London, England · August 4, 1944

The British had begun deploying the first of several bunker-buster bombs (Tallboy and its suc­ces­sor Grand Slam) in 1944 while the Amer­i­cans had nothing similar to deploy. On this date in 1944 the U.S. Eighth Air Force kicked off Opera­tion Aphro­dite, a pro­gram devel­oped in total secrecy and designed to deliver precision-guided, bunker-busting muni­tions using a pilot­less deliv­ery system. Aphro­dite and the U.S. Navy’s equi­valent, Anvil, were experi­mental methods for destroying high-priority tar­gets that were heavily defended and hard­ened, such as V‑wea­pon sites and U‑boat pens, and simul­taneously dis­posing of B‑17 Flying Fort­resses, B‑24 Libera­tors, and Navy PB4Y‑1 Libera­tors that had outlived their operational usefulness.

The war-weary bombers were stripped of all non­essen­tials right down to the canopy and packed to capa­city with explo­sives in Eng­land. Then they were flown by a volun­teer pilot and a co-pilot, eventually descending to an alti­tude of 2,000 ft, at which time the payload would be armed followed by the two avia­tors bailing out of the air­craft. Guided by a mother ship using TV cameras and radio-con­trolled equip­ment, the pilot­less drones would fly into their bomb-resistant targets on the continent and explode.

In this first mission, four B‑17 drones flew to the Pas-de-Calais region in occupied North­ern France to destroy cruise missile or bal­listic rocket storage facili­ties and a hardened bunker. Neither this nor the other twelve mis­sions were suc­cess­ful. They were ex­pen­sive and very dan­ger­ous. On the fifth mis­sion to the Pas-de-Calais—this on August 12 against the Fortress of Mimoyec­ques near the hamlet of the same name that was to house a bat­tery of V‑3 can­nons aimed at London—Navy Lt. Joseph P. Ken­nedy, Jr’s plane deto­nated pre­ma­turely off the North Sea coast of Eng­land, killing both pilot and co-pilot and causing wide­spread damage and small fires, but no in­juries, when their wreck­age fell onto a near­by village. (Joseph Ken­nedy was the elder brother of future U.S. Pre­si­dent John Ken­nedy.)

Operation Aphrodite/Anvil effectively ended on Janu­ary 1, 1945, when both explo­sive-laden B‑17 drones were shot down by flak bat­teries over Olden­burg, Northern Germany. The pro­gram was termi­nated on Janu­ary 27, 1945, when Gen. Carl Spaatz, com­mander of Stra­te­gic Air Forces in Europe, banned any further drone opera­tions. In the Pacific Theater a ver­sion of Opera­tion Aphro­dite was in the ini­tial stages—a few surplus B‑24D/J Liber­ators had been con­verted into radio-controlled flying bombs for use against forti­fied instal­la­tions on Japanese-occupied islands—but the Japanese campaign was scrubbed before launch date.

Operation Aphrodite, 1944

Aphrodite assault drone at takeoff, Norfolk, Eng­landAphrodite B-17F that targeted Mimoyecques, Northern France

Left: An Aphrodite assault drone at takeoff from a relatively remote air­field in Nor­folk, Eng­land. The drone carried a payload of 30,000 lb of Tor­pex, an explo­sive that was 50 per­cent more power­ful than TNT by mass. Drones required a pilot and a co-pilot because the remote control system was insufficient for safe takeoff.

Right: After completing 80 missions, this Aphrodite B‑17F (The Careful Virgin) was used on August 4, 1944, against Mimoyec­ques, near Calais, France. (The site is very close to the French end of the present-day Chan­nel tunnel.) Dug into a lime­stone hill, the site was to fire dart-like explo­sive projec­tiles from V‑3 “super­gun” can­nons (gun tubes) on London at a rate of 600 every hour. With­out knowing the exact purpose of the site, the U.S. Eighth Air Force and the Royal Air Force bombed Mimoyec­ques twice in November 1943, six times in March and April 1944, and six times between May and July. The Aphro­dite mis­sion against Mimoyec­ques on August 4, the first using a remote-controlled air­craft, failed when the worn-out B‑17 spun out of control and impacted short of its target.

RAF Halifax over Mimoyecques, France, July 6, 1944Captured 150mm (5.9 in) finned projectile "Sprenggranate 4481"

Left: A four-engine RAF Halifax flies over Mimoyecques on July 6, 1944, as exploding bombs send smoke and dust into the air. Mimoyec­ques was put out of com­mis­sion on this date when RAF bombers dropped deep-pene­tration Tall­boy earth­quake bombs to col­lapse under­ground rail­way tunnels, ele­vator shafts, storage areas, and inclined gun tubes, leaving enor­mous craters. Two of the 12,000 lb bombs were direct hits, entombing and drowning hun­dreds of workers, among them engi­neers and miners from the Ger­man Ruhr Valley and forced laborers from eighteen nations. An RAF squadron of 226 bombers made a last appear­ance over Mimoyec­ques on August 26, 1944, with­out losing a single plane. Shortly after that the Ger­mans aban­doned the V‑3 site, which the Canadians captured on September 5.

Right: Two U.S. Army soldiers with a captured 150mm (5.9‑in) finned projec­tile “Spreng­gra­nate 4481,” a very-long-range shell similar in design to one that would have been fired from Mimoyec­ques’ V‑3 cannon. (The V‑3 can­non was also known as the Hoch­druck­pumpe, “High Pres­sure Pump,” HDP for short.) The shell targeting London was designed to have an explo­sive charge of 25 kilos (55 lb). The pro­jec­tile pictured here was the kind fired on Luxem­bourg, where 142 rounds fell, killing 10 and wounding 35. The U.S. Army dis­assembled cap­tured gun tubes, spare parts, and ammu­ni­tion and shipped them to the Aber­deen Proving Ground in Maryland for testing and evaluation.

Operation Aphrodite, a Dangerous Weapon for Its Users

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