Berlin, Germany October 18, 1940

On this date in 1940 German air­craft maker Messer­schmitt was given just 14 days to submit to the Luft­waffe a pro­po­sal for a large-capa­city troop- and cargo-carrying glider. A proto­type heavy-lift glider flew Febru­ary 25, 1941, pulled by several four-engine Junkers Ju 90s. The proto­type glider’s maiden flight encour­aged Messer­schmitt to enlarge the cock­pit to accom­mo­date a co-pilot and a radio oper­ator and add electric servo motors to assist the pilots in moving the huge trailing edge flaps.

Out of this the Messerschmitt Me 321 Gigant (“Giant”) emerged, not for use in Opera­tion Sea Lion, the planned inva­sion of England as originally envi­sioned by Adolf Hitler, but for use in Opera­tion Barba­rossa, Hitler’s Russian cam­paign, which kicked off on June 22, 1941. Standing over 33 ft tall, made of steel tubing, wooden spars, and covered in light­weight, easy-to-construct and easy-to-repair doped fabric, with clam­shell doors in the nose and massive high-mounted wings that stretched 181 ft, the glider could carry inside its box­car-sized belly a com­bi­na­tion of 120–130 fully equipped troops, or 60 stretcher cases with medi­cal attendants, or an 88mm gun and tractor, a medium tank, or two 4‑ton trucks along with barrels of oil and gaso­line. The biggest land-based cargo aircraft of World War II, some 200 were built between June 1941 and April 1942, seeing considerable service on the Eastern Front.

The large, heavy Me 321 glider required a great deal of pulling power to take to the air. A five-engine Heinkel He 111Z hybrid, con­sisting of two He 111 bomber fuse­lages joined by a common center-wing section, was devised to replace a trio of Messer­schmitt Bf 110 twin-engine heavy fighters ini­tially used for lift off and towing the glider. Some 200 or so six-engine vari­ants of the Me 321, with a strengthened wing and des­ig­nated the Me 323, were built between 1942 and 1944. Four liquid-fuel rockets assisted take­off. The Me 323 “D” series had a crew of five: two pilots, a radio opera­tor, and two flight engi­neers to moni­tor engine status, each occupying a tiny cabin in each wing. The air­craft was armed with five 13mm machine guns. Maxi­mum pay­load was around 10–12 tons (130 troops) with a range of 500 miles (loaded) flying at 136 mph, making it lumbering and vulnerable to enemy fighter planes.

Losses to the enemy quickly mounted. As the Allies closed in on Axis forces in their shrinking Tuni­sian redoubt, having closed the sea route between North Africa and Sicily, 27 heavily loaded Me 323s escorted by Messer­schmitt Bf 109s (Me 109s) flew into seven Malta-based squad­rons of British Spit­fires and Curtiss P‑40 War­hawks. Luft­waffe escorts downed three Allied inter­ceptors but 21 of 27 Me 323s met a watery grave. The monster trans­ports, still con­sidered by the Germans to be an invalu­able asset, stayed in service, but they were increasingly regarded by Allied pilots as sitting ducks.

Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant (“Giant”), Powered Variant of the Me 321 Military Glider

Six-engine Me 323 and gun turrets

Left: A motorized variant of the Messer­schmitt Me 321 heavy-lift glider, the Me 323 was largest land-based trans­port air­craft of World War II. Around 200 of these six-engine behe­moths were built before pro­duc­tion ceased in April 1944. It is believed that no Me 323s sur­vived in service beyond the sum­mer of 1944. A ruined but com­plete wreck was found in 2012 off the coast of Sardinia, Italy.

Right: This photograph from March 1944 shows an Me 323 with multi­ple machine-gun turrets. Among the mounted guns were the 7.92mm drum maga­zine MG 15 and the belt-fed MG 81 or the belt-fed 13mm MG 131. The MG 81 could fire between 1,400 and 1,600 rounds per minute.

Me 323 unloading a light tracked armored carrierWounded soldiers being loaded into an Me 323, Italy, March 1943

Left: An Me 323 unloading a Renault UE Chenillette, a light tracked armored carrier, Tunisia, January 1943.

Right: The monster airplane ferried troops, equip­ment, and fuel (up to 52 drums), and evacu­ated the wounded as shown in this photo­graph taken in Italy in March 1943. Some­times an Me 323 exceeded safety limits because trans­port crews were eager to rescue as many wounded men as possible. Me 323s saw service in Tunisia, Italy, and on the Eastern Front. Wherever it appeared it pro­duced tre­men­dous astonish­ment because most soldiers had never seen anything like it.

History of the Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant (“Giant”), 1942–1944, the Powered Variant of the Me 321 Military Glider (Ignore first 20 seconds)