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Wunderwaffe: Nazi Germany’s “Miracle Weapons”

Nothing stimulates invention like a good war. 

It’s a statement that’s uttered so frequently it’s become a cliche.

But here’s the thing – it’s true. 

Man’s desire to dominate and kill does lead to huge advancements in weaponry, but also in areas like engineering, aviation and communications that often have far-reaching civilian applications. 

In many respects Germany was well ahead of the Allies in rocketry, jet engine development, tank design and artillery, and they sought to capitalize on these strengths by making weapons bigger, faster and more powerful.

During the Second World War the Nazis developed a number of “Wonder Weapons” designed to turn the tide by delivering overwhelming firepower and superior performance, and in some instances by instilling sheer dread in both enemy forces and non-combatants far behind the front lines. 

But as we’ll see, many of them required such massive investments of time and money that they may actually have been more trouble than they were worth. 

V2

During the Second World War German rocket technology was much more advanced than that of the Allies.  

Though the V1 and V2s are the most notable rockets that saw service, they were the culmination of long development programs aimed at perfecting high-performance, unmanned aerial weapons capable of devastating cities and fortifications hundreds of miles away.

Conventional weapons of the day were scary enough, but these new “Wunderwaffe,” or Wonder Weapons also instilled dread in civilian populations like never before.   

In 1941 development began for the V1 flying bomb, commonly called “Buzz Bombs” or “Doodlebugs” by the Allies. 

At nearly 30-feet-long and packing an impressive 1,800 pound explosive charge, V1s spearheaded a terror campaign against southern England that began in June 1943 and often included more than 100 individual attacks per day. 

Relying on simple yet powerful pulse-jet motors that intermittently gulped air, the rockets emitted an eerie buzzing sound after which they were named. 

V1s could travel nearly 150 miles, but their top speed of less than 400 mph was a major drawback.  

It made them susceptible to ground fire and Spitfires, the latter of which could shoot them down or fly alongside and nudge their wingtips sending them tumbling to the ground. 

What Germany needed was a larger, faster and more formidable weapon, one they got with the V2 – the brainchild of rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun.

Although development began before the war, the first production V2 wasn’t launched until late 1942. 

At nearly 46-feet (14m) tall, weighing 27,000 pounds (12,500 kg), and with a diameter of 5.5 feet,(1.6 m) it was much larger than its predecessor. 

The payload was about the same, but range was 25% greater, and with a top speed of nearly 3,600 mph, performance was off the charts, thanks to an ethanol and liquid oxygen burning rocket motor capable of blasting out 60,000 pounds of thrust, or about 25% more than both engines on an F-15 combined. 

V2s were developed and built in Peenemünde until 1943 when an RAF air raid destroyed much of the facility, after which production was moved to a factory inside a mountain near Nordhausen that employed thousands of concentration camp laborers.  

Beginning in September of 1944, the Germans sent thousands of V2s tearing through the sky at targets in France, Belgium and England, but despite their cutting edge gyroscopic guidance systems, targeting was spotty at best. 

In total more than 5,000 V2s were built, and estimates suggest they took the lives of nearly 10,000 people during the war – almost 3,000 in England alone. 

After the war, countless examples were whisked to the United States and the Soviet Union for testing, as were the engineers and scientists who developed them. 

Von Braun was taken to the United States where he headed a number of military and space programs until his death in 1977.

Anzio Annie and Anzio Express

anzio annie K5
Photograph of railway gun “Anzio Annie” at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

During World War I German arms manufacturer Krupp developed the world’s largest artillery pieces like the famed “Big Berthas” – 420mm (16.5 inch) monstrosities capable of launching 1,800 pound shells nearly 6 miles. 

Though their range wasn’t stellar, the projectiles could easily penetrate even the most formidable reinforced concrete fortifications, but with a weight approaching 50 tons and a crew of more than 200, they were costly, unwieldy, and subject to return artillery fire and ground attack.   

Krupp also built the railroad-bound Paris Gun which was even larger. 

With a barrel measuring 100+ feet, it fired 240 mm shells up to 75 miles, yet when World War II broke out the Germans took supersized artillery to a whole new level. 

Referred to as “Anzio Annie” and “Anzio Express” by the Allies and simply Robert and Leopold by the Germans, the two 11-inch (283 mm) K5 railroad guns were most well-known for pulverizing Allied troops and equipment trapped on the Anzio beachhead in the first few months of 1944, though they also shelled southern England from positions from across the English Channel. 

One of Krupp’s K5 series’ huge drawbacks however, was that lateral traverse was limited to just a few degrees, which meant that the railroad tracks on which the gun carriage rested had to be pointed in the direction of the target. 

If that wasn’t possible, a cumbersome cross track apparatus could be erected that would permit the railcar’s front bogeys to roll from side to side allowing for a 360 degree field of fire. 

Nonetheless, despite its limitations, the guns proved deadly effective using a number of different ammunition types weighing between 500 and 600 pounds, of which nearly 100 pounds was TNT. 

With muzzle velocities greater than 3,600 feet per second ( 1,120 m/s), accuracy was improved by adding rifling to the projectiles that matched that inside the barrel. 

Prior to firing, the two threads were carefully aligned, ensuring the proper spin to keep the shell on course.  

There was also a rocket-assisted variant which featured a motor that ignited seconds after firing and burned for about 20 seconds – just enough time to propel the shell into the stratosphere, after which it fell away leaving the projectile to descend toward its target. 

These rounds had ranges in excess of 50 miles (85 km), but carried smaller explosive charges due to the added weight of the rocket motor itself. 

Impressive specs aside, with a weight of more than 200 tons and a rate of fire of only 15 rounds per hour, it’s generally agreed that the Krupp K5 guns, like many of Germany’s most colossal weapons systems, were huge drains on materials and manpower that could’ve been put to better use elsewhere. 

But be that as it may, Krupp actually built another super cannon called the V3 or “London Gun,” because it was designed to shell the island nation’s capital from nearly 100 miles away. 

Though smaller caliber than the K5, the V3 achieved its phenomenal range through the use of shells equipped with multi-stage rocket boosters. 

Construction began in late 1943, but by 1944 British Intelligence had gotten wind of its secret underground location in northern France, and Lancaster bombers obliterated the facility with 6-ton deep penetration bombs known as “Tallboys.”

Panzer VIII Maus

The Maus hybrid V1/V2 prototype at the Kubinka Tank Museum, Russia (2009).

Nazi tank and artillery design during the war generally operated on the premise that bigger was usually better. 

Though his upper echelon generals often disagreed with this philosophy, Hitler’s quest for ever-larger war machines fueled an unprecedented drive toward massive armored vehicles like the nearly 70-ton “Elefant” tank destroyer, and the 70+-ton King Tiger.

But compared to the Panzer VIII “Maus” they were both relative lightweights. 

Development for the Maus began in the mid-war years when the Wehrmacht saw the need for an unstoppable “breakthrough” tank protected by so much armor that it’d be nearly impervious to enemy fire. 

A full-size wooden mockup of the would-be tank was presented to the Fuhrer in May of 1943, and by the end of the year a number of competing prototypes had been submitted by various companies, and shortly thereafter they entered testing. 

The design that ultimately won out was from Ferdinand Porsche, and it weighed a whopping 188 tons.

To put that into perspective, the American Sherman weighed about 40. 

The final Maus prototype was 33 feet long (10.2 m), 12 feet wide (3.7 m), and stood nearly 12 feet high (3.6 m) at the crest of its turret, and was manned by a crew of 6 including a commander, gunner, 2 loaders, driver and radio operator. 

The revolutionary tank featured an electromechanical transmission and armor that ranged from 6 inches thick on the sides to nearly 9 at the front, and almost 10 at the gun mantlet. 

It was powered with a 12-cylinder Daimler-Benz diesel engine that produced more than 1,200 horsepower, though maximum speed on level ground was an agonizing 12 mph.

But despite carrying more than 1,100 gallons (4,200 liters) of fuel between internal and external tanks, the Maus could only travel between 40 and 100 miles before needing to refuel, and breakdowns were common. 

But with its unparalleled Krupp 128 mm main gun, it could destroy any Allied tank from ranges in excess of 3,000 yards.

By comparison, the low-velocity 75 mm guns on American Shermans and British Cromwells had little chance of penetrating the Maus’ armor even inside100 yards.  

Though 10 were scheduled to be built, the project was cancelled due to scarce materials and limited production capabilities, and of the two prototypes that were, neither saw action. 

As the Red Army drew closer to Berlin in the waning stages of the war, orders were sent to destroy both. 

The first was damaged beyond repair, but the other was captured by the Soviets and taken away for testing.   

Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet

Taking the fight to the Fatherland was a priority for the Allies during the war, and the bombing of German cities began in mid-1940. 

In the beginning Allied fighters didn’t have the range to escort the lumbering bombers to and from their targets, hence, losses from FW-190s and Me 109s were high.

But later on with the arrival of Rolls-Royce Merlin powered P-51 Mustangs, the tide began to turn. 

The Nazis desperately needed a way to decimate the huge formations of B-17s and Lancasters that relentlessly pounded their industrial centers, oil refineries, and metropolitan areas day and night. 

What they needed was a Wunderwaffen that would climb higher, fly faster, and pack a more deadly punch than the new escorts.

Something like the rocket powered Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet interceptor. 

Though it made its debut in the early ‘40s, the Komet had been on the drawing board since the ‘30s when Luftwaffe brass became interested in rocket aircraft.  

The first prototype’s motor produced less than 1,000 pounds of thrust, but later versions received upgrades that increased output to more than 3,000 through the use of two fuel components called C-Stoff and T-Stoff that reacted violently when mixed.

The single-seat aircraft was more than 18 feet (5.7 m) long, had swept wings that measured 30 feet (9.3 m) from tip to tip, and had a maximum takeoff weight of just less than 10,000 pounds (4,300 kg).

And to save weight and space, it featured a detachable trolley landing gear that was jettisoned after takeoff. 

The Me 163 B had two 30 mm cannons with 60 rounds each, and was capable of climbing to nearly 40,000 feet (12,100 m) in just 3 ½ minutes. 

On the downside, its fuel ran out in about 8 minutes, which gave it just enough time to make a few passes through bomber formations before gliding back to earth. 

Komet units first intercepted Allied bombers in August of ‘44, but it became apparent early on that their limited range, high speed, and slow rate of fire made for depressingly ineffective weapons. 

In addition, American and British pilots began engaging them only after their fuel had run out because they were totally defenseless during their unpowered descents. 

Though the Komet’s limited fuel and flying time were its greatest Achilles’ heels, making high speed skid landings directly on its hardened fuselage often caused damage and fire, and frequently resulted in serious back injuries for pilots as well. 

Total production was nearly 400 units, but with only 9 confirmed kills, it was another colossal blunder.   

Tirpitz

Measuring 823 feet (251 m) from stem to stern, nearly 120 feet (36 m) from side to side, and displacing more than 50,000 tons when decked out for battle, the Tirpitz was a full 2,000 tons heavier than her more well-known sister ship Bismarck. 

The leviathan was named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the guiding force behind German’s Imperial Navy in the pre-World War I years, and though construction began at a shipyard in Wilhelmshaven in November 1936, she wouldn’t enter service until early in 1941. 

Combined, her boilers and steam turbines cranked out more than 160,000 shaft horsepower driven through three propellers, which was enough to propel the ship to about 30 knots, making her significantly faster than similar Allied vessels.  

Tirpitz was fitted with a main battery of eight-15 inch guns spread over four turrets, which were among the largest naval artillery weapons ever built. 

Each was capable of launching shells ranging from 1,100 to 1,800 pounds between 22 and 34 miles (35 and 55 km) respectively.

Her armor varied from just a few inches thick on the upper decks, to nearly 14 at the waterline and on the turrets, and she bristled with smaller caliber artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and torpedoes which were added shortly after she entered service. 

When fully fueled, the ship had a range of nearly 9,000 nautical miles and carried a complement of more than 2,000 enlisted sailors and more than 100 officers. 

Tirpitz’ primary role was to stop the flow of war material that was being sent from America and Britain to the Soviets through northern ports like Murmansk. 

The tanks, trucks, airplanes and ammunition were prolonging the two-front war, and Hitler thought it likely that Tirpitz’ menacing presence in the North Atlantic would make it necessary for the Allies to postpone their imminent attack on Nazi occupied Norway. 

And he was right – Churchill saw the monster ship as a huge threat to vital supply lines and England’s supposed naval dominance.

But though Tirpitz was responsible for actions against shipping and coastal fortifications, she spent much of her time hiding in remote Norwegian fjords, largely due to fuel shortages that prevented her from carrying out her mission. 

In a dramatic game of cat and mouse played out between the German Navy and British Intelligence and the RAF, the ship was constantly moved from fjord to fjord, and the crew even resorted to camouflaging her with dead trees, massive nets, and artificial fog banks created by mixing water and sulfuric acid. 

The first RAF attack on Tirpitz took place in early 1942, but damage was minimal, and attacks continued into the following year.  

In fact air attacks featuring dozens of bombers and fighter escorts were so common and unsuccessful, that it appeared as though aircraft may not be able to get the job done.

So in September of 1943 tiny British submersibles discreetly dove below anti-sub barriers in a fjord where the ship had taken refuge, and crew members planted explosives on the ship’s hull. 

Though the daring plan worked, the damage wasn’t catastrophic, and Tirpitz was fully repaired within a few months.

It wouldn’t be until mid-1944, after months of missions against her, that harried RAF pilots in Lancasters flying from bases in Scotland would finally succeed scoring direct hits in sinking the mighty vessel, taking the lives of nearly 1,000 sailors and officers.  

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