Inferring quality from quantity is obviously a fundamental and dangerous error. Yet quiz most Americans — and many historians — about what won World War II and they will almost certainly invoke the quantitative image of the “Arsenal of Democracy”.
Yes, the United State was the “Arsenal of Democracy”, and yes it disgorged more weapons than the Germans and the Japanese. But ask any infantryman in Europe who defended himself with those weapons and they’ll confirm that our weapons in World War II had a decidedly retrograde cast than their German counterparts.
Clearly the Germans produced the weapons of the future (although some were employed late in the war), while the Americans were armed with weapons designed 30 years earlier — for World War I. In his memoirs, “War As I Knew It,” Gen. George Patton records his astonishment at finding a high-pressure German pump that fired a six-foot long projectile. It was experimental, but, along with Screaming Meemies, V-1 and V-2 strategic missiles, and jet planes, clearly established German qualitative and even futuristic weaponry during World War II.
Long before we Americans received the single-firing, hand-held bazooka rockets, the Germans were steadily launching “Screaming Meemie” rockets at us which, though failing to become a sustained scourge because of supply problems, pointed to German technological superiority.
The only American infantry weapon that was clearly superior to its German counterpart was the humble, standard-issue M-1 rifle, which was not of World War I vintage. The M-1 took a lot of abuse, including extreme weather and dirt, and kept on firing. Additionally, its rate of fire was higher than the German Mauser rifle.
There was also a smaller American rifle, the M-1 carbine, that, under battlefield conditions, often proved touchy. The Browning Automatic Rifle was praised by some, derided by others. It weighed a ton and, unlike the German burp gun, frequently misfired.
Clearly inferior to their German counterparts were the American light and heavy machineguns. This proved a severe handicap. Both the products of World War I , neither gun could hold a candle to the burp gun, a handheld weapon that could fire all day without burning out the barrel, whereas the American counterparts like the grease gun, a replacement for the erratic Thompson sub-machinegun, produced stoppages and barrel burnouts.
As to mortars, there was no clear winner, although our 81 mm. mortar was a heavy, clumsy World War I weapon that was hard to carry. The 60 mm. was portable, but relatively punchless. I am not familiar with the American 4.2-inch mortar, but because of its heavy explosive and chemical punch and near-frontline position, it was valued.
Nor could the erratic American .45 cal. pistol, another World War I weapon, compare with its German counterpart, the smooth-firing 9 mm. Luger. “The .45 cal. pistol couldn’t hit the side of a barn,” an American infantryman complained bitterly of the World War I weapon. “The only way you could kill somebody was to throw it at them.”
When it was introduced early in the Battle of the Bulge, the American bazooka was welcomed. It ultimately replaced the awkward, towed 57 mm anti-tank gun, which because of its high-profile and crew service, was a sitting duck before enemy tanks and infantry.
However, even the bazookas were of questionable efficacy. American infantrymen attested that unless they scored lucky hits on critical parts of the German tank tread or rear armament, the bazookas were generally ineffectual in trying to penetrate the heavily-armored Tiger and Panther tanks.
Notwithstanding Gen. Patton’s denial, most infantrymen attested that the German tanks, even acknowledging their slower speed than the American counterparts, were superior overall. Although American tanks were faster, they were underclad and undergunned. It took critical months and unnecessary casualties before American tanks began mounting comparable guns.
Of lesser consequence, but illuminating, were the American hand grenades compared to the German “potato mashers”, both thrown weapons. More imaginatively conceived, the handle on the German potato mashers gave them leverage to be flung higher and farther than the heavy, baseball-sized American hand grenades.
As to artillery, most American infantrymen in Europe readily conceded to the German 88 mm. gun the title of Scourge of the Battlefield. Though quantitatively we Americans possessed more and larger artillery pieces, if American infantrymen became gunshy over any weapon, it was the pervasive 88. So terrified were American infantrymen of the 88s’ killing power, they often mistook German mortar fire, which was widespread, for the 88s.
So as far as the European battleground was concerned, the vaunted “Arsenal of Democracy” clearly handed the American infantryman inferior, outdated weapons. In effect, we were forced to win World War II with World War I weapons.
Although the American arsenal could replace tanks and other weapons faster than the Germans, this enormous capacity wasn’t flexible enough to deliver prosaic but critical articles to the front such as an everyday shoe that was efficient during the hideously-cold Battle of the Bulge.
Reinforcing the World War I image, we entered combat wearing leggings and standard-leather high shoes, which, statistics establish, produced three times as many cases of frozen feet requiring evacuation, than enemy-caused wounds.
In late January, 1945, when shoepacs arrived, they looked like saviors; but, because they were soon found to trap moisture, were then almost universally discarded. Instead, many infantrymen resorted to filling rubber galoshes with straw, which, though awkward, was both warm and plentiful.
Heavy, long wool overcoats were often spotted on the frontlines, especially among young replacement soldiers, but, following hot firefights, the dark brown, bulky garments often could often be found littering the battlefield.
There was another simple article that could have saved the lives of thousands of infantrymen — ordinary white sheets. With the landscape covered in snow, standard outfitting for infantrymen was dark-wool pants, light green field jackets and/or dark wool overcoats — which, contrasted against backgrounds of pure white snow — provided perfect targets for German gunners.
During the snow-clad Battle of the Bulge, German troops were much more often outfitted with white cloaks than the Americans. In his frontline memoirs “War As I Knew It” Gen. Patton recognized this and relates issuing urgent orders for bedsheets to be sewn by Belgian seamstresses into infantry coverings, but the number that reached the troops was woefully inadequate.
Just two homely articles therefore — waterproof shoes and white sheets during those hideously-cold months of Dec., 1944-Feb. 1945 — could have spared thousands of American lives, and/or injuries to tens of thousands. But apparently the huge, ponderous “Arsenal of Democracy” wasn’t foresighted and couldn’t move fast enough to produce.
At that time, the Supply Services were commanded by Lt. Gen. John C.H. Lee who, along with other American and British generals, believed the European war would end in December, 1944 . As a result, the two homely articles, waterproof shoes and white sheets, were critically unavailable for most of the fighting infantrymen. The consequence of these two miscalculations was the deaths of thousands of Americans and numberless others wounded or hobbled by frozen limbs.
In World War II, the American Arsenal was undeniably huge — and it undeniably produced a plethora of weapons — but it was neither advanced nor farseeing nor resourceful nor flexible. Qualitatively, so far as the infantryman on the ground was concerned, the Arsenal of Democracy failed.
It was the American GI, and only the American GI, who suffered and overcame these failures, and by sheer dint of strength, sacrifice and heroism won World War II.
An ASTP cadet in 1943-44, Mitchell Kaidy joined the 87th Division in March, 1944, serving until its demobilization. After the war he received a journalism education and has worked for three daily newspapers, a television station and public radio in Upstate New York. In 1963 he contributed articles to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, and in 1993 he won a Project Censored award for free-lance investigative journalism. He was an active member of the association and served as division historian. Mitch passed away on 10 January 2013 at the age of 87.