On 13th June 1944 the Nazis had begun firing the first of their Vergeltungswaffen (“retaliatory” “reprisal” ) weapons at England. The V1 pilotless jet aircraft was a relatively crude affair but Allied intelligence was aware that more sophisticated rocket weapons were also under development, designated the V2. A number of the launch sites had been identified in occupied France and it was a priority programme of the heavy bombers to put them out of action. The Allies were not aware that there was a third Vergeltungswaffen weapon under secret development – the V3 pump gun.
It was fortuitous therefore that Allied reconnaissance had identified the site of the V3 gun in northern France, even though they believed at the time that it was a V2 launch site. It was placed on the priority target list in any event.
The Mimoyecques site had already been attacked by RAF Bomber Command but such was the concern about the potential threat posed by the V2 that it was decided that further attacks were needed, in an attempt to completely obliterate it. It was now decided to use one of the Allied secret weapons in order to attack the site with a massive explosive force.
Under development were early ‘drones’ – pilotless aircraft. At this stage all that the Allies were developing were remotely controlled conventional aircraft. The remote control only operated once the aircraft was in the air – so pilots were needed to get them airborne. They then had to parachute out of what was effectively a flying bomb – ‘the Baby’ under the control of other – ‘Mother’ – aircraft flying alongside.
Experienced volunteer pilots were needed for what was a dangerous experiment. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr was a US Navy pilot who had been flying the B-24 Liberator in anti U-boat operations from England. A colleague of Kennedy described the mission, when years later it was declassified:
Joe, regarded as an experienced Patrol Plane Commander, and a fellow-officer, an expert in radio control projects, was to take a ‘drone’ Liberator bomber loaded with 21,170 pounds of high explosives into the air and to stay with it until two ‘mother’ planes had achieved complete radio control over the drone.
They were then to bail out over England; the “drone,” under the control of the mother planes, was to proceed on the mission which was to culminate in a crash-dive on the target, a V-2 rocket launching site in Normandy.
The airplane … was in flight with routine checking of the radio controls proceeding satisfactorily, when at 6:20 p.m. on August 12, 1944, two explosions blasted the drone resulting in the death of its two pilots. No final conclusions as to the cause of the explosions has ever been reached.
Lt. McCarthy of the 8th Combat Camera Unit was an eye witness in a US Mosquito aircraft monitoring the experimental flight:
the Baby just exploded in mid-air as we neared it and I was knocked halfway back to the cockpit. A few pieces of the Baby came through the plexiglass nose and I got hit in the head and caught a lot of fragments in my right arm. I crawled back to the cockpit and lowered the wheels so that Bob could make a quick emergency landing,
Top Secret telegram to General Carl Andrew Spaatz from General Jimmy Doolittle, August 1944 reporting the failure of the mission:
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 was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross:
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.
John F. Kennedy was later to pay tribute to his eldest brother:
His squadron, flying in the bitter winter over the Bay of Biscay, suffered heavy casualties, and by the time Joe had completed his designated number of missions in May, he had lost his former co-pilot and a number of close friends.
“Joe refused his proffered leave and persuaded his crew to remain on for D-day. They flew frequently during June and July, and at the end of July they were given another opportunity to go home. He felt it unfair to ask his crew to stay on longer, and they returned to the United States. He remained. For he had heard of a new and special assignment for which volunteers had been requested which would require another month of the most dangerous type of flying.
“…It may be felt, perhaps, that Joe should not have pushed his luck so far and should have accepted his leave and come home. But two facts must be borne in mind. First, at the time of his death, he had completed probably more combat missions in heavy bombers than any other pilot of his rank in the Navy and therefore was preeminently qualified, and secondly, as he told a friend early in August, he considered the odds at least fifty-fifty, and Joe never asked for any better odds than that.
See JFK Library for more on Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.
The V3 weapon was never fired at England, in all probability it was too experimental a device to be deployed effectively, and in any event the earlier RAF bombing had done sufficient damage to prevent its use.