WWII: The War That Changed The World


By Ilya Kramnik

As that great war recedes further into the past, the scale of the change that it had brought to the world becomes clearer. On May 9, 1945 the bloodiest of all wars that had ever been fought was drawing to a close in Europe.

Meanwhile World War II continued and Japan’s capitulation was still four months away, even though the outcome was a foregone conclusion. But even before May, the parties to the war were gradually summing up its results and reviewing the experience of the combat operations.

Every great war, especially one involving great powers on both sides, brings something new to the art of warfare. But World War II was out of the ordinary in that respect. The changes in the structure, hardware, equipment and the way the armed forces were used were unprecedented in their scope and significance. Even World War I, which first saw large-scale use of war planes, submarines, tanks and much else, had not brought about such massive change.

Changes affected not only the armed forces, but also diverse fields of human endeavor. The technological leap accomplished during that war stipulated to a large extent subsequent technical progress and radical changes in human life at all levels – from the global to the everyday – over the 50-60 years that followed.

One can go on endlessly describing the impact of World War II on humanity, but we are concerned with narrower questions: How did the war influence warfare? What tactical, operational, strategic and technical changes brought by World War II are still used today?

By the start of World War II the Armed Forces of the leading countries did not look much different from what they were in World War I. The basis of the world’s armies was infantry armed with magazine rifles. Tanks, though improved, were not much more advanced than the clumsy boxes of the times of the Somme and Cambre. All the armies still had cavalry divisions and most of the war planes were still biplanes made from plywood and canvas, even though their flight performance had been improved.

Yet even then, in the autumn of 1939, prerequisites were in place for a revolution in warfare which materialized over the following several years. Mass-produced reliable motor vehicles made it possible to create mobile land units, which overturned the existing notions of operational skills. By the end of the 1930s technical progress in the automotive industry enabled the world’s leading countries to create a new generation of tanks that not only provided fire support for motorized infantry but became a means of breaking through defenses and exploiting success into the enemy rear instead of cavalry.

The exigencies of war quickly removed from the scene outdated planes and improvements in the performance of the new machines marked a qualitative leap in the Air Force, which became a separate arm of the service capable of accomplishing strategic missions. The appearance of jet planes at the end of the war made the leap still more dramatic.

Radio technology was not standing still either: first, widespread use of reliable radio transmitters transformed the work of staffs by dramatically improving the supply of information and feedback from the staffs. Combined with increased mobility of the land forces, that made it possible to translate into practice the theories of deep operations. Second, radio made it possible in practice to ensure communication between different armed services in the battlefield. Third, the beginning of World War II practically coincided with the appearance of the early radars in leading countries, which were soon to bring about a drastic change to the tactics and operational configuration of all the armed forces, but especially of the Air Force and the Navy.

The emergence of the radar, which dramatically extended the horizon, and of new war planes undermined the preeminence of large artillery ships that seemed unassailable for centuries and had reached its peak with the emergence of dreadnoughts in the early 20th century. The aircraft carrier, considered to be an auxiliary type of vessel before World War II, displaced the man-of-war from its position of ruler of the seas to become a new operational and strategic asset: a floating airbase for dozens of powerful machines capable of controlling areas hundreds of kilometers around.

The submarine fleet had earned considerable respect during World War I, when it was already a force to be reckoned with, but now it also went through a revolution. In the 20 years between the two world wars the performance characteristics of submarines changed very little, but in the following five years they made a great leap forward: with the Air Force and surface vessels developing rapidly, submarines had to turn from “divers” into fully-fledged submarines capable of staying under water for many weeks. It was but a step from the use of submarines at the end of World War II to the emergence of nuclear submarines, a step that was soon accomplished.

The development of radio-engineering, which soon evolved into radio-electronics, led to the emergence of weapons that one could previously only read about in science fiction. World War II brought to the scene ballistic missiles (along with experimental samples of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles), guided torpedoes, guided air bombs and unmanned aircraft, as well as unmanned machines – not only flying machines, but also ones that move on the ground, effectively the forerunners of modern robots, and centralized air defense systems. Early computers were created for purely military purposes as the new-look armed forces and their support demanded quick computation.

Finally, speaking about technical innovations during World War II, one should mention the nuclear weapon, which dramatically changed humankind’s attitude to war and peace.

The dramatic changes in military technology led to changes in tactics and operational skills. It would be no exaggeration to say that practically all modern warfare grows from the ideas that first emerged in 1939-1945: the actions of combined units, close interaction of different armed services, commando operations, the greatly increased importance of “Navy against shore” operations, strategic bombings, radio-electronic warfare, mass information and psychological warfare, to mention only some factors. The war became truly total in the informational, psychological and technical senses, drastically changing the requirements to logistical support.

The revolution in means of warfare dramatically changed the balance between large and small countries in the world arena. While previously the difference between the armed forces of a large and a small country was mainly quantitative, now it became qualitative because very few countries in the world could afford to create fully-fledged nuclear-era armed forces, and it is not by chance that these countries form the big nuclear five, the “nucleus” of the UN Security Council.

New operational concepts backed up by the nuclear bomb, strategic bombers and missiles within ever growing range practically made redundant the concept of “the period of growing tensions.” The transition from peace to war between superpowers became a very thin line and a country had to plan its infrastructure even in peace time assuming that war could break out at any moment and strikes could be delivered at any moment and at any range.

World War II was preceded by a multitude of large and small local conflicts which in many ways determined the configuration of blocs and alliances during the war. The increased ferocity of these conflicts, which drew nearer and nearer to the borders of leading countries, became a sign of an imminent major war.

After World War II, the question of winning or losing a big war became tantamount to the question of life and death. A country that loses a big war loses everything, ceasing to exist as an independent political entity for a long time if not forever. A striking example is Yugoslavia, which lost its identity as a result of its defeat. In this context the preservation and constant modernization of the armed forces is a guarantee of a country’s survival, its freedom and independence, just as much as 64 years ago.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti, where this article was first published.

Ria Novosti

RIA Novosti was Russia's leading news agency in terms of multimedia technologies, website audience reach and quoting by the Russian media.

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