Operation Aphrodite (ii)

This was a US programme to use obsolete and/or time-expired Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers as remotely controlled flying bombs (1944/45).

This was seen as a possibly effective means of destroying the Germans' reinforced concrete U-boat pens and also their production facilities and launch sites for V-1 flying bombs and V-2 ballistic missiles. The concept was initially proposed to Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle, commanding the US 8th AAF in England, some time during 1944. Doolittle approved the plan on 26 June and assigned the task of preparing and operating these BQ-7 drone aircraft to Major General Earle D. Partridge’s 3rd Bombardment Division, which in turn allocated the task to the 562nd Bomb Squadron based at RAF Honington in the county of Norfolk.

In preparation for their last missions, several elderly B-17 bombers were stripped of all normal combat armament and all other non-essential gear (armour, guns, bomb racks, radio and other equipment, seats, etc.), lightening each aeroplane by some 12,000 lb (5443 kg). The stripped aircraft were then equipped with a radio-controlled remote-control system and loaded with up to 18,000 lb (8165 kg) of explosives, more than twice the B-17’s standard bomb load. In theory, the resulting explosion would be colossal, with a destructive radius of as much as a theoretical 6 miles (9.6 km). To facilitate control of what was essentially a slow guided missile, two TV cameras were fitted in the cockpit of each BQ-7, one looking at the ground and the other at the main instrument panel, and these moving images were transmitted to the accompanying CQ-17 motherplane carrying the control system allowing the BQ-7 to be flown remotely.

The crude remote control system did not allow the BQ-7 to take-off safely, so each of the aircraft was lifted into the air by a volunteer crew of two (pilot and flight engineer), who flew the aeroplane to an altitude of 2,000 ft (610 m) and set it on the right heading, at which point control was transferred to the remote operator. Just before crossing over the coast to the North Sea, the two-man crew primed the Torpex explosive payload and parachuted out of the cockpit, which had been stripped of its canopy to facilitate this process. The motherplane then locked the missile onto its course to the target.

When the conversion and training programmes had been completed, the 562nd Bomb Squadron had 10 BQ-7 drones and four CQ-17 motherplanes.

The first mission was flown on 4 August 1944 against a V-1 launch site in the Pas de Calais. One of the aircraft went out of control after the first crewman had baled out, crashing near Orford with the second crewman still on board, making a huge crater and destroying more than 2 acres (0.8 hectares) of the surrounding countryside. The view from the nose of the other drone was obscured as it came over the target, and it missed by several hundred feet.

In the operation’s next mission, one drone was shot down by German Flak as a result of a control malfunction and the other missed its target by some 440 yards (400 m). On the following mission, flown two days later, matters turned still more dangerous. Both take-off crews exited their machines without difficulty, but only minutes later both of the BQ-7 aircraft went out of control: one crashed into the sea, but the other turned inland and started to circle the important port city of Ipswich for several minutes before it too crashed into the sea.

Following the failure of the first pair of missions as a result of control malfunctions, Doolittle decided to investigate. Most of his aides recommended a change of control system. When these alterations had been implemented, Doolittle relaunched the attempted operational programme with an attack on the German island of Heligoland in the south-eastern corner of the North Sea. On this raid, the second casualty of the operation was suffered, when one pilot’s parachute failed to open. The missile also failed, most likely shot down by Flak before reaching its target.

The next raid, against targets in Heide, was plagued by problems with the control system. Three of the BQ-7 aircraft failed to reach their target as a result of malfunctions, but the fourth actually crashed near enough to its target to cause significant damage and high casualties.

The 'Aphrodite' (ii) programme was characterised by only a few attempts at operational missions, which totalled just 15. Several targets were tried, including Hemmingstedt in addition to Heligoland and Heide, but the BQ-7 machines constantly missed their targets as a result of mechanical failure, poor visibility, or failings in the remote-control system.

Deciding that the BQ-7 was not successful against the 'hard' targets for which it had been designed, the headquarters of the US Strategic Air Forces ordered that the weapon be used against industrial targets. Two more missions were flown, and both of these were failures, adverse weather and control problems causing the drones to miss their targets. The only drone to hit its target failed to explode, supplying the Germans with an intact B-17 and a set of radio controls.

After the last mission, the US Strategic Air Forces command decided that the concept behind 'Aphrodite' (ii) was not practical with current technology and terminated the programme.