The Second World War witnessed the introduction of hundreds of cutting-edge and often bizarre weapons, many of which became quite famous. But there were plenty of others that never got the same kind of notoriety. Here are 11 weapons from WWII you probably never knew existed.
Before we get started, it’s worth noting that all of the weapons listed here were put into action during the war. There were a ton of crazy and highly conceptual weapons that were considered, but never deployed. These ones, on the other hand, were actually put to use.
1. V3 Cannon
Like the V1 cruise missile and the V2 rocket that preceded it, the Vergeltungswaffe 3 Cannon (a.k.a. “England Cannon”) was another so-called Nazi "vengeance weapon.” It was a massive super gun built directly into a hill and capable of firing artillery shells across the English Channel from France to London.
The V3 operated according to a multi-charge principle in which secondary propellant charges were fired to progressively accelerate the projectile as it moved along the barrel of the cannon. During trials in May 1944, the V3 achieved a range of up to 55 miles (88 km), and tests in July 1944 saw shells reach a distance of 58 miles (93 km).
Of the two V3s built, only the secondary gun saw action. From January 11 to February 22, 1945, some 183 rounds were fired.
It’s target was the recently liberated city of Luxembourg. But it proved to be largely ineffectual; of the 142 rounds that landed, the V3 took the lives of only 10 people, wounding another 35.
2. Dora and Gustav Rail Cannons
Speaking of big guns — and the Nazis clearly had a thing for big guns — these two 31.5-inch caliber German cannons were absolute behemoths. And in fact, they are the largest cannons the world has ever seen.
Each of them had to be transported in several pieces, assembled, and then mounted on a prepared emplacement — a procedure that required around 4,000 men! The Nazis deployed an entire anti-aircraft regiment to protect them, along with special troops to guard against partisan attacks.
Of the two, only Gustav was put into active service. It fired 42 shots during the 1942 siege of Sebastopol — and the penetrative power of its huge shells, each weighing 11,000 pounds (4,800 kg), was enough to destroy an ammunitions dump protected by 100 feet (30 m) of rock.
There were plans to equip it with rocket-propelled shells that could reach targets as far as 90 miles (145 km) away.
Weapons expert Alexander Ludeke refers to them as “technological masterpieces” but says they were “basically a waste of materials, technological expertise, and manpower.”
3. Exploding Rats
After the fall of France, Winston Churchill vowed to “set Europe ablaze.” To that end, British secret agents were equipped with an assortment of disguised explosive devices that would have made even James Bond jealous — bombs that were made to look like soap, shoes, bottles of chianti, bicycle pumps, suitcases — and even rats.
The Guardian explains how the exploding rats were used — both intentionally and unintentionally:
But the most exotic device was the "explosive rat". A hundred of the rodents were procured by an SOE officer posing as a student needing them for laboratory experiments.
The rats were skinned, filled with plastic explosive, and sewn up. The idea was to place a rat among coal beside a boiler.
When they were spotted, they would immediately be thrown on to the fire, causing a huge explosion.
That was the theory. As one of the SOE files records: "This device caused considerable trouble to the enemy, but not quite in the way that was intended." The Germans intercepted the container of dead rats before they could be used for "operational purposes". But all was not lost.
According to an SOE report, their discovery had an "extraordinary moral effect": the rodents were exhibited at all German military schools, prompting a hunt for "hundreds of rats the enemy believed were distributed on the continent".
SOE concluded: "The trouble caused to them was a much greater success to us than if the rats had actually been used."
4. Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka Kamikaze Attack Plane
Looking to refine the power of the Kamikaze attack, the Japanese introduced the Ohka in September 1944 — a large piloted bomb.
It was a rocket-propelled aircraft designed specifically for Kamikaze attacks and was equipped with a 2,643 pound warhead. During an attack, the Ohka was carried under the fuselage of a Mitsubishi G4M until its target was within range.
Once released, a pilot would glide as close to the target as possible, hit the rocket engines, and then bullet towards the ship at a horrendous speed.
The Allies quickly learned to attack the Ohka carrier aircraft before it had a chance to release it, greatly diminishing its effectiveness. But on at least one occasion it sunk a U.S. destroyer.
5. Soviet Anti-tank Dogs
As the Russians were being overwhelmed on the Eastern Front by the Wehrmacht, the Red Army took to desperate measures — including the use of the so-called anti-tank dog.
Initially, these dogs were trained to carry a bomb to a specific target, release the device with its teeth, and then return to its operator.
Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to get the dogs to do this, so the Soviets relied on much simpler strategy: just blow up the dog.
These suicide dogs were taught that food awaits them at the bottom of tanks.
So, with a 26-pound bomb strapped on — and with the dogs deliberately kept hungry — they would desperately run to their targets in search of food, unaware of their eventual fate.
A lever attached to the rig would strike the bottom of the tank as the dog dived under, causing the bomb to detonate. The dogs became so effective that some Germans began shooting any dog on sight.
The Soviets used about 40,000 dogs for various army tasks, and an undocumented estimate places the number of German tanks destroyed at about 300.
6. Hobart’s Funnies
In preparation for D-Day, the Allies developed a host of unusual vehicles, many of which were named after warfare expert Percy Hobart. Here’s a sampling:
The Sherman Crab
7. Ruhustahl SD 1400 “Fritz X” Radio-controlled Bomb
Dubbed Fritz-X, this was an air-launched German radio-controlled bomb. Its primary function was to destroy heavily armored naval targets.
It was based on the standard SD 1400 armor-piercing bomb, but it featured superior aerodynamics, four small wings extending 4.4 feet (1.35 m) across, and a tail.
But to drop the thing, a gunner had to fly directly over the intended target, thus leaving him tremendously exposed.
It proved to be a formidable weapon, however — one that gave the Allies fits. On September 9, 1943, soon after the Italian truce, the Germans dropped several of them on the battleship Roma, sinking it with 1,455 men on board.
It was also used to sink the British Cruiser HMS Spartan, the British destroyer HMS Janus, and the Newfoundland hospital ship.
It also damaged many other ships. Over 2,000 Fritz-Xs were built, but only 200 were ever dropped. Part of the problem was the bombs could not change direction abruptly, exposing the bomber groups who suffered heavy losses.
8. Henschel HS 293 Radio-controlled Glide Bomb
This radio-controlled glide bomb was the most effective guided weapon of the war — a bomb that destroyed numerous destroyers and trading ships.
After being released by a German carrier aircraft, its rocket would fire for about 10 seconds, and then glide to its target for the rest of the way.
It even featured a light installation at its rear so that the gunner could easily observe it, either at night or day.
It was first deployed in August 1943, and is responsible for sinking the British corvette HMS Egret.
Toward the end of the war, the Allies figured out how to tap into its radio frequencies, allowing them to interfere with the device and greatly reduce its effectiveness.
9. Unrotated Projectile
This is one of those ideas that looked good on paper, but proved awful in practice.
A British innovation, the Unrotated Projectile was a short range rocket-firing anti-aircraft weapon with wires and parachutes attached.
The idea was to create an aerial minefield. As these rockets slowly drifted back down, any aircraft flying through the deployment area would be a risk of snagging a cable which would pull the rocket towards it and detonate on impact.
Trouble is, a slight change of wind could cause the rockets to drift back onto the ship that launched them. Despite this, it was used extensively during the early days of World War II.
10. X-Class Midget Submarines
Originally an Italian innovation, these tiny four-man British subs could reach distances of 1,200 miles, dive to a depth of 300 feet, and travel at a speed of 6 knots. Each mini-sub displaced about 30 tonnes of water when submerged. It only had one access hatch, which proved to be a major headache during emergencies.
Military Factory explains how it worked:
The desired method of operation concerning the X-craft was to position the submarine as close to the target using one of two delivery systems developed: the boat could be either towed by a conventional submarine to be suspended underneath the target enemy ship or launched from the deck of a submarine to make its way to the target ship under its own power.
The Admiralty chose two 3,570 lb conjoined mines of a high explosive nature to be attached to the sides of the boat via a bolt.
These mines were then released by way of a hand crank when the vessel was positioned below the hull of an enemy ship.
The explosive was equipped with a delayed fuse timer that allowed the boat to retire out of the blast area within time.
The explosive used was Amatex, a standard and stable military explosive comprised of 51% ammonium nitrate, 40% TNT, and 9% RDX.
11. Goliath tracked mine
Dubbed “doodlebugs” by the Allies, the Goliath was a remote-controlled demolition carrier.
It was introduced by the Germans in 1942 who used the device to transport a 165 pound bomb to a target, which typically included tanks, dense infantry formations, bridges, and buildings.
These vehicles were wire-controlled and exploded on impact with their targets. Over 4,600 of these devices were produced, including a larger version that could carry a 220 pound bomb.
Unfortunately for the Germans, they were slow, hard to control, and the payloads far too small.
The idea was clearly ahead of its time — a kind of precursor to modern robots — but the technology was simply not advanced enough.