My Tank Has Hugest Treads
Ah, World War II, the most exciting war of all time. Without great entertainers like Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, and FDR we would never have the thousands of hours of film of tanks driving down roads and bombs dropping on cities. But these destructive auteurs have made other nearly hidden contributions to our armchair enjoyment of horrible destruction that only obsessive nerds and professional historians usually know about. I'm no professional historian, but I certainly can't run from the title "obsessive nerd". With great nerdliness comes great responsibility, so it is my pleasure and duty to impart unto you another trio of incredible secret weapons of the Second World War. If this sort of topic interests you then please check out the previous articles on this topic. Old favorites like:
On to the wonder weapons of a bygone age!
I-400 Series Submarines
Type: World's Biggest Conventional Submarine
The I-400's launch catapult system and a Seiran bomber.
Specific Features: The Japanese have received very little mention throughout these World War II columns, but the I-400s are an incredible example of Japanese super-engineering and they come with an action-packed story as an added bonus. The I-400 series of submarines was envisioned as an extremely long range class of submarine with the unique capability of launching amphibious attack aircraft. Most submarines were short on space carrying just torpedoes and bearded mariners, but the I-400s dwarfed them all at 400 feet in length and an astonishing displacement of over 6,000 tons. By comparison, German Type IXC long range U-boats were only 250 feet in length and weighed a mere 1,500 tons.
The super-sized I-400 boats each carried three Seiran ("Storm from a Clear Sky") seaplanes capable of torpedo and conventional bombing. These planes were raised with a 12-ton crane to launch position through an enormous horizontal hatch that loaded directly into the I-400's launch catapult. The I-400s intended crew was 145, but at times this bloated to more than 200 for efficient aircraft launch operations. Propulsion was provided by two 1900 horsepower diesel engines on the surface and two 1200 horsepower electric motors while submerged. What made the I-400 nearly as exceptional as its immense size and aircraft compliment was its operational range; more than 40,000 miles. The I-400s were capable of conducting round trip missions to anywhere the seas could take them.
History: In April of 1942 the Japanese Navy issued orders to construct a new class of aircraft-carrying submarine known as the I-400. In September of 1942 a feasibility test was conducted in which a single aircraft was flown from a Japanese submarine over Oregon. It harmlessly dropped bombs in the wilderness and the test was declared a success. Actually it wasn't so harmless because a couple of kids found one of the bombs and managed to blow themselves up, but that's another story.
Three I-400 boats were completed in 1944 and used as the centerpiece of Submarine Squadron One. This top secret unit of aircraft carrier submarines was given the task of carrying out "Operation PX". The plan was for the submarines to travel from Japan to the West Coast of the United States and launch ten aircraft to bomb American cities. That might not sound like "Thirty Seconds Over San Diego" to you, but the plan becomes more sinister when you realize that the bombs would have been full of plague-carrying rats and fleas. The Army Chief of Staff eventually decided to put the kibosh on "Operation PX" for fear that it would further escalate the war to nasty new levels.
A good view of the I-400's hangar door.
The submarines were then tasked with carrying out a daring raid on the Panama canal that could potentially cripple naval traffic through the vital waterway. The plan called for the submarines to travel some 14,000 miles to the Gatun Locks and launch bombers that would blast the locks into oblivion and flood the area surrounding the canal. Despite heavy Allied bombing of the area, the I-400s carried out several successful training runs on a mock-up of the Gatun Locks. With the war nearing the homeland, the I-400s loaded their planes, torpedoes, and fuel, and Submarine Squadron One set out for Panama. Unfortunately for my storytelling, the Japanese surrendered with the I-400s en route to Panama and the boats were recalled to Japan flying a flag of surrender. They were captured by the United States and eventually scuttled at a secret location in the Pacific that has recently been rediscovered by underwater explorers.
Type: Iceberg Aircraft Carrier
Construction underway on blocks of Pykrete for the prototype Habbakuk.
Specific Features: Devised by eccentric British genius Geoffrey Pyke, the HMS Habbakuk was a true maverick in a time of mavericks. In order to win the naval campaign in the Atlantic and to defeat German U-boat operations Pyke wanted to develop an aircraft carrier so massive that an entire fleet of the best planes could fly watch over convoys. Rather than build this behemoth out of iron, steel, or salt, Pyke had an all-new material in mind known as "Pykrete". It was basically sawdust mixed with water and then frozen, but it took a lot longer to melt and was more than twice as resilient as ice.
The HMS Habbakuk was to have been 2,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, and capable of carrying 200 Spitfires or even larger aircraft into battle. The walls of the Habbakuk would have been 40 feet thick and capable of shrugging off blows from any cannons, bombs, or torpedoes in service at the time. To keep the Habbakuk afloat the ship would have been essentially built up around a series of huge refrigeration units that would ensure the crew didn't wake up sliding into the ocean. Did I mention that it would have displaced two million tons? Yeah, it was a big girl. It was also extremely slow and horribly to maneuver.
History: The Habbakuk project formally began in December of 1942 when Geoffrey Pyke convinced Lord Louis Mountbatten that his plans for an iceberg warship were worth examining. Mountbatten instructed Pyke to set up shop and build a prototype in Alberta, Canada. Pyke constructed a 60-foot long 1,000 ton mockup of the Habbakuk on Lake Patricia and invited Mountbatten to inspect his new prototype. He assured Mountbatten that it was as strong as he had promised, but Mountbatten discharged a shotgun into the boat's hull with only cosmetic damage inflicted.
The Habbakuk may have looked like a floating building, but it...well it moved about as fast as a building.
In August of 1943 Mountbatten attempted to gain support for the idea of using Pykrete as a material for ship construction. At a conference of Allied Chiefs of Staff in Quebec Mountbatten placed unveiled two pedestals. On one rested a block of ice, on the other a block of Pykrete. In front of the unsuspecting Chiefs of Staff Mountbatten drew a pistol and fired into the block of ice, shattering it dramatically. He then fired into the Pykrete and a bullet ricocheted off nearly hitting Sir Charles Portal the Chief of Air Staff. The British and Americans were both quite taken with the idea of constructing the Habbakuk, but the Americans insisted they do it on their own terms and Pyke was essentially fired.
The project was ultimately shelved when everyone looked around and realized that most of the German and Japanese fleets had been sunk. The prototype Habbakuk stuck around on Lake Patricia for nearly a full year after her refrigeration was turned off and a monument has since been erected.
V-3 Hochdruckpumpe (High Pressure Pump)
Type: Giant Subterranean Cannons
GIs pose with a V-3 shell.
Specific Features: The third in the series of chart-topping V-weapons out of Germany was a real show stopper. The first battery of five cannons was constructed primarily using slave labor near Mimoyecques in Western France. The 140 meter long cannons were built underground and linked to a complex network of tunnels and chambers from which the guns were served. Because the cannons were built underground - a necessity of their immense size and their design - their aim could not be adjusted significantly. London (165 kilometers away) was the target and the payload was a hyper-velocity 140 kilogram fin stabilized shell.
The velocity and incredible range of the cannons was achieved by augmenting the primary charge with six secondary charges running the length of the barrel. The small size of the warhead fired was compensated for by the weapon's accuracy (relative to the V-1 and V-2) and the high rate of saturation fire that could be achieved with the five gun battery. The guns were set inside of hills, beneath reinforced concrete bomb shields, and concealed behind immense iron firing ports.
History: A proposal for the V-3 from the firm of Saar Roechling landed on Hitler's oversized desk in 1941. Hitler, ever a fan of wasteful flights of fancy, approved a much smaller demonstration version of the V-3 that was completed in the spring of 1943 and test-fired in Poland. Hitler liked what he saw and against the advice of pretty much every German who was not retarded - and there weren't many retards since Hitler had most of them either sterilized or used in medical experiments - he ordered ten of the five gun batteries to be constructed.
The first of these was located in Mimoyecques and intended to serve up a cold plate of revenge to London for the Allied bombing campaign over Germany. In September of 1943 a ribbon cutting ceremony that was probably pretty depressing was held by the hundreds of slave laborers who would toil and die building the V-3. Two months into construction Allied bombers began targeting the site in Mimoyecques, but even the 12,000lb "Tallboy" bomb was unable to penetrate the underground bunkers for the V-3. Soon after the D-day invasion, with the gun battery nearing operational readiness, lucky allied bombers managed to drop three of the "Tallboy" bombs down the open gun shafts. This killed a lot of slave laborers and put a halt to construction. The bunkers were abandoned soon after that as the Allied forces advanced into France.
Smaller versions, roughly 1/3rd the size of the V-3, were constructed in Amsterdam and Luxembourg to support the infamous Ardennes Offensive in the winter of 1944. Only a few rounds were fired from each and they had no noticeable impact on Allied forces.
Thanks for turning back the clock to those exciting last few years of the Second World War. I would like to add that I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders now that I have finally done that damn Pykrete ship. I must have received an email a day asking me to cover it.