The War Altar’s History Corner is going to spend some time considering great technological “fails” of the Second World War. We’re going to start with a program developed by the Americans, codename Operation Aphrodite.
In 1943 the Americans and British had a problem. German U-boats had an indestructible base at Lorient on the western coast of France. These fortified submarine pens, which boasted 7 meter-thick roofs, were impervious to allied bombing.
The British then developed a bunker-buster bomb called the “tallboy.” This was a 5 ton bomb over 6 meters long. Dropped from a height of 18,000 feet it would be travelling at 1207 kph (750 mph) when it hit the ground. These were very difficult bombs to make and use. Most of them missed, and the one recorded hit on the submarine pens at Lorient failed to penetrate the roof.
Incapable of either destroying the submarine pens or annihilating the supporting population and infrastructure the Allies opted for a new tactic: radio-controlled bombers. This was Operation Aphrodite. The plan was to take older B-17 and B-24 bombers, fill them with 9 tons of explosives and then fly them into the Submarine pens using radio control. Two pilots would fly the drone bomber to 10,000 feet altitude, turn on the RC equipment and then bail out. Another bomber flying near would then use the radio controls to fly the drone bomber into the target. A TV camera in the drone cockpit broadcast images of the flight deck instruments back to a pilot in the controlling bomber. Imagine using a low resolution, black and white version of Skype to drive a car.
Two brave souls were needed to pilot the drone. The U.S. offered any volunteer pilot the Distinguished Flying Cross. In addition, every Operation Aphrodite mission counted for five missions. Twenty-five missions constituted a complete tour of duty (in 1942 the average bomber completed twelve missions before being shot down or wrecked!).
There were fifteen Aphrodite missions from late 1944 until early 1945. Fourteen failed in spectacular fashion. One flew out of control and crashed in Sweden. Another blew up prematurely and destroyed an escort plane. Some were shot down by enemy anti-aircraft guns. The most famous death was that of Joseph P. Kennedy, the elder brother of JFK. His Aphrodite drone exploded before he and his co-pilot could bail out. The U.S. National Archives has the letter that was sent home:
The missions were so ineffective and dangerous that Aphrodite was cancelled after just four months. The Lorient pens were never targeted and they survived the war intact. The German garrison surrendered on May 10, 1945. Fortunately for the Allies they were able to defeat the U-boats at sea.
The Germans, it turns out, were years ahead of the Allies in RC technology. On September 9, 1943, the British and Americans invaded mainland Italy. The light cruiser the U.S.S. Savannah provided close-support naval gun fire. On September 11 a single German bomber dropped a Fritz-X radio-controlled bomb. The crew guided it towards its target and the 320kg warhead struck a turret of the Savannah. The crew of the Savannah salvaged the ship but it was effectively out of the war.