The forces of Nazi Germany in World War II were some of the most
formidable fielded in any war. Backed by German science, engineering and modern
mass-production techniques, it was a new type of highly mechanized warfare.
Faster paced and deadlier than the armed forces that fought in the Great War
just twenty years before, it overwhelmed slower-moving enemies and helped
Germany subjugate an entire continent. Here are five examples of German war
technology that very nearly ended Western civilization as we know it.
The Panzerkampfwagen VI (Tiger
The tank’s modern reputation as a fast, hard-hitting, deadly war
chariot is largely due to the German Army’s use of the tank in the early years
of World War II. Although first invented by the British in World War I, the
Wehrmacht and SS took the tank to its logical conclusion, in doing so swinging
the pendulum of war from defense as the dominant form of warfare back to the
Although the bulk of German tank forces was composed of smaller
tanks such as the Panzerkampfwagen III and IV, the Panzerkampfwagen VI—or Tiger
tank—was designed to be the decisive factor on the armored battlefield. At
fifty-four tons, it was considerably larger than contemporary tanks, and
together with its thick armor and eighty-eight-millimeter main gun, made the
Tiger a so-called “heavy” tank. Introduced in 1942, the Tiger’s KwK 36 gun
could gut any mass-produced Allied tank built during the war, and the tank’s
thick armored hide could shrug off most Allied antitank rounds.
Tigers were organized into heavy tank battalions and deployed by
German Army commanders where they were needed the most. As a result, unlike
other German tanks which prioritized protection and mobility over firepower in
a general offensive, the Tiger emphasized firepower and protection over
mobility, as it typically had specific objectives in mind.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter
The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was hands down the most lethal fighter
of the Second World War. Designed by legendary aircraft designer Willy
Messerschmitt in the mid-1930s, it replaced a grab bag of forgettable interwar
German fighters with a fresh design that included a monocoque airframe,
retractable landing gear and a closed cockpit.
Early Bf109A models served in the Spanish Civil War. By the late
thirties, German rearmament was in full swing and the Me109 became the main
fighter of the fledgling Luftwaffe. Fast and maneuverable, it was also hard
hitting, featuring two .51-caliber heavy machine guns and one twenty-millimeter
The Bf109A and the Luftwaffe served all over Europe, North
Africa and European Russia, dominating all other air forces until 1943 with the
exception of the Royal Air Force. The Bf109 and its wartime variants had the
most serial aces of the war, including pilots such as Adolph Galland, Werner
Molders and Johannes Steinhoff. Overall, 33,984 Bf109s of all kinds were built
by German and Czech factories. Ironically, a variant of the Bf-109, the Czech
Avia 199, served with an embryonic Israeli Air Force in the late 1940s.
MG-42 Machine Gun
The crew-served machine gun was a major contributor to the high
death rate of World War I, and the interwar German Army, though small, ensured
it had highly effective machine guns to help it punch above its weight. The
MG-34 machine gun, adopted in 1934, was lightweight, had an extremely high rate
of fire of up to 1,200 rounds per minute, and was capable of quick barrel
changes on the battlefield—a must for an infantry-support machine gun.
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Unfortunately, the MG-34 was built made more like a watch than a
battlefield weapon, and as a result manufacturer Rheinmetall could not keep up
with demand. The MG-42, introduced in 1942, was an attempt to simplify the
design into something that could be more easily mass-produced, and ultimately
four hundred thousand were produced. The MG-42’s high rate of fire proved
highly beneficial in defensive battles, particularly strongpoints backed up by
mobile reserves on the Eastern Front.
German small arms doctrine held that the MG42—not the infantry
weapon—was the foundation of infantry firepower. The infantry, armed with
slower-firing Karabiner 98k bolt-action rifles, supported the machine gun. By
contrast, the U.S. Army placed less emphasis on machine guns, fielding fewer of
them than a comparable German unit, while at the same time increasing overall
firepower with the semiautomatic M1 Garand and the M1918 Browning Automatic
The German Navy (Kriegsmarine) in World War II was not the
dominant arm of the German military. There would be no repeat of the German
High Seas Fleet. As a result, it had to focus its limited resources on what was
most effective its traditional maritime foe, the Royal Navy. While the response
to the French Navy was the German Army, fighting the United Kingdom required a
But without capital ships, how would Germany take the fight to
the Atlantic? The answer was the Unterseeboot, or U-boat submarine.
U-Boats had been highly successful in World War I, and the Kriegsmarine heavily
reinvested in them in World War II. This again proved successful, with U-boats
sinking 2,779 Allied ships totaling 14.1 million tons between 1939 and 1945.
The most successful U-boat, U-48, sank fifty-one ships. That translated to
306,874 tons of Allied shipping—the equivalent of three modern Nimitz-class
Not only did the U-boat campaign force the Allies to slow the
flow of troops and war materials across the Atlantic and organize shipping into
convoys for protection, it also affected the British civilian population, which
suffered chronic shortages of foodstuffs and other goods. Initially powerful,
U-boats were eventually nullified by Allied countermeasures and ultimately
failed to sever lines of communication between North America and western
Europe. Germany’s submarine force lost heavily—765 U-boats were lost during the
course of the Second World War.
Germany’s use of masses of tanks on the modern battlefield
opened Pandora’s box. Within a few years Allied forces would be returning the
favor and it was suddenly the German Army that was facing large numbers of
British, American and Soviet tanks. As the quality of German forces declined
and the number of Allied forces went up, the Wehrmacht had a need for a cheap,
inexpensive way to saturate the battlefield with tank-killing firepower. The
result: the Panzerfaust.
The Panzerfaust was incredibly simple for an effective antitank
weapon. A single-shot, recoilless weapon, it featured a large, egg-shaped
warhead attached to a disposable metal tube. The primitive trigger ignited the
black powder propellant, sending the warhead to an effective range of thirty
yards. The shaped charge warhead had an astonishing penetration capability of
up to 7.9 inches, making it capable of destroying any Allied tank.
The Panzerfaust made
anyone—even old men and children dragooned into the German Army late in the
war—a potential tank killer. The introduction of this new short-range,
last-ditch weapon made Allied tank crews more cautious around German infantry
that did not appear to have strong antitank defenses, such as towed guns.
During the Battle for Berlin, some Soviet tankers even welded bed springs to their tanks , in hopes
that prematurely detonating the shaped charge warhead would save their tank—a
tactic the U.S. Army used decades later with so-called “slat armor” on Stryker
Kyle Mizokami is a
defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in
the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and
the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security
blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami .