History's Failed Military Weapons
History’s Failed Military Weapons

History’s Failed Military Weapons

Khalid Elhassan - September 5, 2017

History’s Failed Military Weapons
How The Great Panjandrum was intended to operate, smashing into German shore defenses, as envisioned in conceptual artwork from the Bridgeman Art Library. History Net

The Great Panjandrum

Developed by the British during WWII as a means for clearing obstacles ahead of the D-Day landings, The Great Panjandrum consisted of a large drum stuffed with a ton of explosives and affixed to rocket-propelled wheels. The idea was to ignite the rockets from a platform at sea, and the angled rockets affixed to the wheels would cause them to rotate rapidly, launching the contraption at targets and obstacles onshore, blowing them up and clearing the way for follow on troops who would land hot on the Great Panjandrum’s heels.

The device was supposed to be developed in secrecy in order to spring it as a surprise on the Germans, but testing was conducted on a beach popular with vacationers, so the trials were witnessed by huge crowds. The design’s flaw emerged at the first trial run in 1943: when the rockets were ignited and the device was launched, it made its way up the beach before rockets on one of the wheels malfunctioned, causing the Great Panjandrum to careen wildly off course. The problem persisted with additional trials, as each time it proved impossible to get the rockets on both sides to ignite simultaneously or to keep firing simultaneously.

After weeks of troubleshooting, the developers returned to the beach, this time having affixed a third wheel to the device to increase its stability. That test proved more embarrassing yet, as the device hurtled toward the beach, only to double back and turn back to sea towards the launching craft. In the meantime, some of the rockets had detached from the Great Panjandrum’s wheels to launch themselves at the observers on the beach, whistling over their heads or exploding underwater nearby.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
The Great Panjandrum veering out of control during trials. Benedante

Returning to the drawing board, the Great Panjandrum’s designers worked out the bugs, and figuring that they finally had it under control, conducted a final demonstration in front of a gathering 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.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
A V2 rocket at the moment of launch. Wikimedia

The V2 Rocket

The German V2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2“, was the world’s first ballistic missile, which carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate on its target. It was a brilliant, advanced, and revolutionary feat of technology. It was also one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons, inflicting relatively small damage that did not justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into its production, or the diversion of those resources from more effective weapons programs or other uses that could have better served the German war effort.

From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September 1944, to Germany’s surrender 9 months later, roughly 3000 V2s were fired. They did not all reach their targets, but even if they had, at 1 ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over 9 months. By contrast, during the same period, the RAF would routinely drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a single nighttime bombing raid.

The US Air Force also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids during the daytime. And the Allied explosive delivery tools were reusable and thus far more economical, since most of the Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night to again drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities, and repeated the process dozens of times.

Moreover, during its 9 months of firing, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by the V2 killed 2754 people – most of them not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, it is estimated that over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V2, giving the rocket the tragic distinction of being perhaps the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when contrasting the cost with the results, the V2 literally produced little bang for the buck.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
Scale comparison of Panzer VIII Maus (tan in rear) with Panzer III (green) and Panzer I (grey in front). Warlord Games

Panzer VIII Maus

The Panzer VIII Maus was the heaviest tank ever built, measuring about 33 feet long, 12 feet wide, 12 feet high, and weighing nearly 200 tons. Its secondary armament was a 75 mm coaxial gun instead of a machine gun, while its main gun was a 128 mm monster capable of destroying any Allied tank at ranges of up to 2.2 miles – and that was increased at Hitler’s insistence, who thought the 128 mm looked like a toy gun on the Maus, to 150 mm.

The Maus’ huge size and heavyweight came at a correspondingly heavy price that made it nearly useless. The tank was too heavy for most bridges, so it had to resort to crossing rivers either by wading through fords where available, or driving over the river’s bottom while using a snorkel for ventilation. Additionally, simply getting the Maus moving was a problem, as it was no easy task developing an engine and drive train that was 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 achieved during trials was 8 m.p.h. on a hard surface.

It was intended to spearhead German attacks by smashing through any opposition and destroying all enemy armor it came across, impervious to damage from any tanks whose path it crossed. 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, the Maus was largely immune from Allied tanks, whose shells would simply bounce off the behemoth. However, it was built in 1944, by which time the Allies not only had aerial superiority on both the Western and Eastern front, but well nigh complete aerial supremacy over the battlefield, and the Maus did not have sufficient armor up top to render it immune from armor-piercing bombs or rockets dropped or fired from above.

Ultimately, the Maus was symptomatic of Hitler’s irrational obsession with big things and superweapons, and his indifference to or inability to understand their relative cost-effectiveness compared to other “normal” weapons that could accomplish the same task at a fraction of the cost, thus freeing up scarce resources for other uses that could have better served the German war effort.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
Davy Crockett recoilless rifle. Gizmodo

The Davy Crockett

The Davy Crockett Weapon System was a smoothbore recoil-less rifle that fired a tactical nuclear explosive to a range of up to 1.25 with the M-28 version of the weapon, and later up to 2.5 miles with the M-29 version. Developed during the Cold War in the 1950s, over 2000 Davy Crocketts and their launch systems were deployed with US ground forces in West Germany and Korea from 1961 to 1971.

The weapon was notoriously inaccurate – although pinpoint accuracy was not a priority, considering its warhead. The Davy Crockett’s deadliness stemmed more from its radioactivity than from its explosive yield: its warhead produced an instantly lethal dose of radiation within a 500-foot radius, and an incapacitating and likely fatal dose within a quarter-mile radius. As such, the weapon was more of a broad area radiation dispenser than a surgical smart bomb.

In addition to the long term contamination hazard, the weapon was dangerous to its own users: there was always the risk that the firing team, and other NATO personnel in the vicinity, would themselves fall victim to radiation from their own side’s tactical nuclear warhead exploding 1.25 miles away from the point of firing (the maximum range of the M-28 atomic gun), to 2.5 miles distant (range of M-29 version).

The weapon’s greatest danger however was the fact that it was deployed at all, and deployed very low down the chain of command at that, placed under the complete control of three soldiers roaming the battlefield in a Jeep, who, in practice, would have been able to fire a nuclear weapon it at their own discretion. Shockingly, it took ten years before the Pentagon decided that it might be unwise to give a lieutenant, a sergeant, and a corporal, the discretion to fire the opening shot in what might quickly escalate into a global nuclear holocaust.

The West Germans in particular were enthusiastic about deploying the Davy Crockett with their ground forces, but were turned down by the US because the manner in which they proposed to incorporate the weapon into their defensive strategy would have made its use nearly automatic as soon as the war began. That was undesirable because it would have eliminated NATO’s option to fight without using nuclear weapons and risking an escalation from tactical nukes in the battlefield to nuclear armageddon.

 

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