No sooner had the Messerschmitt Me 321 unpowered glider entered service that a powered version was being requested by the German Luftwaffe. Messerschmitt responded with two distinct prototype forms, both based on the earlier Me 321 glider prototype. The new aircraft was assigned the designation of "Me 323" and the first prototype - the Me 323 V1 - was fitted with four French Gnome-Rhone GR14N radial piston engines of 990 horsepower each along her wing leading edges. The second prototype - the Me 323 V2 - was given six such Gnome-Rhone engines. The use of six engines (as well as rocket-assisted take-offs - known today as "RATO") in the latter prototype meant that the Me 323 would no longer require the use of tug aircraft to get airborne. The Me 323 V1, on the other hand, still required use of a tug plane or, in the case of the dangerous "Troikaschlepp" arrangement, 3 x tethered Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters. As such, German authorities selected for the Me 323 V2 for serial production and netted ten pre-production forms under the designation of Me 323 D-1. The Me 323 "Gigant" was formally introduced for service in 1943 with some earlier forms being conversions of existing Me 321 gliders and some even fitting two-bladed propellers over the more conventional three. Production spanned from 1942 to 1944 to which some 200 or so were produced.
Messerschmitt Me 323 Walk-Around
The lines of the Me 323 followed closely to that of the preceding Me 321 glider, the key identifiable feature being its use of six engines, three to a wing, for its own propulsion. To not tax the German need for viable aircraft engines to arm their fighters and bombers, the selection of a French-made powerplant made sense in the production process as these French facilities were now under German control. The type still exhibited a slow and ponderous nature but her wheeled landing system was now fixed (the Me 321 made use of a jettisonable wheeled dolly and landed on skids), her defensive armament was further addressed and her internal carrying capacity remained larger than what was offered through the older Junkers Ju 52 three-engined workhorse. She could haul over 100 soldiers, a tank, armored vehicle, large caliber field gun or medical patients with support staff as needed. Construction remained as on the Me 321 before it - steel tubing along the fuselage and wood covered over in fabric along the wings - the latter to save on weight. Defensive armament consisted of 5 x 7.92mm machine guns and the aircraft operated by two personnel, specialists and gunners. The Me 323 was still a large and heavy airframe and lacked any sort of defensive agility which eventually made her fodder to Allied guns.
The Changing German Situation in Africa
By this time in the war, German General Erwin Rommel faced an ever-changing situation against British and Commonwealth forces in North Africa. His supply lines ran down through the Mediterranean from Italy, across nearby Malta and ended at Tunisian ports. However, the British still maintained control of Malta and targeted the German convoys at any chance - at times resulting in only one of every four vessels making it to Tunisia. Despite a massive Luftwaffe bombing campaign, Malta would eventually claim to never have fallen under Hitler's sphere of influence throughout all of World War 2.
The Me 323 in Action
With the situation in North Africa needing attention, it was thought to utilize the Me 323 to resupply Rommel's forces where the convoys were failing. In November of 1942, the first Me 323s were being used for exactly that. Unfortunately, as with the Me 321 gliders before it, the slow Me 323 proved no match for British fighter patrols even when fielded with capable fighter escort protection themselves. An inherent advantage to the Me 323 was its ability to withstand a great deal of punishment from machine gun fire thanks to its large wooden structure - only the engines, cockpit and fuel stores were large critical areas that could render the aircraft uncontrollable. However, the lack of agility for the Me 323 meant that the pilot could not enact some sort of helpful defensive maneuver to avoid enemy attack. The onboard defensive machine guns and (later) cannon certainly helped to keep enemy fighters at bay but their reach was only so far. Defensive armament was continually addressed in future marks (to include heavier caliber machine guns and cannons) but this did little to stave off elimination of many Me 323s attempting the run across Mediterranean skies. Losses for the Me 323s in the Mediterranean Theater mounted and ultimately forced its withdrawal to the Eastern Front within time in support of the German Army against the Soviets. Africa was eventually lost to the Allies and the stage was set for the Allied invasions of Italy and France in the near future.
Me 323 Production
Sources vary as to the exact number of completed Me 323s for the inclusion of former Me 321 gliders converted to serve as powered Me 323 transports tends to muddle the numbers. Regardless, at least 200 of the type were in service at one time or another though, interestingly, not a single example survived the war intact.
Me 323 Production Marks
The initial production model was the Me 323 D-1 which fitted 6 x Gnome-Rhone 14N series radial engines. The Me 323 E-1 was the follow-up to the series that introduced 2 x armed HDL 151 series turrets (each mounting 20mm MG 151/20 cannon) into the upper wing surfaces for improved defensive capabilities. The Me 323 E-2 came online next but its turrets were now EDL 151 models that sported low-drag designs for better aerodynamics and 6 x Junkers Jumo 21 1R engines were fitted. The Me 323 E-2WT fitted an additional turret in the front of the aircraft fuselage to further help improve the defensive network.
Me 323 Prototypes and Proposals
Beyond the production models, the Me 323 was trialed as several prototype forms. This included the Me 323 V-13 with its 6 x Gnome-Rhone 14N 48/49 series engines (basis of the Me 323 E series production model), the Me 323 V-14 with its 6 x Junkers Jumo 211F series engines, the Me 323 V-16 with its 6 x Junkers Jumo 211R engines and the Me 323Z "Zwilling" ("Twins") heavy transport/heavy bomber proposal which fitted two Me 323 fuselages against a central wing appendage - similar in scope to the Heinkel He 111Z "Zwilling" development detailed elsewhere on this site. A single Me 323Z prototype was completed but lost to accident in July of 1944.