World War 2

A Look Inside Hitler's Doomed, Failed 'Supergun'

Documentary shows attempt to shell London from France.

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V-3
German Federal Archives

Nova: Bombing Hitler's Supergun. PBS. Wednesday, May 11, 9 p.m.

The greatest unsolved mystery about World War II is what else television could possibly have to say about it. From the old CBS documentary series The Twentieth Century (11 of the 18 episodes of the inaugural 1957-58 season were devoted to the conflict) to Ken Burns' 14-hour 2007 opus The War, it sometimes seems that every bullet fired has had its 15 minutes of fame.

Yet nearly every afternoon, you can find the History Channel or the National Geographic Channel or one of their rivals exploring new nooks and crannies. Seriously: Hitler and the Occult; Nazi UFO Conspiracy; and soon, I'm sure, we'll see The Third Reich and Ted Cruz's Dad.

The latest, and not nearly so ridiculous, entry in this marathon is Bombing Hitler's Supergun, an episode of the PBS documentary series Nova. It's a brisk recounting of Hitler's attempt to build a cannon that could hit London from France, one of many superweapons conceived in a final desperate attempt to stave the end game in the grim final days of World War II.

Unlike its cousins, the V-1 flying bomb or the V-2 guided missile, the V-3 supergun never got to an operational stage. Except for a few rounds fired as the German offensive at the Battle of the Bulge collapsed in early 1945, it remained entirely theoretical. The only reason it's more than a footnote to a footnote is that American and British efforts to derail plans for the V-3 cost the life of a young American bomber pilot named Joseph Kennedy, possibly altering the course of U.S. history.

As Supergun capably explains with a combination of rare military archival footage and crackerjack graphics, the V-3 was to have 25 barrels, each 130 meters long and capable of lobbing high-explosive shells for about 100 miles.

Hitler and his commanders envisioned the V-3 raining 300 rounds an hour on London 24 hours a day from an underground complex in Mimoyecques, France, just five miles inland from the coast. Such "artillery warfare on an industrial scale," Hitler predicted, would surely shatter British morale and implode the Allied war effort.

The supergun, however, faced both daunting engineering challenges—among other things, the Germans found that barrels that length droop under their own weight—and powerful countermeasures from the Allies. In spring 1943, British analysts examining aerial reconnaissance photos had spotted new railroads vanishing into caves around Mimoyecques and were certain some kind of new weapon was housed there. They pounded the daylights out of the area with conventional bombs—aerial photos displayed in Supergun make it look like a moonscape—and, when that didn't seem to be working, unleashed a new bomb that burrowed underground before exploding, triggering earthquakes.

Yet still there was no certainty that the new German weapon had been put out of commission. So American forces launched their own mission: the first remote-controlled drone weapon.

On August 12, 1944, they loaded 12 tons of explosives into a bomber and rigged the cockpit with primitive TV cameras that would allow the plane to be controlled via radio by a pilot in a trailing aircraft. But a human being still had to be at the controls at takeoff; once the bomber was safely in the air, he would bail out. That was the job of Lt. Kennedy, the youthful American political heir whose father was determined would be president.

It's hardly necessary to offer a spoiler alert that the mission went awry; the details of what went wrong, as best anyone can tell, are well told in Supergun. So is the chilling postscript, that the mission should never have taken place, twice over.

A young electronics officer had warned that the bomber's firing panel was badly and dangerously designed, but was overruled by his superiors. Even more fundamentally, Canadian troops overran Mimoyecques three weeks later and discovered nothing but rubble. The British earthquake bombs had completely wrecked the firing bunkers. All that was left were the entombed corpses of a few hundred slave laborers and a series of what-ifs that, however faintly, echo around us to this day.

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  1. Wow, is there no evil that Trump won’t do?

    Oh, wait, its the other Hitler

    1. The Trumpler will Trumple ALL over our liberties; THAT is ensured!

  2. That’s first para is epic-level snark, award-worthy in fact.

    1. Eh, there are whole swathes of war in China, Balkans, Poland and, of course, the USSR that have had little to no exposure on TV in US/Western Europe.

      1. There have been plenty of documentaries about both the “Patriotic War” and the Chinese theater on the Military Channel.

      2. Wait ’til Trump invades them.

      3. The para is still an epic of snark.

    2. I saw through right through his snarkscreen. He clearly thought a story about a supergun was cool.

      Also intentional irony I guess. Since he proceeded to contribute a thousand-word essay of his own to the topic of WW2.

  3. I love me some documentaries about WWI and WWII but this (“Ken Burns’ 14-hour 2007 opus The War”), I have no intention of watching.

    World at War – on Amazon Prime. First. Rate. Its a little too much on internal politics in England at times, but that’s easily tolerable given how good the rest is.

    1. Pan – World at War has whole episodes on those countries.

      1. Oh, I’ve seen it, but it is a broad overview, and mostly from German perspective, with archives not being accessible. Shit, you could do a 90-minute show on Westerplatte or Mokra, just from 1939 invasion of Poland.

        And the war in China (which is what, 10? 12? years) is not well explored at all.

        There’s a great Russian series called Great Patriotic War (or Soviet Storm), which has a lot of stuff I didn’t know about. Propaganda caveat etc. They did a fair few re-enactments that look really good. It’s up on YouTube from the distribution (production?) company.

        1. WWII is at the perfect place, historically, for documentaries. There is just a crapload of film on it. You could probably do deeper dives on a lot of battles, campaigns, etc. (assuming the film has been properly maintained).

          What I like about World at War and a few others from that era is their interviews with actual combatants. WaW was made in the early 70s, when soldiers from the war were in their 50s. Absolutely fascinating.

          When they interviewed a German tank commander from Barbarossa, he said that the reason they lost to the winter counteroffensive outside Moscow was because the Russians had the right lubricants for cold weather, but the Germans didn’t, so none of their machinery (including rifles) worked. That kind of thing.

    2. The most recent City Journal has a piece on World at War titled “The Greatest Documentary.” I haven’t read it yet so can’t comment on content. It should be available on-line at some point. Here’s the link to the issue page:

      http://city-journal.org/magazine?issue=304

  4. You know who else failed to conquer England?

    1. The Vikings?

    2. Genghis Khan?

    3. The Moops.

    4. The ‘Merican language?

    5. Eddie Cochran?

  5. The only reason it’s more than a footnote to a footnote is that American and British efforts to derail plans for the V-3 cost the life of a young American bomber pilot named Joseph Kennedy, possibly altering the course of U.S. history.

    So what you’re saying is Hitler won.

  6. Supergun, eh?

    Just like Saddam hired Gerald Bull to build – with no better luck.

    1. Bull did some amazing stuff, like the G5, but what a nut…

    2. He never finished it. They were bringing in the machined barrel sections from multiple European countries when authorities learned of the venture. He was killed in an apartment in Belgium under “mysterious” circumstances. That gun reportedly would have had the capability of launching a payload/projectile into low orbit. That’s a scary thought.

  7. You know who else tried to shoot at London from France oh wait GODDAMMIT.

  8. I’m sorry, call me Godwin, but World War II remains the most fascinating world event of the 20th Century. For every new nook and cranny explored, there are no doubt countless stories that will never be told.

    (For the record, I’m apologizing sarcastically for my opinion here and not for WW2. I had nothing to do with starting that.)

    1. I wouldn’t want to pick between WWI and WWII. A good case can be made that WWI was actually more consequential that WWII.

      Of course, a good case can also be made that WWII was just more WWI, after a long nap.

      1. Same for the Islamic terrorism of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s all ‘fallout’ from WW2. Until recently, WW2 leftovers like Yasser Arafat were running that show.

  9. Operation Aphrodite, which cost Joe Kennedy his life, was originally developed to attack German U-boat pens (avoiding their 30’+ thick concrete roofs by flying the explosives in through the front door), but the 10 ton “Earthquake” bombs developed by the British proved generally capable of dealing with those. I suspect Aphrodite was kept going and repurposed as little more than an attempt to justify the sunk cost of the project.

  10. Gerald Bull, a Canadian engineer, years later tried to build the same thing for Saddam Hussein after his work on the Canadian-American HARP program which was an attempt to fire mini satellites into orbit from a canon. Bull was assassinated ostensibly by Mossad in 1990

  11. Gerald Bull, call your office.

  12. Gerald Bull, call your office.

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