Berlin, Germany February 25, 1941

The first flight of the German prototype Me 321 Gigant (“Giant”) took place on this date in 1941. The previous October Ger­man air­craft maker Messer­schmitt had been given just 14 days to sub­mit a pro­posal for a large-capa­city troop- and cargo-carrying glider. 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. Placed in ser­vice too late for use in Opera­tion Sea Lion, the planned inva­sion of Eng­land which was can­celled, the Me 321 was put to use in Opera­tion Barba­rossa, the Russian campaign that began in June 1941.

Standing over 33 ft/10 m tall, made of steel tubing, wooden spars, and covered in doped fabric, with clam­shell doors in the nose and mas­sive high-mounted wings that stretched 181 ft/­55 m, the air­craft could carry in 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. 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. (They were with­drawn in the spring of 1942 in anti­ci­pa­tion of the in­va­sion of Britain’s Medi­ter­ranean island for­tress, Malta.) Me 321 gliders were to have been used to rescue Gen. Fried­rich Paulus’ besieged German Sixth Army at Stalin­grad, but by the time they were returned to the front lines in January 1943, no suit­able air­fields remained and so they were towed back to Ger­many. A similar prob­lem with finding suit­able landing sites pre­vented the gliders’ use in Sicily during the Allies’ successful Opera­tion Husky in 1943.

Another 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. The Me 323 “D” series had a crew of five (the orig­i­nal two pilots and radio oper­ator were aug­mented by two flight engi­neers) and was armed with five 13mm machine guns. Maxi­mum pay­load was around 20 tons with a range of 500 miles/­805 km flying at 136 mph/­219 kph. Four liquid-fuel rockets assisted take­off. An inval­u­able asset to the Germans, Me 323s saw service in Tunisia, Italy, and on the Eastern Front.

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

Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant either on landing or takeoffSix-engine Messerschmitt Me 323 and gun turrets

Left: A motorized variant of the Messerschmitt Me 321, the Me 323 was the largest land-based trans­port air­craft of World War II. Around 200 of these lumbering, six-engine air­craft 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.

Messerschmitt Me 323 unloading a light tracked armored carrierWounded soldiers being loaded into a Messerschmitt 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.

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

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