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.
Up to this point, the Me 321 had evolved to a level that was deemed adequate. While she required a laborious process to get her airborne, her internal storage space and hauling capabilities second to none concerning the Luftwaffe. Agility was poor as was range and her movements on the ground were not self-powered, requiring the use of vehicles to position her about. As a transport platform however, the speed detriment could be overlooked.
To help offset the tug issues discovered during the Ju 90 experiment, it was conceived that the Heinkel He 111Z "Zwilling" ("Twins") program would come into play as the Me 321's primary tug. The He 111Z was an interesting aircraft development that consisted of nothing more than the joining of two He 111 medium bombers at the main wing spar with an extra engine (for a total of five) between the two fuselages. This would serve to effectively double the inherent power of the former bomber and produce a capable transport for the Me 321. However, development of this program proved slow and the He 111Z would not become ready in time to serve those Me 321s coming to reach operational status.
This forced yet more research into possible solutions before the use of three Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters was trialled (known as "Troikaschlepp"). In the 3 x Bf 110 tug system, each Bf 110 airframe would be tethered to the Me 321 with the central aircraft was given the longer tether to clear it from the rest of the participants. This operation required much coordination between the Bf 110 crews and the Me 321 flight deck and several mishaps undoubtedly occurred, even during testing, but the method was feasible enough to become the final solution for the Me 321's take-off woes.
Production of serial Me 321 airframes ramped up in 1941 and 100 "Me 321 A-1" gliders were delivered to the Luftwaffe as the "Me 321A" beginning in May of that year. These were initially made airborne by the Junkers Ju 90 types but eventually gave way to the 3 x Bf 110 arrangement and, still later, the Heinkel He 111Z systems when they finally came online. Even while the initial Me 321 A-1s were already on the assembly lines, Messerschmitt took to refining the design to produce the "Me 321 B-1" production models of which another 100 were ultimately delivered. The new models sported a revised flight deck of greater size which allowed a second pilot to be added and assisted the flight controls, bringing the total flight crew to three personnel. Defense was made possible by four or five strategically-placed 7.92mm MG 15 series machine guns. Me 321 squadrons were soon formed and these stocked both Me 321 transports and their respective tug Bf 110 aircraft.
The Messerschmitt Me 321 B-1 measured a wingspan of 180 feet, 5 inches with an overall height of 33 feet, 4 inches. Her fuselage length was 92 feet, 4 inches and empty weight was listed at 27,300lbs. When full, she ballooned to nearly 76,000lbs - almost three times her stand-alone weight. Maximum speed was just 100 miles per hour and this degraded during glides of extended periods and based on atmospheric conditions.
First operations involving Me 321 gliders occurred along the Eastern Front against the Soviets. As the German offensive gained ground, it was evermore imperative to field much-needed equipment to the advancing forces. Me 321s could be used to deliver ammunition, supplies, vehicles, artillery and even "pack" animals for the hauling of towed artillery guns - the latter being required due to the muddy nature of the Soviet terrain in springtime, this terrain proving surprisingly prohibitive to German tracked vehicles. Operationally, German authorities were neither impressed nor disappointed with the early Me 321 results for the aircraft could deliver as advertised but, at the same time, she lacked tactical range and a self-supportive nature. As such, the situation remained that the Me 321 should eventually operate under its own power. Messerschmitt was sent back to work on a new powered Me 321 while the last of her powerless Me 321 gliders were delivered for service in early 1942. By that time, however, all Me 321s were pulled from the East Front in preparation for the invasion of the key strategic island of Malta in the Mediterranean. These Me 321s would have been towed by the He 111Z development but insufficient numbers of the latter forced warplanners to drop the Me 321 from such use. In November of 1942, Me 321 gliders were called into action to help resupply German ground forces in North Africa but the giants proved highly susceptible to British fighters. In all, some 200 total Me 321s (100 x Me 321A and 100 x Me 321B production models) were delivered with production spanning from June of 1941 to April of 1942.
Come 1943, further use of the Me 321s was anticipated with their return to the East Front. German forces were in the thick of their fight against the Soviet Army - which had begun to gain steam through a dogged ruggedness, favorable weather conditions (from a Soviet point of view) and newer weaponry. One such use was to be Me 321s resupplying surrounded German forces at Stalingrad however, without any viable airfields from which to land on, such resupply proved impossible for the complicated Me 321 operation. As such, the tenure of the Me 321 gliders came to an abrupt end for a new, self-powered version was then in the works - this to become the Me 323 "Gigant" of similar scope. Two Me 321 prototypes served as the basis for two distinct Me 323 prototypes that became the four-engined "Me 323 V1" and six-engined "Me 323 V2" - detailed elsewhere on this website. German authorities eventually settled on the latter for its inherent power.
Both versions of the Messerschmitt cargo carrier, the Me 321 and the upcoming Me 323, were nicknamed the "Gigant" ("Giant") for rather obvious reasons.
(Not all ordnance types may be represented in the showcase above)
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Me 321 A-1 - Initial production model; single pilot flight deck; 100 examples produced.
Me 321 B-2 - Second production model; revised flight deck for second pilot; armament of 4 OR 5 x 7.92mm machine guns; 100 examples produced.
Ribbon graphics not necessarily indicative of actual historical campaign ribbons. Ribbons are clickable to their respective aerial campaigns / operations / aviation periods.
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