A Brief History
On August 6, 1945, near end of World War II, a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber dropped a uranium gun-type (“Little Boy”) bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a plutonium implosion (“Fat Man”) bomb was dropped by another B-29 on Nagasaki. The bombs immediately devastated their targets and, over the next two to four months, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 people in Nagasaki. World War II was one of the most deadly wars in history. Over 15,000,000 people were killed in combat. 25,000,000 more were wounded. The death toll was catastrophic. In addition to the atomic bombs mentioned above, there are a lot of other iconic weapons from the World War II era, and the massive kill count was due—at least in part—to a peak in weapons development. Many modern weapons are based on designs that were conceived before or during World War II. Then, of course, there was the aforementioned atom bomb, but there are some interesting tidbits about some of the most deadly weapons in World War II that you may not know. Here are a few of those little known facts.
Biological Weapons Could Have Been the Most Deadly of World War II
One of the most horrific atrocities of World War II was the Japanese biological warfare research project known as Unit 731. The things that happened in Unit 731 are almost unbearable to learn about, but what is scary about the project is that Japan successfully weaponized the Black Plague, Typhus, and other diseases. The Japanese also developed a deployment system using fleas that was effective.
Japan conducted field tests in Manchuria. Pathogen related deaths in contaminated areas were estimated to be 50,000 by 1946, six years after the first outbreak in 1940. Experts estimate the overall death toll of Japanese germ warfare testing to be in the six figure range. The field tests were horrible, but Japanese scientists developed the ability to produce over 300 kilograms of Black Plague (technically the Yersinia pestis bacteria) each month. At one point, Japan had produced enough Black Plague to kill everyone on earth.
Biological warfare would have been remarkably effective at the time, because penicillin had not been widely spread throughout the world (being under development as a medicine in the United States), but this possibility was also a double-edged sword. Japan was fearful that they would not be able to adequately protect their own soldiers and population from their own germ warfare, which is likely the reason they never deployed biological warfare at scale.
The Most Effective Anti-Tank Gun Was Actually an Anti-Aircraft Gun
The 8.8 cm Flak 18/36/37/41 is a German 88mm gun that was used extensively in Northern Africa as an anti-tank gun. It was remarkably effective. The 88mm gun was used as an anti-tank artillery piece, and was adapted for mounting on the German Tiger and Tiger II tanks.
The gun started as 1916 as a naval weapon that the Germans had adapted for ground warfare, in part because the treaty of Versailles stifled the German military and industrial complex, but Germany was able to establish relationships with foreign companies to continue development of the 88mm gun and other weapons. By 1936, the 88mm German anti-aircraft gun was in full scale production. The Wehrmacht were the first to adopt the 88mm gun.
The 88mm gun was a remarkably effective anti-aircraft gun, but the Germans discovered that the gun could be especially effective as an anti-tank gun by leveling the barrel and fitting a muzzle brake to the barrel to counteract muzzle rise and recoil impulse. Extensive use of the gun as an anti-tank gun and an anti-infantry artillery piece prompted Allied forces to label the 88mm anti-aircraft gun the “anti-everything gun.” The development of the German 88mm gun is a testament to the effectiveness and versatility of the German engineering of the time.
The M1 Garand Was Created by a French Canadian
The M1 Garand is considered to be one of the most iconic American military rifles in history. Maybe even more iconic than the AR-15/M16.
The M1 Garand beat out several other firearms manufacturers like Thompson and Browning to become the first semi-automatic rifle issued to American military forces. Those semi-automatic capabilities gave American troops a distinct edge over German and Japanese forces who were still using bolt-action rifles. Since the M1 Garand was used by every branch of the American armed forces, this tactical advantage made the M1 Garand one of the most deadly weapons in World War II. The M1 Garand was so effective that it was issued as standard equipment starting in 1936 and remained in US service until the early years of the Vietnam war (1963), and is still in use by some foreign militaries.
Although the M1 possesses remarkable fame in American military history, it was actually created by John Garand, a French Canadian. John Garand was born in Quebec though he lived much of his life in Connecticut. He was remained a Canadian citizen until he became a consulting engineer for Springfield Armory. John Garand created the original design in 1919, in an effort to create a semi-automatic, primer actuated, blowback operated rifle. Springfield Armory started manufacturing the rifles, and by the mid-1930’s had begun production of well over 5 million M1 Garands that delivered military-grade performance.
Facts are Just Facts
Regardless of the use or non-use of each of these weapon systems, these weapons were still remarkably effective (or could have been). The ingenuity and cunning that it took to get these weapons into service and use them so effectively really speaks to the innovation and problem solving driven by war.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think any of the weapons described above should be banned by the international community? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bishop, Chris, ed. The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II: The Comprehensive Guide to over 1500 Weapons Systems, including Tanks, Small Arms, Warplanes, Artillery, Ships and Submarines. Amber Books, 2014.
Dougherty, Martin J. The World’s Worst Weapons (From Exploding Guns to Malfunctioning Missiles). Amber Books, 2007.
The featured image in this article, photographs of the atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left)and Nagasaki (right), is a work of a United States Department of Energy (or predecessor organization) employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.