‘War Factories:’ YouTube Documentary Series Explores How the Allies’ Assembly Lines Pulverized the Axis

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

We naturally think of World War II as a series of set-piece battles: The Battle of Britain. Pearl Harbor. The Africa Campaign. Stalingrad. Pacific island hopping. And finally, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which prevented what would have been an absolute bloodbath of a battle. But WWII was won by the factories that could produce the most materiel. (Or in the case of Los Alamos, Christopher Nolan’s new “Oppenheimer” movie reminds us, the most revolutionary and lethal materiel.)


In 2019, the UK-based documentary producers WAG Entertainment commissioned a three-season documentary titled “War Factories.” As British historian Dr. Stephen Davies says in each episode’s opening titles, “All wars are about competition and production. The side that can produce more is always going to triumph over the other side.” Well, certainly in WWII, but the 1974 “Watergate Congress,” Barack Obama, and Joe Biden each might want to have a word here about how to lose a war in dramatic fashion, despite their nation, when compared to its enemies, having the overwhelmingly greater manufacturing capability.

In the first episode of “War Factories,” which focused on German aviation, the narrator says, “The Nazi high command knows it must dramatically increase warplane production, but to succeed they must abandon the traditional methods of production that the National Socialists hold dear.” Davies adds:

The Nazis have a curious and ambivalent relationship towards modern mass production, modern technical industry. On the one hand they like it and they’re actually quite big fans of high tech, but at the same time there’s an aspect of Nazi ideology which idealizes handicraft production [and] small scale production. It’s the curious and ultimately incoherent attempt to combine modern economy and modern high technology with a highly romanticized backward-looking vision of the past. And so, the idea is to somehow have your cake and eat it to have both a modern economy and at the same time not take onboard what that modern economy requires.

As a result, the narrator tells us that “the Nazis’ backward-looking reverence of handicrafts meant that their aircraft were well made, but their output was slow.”

Later in the episode:

Dr. James S. Corum, historian and former US Army Lt. Colonel: Hitler will be having these staff meetings and he will be changing the production priorities every six weeks.

Stephen Vizard, aviation engineer: You know, if you’re trying to produce 200 aircraft a month and somebody’s saying oh, can you just change this or can you just do that, you could be down to 100 a month. You could lose 50 percent of your production for no good reason.

James S. Corum: How do you plan and run a war economy, when the Fuhrer, who is the source of all the power is changing the production priorities and issuing orders off the top of his head. And this is this is gets more extreme as the war goes on.

Stephen Vizard: Now this is taken to a whole new level by [German former WWI ace Ernst Udet]; he wants pretty much every plane to have dive bombing capabilities.

Guy Walters, author and historian: In the initial plans to build up the Luftwaffe, dive bombers had a role [in] hitting precision targets. Dive bombers would take out bridges and keep places in support of the army and ground troops.

Alexandra Churchill, author and historian (and no relation): And so, you get for instance with the Ju-88 it’s a mid-range bomber — it’s great, it’s ready to go into mass production. And then along comes Udet and decides, “No actually I’d rather it was a dive bomber.” So, he pauses production and the whole lot has to go back to the beginning again.

James S. Corum: You’re adding a lot of complexity; you’re rebuilding [and] redesigning aircraft; you’re adding a lot of weight and you’re making the production process much more difficult.

Stephen Vizard: To put that into a production factory environment is a nightmare.


How The US Big Three’s Car Assembly Lines Become the Ultimate War Factories

A similar handicraft theme ran through the production of German tanks, making them surprisingly fragile and finicky as “War Factories’” second episode noted. All of that is in sharp contrast to how the Americans ran their assembly lines in WWII, the theme of “War Factories’” fourth episode:

In the 1930s, American consensus was isolationism, and the American military had few tanks or other heavy weapons. (Though as Victor Davis Hanson wrote his now-classic 2017 book, “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” “Few critics in late 1939 had bothered to note that a largely disarmed United States possessed, in its peacetime air force, a contemporary four-engine bomber, the B-17, that even in its earliest incarnations was probably as good as or better than the smaller two-engine workhorses of the Luftwaffe.”)

Narrator: When Belgium surrenders to Hitler in 1940 US President Roosevelt is convinced that sooner or later, the fascist powers will turn on America.

Guy Walters:  So, who is he going to call, because he’s got no armament industry at all. What he does is he brings in the head of a car company, the head of U.S Steel, and the head of Sears [and] Roebuck. Hitler has to be laughing his socks off.

Narrator: [But] the head of U.S. Steel understands raw materials; the head of Sears understands logistics; the guy who knows about production is the head of General Motors, Bill Knudsen. Knudsen is a typical industrial pioneer who works his way up from the shop floor. 

Alexandra Churchill: Bill Knudsen arrived in New York from Copenhagen age 20 [in 1900], with 30 dollars in his pocket and a lot of big ambitions.

Guy Walters: What he is, is a skilled mechanic, and he rises very quickly through the ranks, until he lands a job with Ford in 1911. Ford makes the Model T and at that time, it’s the country’s fastest selling car.

Narrator: Knudsen immediately sets out to change the way cars are produced. Complex manufacturing tasks are broken down into simpler tasks, which are carried out quickly and repetitively by unskilled workers on machines.

Stephen Davies: The core aspect of mass production is a process in which the production of a complex final product is broken down into hundreds — possibly even thousands — of much simpler smaller steps, which can then be put together in various productive processes. Famously in an assembly line process.

Phillips Payson O’Brien: You just needed the right raw materials and the right assembly line.

Narrator: Within four years output increases almost tenfold, but Knudsen grows frustrated because Henry Ford does not understand the new consumer society emerging in America. Knudsen knows that ordinary Americans want to be able to choose from different models of cars, and when Ford refuses, Knudsen quits and moves to General Motors.

Phillips Payson O’Brien: His movement from Ford to General Motors also shows in many ways how he evolves. What General Motors does, and what Knudsen does, moves over there as part of this process is they realize the consumer wants change, they want updating. Far better to have them buy a new car every few years by bringing up much better models.

Stephen Davies: That is how mass production actually works. The entire production process has to become extremely adaptable and flexible.

Narrator: Knudsen becomes famous, the father of modern mass production.

Phillips Payson O’Brien: So, when it comes time for the Second World War, he’s as well experienced as a human being can be in the fundamentals of large-scale mass production.

Stephen Davies: And that proves to be enormously valuable when it comes to adjusting to the demands of a wartime economy.


As “War Factories” explains (we’ll gloss over the narrator describing Chrysler as a subsidiary of GM), the American car makers were given a prototype tank, aircraft, gun, or rifle by the US armed forces, which their technicians would then reverse engineer. They would then create the appropriate tools and dies, and set up an assembly line – and churn out staggering numbers of arms and materiel. And because neither Germany nor Japan had a long-range bomber, these assembly lines worked unimpeded from the end of 1941 until 1945.

While he was sadly never interviewed for the series, War Factories is the video embodiment of Victor Davis Hanson’s writing in his “Second World Wars” book:

There were few counterparts in Germany, Japan, or Italy to American private industrialists like the Americans Henry Kaiser (of Kaiser Aluminum and Kaiser Steel), William Knudsen (of General Motors), or Charles Sorensen (of Ford Motor Company). An entire cadre of successful captains of industry created huge factories, focused on a few models of ships and bombers, and mass-produced them on assembly-line principles—and constantly demanded that extraordinary rates of production be further increased. Such magnates ensured that in just four years American private enterprise had produced nearly ninety thousand tanks of all types, over a quarter-million artillery pieces, 2.4 million trucks, 2.4 million machine guns, and over forty billion rounds of ammunition—along with 807 cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines, 151 carriers (of all categories), eight battleships, and over fifty million tons of merchant shipping, as well as three hundred thousand aircraft.

Churchill’s determination would eventually show the weaknesses of the Nazis and the Italians. The German Luftwaffe was designed to support the Wehrmacht and as VDH wrote:

For a variety of reasons, Hitler’s Luftwaffe never could produce en masse heavy bombers similar to the superb American B-17 and the later B-24, or even to first-generation British Stirlings and Halifaxes, and ultimately the remarkable eight-ton-carrying workhorse Avro Lancaster. In a few months after the Norway campaign this shortcoming would prove one of the great weaknesses of the Luftwaffe, and perhaps ensured that it would never be able to bomb Britain into submission, or even much reduce British industrial output. Having impressive medium bombers in 1939 that surprised and terrified outgunned neighbors did not mean competence in long-range strategic bombing across the sea or a thousand miles into the Soviet Union.


During the Battle of Britain, Mussolini’s Air Force sent biplanes up against the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes. While Hitler’s high command had fantasies (Operation Sea Lion) of invading England via the Channel in 1940, the Kriegsmarine didn’t have sufficient ships to mount an effective attack, unlike the Allies, as they would later churn out masses of ships and materiel in the complex preparations for the overwhelming force that made the 1944 D-Day invasion successful.

With a naval invasion of England out of the question, as John Lukacs wrote in his 1998 book, “The Hitler of History,” Hitler, having the largest army in the world at the time, and a lacking an effective navy, decided to send his masses of troops eastward, to knock out the Soviet Union, as a way to isolate England, with Hitler quoted as saying that when Russia is defeated, “this will force England to make peace…The main enemy is still Britain.” As Lukacs adds, “There was one important—and historic—realization that Hitler made:”

This was the return of the supreme importance of land power. Sea power was the prime key to history, wrote the American Admiral Mahan (who was respected in Germany as well as in Britain) in the 1890s. That may have been true for centuries, perhaps, but no longer. The motorization of military movement changed that. In Napoleon’s time the English, if not necessarily victorious, were unconquerable when they could sail rings around Napoleon’s European empire, landing here or there with ease. But latest by the 1930s, armies could move faster on land than amphibious forces at sea.

* * * * * * * *

The mobility of armor was even more important than its firepower among his opponents the French, with the exception of Colonel, later General, de Gaulle, almost entirely failed to comprehend this; Franklin Roosevelt, as late as 1941, insisted that “naval power was the key to victory,” which was still true in the Pacific and the Atlantic, but not in Europe; Winston Churchill had learned this quickly. All the superiority of the allies at sea (and even the air) was not enough; Hitler had to be defeated and Germany conquered on land. Perhaps Stalin knew it; but then the Russians have always been land animals.

While Operation Barbarossa had much initial success, once the Nazis bogged down on the edge of Moscow, and the terrifying Russian winter inevitably manifested itself, the remainder of the war in the east further exposed all of the faults in the Germans’ manufacturing capabilities and design philosophies. Its later heavier tanks contained assemblies that were far too delicate for combat, and the Nazis couldn’t churn out enough of them. Hitler’s obsession with so-called “wonder weapons” meant that tens of thousands of conventional fighter planes were never built by the Nazis.


“Alternatively,” VDH writes, “had Hitler canceled the V-2 program and used its resources to focus solely on the V-1s, he might have produced well over a hundred thousand more such cruise missiles, with a far greater likelihood of inciting terror among the British population. The misplacement of resources into the V-2 program, as in a litany of other grandiose German projects, proved a disaster of enormous proportions for the Wehrmacht that even today is not fully appreciated.”

How Russia Acquires the Bomb

Could the Nazis have acquired the bomb, which would have made their V-2 missiles into infinitely more lethal weapons? As Alexandra Churchill says in the season two, episode four of “War Factories” on nuclear war:

The reason that the Nazis don’t have an atomic bomb is because they’re the Nazis. Instead of pulling all of their resources together they decide to have multiple teams competing to make an atomic bomb. They would need like a thousand cubes of uranium to be able to reach critical mass. One team had just over 600 and the other had 400, but instead of being sensible and working together and achieving it, they basically squandered it all in competition with each other. So, it’s just it’s just Hitler and the Nazis all over.

Military historian Phillips Payson O’Brien adds, “And the Soviets got their hands on massive amounts of German uranium and so they ship that to the Soviet Union, and that provides the uranium for the first Soviet reactors.”

But then, WWII was the crucible that sped up a wide variety of technologies, as VDH concludes:

The British and Americans outpaced the Germans in all these critical technologies that made war far deadlier. Or, when the Allies fell behind in development, they quickly caught up and rendered initial Axis breakthroughs irrelevant. The introduction of plasma, sulfa drugs, mass vaccinations, and belatedly, penicillin, meant that septicemia, tetanus, gangrene, and other bacterial infections were not always fatal. The old category of “wounded” was no longer necessarily a step on the way to “killed in action.” In all areas of medicine, the British and American armies proved the most efficient in treating soldiers’ combat injuries and preventing disease, although the Germans were more effective (or brutal) in returning wounded soldiers to combat.

Jet engines and rocketry would eventually revolutionize warfare. Both were on the horizon but neither arrived in time nor in enough numbers to change the course of World War II. In the case of much faster Luftwaffe jets, huge numbers of superb piston-driven Allied fighters, especially British Spitfires and American Mustangs, overwhelmed fuel-short and often poorly piloted Messerschmitt Me 262 Swallows. That the Axis produced rockets, jets, and superior torpedoes, and yet were the most reliant on horse transportation, is emblematic of their lack of comprehensive industrial policy and pragmatic technological planning—an area where America, Britain, and the Soviet Union excelled. We often forget that the Third Reich was postmodern in creative genius but premodern in actual implementation and operations.


“War Factories” illustrates these disparities throughout its episodes. Well worth watching if you’re interested in how the Allies completely overwhelmed the Axis in weaponry, and the incredible errors the latter forces fortunately made, resulting in their demise.


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