14. A Technological Marvel That Also Managed to be a Failed Weapon
The reason for the victors’ eagerness to get their hands on German rocket program personnel was straightforward: they were the best. At the end of WWII, German rocket technology was the most advanced in the world, and stood leagues ahead of that of any other country. Germany’s V-2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2”, was the world’s first ballistic missile. It carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate upon impact. It was a brilliant, advanced, and revolutionary feat of technology.
As a technological feat, it was outstanding. Luckily for mankind, as a war winning weapon, it failed miserably. The V-2 was one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons, and it inflicted relatively little damage upon Germany’s enemies. Not enough to justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into the missile’s production. The Allies benefitted, and the Nazis did not, from the diversion of resources to the rocket from more effective weapons programs or other uses that could have better served the German war effort.
V-2 rockets went operational on September 7th, 1944, when two were launched against Paris, recently liberated from Nazi occupation by Allied armies. Both failed to reach their targets, and crashed soon after launch. The following day, another V-2 was launched at Paris, which caused modest damage. Two were also launched later that day at London, where they killed three people, including a three-year-old child. The frequency of launches intensified from then on, and by the time Germany surrendered, nine months later, about 3000 V-2s had been fired. Many failed to reach their targets. Even if all had, at one ton of explosives per V-2 warhead, that would have been a total of 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities, spread out over a nine month period.
By contrast, in that same nine month period, the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command often dropped over 3000 tons of explosives on a single German city in a single nighttime raid. US Army Air Forces bombers also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single raids during the daytime. Unlike the German V-2s, the Allied explosive delivery tools were reusable and thus more economical. Most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, returned to again drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities, and repeated the process dozens of times.
12. A Failed Weapon That Killed More of its Makers Than of its Targets
In the nine months of its operational deployment, the 3000 V-2 rockets fired by the Nazis killed 2754 people. The majority were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. On the other hand, over 20,000 workers – mostly slave laborers – died as they toiled to manufacture the V-2s. That gave the missile the tragic distinction of being perhaps the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when their costs are contrasted with their results, the V2 literally produced little bang for the buck.
In the hands of the Americans and Soviets after the war, that German technology bore bigger fruit. Both for ill, with the missiles and ICBMs whose payloads might wipe out humanity someday, and for good, in space rockets that set mankind on the path to exploring the cosmos – a path that might prove the species’ salvation, someday. Of course, the Nazis had not poured all those resources into the V-2 program in order to pave the way for humanity’s exploration of the cosmos. Nor had they intended the program and its scientists to seed the space programs of their American and Soviet enemies after the war. The Nazis had intended the V-2 as a war winning weapon, and from their perspective, it failed miserably to accomplish what they had wanted.
At first blush, it seems hard to screw up the design of a sword: hilt, blade, a point, and a sharp edge on one or both sides. Yet British designers managed to do that with the 1796 British Infantry Officers Sword, commonly known as the “1796 Spadroon”. Unlike many failed designs, it was not scrapped at the trial stage, but was widely distributed to the British Army and became the standard issue sidearm of line regiment officers throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Its defects were particularly problematic in an era when officers’ swords were still routinely used as weapons in combat, and had not yet been relegated to mere decorative accoutrements to dress uniforms as is the case today.
Spadroons – straight bladed, flat backed, single edged light swords of the cut and thrust type – were not bad weapons in of themselves. However, the designers of the 1796 Spadroon managed to take a concept as simple as a sword – something that had been around for millennia – to the drawing board, and screw it up. They came and produced a weapon that failed to cut, thrust, defend, and was poorly constructed to boot. The first problem was the hilt. It was that of a smallsword – a weapon intended solely to thrust into opponents, such as a rapier. That made the 1796 Spadroon ergonomically unsound and ill-suited for the hand grip necessary to cut and slash.
If an officer overcame the problem of the 1796 Spadroon’s hilt and managed to get a good grip in order to cut and slash at opponents, he discovered that the blade was so light and flexible that it failed to make a serious cut. Indeed, it often bounced off even from naked skin. The excessive flexibility also made the sword ill-suited even for the thrust its hilt was best suited for. The thrust problem was further exacerbated by lack of a profile taper – the sword’s point was not as sharp and pointy as it should have been to pierce an opponent.
Another hilt problem was the guard: rather than a solid saucer to protect the user’s sword hand, the guard was a foldable clamshell secured by pins, which was liable to give way and break off under impact. The poor hand protection was made worse by a thin and weak knuckle-bow (the projecting piece on the hilt) that bent easily under impact or pressure and was frequently smashed into or pinched the user’s hand. As a British general of the era summed it up: “Nothing could be more useless or ridiculous than the old infantry regulation [sword]; it was good for neither cut nor thrust and was a perfect encumberance. In the Foot Artillery, when away from headquarters, we generally wore dirks instead“.
9. D-Day Planners Had Great Hopes for This Failed Weapon
As the prospects of an eventual Allied invasion of continental Europe grew, planners had to figure out ways to handle the German fortifications that lined the potential landing sites. The British eventually came up with an innovative – but ultimately failed – prototype weapon, which planners hoped would clear enemy obstacles ahead of the eventual D-Day landings. Known as The Great Panjandrum, it looked like something straight out of Looney Tunes – a product of the febrile mind of a Wile E. Coyote.
The weapon consisted of a large drum that was stuffed with a ton of explosives, and attached to wheels that were propelled by angled rockets. The idea was to ignite the contraption from a platform at sea, and the angled rockets that were attached to the wheels would cause them to rotate rapidly. That would launch the device at targets and obstacles on shore, blow them up, and clear the way for follow on troops who would land hot on the Great Panjandrum’s heels.
The Great Panjandrum was supposed to be developed in secrecy in order to spring it as a surprise on the Germans. However, tests were carried out on a British beach that was popular with vacationers, so the trials were witnessed by huge crowds. The design’s flaw emerged at the first trial run in 1943: the weapon failed to move in a straight line. When the rockets were ignited and the device was launched, it made its way up the beach in a reasonably satisfactory manner at first. Then one of the wheels malfunctioned, which caused the Great Panjandrum to careen wildly off course.
7. A Final Failed Demonstration Consigned the Great Panjandrum to the Trash Heap of History
Despite the awkward failed trials, planners still had faith in the Great Panjandrum’s potential as a useful weapon. So the designers returned to the drawing board to work out the bugs. When they finally figured that they had it under control, they carried out a final make or break demonstration in front of an assembly of admirals and generals. As described in a BBC documentary: “At first all went well. Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for the shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars from the top of a pebble ridge […] Then a clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously.
It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careering towards Klemantaski, who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming. Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum was now heading back to the sea but crashed on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.” Unsurprisingly, the project was immediately scrapped over safety concerns.
Commissioned in 1874, the Imperial Russian Navy’s Novgorod monitor ship featured a controversial design: a round hull. Between that and other shortcomings, the Novgorod failed as a fighting platform and gained a reputation as one of the worst ships in history. Compared to a floating soup dish for its clumsiness, the 2500 ton vessel had six steam engines that drove six propeller screws. On the plus side, the ship was largely immune to ramming – a common naval warfare tactic of the day – because it featured a nine inch armored belt, its round shape deflected strikes, and its vital components were well inside the hull.
It also sported a pair of eleven inch guns, which were powerful for the era. Additionally, its shape and flat bottom gave the ship a draft of only twelve feet, which allowed her to operate close to the coastline in shallow waters. However, the advantages were outweighed by serious disadvantages. The circular hull played havoc with the rudder’s ability to steer the ship or turn it around. In a storm, the Novgorod was simply unsteerable, and even in calm weather, it took three quarters of an hour for the ship to make a full circle.
To compound the hapless Novgorod’s woes, the ship’s wide flat bottom meant that in rough seas, she pitched so much that her propellers came out of the water. The blunt hull did not slice through the sea so as to reduce its resistance, but pushed large volumes of water out of the way by sheer brute force. That made the ship very fuel-inefficient, and she consumed coal at a prodigious rate. In addition to design defects, the Novgorod was plagued with defects of manufacture as well. Low quality materials and poor workmanship led to persistent problems with the ship’s propulsion, from blades to shaft to drive, that lasted for the vessel’s entire career.
Additionally, the vessel suffered from poor ventilation that no amount of troubleshooting could fix. Even the installation of ventilation cowls on the gun emplacements failed to fix the problem. As to the Novgorod’s core function as a combat ship, it was plagued with problems there as well. Its pair of eleven inch guns had an exceptionally slow rate of fire, at ten minutes per shot. The rotating mounts on which the guns were placed were also slow, and took three minutes to traverse 180 degrees. The problem was exacerbated by weak locks that caused the gun mounts to rotate on their own from the guns’ recoil. And when the guns fired, the ship could rotate uncontrollably.
The Novgorod and other round hulls were failed designs that were summarized thus by a naval historian: “they were a dismal failure. They were too slow to stem the current in the Dniepr, and proved very difficult to steer. In practice the discharge of even one gun caused them to turn out of control and even contra-rotating some of six propellers was unable to keep the ship on the correct heading. Nor could they cope with the rough weather which is frequently encountered in the Black Sea. They were prone to rapid rolling and pitching in anything more than a flat calm, and could not aim or load their guns under such circumstances“.
As seen above, Hitler was obsessed with the possession of absurdly big things, and if the Fuhrer had had his druthers, he would have built some mind bogglingly giant tanks. One such was the Ratte, which would have weighed 1000 tons, and another was the even bigger – and aptly named – Monster tank, which would have clocked in at 1500 tons. Those behemoths never got off the drawing board, but the Third Reich did manage to manufacture history’s heaviest production tank, the Panzer VIII Maus.
The Maus was the biggest operational tank ever manufactured. It measured about 33 feet long, 12 feet wide, 12 feet high, and weighed almost 200 tons. While normal tanks usually use machine guns as secondary armament, the Maus’ secondary armament was a 75 mm coaxial gun. Its main gun was a 128 mm monster that could destroy any Allied tank at ranges of up to 2.2 miles. Even that powerful gun failed to satisfy the Fuhrer, who thought that 128 mm looked like a pop gun on the massive Panzer VIII. So it was increased to a 150 mm cannon.
2. A Tank That Failed Because it Was Simply Too Big
The Panzer VIII Maus was a failed weapon precisely because of the massive size and heavy weaponry that Hitler insisted upon. The tank’s huge size and heavy weight came at a heavy price that made it nearly useless as a practical instrument of warfare. The Maus was too heavy for most bridges. So in order to cross rivers, it was forced to either wade through fords where they were available, or to drive over the river’s bottom, and use a snorkel for ventilation.
To even get the massive Maus to move proved to be a problem. As designers discovered, it was difficult to develop an engine and drive train powerful enough to propel 200 tons of metal on the ground at any appreciable speed, yet small enough to fit inside the tank. In the end, the maximum speed that the Panzer VIII managed to achieve in trials was a measly eight miles per hours – and that could only be accomplished on hard surfaces.
1. Hitler’s Obsession With Big Weapons Was of Great Help to the Allies
Panzer VIIIs were intended to spearhead German attacks, smash through any opposition and destroy all enemy armor they came across, while they remained invulnerable to damage from their opponents. With 9.4 inches of turret armor, 8 inches of hull front armor, 7 inches of hull side armor, and 6 inches of rear armor, a Maus was quite immune from Allied tanks, whose shells would simply bounce off the behemoth. However, it was built in 1944, and by then the Allies not only had aerial superiority on both the Western and Eastern front, but well-nigh complete aerial supremacy over the battlefield.
The Maus did not have enough armor up top to protect it from armor piercing bombs or rockets dropped or fired from above. Ultimately, the Maus was symptomatic of the Nazis’ and Hitler’s irrational obsession with big things and super weapons. They failed to rationally calculate the cost effectiveness of super weapons compared to other “normal” weapons that could accomplish the same task at a fraction of the cost. Had they done so, they would have freed up scarce resources for other uses that could have better served the German war effort. Humanity is thus indebted to that Nazi and Hitlerian blind spot.
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