London, England August 4, 1944

In early June 1944 the Royal Air Force began deploying the first of several bunker-buster bombs—Tall­boy weighing in at 12,000 lb and its suc­ces­sor Grand Slam at 22,000 lb, whose blast yield was equi­va­lent to 6.5 tons of TNT. Mean­while the United States Army Air Forces had nothing simi­lar to deploy (its largest general purpose bombs weighed 1,000 lb), much less a deliv­ery mecha­nism capa­ble of dropping a 12‑ to 20‑ft‑long bomb on its target. On this date, August 4, 1944, the U.S. Eighth Air Force oper­a­ting out of England 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, Opera­tion 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.

U.S. war-weary bombers were stripped of all non­essen­tials right down to the canopy and packed to capa­city with explo­sives. 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 F. Ken­nedy.)

Opera­tion Aphro­dite effectively ended on Janu­ary 1, 1945, when both drones were shot down by flak bat­teries over Oldenburg in Northern Germany. The program was termi­nated on Janu­ary 27, 1945, when Gen. Carl Spaatz, commander of Stra­te­gic Air Forces in Europe, banned any further Opera­tion Aphro­dite 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

Operation Aphrodite assault drone at takeoff, Norfolk, Eng¬land Aphrodite 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, 1944 Captured 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 for 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