Messerschmitt Gigant

Aircraft history

The genesis of the Me 323 Gigant (giant) transport was in a 1940 German requirement for a large assault glider. The DFS 230 light glider had already proven it's worth in the famous attack on the Eban-Emael fort in Belgium (the first ever assault by gliderborne troops), and would later be used successfully in the Crete invasion in 1941. However, the prospective invasion of Great Britain focused minds on the need to be able to airlift vehicles and other heavy equipment as part of an initial assault wave. Although 'Sealion' was cancelled, the requirement was still a valid one with the focus now on the forthcoming invasion of the USSR. On October 18th 1940, Junkers and Messerschmitt were given just 14 days to submit a proposal for a large transport glider. The emphasis was still very much on the assault role: the ambitious requirement was to be able to carry either an 88-mm gun and half-track tractor, or a PzKpfw IV medium tank. The Junkers Ju 322 'Mammut' reached prototype form, but was completely unsatisfactory and was scrapped. The Messerschmitt was originally designated the Me 261w, was then changed to Me 263, eventually becoming the Me 321.

The initial production order was for 200 Me 321's. Some sources say that all 200 were delivered, other say only 150. The last 100 had an enlarged flight deck to allow for a side-by-side pilot/co-pilot arrangement - the early machines had just one pilot. With a construction mainly of tubular steel, the glider was enormous, with a length of 28.5 m and a wingspan of almost twice that. Rather like the Me 163 Komet, the Me 321 had a detachable wheeled dolly for take-off, and a skid arrangement for landing. Given the lack of heavy bombers and powered cargo aircraft available to the Luftwaffe, getting the glider airborne was always problematic. Underwing RATO packs for take-off were only a partial solution. One towing option was the Troikaschlepp: three Bf 110's towing the glider together, with the centre Bf 110 being 20 m ahead of the other two. This was a highly dangerous arrangement, and one test ended in utter disaster with the loss of all four aircraft and crew, and all 120 troops on board the Me 321. A better solution was the Heinkel He 111 Z (Zwilling, or twin), which involved two He 111's joined together with a new central section and a fifth engine. Although the Me 321 saw considerable service, it was never used for a Maltese invasion, or for any other such undertakings.

The business end of the Me 323. It could transport up to 120 fully-equipped troops.

Early in 1941, the decision had been taken to produce a motorized variant of the Me 321. It was now realised that a serious heavy-lift requirement would exist outside the specialized assault role, and that a huge glider that needed specialised towing aircraft, rocket packs and other equipment was simply not the answer. After much study, it was decided to fit six French Gnome-Rhone GR14N engines. These were in production and readily available, and could easily be bolted on the wing, which consequently needed to be strengthened. A cabin for a flight engineer was added in each wing between the inboard and centre engines, although the pilot could override each engineer’s decision on engine and propeller control. A brand-new permanent landing gear was bolted on to the side of each fuselage, and gave the resulting Me 323 superb rough-field performance. Compared to the Me 321, the Me 323 had a much-reduced payload of between 10 - 12 tonnes, which was the price that had to be paid for an aircraft that could operate autonomously. Even with the engines, RATO packs were still frequently used.

An Me 323 unloading a tank destroyer based on a PzKpfw II tank chassis. This is almost certainly a Marder II, equipped with a 75 mm PAK 40 gun. At around 11 tonnes, this would be close to the limit of the Me 323's theoretical payload - in practice, the limits were probably exceeded on many occasions, with consequent reductions in safety margins.

Just under 200 Me 323's were built before production ceased in April 1944. There were several production versions, beginning with the D-1, which is the subject of this kit. Later D- and E- versions differed in the choice of power plant and in defensive armament, with improvements in structural strength, total cargo load and fuel capacity also being implemented. Nonetheless, the Me 323 remained significantly underpowered. There was a proposal to install six BMW 801 radials, but this never came to pass. The Me 323 was also a short-range aircraft, with a typical range (loaded) of 1,000 - 1,200 Km. Despite this, the limited numbers of Me 323's in service were an invaluable asset to the Germans, and saw intensive use. The Me 323 was something of a 'sitting duck', being so slow and large an aircraft. In the final weeks of the North African campaign in April/May 1943, 43 Gigants were lost, along with much greater numbers of Ju 52's. In terms of aircraft design, the Me 323 was actually very resilient, and could absorb a huge amount of enemy fire - the Afrika Korps' nickname of Leukoplastbomber (Elastoplast Bomber) was somewhat unfair. However, no transport aircraft can ever be expected to survive without air superiority or at least, comprehensive local air cover, and it is believed that no Me 323's survived in service beyond the summer of 1944.