Tuesday, 5 July 2016

JFK's Big Brother: the Big Shot and the Big Gun

     When John F. Kennedy was elected President, there was soon a lot of publicity about his World War II service commanding torpedo boats, but what about his big brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr.? He was the one who was meant to be President. When he came into the world in 1915, his grandfather announced to the press that he would be the first Catholic President, and his whole life was plotted towards that purpose. Then his country went to war. Joe and Jack both joined the navy, Jack in the Pacific arena, and Joe on the other side of the Atlantic as a naval aviator, performing more than fifty missions in anti-submarine patrols. At last, he volunteered for Operation Aphrodite.
     For a long time the Allies had been aware of a massive underground complex being constructed by the Nazis near the French town of Mimoyecques to house a fearful new terror weapon: the V3 cannon. You are no doubt aware of the V1 (the "doodle bugs") and the V2 (a rocket). The V3 was intended as a gigantic cannon with a range of 80 miles - enough to reach London. The underground fortress was necessary, not only for protection from air attack, but also because, out in the open, such a long barrel would tend to bend under its own weight. Furthermore, each barrel would be fitted with several booster charges along its length, each one set off by the heated propellant of the one below, in order to boost the speed of the projectile sufficient to reach London. A total of twenty-five barrels would be capable of raining 300 shells on London every hour, 24 hours a day. The Mimoyecques Fortress had to be destroyed before the V3 cannon could be installed.
    For eight months Allied air forces had flown eighteen missions and dropped 6,517 bombs on the fortress to no avail. It was time for special measures, the British with one plan and the Americans with another. Britain had Barnes Wallis, the engineering genius who had designed the Wellington Bomber, along with the bouncing bomb used in the "Dambusters" raid. His idea was a bomb which would penetrate fifty feet or so into the ground and then explode underground. On 5 July 1944 Allied intelligence discovered the end of a barrel protruding from the Mimoyecques complex. The installation of the great gun had begun! The very next day seventeen bombers of the famous 617 Squadron (the "Dambusters Squadron") flew out in broad daylight, each bearing a single enormous "earthquake bomb", and plastered the site. Aerial photographs taken at the time were inconclusive.
     So next month it would be the Americans' turn, with an even more daring and imaginative plan: they would crash an unmanned aeroplane, filled with high explosive, into the target. It was a kamikaze project without the suicide: the original "drone". The object was for a pilot and co-pilot to fly the aircraft the major distance to its destination, all the time being in radio contact with a "mother ship" aircraft. The crew would then parachute out, leaving the mother ship to pilot and crash it by remote control, using television - believe it or not -to allow them to guide it properly. For the two crew members, bailing out would be just as dangerous as if their plane had been shot down and, of course, they were jumping into enemy territory.
     12 August 1944: Joe Jr and his co-pilot, Lt Wilford Willy got ready for the mission. Twelve tons of Torpex, an explosive even more powerful than TNT was loaded aboard. The electrical circuit on the plane was even provided with a safety pin to prevent a rogue radio signal from accidentally setting off the explosion. The crew were to remove the safety pin just before they bailed out. Suddenly, a junior officer, Earl Olsen, non-tertiary-educated and self-taught in electronics, examined the circuit and concluded that the safety pin would, in fact, make an explosion more likely. Rushing out, he took his concerns as far up the chain of command as he could. The took no notice of him. Finally, in desperation, he went to Joe Jr. himself. He also took no notice.
     At 6 pm the prospective drone took off, climbed to 2,000 feet, and entered radio contact with the mother ship. At 6.20 exactly the sky over Sussex burst into light as a titanic explosion blew the aerplane to smithereens. Not a single fragment of the crew was ever found.
     The fatal defect in the mechanical arming system was the solenoids connected to the detonators. With the safety pin in place, electricity would still flow through the solenoids during radio contact. These solenoids were designed to be activated by a short pulse of electricity. It has been shown experimentally that just a few minutes of constant current would burn out the solenoids, and an overheated solenoid next to a detonator is not a good thing. Such are the fortunes of war.
     Twenty three days later, Allied forces fought their way to Minoyecques and found the fortress completely in ruins. Wallis' earthquake bombs had done their work. The mission that cost the lives of Lt. Kennedy and Lt. Willy had been completely unnecessary. Such are the ironies of war.
     Just as George VI was forced to take the crown when his brother abdicated , so the Kennedy family anointed second son, John for their presidential ambition. Whether Joe would have succeeded if he had survived is anyone's guess, but the fact that all three surviving brothers made significant marks on politics suggests that U.S. history was deflected, at least to some extent, by that explosion in 1944. But as Aslan said to Lucy, you are never told what would have happened.

Reference: Most of this material is taken from the documentary, "Building Hitler's Supergun", by Windfall Films, 2015.

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