You know what disappoints me? Games that get played in domes. There’s not enough being done about trying to toughen people up – we need to do more to get football players out doing their thing in all types of weather. Snow, hail, rain – doesn’t matter to me. I know that wet slippery turf is sometimes called “dangerous”, but you know what? Danger builds character. Just look at the Nazi tank crews – sure, they were murderous genociders, but once you get a load of this week’s wacky weapon, you’d be hard-pressed to say that they wouldn’t have a lot of character as well!
Country of origin: Germany
Purpose built: To develop an armoured vehicle capable of driving across the English Channel… yup, you read that correctly.
Years used: 1940-1941
What is it? In the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany began an air attack on the British Isles, with the intent of wiping out the Royal Air Force. By establishing control of the skies, the Germans would then be able to attempt an invasion of the UK by sea, not having to worry about attacks from above. As part of their secret invasion plans, Hitler had his OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) organize Operation Sea Lion, the large-scale invasion of the UK by landing craft, which would have been executed once the RAF was wiped out. As history proved, the RAF ended up winning the Battle of Britain, and thus Operation Sea Lion was never carried out.
Beyond the debate that continues to this day about whether Operation Sea Lion would have even been successful if it had even been attempted, it’s important to remember that the Germans didn’t have the naval abilities that the British possessed at this time. Despite displaying clear superiority in army and (arguably) air force branches, the Nazis were lacking in battleships, transport craft, and other amphibious vehicles. As part of a plan to remedy this, they wanted to drive tanks underwater to get them to England. Yes, that was a real idea. It actually somewhat happened, too – they managed to take their popular Panzer III tank and waterproof it.
The waterproof Panzer III, known as the Tauchpanzer, was modified to work underwater by having all its seams sealed, adding rubber gaskets between the turret and hull, adding one-way valves to engine air intakes and exhaust, and adding a 60-foot length of hose and an air intake sitting on top of a floating buoy. In this design, the tank could drive along the ocean floor for up to twenty minutes. In the plans envisioned in Operation Sea Lion, the tanks would be lowered over the side of the boat, close to the shore, but far enough that their arrival on land would catch the British by surprise.
While this version never saw combat action, a different version of the Tauchpanzer was used in Operation Barbarossa as the Nazis invaded Russia in the spring of 1941. In place of the long length of hose, a 12-foot snorkel was fitted, so that the tanks could successfully cross the Bug River between Poland and the Ukraine.
Why didn’t it work?
While these tanks could successfully function underwater, the main issue with them is that they could only function on perfectly flat seabeds. Any notable obstacles, and the tank was unable to move overtop of them. Additionally, if the tank couldn’t move, it would get stuck, and then sink into the sand – and then the crew on board would have no other option but to try and break loose and swim to safety. Also a difficult ask, particularly in heavy, wool military uniforms and boots, not to mention the oft-frigid waters of the Channel…
What could make it better?
In lieu of a tank that could drive underwater, other inventors imagined tanks that could float instead, and operated like a boat. The Allies, in fact, actually used this idea on a number of armoured vehicles in the D-Day landings of June 1944; the video below, of a floating M4 Sherman, shows the tank with a removable “skirt” and small propellors that allow it to cruise towards the beach before engaging its regular engine and treads upon making landfall.
Obviously, these are two very different concepts. In a perfect world, for either setup, I’d really love to see a tank that could shoot things underwater and not get flooded, or elsewise get driven backwards on the surface by the recoil. Obviously, battleships have this figured out, but it’s an economy of scale – the size of the gun relative to the size of the ship is much, much smaller than the size of the turret to the size of the tank. At any rate, I’ll continue to dream about this idea until somebody comes along and makes it real.
Oh, and if you’re gonna drive on the ocean floor… probably best not to get stuck. Maybe work on that part too. Swimming for your life in cold, deep water is not most people’s idea of a good time, I bet. That said, you survive that ordeal, people are gonna look to you for leadership for the rest of your life! That’s why the kid who got his hand stuck in a grain thresher when he was nine is one of the captains of my high school team. Can’t do shit out there on the field, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t get respect for that stump!