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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here are our Sources: