As huge armies faced up to each other across Europe, they brought a plague of tanks, guns, aircraft, bombs and bullets to contest military superiority. However, behind the front lines, another equally vital war was taking place – the war for technical superiority. While at times both sides saw great success with game-changing weaponry, there were other occasions where they remained some distance wide of the mark. Here’s a review of some of World War Two’s weirdest weapons.
Ships Made of Water
Named ‘Project Habakkuk’ after a biblical quotation from the Book of Habakkuk, these ships were intended to solve the issue of the short supply of steel and aluminium for aircraft carriers.
Pykrete is a stronger-than-ice concoction of 86% water and 14% wood pulp, and the plan was to build vast floating platforms for Allied planes to take-off and land from. Geoffrey Pyke was one of Lord Mountbatten’s scientific advisers, and he proposed massive vessels of up to 4,000ft (1,219m) long, 600ft (183m) wide and 130ft (40m) depth.
As you can imagine, it ran into production, technical and supply issues, notwithstanding the spiralling costs of the prototype. The main issue the designers and technicians tried in vain to get over was ‘plastic flow’. To you and everyone else, the ship melted. It started to sag because no-one could figure out how to keep the ship cold enough (a steady 3°C was required) and they tried to reinforce it using ten thousand tonnes of steel – the exact material that was in scarce supply in the first place.
After a year of designs, redesigns and more redesigns, the project was scrapped and the ship sunk to the bottom of Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada where the prototype was being built.
Fearing a coastal Allied invasion, Hitler had the bright idea to build a fortified wall along the coast from France’s south-western border with Spain, all the way up the coast of northern France, the Netherlands and Germany and up the west coast of Norway. It was called the Atlantic Wall. A million French workers were ‘drafted’ in to build it.
It turned out that it was largely unsuccessful and was breached within hours of the Allied landing on the Normandy beaches, but not before the brains at the brilliantly-named Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development at the Admiralty (better known internally by the moniker Wheezers & Dodgers) came up with the Great Panjandrum.
It was, in essence, a giant Catherine Wheel, similar in shape and operation to the ones you nail to your fence on Bonfire Night. These wheels were 10ft (3m) high, connected by a drum which carried 4,000lb of explosives. Attached to the rims of the wheels to be used as propellant were rockets that were supposed to drive the weapon forward at 60mph (96km/h), smashing through the wall – as well as everything else in its way.
In practice, rockets failed with staggering regularity. And when some went off and others didn’t, it steered the weapon wildly off course. To fix the problem, weapons engineers did what weapons engineers do: they attached more rockets to it. It veered even more wildly off course, and in its last test run a documentary crew almost lost a filmmaker. Looking through a telescopic lens, he misjudged the distance between him and it, almost coming face to face with the killer firework.
Unsurprisingly, the Great Panjandrum was put out to stud before it could do any more damage.
The Power of Bats
Suicide bats may sound like an utterly bizarre concept straight out of a gruesome comic book but, for American dentist Lytle Adams, it was the answer to the Allied prayers of victory in the Second World War. He somehow managed to convince the US high command that strapping bomb belts to bats and then dropping them over Axis strongholds would be an effective weapon.
Roosevelt signed off on the project and by 1943 the Army had managed to get hold of thousands of Mexican free-tail bats. At the same time, the inventor of a militarily-effective form of napalm Louis Fieser designed the minuscule bomb packs. The plan was to parachute stacked trays of the bats over Japanese industrial cities just before dawn, and then wait for them to wedge themselves into the eaves of the buildings – most of which at that time were still made of wood. As they slept by day, a timer would detonate, exploding the poor bats and burning Osaka Bay’s industrial complexes to the ground.
However, it didn’t quite go to plan. On one test mission at a military facility in New Mexico, the bats set up home under a warm fuel tank and promptly blew up the base. The Army were getting increasingly frustrated, and handed over the hot potato to the Navy . They immediately gifted it to the Marines who, to their credit, ran a successful test at a mock Japanese town built in the Utah desert.
However, the project never took off, and unsurprisingly other American military projects – such as the Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb – took priority.
When Japanese meteorologists were mapping weather systems using high-altitude balloons, they noticed an air current that travelled west to east over the Pacific Ocean at an altitude of around 30,000ft. Armed with that knowledge, they thought they could use what we now know as the Jet Stream to launch what many experts consider to be the first – albeit rather crude – intercontinental ballistic weapon.
The idea was to make balloons 33ft (10m) in diameter from mulberry paper, glue them together with a form of potato flour, fill them with hydrogen, and add a 33lb anti-personnel fragmentation device connected to a 64ft-long fuse intended to burn for 82 minutes. They would then float them 5,000 miles (8,000km) across the north Pacific to the immense wooded areas of the Pacific Northwest United States.
The Japanese figured that if they could start colossal and uncontrollable forest fires over huge swathes of Oregon, Washington and the like, US manpower would be diverted from the war effort in the Pacific theatre.
Unlike gunfire, ‘fūsen bakudan’ or ‘fu-go’ (‘balloon bombs’ or ‘windship weapons’) weren’t very accurate. Atmospheric uncertainty was a major factor, and despite lofty ideas it seemed like the plan was essentially to ‘chuck a load up in the air and see what happens’. The Japanese launched 9,000 balloons starting in November 1944, with experts predicting that they took between 30 and 60 hours to make the trip. Estimates suggest that around 1,000 made it to the west coast of the US but only 284 were documented as either sighted or found.
Instead of wreaking havoc and distracting US forces and service personnel from their primary aim of winning the war, they were an unmitigated disaster. On May 5 1945, pregnant Elsie Mitchell, the wife of a local pastor, and five children were killed as they tried to drag one of the landed balloons to their camp in the woods in Bly, Oregon. These unfortunate six turned out to be the only enemy-inflicted casualties on the US mainland during the entirety of the Second World War.
Only certain weapons work in certain situations. Guns work in close-quarters combat; bombs work if they’re dropped from planes over enemy targets; and torpedoes work if they’re fired out of submarines into the hulls of ships. Very few military experts would consider excrement to be very effective against an enemy, but the Americans decided to give it a try.
Nicknamed ‘Who Me?’, the American Office of Strategic Services developed what was essentially a chemical weapon with a horrific smell of faecal matter. It was described by a cognitive psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia as ‘the worst garbage dumpster left in the street for a long time in the middle of the hottest summer ever’.
The concentrated liquid was to be supplied in pocket atomisers, similar in style and size to small handbag perfume bottles, to the French Resistance who were battling the German officers. The idea was that the French would spray the Germans with the foul stench – not to hurt them – but to royally embarrass them and discourage, demoralise and unsettle the Nazis into submission.
A nice idea in theory, but the Americans didn’t factor in the effects of wind and the fact that the miniscule molecules of stink didn’t always go in precisely the direction they were supposed to. More often than not, the disgusting spray would end up all over the sprayer. There isn’t one report of a successful Who Me? attack and the project was disbanded after a fortnight.
Don’t forget to tune in to Discovery Channel on Friday 22nd May for the premiere of Churchill’s Toyshop, which explores the secretive and strange arms race between Britain and the Nazis during WW2. Convinced that the path to victory lay in out-gunning the Nazis, but faced with limited resources, British weapon manufacturers were forced to improvise. To combat the problem, Winston Churchill himself set up a secret clandestine research institute, dedicated to coming up with super weapons that would give troops the edge in battle. He christened the department Military Defence 1, but it quickly becomes known as Churchill’s Toyshop.
Using rare archive and interviews, the one-off special tells the story of the department and some of the most fantastic and improbable weapons ever created. With the help of modern experts and contemporary blueprints, the series also recreates some of the lost technology.