10. Flying Jeeps
During World War II, British airborne forces were looking for a way to get vehicles into the fight quickly, but still in one piece. They experimented with attaching rotors to Willys MB jeeps and dubbed the creation the Rotabuggy. Although testing proved the concept could work — some test flights lasted 10 minutes and reached speeds of 70 mph — the introduction of gliders capable of carrying jeeps and other heavy equipment ended the program. But a similar concept lives on almost 70 years later; the U.S. government research agency known as DARPA is pursuing a version of a flying Humvee, awarding about $9 million in contracts for development of what it calls a “Transformer.”
9. Anti-Tank Dogs
Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II left the Russians scrambling to repel the German armored columns slicing their way across the open steppes. The Russians came up with one unique solution: starve dogs, then train them to search for food underneath enemy tanks. Explosive-laden packs strapped to the dogs would explode when the animal was in position under the advancing tank. Given the secrecy of Russia at the time, exact figures on the number of German tanks destroyed by dogs are unavailable, but the estimates range from a dozen to as many as 300. It’s worth noting the United States also experimented with explosive-laden dogs, dubbed “demolition wolves,” during World War II, before abandoning the program. Enemy combatants tried to use suicide dogs against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2005, but there were no reports of these attacks destroying any tanks or other armored vehicles.
8. Greek Fire
This mysterious weapon first appeared in the latter half of the 7th century. Byzantine Empire ships used siphons to shoot a mixture of chemicals onto enemy ships, with the chemicals igniting on contact. Greek fire would not only burn enemy vessels, but it also burned on the surface of the water, leading some to speculate that it may have been a form of liquid petroleum. Or it may have been an early form of gunpowder. Greek fire was a closely guarded secret at the time, and to this day, its exact composition remains a mystery. What can’t be disputed is its effectiveness; the fire helped Byzantine fighters in many sea battles against the Arabs and was so effective it was even attributed to divine intervention.
7. Pots of Venomous Snakes
All but a handful of countries have signed a treaty banning the use of biological weapons, but biological warfare has a long and deadly history. One of the first uses of bio-weapons, and certainly one of the most innovative, was developed by the great Carthaginian general Hannibal. In a naval battle against ships from the Greek city of Pergamon, Hannibal ordered his troops to hurl clay pots filled with deadly snakes onto the decks of the enemy ships. The surprised sailors were forced to fend off the Carthaginian attack as well as venomous snakes. Hannibal’s troops won the battle.
6. Catapulting Plague Victims into Enemy Cities
A Mongol army besieged the Crimean city of Caffa (now known as Feodosia, Ukraine) in 1347. To break the stalemate, the Mongol commander ordered his men to use catapults to fling corpses infected with bubonic plague over the walls of the city. Some historians and virologists believe that attack sparked the spread of the infamous “Black Death” that killed from one-third to one-half of Europe’s population in the 14th century.
5. Bat Bombs
No, these are not the latest offering from the Dark Knight in his quest to defend the good people of Gotham. The idea of using these flying mammals as weapons was proposed by American dentist Lytle S. Adams during World War II. Thousands of bats were to be strapped with small explosives and dropped from planes in bomb-shaped canisters, which would then deploy tiny parachutes. The bats would emerge and then theoretically take shelter in Japanese factories, warehouses and other buildings, where they would hang until their explosives detonated. Tests showed the bats to be less than reliable and the program, dubbed Project X-Ray, was scrapped.
4. First Combat Submarine
Long before we had today’s nuclear-powered submarines, bearing multiple nuclear warheads, we had the Turtle, the world’s first combat submarine. David Bushnell, a Yale freshman devised the craft — which he thought resembled two turtle shells put together — in the early 1770s. Although British spies learned of the Turtle’s construction, Gen. George Washington still planned to use the Turtle to attach explosives to the hulls of British ships blockading colonial harbors. Washington sent the Turtle on a mission in New York Harbor in September 1776, but it failed to sink its target. Two subsequent attempts on British ships were also unsuccessful, and the Turtle’s eventual fate is unknown.
3. The Tsar Tank
Devised by a Russian engineer during World War I, the Tsar Tank was an armored vehicle that weighed more than 40 tons with two giant, spoked wheels measuring about 27 feet in diameter. Two small wheels in the back steered the vehicle, which was driven forward by twin 240 horsepower engines. The Russians had high hopes for the tank, thinking the giant wheels would make it suitable for any terrain, but during a test, the tank got stuck in a ditch. After some debate, the tank was left to rust in the test field. It was finally dismantled for scrap metal in 1923.
2. Japanese Fire Balloons
In 1944 and 1945, the Japanese launched more than 9,000 balloons loaded with explosives into the jet stream, which carried them 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to the United States. As many as 1,000 of them may have reached the U.S., with some balloons found as far east as Michigan. The Japanese propaganda machine announced the program as a great success, claiming as many as 10,000 Americans had been killed. In reality, the fire balloons were a total failure, although one balloon that exploded in Oregon killed six people, resulting in the only casualties on the U.S. mainland during World War II.
1. Pigeon-Guided Bombs
Most people do not have a very high opinion of the lowly pigeon, but famed behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner was not one of those people. After seeing a flock of pigeons flying in formation he became convinced pigeons could help America win World War II. Using a series of experiments, Skinner conditioned birds to turn their heads to peck at a specific target in exchange for kernels of corn. The pigeons were connected to an apparatus that turned their head movements into navigation corrections. In this way, Skinner taught them to steer simulated bombs to simulated targets with amazing accuracy. Eventually the military showed some interest and supported his research for a time, but Project Orcon — for “organic control” — was cancelled in 1944 when the military decided to pursue other priorities.