* World War II aerial ordinance

World War II Air Campaign: Aerial Ordinance

Figure 1.--As Europe move toward war in the 1930s it became widely believed that the Germans would use poison gas in aerial attacks on cities. As a result, the Governent issued a gas mask to every one in the country. And when the Germans invaded Poland (September 1, 1939), the Brutish evacuated their children to the countryside. Each child has a tag with his personal information and destination, a sack lunch, and a box containing a gas mask. The Luftwaffe bombers would come, but a year later and with high exolosives and incendiaries, but no chemical weapons.

The aerial bomb was one of the most important weapons of World War II and until the last year of thecWar, te primary way of brining the War home to the Axis countries, especially Germany and Japan. Ironically, the bombs at the beginning of the war werea littke changed except for rhe size. The plabes that delivered them were hugeky changed, but not the noms themselves. Which mean that the accuracy pf strategic bombing was nit materially imprived. The range of the nombers changed, but not the bombs themselves--except for the size. The aerial bomb was virtuallu unique anong World War II ordinamce. It was simple device, relying only on gracity to deliver. And there was lottle difference between the bombs produced by the different countrues, except for size. The Axia did not have the geavybbombers to deliver large bombs. ms There are several different types of aerial ordinance used during World War II. This includes both bombs and guns. The two major types of bombs were 1) high-explosive frahmentation and 2) incendiaries which were not unrelated. While most of the destruction in aerial warfare by either high expolosivs or incendiaries, but at the onset of the War the greatest fear was the bombing of cities with checical weapons. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was not yet a term used. But WMDs would ultimately end the war, altthough it was not chemical weapons, but atomic weapons--a new weapon system not yet developed or even envisioned by most people. While bombs are the primary ordinance that comes to mind when thinking of the air war, World War II bombers were equipped with machine guns and in a few minor instances cannons for self protection. And bybthe end of theWar, Allied fighter bombers were using rockets. The ordinance varied widely for strategic and tactical operations. And this varied depending on whether the target was other aircraft or ground targets. There were also special variants for naval warfare which consistedvof torpedoes and small bombs delivered by dive bombers.

World War I

The airpalne was very new at the time of World War I. Little thoughtbhad been given to aerial weapons. And the planes were not very capable meaning that could not carry heavy weapons. The first sych weapons were postols and shotbguns the pilots took with them. Planes were rapidly improved and armedvwith machine guns. The first bomns were grenades the pilots took with them,. but this too rapidly changed. The Germans gave the greatest empgasis to aerial bombardment, first with Zephlins and then with the long-range Gotha bombers which were used for attacks on London and other British cities. The Allies in respmse were preparing a massive strategic boming offensuve on German cities. The Germans were dropping bombs from 50 to 1,600 pounds. Three types of bombs were develooed during the War.. Demolition boms cinsusted if a light steel case made of sections welded together and packed with TNT. The purpose was to destroy buildings by a blast force. That means thevpowerful shock (presure) waves priduced by the explosion. Fragmentation bombs were sumch smaller, usually about twenty pounds. They were consisted artillery shells, shells rejecred in the manufacturing process. Incendiary bombs were produced and loaded with oil emulsion, thermite, or metallic sodium. The three types of bombs in size, kind, quantity of fille, thicjness of the case, But there were akso common operational features. Fins weew designed to provide stability in flight. The fins might extended almost half the length of the bomb case. The aerial bomb did not exist at the onset of World War I. The bombs that evolved during the War would basically be the same design as those that would be used during World War II.

Inter-War Era

The United States had waged World War I largely with British and French weapons and ordinance. This included aircraft and aerial ordinance. After the War the United Srates with small budgets began working on weaponry. The War Department convened a Bomb Board to conduct an extensive program for testing bombs against various kinds of buildings and surfaces. The tests were conducted for 2 years. And this guided the American development of bombs. The War Department and Army Air Corps made some changes in bomb design which would be the bombs that the Americans would use in World War II. Ordnance engineers made feberal modifications. First they strengthened demolition bomb cases by forging the case as much as possoble in one piece avoiding as much welding, as possible. Second they substituted the long fins used in World War I fins with short boxed fins that provided more stability as the bombs fell. [Swaney, pp. 295-99.].


World War II aircreaft ans uktimatelt missles had a range of erapons and ordunance. There was one weapon that was most wideky used--the bomb. It was by far the most important air weaon. The entire stratehic bombing campaign was built around delibering bombs, often at considerable distance. Whike the bomb was the primary weapin in the air war. A ranhe of erapmy were developed for air to air warfare. The major bombs used by the Americans used

Bomb Design

The design of the major bomb types bomb was little changed during the 6 years of war. The only significant change was the size of the bomb, made possible by huge advances in aviation--the develooment of gavy bombers capablr of delivering impressive bomb loads. Bombers weee developed which were capable of greatly incrwasing speed. The Geramns even develooed jet bombers. This increased the difficulty of aiming the bombs. There was, however, no signifcant change made in bomb design. The one significabt change was in the size of the bombs. This was a change only made by th Allies because only the Wesrern Allies had the haeavy strategic nombers capable of delivering large bombs. Progress in aviation significantly increased the range of bombers, nut only the Western Allies could build heavy bombers in quantity. The British builr the Lancaster in qualtity because it develted the bulk of its war production tobthe air war, even more than the support of the Royal Navy. The American built three heavybnomnbers (B-17 Flying Fortres, B-24 liberator, and the B-29 Suprfort) and they buit them in substantial numbers. The B-29 alone was the single most costly weapons prohect of the War--more costly than the Manhattan Project. These monvers had significant bombloadsThey could carrying 10,000-pound bombs and bigger. No major shift was made in bomb design. Whem the 8th Air Force began operations (September 1942) it had five General Purpose (GP) High Explosive (HE) bombs (the M30 100lb, M31 300lb, M43 500lb, M44 1000lb and M34 2000lb). These were the bomns that the Bomber Boys (both Amerucans and the Brutish) like the Gerans earlier wanted. American bombers used the 500lb, 1000lb, and 2000lb bombs against industrial targets. The smaller bombs were used on air bases. The 8th Air Force used their 1000lb and 2000lb bombs for attacks on submarine pens, primary targers before D-Day. They had little impact pm the nassive reinforce concrete fortifications protecringbthe U-boat dacilities. The civilian buildings around them were flattened. As the strategic bonbing camoaign airvwar was launched in eraest, new GP bombs were produced (the M57 250lb, M64 500lb, M65 1000lb and M66 2000lb). These wee the bombs that were primarily dropped on Germanym especially afrer D0Dat when mosr of the damage to Geram cities occurred. The 8th Air Force had worked out that that 250lb GP bombs shoild be used on synthetic oil plants, ammunition dumps and oil storage facilities. The 100lb bomb was mist effecrive for railway yards and air fields. The largest bomns were prouduced by the Beitish were the 12,000lb Tallboy used on U0boat pins. There was also the 22,000lb Grand slam. In addition to the HE bombs there were a number of other types. The two most important were incederary and and fragmenttatin bombs. The incenderary bomns were used in the sttaregic bombing camapign because it was so sifficult to hit specufic targets. Tge fragmentaion bombs were used in ground support portatiins against enemyninfantry. Rgere wre also a number of specialised bom types, including chemical weapons, expeimental steering, radio control, rocket assist, and napalm bomb. One source tells us that the Soviets created bomblets used against German tanks on the Western front. Many Sturomviks were armed with these.


World War II bombs did not change significanty during the War. There were, however, air doctrine. Yet through all of this, the bomb remained the amjor weaon of aerial warfare. In terms of both weight and cost, bombs had a highest destructive potential of any weapon. They were uncomplicated andrealtively easy to manufacture. Inlike artillery, there were no complicated, difficult to move firing poces like artillery. And planes could be launched from distant secure positiins. Atvfirst the vGermans were masrer of tactical operations. Gradually the Allies learned abd eventually with Allies productive capacity were able to orobide a level of tactical ground support the Liftwaffe atvuts prime coukd only dream about. Rhe Allied air forces rventually realized that small bombs used to strafe in tactical support of ground forces more effectively than machine gun fire.

Strategic Operations

There are several different types of aerial ordinance used during World War II. This includes both bombs and guns. Strategic operations required larger, long range planes so hey could carry larger bombs, larger bombloads and deliver them at great distnce. Germany's failure to develop strategic bomber forces would have a significant impact on the War. The two major types of bombs were high-explosive (HE) and incendiary weapons. The two were not unrelated. World War II bomb raids commonly combined use of HE and incendiaries. It took the HE to break open up the buildings to be so vulnerable to the incendiaries. While most of the destruction in aerial warfare by either high expolosivs or incendiaries, but at the onset of the War the greatest fear was the bombing of cities with checical weapons. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was not yet a term used. But WMDs would ultimately end the war, altthough it was not chemical weapons, but atomic weapons--a new weapon system not yet developed or even envisioned by most people. While bombs are the primary ordinance that comes to mind when thinking of the air war, World War II bombers were equipped with machine guns and in a few minor instances cannons for self protection. The most widely used bomb was the HE bomb. It was used in horizontal strategic bombing. High explosive bombs came in a wide range of sizes and configurations. The largest bomb dropped in any numbers was the 4,000 lb bombs dropped by the Americans and British. This was possible because of the large fleets of heavy bombers built by Britain and the United States. HE bombs were the favored ordinance of the bomber boys because of the destructive impact -- if delivered on target. And this was the problem, World War II boming forces did not have the ability to deliver high explosive bombs on target. Most bombs fell ar considerable distance from target. The only way to destroy a target was to drop bombs in huge waves of bombers. The Germans in particular were working on guided weapns with high-explosive warheads. They were a tiny fraction of the high explosive dropped. The German V-weapons both used high explosives. The other basic type of strategic ordinance was incendiaries. The air commanders at the beginning of the war focused on HE rather than incendiary bombs. incendiaries proved more destructive than HE wepons when used against cities. The Germans in the Battle of Britain and the Allies in the early phases of the Strategic Bombing Campaign did not fully understand the destructive potential of incendiaries. Enormous damage could be done without the need for percision targetting. There were also weapons of mass destruction delivered by bombers. The ultimate strategic bomb of course was the atomic bombs develope by the Americans and British. To the surprise of many, the most feared aerial weapon was not used except by the Japanese -- chemical wepons meaning poison gas. The Japanese also used biological weapons.

Tactical Operations

The ordinance varied widely for strategic and tactical operations. Tactical operations required precise weaponry which meant smaller aircraft. German focus on tactical operations was a major component of Blitzkrieg and part of the reason for their success in the first years of the War. The ordinance varied depending on whether the target was other aircraft or ground targets. The basic alternative in aerial combat were machine guns or cannons. The Americans and British armed their planes mostly with machine guns. The Germans and Japanese added cannons. As the War progressed, rockets with HE warheads became important. The bombs used by tactical aircraft were mostly HEs, but the Americans developd a specialised incendiary, jellied gasoline or napalm. This was mostly used in the Pacific War. There were also special variants for naval warfare which was with few exceptions tactical operations. For tactical operations, percision was required and this required dive bomving rather than hoizontal delivery. Dive bombing unlike horizontal bombing could be precise, but could only be delivered by small planes with a high degree of structural integrity. This meant limited ranges and bomb loads--unsuitable for strategic bombing. Dive bombing was suitable for tactical and naval operations, but not strategic bombing. There were a range of ordinance used in tactical operations. Here again in addition or machine guns and cannon, the ground support ordinance was primarily HE bombs. But tactical aircraft also were also armed with rockets and napalm. Naval aviation with few exceptions deployed tactical bombers, mostly HE bombs. A destinctly naval weapon was the aerial torpedo which also used a high explosive warhead. In the Pacific War both sides used bombs and torpedoes. The Americans relied heavily on dive bombing and the Japanese more on torpedoes.


The only countries which extensively used bombs in World War II were the few countries with major air forces. And the vast majority of the bomb tonnage was dropped in the stratgic nombing campaign. The Soviet Union had the largest air force in the world at the outset of the War, but it was largely destroyed, much og it in the ground, during the first week of Barbarossa (June 1941). As most of the pilots survived, the Sovier rebuilt the air force and after Kursk (July 1943) aginecaur superority but did not conduct a significant strategic bombing camoaign. The German Lufwaffe dominated the European battlefield during the first 2-3 years of the War. They did conduct strategic operations, most notably against Beitain (1940). The Luftwaffe was, however, not designed for strategic operations. Their bombers were medium bombers with small bomb loads and limited range. The Germans simply did not have the industrial capacity to build a strtegic bomber force. This was also the case of Japan. They built bombers that could bomb Chinese cities, but after launching the Paciic War, the Japanese had no way of bombing the war naking capacity if the countries they has gone to war against (America, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand). They did bomn northern Australia, which damaged port facilities but has no real impact on the Australian war effort. Bombs were used by the Kido Butai, but the most formidable Japanese naval weapon was the torpedo. In contrast the Amerivans docused nore on bombs, in part because their torpedoes did not work. And after Midway (June 1942) the Kito Butai was seriously weakened. Two countries did conduct stratehic bombing attacks: America and Britain. Britain was able to focus the bulk of its industry on the air war because American Lend Lease furnished so much of the country's military equipment. The British built the kargest bombs of the War because they were so desperate to destoy the U-boat pens in French ports. Theu were also used against the Terpitz. America had the industrail capacity to build both a steategic and tactical air force. And the primary leadership of U.S. Arny Air Corps was the bomber boys. Both America and Britain wanted to avioid the huge losses experienced in World War I and strartegic bombing was seen as a way of doing this.



Swaney. Bomb Development.


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Created: 8:22 AM 5/11/2017
Last updated: 9:16 PM 5/21/2020