My Tank is Flight
I receive at least one email a week asking me to write another article about the unusual inventions of the Second World War. I have been intent on continuing the series for months but keep getting sidetracked by one thing or another and kept putting it off. Until now! Rejoice, assuming you actually like these articles, because today I bring you three all "new" and wonderful aircraft cooked up by Nazi Germany during the Reich's salad days. If this is your first introduction to the subject, feel free to read up on some of the "back issues" of my irregularly updated series on crazy weapons of World War II.
On with the Aryan madness!
The Henschel 129B-3 "Tank Cracker"
Type: Flying Heavy Anti-Tank Gun
Here's a good closeup on the 75mm cannon stuck to the HS-129B.
Specific Features: The Junkers Ju-87 Stuka is the iconic aircraft of the Luftwaffe and as such it tends to hog the spotlight from most of Germany's other close air support aircraft. One such relatively forgotten plane is the Henschel HS-129 and its B-3 variant. In my humble opinion the 129B-3, more than any other single aircraft, is the spiritual forebear of the much beloved A-10 Thunderbolt/Warthog.
The HS-129 began its life in 1939 as a twin-engined armored ground attack aircraft. The HS-129 was so heavily armored, particularly the cockpit, that pilots flying in 1939 and 1940 complained about the lack of visibility through all of the armor plates. The engines were also underpowered and gave the HS-129 a pretty well deserved reputation for being a flying brick of shit. The HS-129 was withdrawn from service and disappeared back into the Henschel design works for a massive overhaul. Much more powerful 750 horsepower engines replaced the 500 horsepower clunkers on the original. Apparently not wanting to make the plane too maneuverable the developers also added even more armor. The fuel tank, ammunition feeds, and vital hydraulic and engine systems were all compartmentalized in armor. The cockpit received even more armor and the HS-129's wing mounted cannons were upgraded.
The real innovation in the HS-129B came from a series of "Ruestsatz" or field conversion packs which allowed the HS-129B series to be transformed by mechanics servicing the aircraft. There were three variants of the HS-129B, each with minor production alterations, but each received a series of "Ruestsatz" releases. One B-2 Ruestsatz consisted of a 37mm anti-tank gun slung beneath the fuselage of the HS-129. This was nothing astonishing as it had been done, quite successfully, with a variant of the infamous Ju-87 Stuka. Tanks tend to have extremely poor top armor and a 37mm AP round was enough to punch through the top armor of most tanks throughout the war.
Henschel wasn't satisfied and neither was the Luftwaffe, so a B-3 patch was uploaded for the HS-129, upgrading its 37mm gun to a massive 75mm long-barreled tank cannon. This weapon was fundamentally identical to the cannon mounted in later versions of the Panzer IV tank. Glued to the belly of a twin-engined fighter bomber the 75mm gun had to incorporate a fairly sophisticated hydraulic recoil dampening system. Ammunition capacity was a mere 12 rounds of high velocity armor piercing fed by an integral autoloader. The HS-129B mounted an excellent gun sight, which due to hilarious cockpit space constraints had to be attached outside the aircraft, and was quite lethal with the 75mm gun when attacking from a dive. It could kill ANY tank up until the very end of the war.
The downside to the HS-129B-3 and all its glorious armor and firepower was that it was arguably the least maneuverable aircraft in the Luftwaffe. It was certainly one of the slowest, topping out at a mere 199 miles per hour loaded and likely to be torn to ribbons if caught by any Allied fighters. Production was cancelled abruptly in 1944 when it became apparent that Germany needed fewer hulking anti-tank aircraft and more nimble interceptors.
History: Almost 900 HS-129s were produced throughout the war but only 25 B-3 variants made it to units in the summer of 1944. A further unknown number of B-2s were upgraded to the B-3, primarily after the HS-129 production cancellation in October of 1944. The HS-129B-3 was a deadly aircraft, and although restricted to the Eastern front because of the overwhelming Allied air superiority in the West, was imminently capable of destroying any Soviet tanks it faced. Its heavy armor allowed it to absorb impressive amounts of ground fire without any degradation in performance. Much like the A-10 it was considered an ugly, slow, tank of a plane. It was useless in a dog fight and unlike the A-10 it could not fly on just one of its already overtaxed engines.
If you require color to understand pictures here is a model of the HS129B.
Had the HS-129B-3 been available throughout most of the war many tank battles might have unfolded quite differently than they did historically. When the Germans ran into the T-34 in the Soviet Union panzer units had a hell of a time dealing with the Soviet tank's heavy armor. During this early phase of Barbarossa the Luftwaffe enjoyed near total air superiority, making it a prime environment for ground attack aircraft to be utilized. Unfortunately, the bomb-wielding aircraft of the time were not generally that great at knocking out tanks with a degree of accuracy. The Stuka in very experienced hands was excellent, but a bomb falls slowly compared to a 75mm high velocity round, making a moving tank a difficult thing to hit.
The Sad Story of the Blohm & Voss BV-238 Super Seaplane
Type: World's Largest Seaplane
The one and only BV-238 takes to the skies.
Specific Features: For most people, seaplanes do not represent one of the sexier aspects of World War II aviation. All the same, the floating airplane reached its utilitarian peak during the Second World War. The Americans used them heavily as naval spotting aircraft and the Germans were interested in them for their usefulness as long range transports that could theoretically be refueled at sea. The Blohm & Voss BV-238 was a development from the company's successful BV-222 seaplane program, of which 30 aircraft had been built. The Germans wanted a seaplane with more carrying capacity, better armament, and greater speed. The result was the behemoth BV-238, which was the largest seaplane built during World War II and was only eclipsed later by the H-4 Hercules and a few Soviet oddball seaplanes.
The BV-238 was only about 25% larger than the BV-222, but it sported six Daimler Benz engines capable of producing almost twice the thrust of its predecessor. This was necessary because the BV-238 could carry 22 tons of cargo and, fully loaded, was twice as heavy as the BV-222. These six engines were capable of bringing the BV-238 up to a top speed of some 255 miles per hour and test trials of the only prototype completed reflected a much improved maneuverability over the BV-222. More impressive still, the BV-238 was capable of remaining airborne with three of its six engines destroyed, even if all three were on the same side.
An interesting aspect of the BV-238 is that even though it sported a ten man crew it had twelve weapon mounts ranging from a proposed nose turret to eight or more side firing points along the fuselage. I guess the crew was either expected to run from gun to gun firing them as necessary or it would rely on people riding along in the plane to shoot most of the guns. The BV-238 also included a large front loading cargo hatch and a double-decker interior, allowing it to carry very large payloads that smaller planes would not be able to handle even if they had the thrust capacity.
Schematics of the BV-238 and its successor show the proposed nose and tail turrets.
History: The story of the Blohm & Voss BV-238 is one of tragedy. The Luftwaffe awarded a contract to Blohm & Voss in 1941 to develop a new and larger seaplane with the capabilities previously mentioned. The prototype was completed in August of 1943 and took its maiden flight soon after that. This and subsequent test flights demonstrated that the BV-238 was one sexy airplane. It handled wonderfully, was speedy for an aircraft of its immense size, and had a promising future in a military in need of support and resupply around the world. One problem; Germany was not in need of support and resupply around the world. Well, it was, but that was the least of its problems. What Germany needed in August of 1943 was the ten or more fighter aircraft the construction of each BV-238 would represent.
An order was issued in 1943 diverting resources from aircraft like the BV-238 to an increased focus on fighter production. Many innovative aircraft designs died on the vine at this point, but the BV-238 managed to cling tenaciously to life. Although a trial run was cancelled, work continued slowly on a second prototype, and the operational prototype was viewed as a curiosity that might just be useful at some point. The prototype was flown to Lake Schaal near Hamburg and was ordered to be kept at a constant state of readiness. It sat there on the lake, well camouflaged, crewed, maintained, and waiting to be ordered on some tremendous and heroic mission to save the Reich.
The Batphone remained silent, and as the losing air war progressed it became apparent that the BV-238 would be shot to pieces minutes after it took flight. The jet age dawned over the skies of Germany, the Nazi regime began to crumble apart under the weight of the Allied assaults from three directions, and still the BV-238 remained ready at Lake Schaal. Like an eager puppy. A giant, six-engine, fascist, heavily-armed, flying, eager puppy.
On April 24th, scarcely two weeks before the end of the war in Europe, US fighter bombers operating in the region spotted the well concealed BV-238 and attacked. There was no great battle for the plane. It sat motionless on Lake Schaal, absorbing pass after pass after pass from the US aircraft. Finally, in danger of running out of ammunition from their repeated strafing runs, the US aircraft watched as the hole-riddled carcass of the BV-238 began to sink into the lake. Only a few days later the facility at Lake Schaal was overrun by the Western Allies and the incomplete prototype (not much more than a shell) of the BV-238 V2 was captured.
Blohm & Voss P-194 Dual Propulsion Asymmetrical Ground Attack Aircraft
One of several BV-141 variant prototypes. The BV-141 was the unpopular precursor to the even more strange P-194.
Specific Features: Eccentric engineers at Blohm & Voss had achieved technical success but critical failure in 1938 with an asymmetrical aircraft designated the BV-141. The Luftwaffe hated the way the aircraft looked so much that they rejected it basically on principle. Blohm & Voss believed in the plane's performance potential and continued to refine it despite the Luftwaffe's disinterest.
Evolving from this aircraft, the P-194 was designed in 1944 as a further evolutionary step in the Blohm & Voss imaginary world where anyone wanted their asymmetrical planes. The BV-141 was an aerodynamic improvement over a symmetrical aircraft, but its single engine layout created more drag than was necessary. The P-194 rectified this by adding a turbojet second engine beneath the separated cockpit pod and making the bomb load fully contained within the fuselage portion of the aircraft. The resulting reduction in disruptive airflow would have made the P-194 exceptionally stable and maneuverable. More notably, the aircraft's aerodynamic qualities combined with its powerful dual engine design made it incredibly fast and maneuverable at low altitudes.
The P-194 would have been capable of low altitude speeds just shy of 400 miles per hour, and high altitude speeds of up to 445 miles per hour. Despite its unbalanced appearance the P-194 would have almost certainly been capable of operating with only one of its two engines functional. Armament was to have consisted of two 30mm cannons mounted in the cockpit pod and up to 1000lbs of bombs enclosed within a fuselage bomb bay. Whether or not pilots would have been able to overcome their wariness of the aircraft's design enough to embrace its impressive flight characteristics is something we will never know.
History: Blohm & Voss were unparalleled experts in Germany in the field of seaplane development. Their BV-222 was considered to be one of the best seaplanes fielded by any nation during the entire war. However, Blohm & Voss designers suffered from a weird sort of dementia when it came to developing other aircraft; they wanted everything to be asymmetrical. The figurehead behind this absurd movement was one of the firm's top engineers, a man by the name of Richard Vogt. When the Luftwaffe went looking for new ground attack aircraft in 1938 to supplement its fleet of Ju-87s Vogt proposed the BV-141. The BV-141 was a single engined aircraft with its cockpit contained inside a separate offset pod on the wing. If you can't see the picture next to this paragraph or lack aesthetic judgment; it looked completely retarded.
A P-194 takes flight from the imagination of Gino Marcomini.
The Luftwaffe laughed Vogt out of their office when they saw the prototype of the BV-141, but Blohm & Voss believed in the plane and went on to churn out a number of variant prototypes. There was no denying that it actually did perform well, but pilots uniformly hated the aircraft because of its disconcerting configuration and no one in the Luftwaffe wanted it. Somehow, Vogt kept his job, and throughout the war almost every aircraft he proposed was a direct descendant of the BV-141. Some would say (some being me) that Vogt's obsession with asymmetric aircraft really reached its madcap pinnacle with the P-194.
If pilots and purchasers alike were driven away like vampires at the sight of a cross by the BV-141, their reaction to the P-194 must have been even worse. On paper it had the best low-level performance of any aircraft designed during the war, making it a theoretical champion of the ground attack genre. In reality it never existed because it looked like someone threw two or three different planes at each other and the P194 was the resulting mess. Little interest was expressed in the design by the Luftwaffe. Development proceeded internally at Blohm & Voss and never advanced beyond the wind-tunnel testing phase.
The Henschel 129B-3 is my personal favorite of the three, but if you're like me then you find yourself wiping a solemn tear from your eye at the sad conclusion to the BV-238 saga. Most people aren't like me and probably clicked the back button on their browser two paragraphs in.