Review by Justin Goodman
The most difficult to talk about topics are those that everyone talks about. It’s why during the election cycle we’re reticent to trust media, and why any history of WWII will be necessarily difficult to attract an audience. That makes sources prone to gimmicks. Which is what has happened with NOVA’s most recent episode, Bombing Hitler’s Supergun. The titular Supergun, of course, is the V-3 that the Nazi army designed and attempted to build in 1943 in order to destroy England and recover from the ever-building losses of the Axis powers to the Allies. The episode centers on Hugh Hunt, a Cambridge engineer, who is tasked with testing the supergun’s viability in the style of Mythbusters. Engaging from this perspective, it ultimately fails as history. Just like Mythbusters, you’ll learn more about basic physics than basic history.
To highlight just one of the many flaws, NOVA emphasizes the “V” of the V weapons (the supergun being V-3): Vergeltgunswaffe, or “reprisal weapons.” They describe Hitler as “hungry for revenge,” an easy shortcut: as told by the historian David Johnson, the name was actually first announced by the Reich Propaganda Ministry, probably an attempt to provoke anger and bloodlust in German forces. When the history is intact, it’s the history of the supergun’s blueprints itself: the V-3 was buried in Vichy France, had 5 shafts with 5 gun barrels, and would fire 300 shells per hour into the center of England. It was “artillery warfare on an industrial scale,” and, much like its name, was more intended to act as terror warfare than actual warfare. Bombing Hitler’s Supergun is weak on history.
While Hunt meets with another engineer to design a mini version of the V-3, we’re told about how the gun was discovered by British forces through aerial reconnaissance. The landslide this caused was twofold. In England, Barnes Wallis, the designer already famous for inventing the “bouncing bomb” that would tread water enough to blow up German dams in Ruhr Valley, would work to invent what would become known as the “bunker buster.” By digging into the earth and exploding, it would attack the infrastructure of a building by causing an earthquake. It’s interesting to note that Barnes Wallis, as depicted in the 1955 movie The Dam Busters, had a difficult time getting enough attention from his superiors for his projects prior to the “bouncing bomb.”
Interesting because, in America, Earl Olson would face similar issues getting his superiors to realize a flaw in the design of their experimental drone. Far before our modern understanding of pilotless drones, they are still remarkably similar: the pilot would fly it up and then, close to the target, jump out allowing a nearby plane to activate a mechanism which gave control to this mothership. The flaw Olson discovered would cause overheat and premature explosion in the drone. The flaw did cause the drone to prematurely explode, in fact, killing Joe Kennedy Jr, older brother of JFK. Olson had told him beforehand about it and, as one of the documentary’s historians puts it, this makes what happened aboard the ship prior to the explosion “one of the greatest mysteries of WWII.” Not great enough, as NOVA proceeds to skip over this with reflections on the wonders of military technology.
Still, Bombing Hitler’s Supergun does indulge itself a little. It appreciates the irony of Joe Kennedy’s sacrifice, for instance. The drone strike began months after the success of the bunker buster mission because it was uncertain how effective the attack had been; remember, the V-3 was deep underground. After the drone’s malfunction killed Kennedy, and once France was recovered from the Nazis, it was discovered that the V-3 had already been destroyed and abandoned prior to the attempt. Footage of Earl Olson talking about his deep regret and shame is unburied too, giving the entire historical moment a supple sadness. After this, it’s hard to look at the inappropriately dramatic music that cuts short after panning to a rusted airplane’s nosecone. The rust a nice touch even, ostensibly emphasizing that we shouldn’t try to make an unfurling drama out of historical events since the events themselves were interesting enough without it.
Lacking a way to conclude the story neatly, we’re given a highlight of what has been done since WWII in military technology, ending with the weirdly mournful statement, “but no nation has ever successfully employed a super gun.” Ignoring the pacifist in me that thinks this isn’t something to bemoan, this is stupid for the fact that WWII would see the advent of technology far more advanced and devastating than a “supergun”: Atomic weaponry. Hiroshima’s “Little Boy” and Nagasaki’s “Fat Man” would unleash energy equivalent to 13 and 20 kilotons of TNT respectively. For context, the death toll for Nagasaki and Hiroshima was, at the very least, 130,000 on the first day. We will not see the advent of a “supergun” ever, most likely. We already have what policy makers have previously called “weapons of mass destruction.” And to miss this is both perverse, and does damage to the memory of the war that is unforgettably invoked thousands of times yearly.