A Brief History
On July 30, 1864, Union forces exploded 8,000 pounds of black powder in a tunnel underneath Confederate trenches at Petersburg, Virginia, creating a crater 170 feet long and 120 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. The unorganized rush of Union troops into the crater resulted in Union failure, with Federal troops suffering well over double the casualties inflicted on the Confederate troops. The Battle of the Crater as this action was called is an example of an unconventional military idea that did not work. Back on May 15, 2014 History and Headlines featured a list of 10 Weapons and Weapons Systems that Flopped. Today, we list 10 more of these off the wall military ideas as a sequel, although not all are total failures. There are more than enough other failed weapons and goofy ideas to create several more lists. (Be sure to see our related articles,“10 Bizarre World War II Weapons” and “Weird Weapons of World War I”)
10. Battle of the Crater, 1864.
As described above, the idea of tunneling under Confederate lines and blowing up 320 kegs of gunpowder was not an inherently bad idea. Not having a proper plan of what to do once the explosion took place was a bad idea. If Union troops had used the diversion to concentrate an attack to one side or the other of the crater and not sent men into the crater itself the plan may have worked. Similar operations were tried during World War I, with mixed results, sometimes with failure and sometimes with limited success. The threat of such operations has resulted in the use of underground microphones and other detectors to locate enemy tunnels. The use of tunnels being dug defensively to intercept enemy tunnels also became part of the underground war.
9. Napoleon’s Invasion of England by Balloon, 1805.
Upon discovering the unsuitability of the invasion barges planned for use in a cross channel invasion, Napoleon considered using a large fleet of hot air balloons to carry his troops to England. Luckily for the French troops, the idea was scrapped when studies of the wind indicated the problems that would be encountered with this bad idea.
8. Head Parachute, WWI.
The idea of having a helmet mounted parachute is idiotic on a few fronts. For one thing, a parachute big enough to support a man would be a heck of a big hat. The other major problem is the opening shock would dislocate the neck bones of the unfortunate parachutist if not rip the head off. This dumb idea was rejected.
7. Aerial Aircraft Carriers, 1910’s-1950’s.
The US military was especially persistent in trying to make this idea work, first by creating gigantic airships (dirigibles) that could carry several small bi-planes that could be launched and recovered by means of a trapeze type gizmo mounted underneath. Later, attempts at making small fighter planes that could likewise be carried by B-29 or B-36 bombers were made, culminating in the nifty little XF-85 Goblin jet fighter intended to be carried by the B-36. Aerial refueling of fighters made this concept unnecessary. The first efforts actually go back to the British in World War I when they mounted a fighter on an airship and when they mounted a fighter on a large flying boat. In fiction, we see this concept repeatedly in science fiction movies and television shows where large spacecraft carry smaller space fighters. The US again considered making an airborne aircraft carrier in the 1970’s, this time out of a Boeing 747 airliner!
6. AN-602 Tsar Bomba, 1961.
If bigger is not necessarily better for tanks, how about nukes? The Soviets detonated the largest nuclear bomb in history in 1961, a 60,000 pound lithium fusion bomb (thermonuclear) that had a yield of 58 megatons, about 1570 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, more powerful than every single bomb dropped in World War II combined. Cracked historical fact: The bomb was designed for a 100 megaton yield, but was purposely exploded at a lower yield because the higher yield would have created an unacceptable amount of radiation. The fireball could be seen for 620 miles, and the mushroom cloud was 40 miles high. Windows were broken in Norway and Finland, hundreds of miles away. Buildings were destroyed 34 miles away. The largest yield by a US nuclear bomb is probably around 25 megatons.
5. Gigantic Tanks, WWI and WWII.
If a big heavily armored and armed tank is good, why would a bigger, more heavily armed and armored tank not be better? Because the darn thing could barely move, could not cross bridges (they would collapse), were too big for ferrying across rivers, could not be transported by normal trucks or trains (let alone aircraft), and would make great targets. So much material and time would be spent building them that the loss of each one would be catastrophic. In World War I Germany conceived of the K-Wagen, a 120 ton tank with a 27 man crew, sporting 4 X 77 mm guns. Britain countered with the Flying Elephant, a 100 ton beast powered by a total of 210 horsepower (less than many cars today). Russia, not to be outdone, came up with the Tsar Tank, the weirdest of this bunch, with wheels instead of caterpillar tracks. The front wheels were 27 feet tall and the hull was 40 feet wide! The upper turret cannon was 24 feet off the ground. The Germans in World War II came up with the Maus, a 200 metric ton monster with a 128 mm gun, the largest tank ever built. This useless weapon never saw combat, and the Germans came up with an even dumber idea, the 1000 ton (!)Landkreuzer, 5 times bigger than the Maus with 2 X 280 mm guns. Not good enough? How about the Landkreuzer P. 1500, a 1500 ton beast with separate vehicles fore and aft, carrying an 800 mm gun and a 100 man crew!
4. Ice Aircraft Carrier, WWII.
The British concocted a scheme of making a gigantic aircraft carrier out of ice reinforced with sawdust. It was to be virtually unsinkable and large enough to carry multi-engine bombers. This concept was not an idle idea, but a genuine program worked on quite seriously.
3. M-388 Davy Crockett, 1956.
Not everything named after an American hero is good. This idiotic idea was to mount a nuclear bomb on the end of a man portable recoilless rifle (an anti-tank bazooka type weapon). With a range of only 3 km, (less than 2 miles), the operator would have to be nuts to use the weapon. Incredibly, 2100 of these goofy things were made, and were in service from 1961 to 1971. Yield of the warhead was between 10 tons (TNT equivalent) and 1 kiloton, depending on model.
2. Cat Bombs/Pigeon Bombs, WWII.
The US worked diligently to spend every last taxpayer dollar that could possibly be spent, and came up with innovative ways to do it. Getting cats or pigeons to be placed inside bombs used to attack ships at sea attached to guidance systems received actual serious research. The theory was that the cat or pigeon would seek to land on the ship instead of the ocean, causing the bomb to hit the ship. Good thing we were not fighting PETA!
1. Helmet Gun, 1916.
A man named Albert Bacon Pratt of Vermont was actually granted a patent for mounting a small cannon on the front of a helmet. The idea was that the gunner would instinctively aim the gun at where he was looking, with the help of a sighting device that dangled in front of his eyes. Apparently the thought of breaking the gunner’s neck or sending the recoiling helmet flying did not occur to him. No reports of it ever being used are known.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think was the wackiest military idea? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please read…
Hess, Earl J. Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg (Non Series). University of South Carolina Press, 2010.
Yenne, Bill. Secret Weapons of World War II. Berkley, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a scene of the explosion on Saturday, July 30th, 1864, published in Harper’s Weekly, 22 Aug. 1864, p. 548, is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g10794. This image is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.
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