Top 10 Worst Military Weapons in the History of Modern War
History is littered with really bad weapons that have actually been taken into battle. Despite the mortal danger that these design flaws pose, there is something humorous about their Wile E. Coyote nature. Here are 10 of my absolute favorites.
#10: The Nazi Triebflügel
The Nazis were kind of desperate toward the end of WWII. A costly bombing campaign for both sides had become such a threat to them that they started rushing ideas to the drawing board. The Nazis needed an answer fast.
Then some engineer had the thought, "What if we made a helicopter, only cooler."
The concept was actually really cool, and I'm surprised it hasn't dominated the toy industry since. The idea was that rockets would be fired on the blades of the propeller to get them to spin incredibly fast. Then, freaking ramjets would kick in to make the blades go so fast that they'd almost create a time portal(citation needed). The beast would take off vertically, and then tilt to the side to gain forward momentum. Armed with a couple of machine guns, it probably would have become a significant threat to the allied bombing campaign.
One of its best features was that it did not require a runway (VTOL is the military term). Allied forces had a nasty habit of prioritizing the bombing and capturing of airfields, and by doing so rendering German fighter aircraft useless. The engineers were so pumped and rushed about the design that they didn't think much about landing it. And this is why it appears on my worst weapons list.
Unlike the Japanese, the Nazis weren't really into the whole suicide bombing thing, and especially not in 1944. When potential test pilots started asking questions about landing the Triebflügel, the engineers realized one of the major flaws in its design.
The original idea was for the pilot to land this gigantic monster with his back to the ground. Even if he didn't have his back to the ground, he still wouldn't be able to see the ground because of the ramjet-assisted propeller. The engineers were unable to find a quick solution, and went back to doing other Nazi-stuff.
#9: Sizaire-Berwick Armoured Car
What happens when the Royal Air Force designs an armored car in 1915? Well, in the age of biplanes and triplanes, armed quadricycles and malfunctioning tanks, anything was possible.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or any scientist) to see the inherent flaws of the design pictured to the right. The RAF was very proud of their recent developments in improving the aircraft engine, and so they decided that what worked in the air might also work on the ground.
Aircraft rely on their speed and maneuverability for defense. Armored cars usually don't. A couple of well placed shots to the propeller engine of an aircraft will take it out of sky. Or in this case, slow the "Wind Wagon" to a stop. Even the radiator in the front was completely unprotected.
"Don't worry," I'm sure the designer told the crews, "because you have one forward mounted machine gun to defend your extremely vulnerable armored car."
Turns out the German's weren't as gentlemanly as expected in their fighting style, and they refused to line up in front of the British when the British politely asked them to do so. If the Germans were anywhere BUT directly in front of this car then that was bad news bears for the crew.
One of these almost made it to combat in Africa, but the official story is that it got stuck in the terrain. Possibly though the Germans laughed it into a hole of shame.
#8: Saint-Chamond Tank
To be fair, this was one of France's first try at a tank. To be fair, it still was one of the worst designs in history.
Okay, so WWI tanks didn't have to be fast. Troops spent days in trenches just outside of range of each other. The tank was about the only thing that a sane person would cross no-man's-land with, and this was because it had incredible armor.
The Saint-Chamond kept this in mind, because it had 23 tons of armor and munitions.
Powered by a 90 horsepower engine. That's slightly larger than a big motorcycle engine. Unlike a motorcycle, the Saint-Chamond had a crew of 9, a 75 mm gun, and slew of machine guns. All of these things added so much weight that the max speed was 7 mph on a good day (4 hp for every 2000 lbs).
Also, its shape contributed to the mobility problems. It was designed by an artillery officer, and thus it had a huge howitzer in the front of it.
Unfortunately for the French, a battlefield usually isn't just a giant well-paved road. The tank's natural habitat consists of things like bomb craters, trenches, and small hills even sometimes. In the picture above, you can see that a line of these tanks pause in front of a small hill. That's because their steel bodies are so long that the crew despises small inclines and declines.
So four hundred of these things were sent to the battlefield at a blistering speed of 7 mph. Part of each crew was a mechanic who tried to keep everything running. Crews literally refused to serve in them. Germans were able to sneak within range to throw grenades and satchel charges on them because they rarely moved faster than an average foot soldier could.
Despite all of these flaws, this is one of the few machines on this countdown that can claim occasionally killing the enemy in combat.
#7: Maginot Line
The Maginot Line wasn't necessarily one weapon, per say. Why should it make the list then?
Well, the Maginot Line has become synonymous among military strategists with the word failure. Similarly, it was largely due to the Maginot Line that France became synonymous among other countries with the word surrender.
The line was a long defensive fortification constructed along the border of France and Germany that cost the GDP of a small country. It was so thick (10-16 miles) that it could barely be called a line. It was intended to stop the strongest of Nazi invasions, and probably could've done so if the Germans (again) co-operated.
You see, the Maginot line was constructed under the assumption that the Germans would not violate the neutrality of Belgium if they decided to invade. Unfortunately Nazi invaders don't always follow the honor system, and France was taken out of the war quicker than you can say "surrender".
Not only did France expect Germany to respect the honor system, but they expected them to do so at the cost of thousands of lives. Okay, I'll try an stop berating France for this one. If you, the reader, is ever in charge of national defense though then please promise me you'll invest in something that can move (Let's remember that some Mongols got past the Great Wall of China by bribing a guard).
#6: The Mary Rose and The Tegetthoff Class Battleship
The Mary Rose represented a transition in European naval warfare. First commissioned in 1511, it was one of the first ships with numerous portholes on each side of it for cannons. Previously, battling an enemy ship meant boarding it and engaging in fierce hand to hand combat. Now ships like the Mary Rose could in theory fire 30-50 cannons (varying in size) at once and devastate an enemy ship. The new tactics had effective results, and so in 1536 the Mary Rose went through an "upgrade."
The guys in charge of the ship looked at the cannons, and they looked at the crew. Then they said "more."
The ship's weight was increased from 500 tons to 700 or 800 tons. You can probably see the dilemma that this might cause.
So in 1545 in the Battle of the Solent, the heavy Mary Rose sailed out to engage French galleys. Firing its guns while in a stiff breeze, the ship rocked so hard that water entered the lower gun ports. What followed was a rapid and violent sinking. As the ship tilted, ammunition, guns, and other cargo shifted to the sinking side of the ship. All the weight caused it to sink even more rapidly, and over 90% of the crew perished (some of which were around 12 years old).
History is a great teacher, and it would be a shame to forget a tragedy such as this one. Surely, 400 years later, with things like physics and such, naval commanders wouldn't make the same mistake again. This, however, was the same mistake made by the engineers of the Tegetthoff Class Battleship, an Austrian-Hungary battleship that was extremely overloaded with guns. The engineers, however, did realize their mistake nearing its completion. As a result, they banned the 4 battleships that were built from making sharp turns.
As you can imagine, a battleship that can't make sharp turns out of fear of sinking can't withstand very much damage either. This was evident when one got hit with a couple of torpedoes:
#5: Royal Aircraft Factory B.E. 9
WWI planes were notorious safety hazards, and in fact this whole list could probably consist of only WWI fighter planes. Heavier-than-air aircraft were undoubtedly new, and so some of the follies could be ascribed to lack of testing or wind tunnel data that is present for modern day engineers. Other fatal or nearly-fatal instances can be ascribed purely to stupidity.
One example of this is the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E. 9. Before there were interrupter gears to allow a pilot to shoot through a propeller, aircraft designers were scrambling to find a solution for forward facing machine guns. The designers of the B.E. 9 tried to resolve the issue by mounting a wooden box and machine gun in front of the propeller to be used by a co-pilot.
There are a couple of reasons why you've never seen an aircraft designed this way. One issue is that the gunner is unable to communicate with the pilot. One instance where this could be an issue is if the gunner or the pilot saw an enemy aircraft, they would be unable to relay that valuable information to their counterpart.
The other (much more ominous) drawback is that the gunner had nothing between him and the propeller. Simply leaning back could be fatal. A more common accident was an arm being sucked into propeller because the gunner was turning his Lewis gun. Sometimes even scarves (it is really cold in front of a plane at high altitude) could catch in the propeller with fatal consequences. Not to mention it probably emotionally scarred the pilot for life as chunks of his aviator friend were blown in his face.
Not surprisingly, the B.E. 9 did not make it far past the prototype stage.
Another WWI entry comes in the form of the Grossflammenwerfer. The German army initially built two types of flamethrowers in WWI. One was the more portable Kleinflammenwerfer, while the larger Grossflammenwerfer is awarded the #4 spot on this list. The initial use of the flamethrower (especially the Kleinflammenwerfer) was effective; Allied soldiers had never seen such a device. Later on, the defects of the flame thrower started to become apparent.
The Grossflammenwerfer's crew had one of the shortest life expectancies on the battlefield. It was too heavy to be carried by one man, and it was still a struggle for even two men. Nevertheless, the German officers would send two men crews in front of their main force to try to clear the trenches. They had a high casualty rate for many reasons, and here are just a few:
- The weapon was so volatile that a simple bump could make it explode
- It was a big target that could easily be knocked out
- When crews were captured they would almost certainly be executed because of the nature of the weapon they were carrying
- It was almost impossible to sneak up on anyone carrying an object that bulky
- The crews would be the first to engage the enemy, and they always drew a majority of the fire from the enemy (especially after they revealed their position with a giant flame)
As you can see, any sane man would not want to be the one operating this weapon. In addition to its dangers as a weapon, the fluids used were extremely expensive. Despite the drawbacks of the flamethrower, they would continue to find use on all sides of the war and even in tanks.
#3: Russian Tsar Tank
The first tanks that rumbled across the battlefields of WWI often suffered from a variety of technical issues. Many of them struggled to find a balance between speed, balance, and armaments--a problem that has faced combatants since the beginning of war. During this time period mechanical failures seemed to stop tanks just as often as enemy fire. The internal combustion engine, after all, had not been around for very long.
Tanks immediately threatened to give a decisive advantage and turn the tide of the war. Engineers had to speedily come up with innovations and rush ideas to production.
Unfortunately in Russia, they asked the wrong person to design a tank:
No, it's not a toy. No, it's not an early attempt at a bicycle, either. Let me give a few reasons why the Tsar Tank is #3 on this list...
Wait, no. Let's have a second look at it:
The project was scrapped because the tank was underpowered and vulnerable to artillery fire. If it had made it to the battlefield, I'd imagine it'd be vulnerable to every other type of fire as well.
Not only that, the turret could only fire straight forward. If it tried to fire left or right without turning the gigantic beast around, it would damage its own wheels. In addition, the top speed wasn't much faster than infantry could run. As a result, it could've been easily flanked.
Other than it's weaponry, mobility, and armor issues it was a great tank.
#2: Bob Semple Tank
The Bob Semple tank is an entry from WWII era New Zealand. New Zealand started to worry about national defense in a time period when the Imperial Japanese Army licked their chops when they looked at a map of the Southeast Pacific. Still, national defense had not been a heavy priority for New Zealand since, well, the history of time (to be fair, however, New Zealand lost 18,500 people to WWI...a relatively large percentage of their population). New Zealanders scrambled to bring their armies up to speed with the rest of the world.
News traveled to New Zealand that there were a new war machine known as tanks, and New Zealand tried to hop on that train. As a result, they contacted their British allies to lend them some spare tanks. Britain at the time of course was fighting for its life so that didn't quite pan out. New Zealand tried building an indigenous tank, and they based their design on a picture of a tractor-tank that was on a United States postcard. The result was this:
Again, this was probably the first or second try building a tank for New Zealand.
Let's look at the positives:
- The tank was basically a kit that could quickly be fitted on a tractor, so that you transformed an average New Zealand agricultural instrument into a tank* before the enemy came. I guess it was kind of like a WWII New Zealand Optimus Prime.
- The armor was manufactured using indigenous materials which strengthened New Zealand pride
*The term "tank" here can only be used loosely
Now, the negatives:
- The armor+weapons+tractor weighed 20-25 tons (the United States M4 Sherman tank weighed 30 tons, but had an engine 3x more powerful). This made it crawl along at a pace that not only prevented it from retreating very far but also prevented quick offensive tactical maneuvers. Also, it had to stop to change gears.
- The armor was manufactured using indigenous materials which made it barely bulletproof to even small caliber weapons.
- There were 7 fixed machine guns...but no main cannon. So if the crew wanted to knock out a wall, or an enemy tank, they were SOL.
- The weight also contributed to instability. No one wanted to drive it on the side of a slope.
- Vibrations from the engine made it nearly impossible to aim.
The Bob Semple tank served its time as a novelty in parades and the history books. At the time, New Zealanders saw it as a symbol of self-sufficiency and New Zealand ingenuity. I would submit that it symbolized the exact opposite.
#1: Davy Crockett Nuclear Mortar
Of all the weapons in the countdown, I believe this to be unarguably the worst. The United States had worked on building tactical nuclear weapons in the 60's in case an apocalyptic war came. Germany's defense minister argued for the implementation of these "Nuclear Mortars" that were very inaccurate (although aiming wasn't too big of an issue). The bombs themselves were about the size of a medium size dog, but they packed the explosion equivalent of 15 tons of TNT. The greatest hazard, however, was that it spilled a lethal dosage of radiation on everything within a quarter mile radius of the blast.
So what's the problem with using a "Nuclear Mortar"? It's just a really effective artillery system, right?
The Davy Crockett would have given Soviets and excuse to use nuclear weapons (if they hadn't already). Also, this nuclear device (and the decision to use it) was completely under the control of three individuals in a jeep. I personally don't believe that three soldiers should carry around that responsibility. More to their concern, however, is that the soldiers couldn't fire it and speed away fast enough to avoid a severe radiation dose of their own.
On top of that, if one were captured, or a city was near the enemy...it could wipe out a whole city or town of innocent people.
Really you could make the argument that most nuclear weapons in most situations should be #1 on this list.