In preparation for the invasion of Great Britain, Nazi Germany developed the Me 321, a massive glider that could carry some 200 troops. As the invasion never came, the aircraft was refined and became the Me 323 Gigant, a transport that was one of the largest World War II aircraft. However, it was slow and made easy prey for fighters
The aircraft had its origins in the plan to invade the UK, following the fall of France in the spring of 1940. The English Channel was the only serious obstacle to an invasion – as the German military lacked the sea-based transports and thus Messerschmitt and Junkers were called upon to develop a glider. With just fourteen days to design an aircraft, Messerschmitt devised the Me 321. It had cargo capacity to hold 3,814 cubic feet yet was just thirty-six feet, one inch in length.
While most transport aircraft could hold only twenty troops, the Gigant – as it was soon dubbed – could seat 120 soldiers, three or four abreast on two decks. A problem with the aircraft’s size and weight was that there was no suitable glider tug, so it was equipped with six engines.
The Me 323 was slow and sluggish, and it wasn’t easy to fly. Pilots had to climb up to the cockpit, which was as high as third-story window.
Servicing the aircraft was also a challenge, as its six engines were nearly sixteen and a half feet off the ground, so special work vehicles had to be developed to allow for maintenance access. Those were also only located where the Gigants were based, presenting other logistics problems. Fully loaded, the Me 323 Gigant also required rocket boosters to get airborne.
Despite its issues, the aircraft was good at what it was designed to do, namely move men and material. Though it may have looked fragile, with its steel tube and canvas construction, it was a rugged aircraft that was able to carry some of the heaviest payloads of the war.
It was also able to operate from icy runways on the Eastern Front and could as easily accommodate the desert heat. One Me 323 evacuated 220 soldiers from North Africa to Italy, with 140 located in the cargo compartment and eighty more inside the wings! As a weapons carrier, the Me 323 could carry eleven automatic cannon and a crew of seventeen men.
The low bed of the cargo hold, and the then novel feature of clamshell nose doors, allowed vehicles to be rolled directly into the capacious cargo hold. Men and equipment could be effectively loaded and unloaded, and its clamshell nose has been copied many times since the 1940s.
Production of the Gigant ended in April 1944, after a total of 213 had been built. No complete Me 323 survives, but the Luftwaffenmuseum der Bundeswehr (Air Force Museum of the German Federal Armed Forces) in Berlin has a Me 323 main wing spar in its collection. In addition, a wreck that was shot down in July 1943 was discovered by divers in the sea near La Maddalena, an island near Sardinia. To date, there have been no attempts to salvage the aircraft – but it would make for an impressive display.
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.