Throughout this series, I’ve been highlighting the usual stuff about World War II – the battles and the personalities – but also the political and social events, many of which still affect us today.
I’m also highlighting, bit by bit, over the next few years, some of the industrial trends that affect us today. Great example coming up in future months – the fact that the US was able to build, on top of their thousands of tanks, aircraft and combat warships, over 4,000 units of one class of 5,000 ton merchant ships. That’d be one of nine or ten different classes of ships, all of which were built in the hundreds or thousands.
We also undertook some of the most immense research and development projects in the history of science and engineering; in four years of frenetic research, we not only took the atomic bomb from the stuff of fuzzy-headed academics to Hiroshima – we also developed from scratch and built the plane to carry it, the B29 Superfortress – a plane whose development cost nearly as much as The Bomb, and may have been the most troubled, overrun-prone weapons development program in history, at least among weapons that actually got into service, the kind of thing that would have given William Proxmire a stroke, had those sorts of figures been made public back during the war.
We couldn’t do that today if we had to.
But today’s installment is about the opposite extreme – and it’s not about the US.
Today, seventy years ago, the United Kingdom had just endured the worst year in its military history; driven from the Continent, the Brits had pulled off a miracle the previous June, evacuating most of its army at Dunkirk. But that Army came home virtually without equipment; it had left all its tanks, artillery, machine guns – virtually everything heavier than the infantry’s rifles, and hundreds of thousands of them, too – lying in the sands and the approach roads to Dunkirk’s beaches.
And while they’d staved off Hitler’s first push to invade the island during the Battle of Britainthe previous summer, things were still dire. British industry, even though entirely harnessed to the war effort, was struggling to re-equip the British and Commonwealth militiaries for the invasion they still believed could come – as well as for the war bubbling along in the Mediterranean, and which they also expected to erupt in the Pacific sooner than later.
They did have one advantage. They’d captured thousands of tons of Italian ammunition in action the previous summer, as they’d swept aside the Italian , including a curiously large supply of 9mm ammunition.
That sparked a curious adaptation.
The gun maker’s art in the years up to World War II was indeed an art.
The typical military firearm before World War II, all the way down to the lowliest infantry rifle, was a work of, if not art, at least craftsmanship.
With wooden furniture varnished to a fine sheen, and metal parts laboriously machined from solid blanks of high-quality steel, military weapons were high-quality pieces of equipment that took lots of time, money and skilled effort to manufacture.
The same was true of the newest addition to the infantryman’s armory – the submachine gun.
Basically a tiny machine gun that fired low-power pistol ammunition to make it manageable when being held in a rifleman’s hands (machine guns firing full-powered rifle ammo required a bipod or tripod), the submachine gun had evolved during World War 1 to bring extra close-range firepower to the infantryman.
The British Army, one of the world’s most conservative, came late to idea of issuing the submachine gun. But after the drubbing in France, where they’d seen the effect the Germans MP38/40’s devastating effect in close-range action, they got into the market.
Their first attempt was to buy the American Thompson. Most famous today as the preferred weapon of a generation of rumrunners and gangsters, British agents glommed onto every one they could find.
Which wasn’t many. The Thompson was a very old-school weapon, machined to a very high standard of finish, slow and laborious to build – and the US military was buying them as fast as factories could turn them out.
The Brits needed more, and they needed them fast.
At the Enfield weapons works, two men – Major Reginald V. Shepherd and designer Harold Turpin – designed a simple, intentionally crude weapon, designed to be built quickly and cheaply and to use the mountains of Italian 9mm ammunition. It looked like a couple of lengths of pipe with a crude wooden forearm. The British military bureaucracy took the first initial of their last names, added “En” for “enfield”; and so the “Sten” was born.
It was unbelievably crude by the standards of the weapon-makers craft. It was designed to be built quickly, cheaply, mostly out of stampings and welded parts rather than machined metal, by less-skilled labor. It cost a fraction of the time, money, skill and materiel of the Thompson.
And it was still too complex. So after a few hundred Mark 1s were built, the factory simplified it even more, into the Mark II.
It looks crude and cheap.
It was crude and cheap. It was manufactured in the millions. By the time production ramped up, it could be built with five man-hours of labor, for under $12 in 1940 money.
It was not a high-quality weapon. The design of its 32 round magazine promoted jamming; some British paratroops joked that their Stens jammed every time they fired them. The safety mechanism tended to slip, allowing frequent accidental discharges after the locking pin wore down from heavy use.
But it was fast and cheap.
And as the war wore on, a cheap submachine gun that one had was worth more than a quality piece that was still being built.
In addition to (quickly) re-equipping the British and Commonwealth armies, the Sten was dropped by the thousands to resistance groups throughout Europe.
And, needing guns, they quickly reverse-engineered the crude, simple Mark 2 and started building it in clandestine machine shops throughout Europe. Sten Mark 2s were build in secret plants, or underground chains of machining and stamping and sheet metal fab shops, in Norway, Denmark, Poland and Yugoslavia. And not in inconsiderable numbers, either; resistance guerillas build them in the hundreds, sometimes thousands.
The Sten was fired for the first time seventy years ago today. And while it’s a footnote in many ways, it showed the extent to which the heat of war caused western ingenuity to push western business and industry into behaviors it’d never considered before.
Across Britain and the US, the stresses of war- from imminent invasion to the more mundane issues of having to produce with rationed, scarce material and with unskilled labor as the skilled workforce got drafted – were causing industry to adapt in ways it’d be hard to imagine today.
And locations. As the US war effort ate up available shipyards along the US coasts, the booming submarine program prompted US industry to build a submarine construction yard…
…in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
It is hard to imagine that sort of dislocation today, when it takes decades for the US military to pick a new pistol, where the Army has been noodling with replacing the venerable M16 for nearly four decades (and still issues fifty-year-old M14s to troops that need a reliable rifle in the sand) and US industry takes a decade to build a factory, if they build one at all.
More in coming months.