Landkreuzer P. 1000 Ratte in desert camouflage.(Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2010)
Sergeant Jones watched the road through the darkening
gloom. Somewhere out there he was sure there was a German King
Tiger tank. He heard the clanking of something moving up the road
and had pulled his Sherman tank into the shadows behind a broken
wall. The King Tiger was a heavy tank and by most estimates outmatched
his American-made Sherman. In fact, the 75mm main gun the Sherman
mounted couldn't even punch a hole in the Tiger's front armor.
But the Sherman was faster and more reliable.
Best of all, the main gun would go through the side armor of the
Tiger and at this range, parked as the tank was perpendicular
to the road, Jones could hardly miss.
Suddenly the clanking noise of the approaching
German tank increased. Jones saw the shadow of something on the
road. The shadow grew larger and larger, and the sound grew louder
and louder. Then something pulled into sight. Whatever it was,
it wasn't a King Tiger tank. It wasn't any kind of tank he'd seen
before. It towered 30 feet above the Sherman. A fortress on tracks
with a rumble that vibrated the ground like a freight train. And
the armor… Jones knew that his little 75mm gun wasn't going to
punch a hole in this thing. Not from the front, the side, not
even from the rear…
Hitler was in love with big, technological weapons.
Mighty battleships, supersonic rockets and jet aircraft were just
a few of the advanced devices the Third Reich put onto the battlefield
during World War II. One planned weapon that didn't make it into
action, however, was the Landkreuzer P-1000 "Ratte." A true rolling
fortress, it was far heavier and more powerful than any other
tank considered by any other country before, during or after the
war. If this super tank had been built, how might it have affected
man a Maxim machine gun around 1930.
The story of the super tank starts with inventor
Hiram Maxim in 1884. Maxim was a brilliant man and over his lifetime
would hold patents ranging from light bulb filaments to car mufflers.
No, Maxim did not invent the super tank, or even the tank. What
he did create, however, would change war forever. He was the inventor
of the Maxim machine gun.
Designs for guns that could fire one round after
another existed before 1884, but they were often impractical for
actual battlefield use. They were usually bulky, complex affairs
that had to be powered by a hand crank and were prone to jam at
inconvenient times. Maxim's version, however, was simple and used
the recoil energy from one shot to load the next. This made the
mechanism fast and reliable. It was said that a Maxim machine
gun could fire "666" rounds a minute. Estimates made at the time
show that despite only achieving half of this rate under actual
battlefield conditions, a Maxim was still the equivalent of 80
men equipped with standard rifles.
Although some armies, notably the British, were
slow to adopt the Maxim's invention, by the outbreak of World
War I in 1914, machine guns could be found in the armory of every
major nation. Their use quickly changed the way the war was fought.
Before the machine gun, an attack consisted of thousands of soldiers
charging toward the enemy line. Some were killed by the enemy
rifle fire along the way, but enough survived to engage in hand-to-hand
combat with the enemy in an attempt to break the line open and
create a breech.
early British tank, the Mark VIII Liberty, weighed about
After the invention of the machine gun, however,
such attacks became suicide missions. Machine gun fire would mow
down charging troops before they ever got close to the enemy line.
During the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in 1916 the British
Army tried to charge the German line and lost 58,000 men. Most
of them fell to withering machine gun fire.
The machine gun created a situation in which neither
side could get an advantage. The troops dug trenches along their
lines to protect themselves from artillery and machine gun fire
and the area between those trenches became known as "No Man's
Land" for nobody in his right mind dared to tread there. Military
strategists realized a new weapon of war was needed to break this
The idea of a moving armored machine designed to
protect troops can be traced at least as far back as Leonardo
da Vinci during the 15th century who designed several tank-like
devices. However, nobody actually attempted to build such a machine
until Hiram's invention required it. The first country to take
a serious interest in the idea was Britain. In 1915 British politician
Winston Churchill established a "Landships" Committee to investigate
the potential of producing such machines. The actual development
was done by the British Navy since originally the devices were
seen as extensions of sea-going warships. During construction
the "landships" were given the designation "tanks" (as in water
carriers) to keep their true nature secret. Afterward the name
of World War I featuring early British tanks like the Mark
I and Mark IV.
The early British tank was the Mark I. It sported
a pair of tracks that, unlike more modern tanks, ran up the front
and across the top of the vehicle. It had no turret, but carried
two 6-pound guns and machine guns in "sponsons" which stuck out
from the sides of the vehicle. Powered by a Daimler-Knight 6 cylinder
petrol engine that could push the machine forward at up to four
miles per hour, it was hoped that the crews would be able to breech
the enemy lines immune from machine gun fire inside the Mark I's
Though a few were employed at the end of the Battle
of Somme, to the great surprise of the German troops, the first
true victory for the tank came at the Battle of Cambrai in November
of 1917. There some 474 tanks spearheaded an attack that captured
10,000 German prisoners, 123 artillery pieces and 281 machine
guns. By the end of the war the tank was a well-established military
weapon. The British had produced 2,636 tanks and the French had
built 3,870. Strangely enough the Germans, who were often the
first to jump on new military technological advances, had only
invested in about 20.
As early as 1916 British tank designer William Tritton
began thinking about the first "super tank." The Mark I had been
sent off to the battlefield, but Tritton was concerned that while
the Mark I's 8mm thick armor was enough to protect the crew from
small arms fire, it would fail if it were hit with a heavy shell.
He wanted to design a tank that could withstand medium artillery
fire, but wasn't sure how thick the armor would have to be. Tests
of captured German guns were arranged, however, which showed such
protection would require between 2 and 3 inches of metal plate.
artist's conception of the "Flying Elephant" super
Lee Krystek, 2010)
With this information, Tritton designed a super
tank that was not much longer, wider or higher than the Mark I,
but because of three-inch thick frontal armor and two-inch thick
side armor, would have had a weight that would have been almost
four times as much. Some of the original drawings for this early
super tank still exist today and show a vehicle with a rounded
and domed front that had a single main gun protruding from the
nose of the vehicle. Various other small artillery guns and machines
guns were mounted on each side looking outward. Some of the drawings
also seem to suggest weapons would have been mounted facing the
This super heavy tank was nicknamed the "Flying
Elephant" probably because of the domed shape of the front of
the machine and its main gun that looked like an elephant's trunk.
The "Elephant" moniker also was probably suggestive of the huge
weight (around a hundred tons) of the vehicle. The term "Flying"
was clearly sarcastic as the machine would have barely been able
to crawl along under the power of two 105hp Daimler engines. Top
speed was estimated to be about two miles per hour. With the vehicle
so underpowered there were concerns that it would never be able
to work its way out of the mud should it ever get stuck.
The problem that Tritton found himself facing -
protection verses mobility - was one that would continue to haunt
tank designers for decades. In the end, the British war office
decided that faster tanks with less armor was the way to go and
ordered more copies of the Mark I and its successors. Construction
of the Flying Elephant was cancelled in 1916 before the first
prototype was completed.
Tiger II tank.was probably the most advanced of the war,
but was unreliable and too few in number to help the German
While the Germans were slow to adopt tanks during
the First World War, they changed their tactics soon after and
invested heavily in armored and mechanized systems. By the beginning
of World War II, they were able to employ a force consisting of
rapidly moving mobile infantry and tanks combined with close air
support to quickly break through enemy lines and bypass strong
points. This philosophy of war, called Blitzkreig or "lightning
war" by the Allies, allowed the Germans to quickly overwhelm Poland
and France early in the conflict.
The early World War II German tanks were comparable
to American and British tanks in their firepower, speed and armor.
As the war continued on, however, the Germans started introducing
the Tiger series of tanks which carried heavier armor and more
powerful guns. The Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausführung, referred to
by the Allies as the "Tiger I," weighed over 60 tons, almost twice
that of the American M4 Sherman tank. The Tiger's frontal armor
was so thick, almost 5 inches, that the Sherman's standard gun
could not penetrate it.
In 1943, the Germans phased out the Tiger I in favor
of the Tiger II (sometimes referred to as the King or Royal Tiger)
which was even heavier with thicker armor than the Tiger I. The
Tiger II was perhaps the most sophisticated and powerful tank
to see combat in World War II. Because of the difficulty of constructing
such a complex machine and wartime shortages of raw materials,
only 492 were completed by the end of the war.
Maus tank at the end of World War II
German plans for heavier and more powerful tanks
did not stop there, however. In 1942 Adolf Hitler approved the
construction of a heavier tank that would eventually be called
the Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus. The tank (as originally conceived)
was to weigh 100 tons, but by the time the prototype was finished
the weight had ballooned to 180 tons. It had massive armor as
thick as 9.4 inches and carried a 128-millimetre (5.0 in) main
cannon on its turret.
The Maus was so big and heavy it was unable to cross
most bridges, so a system was designed so it could cross rivers
by fording them. Because of the tank's size, this was easy if
the water was only a few feet deep. For deeper rivers the Maus
was designed to cross submerged using a snorkel to get fresh air
to the crew.
Only a couple of prototypes of this massive machine
had been finished by the end of the war and the Maus never saw
action. Plans for a similar super heavy tank, the E-100, were
approved by Hitler in 1943, but no prototype was ever completed.
As huge a vehicle as the Maus was, Hitler had even
bigger plans. Panzer Leader, Heinz Guderian wrote in his memoirs
that during a conference in 1942 of senior Generals and Party
Officials, "Then his [Hitler's] fantasy led him into the realm
of the gigantic. The engineers Grote and Hacker were ordered to
design a monster tank weighing 1,000 tons."
T-28, at 86 tons, was the largest tank destoryer the U.S.
considered fielding in WWII, but it would not have been
a match for Hitler's Ratte.
The Landkreuzer P. 1000 Ratte, if it had been built,
would have been 115 feet in length, 45 feet wide and towered 36
feet - almost four stories - into the sky. A true rolling fortress,
it was to have armor 9 inches thick and be equipped with multiple
heavy weapons and a crew of at least 20. The massive main turret
design was to be borrowed from a naval heavy cruiser like the
Gneisenau-class warships, but modified to carry only two guns
instead of the usual three. Each of the guns would have had a
bore 280mm (11 inches) in diameter and could throw a shell (which
could weigh as much as 700 pounds) as far as 25 miles.
In addition, the Ratte was to carry at least one
128 mm anti-tank gun or possibly two 15 mm Mauser MG 151/15 autocannons.
As the project was never finished, the location of these weapons
on the vehicle are not clear, but researchers have speculated
that they might be mounted forward and below the main turret or
on a smaller turret or turrets at the rear. To guard against aircraft
attacks, eight 20 mm Flak 38 anti-aircraft guns were also envisioned
to be mounted on the machine.
Unlike smaller tanks, the Landkreuzer was large
enough to have internal self-contained lavatories and various
storage spaces. There were also plans for it to carry two BMW
R12 motorcycles which might have been used for scouting purposes.
To spread out its tremendous weight, the Ratte would
have needed six tracks, three on each side, rather than the usual
two found on tanks. Even so, the monster tank's passage would
have cracked the pavement and it could never have travelled over
most bridges. However, with six feet of ground clearance and the
use of a snorkel, the Ratte would have been able to ford most
rivers with little difficulty.
to Panzer Leader, Heinz Guderian, the Ratte was Hitler's
Finding engines powerful enough to move the Landkreuzer
was another challenge. Krupp, the company designing the Ratte
for Hitler, proposed using two MAN V12Z32/44 24-cylinder diesel
engines like those used on German submarines to give the machine
17,000 horsepower. According to calculations, this would have
given the Ratte a top speed of 28 miles per hour. An alternative
engine configuration that was proposed was to have eight Daimler-Benz
MB501 20-cylinder marine diesel engines - identical to that used
on the German fast torpedo boats - connected together to produce
16,000 horsepower giving the Ratte a slightly slower top speed.
If a Ratte had ever made it to the battlefield,
there was no ground-based weapon that the Allies had that could
ever have hoped to compete with it. The heaviest-armored weapon
the Americans contemplated employing in World War II was the T-28,
a tank destroyer which weighed 95 tons. The T-28's 105mm gun would
have been totally inadequate to deal with the Ratte, however.
Of course, the problem for the Germans would have
been to actually get the Ratte to the battlefield. With no road
able to accommodate the super tank, it would have been limited
to the open country. While its appearance in the combat zone,
a rolling fortress the size of a small office building, and its
seeming indifference to most anti-tank weapons might have struck
fear into the enemy's hearts, it is really difficult to imagine
it being an effective use of the resources needed to build and
operate it. It would have been almost too big to engage most other
tanks as its main guns would be unable to depress to the level
needed to target them once they got too close. Most likely the
Landkreuzer would have needed to travel with a retinue of other
smaller-armored vehicles, much like an battleship is escorted
computer simulation of a Ratte built as a modification for
the game Battlefield 1942.
With its massive size the Ratte would be difficult
to hide from enemy aircraft. If it had been possible to build
the Landkreuzer and use it in the first World War before airplanes
were able to carry heavy bomb loads, it might have been undefeatable.
In the years between the first and second World Wars, however,
aircraft technology developed enough to make the Ratte obsolete
before it was even built. Despite the Ratte's anti-aircraft guns
it would have been difficult to protect the machine against an
onslaught of dive-bombers equipped with 500-pound bombs. A single
bomb of this size would have been able to penetrate even the Ratte's
armor and put it out of action.
Hitler had planned an even bigger version of the
Ratte, the Landkreuzer P 1500 Monster. This device would have
carried an 800mm (31½ inches) Schwerer Gustav artillery piece
that could fire 7-ton projectiles. Because the massive gun would
not be mounted on a turret, however, the Monster would have been
considered self-propelled, armored artillery rather than a tank.
In late 1944, Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister for
Armaments, recognizing the impracticality of both of these projects
in a Germany running out of resources, cancelled them both before
any test versions were complete. Legend has it that the Ratte
prototype turret was recycled as a coastal gun emplacement in
the Netherlands, but recent research suggests the weapon in question
was actually a turret designed for a navy cruiser.
Tanks vs. Regular Tanks
artist's conception of the Landkreuzer P 1500 Monster with
its gigantic 800mm gun. (Wikipedia Commons
courtesy of der Gitarrenspieler)
In fact, it is unlikely that even the smaller Maus
would have actually been useful if it had made it onto the battlefield.
It was supposed to have a top speed of 12 miles per hour, but
no engine could be found that would power it faster than 8 miles
per hour under ideal conditions. Some experts even question the
effectiveness of the Tiger II tank. While it had superior armor
and a powerful main gun, its complexity and size made it difficult
to build, unreliable and fuel thirsty. In fact, of the 45 tigers
lost by the 503rd SS Heavy Tank Battalion operating on the Russian
front from January to April of 1945, almost all of them were not
destroyed by enemy action, but by their own crews after they had
broken down or run out of fuel.
Perhaps the British had the right idea when they
cancelled the Flying Elephant back in 1916. Being faster and more
mobile can make up for a lot of armor and firepower. Hitler's
super tank was, as Guderian noted, just a gigantic fantasy.