WWII Technology: The Most Influential Factor

By Max Alva

It is often debated whether people are more prosperous during times of peace or times of war. Throughout history, some of the greatest technological advancements have occurred during times of war. Is it, perhaps, that having a common enemy unites people in a way that stimulates the mind and exacerbates productivity? Certainly having a common enemy encourages governments to invest their money, time, and brain-power into projects that will help them defeat their foes. In World War II, both sides were very productive in their endeavors, which largely impacted the strategies used, as well as the outcome. World War II’s technological advancements in aerial warfare were the most influential factors governing implemented military tactics.

One of the most notable aircrafts of World War II was the B-17 Flying Fortress. Due to the American and British desire for a large multi-engine bomber, Boeing financed the creation of the B-17 prototype, which was designed and ready for testing within twelve months. The B-17 was a low-wing monoplane; its design combined aerodynamic features of the XB-15 giant bomber and the Model 247 transport. (B17) Boeing had never before created a plane without an open cockpit; the B-17 was the first plane produced by them that was suited with a flight deck in its place. It was armed with multiple bombs and .30-caliber machine guns, which were mounted in clear blisters. The B-17E was the first mass produced model. It carried nine machine guns, as well as 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of bombs. (B17) It had an enormous tail, which provided improved control and stability during high altitude bombing. There were 6,981 B-17s built by Boeing. An additional 5,745 were constructed in a collaborative effort with Douglas and Lockheed. B-17s entered combat, two years after the start of World War II, in 1941. These bombers were used by the Royal Air Force for high altitude missions. The RAF could not retaliate against the Luftwaffe in daylight, so they switched to night raids. This proved that navigating at night was nearly impossible, as it cost them 700 bombers. On top of that, thousands of soldiers were killed or captured. Americans tried to deter Japan’s entrance into the war by threatening to firebomb Japanese cities with B-17 bombers that were located in the Philippines. The B-17s had a deadly reputation with the Japanese. They called them “four-engine fighters.” The planes were also known for their ability to remain in the air after being brutally attacked. The Americans, however, were overwhelmed by the Japanese on the day after the Pearl Harbor attack and could not launch their “four-engine fighters.” (B17) Although the B-17s did not lead to much direct success for the Allies at the start of the war–due to unfamiliarity with aerial warfare and some ineffective strategies–they did help lead to technological advancements that were used in later models.

In 1939, before the U.S. even entered World World II, plans for the B-29 long range heavy bomber were submitted to the U.S. Army by Boeing. The B-29 had many new features that its predecessor, the B-17, did not include. These additions included guns that could be fired by remote control. The crew areas were pressurized and connected by a long tube over the bomb bays. The tail gunner’s post was pressurized separately from the rest of the cabin and could only be exited during unpressurized flight. Due to the increased requirements for range, bomb load, and defense equipment The B-29 became the heaviest production plane of its time. (B29) The Boeing 117 airfoil and its larger Fowler flaps added to the wing area to increase speed and lift on the B-29. Modifications led to the B-29D, which was later upgraded to the B-50, and also the RB-29 photo reconnaissance aircraft as technology continued to advance. Because the earliest B-29s were built before testing was finished, the Army established modification centers where last-minute changes were made without slowing the ever-growing assembly lines. Boeing built a total of 2,766 B-29s at plants in Wichita, Kansas and Renton, Washington. The Bell Aircraft Co. built 668 of the giant bombers in Georgia, and the Glenn L. Martin Co. built 536 in Nebraska. Production ended in 1946. (B29) Additionally, the Soviets built a version of the B-29, which they called the Tupolev Tu-4. B-29s were mainly used in the Pacific theater during the war. As many as 1,000 Superfortresses at a time bombed Tokyo, destroying large parts of the city. On August 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later another B-29, Bockscar, dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Shortly after, Japan surrendered. The technological advancements that paved the way for the B-29 aircraft not only highly influenced military tactics but also made a huge impact on the outcome of the war.

Another notable aircraft implemented during World War II that affected military plans was the P-51. At least eight versions of this plane were manufactured. The later models incorporated numerous improvements for special-purpose uses. After the fall of France, North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang was the first U.S. fighter airplane to fly into Europe. Then known as the P-51, it traveled back and forth across the channel, taking on the best of the Luftwaffe’s aircrafts. These P-51 Mustangs conquered every German plane that they met, from the early Junkers to the twin-jet Messerschmitt 262s. (P51) Although they were first designed for the British as medium-altitude fighters, P-51s excelled in hedge-hopping strafing runs and long-range escort duty. This model aircraft made a name for itself by blasting various forms of enemy transportation, such as trains and ships, in western Europe and also by devastating Axis defenses prior to the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy. The P-51 helped the Allies accomplish many feats. It was the first single-engined plane based in Britain to break into German air space; it was also the first type of plane reach Berlin and the first to go with the heavy bombers over the Ploesti oil fields. (P51) Additionally, the P-51 was the first to make a major-scale, all-fighter sweep specifically to track down the flopping Luftwaffe. The P-51 Mustang rated in 1944 by the Truman Senate War Investigating Committee as “the most aerodynamically perfect pursuit plane in existence.” (P51) This was surely one of its highest honours. The P-51 accomplished many great tasks and was very influential in the success of the Allies military tactics.

During World War II, the RAF capitalized on the technological advancements that were used in the design and construction of The Hawker Hurricane, which had more victories than any other RAF fighter. It was produced by Hawker Aircraft and used by the RAF throughout World War II.  From the plane’s introduction in 1937 through 1944, Hawker Aircraft completed a grand total of 14,533 Hawker Hurricanes. (HH) The Hawker Hurricane incorporated a liquid cooled, V-12 engine made by Rolls Royce, which was later incorporated in the British Supermarine Spitfire as well. The Hawker was designed to utilise all pre-existing tools and manufacturing equipment available. The result was an aircraft that was both easy to maintain and durable. The Hurricane MK.IIC weighed 5,745 lbs empty and 7,670 lbs loaded. It had a maximum speed of 340 mph, a rate of climb of 2,780 feet per minute, and a service ceiling of 36,000 feet. The Hurricane had a range of 600 miles. It was armed with four 20 mm autocannons that were manufactured by Hispano Suiza. (HH) The Hawker could carry either two 250 lb bombs or one 500 lb bomb. The Hawker Hurricane was utilised in all theaters during the war. It fought in the skies over France, North Africa, Malta, and Russia In the European theater. It was also used in the Pacific countries such as Burma, Malaysia, and Dutch West Indies. (HH) Although it was less popular than the Spitfire, the Hurricane was said to have been responsible for the majority of air victories during the Battle of Britain. The Hawker Hurricane made an impact throughout the war in various locations, but it most notably influenced the success of the RAF’s military tactics during the aforementioned Battle of Britain.

Although the Hawker Hurricane boasts the most victories, another RAF fighter plane holds the highest win-loss ratio: The Supermarine Spitfire. J. Mitchell, chief designer at Supermarine Aviation Works, designed this short range, high performance interceptor. Mitchell designed its elliptical wing to have the thinnest possible cross-section. This enabled the Spitfire to have a higher top speed than several contemporary fighters, including the aforementioned Hawker Hurricane, which made it an ideal interceptor. Until his death from cancer in 1937, Mitchell continued to refine the design. Afterwards, his colleague Joseph Smith took over as chief designer, overseeing the development of the Spitfire through its multitude of variants. The original airframe was designed to be driven by Rolls-Royce V-12 Merlin engine, producing 1,030 hp (768 kW). (BBC) Even still, the Spitfire’s airframe was strong enough and adaptable enough to use increasingly powerful Merlin makes and, later, Rolls-Royce Griffon engines that produced up to 2,340 hp (1,745 kW). This directly caused the Spitfire’s performance and capabilities to improve, often in dramatic fashion. (BBC) Throughout the Battle of Britain (July–October 1940), the Spitfire was perceived by the public to be the RAF’s token fighter, even though the more numerous Hawker Hurricane shouldered a greater proportion of the burden against the Luftwaffe. However, due to its higher performance, Spitfire units had a lower attrition rate and a higher win-loss ratio than the Hurricanes. (BBC) After the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire surpassed the Hurricane to become the lead RAF Fighter Command, and it saw action in all theatres. Loved by its pilots, the Spitfire served several roles: photo-reconnaissance, interceptor, fighter-bomber, and trainer. The Spitfire was the fastest plane flown in World War II. (BBC) It allowed for faster interception, which brought forth many advantages for the RAF. Its speed had the most notable impact on the RAF’s military tactics, as they chose to utilize its abilities to the fullest.

These noteworthy technological advancements in aerial warfare, made during World War II, had the greatest impact on the Allies’ and Axis’ military tactics. In truth, the Allies’ major victories were won in the air before on land. Designers, engineers, and physicists worked together to create aircrafts that utilized the latest discoveries in technology. Could such advancements have been made if people were not under the pressure of war? Do desperate times, struggles, and tribulations advance society more so than times of peace? Throughout history, times of tribulation have brought forth much fruit. For example, the early Christian church faced persecution in Jerusalem. This caused them to flee the city, which ultimately led to the spreading of the gospel–the exact opposite of what the Jewish religious leaders and Romans wanted and the exact outcome they were trying to prevent. Another example of positive advancement birthed through oppression is the outcome of the American Revolution. England was depriving the colonists of religious freedom and oppressing them in various ways. After Thomas Paine published “Common Sense” many colonist got on board with those who had already taken a stand against the crown. Enough colonists came together to successfully amend military tactics–like using guerrilla style warfare–and win America’s freedom. This begs the question, does having a common enemy bring people together and make it easier to advance society and technology? History would propose “yes.”


Works Cited

BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.

<http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/topics/supermarine_spitfire>. (BBC)

“Hawker Hurricane.” HubPages. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.

<http://phoenixv.hubpages.com/hub/Hawker-Hurricane>. (HH)

“History.” Boeing: B-17 Flying Fortress. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2014. <http://www.boeing.com/boeing/history/boeing/b17.page>. (B17)

“History.” Boeing: B-29 Superfortress. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.

<http://www.boeing.com/boeing/history/boeing/b29.page>. (B29)

“History.” Boeing: P-51 Mustang. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

<http://www.boeing.com/boeing/history/bna/p51.page>. (P51)