Overlord'S Blog: From America with Love
Although the Germans are famous for creating wonder weapons in the later part of the war, the allies did just as much. The USAAF had a great many projects on the go, and deployed a number in limited numbers. I've already looked at one such project, the Disney bomb, but today we'll look at another Wonder Weapon of the USAAF; Flying bombs.
Flying Bombs weren't new. The US had the idea first, not the Germans with the V1. In World War One the US had developed a simple paper-mâchée and plywood plane that could carry a 180lb warhead. This flying bomb was called the Kettering Bug. After reaching set range, determined by a simple mechanical counter the wings would be ejected and the engine stopped. Although several tests were carried out with limited success none were ever deployed in action.
As World War Two dragged on the USAAF found itself with a growing number of bombers that, while unusable for continued service, could still fly. A similar problem, only with engines, was encountered by the Japanese. This resulted in the development of the Nakajima Ki-115. The USAAF, however, were to try something new. In 1943 initial tests were made for fitting bombers with remote control systems. The idea was to then fly the bomber, packed with explosive into a target. In July 1944 the plan was approved. The USAAF program was called Aphrodite, while an almost identical USN program was named Anvil. The main difference between the two was the planes used. The USAAF used B-17's and the USN used PB4Y-1's, which were B-24's that had been used for maritime patrol duties.
To turn the bombers into drones they were stripped of everything that added weight. Even the safety gear such as life rafts and fire extinguishers were removed. Even the seats went. The only exception was in the cockpit, where a single fire extinguisher remained, along with a seat for the pilot and a stool for the co-pilot. The bomb bay doors were welded shut (after the opening mechanism was removed). Two radio transmitters were fitted and wired up to the control surfaces of the aircraft, along with a radar controlled altimeter. The hatch in the nose of the aircraft was enlarged to make it easier for the two crew to bail out.
|Aphrodite test footage.
The net result of all this was the payload was now 20,000 pounds of explosive. This was crammed into every space in the aircraft in 55Lb boxes. Then the entire lot was wired together with one fuse. The volunteer aircrew would then take the plane off, fly it to 2,000 feet, hand over to the control aircraft, arm the fuse and bail out. The control aircraft would then guide the plane to its target, with a minimum altitude of 250ft being kept by the altimeter, and finally guide the drone into the target.
August the 4th 1944 was the first planned attack. Four Aphrodite drones took off with three V-weapon targets as their planned final destination. Things did not go well from the start. Two drones spun out of control immediately after the aircrew had abandoned the craft. One of the aircrew was killed. On the third drone the aircrew bailed, and the drone went out of control. When it impacted into the English countryside, it detonated. Devastating 8,000 square meters. The remaining aircrew was still on board at the time, he was also killed.
The 4th drone carried on to its target at Watten. However something went wrong, the aircraft missed its target by several thousand feet. Its not clear if it was shot down by German flak or not.
Another attempt was made on August the 6th, with much the same results, including one aircraft shot down by flak. On this mission all the aircrews made it out safely. However this mission was not without its own hair raising moment. One of the drones went out of control and began to circle Ipswich. Luckily after a few moments it flew out to sea where it crashed.
A mark II version of the Aphrodite drones were now on the scene. Full kits had began to arrive in the UK in July and were now fitted. These had several improvements including a nose mounted camera, a radio beacon to track the aircraft and the ability to lay a smoke trail for visual identification. An on board compass was also provided, by the simple expedient of welding it onto the airframe within the field of view of the nose camera. This new installation was given the code name Castor.
One of these Castor drones was launched against the U-boat pen at Heligoland. One aircrew was killed when his parachute failed to open, and the drone was shot down by flak.
Then came Operation Aphrodite's first success. Four drones were launched against the Oil production plant at Heide. The usual crop of malfunctions occurred with three aircraft crashing. The 4th made it to, and hit its target, causing considerable devastation.
August the 12th was the first Project Anvil mission. With a single PB4Y-1 being flown by Lieutenant Kennedy, Jr. This was none other than John F Kennedy's older brother. At 1805 the loaded drone took off. Fifteen minutes later the Aircrew prepared to leave the aircraft, as they set the fuse a trail of smoke was seen coming from the bomb-bay, then the aircraft suddenly exploded. The shock wave rocked the fighter escort and control aircraft all over the place, with one of the escorting P-38's being spun out of control. The fighter's trajectory heading directly towards a hospital at the town of Blythburgh. The pilot managed to pull out of his spin and regain control of the fighter pulling up at tree top height just before impacting the hospital.
From then until January the 1st another total of 12 Aphrodite and one more Anvil drones were launched. The vast majority of the Aphrodite drones were fouled by bad weather, or shot down by flak. However one was lost in bad weather when the controlling aircraft had to turn back, this drone hit Sweden. The Anvil drone successfully made it to its target. Heligoland is a pair of islands off the north German coast, one has a massive U-boat pen on it. The drone was aimed at, and hit, the wrong island.
Before you judge the projects, remember the level of technology at the time, and the aims of the project. Equally despite this rudimentary electronics they managed to iron out the control flaws that had plagued the earlier missions. The other flaw was the drones flew at 2,000 feet at about 200mph. This made them an incredibly easy target for the very experienced German Flak crews.