How the Over-engineering of Weapons Caused Problems for the Nazis in World War Two

History Hit Podcast with James Holland

Nazi Germany Twentieth Century World War Two
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A German Waffen-SS soldier carries an MG 42 configured as a light support weapon during heavy fighting in and around the French town of Caen in mid-1944. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1983-109-14A / Woscidlo, Wilfried / CC-BY-SA 3.0

This article is an edited transcript of World War Two: A Forgotten Narrative with James Holland on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 November 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The rather brilliant Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) John Starling runs the amazing Small Arms Unit at Shrivenham, the staff college just outside Swindon. He has got an amazing archive of small arms, everything from Black Bessies to more contemporary weapons. And amongst it all is an incredible arsenal of World War Two stuff: machine guns, submachine guns, rifles, you name it.

The MG 42 machine gun

I went to visit John and we were going through all this stuff when I saw an MG 42 – what Tommies (British private soldiers) used to call a “Spandau”. It was the most infamous machine gun of the Second World War and I said, “That’s obviously the best small arms weapon of World War Two”, which was something that I’d read in a book. 

The MG 42 doesn’t necessarily live up to its reputation.

John just went, “Says who? Says who?”

And in the next five minutes completely deconstructed why the MG 42 wasn’t necessarily the best weapon at all. For starters, it was incredibly over-engineered and expensive to make.

It had this incredible rate of fire, but it also had all sorts of problems: too much smoke, barrels overheating and no handle on the barrel so the user had to kind of flip it open when it was really, really hot.

Each machine gun crew also had to carry around six spare barrels and the gun was really heavy and got through loads of ammunition. So it was great in the initial combat, but came with all sorts of problems.

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And I just said, “Oh my God.” I had absolutely no idea about any of that; it was just a completely revelatory moment. And I thought, “Wow, that is really, really fascinating.” So I then went away and did lots more research into the over-engineering of weapons in World War Two.

The Tiger tank

Another example of German over-engineering is the Tiger tank. While the Allies’ Sherman tank had a four-speed manual gearbox, the Tiger had a hydraulically controlled, semi-automatic, six-speed, three-selector gearbox designed by Ferdinand Porsche. If it sounds unbelievably complicated, it was.

And if you were an 18-year-old recruit from Germany and put in one of those things, the chances were that you were going to mash it up, which is exactly what happened.

A Tiger I tank in the north of France. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-299-1805-16 / Scheck / CC-BY-SA 3.0

One of the reasons you were going to mash it up was because Germany was one of the least automotive societies in the West during World War Two. It’s a total fallacy that Nazi Germany was this sort of huge mechanised military moloch; it wasn’t.

Only the tip of the spear was mechanised, while the rest of the army, that vast army, was getting about from A to B on its own two feet and with the use of horses. 

So, if you’re not a very automated society, that means you don’t have a lot of people making vehicles. And if you don’t have a lot of people making vehicles, you don’t have a lot of garages, you don’t have a lot of mechanics, you don’t have a lot of petrol stations and you don’t have a lot of people who know how to drive them.

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So if recruits get put into a Tiger tank then it’s a problem because it’s just too difficult for them to drive and they ruin it. 

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History Hit Podcast with James Holland