During the Second World War, both sides of the conflict funneled enormous amounts of money and manpower into experimental technologies. Some of them stuck; inventions like cruise missiles, remote-guided weapons, and nuclear bombs still exist, and some are even used in battle today. Other innovations of the World War II battlefield, however, did not stand the test of time. Because of their impracticability, cost, or risk, these five World War II technologies—along with countless others—never made it past the testing phase. The failures are as valuable as the successes, however, because of the lessons that were taken from them.
The so-called “bat bombs” of Project X-Ray were the brainchild of a Pennsylvania-based dental surgeon with friends in high places. Lytle S. Adams conceived of the idea after a visit to the bat-laden Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Adams was disgusted by the bats, referring to them as “the lowest form of life,” but he had an idea to make them useful. Mexican free-tailed bats are, in theory, strong enough to carry small explosives. They would also be right at home roosting in the wooden buildings that made up much of Tokyo at the time. So the plan was to unleash swarms of bats on the Japanese capital, armed with time-release incendiary devices, and wait for the city to go up in flames.
This idea might’ve been the subject of ridicule were it proposed by anyone else. Adams, however, had connections to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and through her, the president himself, who approved Project X-Ray for testing. Adams assembled a crack team, including mammalogist Jack van Bloeker, actor Tim Holt, and former mafia chauffeur Patricio Batista, along with various Air Force personnel. During an early test on May 15, 1943, the bats were prematurely released, igniting a fuel tank and setting part of the Carlsbad Army Airfield ablaze. Shortly thereafter, the project was passed on to the Navy, who passed it in turn to the Marine Corps a month later. Experiments continued into 1944, when Project X-Ray was canceled by Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. In total, the failed bat bombs cost the armed forces over two million dollars.
Project X-Ray wasn’t the only failed World War II experiment to incorporate flying animals. Project Pigeon was dreamed up by the American behaviorist Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who had met with some success training pigeons using the strategies of operant conditioning. Skinner believed that, given the appropriate seed reward, pigeons could be trained to peck at targets displayed on a screen. Trained pigeons could then be stationed inside of a bomb, where they would be responsible for operating the guidance system by repeatedly pecking at the target whenever it appeared off-center. Despite Skinner’s complaint that “no one would take us seriously,” the National Defense Research Committee apparently believed the project had some potential, furnishing him with $25,000 to be used in his research.
While research on Project Pigeon did get off the ground, and at least one pigeon-guided bomb was constructed, the technology never saw use in battle. Project Pigeon was canceled in October 1944, with military authorities citing other projects of higher priority. It was briefly revived by the Navy four years later, but electronic guidance systems became the preferred targeting method before pigeons could ever be used.
The Grand Panjandrum
The German fortifications that made up the Atlantic Wall posed a seemingly insurmountable problem to Allied forces. Stretching from France’s border with Spain to the northernmost point of Norway, the Atlantic Wall effectively prevented any kind of invasion of Nazi Europe by sea. The British Admiralty’s Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons had a plan, however. A set of two wheels, connected by an axle, propelled by rockets, and laden with explosive payloads made up a device they named the Panjandrum, after a nonsense poem by Samuel Foote. In theory, the Panjandrum could be launched from landing craft in the general direction of the enemy, where it would shred their defenses without the risk of a direct assault.
In practice, however, the Panjandrum’s movement was erratic, and could scarcely be controlled after it was launched. The Admiralty decided to test it on the beaches of Westward Ho!, a uniquely named seaside resort town in Devon. Despite ample warning, tourists frequently attended test runs of the experimental weapon, which had naturally been stripped of all explosives before it was launched at the beach. During its final test in January 1944, the Panjandrum nearly mowed down onlookers, including an official photographer who had been hired to document the event. Its wheels soon caught fire and the Panjandrum destroyed itself, launching its rockets in all directions. It was never rebuilt.
The V-3 Cannon
When British ground forces answered the Luftwaffe’s repeated blitzes with anti-aircraft batteries and balloons, the German high command sought an alternative plan of attack. The V-3 cannon (V stood for Vergeltungswaffe, meaning “revenge”) was intended to be an enormous, underground gun whose sights would be permanently trained on the British capital. It could do the same damage as a bombing raid, but without the threat of loss to planes and pilots. The V-3 was designed with a multi-charge firing system, in which secondary propellants would be applied to the projectile so it wouldn’t lose momentum as it traveled down the barrel. This system was actually of French design after an American concept, which had been patented in 1857 by the Philadelphia inventor Azel Storrs Lyman. When the invading Nazis captured Paris, they seized the designs and soon set about building their own.
Adolf Hitler himself signed off on the project in August of 1943, with numerous weapon manufacturers “auditioning” to build the gun by presenting their respective projectile designs. Construction began the following month, with railway lines hauling materials to and from a site in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. 50 guns were planned for the battery, which would be dug some 344 feet into a secluded hillside. However, tests were plagued by repeated failures, leading officials to repeatedly cut down on the project’s size. On July 6, 1944, the British Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron put a permanent end to the V-3 gun, destroying the underground site with penetrative seismic bombs. A similar gun was used later that year during a Nazi siege on Luxembourg, but the V-3 never came to fruition.
Cold weather was a consistent hazard throughout the war, but one experimental technology attempted to use it to an advantage. There was a great demand for steel in all departments of the war effort, and there simply wasn’t enough to construct the aircraft carriers necessary to protect merchant convoys in the Atlantic. British Inventor Geoffrey Pyke came up with an alternative: ships made out of ice. He developed a material called pykrete by embedding sawdust in ice, making it slower to melt and stronger against torpedos. Pyke’s proposal eventually made it, via naval officer Lord Mountbatten, to Winston Churchill’s desk, who signed off on its development.
Project Habakkuk began as a simple scale model, constructed at Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. However, a pykrete ship was impractical; at temperatures above freezing, the material would warp and sag, causing structural damage to the ship. Reinforcing these potential flaws required more steel, which went against the entire reason for the project’s conception. Estimates for its total cost were in the millions of pounds; had it been completed, Project Habbakuk would’ve cost more than an entire fleet of standard aircraft carriers. The Royal Air Force and Navy continued to build on their expectations for the project, demanding it have a hull 40 feet thick, a top deck 2,000 feet long, and a system of rudders for steering. Citing the prohibitive expense and the possibility of simpler solutions, Mountbatten eventually withdrew his support from the project, and it was quietly canceled in December of 1943.