In movies, war is often depicted in a very straightforward and well-regimented way, at least in terms of how it’s planned and implemented. Things get terrifying and intense on the field of battle, but behind the scenes it seems like there’s a well oiled machine driving the force.
In reality, war is remarkably unpredictable, and nothing is set in stone. Being craftier than your enemy means thinking outside the box a lot, and that has led to some incredible and nearly unbelievable innovations, like these ones from the Second World War.
10. Kaiten-Class Suicide Torpedoes
The first successful torpedo test dates back to 1866 and ever since, torpedoes have been a staple of naval warfare. They have grown smarter and more powerful over the years as technology has evolved but the basic idea of an underwater missile is still pretty much the same.
During WWII, the Japanese developed the Kaiten-Class torpedo, which was decidedly different from a typical torpedo in one very significant one – they were manually guided.
Essentially a very small submarine that was piloted by one person, they meant death for that pilot because, well, obviously. The poor sailor was stuck inside a torpedo. Like the more famous kamikaze pilots who sacrificed their lives in the skies, kaiten torpedo pilots would be sealed in the tube and then, as they approached a target, would surface to make adjustments in direction as needed.
They could arm their warheads and make a pass at an enemy vessel. If successful, the pilot blew himself up with the enemy. If not, they could make a second attempt. If that run also failed, they could initiate a self destruct that would kill them as well. Early prototypes had an escape option, but later versions did not. Death was the only outcome.
9. Retteungsbojen Rescue Buoys
We’ve all probably seen a WWII film featuring a dogfight in which a plane gets shot down and then, moments later, a parachute opens and the pilot slowly drifts to the ground. In most films, the action continues and we rarely follow up on what happened there. But in real life, if that pilot was shot down over the water, they might have had a shot at finding a Retteungsboje buoy.
Part of the German war effort, the Retteungsbojen were emergency rescue buoys located on the English Channel. If a German pilot was shot down and survived, they could try to make their way to one of the 50 or so buoys that the Luftwaffe had anchored there.
Essentially a life raft anchored in the Channel, pilots could enter the buoy and find a small living space of about 43 square feet inside complete with food, water, blankets and dry clothes. There were even games and a cooking area. There was room for four men per buoy, and a radio transmitter would allow for them to call in a rescue.
The English had similar rescue buoys that offered similar amenities to Allies awaiting rescue.
8. Colorblind Camo Spotters
Natural camouflage has probably existed for as long as hunting has. Animals use it, after all, and humans likely learned that hiding was more advantageous than standing out in the open sometimes. But military camo only dates back to 1914, meaning that by the time WWII came around it was widespread but still fairly unique to most people who were participating in the war. Finding a way to overcome it required some innovative thinking.
People who are colorblind, as it happens, are remarkably adept at spotting camouflage. Because they were more inclined to focus on outlines and patterns that distinguish between things rather than color, they were used during the war to help spot German positions from spy planes. It’s even been speculated that color blindness isn’t necessarily a failing but an evolutionary advantage for hunters from a time when needing to be able to spot both predators and prey out in the world was a key to survival.
7. Earthquake Bombs
Every bomb is meant to cause some kind of damage and the bigger they are, the more destructive they tend to be. The Tallboy was meant to be the most destructive bomb in the British arsenal and not for what it did above ground, rather below. It was designed to be an earthquake bomb, a weapon that would literally trigger an earthquake and destroy everything around it.
Initial plans required the bomb to weigh 20,000 pounds, which was heavier than any other bomb and no plane could even carry it. It would also need to be dropped from 40,000 feet which, again, no plane could do. The designer tweaked his methods and came back with a slightly more reasonable 12,000-pound bomb that needed to be dropped from 18,000 feet.
The bombs were used to destroy underground targets like railway tunnels, submarine pens, and weapons manufacturing plants. The British dropped 854 of them during the war including one that was discovered in 2020 which exploded as it was being lifted out of the Baltic Sea in Poland where it had been dropped on a German ship during a 1945 raid.
6. Black Widow Silk
If you had to think of a way to make war more terrifying, what would you include? If you suggested spiders, maybe the infamous black widow spider, you’re in luck. They actually made a significant contribution to WWII that most of us never read about in history.
Even if you’ve never used a gun, you have no doubt seen the crosshairs of a gun sight in pictures or movies. And while it may look like the cross hairs are just lines drawn on a scope, they are not. Those gun sights were made with black widow spider silk cross hairs.
Back in 1943, a number of spiders were employed by the US military and were producing up to 180 feet of thread every week that was then used in scope production. They chose the black widow because, despite its dangerous reputation, it’s also a very slow spider and therefore easier to handle. Plus, they’re not nearly as deadly as people think, though you’d still do well to avoid a bite.
The spider thread was an ideal material because it’s about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair, but extremely strong and hard to break. Its elasticity ensured that stretching it for use in crosshair production worked like a charm. The army actually farmed the job of silk harvesting out and it became a side hustle for some people long before anyone used that term.
5. Remote Controlled Tanks
Remote control machines of war are something we’re well aware of in the modern world with the proliferation of drones more than anything else. But unmanned machines are not as new as you might think and the Soviets actually had unmanned tanks as far back as the 1930s.
The Soviets were inspired by a French design from 1915 that was a kind of un-piloted tank that could carry a 200 kilograms, or 441-pound payload of explosives to a target. In the early ’30s, the Soviets rolled out their first Teletanks, made from an upgraded T-18 tank that could be radio controlled though it proved to be agonizingly slow with a top speed of under three miles per hour. It could go forward, backward, left and right. But it proved a foundation for later models that could go faster and do more.
In battle, another tank controlled the Teletank from behind. But the remote controlled tank would be very heavily armed and capable of using weapons like flamethrowers, smoke grenades and even deploying time bombs.
4. Aniseed Ball Candy Mine Timers
The concept of a time bomb is pretty simple. You have an explosive charge that is triggered by a timer set to go off after a certain amount of time has passed. The limpet mine was such a device and its construction was the stuff of legend. After all, who needs an electronic timing device when a piece of candy will do?
The idea behind the mines was to make them easily attachable to the hull of an enemy ship by a diver in the water. They needed to go off after a reliable amount of time had passed that would let the diver escape. And it needed to be safe to use in water.
The idea of a spring mounted trigger was developed, and a water soluble pellet would be used to hold the spring back. It turned out that aniseed balls were hard enough to hold the spring but also dissolved like clockwork in just over 30 minutes.
3. The New Guinea Glider Rescue Mission
Rescue missions are often sensitive and precarious at the best of times. When a plane crashed in New Guinea in 1945, the effort to rescue the survivors had to go to some uncharted places, literally and metaphorically, to get them back.
At that time, most of New Guinea had been unexplored by anyone from the outside. The native population lived a very primitive and isolated existence by Western standards and there was literally no access to the unexplored jungles from outside.
Three survivors made their way to a clearing where rescue planes were able to spot them, but so were the natives. Believing the locals to be cannibals, the crash survivors were in a dangerous spot. Until they met the local tribe leader, smiled at one another and, despite a clear language barrier, became friends.
Paratroopers and a documentary filmmaker parachuted in, all while there was still no way to escape, and it was decided gliders would be the best and only solution to the problem. Planes would drop small gliders that the survivors could strap themselves to and then hook to other planes that were making low passes, pulling them all to safety. And, amazingly, it worked.
Few things signify the future quite as easily as a jetpack. They had been staples of sci fi for years, notably in tales like the Rocketeer and even Iron Man is essentially using jet packs to fly. A personal flight unit that doesn’t require a big machine or wings has an alluring quality to it, of science mastering nature. But it has also proved far more elusive in reality. Managing fuel, propulsion, lift, navigation, there are just a lot of factors that have made jetpacks mostly impractical until very recently. Or so it seemed.
Turns out, Nazis had jetpacks. Or one jetpack, anyway. Known as the Himmelstürmer, it used a pulse jet engine and it was designed to allow Nazi soldiers to get over enemy defenses like mine fields or fences. A soldier could jump a distance of 180 feet at a 50 foot altitude. It was never meant for sustained flight, however.
The device was never put into practical use on the battlefield because the war had ended by that time.
1. Stench Warfare
Not all weapons are designed to kill and sometimes a non-lethal weapon can clear the enemy even more effectively than a lethal one. That’s part of the thinking behind psychological warfare, using tools to break the enemy’s spirit and, in one case, make them run in a desperate panic to escape the worst smell ever.
In 1943, chemists were enlisted to develop something later dubbed “Who, Me?” It would be a stink so vile that it could clear buildings and make people sick. But ideally it would shatter the morale of the enemy by making them rancid smelling filth mongers, shunned by their non-smelly peers and causing terrible embarrassment. Based on those clues alone it’s fairly clear the point was to make a weapon that would convince people an enemy had lost bowel control and was carrying the stink with them. But the reality was even worse.
The team came up with a compound featuring smells of “vomit, rancid butter, urine, rotten eggs, foot odor, and excrement.” Alas, the war ended before it was ever deployed in the battlefield so we’ll never know how effective it may have been.