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The remote-controlled demolition vehicle that inspired today’s unmanned ground vehicles

The Goliath

A Goliath at the Museum of Armed Vehicles in Saumur, France (Photo: Author’s own)
 

The Goliath was a remote-controlled, German demolition vehicle used by the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. It was designed to destroy tanks, disrupt dense infantry formations, clear mine fields and demolish buildings without risking the lives of the soldiers.
 
The idea was not new since similar designs, the so-called “land torpedoes”, were already invented during and after World War I. The French Land Torpedo Crocodile Schneider (Crocodile Schneider Torpille Terrestre in French) saw limited combat in WWI. It was followed by the Aubriot-Gabet Electric Torpedo (Aubriot-Gabet Torpille Électrique in French). In 1918, the Wickersham Land Torpedo was patented by American inventor Elmer Wickersham.

The Wickersham Land Torpedo (Photo: Wikipedia)
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Early in WWII, the belligerents used actual radio-controlled tanks, too. For instance, the Soviets used the so-called “teletanks” against Finland in the Winter War in 1939-40. The British started the Matilda II "Black Prince" project, under which they tested a radio-controlled prototype of a Matilda II tank in 1941. They intended to use them in demolition missions or as mobile targets for drawing the fire of hidden anti-tank guns. Due to technical difficulties, the project got cancelled. The Germans also used modified Panzer I tanks to place explosive charges on fortifications in the attack against France in 1940 but, as opposed to the Goliath, they withdrew before the explosion and could be used again.
 
The Goliath or “beetle tank” and “doodlebug”, as the Allies called it, was not the brainchild of the Germans. Its prototype, similar to the Wickersham Land Torpedo, was developed by a French military engineer, Adolphe Kegresse in 1940 (he invented the half-track system and the dual clutch transmission, too). Upon learning that the Germans had taken an interest in his vehicle, he attempted to hide it from them by throwing it in the Seine River. However, the Wehrmacht was able to recover the prototype and directed the Borgward automotive company of Bremen to develop a similar vehicle. Its official designation was "Light Charge Carrier" (Leichter Ladungsträger in German) with the first models named Sonderkraftfahrzeug (Sd.Kfz) 302 (“special purpose vehicle” in English). The nickname Goliath was added later during the production. It is worth mentioning that the Germans tended to choose ironic names for their inventions. While the Goliath was a small vehicle, the German super-heavy tank with its 188 tons was called the Maus (“mouse” in English).

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The interior of a Goliath (version Sd.Kfz 303) (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Borgward Corporation started to manufacture the Goliath in 1942. Altogether they built 7,564 vehicles. Depending on the versions, it could carry 130 to 220 lb (60 or 100 kg) of explosives. It was directed remotely with the help of a joystick control box. A 2,200 foot / 650 meter long triple-strand cable was later attached to the rear of the vehicle. Two of the strands were used to move and steer the Goliath, while the third was used for detonation. It had a 5 mm armor which provided limited protection against small arms fire and shrapnel. Although its tracks allowed the vehicle to scale the walls of trenches and battlefields, its top speed was only 3.7 mph or 6 km/h. They could be transported and deployed on the battlefield by two soldiers with a help of a special trolley.

German soldiers deploying a Goliath with the help of its special trolley (Photo: Pinterest)

The early models (Sd.Kfz. 302) were made with two quiet electric motors, but due to the high production costs and the difficult maintenance in a combat environment, a more reliable but noisy Zündapp gasoline engine was used later on (Sd.Kfz. 303a/303b). These later versions, among other modifications, had thicker armor (10 mm) and had a larger operational range. The Germans also developed larger remotely-controlled demolition vehicles like the medium Springer (Sd.Kfz. 304) and the heavy Borgward IV (Sd.Kfz. 301).

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A large stockpile of unused Goliaths found near the end of WWII (Photo: World War II Wiki)

Goliaths were deployed on all fronts where the Wehrmacht fought from 1942. They were used at the Battle of Kursk in the Soviet Union, at Anzio in Italy, and against the Polish resistance during the Warsaw Uprising. A few Goliaths were also found on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day, mostly abandoned. On Utah Beach, the flat sandy beach made it an ideal place to use them. They were supposed to be controlled from a central control bunker. Luckily for the Americans, the heavy naval and aerial bombardment had severed the control cables and made it impossible to launch most of them from their concealed positions.

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A soldier inspecting a wooden bunker of a Goliath (Photo: Pinterest)

Surviving Goliaths can be still found in several museums. Just to mention some of them: Utah Beach Museum in France, Bovington Tank Museum in the United Kingdom, Deutsches Panzermuseum in Germany, Kubinka Tank Museum in Russia, etc. The Goliath at the Bovington Tank Museum has undergone a small modification since it has been used to collect donations thus it has a hole on the top to throw coins in.

The Goliath at the Bovington Tank Museum was used to collect donations (Photo: Author’s own)

The Goliath was not considered a success though, for several reasons. Designed as a single-use weapon, the vehicle was intended to be blown up with its target, which made the unit expensive. After switching from the electric motor to the cheaper, simpler, and far louder gas engine, the Allied forces could easily locate them before they found their way to their targets, and then deactivate them simply by cutting the control wires. All of them needed frequent maintenance and were quite fragile. Although the Goliath was not a successful vehicle in WWII, it eventually helped pave the way for today’s remote-controlled unmanned ground vehicles (UGV).

An Estonian soldier with a modern unmanned transport vehicle (Photo: Estonian Defence Forces)

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