Messerschmitt Me 323D-1 „Gigant“, 5./ TG 5, (Italeri Models)

TYPE: Military transport aircraft

ACCOMMODATION: Crew of five plus 130 troops or 10,000–12,000 kg payload

POWER PLANT: Six Gnome-Rhone 14N radial engines, rated at 1,164 hp; each


COMMENT: The Messerschmitt Me 323 „Gigant“ (“Giant”) was a German military transport aircraft of World War II. It was a powered variant of the Messerschmitt Me 321 military glider and was the largest land-based transport aircraft to fly during the war. In total, 213 were made, with 15 being converted from the Me 321
The Me 323 was the result of a 1940 German requirement for a large assault glider in preparation for Operation Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), the projected invasion of Great Britain. The DFS 230 light glider developed by Deutsches Forschungsinstitut für Segelflug, (German Research Institute for Sailplanes)  had already proven its worth in the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium, the first ever assault by gliderborne troops, and would later be used successfully in the invasion of Crete in 1941.
However, in order to mount an invasion across the English Channel, the Germans would need to be able to airlift vehicles and other heavy equipment as part of an initial assault wave. Although Operation Sea Lion was cancelled, the requirement for a heavy air transport capability still existed, with the focus shifting to the forthcoming Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
On 18 October 1940, Junkers and Messerschmitt were given just 14 days to submit a proposal for a large transport glider. The emphasis was still very much on the assault role; the ambitious requirement was to be able to carry either an 88 mm gun and its half-track tractor, or a Panzer IV medium tank. The Junkers Ju 322 Mammut (Mammouth) reached prototype form, but was eventually scrapped due to difficulties in procuring the necessary high-grade timber for its all-wood construction, and as was discovered during the Mammuts only test flight, an unacceptably high degree of instability inherent in the design. The proposed Messerschmitt aircraft was originally designated Me 261w—partly borrowing the designation of the long-range Messerschmitt Me 261, then changed to Messerschmitt Me 263 later reused for Messerschmitt’s improved rocket fighter design, and eventually became the Me 321. Although the Me 321 saw considerable service on the Eastern Front as a transport, it was never used for its intended role as an assault glider.
Early in 1941, as a result of feedback from Transport Command pilots in Russia, the decision was taken to produce a motorized variant of the Me 321, to be designated Me 323. French Gnome-Rhone GR14N radial engines, rated at 1,164 hp, for take-off as used in the Bloch MB 175 aircraft were chosen for use. This would reduce the burden on Germany’s strained industry.
Initial tests were conducted with four Gnome engines attached to a strengthened Me 321 wing, giving modest speed of 130 mph – 50 mph slower than the Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft. A fixed undercarriage was fitted, with four small wheels in a bogie at the front of the aircraft and six larger wheels in two lines of three at each side of the fuselage, partly covered by an aerodynamic fairing. The rear wheels were fitted with pneumatic brakes that could stop the aircraft within 660 ft.
The four-engined Me 323C was considered a stepping-stone to the six-engined D series. It still required the five-engined Heinkel He 111Z Zwilling (Twin) or the highly dangerous „vic-style“ Troika-Schlepp formation of three Messerschmitt Me 110 heavy fighters and underwing-mounted Walter HWK 109-500 Starthilfe rocket-assist take-off units to get airborne when fully loaded, but it could return to base under its own power when empty. This was little better than the Me 321, so the V2 prototype became the first to have six engines and flew for the first time in early 1942, becoming the prototype for the D-series aircraft.
To reduce torque, the aircraft was fitted with three counterclockwise rotation engines on the port wing and three clockwise rotation engines on the starboard wing, as seen looking forward from behind each engine – resulting in the propellers rotating “away” from each other at the tops of their arcs.
Like the Me 321, the Me 323 had massive, semicantilever, high-mounted wings, which were braced from the fuselage out to the middle of the wing. To reduce weight and save aluminium, much of the wing was made of plywood and fabric, while the fuselage was of metal-tube construction with wooden spars and covered with doped fabric, with heavy bracing in the floor to support the payload.
The “D” series had a crew of five – two pilots, two flöight engineers, and a radio operator. Two gunners could also be carried. The flight engineers occupied two small cabins, one in each wing between the inboard and centre engines. The engineers were intended to monitor engine synchronisation and allow the pilot to fly without worrying about engine status, although the pilot could override the engineers’ decisions on engine and propeller control.
Maximum payload was around 12 tonnes, although at that weight, the Walter HWK 109-500 Starthilfe rocket-assisted take-off units used on the Me 321 were required for take-off. These were mounted beneath the wings outboard of the engines, with the wings having underside fittings to take up to four units. The cargo hold was 36 ft long, 10 f) wide and 11 ft high. Typical loads were one 15 cm sFH 18 heavy field howitzer (5.5 ton) accompanied by its Sd kfz 7 half-track artillery tractor vehicle (11 ton), two 4 ton trucks, 8,700 loaves of bread, an 88 mm Flak gun and accessories, 52 drums of fuel (45 US gal), 130 men, or 60 stretchers.
Some Me 321s were converted to Me 323s, but most were built as six-engined aircraft from the beginning. Early models were fitted with wooden, two-blade propellers, while later versions had metal, three-blade, variable-pitch versions.
The Me 323 had a maximum speed of only 136 mph at sea level. It was armed with five 13 mm MG 131 machine guns firing from a dorsal position behind the wings and from the fuselage. They were manned by the extra gunners, radio operator, and engineers.
By September 1942, Me 323s were being delivered for use in the Tunisian campaign. They entered service in the Mediterranean theatre in November 1942. High losses among Axis shipping required a huge airlift of equipment across the Mediterranean to keep Rommel’s Afrika Korps supplied.
A total of 198 Me 323s were built before production ceased in April 1944. Several production versions were built, beginning with the Me 323D-1. Later D- and E- versions differed in the choice of power plant and in defensive armament, with improvements in structural strength, total cargo load, and fuel capacity also being implemented. Nonetheless, the Me 323 remained underpowered. A proposal to install six BMW 801 radials did not occur. The Me 323 was also a short-range aircraft, with a typical range (loaded) of 620–750 mi. Despite this, the limited numbers of Me 323s in service were an asset to the Germans, and saw extensive use .
The aircraft shown here belonged to 5./ TG 5 (5th Gruppe/ Transportgeschwader 5, 5th Sqn,/Transport Group 5) (Ref.: 24).

Messerschmitt Me 321B-1 „Gigant“, (Giant), Italeri Models

TYPE: Cargo glider

ACCOMMODATION: Crew of three plus 200 equipped troops or 20,000 kg of cargo / military equipment


PERFORMANCE: Maximum tow speed 110 mph

COMMENT: The Messerschmitt Me 321 Gigant was a large German cargo glider developed and used during World War II. Intended to support large-scale invasions, the Me 321 had very limited use due to the low availability of suitable tug aircraft, high vulnerability whilst in flight, and its difficult ground handling, both at base and at destination landing sites. The Me 321 was developed, in stages, into the six-engined Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant, which removed some of the problems with ground handling, but vulnerability to ground fire and aerial attack remained a constant problem during operations of all variants.
During the preparations for a possible invasion of Britain during World War II (Operation Seelöwe, Operation Sea Lion) the Luftwaffe’s Transport Command saw an obvious need existed for a larger-capacity cargo- and troop-carrying aircraft than its mainstay, the Junkers Ju 52.
When the plans for Operation Sea Lion were shelved in December 1940, and planning began for the invasion of the USSR (Operation Barbarossa), the most cost-effective solution to the need for transport aircraft was found to be to use gliders. Accordingly, the Technical Bureau of the Luftwaffe issued a tender for rapid development of a Grossraumlastensegler (“large-capacity transport glider”) to the aircraft manufacturers Junkers and Messerschmitt. The specification called for the glider to be capable of carrying either an 88 mm gun plus its tractor, or a medium tank. The codename Projekt Warschau (Project Warsaw) was used, with Junkers being given the codename Warschau-Ost and Messerschmitt Warschau-Süd.
The Junkers design, the Ju 322 Mammut was unsuccessful, though, due to the company opting to use all-wood construction. Messerschmitt’s design for this transport glider consequently secured the contract for the company. Initially given the RLM designation Me 263, this designation number was later reused for the second-generation rocket fighter developed in 1945, the Messerschmitt Me 263. That number was “freed-up” when the number for this aircraft was switched to Me 321.
The Me 263 had a framework of steel tubing provided by the Mannesmann company, with wooden spars and a covering of doped fabric. This allowed for quick construction and easy repair when needed and also saved weight. The Me 263 was redesignated the Me 321 and was nicknamed Gigant (Giant) due to its huge size.
Its nose stood over 6 m high, and was made up of two clamshell doors, which could only be opened from the inside, when ramps would be used to allow vehicles to drive in or out. Compared to the Ju 52, the Me 321 offered a load area six times larger, around 100 m2, and could accommodate a gross cargo weighing up to 23 tons. The cargo space had been designed to replicate the load space of a standard German railway flatcar, allowing any cargo that could travel by rail to fit into an Me 321. Alternatively, if used as a passenger transport, 120-130 fully equipped troops could be accommodated.
The Me 321 was fitted with a jettisonable undercarriage comprising two Messerschmitt Me 109 mainwheels at the front and two Junkers Ju 90 main wheels at the rear and was intended to land on four extendable skids.
The first flight of theprototype Me 321 V1 took place on February 1941, towed into the air by a Ju 90. It carried 3 tons of ballast. Test pilot Baur reported that the controls were heavy and responses sluggish. They decided to enlarge the cockpit to accommodate a co-pilot and radio operator, and dual controls were fitted. Electric serve motors were also fitted to assist in moving the huge trailing edge flaps and further tests caused a braking parachute to also be added.
The test flights were plagued by take-off difficulties, since the Junkers Ju 90 was not powerful enough, and as an interim measure three Messerschmitt Me 110 heavy fighters were used, in a so-called Troikaschlepp, with the trio of twin-engined fighters taking off together in a V-formation. This was a highly dangerous manoeuvre and Ernst Udet asked Ernst Heinkel to come up with a better aerial towing method. Heinkel responded by creating the Heinkel He 111Z Zwilling (Twins), which combined two He 111 aircraft through the use of a new “center” wing section with a fifth engine added. Underwing-mount, liquid monopropellant Walter HWK 109-500 Starthilfe (rocket-assistet take-off) booster units were also used to assist take-off from rough fields.
The first Me 321 A-1 production aircraft entered service in May 1941, initially towed by Ju 90s and later by the He 111Z and the Troikaschlepp arrangement of three Me 110s. The triple Zerstörer arrangement was very dangerous in the event that one or more of the take-off booster rockets failed. One such failure did occur in 1941, which led to the collision of the tow planes and the deaths of all 129 occupants of the four aircraft. The later Me 321 B-1 variant had a crew of three and was armed with four 7.92 mm MG 15 machine guns.
The Me 321 was less than successful on the Eastern Front for various reasons. As a glider, the Me 321 lacked the ability to make a second or third approach to a crowded landing strip, moving on the ground was impossible without specialized vehicles, and before the introduction of the He 111 Zwilling, the dangerous Troikaschlepp arrangement gave a one-way range of only 400 km which was insufficient for a safe operating zone.
In early 1942, the remaining Me 321s were withdrawn from service in Russia in anticipation of the planned Operation Herkules, the invasion of Malta, in which a fleet of the gliders hauled by He 111Zs was to be used. The plan was abandoned due to a lack of towing aircraft.
In 1943, Me 321s returned to Russia for use in a projected operation to relieve the besieged Stalingrad, but by the time they reached the front line, no suitable airfields remained and they were sent back to Germany.
Following the cancellation of the Stalingrad operation, the Me 321 gliders were mothballes, scrapped, or converted into the powered variant, the Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant with six 1,200 hp engines, the largest land-based cargo aircraft of World War II. A further proposed operation – in which the remaining Me 321s would have landed troops on Sicily – was also abandoned, due to a lack of suitable landing sites. Ultimately, 200 Me 321s were produced (Ref.: 24).