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Thursday, September 17, 2015


Steve Cole's thoughts on surefire weapons of military history that turned out to be horrible ideas.
1. Battlecruisers: The British invented these things in 1906. They were the size of battleships and had the guns of battleships, but had half of the armor. The point was to gain speed. The ships had three missions: First, they could hunt down marauding enemy cruisers, which were faster than battleships but could never fight battleship guns. This actually worked, but there were only two German heavy cruisers and one battlecruiser at large at the start of World War I. Second, they made super dandy commerce raiders since they could outfight anything that could catch them. Third, they could scout ahead of the battle fleet and find the enemy battleships. Fourth, they were big enough and mean enough to fight their way through the enemy screen of cruisers and destroyers. Fifth, they could lead the battle line and because they were faster they could force the enemy to turn to avoid having the battlecruisers turn across their bow. This turned out to be the only real job the battlecruisers had, and they were horrible at it (three of them blew up at Jutland playing that game). That thin armor meant that battlecruisers really needed to stay away from battleships, but they were too expensive to leave out of the fight.
2. American tank destroyers in WWII: Tank destroyers were traditionally last year's tank chassis with a bigger gun than this year's tank, often at the cost of armor, a rotating turret, or something else. The Germans and Russians made their assault guns work, but these had heavy frontal armor. The US was the one that got it wrong, putting a heavy tank-killing cannon on a Sherman chassis with half of the Sherman's totally inadequate armor. The whole idea was just wrong, and the US should never have done it. Instead, they needed a vehicle with heavier armor, or even better, a really good tank (with a high velocity gun and armor at least 50% thicker than the Sherman). The Russians and Germans did what they did because they could not build real tanks fast enough. The Americans, with limitless production power, should have just skipped tank destroyers and built a real tank. So the failure here is not the tank destroyer but the American idea of fast tanks that would avoid fighting German tanks and fast tank destroyers than would sneak around and kill German tanks before the Germans spotted the tank destroyer and killed it. (The Germans had learned that their unarmored Marder tank destroyers didn't survive in combat and switched to using StuG3s and Hetzers, which had frontal armor.)
3. Twin-engine fighters: Several nations built these with the idea that they would have longer range, heavier firepower, and would be very useful in killing or escorting bombers. The problem was that they didn't maneuver all that well, and single-engine fighters could kill them all too easily. They had some merit as bomber-killers in situations where single-engine fighters were not around (i.e., at night) and most of them ended up as night fighters. The best of the twin-engine long-range fighters was the American P-38, which had major firepower, extreme gunnery range (since the guns were all in the nose and did not have to be sighted to cross at some point in the front of the aircraft), and horsepower out the wazoo. Dogfighting was a bad idea but at least they had the power to get out of any fight they could not win.
4. Gliders: When airborne operations were envisioned, gliders were thought to be a quick and cheap way to reinforce the air landing. Troops landing in gliders would all be in one place with their leaders and would be able to get right to work doing whatever it was the airborne landing was supposed to do. (Paratroopers would be scattered all over and form up in whatever temporary groups they could and would thus be far less effective.) Even better, glider troops were easier to train than paratroopers, and did not expect higher pay. Gliders even worked on some small-scale operations like Eban Emael and Pegasus Bridge. The problem was that gliders had to have a fairly flat spot the size of a football field to land in. After the first couple of successful airborne operations (by the Germans) everyone figured out that just planting a few telephone poles into the middle of fields would wreck the gliders and cause those troops more casualties than their parachutist brothers. The whole idea of gliders was dropped after WWII and even the heavy equipment that gliders we needed to land was dropped by new larger parachutes.
5. Strategic bombing of populations: The British, Germans, and Americans all loved strategic bombing, and cities were easier to hit than factories. (American "precision daylight bombing" was lucky to get one bomb out of ten into the actual factory being bombed.) The theory was that a population made homeless would demand that their government end the war. (This theory came from an Italian WWI fighter ace named Douhet. He wrote a book theorizing that in future wars strategic bombing would force the enemy to surrender before the ground armies met in battle. This would save lives by avoiding the bloodbath of World War I trench fighting. Nice theory but it never worked.) The British, German, and Japanese populations were defiant to the end, despite the fact that the British night bombers and American B-29s had run out of German and Japanese cities worth burning to the ground. If the British planes had gone after industrial targets, the war might have ended sooner, as American attacks on fuel refineries had very nearly shut down the German war machine. The Japanese economy was so decentralized that there were no targets worth bombing by July 1945 but military production continued and enough food was produced to keep the people alive (if not healthy). Post-war claims by the US Air Forces that the Japanese would have surrendered by November without an invasion or a nuclear bomb are just not consistent with the facts.