With Me 323, Willy Messerschmitt proved beyond the reasonable doubt that he could design not only outstanding fighters, but an impressive cargo aircraft as well (later in the war, he designed a no less impressive strategic bomber – Me 264).
With its whopping capacity of 12 tons of cargo or 130 troops, the Messerschmitt Me 323 – aptly named Gigant (“Giant”) – was the largest land-based transport aircraft of the Second World War. It was a powered variant of the Me 321 transport glider (designed in just 14 days!) and was initially intended to support large scale invasions, such as Operation Sea Lion (that never happened).
Unlike Arado 232, the Gigant was nose-loaded. Its nose stood over 6 m high, and was made up of two clamshell doors. The doors could only be opened from the inside, when ramps would be used to allow vehicles to drive in or out. Compared to the Ju 52 (main transport aircraft of the Luftwaffe), the Me 323 offered a load area six times larger.
The cargo space had been designed to replicate the load space of a standard German railway flatcar, allowing any cargo that could travel by rail (e.g. an 88 mm gun plus its tractor, or a medium tank) to fit into the aircraft.
A total of 198 Gigants were built before production ceased in April 1944. Despite it being significantly underpowered and having a relatively short range of 1,200 km, the limited numbers of Me 323s in service were an invaluable asset to the Wehrmacht, and saw intensive use on both Western and Eastern fronts.