arms assembly


Military factories have the job of manufacturing the weapon designs coming from the research centers in copious quantities and quickly. Even the best designs have a very low impact in war if their introduction to battle is late or in small numbers. In the latter case, the enemy can assess the performance of these weapon systems at low cost and from this evaluation he can develop timely countermeasures.

Production in massive quantities is a prerequisite for the formation of large well-equipped armies, for the replacement of losses caused by fighting and for the creation of strategic reserves.

To perform this task, plants require raw materials, energy, trained labor, manufacturing equipment, tools, supplies and communication networks (ports, airports, rivers, railroads, and roads) to move the raw materials in and move the finished products out.

soviet manufacture ww2
Soviet aircraft manufacture

The decade-long effort of the Soviets to increase their industrial potential was unprecedented in terms of the sacrifices they paid and the results they reaped. German intelligence (and many historians afterwards) failed to appreciate the extent of the astonishing enlargement and development of the munitions industry and its related supply structure by the Russians. This was a most disturbing failure of the German Army that had catastrophic consequences in 1941. O Qu I, ultimately subordinated to von Brauchitsch, only gradually realized this. Between 1928 and 1940 Soviet machine-building and metallurgy grew more than eight times . Engineering high education centers jumped from 26 in 1927 to 150 in 1940 . By March 1941 the Soviet aeronautical industry employed 174,360 workers making it comparable to the 204,000 in Germany (1938) .

Since industrialization follows urbanization, and urbanization means larger population densities, most of the Soviet industrial expansion occurred in the heavily populated western provinces.

In 1941 the main industrial sites (see next map) were, not surprisingly, around the two largest cities: Moscow and Leningrad. Moscow assembled 50% of all the vehicles and machine tools in the Country and 40% of all electrical equipment. It also had several aircraft factories. There were 475 major plants in the city . Leningrad had 520 factories and 780.000 workers and produced 20% of the machine tools, 91% of the hydro turbines, 82% of the turbine generators and had among other firms, the Kirov works, the largest manufacturing plant in the Country that produced the heavy KV-1 tanks. Leningrad by itself contributed with 10% of the total Soviet industrial production . Together, both cities, were responsible of more than one fifth of the industrial production of the Country.

Areas at 2nd world war
Magnitogorsk. New iron and steel works industrial city in the Urals

Other important industrial centers in Western Russia were situated in the Ukraine, namely in Kharkov, Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Rostov-on-Don, and around the Donets basin; and in the Caucasus, where 3 cities extracted oil in huge quantities: Baku, Grozny and Maykop.

However, it was clear to the Soviet Government that those centers would be vulnerable in case of war. New military factories were, therefore, built from scratch farther east in the Volga, in Stalingrad (artillery, tanks), Kuibyshev (aircraft) and Gorky (tanks).

But this was still not enough and strategic industries started to emerge on and beyond the Urals, notably in Magnitogorsk (steel), Nizhny Tagil, Chelyabinsk, and Sverdlovsk (tanks all three). Other industrial centers arose even farther east in Omsk (tanks), Alma-Ata, and Novosibirsk in Siberia and even in the Vladivostok area (aircraft) near the Pacific.

Despite these precautions, roughly two thirds of the Soviet industrial production was situated west of the line Arkhangelsk-Astrakhan (in green in the map).

Areas at 2nd world war
Soviet Industry Location in 1937, before the German invasion .
Large areas in circles represent main concentration of industry. In the list, the colored circles represent, from top to bottom: steel, other metallurgy, mechanical engineering, and metalworking, chemical, oil refining, wood and paper, light industry, food, and construction. In 1941 most of the Soviet industry was located west of the Line Arkhangelsk-Astrakhan.

Although the Soviet industrialization effort was gigantic in scope and it successfully reduced the large gap the Russian state had with Germany during the First World War (see figure Industrial Potential of Major Powers), the fact remains that in June 1941 a predominantly industrial nation confronted a predominantly agricultural one.

In 1940, 60% of the total workforce in the USSR was working the farms while in Germany only 28% was doing so (1939). In addition, German farming productivity was significantly higher: every German farmer could feed 6.8 other Germans (including himself) while a Soviet farmer could only feed 3.5 (including himself). This 96% productivity advantage on the German side, meant that even though the total workforce of the Russians was twice as big as the German one (which is logical considering that the USSR had 170.6 million citizens, dwarfing the 76.1 million Germans ), the total workforce excluding food production, was remarkably similar between both Countries: 32.5 million in the USSR vs 29.2 million in Germany .

Furthermore, Russia was 40 times the size of Germany in land extension, forcing the Russians to use twice the number of workers for transportation as the Germans did. This reduced the available pool of workers for the Soviet industry. Overall, Germany had 16.5 Million workers for industry and construction, the most relevant segments for munition production, while the Russians had 16.1 Million (see fig. 22). This means that in theory, both States were equally capable of achieving the same output of weapons.

However, Germany had an advantage: Harrison provides data showing that the productivity of the Russian industrial worker was, at best, 80% of the German worker (and could be as low as 50%). The pertinent conclusion is that Germany had at least a 20% industrial advantage that should have resulted in considerably higher munition output . But that is not all, we also need to consider, that by the time of the German invasion, Germany could add to her own industrial potential, that of the conquered Countries (France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Low Countries) and that of allied nations (Italy, Romania, Hungary, and Finland).

As a result, Germany enjoyed at the onset of the invasion, a pronounced industrial lead that could be as high as 80% .

The economies in world war
Employment in German and Soviet Economies . .

Once Germany invaded the USSR, her advantage would increase even more, since the Soviet industrial sector would receive two massive blows: the reduction of the population (45% of the population was behind the German lines in 1941) and the disruption of the Soviet manufacturing capacity by the forced shutdown of thousands of factories for relocation to the east.

Just like in 1914, the larger Russian population was not decisive by itself, because the Russians still needed to arm all new fighting formations and if Germany could place more tanks, aircraft, machine guns and artillery in the field of battle, their firepower would overwhelm the Red Army.

Altogether, Germany possessed a much greater manufacturing base that if properly managed, meant a significant armaments production advantage.

Inexcusably, in 1941 and for most of the duration of the war in the east, the German leadership squandered this strategic lead.

During war, production of arms tends to follow a Logistic Curve (see next figure) where initially there is a rapid growth, followed by a slowing down until output cannot increase further.

The munitions output in every category (tanks, aircraft, rifles, guns, ammunition, etc.) does not increase indefinitely because there is always a limiting factor present (usually a key raw material, but it can be labor, equipment or other). However, an industry properly mobilized for war shall exhibit a steep production slope, reaching the maximum limit as soon as possible, while a poorly mobilized industry will grow slowly and will reach its maximum potential much later.

To exemplify, let’s take the case of what happened with the production of artillery guns in Germany and in the Soviet Union: the maximum production the Soviets achieved during war was 130.000 guns per year. In 1940, they manufactured 15.000 guns. The production increased dramatically very quickly:

Russian ammo production
Logistic Curve.

Gun Production as % of Peak Capacity.
Despite larger potential of the German industry the Soviets produced more guns until ‘44

41.000 in 1941, 128.000 in 1942, 130.000 in 1943 and 122.000 in 1944. This means that the Russians reached 32% of maximum capacity in 1941 and one year later they were at 98%. In comparison, the Germans achieved a maximum production output of 148.000 guns in 1944 and this was still increasing, while the Soviet’s output peaked from 1942. This indicates that the German defense-industrial complex was capable of outproducing Russia’s in the case of artillery guns, but they only did it when it was too late: in the critical year of 1941, Germans only produced 22.000 guns, half the Soviet production and in 1942 they manufactured 41.000, only a third of Russian output.

Thus, the total gun production of the war was 513.000 in Russia and only 318.000 in Germany, despite the latter higher potential. It is clear the Germans mobilized very slowly. Even by 1943 they had only achieved 50% of peak capacity. This slow mobilization meant that even though the German gun industry had more potential than that of its adversary, it was the latter’s that outproduced the former by a wide margin.

The case of artillery guns is not the exception, but the rule. The same occurred in the case of armored fighting vehicles (AFV’s), aircraft, and small arms.

German and Soviet Munition Production 1940-1945 .

Overall, in 1941, (the year of Barbarossa) the Soviet Industry beat Germany’s by a factor of 1.5-to-1 in combat aircraft, 1.5-to-1 in small arms, 1.7-to-1 in AFV’s (armored fighting vehicles), 2-to-1 in artillery and 10-to-1 in mortars under the extremely demanding conditions of simultaneous evacuation, loss of population and with the handicap of starting with a smaller industrial base.

The enormous success of the Soviet Union, with an economic system thought to be inferior, begs the question: why did the German war mobilization founder so spectacularly?

It is true that the Russians enjoyed a vast advantage in raw materials (oil, minerals, etc.) and they did not have to face maritime blockade, but this is not the reason for the difference: The Germans reached a higher level of production both absolutely and comparatively, later in the war when the blockade was tighter and when the US and British bombers were pummeling the German industry.

Barber and Harrison concluded that heavy focus by the Soviets in standardization to maximize production of a few designs was the difference. Germany was manufacturing too many dissimilar designs, and this was abnormally reducing output. This hypothesis is sound, since in later years Germany rationalized the number of designs in production and increased substantially the output.

However, there were also many hidden inefficiencies that had earlier solution. For instance, the excuses of German industrialist in the aeronautical sector, attributing low levels of production to limitations on aluminum proved largely unfounded: Erhard Milch’s audits confirmed wasteful use of this metal. Furthermore, German aluminum production was at least double that of Russia in 1941 . Even more important, Udet’s Luftwaffe production projections were badly planned. Milch later proved able to correct them .

The arms production in 2nd world war
Soviet Factory producing the T-34 tank.

After the invasion started, the USSR had the opportunity to import munitions from abroad. They did so in increasing numbers as the war went on, but in 1941 arms imports from the US and the UK were largely inconsequential. Only 82 artillery guns (0.15% of Soviet 1941 production), 648 tanks (12.14%), and 915 airplanes (10.26%) arrived during the Barbarossa period. Because of latter delivery, some of the equipment that arrived did not make it to the front in the first year of the war (i.e. only 115 of the 466 tanks manufactured in the UK did) . The value of the lend-lease imports during 1941 was 1.3% of the total all-war figure .

Therefore, the conclusion is that the USSR outproduced Germany in 1941 without any significant external help, thanks to her own efforts, despite a smaller industrial sector and in the face of the dreadful disadvantages caused by the invasion.

The human factor likely played the greatest part in this success. From the (probably frightful) sacrifices of the Soviet worker to the skillful administration of all the industrial factors by the Soviet bureaucrats and leaders who despite errors, yielded better results than their German counterparts which were facing lesser challenges in the first year.

Military commanders do not have the expertise to lead this industrial task, although they do have a very important say in the matter (they place the requirements). Capable professionals with abundant expertise in production problems must carry out this job under the strong leadership of a very experienced Economic Minister. The latter, supported by the government head and cabinet, must allocate huge resources to build capacity while attacking bottlenecks. Once the factories are in operation, the minister(s) must prevent stagnation by insuring productivity continues to increase by every means available, including identifying nagging problems and implementing innovative solutions. The government head and cabinet must dedicate considerable time to oversee this process because of its decisive importance. This is a grand strategic function with more weight than the conduct of battle in military campaigns.

Given the initial major advantages it enjoyed, the German leadership is guilty of a lethargy of vast proportions in the industrial sphere. It is true that the poor intelligence picture presented by the Army contributed to overconfidence, but the mobilization of all economic, industrial, political, and financial resources to win this war demanded utmost urgency given the ghastly consequences of defeat .

To this date, many historians, and German apologists, including military officers, claim that the solution to overcome Soviet arms production advantage was the lack of a strategic bomber capable of destroying Soviet Industrial Centers.

This is untrue. The Germans increased munition production manifold despite the massive bombing of their plants and there is no reason to think why the Russians could not have achieved a similar feat.

bombing strategics
Effect of Strategic Bombing on German Industry.
The bars show the weight of bombs dropped by USAAF and RAF on Germany every year. The lines indicate the number of AFV’s, aircraft and guns the Germans manufactured per year. Bombing proved unable to prevent an enormous expansion of the German output. Tonnage data from R. Overy (The Air War 1939-1945) and production data from M. Harrison (Industrial Mobilization for WW2).

Although the United States and Great Britain spent a gigantic proportion of their national efforts on their bomber forces and succeeded in delivering every year an unprecedented tonnage of bombs on German towns, the resilient Teutons increased armament production unrelentingly.

The next chart shows that there exists a relationship between bombing and production, but not what we would expect: this correlation suggests that the heavier the bombing the greater the production.

This case illustrates clearly why scientist understand that correlation does not mean causation. It does not mean that the Germans needed the bombing to increase their production. It demonstrates, however, that there existed powerful factors that offset the effects of massive aerial bombing making it much less effective than even the most pessimistic of air theorist assumed.

As late as September-December 1944, fully 3 years after the launching of Barbarossa, most bombs released by high-altitude horizontal bombers were not hitting their targets, even by day .

Under these circumstances, the larger carrying capacity of heavy bomber formations was a critical requirement to increase the probability that at least some of them would hit the target even though the vast majority would not.

Additionally, even when hit, industrial targets were tough to destroy. Dispersion of factories proved to be an effective solution for the British as early as 1940. Air commanders also realized that it was much easier to wreck a building than to destroy the equipment inside, so production usually restarted much faster than thought possible.

If those difficulties were not enough, German strategic bombers with the range to bomb factories in the Urals in 1941 would still have to face enemy fighters. The Americans, using much improved bombers with the latest technology, failed in 1943 in their efforts to use self-protected bomber formations and it was necessary to introduce long-range fighters to continue the offensive. Long-range fighters capable to escort heavy bombers became available only until the spring of 1944. The British never succeeded in introducing long-range fighter and had to switch to night bombing whose accuracy was inadequate to do the job.

The summary is that even assuming that the Ural bomber was available in quantity in 1941, it is preposterous to conclude that the Germans would have overcome all the obstacles for a successful destruction of the Soviet Industry from the air in reasonable time. The level of technology available in 1941-1942 made this goal impossible.

Furthermore, the assumption that Germany could have constructed enough bombers to carry out a powerful sustained strategic campaign against the Soviet Union lacks any substantive proof.

Warfare reserves ww2
Bombing accuracy of 8th Air Force in ETO from September to December 1944. Under conditions of good visibility 20% of the bombs fell within 0.13 miles (200m) of target. Poor visibility increased the dispersion to 0.29 miles (470m). Clouds meant even poorer results.

In the period before the start of World War 2 and until the fall of France, Germany lacked the resources to support unrestricted rearmament. With only 5 years of existence when the war started, the Luftwaffe was working as hard as possible to expand and its share of the Reich’s defense budget was already as high as it could get . Any engine (key industrial bottleneck) devoted to heavy bombers was an engine lost to the other sub-branches. Since the Germans established a force structure for the Luftwaffe composed of 40% bombers, 30% fighters, 20% Observation aircraft and 10% transport aircraft and 4 engines were necessary for heavy bombers instead of 1 or 2 for light and medium bombers, any increase in a strategic bomber force was possible only at the expense of the tactical bomber force .

As shown in the next figure, the maximum force the Luftwaffe could have fielded in 1941 numbered 850 heavy bombers if all the other types of bombers disappeared from the inventory. This number represents about a third of the heavy bombers the USAAF had in combat units in January of 1944 to destroy an industry roughly the same size as that of the Soviet Union. This huge American bomber force was just starting to achieve consistent heavy blows on the enemy.

Had the Luftwaffe been designed as a strategic air force from the beginning, the swift strategic victories over its opponents would have been beyond its grasp. Lack of a striking force capable of interdicting enemy supply implied the incapability to provide an essential component for a successful Blitzkrieg, critically endangering the advance of the armored spearheads. The deep offensive penetrations would not have been successful. Historical facts show that Germany was not able to attain any ultimately victorious deep penetration during WW2 without air superiority .

Without a robust tactical air force, long protracted wars with its western enemies awaited the Wehrmacht, preventing, most probably, any invasion of the Soviet Union.

British and Americans deployed large bomber forces only by limiting the size of their ground armies who were not fighting the Germans, except in smaller engagements with limited casualties (compared to those fought in Russia). Germany could not operate under the same circumstances.

The minimum quantity of heavy bombers to execute a bombing campaign of limited objectives was around 400 (number reached by the USAAF until January 1943). Even this lowly number would have halved the size of the tactical striking force rendering it impotent. The maximum the Germans could probably have spared was 200 four-engine bombers, reducing the tactical force in 23% and risking the success of the blitzkrieg for no net gain, since this force was insufficient to cause any serious damage.

Clearly the Luftwaffe leadership was not mistaken in sticking to single and twin-engine bombers.

History of world war 2
Graph illustrating the effect on the Luftwaffe tactical strike force by developing a strategic bomber force of different sizes.

Rather than pursuing an unviable attempt at strategic bombing, the Germans should have made every effort to mobilize its munitions industry at the same rate as the Soviets proved capable of doing.

If they had done it, the increased production would have been sufficient to replace all losses and create large reserves, generating a very difficult condition for the Soviets, who were losing equipment at a much higher rate than the Germans.

To defeat Russia, Germany had a window of opportunity that lasted from 1941 to 1942 at the most. After that, the combined potential of the Allies would end overpowering her.