Hitler, in his quest for European domination, was often shown to put his faith in machinery. Stories of the Nazi Wunderwaffen, the V1 bomb of the Blitz and the unstoppable V2 rocket, the Maus supertank and the Komet rocket ship, show that the Germans were prepared to think big, and rely on technology.
And when it came to thinking big, in their push to extend their reach from the Atlantic to Moscow the Nazis produced the largest plane ever to fly in the Second World War. This monstrous transport from Messerschmitt was called the Me 323 Gigant, the “Giant”.
The Me 323, a powered derivative of the earlier Me 321 military glider, was not some one-off that existed as a prototype either. There were a total of 213 manufactured, and they were first built as gliders with a purpose: the successful invasion of the United Kingdom.
Operation Sea Lion, as the planned invasion was called, had the full momentum of the German war machine behind it in 1940, and the use of such aircraft was clear. The earlier successes of the DFS 230 light glider at the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium and the invasion of Crete in 1941 had proved that.
However, the Germans would need to be able to airlift vehicles and other heavy equipment as part of an initial assault wave to undertake an invasion across the English Channel. Even after Operation Sea Lion was cancelled, production continued, for now the planes were needed for Operation Barbarossa, and the Soviet Union. But these planes would not just be gliders.
Nazi pilots were finding out about all sorts of unexpected problems in Russia with their equipment, band their feedback of the terrain and layout convinced the Germans that their great glider would be very useful here, but in powered form.
After tests with a four-engined variant proved to be dramatically underpowered and too slow, as many as six huge engines were attached to the massive cantilevered wings of the plane, wings so big that they each had their own gunner installed between the engines. Sitting squat on her half-hidden undercarriage she looks like a huge beetle, with her snub nose that opened up as huge doors.
How could a plane this size fly? Well, the Gigant had some secrets of her own, too. Like the Mosquito, Britain’s own wonder weapon developed later in the war, the Gigant was constructed of lightweight materials like plywood, canvas, and aluminum.
The vast wings could be supported that way because they were made of treated fabric over a lightweight frame of metal tubing. The plane had come from glider technology, after all: she needed to be light above all else.
Two pilots, two flight engineers, and a radio operator made up the crew of five, along with two gunners who might be carried as well. Two tiny cabins, one in each wing between the inboard and center engines, housed the flight engineers.
Although the pilot always had final say about what he wanted his engines to do, the engineers were there to keep an eye on the engine and allow the pilot to fly without worrying that anything was going to explode. And with a take-off assisted by two banks of rockets under either wing, the Gigant could get in the air with as much as 12 tonnes (13.2 tons) of cargo.
She was never the fastest, though. At sea level, the Me 323’s top speed was only 219 km/h (136 mph), and she only got slower as she tried to fly higher. Her five machine guns mounted behind and beneath the wings and the fuselage all pointed backwards. Manned in emergencies by the rest of the crew, they were purely defensive.
Thrown Into War
By the time they arrived the focus for their deployment had shifted to the Mediterranean, and Tunisia. Rommel’s war was grinding on in North Africa but the Axis fleet supporting him had suffered severe losses. With supplies depleted, another solution was needed. Could they be flown in?
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And it worked, for a time. The planes proved reliable and, although slow they were getting Rommel the supplies he needed. But the skies they flew in were not friendly, and everything started to go wrong on April 22, 1943.
On that day, 27 Gigants were flying fully loaded over the Straits of Sicily, with an escort of Messerschmitt Bf 109s. But the fighter escort could not help against fully seven squadrons of Allied Spitfires and Kittyhawks that descended on them. Only six of the 27 Gigants arrived at their objective; the other 21 had proven unable to defend themselves, and all for the loss of only 3 Kittyhawks on the Allied side.
We don’t have any surviving examples of the Gigant. Like so many of the strange weapons the Nazis brought to the battlefields of the Second World War, the examples that remained were ground up and destroyed along with the rest of the Nazi war machine.
The Berlin Air Force Museum of the German Federal Armed Forces proudly displays a wing spar of the Me 323, in the hope to offer a sense of scale for what the great plane must have looked like. But, strangely, there may be hope for those who would like to see the Gigant fly once again. And it comes from an unexpected source.
In 2012, a broken but intact wreck was discovered at the bottom of the sea near La Maddalena, an Italian island near Sardinia. The plane is about 8 nautical miles (15 kilometers) from the coast, in around 60 meters (200 feet) of water.
Perhaps we can retrieve such a treasure from the seabed one day? We even know which plane it was and how it came to be there: on the 26th of July 1943 it was shot down by a British Bristol Beaufighter while flying from Sardinia to Italy.
The Beaufighter was a long range fighter more suited to patrol than engaging with the enemy, and had a poor reputation as a combat aircraft. If a Beaufighter can get you, you need to rethink your aircraft.
Top Image: A Gigant landing. Source: Jared Enos / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
By Bipin Dimri