Germany, WWII

The Myth of German Technological Superiority

As a tank website, we are intimately familiar with the myth of German technical superiority. When we discuss or share images of the Tiger in particular, we receive many comments and questions about the Allies lagging behind German technology.

This is a notion that has been around since the Second World War, and is heavily ingrained in the topic and culture.

We have all seen, or may even be guilty of believing it: the German war machine, a terrifying, unstoppable force that blasted through its enemies with its superior guns, aircraft and tanks that were years ahead of their enemy’s. Meanwhile, the Allies were tripping over themselves, and only managed to beat Germany with sheer numbers and through unfair fights.

So we thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at this, and explain why the idea of German technological superiority during the war is actually just a myth.


The Myth of a Technology Gap

During the early war years, most nations were on a level of parity, and scientists from all sides had been on fairly open terms discussing projects, ideas, and technology. Just like today, studies in a subject or breakthroughs were often published, for both scientific recognition, peer reviewing, and for national prestige.

But in the build-up to what would inevitably lead to war these scientists and engineers often found themselves pressed into service with their respective governments. There are a few exceptions who left those nations out of fear or ethical reasons – most famously, Albert Einstein – and many others due to persecution for being Jewish.

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But before even this exodus the allied forces had been working on a variety of ideas, technologies, and devices before the Nazis had even begun goose-stepping their way into the history books.

German UFO myth.
This idea has resulted in simply absurd technologies being attributed to the Germans, including flying saucers.

However, for some reason, there is a persistent myth that the Allies were at a significant technological disadvantage during the war. Books, documentaries, movies, video games and virtually any other form of media that has touched on the Second World War have all contributed to this.

Tanks, guns, aircraft, ships, you name it, and many will believe Germany was constantly more advanced. Some even claim they were decades ahead of the Allies.

However, when you take a closer look at each of these, you will quickly realise that it has little substance.

As a tank-based site, we are very familiar with this idea, in particular, that German tanks were simply better. The Tiger could kill a Sherman, so it was more advanced.

However, when you break it down, what exactly is so advanced about the Tiger I? It had thick armor for the time, a powerful engine, a nice double-differential steering system, and a good gun.

Tiger 131 superiority myth.
As a symbol of German strength during the war, the Tiger has come to represent Germany’s supposed advantage over its enemy’s.

But this isn’t advanced. Advanced suggests that they had some additional understanding that made only them capable of designing and producing such a vehicle. But this simply isn’t the case. Just because the Allies didn’t produce a tank like the Tiger, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t.

The Tiger didn’t have anything truly futuristic. It didn’t have a rangefinder, it didn’t have a stabilised gun, it didn’t have a fire control computer, it didn’t even have rotatable periscopes. The Tiger was built using the same technologies everyone else had access to, but on a greater scale.

In essence, having more extreme features doesn’t make something more advanced.

Why Allied Technology was Not Lacking

Contrary to this popular notion, the Allies were working on masses of advanced projects before and during the war.

Concepts such as the jet engine was being worked on, with the Italians and the French drawing plans in the early 1920s and later work by Frank Whittle in the same decade.

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Directional radar, which played such a crucial role in the war, had been worked since the 1930s, while unmanned aircraft and even radio-homing guided platforms had been tested in both the UK and the US.

Royal Aircraft Establishment Larynx on deck.
The Royal Aircraft Establishment Larynx was a pilotless aircraft developed by Britain in the 1920s. It was faster than the fighters of the day.

Engineers like Sidney Brown were already working on devices such as an electronic eye to enable a pilotless aircraft to track and collide with another plane. In addition, magnetic seeking warheads, heat-seeking and audio devices to home in on planes engines, were being worked on in 1930.

The Shepherd and Ram system, which allowed a plane to guide another pilotless aircraft that would home in on an enemy radio station, was tested in the 1920s. Weapons like the Larynx, a guided cruise missile being tested in the latter half of 1920s, was able to cruise for 300 miles at speeds of up to 450mph.

There was a discussion to fit it with jets, so most fighters could not intercept it, and even plans to switch the aircraft to a rocket system.

Infrared Churchill.
Britain were playing with infrared on their tanks as early as 1943. The system shown here is fitted to a Churchill.

These discussions also covered systems from unmanned, high altitude bombers that could use radio location to deliver payloads to enemy cities, all the way to wirelessly-controlled 34-feet-long torpedoes that could be steered into ships.

Jets such as the first Gloster models were flying in 1941 – although the work needed to be refined. Frankly, an aircraft with an endurance of about 56 minutes is not as successful as conventional fighters.

By 1941 and ’42, a wide variety of jet-propelled aircraft had been designed, from four engined bombers to fighters. The Gloster Meteor began in 1941, and was flying by 1943 – as was the de Havilland Vampire.

Not to mention the US splitting the atom and developing the atomic bomb, along with the B-29 to drop it.

NACA's 40 ft by 80 ft wind tunnel .
NACA’s 40 ft by 80 ft wind tunnel was the largest in the world at the time, and greatly contributed to US aircraft development.

The ground side was no different; new ballistic systems, engines, and materials were constantly in development, and devices such as infrared were tested on tanks. The Soviets produced arguably the best tank engine of the war – maybe ever – with the V-2.

By the end of the war the Australians had developed the first ERA blocks, if somewhat accidentally.

We are not suggesting the Allies were lightyears ahead of Germany, but that Germany didn’t have some mystical advantage that granted them superior technology.

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The devices, means and methods were all there, sometimes decades ahead of any Nazi wonder toys. So why is it then, that despite all of these designs – some of which were successful in tests and combat – have most have been completely forgotten?

Why Have Allied Advances been Forgotten?

Well there a few likely answers to this. The first is simply because people are not interested in them. The idea of a super advanced army that took on the world with superior technology, logic and determination and only lost because of underhand tactics is an appealing one.

The Allies are familiar, “safe”, which many may find less interesting.

There is a certain mystique to the notion that perhaps if they only had a few more months, Germany could have produced their advanced tech in enough numbers to have turned the tide of the war.

You only need to look at how many movies have a Nazi villain, or one inspired by the Nazis, to see how much people are attracted to this idea. Plus, villains are often seen as “cool”, “strong”, and worthy of respect. Darth Vader, Thanos, the Terminator etc. all intrigue us.

Germans Marching through Paris.
The German military is often associated with fashion, strength, mystique and more attributes that make it more attractive to learn about and, maybe even root for.

Authors, movie directors, game developers etc. have realised that this idea sells, and dedicated plenty of media to it. On the tank-front, many conflate the large size of Germany’s heavier tanks with them being more technologically advanced.

The second potential answer is that it challenges a well-established idea. Many who are interested in the Second World War likely learned this concept from a young age, perhaps from their father, or another trusted person, who also learned this from a young age.

They have grown up with the idea of the Allies having no chance without their numerical advantage, and it may be uncomfortable to be told this basic foundational fact isn’t true. Also, some may interpret this as contradicting people they admire and respect, which, understandably, is unpleasant.

Human nature will often lead us to combat this with denial, or to create a scenario in which their preconceived narrative can coexist with the evidence provided. This is often known as “coping”. A good example of this is when people see a destroyed Tiger, they will often assume it ran out of fuel, was destroyed by its own crew, or that it was only beaten because it was in an unfair fight.

T-44 tank.
The Soviet T-44, shown here, was already in production before the war had ended. It laid the foundations for Soviet tank designs, all the way up until the modern day.

Another issue that can arise is veteran testimonies. Many complained during, and after the war that they were being sent into combat with “lesser” equipment. Naturally, this was passed on to family members, friends, recorded in books, and integrated into movies.

But it is actually a rather common sentiment among servicemembers that continues today – those in the field often feel like they do not have the right tools for the job.

This is largely because those on the ground are not aware of the situation outside of their own duties.

The problem with the Second World War testimonies, is that the situation was never flipped, so we do not have a fair comparison.

A Panther's cracked hull.
The Panther was prone to cracking and spalling of its armor due to improper manufacturing methods.

For example, while some tankers may have been jealous of German Tiger crews in combat, would they have been as jealous when their vehicle was damaged, and they had to wait days for repairs to be repaired, if ever? Or when if their Tiger is destroyed, they are transferred into a different type of vehicle because there are no Tigers to replace it?

Interestingly, there are many mentions in reports of how German servicemembers were jealous of various Allied capabilities, such as their airpower, fuel supplies, rations and more.

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However, a major reason for why Allied technology is often forgotten about, is the result of how the war actually unfolded.

Panther Drawing Ad

The Allied forces had some of, if not the best, levels of secrecy, redundancy, compartmentalization, and intelligence one can conceive. In fact, in some cases it was so good that often two different departments could be working on the same project a few miles apart and would not know of the existence of the other.

Whilst Germany, unknown to them, had just about every form of communication cracked, tapped, or infiltrated, to the point if Hitler used the toilet, we knew how many sheets he used.

As the war turned against the Germans, and the fight began to push them back, the soldiers on the ground would come across new things, stuff they had never seen before. As per requirements, anything new or out of the ordinary was sent back for evaluation and assessment.

T10 mine exploder.
For every Minenräumer, there is a T10 mine exploder.

Had this been reversed, German troops would have likely been shocked to find some of the insane contraptions that passed through places like Aberdeen Proving Ground in the US.

Coupled with this was the situation at home; towns had been hit with V1 and V2 systems, which led the public to ask why the government was not working on counters or similar systems.

The truth is they were, and had, but publicly announcing that would give the enemy a heads up. The V2 was of particular interest, and whilst the UK had plans for similar rockets, the capture of an intact one by some plucky Poles in 1944 helped a lot.

Chicago Pile-1.
The US produced the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reactor in 1942.

But the UK felt that such a system was more or less redundant for what it delivered. Why go to such lengths to deliver 1 ton of explosives, when in 1942 the UK was already dropping over 3000 tons of bombs in one night, and doing considerably more damage than the V2 system could ever hope to achieve?

To put that in perspective, to match a single bombing raid, Germany would have to launch a V2 every 30 seconds, 24 hours a day to have the same effect.

Indeed in a cold and calculating manner, the UK felt such systems would be better suited to delivering chemical and biological weapons. This was something they had stockpiled in vast amounts, but were not willing to be the first to use it.

Proximity fuse.
The Allies developed the incredibly secretive proximity fuse, which fit inside an artillery shell and detonated it when near an aircraft, rather than having to hit it. They were also used for other purposes, including air busts over ground targets.

The same was true of a lot of other items and systems. Many were never even used or development was kept relatively low-key.

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The Allies were focused primarily on what was ready now, in production and working – a change to a production line or implementation of new systems and unproven combat technologies was not essential.

Items that could be mass-produced, quickly, cheaply and efficiently were.

M3 Mediums in factory.
The Allies often turned down updates or improvements as they would impede production. Troops needed equipment, and they needed it fast.

Germany was on the backfoot on every front and getting the stuffing kicked out of it. Slowing up the advance, to produce a handful of exotic experimental systems was quite simply not a priority.

The ground situation was very much the same; soldiers found new stuff, and did what soldiers do: they talked, they shared information and rumors spread. Whispers would circulate, and relatives were informed of finds on leave, leaving soldiers confused as to why they never had such things.

But because of the great secrecy, they were never privy to what was going on in the first place. The average soldier simply had no idea of what was going on behind the scenes, but was aware of the enemy’s equipment.

Usage of German Developments

This and the looting of liberated areas by locals led to the formation of units such as T-Force, who would often go ahead of the army and seize important buildings, offices and even identified Nazis.

They would then put a cordon around them so that the attached civilian scientist could see what was found, what its use was, if any, and what might be sent home.

Without the correct permissions, T-Force could detain, arrest and if necessary shoot anybody who tried to get past them up to the rank of general.

T-force and others would also round up and identify scientists or key personnel they thought might be of interest. This was not to prevent them from helping Germany – which at this point was pretty much defeated – but to prevent the Russians from getting their mitts on them.

Messerschmitt Me 163B.
We’ve all seen the documentaries that cover an obscure late-war German project and make the claim that if only more were built, then perhaps they wouldn’t have lost the war.

It was less about what they knew or had worked on, and more about what they could learn and still contribute towards. After all, they were still intelligent men with enough knowledge that they could probably cause problems in the wrong hands.

Those who were not willing to help were simply sent over to the war crimes trials. The information gathered post-war did not revolutionize the Allied forces, it was never next-gen, or lightyears ahead, but coupled with what was known and with new angles of approach, it would be key to developing new systems that would be used to counter the new threat, the Soviets.

Note how the Allies weren’t suddenly developing Tiger copycats after the war. They looked at what was useful, what wasn’t, and made changes from there.

Leopard C2 driving.
Even Germany abandoned bulky, heavily armored WWII-era tanks in their post-war designs.

Unlike Germany, which had many of its experiments uncovered by liberating troops, a vast amount of Allied information and technology remained locked away after the war. Post-war there was a massive bloom in new equipment which had been ready to go, and items sitting on the back burner were pushed into service now that peace had been established.

But for a lot of stuff, it remained under lock and key, eyes only and squirreled away. A good deal of this material and information was later given over to various archives, libraries, and trusts, where its classification expired in the 70s and even the 80s.

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Today they can be found in places like the National Archives, which have thousands of files of information, plans, blueprints and testing reports, available to anybody who can visit, all of which show just how much was available.