Lesser-Known Weapons of World War II
Believe it or not, the massive machine in the picture above was actually a cannon. Designed by the Nazis, the Vergeltungswaffe 3 was built directly into a hill and designed to shoot artillery shells across the English Channel, blasting from France directly into London. While it was able to fire shells up to 58 miles, the whole thing was a failure—which is precisely why you've probably never heard of the Vergeltungswaffe 3.
But that’s not the only odd weapon to come out of World War II. People from all walks of life—dentists, psychologists, and more—came together to come up with some crazy, unorthodox, and sometimes wildly successful weapons to win the war.
ANIMAL BASED BOMBS
While Charlemagne probably never said “Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky,” militaries throughout history have used that general idea—including during World War II.
One of the most famous winged weapons is bat bombs, a plan dreamt up by Lytle Adams after a visit to New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns, where thousands of the animals roost. The dentist (and friend to Eleanor Roosevelt) heard about Pearl Harbor, thought back to his vacation, and had an idea: Put tiny explosives on bats and set them loose in an enemy city. When they found areas of the city to hide in, Adams reasoned, the military could explode the bombs and start thousands of fires in hard-to-reach parts of buildings. The fire would spread throughout the city uncontrollably, leading to a victory for the Allies. (Adams—who actually went back to Carlsbad Caverns to capture some bats for testing of his plan—would later defend his idea by saying that while the fire would have been economically and physically devastating to the city, it would be nowhere near as destructive as an atomic bomb). The military actually tested Adams’s idea, and it worked almost too well: While testing, the bat bombs accidentally burned down a hangar (and a general’s car). It wasn’t long after that the project was cancelled, presumably to focus on the atomic bomb.cancelled, presumably to focus on the atomic bomb.
Bats weren’t the only weaponized animals the United States was working on at the time. Famed psychologist B. F. Skinner was working on training pigeons to steer objects (mostly missiles), but he couldn’t get anyone interested in his project. But a few months after Pearl Harbor was attacked, a man named Victor showed up.
Victor wanted to put dogs in anti-submarine torpedoes, where the canine, using its amazing hearing, would hear faint sounds from the enemy submarine and steer the torpedo toward it. No one—including Skinner—was interested in Victor’s idea, but Victor began presenting Skinner’s pigeon idea to potential donors as proof that his dog idea wasn’t actually that crazy. One donor, General Mills (the cereal company), was interested in the pigeons.
Here's how it worked: The pigeons would look at an image on a screen and be trained to peck on a target, like a ship. If the image started moving off center, the pigeon would tap on the new location, and the missile would change course to keep the ship in the center of its sights. The birds performed beautifully, acing every test that Skinner could throw at them—even in front of military brass. But, according to Skinner, the military commanders couldn’t get over lingering concerns about the practicalities of using pigeons.“The spectacle of a living pigeon carrying out its assignment, no matter how beautifully, simply reminded the committee of how utterly fantastic our proposal was,” the scientist said.
Militaries around the world didn’t just focus on winged creatures as weapons during World War II. While Victor was eccentric, the Soviets did attempt to put bombs on dogs to blow up tanks. But only one exploding animal was massively successful—and not in the way governments had intended.
British agents had a plan to pack the carcasses of rats with plastic explosives and leave them near boilers in German industrial centers and on ships. When the rats were found, the British believed, whoever discovered the carcass would throw it on the fire, which would cause the bomb inside to explode with devastating consequences. But the Germans discovered a shipment of the rats before they could be used. The mission wasn’t exactly a failure, though: The Germans assumed that they had caught only one of any number of such shipments and started training their recruits to look for the dangerous rat bombs that they believed the Brits were planting. Suddenly, every rat became a potential explosive, causing “an extraordinary moral effect,” according to the special operations executive (SOE). “The trouble caused to them was a much greater success to us than if the rats had actually been used.”
EXPLODING CHOCOLATE AND OTHER DAILY ITEMS
“Dear Fish,” the letter began. “I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate.” It’s a rather strange opening to a letter, made even stranger because it was from Lord Victor Rothschild of MI5 to an artist named Laurence Fish.
The letter was sent in response to reports that the Germans were working on peculiar ways to assassinate Winston Churchill, chief among them a bomb coated in a thin layer of chocolate that would explode and kill everyone in the room when someone broke off a piece to eat. Rothschild wanted Fish to create the drawing to warn people what to look out for when it came to explosive sweets.
But exploding chocolate wasn’t the only potentially dangerous everyday item Rothschild and Fish were concerned about. Other designs Fish drew included exploding mess tins, Thermos flasks, and motor oil cans. Agents on both sides also worked to create fake coals that contained small amounts of TNT and a detonator. When the fire consumed the exterior, the detonator would go off and the TNT would go boom. The exploding coals were made but don’t appear to have ever been used. Britain’s MI5 also cooked up a plan to sell booby-trapped souvenirs. “Native agents” would pose as vendors to sell exploding woodwork to Japanese sailors boarding ships (it’s unclear if they were ever made or used, though).
The Germans did almost get to the Brits with a bit of exploding food. In 1940, three men were discovered with bombs in cans marked "peas" on the Irish coast. The saboteurs claimed they were for Buckingham Palace, but British intelligence officers discounted that because the bombs were so primitive; they believed that the bombs were just prototypes.
In 1942, the Allies attacked the German-occupied port of Dieppe in France. It became a notorious disaster for the Allies, in no small part because their tanks and such got stuck on the beaches.
According to the Imperial War Museums, the Allies were determined to keep that from happening during D-Day. And to make sure it didn’t, Major-General Percy Hobart was tasked with coming up with a series of vehicles that would win the day. They were so strange they'd come to be dubbed "Hobart's Funnies."
One of the first vehicles to hit the shore was the Sherman Duplex Drive, or DD. Commanders were concerned that a landing craft with several tanks onboard would be destroyed and knew they needed a backup. So the Allies built a Sherman DD tank outfitted with a propeller and a canvas flotation aid. The original plan was to release the buoyant tanks around two to three miles away from shore; the tank would then move up to the beach and secure the position for the following landers. The Allies went through with that plan at Omaha Beach, but the majority of the tanks sank. But they had much more success at other beaches where the tanks were released later. The design itself was so successful that it was used for many more water crossings throughout the remainder of the European campaign.
Another vehicle used during D-Day was called the Crab. This modified Sherman tank was equipped with an arm that had a spool of chains on it. The vehicle would roll up to an obstacle and an operator would turn on the arm, causing the chains to spin at 140 RPMs, detonating mines and obliterating barbed wire for the following invasion force. (The tank itself was fully functional when the flail wasn’t moving.)
Then there was the “Bobbin” (above). To prevent vehicles from getting stuck on the sands of Normandy, the vehicle had a giant bobbin—like the kind you’d see on a sewing machine—of matting 10 feet wide and over 200 feet long that it rolled out to effectively lay carpet on the beach. This meant that following heavy vehicles wouldn’t get bogged down in the sand. The laying out of the carpet also told troops and vehicles which areas had been cleared of mines.