Messerschmitt Me 321 Gigant (Giant) Heavy Cargo Glider Aircraft
The German Messerschmitt Me 321 glider of World War 2 was neither a success nor a failure.
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The Messerschmitt Me 321 "Gigant" ("Giant") was developed as a large cargo hauler to help supplement German airborne troop actions for the inevitable invasion of Britain following the Fall of France in May-June of 1940. The type was a large and ponderous beast that relied on the propulsion of "tug" aircraft to get her airborne, ultimately landing under her own power. The design attempted to fulfill a rather optimistic concept and was neither a failure nor a success in terms of its accomplishments during the war. Regardless, it was rationalized that a self-powered form would be more ideal and the Me 321 gave way to the similar (though six-engined) Me 323
detailed elsewhere on this site.
Following the Fall of France, Adolf Hitler set his eyes on the island nation of Britain across the English Channel - thus giving rise to the "Battle of Britain"
in the summer of 1940. As history would go on record, the steadfast determination of the British people saved the nation from Hitler's proposed land invasion through "Operation Sealion" which was eventually shelved indefinitely. Should the land invasion had ever been set into motion, it was decreed that the operation would have been typically German - necessitating the use of thousands of airborne elements to lay down the initial groundwork for the land battles to follow - and these forces would need to be resupplied by air in large quantities should the operation succeed according to plan. However, in October of 1940, the German Luftwaffe was held at bay by the RAF and Royal Navy and Hitler postponed his invasion - the Battle of Britain marking the German Luftwaffe's first true failure in the European campaign. Regardless, German authorities were not blind to their logistical deficiencies and put forth a specific requirement for a such a large airborne glider transport. The approach consisted of using large towed gliders capable of moving both men and tanks into operational theaters.
Hitler perceived the British islands, and therefore British involvement, to be contained across the North Sea and turned his attention to his recent ally - the Soviet Union to the east. He ordered the invasion of the country through "Operation Barbarossa", commencing on June 22nd, 1941, which put an end to whatever loose alliance had existed between the two parties just a few short years before. Initially, progress was exemplary for the German Army but weather and supplies ultimately dogged its progress, creating a miraculous turn of fortunes in the theater.
Operation Barbarossa also served to point out the still-existing need for a large aerial transport and a new specification was delivered that eventually involved the Messerschmitt and Junkers aviation concerns. Up to now, the largest air transport platform available to the German Army had been the tri-engined Junkers Ju 52 but this system was not up to the task which now required the moving of large field guns, halftracks and tanks. Each of the firms was given two weeks to come up with a powerless glider design proposal and each would also have to procure the required construction materials for serial production. The program formally fell under the collective name of "Projekt Warschau" ("Project Warsaw"). At the outset, it was agreed upon that the German government would purchase up to 100 of the new aircraft type from either company depending on the outcome of the ensuing evaluations - though this total grew to 200 before time.
Messerschmitt outputted their Me 321 "Gigant" concept (initially known as the Me 263) whilst Junkers delivered their Ju 322 "Mammut" - both large powerless gliders requiring "tug" aircraft to get airborne. The option to secure a glider was nothing more than economical with critical production of aircraft engines being allocated fighters and bombers. Prototypes were then constructed and evaluated to which the all-wood Ju 322 "Mammut" exhibited terrible handling and formally dropped from contention. This left the defense contract to Messerschmitt and their mixed construction Me 321 - a large, gangly aircraft with huge, large-area, shoulder-mounted wings, a deep fuselage and high flight deck. Internally she was constructed of steel tubes for a stronger support structure and wooden wings covered over in fabric to save on valuable weight. Interestingly for an aircraft of this size, she would be crewed by only one pilot. The aircraft was estimated to carry over 100 combat-ready personnel, a medium-sized armored vehicle or up to 44,000lbs of equipment. Additionally, the cargo hold (accessed by a front-mounted, two-door, clam-shell assembly) could be modified to carry medical litters of wounded and their applicable medical personnel. At the time of her design, the Me 321 represented the world's second largest aircraft - no small feat to say the least - and the concept was completed in just weeks under wartime conditions and its inherent limitations.
The Me 321 prototype first flew on February 25th, 1941 and, as a glider, she maintained no inherent propulsion qualities of her own so a Junkers Ju 90 four-engine transport was used as her "tug". The Ju 90 was just barely able to get the Me 321 airborne so another solution would soon have to be developed. Initial impressions deemed the aircraft heavy at the controls and such was the weight of the massive Me 321 that she was to be fitted with no fewer than 8 x hydrogen peroxide-fueled thruster rockets each delivering over 1,100lbs of thrust for 30 seconds. The Germans would prove ahead of the curve when it came to rocket and, later, turbojet technologies during the war and this served as one of its earlier, more effective, uses. The Me 321 was also fitted with a multi-wheeled dolly undercarriage that was jettisoned shortly after take-off. The Me 321 would then glide back to ground, landing on skids braced by large absorption springs. This landing method was to be featured in the upcoming Messerschmitt Me 163 "Komet" rocket-powered fighter