8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II

Michelle Powell-Smith - January 26, 2017

Wartime often brings inventions, particularly in military technology. While some of these are brilliant, others never make it out of the testing stage or are quickly abandoned for their ineffectiveness or inefficiency. These examples show not only the desperation of war, but also the creative solutions to meet the needs of the military during times of war.

World War II brought the atom bomb and new innovations in artillery and tanks, but it also brought the bat bomb, pigeon-guided missiles, and the Gustav Gun.

The Bat Bomb, aka Project X-Ray

The Bat Bomb was the invention of a dentist, Dr. Lytle S. Adams. Adams, a resident of Philadelphia, had recently returned from a trip to New Mexico when he conceived the idea. While traveling, he’d seen and been impressed by the abilities of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats. Adams believed that large numbers of bats armed with tiny bombs, could be dropped on Japan. He returned to Carlsbad Caverns and collected a number of bats to pursue his research.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
A WWII-era bat house. The Atlantic

He quickly realized that bats could carry a substantial amount of weight, fly comfortably at high altitudes, and could fly long distances. The bats would naturally roost in dark, high places, like the eaves of buildings. When the bombs exploded, the wooden structures in Japanese cities would burn.

On January 12, 1942, Adams wrote a letter to the White House, outlining his proposal. He was friends with the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, so the letter reached the desk of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt arranged a meeting between Adams and Colonel William J. Donovan, the head of wartime intelligence.

Research and development began in earnest, with the collection of a large number of Mexican free-tailed bats. Once the bats were acquired, the work of developing small-scale bombs began. Eventually, a 17-gram kerosene bomb was built for the bats. A much larger bomb was designed to house and drop the bats. The larger bomb was designed to hold 1,040 bats, and was kept cool so the bats would hibernate during their journey. The bats would be released, warm up, and begin to roost. They would chew through the string on the bomb, triggering the explosive soon after. As for the bats, they would fly away before the bomb exploded. A number of tests were scheduled and were mostly successful.

Work on the project continued until 1944; it was stopped only because all resources were being directed toward the atomic bomb, rather than the bat bomb.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
The Great Panjandrum. Wikipedia

The Great Panjandrum

The British knew that an invasion of northwestern Europe, particularly France, would be essential to win the war. Obviously, this was successful, with the amphibious assault that occurred on D-Day. However, one of the ideas considered by the British was a bit more unusual. The British were concerned with overcoming the Atlantic Wall that was built and reinforced by the Nazis. This wall was 10 feet high and 7 feet thick, built from concrete.

The Panjandrum consisted of two wheels, 10 feet in diameter. These two wheels were connected by an axle packed with two tons of explosives. It was expected that at least a ton of explosives would be needed to produce a tank-size hole in the Atlantic Wall. Rockets attached to the wheels would propel the Panjandrum at high speeds. In theory, the Panjandrum could be sent toward Nazi fortifications at high speed. It would, upon hitting the fortifications, explode.

There was a serious problem with the Panjandrum. Each wheel had nine rockets. During every test run at least one rocket failed to fire or misfired. This caused the Panjandrum to veer radically off course, or even to turn in a circle, returning toward its point of origin. Various attempts were made to correct this, including increasing the number of rockets, adding a third wheel, and adding steel cables. After accepting relatively poor steering, a final trial was scheduled for January 1944. In this final test, the Panjandrum turned full circle, nearly hitting the on-site film crew.

There is some question as to whether the Panjandrum was ever intended to be used; it may have been part of the ruse used to confuse the Germans regarding the planned invasion. There was no attempt made to hide testing of the device, and, in fact, many British citizens played at the seaside during early tests. The Panjandrum wasn’t the only strange, rolling, wheel-like device of the war; at the end of the war, the Soviets captured the German Kugelpanzer, a rolling armored vehicle of sorts.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
The “nose” of a pigeon-guided missile. Smithsonian

The Pigeon Guided Missile

The pigeon-guided missile, part of Project Pigeon or Project Orcon (Organic Control), was the brainchild of psychologist and animal behaviorist B.F. Skinner. While missiles were relatively simple technologically, guidance technology did not exist. The U.S. government gave Skinner a $25,000 grant to attempt to design a pigeon-guided missile. Pigeons were relatively intelligent, trainable, and had excellent vision, making them an ideal choice for the project.

Skinner had already successfully trained pigeons to complete basic tasks, like pressing a lever, for food. He built a mock nosecone with seats for several pigeons, in individual tiny cockpits and electronic screens. The pigeons were taught to peck when they saw the target, in this case, an image of an enemy ship. If the ship moved toward the outer areas of the screens, the pigeons’ pecking at the target on the screens steered the missile, and the target returned to the center of the screen.

Each missile would have one to three pigeon pilots; their pecking at the target would pull cables that steered the missile to its target. Skinner’s pigeon control system worked; he successfully tested it, illustrating the effectiveness of the birds as pilots. For the birds, unfortunately, the pigeon-guided missiles would have been a kamikaze mission.

While the idea and logic was sound, and the use of animals in World War II was common, government support for Project Pigeon was limited. Support was withdrawn after the successful trials in 1944, and Project Pigeon did not proceed. It was briefly revitalized from 1948 to 1953 and ended with the introduction of electronic guidance systems. While the pigeon-guided missiles Skinner’s training of the pigeons was effective enough that his pigeons could still peck their targets several years later.

Skinner went on to continue his studies and work with animals, as well as creating a range of inventions. Some of those inventions remain influential in educational technology today, including computer software.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
The Nazi Wind Cannon. Nazi UFO Mythos

The Wind Cannon and Vortex Gun

The wind cannon, or WindKanone, and the vortex gun were German anti-aircraft projects, designed to use the power of the wind to damage enemy aircraft in flight. The wind cannon was designed and built by a firm outside of Stuttgart, and the vortex gun was the work of researcher and scientist Mario Zippermayr. While the two both relied upon wind and turbulence to damage aircraft on bombing raids over German cities, they were quite different in both construction and operation.

The wind cannon consisted of a 3-foot in diameter cast iron tube, some 35 feet in length. This was loaded with a shell packed with hydrogen and ammonia to create a burst of compressed air. When shot at an aircraft, the intent was that the explosive burst of wind or air would damage the plane in flight. While the weapon did successfully shoot shells of compressed air, the planes, even when flying quite low, withstood it without difficulty. In fact, the wind cannon appeared to have no effect at all on planes. The wind cannon was later tested on enemy troops; however, this was also ineffective. The 35-foot metal structure was easy to spot, making the people manning it an easy target on the field.

The vortex gun was a large-bore mortar weapon buried into the ground. It was packed with a combination of coal dust and a slow-burning explosive. The intent was for the shell to explode, creating a wind vortex or fake tornado. In theory, this tornado would bring down any plane caught in it. In tests, the vortex gun performed well in perfect conditions, but war rarely provides perfect conditions.

Zippermayr worked on a number of other projects relying on coal dust, including the HexenKesser, or witch’s cauldron. This was an attempt to create a weapon of mass destruction by exploding coal dust over a target. After the war, Zippermayr became known for his treatments for respiratory illnesses, including pertussis.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
Sewing Machine Needles. Sewalot

The Poison Dart Bomb

In January 1942, British research scientist Dr. Paul Fildes wrote to the Singer Sewing Machine company asking for needle samples. These needles were, quite unlike their usual use, intended for a weapon. Singer responded that they were quite willing to help. The British were working to develop a poison dart bomb, armed with thousands of tiny, needle-nosed darts. Each dart would weigh only .15 ounces, and be armed with a lethal poison, designed to kill quickly and efficiently. A single 500 lb. cluster bomb would contain some 30,000 darts.

The planned poison darts would each contain a small amount of poison, sealed in a hollow needle with a cotton and wax seal. When the needle, moving rapidly, struck the target, the seal or inertia plug would force the toxin into the target. Each needle would have a paper tail to keep it flying straight. Once a person was struck by the dart, if it was not removed within seconds, it would lead to collapse within just a few minutes, and death within 30 minutes. Material on the poison dart bomb has been declassified recently; while it’s been suggested these were to be armed with mustard gas, sarin seems much more likely. Mustard gas requires too large a dose for lethality, while sarin is lethal in much smaller amounts.

Field trials were attempted in Canada using sheep and goats. The poison darts were a planned replacement for weapons used in trench warfare, like mustard gas in World War I, as well as in open-field combat.

While the idea was not a bad one, research into the poison dart bomb ceased for a simple reason; taking cover provided complete protection from the poison darts. In order to cause death, the darts had to reach their target. The poison dart bomb was also economically inefficient, costing far more than it was worth to produce.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
The HMS Habbakuk. Wikipedia

Project Habbakuk

Project Habbakuk was the name given to a British project to design a very new sort of aircraft carrier. Faced with limited access to steel and aluminum, a scientist named Geoffrey Pyke proposed a quite different idea. He suggested building an aircraft carrier from ice; the material could withstand torpedo fire and was available at a much lower cost. In addition, it was naturally buoyant, and durable in cold temperatures. Ice alone was too fragile, but when a small amount of wood pulp was embedded into the ice, it became quite bulletproof. This mixture of ice and wood pulp is called pykrete.

With the support of Winston Churchill, active work and testing began. They soon determined that refrigerant would be necessary to maintain adequately cold temperatures to keep the pykrete stable; however, they also found that a very small engine could adequately cool the pykrete. A 30-foot by 60-foot small test model was produced and set into the waters of Lake Alberta, Canada. The pykrete vessel had a few distinct drawbacks. It was, even with a large rudder, difficult to steer, and it was very slow, resembling more of a floating island than a ship. Work on the project was eventually abandoned, but the test ship took three full years to melt completely in Lake Alberta.

Although it was abandoned, Project Habbakuk was not a failure. In fact, the tests were successful. Unfortunately, the ship still required funds, wood pulp, and steel, and these were not adequately available. In addition, over the course of the war, the flying range of aircraft had increased, reducing the overall need for this sort of floating island ship of ice.

Experiments continue with pykrete in cold climates. Engineering students have attempted to build domes, and even a model of the Sagrada Cathedral using pykrete; however, few practical uses have been found for the material, given its need for stable, cold temperatures.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
U.S. servicemen pose with a captured railway gun, 1945. National Archives

Gustav Gun

The Schwerer Gustav or Heavy Gustav was a large-scale piece of siege artillery developed in Germany beginning in the late 1930s. Adolf Hitler was, at the time, looking for a solution that could defeat the French Maginot line, along the French-German and French-Italian borders. The Maginot line was a 1,500 km-long defensive wall, made up of tanks, concrete fortifications, and machine gun nests. Hitler recruited a German company, the Friedrich Krupp A.G. Company of Essen, to build a weapon that could defeat the Maginot line.

Two years later, in 1941, the Friedrich Krupp A.G. company completed the Gustav Gun, named after the head of the Krupp family. The railway-mounted weapon was the largest gun ever built. Fully assembled, it weighed in at 1,344 tons, and was four stories tall, 20 feet wide, and 140 feet long. It required a 500-man crew to operate it, and had to be moved to be fully disassembled, as the railroad tracks could not bear its weight in transit. It required 54 hours to assemble and prepare for firing.

The bore diameter was just under 3 feet and required 3,000 pounds of smokeless powder charge to fire two different projectiles. The first was a 10,584-pound high explosive shell that could produce a crater 30 feet in diameter. The other was a 16,540-pound concrete-piercing shell, capable of punching through 264 feet of concrete. Both projectiles could be shot, with relatively correct aim, from more than 20 miles away.

The Gustav Gun was used in Sevastopol in the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa and destroyed various targets, including a munitions facility in the bay. It was also briefly used during the Warsaw Uprising in Poland. The Gustav Gun was captured by the Allies before the end of World War II and dismantled for scrap. The second massive rail gun, the Dora, was disabled to keep it from falling into Soviet hands near the end of the War.