Between spring and autumn 1944, the Germans introduced the world’s first operational rocket fighter, jet fighter, cruise missile, and ballistic missile. It is a popular belief that this wave of new technology arrived just too late for the Third Reich; if they had been operational just a year sooner, these so-called wunderwaffen (wonder weapons) could have turned the tide of the war.
As exciting as they were in theory, in actuality these weapons were detrimental to the Nazi war effort. They were mere expensive distractions from important campaigns, and even once operational they were riddled with issues that made them strategically redundant.
The precursor to the later slew wonder weapons was the 251-metre, 50,000-ton Bismarck battleship launched from Hamburg in February 1939, prior to the war’s outbreak. The battleship in Hitler’s eyes was meant to rule the seas and much like other wonder weapons was feared from the very beginning. Churchill said that it would potentially be “disastrous in the highest degree, as it can neither be caught nor killed and would therefore range freely throughout the oceans rupturing all communications.”
However, as with many of these weapons, the size of the ship was its undoing. Its vast, 38cm main guns were little use against aerial attacks and the Kriegsmarine’s (Nazi navy’s) lack of smaller supporting vessels made it defenceless against British and American battleships too. Therefore, a 1941 attack by British aircraft was able to sink the pride of the German fleet with almost all hands aboard.
Most importantly, these resources could have been diverted into submarine production. Karl Dönitz claimed that it would only take him 300 U-Boats to strangle Britain’s supply lines and win the war for Germany. Though this might be an exaggeration, German submarines were indeed extremely effective, sinking over 3,000 allied ships in the war, yet manpower and materiel were wasted on expensive and ineffective projects.
These early wonder weapons gave an insight into Hitler’s vainglorious character. He felt these large vessels were a reflection of Germany’s, and so by extension his, might. As Heinz Guderian wrote in his memoirs, “Hitler’s fantasy led him into the realm of the gigantic.” This destructive pattern was similarly replicated in the fortunes of many of the future wunderwaffen too.
The most famous and most feared of these wunderwaffen were the V1 and V2 flying bombs. The Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels promised in 1943 that these new developments would exact revenge for the Allied bombing of German cities – yet perhaps this was first clue that they were more style than substance, as they were unveiled with an announcement and not a shock deployment.
The V1 was the world’s first cruise missile. It could fly about 150 miles and carried an 850kg warhead. In a 291 day period in the late stages of the war, the Germans launched more than 10,000 of these missiles against the UK from ground ramps in France and Holland and from modified bombers flying off the south and east coasts of England. The attacks mainly targeted London and, despite an effective British campaign of in-flight interception, more than 2000 hit London and causing over 6000 deaths and massive damage to property and infrastructure.
Though the V1 certainly caused terror, the missiles were inaccurate and unreliable. Furthermore, Allied air defences improved over time to increase interceptions, and almost all launch sites were captured and dismantled soon after D-Day in June 1944.
Its supposed upgrade, the V2, arrived shortly after in September 1944. It used mobile launchers so it could not be stopped at the source by Allied forces, and it was able to more effectively evade detection as it dropped at supersonic speeds.
However, again the actual results of the V2 were a lot less impressive than expected. Like the V1, it was so inaccurate that it could only be aimed at a large urban area, and many failed during flight or exploded in the countryside. The V2 was also expensive – the missiles cost at least ten times more than the V1 and, as a result, they were launched in much smaller numbers. It was also expensive in human terms: more than twenty thousand people were killed in the V2 development and production programme – many times more than were killed by the weapon itself.
Strategically, the very fact that there was no defence against the V2, other than futile attempts to try to find and bomb the mobile launch crews, ironically meant that the Allies diverted fewer resources to stop it. Therefore, this weapon consumed significant Nazi resources and almost none for the Allies while ultimately providing little advantage to the Germans.
The third V weapon was the V3 supergun buried in the chalk hills of Northern France, with its 25 barrels were pointed at London. It was theoretically capable of delivering one bomb per minute to London at four times the speed of sound. Just as with the V2, it was a terrifying prospect but incredibly flawed. Regardless of technological feasibility, the site was easily destroyed by an Allied bombing raid. As with the other wunderwaffen, time and resources were wasted on something that totally failed to change the course of the war.
Germany’s advanced fighter aircraft were similar white elephants. While the Allies were relying on slower, piston-engined aircraft, the Luftwaffe launched the Me 163 in May 1944. This rocket-powered interceptor could sprint through bomber formations at high speed. Initially the RAF was deeply concerned, but the Me 163’s apparent greatest attribute was in fact to its detriment. Its incredible speed made it very hard for German pilots to shoot accurately at Allied bombers, while the rocket engines consumed so much fuel that it could only fly for 5 minutes before running out of fuel. Aside from obvious strategic limitations, Allied fighter pilots soon learned that the Me 163 was easy prey when out of fuel and gliding back to base, and so they would lurk near the landing fields to shoot them down.
The Me 262 turbojet aircraft arrived in the summer of that same year but was just as plagued with issues as its predecessor. The engines, though more efficient, were very unreliable, and the plane performed poorly at low speeds. Though some proposed that, had the Me 262 been operational earlier, it could have secured German air superiority and therefore prevented the D-Day invasion, these problems meant Allied air forces were still in the ascendancy.
The development of the Nazi’s ground-based wunderwaffen was most confounding of all. The Germans had great success with the Blitzkrieg in France and Poland, based on the mobility and agility of the light Panzer tanks that allowed them to punch through lines and overwhelm enemy forces with their speed. The obvious conclusion was to continue to develop and mass-produce light, quick, fuel-efficient and well-armoured tanks – yet they did the exact opposite.
In the latter stages of the war, with pressure increasing on all fronts, the Nazi high command drifted from the core principles of Blitzkrieg at the worst time, relying more on the promise of their beloved wonder weapons. The Tiger tank, the first of the German’s heavy tanks, was rushed into action. At 57 tons, it was fuel-inefficient and incredibly slow compared to earlier models. It was swiftly followed by the medium Panther, a 44-ton tank in 1943, and finally by the 70-ton Tiger II or King Tiger in 1944.
Yet the ultimate example of the failure of this fanatical obsession with over-engineered heavy tanks came with the creation of the 188-ton Maus – designed by Ferdinand Porsche himself. Though psychologically imposing from afar, it was entirely useless in practicality. The immense weight and size of the Maus disqualified it from crossing any bridge in Europe or travelling on any rail car. It was susceptible to air attacks and was extremely slow, with an estimated top speed of only around 12 mph. Its large 9-inch-thick turret was equally immobile. Yet, despite all the heavy armour that weighed it down, it was not impenetrable. Thus, the agile and fast-moving Allied tanks, similar to earlier Nazi models, could manoeuvre around the Maus at close range and target weak spots with armour-piercing rounds.
This preoccupation with heavily-armoured wonder tanks left the Germans outmanoeuvred and outnumbered on the battlefield. The gradually failing campaign of the Third Reich pushed these tanks into early production without sufficient testing. The problem was not that these tanks arrived too late; rather that immense resources had been devoted to developing the wrong thing. While Germany was ploughing time and resources into a small number of their wunderwaffen, the Soviets and Americans were mass-producing smaller tanks because they understood the importance of volume.
The universal problem these weapons had – that of ineffective resource use – became ever more critical later in the war as these resources became scarcer. Oil was already expensive, and the failed capture of the Russian oil fields in the Caucasus meant the problem became critical. Yet the wunderwaffen consumed oil at extortionate rates for ultimately little gain as the rest of the Nazi war machine starved.
Many of the Nazi’s developments in military technology were impressive and marked significant advances. However, in the Second World War itself, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, jet aircraft and other wonder weapons were an expensive distraction for the Third Reich. Even if they had been developed more quickly, none of them could overcome the strategic errors that Germany had made. They diverted resources from more successful conventional technology and were ineffective when deployed.
Of course, there was only one wunderwaffe that truly changed the course of the war, but it was one of the few where the Allies possessed the advantage – the nuclear bomb.