic impact.

  2. I considered the stirrup for this list, but excluded it because its actual impact is questionable.

    The old idea that the stirrup allowed for the armoured riders of the Middle Ages is obsolete since historians began to pay more attention to cataphracts/clibanarii who predated the stirrup.

    Experimental archeologists also learned a lot about late Roman heavy cavalry and the four-horned saddle in the meantime. Overall, the stirrup was probably just a simplification.

  3. I suspect the stirrups had more utility than just allowing the rider to stay on during a charge. Getting on and off the horse would be facilitated much more easily; were the large breeds of horse used at all as mounts prior to the invention of the stirrup?

    Hmm... I am reminded of a history class in High School when the teacher asked what invention precipitated trench warfare in WWI. Some smartass yelled out "the shovel!"

  4. Are you sure about the Korean War body armour? It was hardly the first (examples below). Most armies had tried and rejected body armour in anything but siege like conditions (Korea, Western Front etc.). Presumably there is a reason why Korean War era body armour wasn't uniformly worn in, say Vietnam.

    Examples from the Great War:

    Italian body armour: http://26.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l2cs9ugki41qa2afxo1_500.jpg

    French body armour: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l2eirkqbQo1qa2afxo1_400.jpg

    Irish Guardsmen who have 'acquired' some German body armour: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l2eisot7uv1qa2afxo1_500.jpg

    British body armour: http://29.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l3mvdi3Adx1qa2afxo1_400.jpg

    In the Second World War there was more experimentation.

    Japanese #1: http://s3.amazonaws.com/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_l3qph87wMV1qa2afxo1_1280.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=0RYTHV9YYQ4W5Q3HQMG2&Expires=1279290508&Signature=V%2Bt6RSvgeGIZ%2BS752Gq9%2BzDvbMs%3D

    Japanese #2: http://30.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l3qpgukEyk1qa2afxo1_500.jpg

    British #1: http://s3.amazonaws.com/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_l3havmlKm81qa2afxo1_1280.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=0RYTHV9YYQ4W5Q3HQMG2&Expires=1279290682&Signature=Kcq3RTw87Zrv7Jyf7RbfCiMnyDw%3D



    (There are more examples on http://gyad.tumblr.com/ if you;re bothered- but you have to navigate past a lot of other stuff too).

  5. Earlier examples had ergonomics that were unacceptable for general use or they didn't provide enough protection.
    The important improvement in late WW2 and Korean War was the use of plates in a flexible vest. The plates were rigid, but didn't seriously impair movements (summer heat was a bigger problem).

    The combination of moderate yet useful protection level, acceptable ergonomics, light weight and good coverage yielded very favourable reviews from the troops. Earlier body armour concepts were clearly understood to be useful only for short duration missions (or inside vehicles, as the original "flak vest"), such as for assault engineers.

    1. I wasn't accurate. there was an earlier, apparently practicable body armour which was not followed on.


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