Thursday, May 1, 2014

Nazi Mega Weapons: Super Tanks (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a PBS show called Nazi Mega Weapons, an episode called “Super Tanks,” which argued that starting in 1935 Hitler started a secret program (it had to be secret since the Treaty of Versailles didn’t allow Germany to have a tank force) to develop a new generation of tanks, which he called Panzers (a word Hitler coined because previously the German term for “tank” had been one of those endless compound words beloved of German speakers and, since German relegates its verbs to the ends of sentences, without a short term for “tank” German soldiers would have to wait patiently for their commanders to recite a long word for “tank” before they finally heard the verb that would tell them what they were being ordered to do with it), since Hitler had seen the world’s first tank — the British Mark I — up close and personal as a corporal in World War I. According to this show the Germans’ early Blitzkrieg successes during World War II were mainly a function of them having the world’s best tanks (funny me, I’d thought it had as much or more to do with the success of their Stuka dive-bomber planes) until they invaded the Soviet Union and found themselves up against the Russian T-34, the best tank in the world to that time, with sloping armor so the German armor-piercing shells would slide harmlessly off it. Hitler was determined to developed a super-tank that would be able to take out the T-34 — he called it the “Tiger” — and it proved lethally effective whenever it worked well enough but frequently broke down, and it had to be hand-crafted whereas the tanks it was going up against, the Russian T-34 and the American Sherman, were mass-produced. The show so strongly stressed Hitler’s obsession with weapons of huge size — the biggest guns, the biggest tanks (one of Hitler’s late-in-the-war obsessions, at a time when the war was going against the Axis but Hitler thought a new technological breakthrough would turn things around for him, was something called a Landcruiser that was basically a battleship on tank treads), the biggest rockets, the biggest fortifications, the biggest bunkers— one began to wonder whether this was a psychological obsession with him caused by the small size of his “endowment.”

The big problem with weapons of huge size was their immobility; one of the stranger stories told here was of Hitler’s determination to build the world’s biggest artillery piece, which was so large special railroad tracks had to be built to fire it, the shells it fired were twice as big as a human (meaning, though this wasn’t shown here, they probably had to build a special hoist just to load it), and the gun was only used once because it was so cumbersome and took so long to get into place it was essentially useless as a military weapon — it could fire a huge shell an impressive distance, but as with most artillery weapons it missed a lot and had to be readjusted so it would hit its target, and with a gun that’s hard to move and even harder to load that’s not an especially efficient way to destroy things, especially since its size also made it a sitting duck for enemy aircraft ready and waiting to bomb it into oblivion. One of the interesting minor characters in this story is Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, one of the two greatest auto designers (along with Enzo Ferrari) in history, whose most famous achievement was the Volkswagen, who submitted a rejected design for the Tiger (he wanted it powered by a combination diesel and electric engine — the diesel would charge the electric motors and the electrics would actually move the tank) and then used the same principle for an even bigger mega-tank which Dr. Porsche ironically called the Mouse. Only the Mouse had some problems of its own; it was so heavy it couldn’t be driven across a bridge because its weight would pound the bridge into oblivion, which meant it had to cross rivers by driving through the water — only its electric motors would short out under water, so another Mouse had to be behind it to push it. The big problem with the Mouse, though, was that in 1944 Hitler’s resources were so scanty it was hard enough to keep the German army equipped with normal weapons, let alone super-ones, so only two Mouse prototypes were built — and they were quickly captured by the Soviets, who tested them and decided they were too impractical for military use. What won the war for the Allies, this show suggested, was that they were able to produce weapons in such huge numbers that even if the Germans could throw something technologically superior at them, they could simply overwhelm it. Instead of pouring their energy into devising new weapons with special features, the Russians and especially the Americans figured out how to mount a heavier gun on an existing tank and deploy them in numbers that kept the Germans’ technological advantage from mattering. It’s a lesson, ironically, the U.S. military-industrial complex has forgotten as they develop more technically intricate planes that are too expensive to produce in large numbers, and whose very complexity gives them more ways to break down!