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Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant The Biggest Bird

The Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant (“Giant”) served as a German military transport aircraft during World War II. Moreover, it was a powered variant of the Me 321 military glider.

Remarkably, it stood as the largest land-based transport aircraft flown during the war. In total, manufacturers produced 213 units, and notably, 15 underwent conversion from the Me 321. In February 1941, nearly 14 weeks after receiving construction instructions, the first Messerschmitt, nicknamed Gigant, left the factory.

Operation Sea Lion

In 1940, Germany necessitated a large assault glider for Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Great Britain. The DFS 230 light glider had demonstrated its value in the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium. Moreover, it saw successful usage in the 1941 invasion of Crete.

Loading 8.8 cm flak gun
Loading a 8.8 cm flak gun

For an English Channel invasion, Germany needed to airlift vehicles and heavy equipment during the initial assault wave.

Even after canceling Operation Sea Lion, the heavy air transport need persisted, now focusing on Operation Barbarossa, aimed at the Soviet Union. On October 18, 1940, Junkers and Messerschmitt received 14 days to propose a large transport glider design.

Emphasis lay heavily on assault capabilities, demanding transport of either an 88 mm gun and its half-track tractor or a Panzer IV medium tank. The Junkers Ju 322 Mammut prototype faced abandonment due to high-grade timber procurement issues and an inherently unstable design.

Meanwhile, the Messerschmitt design underwent multiple name changes, from Me 261w to Me 263, finally becoming the Me 321. Although the Me 321 found extensive use on the Eastern Front as a transport, it never served in its original assault glider role.

Starthilfe Rocket Units

In 1941, feedback from Transport Command pilots in Russia prompted the decision to create a motorized Me 321 variant. Consequently, it received the designation Me 323.

The choice of power came from French Gnome et Rhône GR14N radial engines, boasting 1,180 PS (1,164 hp, 868 kW) for takeoff, as utilized in the Bloch MB.175 aircraft. This selection aimed to alleviate pressures on Germany’s stretched industry.

The Sd.Kfz 7, paired with a 15cm sFH18 heavy field howitzer, frequently found transport via the Me 323.
The Sd.Kfz 7, paired with a 15cm sFH18 heavy field howitzer, frequently found transport via the Me 323.

Preliminary tests utilized four Gnome engines on a reinforced Me 321 wing, achieving a modest speed of 210 km/h (130 mph). Meanwhile, the Ju 52 transport aircraft still outpaced it by 80 km/h (50 mph). Engineers fitted a fixed undercarriage, comprising four small front wheels and six larger fuselage wheels, semi-shielded by an aerodynamic fairing.

Furthermore, the rear wheels featured pneumatic brakes, halting the aircraft within 200 m (660 ft). The four-engined Me 323C served as a precursor to the six-engined D series.

Nonetheless, it needed the five-engined Heinkel He 111Z Zwilling or the perilous “vic-style” Troika-Schlepp formation, plus underwing-mounted Walter HWK 109-500 Starthilfe rocket units for fully-loaded takeoffs.

However, it could return to base under its own power when empty, marginally outperforming the Me 321. Therefore, the V2 prototype, featuring six engines and first flown in early 1942, became the D-series prototype.

In order to mitigate torque, technicians installed three counterclockwise-rotating engines on the port wing and three clockwise-rotating engines on the starboard wing. Consequently, as viewed from behind each engine looking forward, the propellers rotated “away” from each other at the arc tops.

Massive Payload

Much like the Me 321, the Me 323 featured enormous, semi-cantilever, high-mounted wings. They were braced from the fuselage to mid-wing. In a bid to save weight and aluminum, the wings predominantly comprised plywood and fabric, while maintaining a metal-tube fuselage construction.

In Italy, a fully loaded Sd.Kfz. 3 Opel Maultier, towing an apparent 10.5 cm Feldhaubitze 18/40, disembarks. This Maultier, a standard Opel Blitz truck conversion involving the addition of Panzer I type running gear and weighing six tons, leaves ample Gigant capacity for additional cargo.

The fuselage also used wooden spars and doped fabric, and the floor contained sturdy bracing to uphold the payload. The “D” series typically operated with a five-person crew: two pilots, two flight engineers, and a radio operator.

Additionally, it could accommodate two gunners. Engineers occupied small cabins in each wing, situated between the inboard and center engines. They were tasked with overseeing engine synchronization, freeing pilots from engine management concerns, yet pilots could still exert control over engine and propeller settings.

The maximum payload hovered around 12 tonnes. However, to achieve takeoff at this weight, the Walter HWK 109-500 Starthilfe rocket-assisted takeoff units, used on the Me 321, were essential. These units, positioned beneath the wings and beyond the engines, allowed the wings to accommodate up to four units.

Aboard the Me 323, which could transport up to 130 fully-equipped troops on two fuselage levels, Luftwaffe soldiers sit, with some even positioned within the wings.
Aboard the Me 323, which could transport over 100 fully-equipped troops on two fuselage levels, Luftwaffe soldiers sit, with some even positioned within the wings.

Furthermore, the cargo hold measured 11 m in length, 3 m in width, and 3.4 m in height, capable of carrying a variety of payloads, from heavy field howitzers and their tractors to substantial food and fuel supplies, or personnel and medical evacuees.

Some Me 321s underwent conversion to Me 323s, but the majority were initially built as six-engined aircraft. Early models utilized wooden, two-blade propellers, whereas later iterations featured metal, three-blade, variable-pitch ones.

Despite the Me 323’s modest maximum speed of 219 km/h at sea level, it was armed with five 13 mm MG 131 machine guns. Positioned dorsally behind the wings and within the fuselage, these guns were operated by the additional gunners, radio operator, and engineers.

Me 323 Gigant Into The Combat Zone

In September 1942, Me 323s began being delivered for the Tunisian campaign, entering Mediterranean theatre service in November. The high losses among Axis shipping necessitated a massive airlift to supply Rommel’s Afrika Korps across the Mediterranean.

Photograph of Luftwaffe Me 323 being shot down by a Martin B-26 Marauder of 14 Squadron RAF, Northwest African Coastal Air Force near Cap Corse, Corsica
Photograph of Luftwaffe Me 323 being shot down by a Martin B-26 Marauder of 14 Squadron RAF, Northwest African Coastal Air Force near Cap Corse, Corsica

A critical event occurred on 22 April 1943. Seven squadrons intercepted a formation of 27 fully loaded Me 323s, escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109s of Jagdgeschwader 27, across the Sicilian Straits.

The interceptors, comprised of Supermarine Spitfires (No. 1 Squadron SAAF) and Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawks (No. 7 South African Wing), downed 16 or 17 of the transports. Conversely, the escorts managed to shoot down three or four P-40s. Production of the Me 323s, totaling 198, ceased in April 1944. The production involved several versions, starting with the D-1.

Subsequent D- and E- versions introduced variations in power plants, defensive armament, structural strength, cargo load, and fuel capacity. However, the Me 323s remained underpowered and proposals to equip them with six BMW 801 radials never materialized.

Furthermore, the Me 323 had a relatively short range of 1,000–1,200 km (620–750 mi) when loaded. Despite these limitations and their limited numbers, the Me 323s served as valuable assets to the Germans, experiencing extensive use.

Me 323 Gigant Critical Event

In September 1942, Me 323s began being delivered for the Tunisian campaign, entering Mediterranean theatre service in November. The high losses among Axis shipping necessitated a massive airlift to supply Rommel’s Afrika Korps across the Mediterranean.

Wreckage of the Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant
Wreckage of the Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant

A critical event occurred on 22 April 1943. Seven squadrons intercepted a formation of 27 fully loaded Me 323s, escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109s of Jagdgeschwader 27, across the Sicilian Straits.

The interceptors, comprised of Supermarine Spitfires (No. 1 Squadron SAAF) and Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawks (No. 7 South African Wing), downed 16 or 17 of the transports. Conversely, the escorts managed to shoot down three or four P-40s.

Production of the Me 323s, totaling 198, ceased in April 1944. The production involved several versions, starting with the D-1. Subsequent D- and E- versions introduced variations in power plants, defensive armament, structural strength, cargo load, and fuel capacity.

However, the Me 323s remained underpowered and proposals to equip them with six BMW 801 radials never materialized. Furthermore, the Me 323 had a relatively short range of 1,000–1,200 km (620–750 mi) when loaded. Despite these limitations and their limited numbers, the Me 323s served as valuable assets to the Germans, experiencing extensive use.

Gigant wing, showing wing gun positions
Gigant wing, showing wing gun positions

 

A mock-up demonstrates the Gigant's capacity, accommodating a Sd.Kfz. 10 light halftrack, a Horch 830 staff car, a sidecar-equipped motorcycle, and a 5 cm PAK 38.
A mock-up demonstrates the Gigant’s capacity, accommodating a Sd.Kfz. 10 light halftrack, a Horch 830 staff car, a sidecar-equipped motorcycle, and a 5 cm PAK 38.
The Sd.Kfz. 2 Kettenrad presents a modest load itself, yet the Me 323 could transport a dozen simultaneously
The Sd.Kfz. 2 Kettenrad presents a modest load itself, yet the Me 323 could transport a dozen simultaneously
In Italy, March 1943, the Me 323 often undertook the mission of evacuating casualties, with numerous photos depicting ambulances positioned near the Gigant's expansive cargo doors.In Italy, March 1943, the Me 323 often undertook the mission of evacuating casualties, with numerous photos depicting ambulances positioned near the Gigant’s expansive cargo doors.

In Tunisia, two vehicles tow a loaded Gigant onto the runway in tandem,In Tunisia, two vehicles tow a loaded Gigant onto the runway in tandem
Gazing aft into the interior reveals the internal structure details, with fuel drums firmly secured to the deck at the back.Gazing aft into the interior reveals the internal structure details, with fuel drums firmly secured to the deck at the back.
The Sd.Kfz 7, paired with a 15cm sFH18 heavy field howitzer, frequently found transport via the Me 323.The Sd.Kfz 7, paired with a 15cm sFH18 heavy field howitzer, frequently found transport via the Me 323.
With the German defeat in North Africa, nearly all Messerschmitt Me 323s were assigned to the Eastern Front, where they were heavily committed over a vast area.With the German defeat in North Africa, nearly all Messerschmitt Me 323s were assigned to the Eastern Front, where they were heavily committed over a vast area.
The Me 323 had a maximum speed of only 219 km/h (136 mph) at sea level.The Me 323 Gigant had a maximum speed of only 219 km/h (136 mph) at sea level.
The Me 323 gave the Luftwaffe a tremendous airlift capability possessed by no other air forceThe Me 323 Gigant gave the Luftwaffe a tremendous airlift capability possessed by no other air force
View into the cockpit of the Me 323View into the cockpit of the Me 323 Gigant
There are several RAF squadron combat reports which tell of a Gigant lumbering on its way after the British aircraft had expended all its ammunition.There are several RAF squadron combat reports which tell of a Me 323 Gigant lumbering on its way after the British aircraft had expended all its ammunition.
An intriguing, snugly fitting load appears to be a workshop or command van, potentially built on a MAN diesel truck. While the specific subtype remains unidentified, this interesting vehicle underscores the Gigant’s capability to handle oversized loads.An intriguing, snugly fitting load appears to be a workshop or command van, potentially built on a MAN diesel truck.
The Me 323, capable of carrying two standard Opel Blitz trucks in one haul, utilized specific ramps for unloading, as illustrated in this image.The Me 323 Gigant, capable of carrying two standard Opel Blitz trucks in one haul, utilized specific ramps for unloading, as illustrated in this image.

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