Throughout the history of armed conflict warring parties have endeavored to gain a decisive edge over their enemies in order to achieve victory. Hannibal employed war elephants against the Romans in his invasion of Italy, the English longbow broke with chivalric tradition and defeated the French at Agincourt, and probably the most revered example, the Atomic Bomb which was employed against the Japanese to end the Second World War.
This need to gain an advantage over the enemy has led to the development of some strange and ingenious weapons and I am going to look at some lesser known examples that were born in the 20th Century, some were used, some, not so much…
1. Lankreuzer P.1000 Ratte (GER)
As the Second World War began to swing in favour of the Allies the German High Command turned to the development of ‘Wunderwaffe’ or ‘Wonder Weapons’ in an effort to salvage victory. One such design was the Land Cruiser P.1000 Rat. This super heavy tank was to weight 1000 metric tons (the Tiger 1 tank weighed just 54) and required a crew of between 20 and 40 men to operate. With armour up to 360mm thick, two enormous 280mm cannon mounted on a single turret and 11 other guns of varying sizes, this giant tank would have had a decisive impact on Second World War armoured combat. At 35m long, 11m high and 14m wide, it would have been an incomprehensible sight to an allied tank commander. But therein lied the problem; due to its size and weight it would have been an easy target for allied aircraft and artillery, and would have been unable to pass bridges or roads. So a couple obvious difficulties there.
The concept was eventually scrapped in late 1943, but who knows what impact it would have had had it graced the battlefields of Europe during the Second World War.
2. The Handley Page V/1500 Heavy Bomber (UK)
Another example of the ‘biggest is best’ mentality, but one that was a lot more realistic. Air combat was a completely new addition to 20th century war fighting. Flying heavier-than-air aircrafts was only developed 11 years before the outset of the First World War by the Wright brothers who made the first controlled and sustained flight in December 1903. As military leaders began to see the potential of aircraft in war, mainly for reconnaissance, they began developing craft of their own in all shapes and sizes, and with varying degrees of success. As the war progressed, development of fighting aircraft took the lead and some very good machines were being put into service such as the British Sopwith Camel, the French Nieuport 11 and the German Albatross. As well as air-to-air combat, most combatants of the War were developing bomber craft to attack strategic targets. The constant air arms race led the creation of the Handley Page V/1500 heavy Bomber, one of the largest air machines of the war. The four-engined, 38m wingspan giants which operated with a crew of 6 in open cockpits, were Britain’s answer to the German Gothas and Staakens. They could stay in the air for 14 hours and carry a ton of bombs into the German heartland.
As three huge V/1500s taxied for take-off at Bricham Newton in Norfolk for their inaugural bombing raid on Berlin, an excited mechanic ran onto the airfield with the news that the Germans had surrendered and the war was over. It’s uncertain what impact these massive aircraft would have had on the outcome of the war, but luckily enough for the Germans they were never put to the test.
3. The Tsar Tank (RUS)
World War One, stalemate, all sides are looking for the weapon that will alter the course of the War in their favour. Enter the Tsar Tank, Russia’s solution for breaking through the German lines and storming on to victory. Not quite.
The Tsar armoured fighting vehicle is not what we today would think of as a tank but it nonetheless had potential as a line breaking machine of war. It differed from modern and contemporary tanks in that it did not run on tracks; rather, it used a tricycle design. The two spoked wheels at the front were almost 9 metres high and pulled a hull with smaller 1.5 metre high wheels at the rear. The 12 metre wide hull supported an upper cannon turret at the top and two smaller cannons mounted in the sides. Additional weapons were to be fitted underneath the hull.
The huge front wheels were designed to cross obstacles such as trenches, ditches, craters and streams. The vision was that the machine would creep forward, firing it’s guns at a stunned enemy until it reached and crossed their lines, allowing cavalry to pour through the gap. In practice however, the cons far outweighed the pros. The rear wheels regularly became stuck in soft terrain and the forward wheels were under-powered. The tank was finally tested in front of the Russian High Commission in 1915 who were left unimpressed. Remaining in place until 1923, the machine was dismantled for scrap. What an inglorious end to a war machine with such high expectations.
4. Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka (JAP)
By late 1944 the Second World War was going badly for the Axis powers. The Allied invasion of Europe was a success and British and American forces were approaching the German border. Meanwhile the Japanese were being beaten back closer and closer to their homeland by US Marines in a series of savage Island battles and the British were taking back ground in Burma. With the risk of an allied invasion of the homeland looming, the Japanese High Command turned to more and more desperate tactics in an effort to knock the fighting spirit out of their enemies.
The Kamikaze was nothing new at this point in the War. Suicidal Bonsai charges and the deliberate crashing of Japanese aircraft into Allied shipping were far from rare. But towards the end of the War the tactic was becoming more and more official as opposed to the impromptu decisions of individual pilots whose aircraft had likely suffered severe damage. This shift in tactics meant that the Japanese required a purpose built Kamikaze attack plane that could be launched against allied shipping in an effort to blunt and invasion of the home island. What they came up with was the Yokosuko Ohka (cherry blossom) which was a rocket propelled human guided suicide machine.
The flying bomb was usually carried underneath a Mitsubishi G4M2e “Betty” Model 24J bomber to within range of its target. On release, the pilot would first glide towards the target and when close enough he would fire the Ohka’s three solid-fuel rockets, one at a time or in unison, and fly the missile towards the ship that he intended to destroy. Due to its high speed of approach the Ohka was notoriously hard to shoot down before it could deliver its payload.
The Ohka saw service against US shipping during the invasion of Okinawa and would eventually sink or destroy seven US ships before the end of the war. The Ohka pilots were members of the Jinrai Butai (Thunder Gods Corps) and were specifically trained for this purpose, there are even accounts of Kamikaze pilots taking their wives with them. A desperate weapon for a desperate nation, but there was no shortage of volunteers to fly this deadly suicide weapon.
I learned of the Handley Page Bomber which is featured above in the book ‘No Empty Chairs’ by Ian Makersey . It is an excellent book and provides a factual yet emotional incite into air combat on the Western Front from the perspective of the Royal Flying Corps which would go on to become the RAF. Through the letters of RFC airmen and their families the book faithfully depicts the devastating toll that air combat took on the pilots. The romantic image most young prospective pilots had was quickly eroded by the constant fear of being shot down in flames. A real emotional read and a must for anybody who wants to learn about the first air war, I guarantee you will be left with an enormous level of respect and admiration for Pilots on all sides.