Share This Article

Our lexicographer considers some words and phrases that sprang into use during World War II.

During World War II, numerous new weapons and tactics originated. Some of them have died out, and others have survived. The Sten gun, a light submachine gun designed by two British engineers, takes its name from the last initials of its inventors and the first two letters of the location of the factory that first built the guns: Major Reginald V. Sheppard and Harold J. Turpin, and the town of Enfield. It was not very accurate but was quite effective at short range. After the war, security forces, terrorists, and other armed groups all over the world continued to use the Stens.

The Germans also were developing new ordnance. A weapon they introduced in the fall of 1939 was the anti-personnel mine, a small bomb that, when tripped, was boosted out of the ground to about the height of a man’s waist before exploding. Operating on a hair-trigger trip-type mechanism, the antipersonnel mine sprayed a large area with shrapnel. The English name “Bouncing Betty” first appeared in print around 1942, and of course the mine itself has been used in armed conflicts ever since.

A tactic originally used during the Spanish Civil War but expanded greatly during World War II was dive-bombing. Air forces found that fighter-bombers could greatly increase the damage they wrought if they released their load while in a steep dive toward the enemy. Unlike bombing from high altitudes, which was imprecise, or attacking from low altitudes with guns and rockets, both sides found dive-bombing highly effective. It remained the precision bombing method of choice until guided bombs and missiles replaced it.

During the war, manufacturers built bombers specifically designed to withstand the strain of high-speed dives. Especially notable was the German Junkers Ju-87 Stuka. Its name—a contraction of Sturzkampfflugzeug (literally, “diving battle plane”)—became synonymous with dive-bomber. In level flight it was relatively slow and an easy target. It had a dedicated autopilot system, to prevent a crash if the pilot blacked out temporarily during a fast, near-vertical dive.

At first the Ju-87 carried less than fifteen hundred pounds of bombs, but by 1942 the Stuka carried a two-ton bomb, which it could aim with great precision. The plane possessed two forward-firing machine guns. Stukas were effective in several German invasions, an integral part of their blitzkrieg, but in the summer of 1940 during the Battle of Britain they suffered such high losses to effective defenses that they were withdrawn to other fronts.

In April and May 1942, the Luftwaffe allegedly directed air raids at buildings of high historic interest, to avenge Allied attacks on Cologne and Lübeck. The British press termed them Baedeker raids, alluding to the famous German Baedeker guidebooks that described and pinpointed the historic buildings. Although this was one of the more colorful appellations of the time, it did not survive.

Among the weapons developed by Germany much later in the war was the buzz bomb, the main nickname for the pilotless pulsejet-powered aircraft that the Germans officially called the Vergeltungswaffe 1 (“vengeance weapon”), or V-1. (Other Allied nicknames for it were doodlebug and whizbang.) The Germans launched them against England from hidden sites in northern France during the summer of 1944, beginning a few days after the Allied D-Day invasion, aiming these one-ton flying bombs mainly at London.

Although some 9,250 V-1s were fired, fewer than 2,500 reached their targets. Anti-aircraft fire destroyed some two thousand, fighter planes shot down another two thousand, and barrage balloons took out almost three hundred. These last were balloons anchored near land targets or attached to ships, designed to snag attacking aircraft. (Nicknames for them included old floppies and flying elephants.)

Meanwhile, development of a deadlier weapon, the V-2 long-range rocket, was underway. It carried a ton of explosives and traveled at up to thirty-five-hundred miles per hour. Unlike the V-1, because it flew faster than the speed of sound, the V-2 came down without audible warning; it could not be spotted or shot down in flight.

By September 1944, the Allies had overrun most of northern France, so the Germans were forced to use mobile launchers in Holland. More than a thousand V-2s were fired in a last-ditch attack against London, with about half of them reaching their targets. The Germans also used a few against some French and Belgian cities. The Allies countered these attacks by subjecting their launching bases to heavy bombing raids with the Tallboy, a British bomb specially developed to pierce the thick concrete protecting each base.

Not all the tactics developed during the war involved offensive measures. When the Soviet counteroffensive drove the Germans back more than three hundred miles in their long retreat from Stalingrad (1942-43), the Germans first used the term Igel, hedgehog in English, for a fortified position bristling with guns pointed in all directions. It serves as an appropriately graphic image for a series of positions in which troops try to hold their ground against the enemy.


Christine Ammer is the author of several dozen wordbooks, including The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (2006).

Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here