1. The Great Panjandrum
Nevil Shute, author of the popular novel On the Beach, A Town Like Alice, put down his pen and paper to moonlight as an aeronautical engineer during the Second World War.
He perhaps should have stuck with writing because his creation, the Great Panjandrum, was perhaps one of the most ill-conceived weapons to come out of World War II.
Comprised of a pair of 10-foot wooden wheels, the axle between them contained a 2-ton drum of TNT. In theory, the Panjandrum was to be launched from the ramp of a landing craft just off a Normandy beachhead, “from which it would roar up the beach at 60 mph and smash into the Atlantic Wall defenses, blowing a tank-size hole in the fortifications…. Propelling it were 70 solid-fuel rockets around the rim of each wheel, spinning the entire affair like a crazed Catherine wheel firework,” writes historian Stephan Wilkinson.
Truly, what could go wrong? But in a much more real sense, what couldn’t go wrong? Thankfully film still survives showcasing the Great Panjandrum during its first — and last — trial run.
A scene of chaos unfolds as the Panjandrum picks up speed, rolling and careening uncontrollably along the English seaside. Generals, admirals, and stray dogs can be seen fleeing the area as sparks and rockets fly out to what amounts to little more than an uncontrollable massive wheel. After that hubbub died down, the Panjandrum came to rest on its side, then promptly exploded and disintegrated.
Unsurprisingly, the Panjandrum was never used in action.
2. The Maginot Line
One cannot make a list of poorly conceived ideas and fail to include the Maginot Line. The development for the defensive structure began after World War I, with the bruised nation of France focused on defense rather than the notion of an offensive war.
The line of concrete fortifications and extensive interconnected bunker complexes were impenetrable to aerial bombings and tank fire. Running primarily from the town of La Ferté to the Rhine River along France’s border with Germany, there was just one problem…
The Germans simply went around it.
3. Heinkel He 177 GREIF
“This garbage plane is, of course, the biggest piece of junk that was probably ever produced,” Adolf Hitler once angrily quipped. He wasn’t far off. Mechanical problems plagued the Heinkel for four years and was declared barely fit for production near the end of the war. “By then,” writes Stephan Wilkinson, “there was no need for a long-range, four engine Luftwaffe bomber.”
The airplane was equipped with 3-ton engines on each wing, imposing enormous structural demands. To the surprise of no one, many HE 177s simply fell apart mid-flight. Those that managed to stay aloft for a time often quickly caught fire.
Nazi factories rolled out more than 1,100 He 177s, ultimately a complete waste of time, material, and money.
4. Panzer VIII Maus
Another Nazi failure includes the mammoth Panzer VIII Maus. Churning along at a whopping 8 mph, the Maus decidedly traded any sort of mobility for firepower and armor. While enemy rounds merely bounced off the tank’s armor, the lumbering Maus had no real function in combat situations.
Designed by Ferdinand Porsche of sportscar fame, one has to wonder if Porsche was in on some epic joke against the Nazis.
Only two prototypes were built by war’s end, with one never even receiving its turret and gun.
5. Bat Bombs
Shortly after he received the shocking news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, dentist Dr. Lytle S. Adams had a thought. “Couldn’t those millions of bats be fitted with incendiary bombs and dropped from planes? What could be more devastating than such a firebomb attack?” he recalled in a 1948 interview.
Who amongst us hasn’t seen a bat and immediately thought “explosives”?
Because Adams had friends in high places — namely First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt — the harebrained scheme didn’t die on the design floor. It got funded by the U.S. Army.
From there Adams developed the idea to attach small timer-controlled bombs to bats. The goal was to release the bats and have them hide inside buildings where they would later explode.
The Army forgot that the bats needed time to thaw, and their release did not go as expected, as many bats plunged to their deaths.
The second test went slightly better in the fact that the bat bombs worked, but the creatures proved uncontrollable and managed to blow up an Army barracks, a control tower, and other surrounding buildings at the Carlsbad Auxiliary Field
“After these roadblocks,” writes O’Brien, “the Army decided to pass the project onto the Navy, which delegated it to the Marine Corps. Two million dollars and over 6,000 bats later, the Marine Corps dropped the plan in favor of the atomic bomb.”