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Messerschmitt Me 321/323: The Luftwaffe's "Giants" in World War II.
Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2001.
Foreword; Introduction; photos; "color gallery"; diagrams; charts; tables; Sources; Acknowledgements
Appendices: Persons involved in design, production, and testing; Senior command and unit officers; List of Me 321/Me 323 prototypes and variants; Formation and movements of Me 321/Me 323 units; Me 323 Gigant construction list
Practically every aircraft model of the Second World War already has a pile of books devoted to it, and the Luftwaffe's Giganten are no exception. These were such extraordinary planes, however, that even those with little interest in aircraftor those with a surfeit of warplane booksshould sit up and take notice of this new offering from Schiffer.
As early as October 1940 aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt proposed to Ernst Udet, Chief of Air Armaments, that the Luftwaffe should procure "tank-carrying gliders." The first technical proposal for such a plane was produced in November of the same year and was eventually designated the Me 321 Gigant. At almost the same time a further proposal was made for a powered version of the Gigant, soon designated the Me 323.
The author traces in considerable detail the evolution of the Me 321, including its unique towing arrangements: three Me 110's (the "troika schlepp") or a specially developed, five-engine He 111Z. The He 111Z towplane itself (essentially two He 111 "Siamese twins" joined at the wing) proved to be a unique design. Towing the Me 321 was a dicey proposition, and Dabrowski notes a number of accidents involving towplanes. After reading the commentary and studying the photographs, the entire concept, design, development, and deployment of such a kludged transport system staggers the imagination.
Rather more awe-inspiring is Dabrowski's description of the Me 323 project. Unlike the unpowered Me 321 which needed hazardous, specialized towing, the Me 323 with its six engines was a major step forward in the field of air transport. Although capable of carrying little more than half the payload of the glider version, the Me 323 gave the Luftwaffe the ability to move tremendous amounts of cargo rapidly and efficiently by air over long distances. Dabrowski discusses the making of the Me 323 and then describes both types of Giganten in a chapter devoted to specific systems such as the undercarriage, flight controls, and so on.
Dabrowski also devotes a chapter to the competing Ju 322 project which failed miserably and was soon aborted.
The next two chapters cover production of the Me 321 and 323 along with factory sites and the effects of Allied bombing. Afterwards, Dabrowksi turns to the formation, equipping, and training of Me 321 and 323 units. He also begins the story of the operational employment of both types of aircraft, covering their work on the Russian Front and in the Mediterranean theater. It was in the Mediterranean, particularly in response to the Allied invasion of French North Africa, that the Giganten proved most valuable. At a time when seaborne supplies were being tightly interdicted by the Allies, Axis forces came increasingly to rely on air transport of men, equipment, ammunition, fuel, and other supplies to Tunisia from bases in Sicily and Italy.
Of course, the Allies were also gaining air superiority in the theater, and the book devotes a chapter to the massacre of Me 323's by Allied fighters off Cape Bon on 22 April 1943. Here's a lengthy excerpt from Dabrowski's account of the action that day:
Holy Thursday, just before Easter 1943, was the blackest day of all for the Me 323s and their crews. The following account of the incident is based on war diary entries, teletype messages of the Luftwaffe operations staff and statements by men who were there.
Ten Ju 52s of Kampfgruppe z.b.V. 106 took off from Pomigliano at 0640 hours bound for Tunis. The formation was led by Staffelkapitan Oblt. Biedermann. The Junkers were supposed to fly to Tunis with a group of fourteen Me 323s which took off from Pomigliano at 0710 hours and the maximum available fighter escort. Each Gigant was carrying about 12 metric tons of fuel or ammunition destined for Army Group Tunis, the embattled remnant of the former Afrika-Korps commanded by Rommel's successor, Generaloberst von Arnim. Sixteen Me 323s were originally supposed to take part in the mission, which was to be a repetition of a successful mission on 19 April when all aircraft returned safely. The sixteen aircraft were not the last still available to KG.z.b.V 323, as has been claimed in various publications. According to Geschwader strength reports from April 1943, at the beginning of the month I. Gruppe had fifteen aircraft, while II. Gruppe had 23 Me 323s, although not all were serviceable.
One of the Giganten assigned to the mission on 22 April could not be made ready to fly and aircraft C8+BN of Obfw. Karl Kandzia went unserviceable as it was preparing to take off. Following engine run-up, two engines failed during the takeoff roll. In addition, one tire blew and the aircraft was unable to achieve flying speed. Kandzia's Me 323 rolled off the end of the runway past the DF shack and ended up in a field. It was later recovered.
The fighter escort of 39 Bf 109s assembled over Trapani at 0830 hours. Another 65 fighters were supposed to fly out from Tunis to meet the formation. At 0835 hours the formation overflew the island of Marettimo west of Sicily and descended to a height of 20 to 50 meters above the sea. The specified route of flight was not over Cape Bon, a fact which had been stressed at the flight briefing the previous day, but over Cape Farina, which lay approximately 75 kilometers farther west. The area around Cape Bon was considered especially dangerous. The Ju 52 group was flying on the right, the Me 323s on the left. Approximately halfway between Sicily and Tunisia the Me 323s separated from the Ju 52 formation and, contrary to orders, set course for Cape Bon. Why the Gruppenkommandeur of II./KG.z.b.V 323, who was flying in Gigant C8+AR, ordered this course change will never be known. Most of the escort fighters which had taken off from Sicily stayed with the Ju 52s and did not go after the Me 323s until the fighters from Tunis had reached the Junkers. This splitting of the fighter escort meant that the Giganten had only 36 escorts instead of the planned 104.
Oblt. Biedermann saw the attack on the Me 323s beginning in the distance, however he and his formation of Ju 52s reached Cape Farina unmolested at about 0935 hours. Biedermann was supposed to take his aircraft into the holding area near Cape el Fortass. Instead, however, he led his formation to a German fighter base at Andeless and circled there until he received clearance to land at Tunis.
At 0925 two large groups of enemy fighters began attacking the Me 323s between Cape Bon and the island of Zembra. Conditions were hazy. The first group of enemy fighters engaged the Bf 109s of II./JG 27, which were flying at an altitude of about 2400 meters, and forced them away from the transports. This allowed the second formation, which was larger and made up mainly of P40 Kittyhawks of the South African Air Force, to attack the Giganten. The arrival of the fighters was no accident. First, Tunis and the surrounding airfields were the transports' only possible destination and they could only arrive within certain hours. Second, a secret transmitter, which was discovered that same day, had been sending information to the Allies on all German flight movements from Trapani. The radio was hidden in a confessional in a church on Monte Giovanni above Trapani. Under these circumstances it was no problem for the enemy fighters to intercept and destroy the transport units, especially since shortages of personnel and aircraft meant that they were usually weakly escorted.
The enemy fighters estimated the size of the Me 323 formation at 20 aircraft instead of the actual 14. Once attacked, the Me 323s took evasive action and the wedge-shaped formation disintegrated. The huge, cumbersome transports had little chance of even reaching the African coast. Usually able to sustain a great deal of battle damage, on this day the Giganten were carrying volatile cargoes and most caught fire or exploded after a few hits. Though they put up stiff resistance, shooting down five to seven enemy fighters, the Me 323s were shot down one after another until the last Gigant crashed into the sea in flames. The escort fighters from Tunisia were still with the Ju 52s and were too far away to intervene. In any event, it is likely that they could have done little to alter the outcome of this uneven battle.
Flight-Lieutenant Edwards of No. 260 Squadron arrived on the scene toward the end of the massacre and discovered the last surviving Me 323, which had so far escaped attack. He and two other pilots gave chase. They opened fire on the Gigant, which caught fire and crashed into the sea.
Only after he had arrived in Tunis did Oblt. Biedermann contact the adjutant of the Fliegerfuhrer by telephone and inform him of the air battle. On reading Oblt. Biedermann's written report, the Geschwaderkommodore of KG.z.b.V 323, Oberstleutnant Gustav Damm became furious and demanded to know why the air-sea rescue service had not been alerted by radio. The belated (beginning at about 1200 hours) rescue - Fieseler Storks dropping one-man life rafts, most of which missed their targets - was hampered by heavy seas and rain. Some men were picked up by motor torpedo boats, with the Storks circling overhead to guide the boats to the men in the water. The last survivors were picked up at about 1800 hours, after 8 1/2 hours in the water.
Aircraft losses: 14 Me 323s with 700 drums of fuel. Personnel losses: the initial tally was 2 killed, 113 missing (including 6 officers), 4 badly injured and 14 with less serious injuries. In the end, however, it was found that only 19 of the 138 men involved had survived this tragedy. Oberstleutnant Werner Stephan was among the dead and he was officially honored by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring for his "heroic actions." In transport officer circles, however, it was believed that Stephan had arbitrarily changed course to reach Tunis more quickly and thus led the Giganten to their destruction. Had he lived, he would probably have been required to answer for his actions before a court-martial....
[details of each Me 323 lost on 22 April omitted here]
...According to Me 323 pilot Oblt. Ernst Peter, from the end of November 1942 to 22 April 1943 KG.z.b.V 323 had transported 15,000 metric tons of equipment to Tunis and Bizerta in approximately 1,200 sorties. Among the items delivered: 309 trucks, 51 medium prime movers up to 12 tonnes, 209 guns up to 150-mm caliber, 324 light guns, 83 anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, 42 antiaircraft radars including "Wurzburg Riese" and 96 armored troop carriers and self-propelled guns. In April 1943 alone, the Geschwader lost 21 Me 323s to enemy action and 7 from other causes. The unit's actual strength on 30 April 1943, including new arrivals, was thirty-five Me 323s.
It's always interesting to compare this kind of description to accounts of the same engagement from other works.
Here's what Richards and Saunders have to say in volume II of Royal Air Force, 1939-1945:
...On 22nd April they rashly committed a consignment of petrol to Me.323'ssix-engined glider-type aircraft which they had previously employed only in small numbers. Several of these huge machines, each carrying some ten tons, attempted the passage under heavy escort. Intercepted over the Gulf of Tunis by seven and a half squadrons of Spitfires and Kittyhawks, the formation was mown down to the last aircraft.
Alan J. Levine tells the story this way in The War against Rommel's Supply Lines, 1942-1943:
On April 22, the Germans sent in 21 of the huge Me-323s, each carrying 10 tons of fuel to Tunisia. Although the clumsy transports were strongly escorted, this move marked the passage of the Axis daylight transport effort, already irresponsible after April 5, to the stage of insanity. The South Africans sent out 38 P-40s, covered by a South African Spitfire squadron and additional flights of British- and Polish-manned Spitfires. They downed 16 (or possibly 17) Me-323s, an Mc 202, and an Re-2001, and perhaps three or more German fighters. Curiously, Allied losses also are uncertain; at most they lost four P-40s and a Spitfire, which had to belly-land.
In Fighters over Tunisia, Christopher Shores provides almost two pages about the engagement, concluding with this paragraph:
Final confirmation of the early morning battle credited the DAF fighters with 25 Me 323s, eight Bf 109s, one MC 202 and one Re 2001, at the cost of four Kittyhawks lost and one damaged, one Spitfire belly-landed but repairable, and one damaged. This brought Allied claims for transports since the start of Operation "Flax" to well over 400 for the loss of about 35 fighters while engaged on these operations. However, on this occasion there seems to have been a fair amount of double-claiming again, particularly as the formation of Me 323s was originally assessed to be only 20 strong. While II/JG 27 put losses at 16, Stab/JG 53 reported that 17 Giganten were shot down. In any event, TG.5 was wiped out as a unit.
Dabrowski continues with Me 323 operations in the Med until withdrawn from Italy later in 1943, then on the Russian Front where the transports were pressed into non-stop service supplying threatened and besieged ground forces. The book also covers the USAAF raid on Keckemet in Hungary in June 1944 which destroyed a half-dozen Giganten on the ground. Chapter 12 deals with the Waffentraeger ("Weapons Carrier") version of the Me 323, a variant with a strengthened airframe which sacrificed cargo capacity for increased defensive armament and was used exclusively in the escort role. Chapter 13 describes the "Flying Workshop" version which was, as the name implies, fitted out with tools and work benches, stocked with spares, manned by technicians, and utilized to reach and repair Giganten forced down at remote fields lacking suitable parts or facilities.
The final chapters provide photographic galleries of the Giganten, including eight pages of color photos. One of the most illuminating is of a German Marder (self-propelled, tracked artillery) being loaded into a Me 323. This photo alone is sufficient to drive home the monstrous hauling capacity of the aircraft. Of several appendices, the most notable are "Formation and Movement of Me 321/Me 323 Units" and "Me 323 Gigant Construction List," the latter with aircraft-by-aircraft data on construction, designation, employment, and eventual disposition.
No one is suggesting Messerschmitt Me 321/323 should qualify as one of the Top Ten books of the year (a little thin on details in a few places, a few more typographical errors than usual, and not quite as cleanly laid out as most Schiffer books), but the subject matter makes this one stand above most aircraft volumes. Recommended.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Schiffer Military History.
Thanks to Schiffer for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 7 April 2002
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone