Although for a time the Nazi war machine seemed virtually unstoppable, by 1942 the future of the “thousand-year Reich” was suddenly in doubt. With the bulk of the Wehrmacht bogged down in Russia and the full might of America finally being brought to bear against the Axis, Germany’s prospects for victory (or even just survival) seemed bleak indeed. Outnumbered, surrounded and now largely on the defensive, military planners in Berlin increasingly believed that Germany’s best and maybe only hope lay in the development of super-weapons or wunderwaffe.
While a number of game changing breakthroughs like the V-1 rocket, the Me-262 fighter jet and Schweer Gustav gun had surprised and even amazed the Allies, these technological marvels were only the beginning of what the Nazi regime was planning to unleash. Right up to the very end of the war in Europe, German engineers were racing against the clock to field next generation of fighting ships, warplanes, and missiles — technology that Hitler hoped would not only stave off defeat but even guarantee an Axis triumph. While most of these proposed war machines never left the drawing board, they still manage to fascinate, even 70 years later.
Ballistic Missile Subs
Long before the Second World War began, Adolf Hitler dreamed about striking at the United States. But by 1944, even as Nazi missiles were raining down on London, the Fuhrer’s rocket scientists had yet to devise a weapon that could reach North America. Instead, they looked for ways to transport warheads across the Atlantic and launch them from American waters. With the Allies largely in control of the ocean surface, this task would fall to Germany’s U-boats.
In 1943, scientists at the Peenemunde research centre had developed submarine technology that could fire V-2 missiles from the sea. The plan, codenamed Prufstand XII, involved special watertight silos, each containing one of the infamous short-ranged ballistic missiles. Type XXI subs, which could cruise submerged for vast distances, would tow the canisters undetected across the ocean. Once in position off the coast of New York, Boston or Washington, the U-boats would release their tethered silos. The pods would float to the surface, turn upright and automatically launch the missile. Fortunately, the plan for sea-launched V-2s was never realized largely because the engineers at Peenemunde were too busy working on other projects. Despite this, three of the towed missile containers were ordered and one was even delivered in late 1944. Allied intelligence was aware of the weapons and prepared to meet this new threat. The U.S. Navy ordered four escort carrier groups to scour the western Atlantic for snorkeling subs that might be towing missile pods.
Long before the V-22 Osprey or the Hawker Harrier jump jet, German engineers were dabbling in tilt-rotor aircraft. One of their most promising designs was the Focke-Achgelis Fa-269 – a twin piston engine machine that could take off and land like a helicopter, but fly like a conventional plane. The one-seater was designed to reach speeds of 570 km/h (354 mph) and could operate from any field or small clearing close to the front lines. The project never progressed beyond the prototype stage; an Allied bombing raid destroyed the only Fa-269 mock up. Despite the setback, the Nazis were hoping to have the Fa-269 operational sometime in 1947.
Germany had made great progress with vertical flight even before the war. The aircraft firm Flettner had pioneered helicopter flight in the late 1930s and by 1942 the company’s small one-man Fl-282 Kolibri was already in use with the German military as a sort of flying pick-up truck. Later, it was evaluated in maritime reconnaissance roles. During the 1944 Ardennes Offensive, five improved two-seater Fl-282s were even armed and sent on an anti-armour sweep. During the mission, the copters took out two American tanks before the formation fell prey to a Spitfire. Although, two of the choppers were downed, three returned to base. It was the first helicopter attack in history. The Luftwaffe was so impressed it ordered 1,000 of the aircraft. Only 24 were produced before Allied bombers destroyed the factory.
Germany’s other production helicopter, the Focke-Achgelis Fa-223 Drache, was employed throughout the war hauling cargo and attempting mountaintop rescues. The Allies snapped up the 20 that were produced after the war and rigorously tested them.
Among the most ambitious of Germany’s wunderwaffe were its super tanks. While designs like the massive 90-ton Panzer VII Löwe (Lion), the 180-ton Panzer VIII Maus and the 140-ton Panzer E-100 would have dwarfed operational battlefield behemoths such as the 80-ton Tiger II, the Third Reich envisioned even more massive fighting machines. The proposed L1000, which would have been as tall as a four-story building, was more like a warship on treads than a tank. Armed with a 280 mm main gun as well as a supporting 128 mm cannon and eight anti-aircraft guns, the L1000, nicknamed Ratte (or rat), would have been virtually indestructible on the battlefield.
Amazingly, the machine was a relative lightweight when compared to the L1500, a hypothetical 1700-ton, 60-foot tall rolling fortress. This tank’s crew of 100 men would run the vehicle’s enormous engines, man its onboard anti-aircraft batteries and service the 800 mm Gustav Schwerer railroad gun and twin 150 mm cannons. Not surprisingly, few in Germany seriously considered manufacturing either of these Landkreuzers. The materials needed for their construction, not to mention the fuel that would have been required to run them, would likely have done more damage to the Axis war effort than they would have ever inflicted on the enemy.
Sci Fi Wunderwaffe
Germany’s super weapons weren’t just limited to the land, sea or air – some of the more forward-looking technology was space-based.
Consider the Silbervogle or silver bird, a sub-orbital rocket plane that was designed to soar into space and then ricochet across the Earth’s upper atmosphere like a skipping stone on the surface of a pond. After shooting skyward from a 3 km long launching rail, the dart-shaped aircraft would climb to an altitude of 145 km (90 miles) and then travel west at speeds approaching 5,000 km/h (3,100 mph). Once over North America, the plane would drop a single 8,000-lb free fall bomb onto the target area (most likely New York or Washington). The Silbervogle would then cross the continent and soar out over the Pacific where it would gradually descend and land in Japan, thus completing a 20,000 km (12,000 mile) flight.
Two German rocket scientists pitched the concept to the Luftwaffe in a massive 900-page proposal as early as 1941. The German military considered the plan more than just a little ‘far out’ and shelved the idea indefinitely.
An even more outlandish space weapon was envisioned by scientists at a Nazi research facility at Hillersleben in eastern Germany — one that would focus the sun’s rays into a beam that could lay waste to vast areas. According to a recent Daily Mail article, the weapon would have involved mile-wide concave mirrors in geo-synchronous orbits more than 8,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface. The giant discs could be pivoted on demand to reflect and concentrate light from the sun and then project it back down to the earth. The plans for the weapon were unearthed by U.S. forces in 1945 and even reported by Life magazine. Records showed that the Nazis hoped to have their “sun gun” ready for action sometime in the mid-1990s or early 21st Century.
See N.H. Mallett’s great site, Military History Now.