(ed. OK, so it’s not Friday – we were otherwise engaged this weekend and the coming week looks like it is going to be fairly busy – so consider this either a delayed post from Friday past or a downpaymet on the coming Friday… – SJS)
“Vergeltungswaffe” – literally translated it means “compensation weapon” and in WWII they were a source of constant development and experimentation by Hitler and his minions. They sought what we call today an “asymmetric response” to the growing Allied conventional superiority in the air, on the seas and on the ground. Some, like the notorious V-1 and V-2 actually reached fruition, raining terror on the southern English countryside during the final years of the war – the 2,419 V-1 strikes and another 500 against London by the V-2, the first medium-range ballistic missile. While they may have been assessed “successful” (if success is to be measured in terrorizing civilian populations) most of the other V-weapons never made it to operation, much less off the paper of some who merely sought personal gain at the Third Reich’s expense.
In 1943 August Conders caught the eye of several Nazi military engineers and eventually Minister of Munitions, Albert Speer with a proposal for a projectile that could be fired from a huge, fixed cannon and reach London from a notional site in northern France. Termed the Hochdruckpumpe (“high pressure pump”) the 20mm projectile would be launched on a ballistic path at high speeds, making it immune to intercepts like the V-2, but without the complications and vulnerable assembly and launch sites the latter demanded. Projectile speed would be gained through the sequential detonation of explosives (later changed to the sequential firing of booster propellant) following the projectile’s travel down the length of the tube.
While prototypes were constructed at Peenemunde (also site of V-2 development), construction began in the Pas-de-Calais district of northern France near Mimoyecques, a site noted for deep limestone features that leant themselves to buried, bomb-resistant structures. The site at Mimoyecques would deploy up to 50 of these cannon, 10 to a set whose layout spawned the nickname of Tausendfüßler or ‘millipede.’ Under the cover of Wiese (‘meadow’) the construction project began in construction in September 1943 with the building of railway lines to support the work, and began to excavate the gun shafts in October. The initial layout comprised two parallel facilities approximately 1,000 meters (3,300 ft) apart, each with five drifts which were to hold a stacked cluster of five HDP gun tubes, for a total of 50 guns. Both facilities were served by an underground railway tunnel and underground ammunition storage galleries.
Naturally, such activity drew the attention of the Allies and soon reconnaissance flights revealed that while something was up, it was entirely unique. Analysts nonetheless determined it a threat and the first of a series of raids against the site was launched on 5 November 1943 as a part of Operation Crossbow (the combined Anglo-US bombing effort against German long-range weapons). Minor damage was done to the site ad work progressed. The site was planned for IOC in March 1944, but failures of the prototypes as well as impacts to the Nazi transportation system from Allied TACAIR was having a delaying effect on the installation. Finally, during a raid by the RAF on 6 July 1944, 617 Squadron, flying Lancaster’s and employing the very first MOAB – the “Tall Boy” managed to put the site out of commission. Unfortunately, the Allies’ BDA did not reflect that and more missions were scheduled against the site.
Aphrodite and Anvil
In 1944 the US Army Air Force developed a plan to use “war weary” B-17′s packed with some 18,000 lbs (twice the normal payload) of Torpex, a highly explosive compound that was about 50% more explosive than TNT alone, and after a minimal crew launched the aircraft, set the fuses then bailed out – the armed drone would then be remotely piloted into the impact area by another B-17 flying in trail and using an Azon radio control system coupled with television cameras in the nose and cockpits to steer the drone B-17. The unit carrying out this operation was set up at a remote RAF base in Norfolk county, southern England at RAF Fersfield.
On 6 Aug 1944, a mission using 5 modified B-17′s was launched at the V-3 site. Two went out of control as soon as the crews bailed out and crashed into the sea. Another one went into an orbit around the industrial center at Ipswich where it circled for sometime before it too crashed into the sea. The remainder made it into France where one was brought down flak and a second and final drone missed the target by a wide margin.
The Navy participated under the Project Anvil banner, using the PB4Y-1 as the drone aircraft. With a longer range and greater payload than the B-17, the PB4Y-1s used by the Navy were optimized for flight at 2,000 ft AGL. However, like their Liberator brethren, the Privateers suffered from electrical system issues as well as an unfortunate tendency to leak fuel in flight.
12 August 1944. A modified PB4Y-1 lifted from the field at RAF Fersfield. At the controls was the putative future President of the United States – at least as envisioned by himself and the head of the family. LT Joseph P. Kennedy, jr. had joined the Navy a couple of years earlier and after completing flight training, was assigned to VB-110 flying the PB4Y-1 Privateer in sea control missions against Nazi U-boats off England. Having completed back-to-back tours, he was nonetheless dismayed at the lack of action encountered by himself, and so had worked his way in to the Anvil project. With him that night was LT Wilford J. Willy. Their tired PB4Y struggled into the air with its crew of two and a load of 20,000 lbs of Torpex. Their flight path would carry them southeast to overfly Halesworth, Suffolk where they would be joined by a collection of escort aircraft to include a Navy PV-1, a B-17 controller a/c, a Mosquito path-finder(flown by Col Elliot Roosevelt, son of FDR) and some P-38 escorts to ensure no interference from the Luftwaffe. From there they would proceed on a southeasterly heading to the coast where the two aviators would bailout after having transferred control of the drone and armed its load.
Except something went terribly wrong.
South of the tiny village of Blythborough, Suffolk, over an area with the name New Delight Wood, the night sky suddenly brightened and concussive echoes rolled through the tiny town. A few parts made it to earth – mostly from the four big engines; but of LTs Kennedy and Willy, nothing would be found. In the Mosquito flying close trail, Col Roosevelt wrestled with the controls and was able to bring the damaged Mosquito back to base for an uneventful landing. A cryptic, top secret telegram was passed from AAF General Spattz to General Jimmy Doolittle (approver of the Aphrodite program):
“ATTEMPTED FIRST APHRODITE ATTACK TWELVE AUGUST WITH ROBOT TAKING OFF FROM FERSFIELD AT ONE EIGHT ZERO FIVE HOURS PD ROBOT EXPLODED IN THE AIR AT APPROXIMATELY TWO THOUSAND FEET EIGHT MILES SOUTHEAST OF HALESWORTH AT ONE EIGHT TWO ZERO HOURS PD WILFORD J. WILLY CMA SR GRADE LIEUTENANT AND JOSEPH P. KENNEDY SR GRADE LIEUTENANT CMA BOTH USNR CMA WERE KILLED PD COMMANDER SMITH CMA IN COMMAND OF THIS UNIT CMA IS MAKING FULL REPORT TO US NAVAL OPERATIONS PD A MORE DETAILED REPORT WILL BE FORWARDED TO YOU WHEN INTERROGATION IS COMPLETED”
Kennedy’s body was never recovered, and he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross; the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. Lt. Willy was also posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, and both men’s names are listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial.
The Navy, for its part, concentrated on unmanned drone aircraft and guided weapons for use in the Pacific against the Japanese, mindful of the lessons from Anvil. Aphrodite would see 7 more missions – none of which were successful against other hardened and industrial sites. On 5 September 1944, elements of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division over ran the site at Mimoyecques and shortly thereafter, the effects of the July raid were eventually realized.
In 1946, the Navy named a destroyer for Kennedy, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (DD-850), aboard which his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy briefly served. Among the highlights of its service are the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the afloat recovery teams for Gemini 6 and Gemini 7. It is now a floating museum in Battleship Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts.
And forty-five years later, Iraq was engaged in a project to build a HARP weapon…