The Me 321 glider was used to transport heavy weapons during the invasion of Russia.
At first the Me 321 required three aircraft to pull it off the ground as well as assistance from rocket motors. Later specialist tugs were developed – here the Glider is pulled by another unusual aircraft – the Heinkel 111Z or Zwilling. Two Heinkel 111 aircraft were joined together with the addition of another engine.
The following film shows the Me 321 glider in operation in Russia, including extraordinary footage of the take off when it is pulled by three aircraft flying in formation. There was no room for error here. It concludes with a short combat sequence of a Me 323 plane being shot down by a USAAF P-38, probably in the Mediterranean:
The Me 321 glider was developed into the Me 323 Gigant transport aircraft with the addition of 6 engines.
The Illustrated London News overview of the Me 323, drawn by G H Davis, published in 1943. Allied fighter pilots would have been fully aware of where the fuel tanks were located within the wooden frame.
The profile of the Me323 as produced for the Illustrated London News in 1943.
While the Germans had complete command of the skies the Me 321, and later the Me 323, were to prove their worth in transporting heavy equipment over the vast distances of Russia. When the German campaign in North Africa began to unravel, the Me 323 was pressed into service to transport men and munitions between Tunisia and Sicily. Although the German campaign in Tunisia was doomed, Hitler chose to continue re-inforcing the Afrika Korps rather than consider an evacuation.
Sea transports were becoming increasingly vulnerable to Allied attack. It was a desperate move to try to supplement these with the Me 323 which was inevitably even more vulnerable to Allied air attack than shipping convoys.
A Me 323 delivers a Renault tracked vehicle to the Tunisian front.
German casualties from Tunisia arriving in Italy March 1943.
On the 22nd April 1943 the airlift programme from Sicily to Tunisia was brought to a dramatic halt when a fleet of 27 Me 323 transport planes was attacked by Allied fighters. Although escorted by German fighters they were little better than sitting ducks. 22 were shot down into the Mediterranean.
The huge size and lumbering speed of the Me 323 made it an obvious target for Allied aircraft.
Footage of the Me 323 in operation in the Aegean, shown flying over the sea:
South African pilots at Kairouan North/Temmar, Tunisia, recount the events of 22 April 1943, when Curtiss Kittyhawks of No. 7 South African Wing, and Supermarine Spitfires of No. 1 Squadron SAAF, intercepted and shot down a large formation of Messerschmitt Me 323 transport aircraft and their fighter escorts, which was attempting to reinforce the beleaguered Axis forces in North Africa, off Cap Bon, Tunisia. They are, (left to right): Major J D W Human (Sweep leader of No. 7 Wing), Major J E Parsonson (Officer Commanding No. 5 Squadron SAAF, credited with shooting down two Me 323s), Lieutenant R W Humphrey and Lieutenant F A Weingartz (both No. 5 Squadron SAAF, each of whom was credited with two Me 323s).
World War II Today continues to follow the war through to August 1945, although not every day - alongside these stories will be the dramatic events of 75 years ago, the first battles in France, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the beginning of the Blitz.
I hope many of you will wish to keep following the war as I add more pictures, newsreels and new stories in the coming months and years. I shall also be developing new ways of exploring the hundreds of different stories already here.
Thank you to all those who have sent words of support over the years - your encouragement has kept me going. It has been a fascinating journey of exploration for me - and it is far from over yet!
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"This story grips you by the lapels and sometimes by the throat, and all who love tales of war will devour every page."