What do German air transport operations have in common with Doctor Who’s TARDIS?
They’re both much bigger when you get to the inside.
I’ve been reading about Germany’s air transport operations in the Second World War. And it’s a bottomless pit. With every book you read, you need to read five more to appreciate what led to that point in history. It’s fair to say this is the case for everything, but for this case, having an appreciation for the airborne sustainment of Rommel’s Afrika Korps is a little more fulfilling if you’ve done some reading about the use of airlift in the Spanish Civil War.
In due course, I’m hoping to get around to posting a series of retrospectives on how Germany evolved the use of military airlift (or didn’t evolve – they made lots of mistakes). In the meantime, I’m going to spend five minutes shining a light on the Me-323 Gigant. Because, it’s the Gigant.
There’s plenty that you probably know about the Gigant already – like that it was born from adding engines to the earlier Me-321 glider, which itself had been built intended for the invasion of Britain. But did you know the Me-323 could carry an Me-262 fuselage underneath its wing (for what purpose, I’m still not sure). Or that a twin-fuselage Me-323 was constructed to carry a 17t bomb – which ultimately destroyed the carrier due to structural fatigue?
The bread and butter work of the Me-323 (and the -321 before it) was strategic airlift for the Luftwaffe, and indeed, this aircraft was the forebear to military strategic airlift as we know it today – clamshell cargo doors in the nose allowed easy loading of outsized battlefield equipment or supplies, much as an An-124 or C-5 Galaxy would do today. By its nature, the Me-321 glider combined this strategic airlift quality with the tactical ability of delivering its payload to a frontline (albeit it could only do it once).
The first flight of the Me-321 glider occurred in February 1941, and you can watch a video of it here. Its designers originally conceived that a powered version could be created, but that vision did not take flight until April 1942. That’s 14 months without a powered Me-321 in service, learning the hard way of why tow-aircraft like this and this were an inadequate means of getting the Me-321 aloft. While gliders were a successful and cheap means of striking enemy targets during advances on the enemy front, they were a poor option for strategic sustainment that the Germans required by that point of the war. Though quick to become a reality, the Me-321 was never going to meet a deadline for an invasion of England. It boggles the mind why they pursued the glider path so hard for so long.
Eventually, six engines were added and the Me-323 took form, but it remained an otherwise modest design. It was built from steel tubes and fabric, but its cargo floor was reinforced, allowing it to carry up to 12 tonnes of payload (including armoured vehicles). The planform of the cargo hold was based on that of a railroad flatcar – Willy Messerschmitt took the admirable direction of building an aircraft around its primary role, which tends to be the first step towards a good transport. Two pilots operated the aircraft (original Me-321 gliders flew with just one – and the controls were unpowered). They were joined by two flight engineers and a radio operator. As the war went on, further modifications were made to increase the number of machine guns it could carry, to improve its self defence.
That’s effectively where the Gigant’s strengths ended. It was hardly a robust design, and therefore a heavy landing could destroy the airframe. It was underpowered, meaning it had to fly low and slow when loaded at maximum weights, leading to considerable risk of crash if it suffered an engine failure or encountered poor weather. And it was vulnerable. The Me-323’s tubular steel design meant it could absorb punishment to the point of something important being hit.
It’s fair to say that air supremacy is a key ingredient for successful airlift operations. The Luftwaffe did not always have this, and the Gigant lacked the performance to employ any tactics that would allow it to escape attack (short of flying in darkness). With only ~200 Me-323s produced, it’s difficult to gauge their strategic impact on the war – at least not until I’ve done some more reading.
No doubt their capability was felt by German Commanders, especially given its ability to deliver payloads of men, armoured vehicles and supplies en masse. Furthermore, a single Gigant could medivac far more patients from the frontline than the Tante Ju, relieving field hospitals on the frontline of the burden of treating many wounded. Conversely, losing a single Gigant (and its payload) was a loss hard felt. On 22 April 1943, a flight of 14 Me-323s carrying 700 drums of fuel across the Mediterranean were picked off by Allied Spitfires and P-40s. That’s a lot of empty fuel tanks on the frontline.
I have my doubts that the Gigant changed the course of the war – but over its two-year career, it proves a very interesting case study of some things the Luftwaffe got right when it came to air transport, and a lot of what it got wrong. It reflects a lot of what we are familiar with in air transports today, but it’s debatable whether the Gigant was the inspiration behind them. The last Gigant was cut down in 1944, the same year that another strategic transport took flight in the United States, which helped pave the way that post-war military airlift would evolve.
Special Thanks to UK Mobile Air Movements Squadron Website for some of the imagery for this post. No, they didn’t load Gigants. But they did load some very cool stuff indeed.
UPDATE 4 May 2013: I know, I didn’t mention the contribution of other German strategic transports like the Ju-90, FW200, et al. And don’t get me started on flying boats. They’ll come in time.