Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on August 12, 2012
By Thomas Van Hare
TOP SECRET [DECLASSIFIED]:: 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 :: TOP SECRET [DECLASSIFIED]
On this day in aviation history on August 12, 1944, the eldest son of one of America’s greatest political families, Navy Lieutenant (LT) Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., the namesake of the family patriarch, was killed over England during World War II. Kennedy had already seen enough war, having finished his mandated 25 missions over Europe. He had the right to return to the United States and retire from the remainder of the war. Yet a man like LT Joseph Kennedy could not do that. Motivated by his willingness to serve for his country, even to sacrifice all, Kennedy joined a special, all-volunteer experimental project called “Operation Aphrodite”.
The concept of Operation Aphrodite was simple. The US Military would take old, four-engine “War Weary (WW)” B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators and strip them of armor, armament, and all non-essential flight gear — even taking out the radios. This freed up 12,000 pounds of useful load in the four-engine bomber, which would then be packed with an equivalent amount of a new British explosive called Torpex. Pound for pound, Torpex was 50 percent more powerful than TNT. The designers had created a veritable flying bomb.
The plan was that converted bombers would take off under human control. Then, once airborne, the flight crew would transfer control of the bomber to another, closely following aircraft with a radio control set. Once the connection was established, the flight crew would bail out. The plane would then be flown to an enemy controlled area and guided in at low altitude by radio control to hit a selected target. On impact, the Torpex would detonate, hopefully destroying everything around it. In terms of blast force, an Aphrodite bomber had the impact of several Tall Boy bombs.
What looked good on paper, however, proved harder to achieve in reality. The first mission of Operation Aphrodite was flown on August 4, 1944, when four modified B-17s took off with the goal of achieving an actual combat test. In the first plane, the crew bailed out successfully, but the radio control sets didn’t work and aircraft simply spun out of control and crashed.
The second aircraft in that test suffered radio control problems and crashed at Sudbourne. The pilot was killed when he “abandoned [the] aircraft too soon”. The third aircraft, like the second, had control problems and crashed near Orford, remote site out in the country. It exploded on impact, devastating two acres of land and killing the flight engineer. This result from the third airplane in the test serves powerful testimony to the potential of the blast. Only the fourth Aphrodite aircraft proceeded successfully to its intended target at Watten, Wizernes. It crashed 1,500 feet short, possibly shot down by ground fire and as a result did very limited damage.
The simple fact that the Aphrodite aircraft flew at lower altitudes (typically 2,000 feet) meant that they were easy targets for Nazi Germany’s highly experienced Luftwaffe flak crews. Had the Aphrodite bombers flown at much lower altitudes, they would have avoided a lot of flak, but at 2,000 feet, they were ideal targets.
Two days later, on August 6, three more aircraft were launched against Watten. The results were also poor. The first had control problems and crashed into the sea soon after the crew bailed out. The second went haywire when it suffered radio control problems. Fully armed, it orbited the port town of Ipswich for several minutes before luckily crashing into the sea. The third Aphrodite bomber forged ahead and flew against an enemy target. This was a B-17 nicknamed “Taint A Bird,”; it was likely hit by flak and shot down at Gravelines.
The near disaster at Ipswich was a serious concern. Nonetheless, the project continued. A single plane B-17 mission against Heligoland followed. It failed for two reasons — first, one of the crew members was killed when his parachute failed to open; and second, once again the aircraft was downed by flak.
Another mission was scheduled, this time targeting Heide, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, a small town on the sea. Historically, the site is famous as the hometown of the famous composer, Johannes Brahms. At Heide, Operation Aphrodite scored its first hit. The converted B-17 exploded on target and caused widespread damage.
The next mission was to be flown by Navy pilot Joseph Kennedy, not in a modified B-17 but in a BQ-8 (a USN PB4Y-1 that was a former USAAF B-24J Liberator). The mission was special because it carried almost twice the B-17 explosive payload — 21,170 pounds of Torpex, an extraordinarily large warhead. The selected target was Mimoyecques, across the most narrow point of the English Channel, and a site of the Nazi V-3 project. The Allies weren’t sure exactly what they were targeting, but the site had been designated as a critically important, fortified target.
The V-3 facility at Mimoyecques housed a fixed gun that, had it been completed, would have launched as many as five shells an hour to bombard London non-stop. After the war, when a full assessment of the V-3 program was done, Winston Churchill declared that it would have been the most threatening development of the Nazi V-weapons program as it would have laid waste to all of London in short order and, thereafter, any other town the Nazis targeted with subsequent V-3 sites (the V-3 was fixed in its targeting). In any case, thinking it perhaps to be a V-2 site, the Allies had already attacked it 14 times by the time the Operation Aphrodite mission was launched.
Details of the Mission
First, two Lockheed Ventura aircraft with radio control sets took off from RAF Fersfield (from which all Aphrodite missions launched). Thereafter, LT Kennedy took off in the explosive-packed BQ-8 and began a long and slow climb out toward the sea. Nearby, two P-38 Lightning fighters joined up to serve as an escort mission.
Everything worked perfectly — at least at first. Kennedy and his flight engineer, LT Wilford J. Willy, proceeded eastward toward the coast. In trail, a sixth aircraft followed closely. One of the aircraft, a de Havilland Mosquito, was fitted with a camera to film the operation. In a strange historical coincidence, on board the Mosquito was none other than the son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, USAAF.
As the four aircraft flew over the Blyth Estuary, England, LTs Kennedy and Willy transferred control of the aircraft to the Venturas. A first test turn was made as the two-man crew prepared to bail out, first arming the Torpex so that it would detonate when the plane hit its target.
A thin trail of smoke was seen coming from the bomb bay and then, suddenly and inexplicably, the plane exploded in midair. The explosion of the 21,170 pounds of Torpex was of such great force that the plane was blown to pieces. Both men were instantly killed. No bodies were recovered. Mick Muttitt, a resident of Blythburgh, Suffolk, England, in April 1995 recalled the fateful day:
“I vividly remember seeing burning wreckage falling earthwards while engines with propellers still turning, and leaving comet-like trails of smoke, continued along the direction of flight before plummeting down. A Ventura broke high to starboard and a Lightning spun away to port eventually to regain control at tree-top height over Blythburgh Hospital. While I watched spellbound, a terrific explosion reached Dresser’s Cottage in the form of a loud double thunderclap. Then all was quiet except for the drone of the circling Venturas’ engines, as they remained for a few more minutes in the vicinity. The fireball changed to an enormous black pall of smoke resembling a huge octopus, the tentacles below indicating the earthward paths of burning fragments.”
The smaller, shredded and twisted pieces of the BQ-8 came down right on his grandparents’ house near New Delight Covert, Blythburgh Fen, above which the explosion had taken place. The parts of the engines and other heavier pieces landed more than a mile away.
In the post mission analysis, the Aphrodite team considered many possible causes of the accident, though they had little evidence to go on. One possibility was that the plane had exploded due to the improper wiring of the arming switches. Another possibility was that the explosion was caused by a simple conflict from radio frequency interference and radio testing underway near Blythe had triggered the explosion. The latter explanation seemed the most reasonable, though nobody will ever know — the explosion was so great that all evidence was obliterated.
Twelve additional Aphrodite flights would follow the Kennedy disaster, virtually all without success. Finally, Operation Aphrodite was terminated on the personal order of General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, the US Army Air Forces commander of the Strategic Air Forces in Europe, who recognized the program as an abject failure.
LTs Kennedy and Willy would be posthumously honored each with the Navy Cross. Kennedy’s medal citation would be little solace for his family: “For extraordinary heroism and courage in aerial flight as pilot of a United States Liberator bomber on August 12, 1944. Well knowing the extreme dangers involved and totally unconcerned for his own safety, Kennedy unhesitatingly volunteered to conduct an exceptionally hazardous and special operational mission. Intrepid and daring in his tactics and with unwavering confidence in the vital importance of his task, he willingly risked his life in the supreme measure of service and, by his great personal valor and fortitude in carrying out a perilous undertaking, sustained and enhanced the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
With the oldest son now dead, the Kennedy family’s political future would be forever different. Instead, a younger Kennedy son, another former Navy officer named John Fitzgerald Kennedy, would take up the call and enter politics. Ultimately, he would be elected President of the United States in November 1960. He took office in January 1961.
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy would also die, victim of an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas — but that is another story….
The idea of packing an unmanned aircraft with explosives was not new, nor would it die with the end of the end of Operation Aphrodite. Today’s cruise missiles descend from a long lineage of trials and developments that, while they do include the lessons learned in August 1944, did not begin there. In fact, the first cruise missile, if one can call it that, was developed by the United States and used in World War I — this was the Kettering Bug, designed and built in 1916 by the US Army based on the patented inventions of Lawrence Sperry (whose later work would advance the knowledge and capabilities of autopilot systems). The original concept of a radio controlled flying bomb, however, derives from a British movie from 1909 called “The Airship Destroyer”. In this pre-World War I movie, what were called “flying torpedoes” were radio-guided by British soldiers to crash into and destroy enemy airships that were attacking London on bombing raids. The movie makers had also invented something else, the surface to air missile, which was yet five decades in the future.