It might not have changed history but would certainly have changed the geography: A brief yet frightening look at the Douglas M31 and M50 / MGR-1 Honest John short range unguided ground to ground rockets, part 2

An American test firing of a Douglas M31 Honest John short range unguided ground to ground rocket. Anon., “Engins et missiles.” Aviation Magazine, 1 June 1959, 155.

Welcome to the second and final part of our tale of mass destruction, my reading friend. Said part will have for mandate the unveiling of certain aspects of the Canadian service history of the Douglas M31 and M50 / MGR-1 Honest John short range unguided ground to ground rocket.

As you may well imagine, several / many high-ranking Canadian Army officers had followed the development of that bombardment rocket with a great deal of interest since the early 1950s. The Honest John, they thought, should be added to the inventory of the Canadian infantry brigade group stationed in West Germany, and… What Canadian infantry brigade group, you ask, my reading friend? A good question. Let me explain.

Back in 1951, as part of its commitment to the recently formed (April 1949) North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the federal government had agreed to station an infantry brigade group in West Germany, a country officially born in May 1949. That unit of the Canadian Army would be closely associated with the (4?) British Army divisions stationed in that same country, units which made up the British Army of the Rhine.

And yes, these units and others would indeed be responsible for the defence of the low plain area in the north of West Germany, a geographical region highly vulnerable to attack by armoured units of the ground forces / army of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in other words the Sukhopútnye Voyskayá Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik.

Incidentally, West Germany was not a member of NATO at the time. One could argue it was an occupied country, a country occupied for very good reasons mind you. West Germany became a member of NATO in May 1955. The West German armed forces, in turn, came into existence in November of that year, but I digress.

In 1957, perhaps as a follow up to the announcements made March and April by NATO’s military head, or Supreme Commander Europe, United States Air Force General Lauris Norstad, and by the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s top policymaking body, mentioned in the first part of this article, the federal government agreed to a United States Army offer to detail one of its batteries (4 launching vehicles?) based in West Germany to support in time of war the Canadian infantry brigade group stationed in that country. Another battery would be detailed to support Canadian Army units, seemingly the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, based in North America.

And yes, that arrangement seemingly circumvented an American piece of legislation, the Atomic Energy Act, which did nor permit the use of American nuclear weapons by allied countries – a piece of legislation also mentioned in the first part of this article.

At the time, the federal government seemed to be of the opinion that a few Honest Johns launchers would not be added to the makeup of its infantry brigade group. That unit was perhaps deemed to be a tad too small to absorb that new technology. Besides, counting on American assistance meant that the federal government would not have to buy the rockets as well as the vehicles needed to transport, transfer and fire said rockets.

I see a hand poking through the ether. Do you have a question, my reading friend? Let me guess. Why did the federal government not take up its American counterpart on its offer to equip certain NATO member countries with Honest Johns delivered free of charge? Well, you see, the federal government had politely declined any involvement in the American mutual defence assistance program. If the Canadian armed forces found themselves in need of a certain piece of hardware, the federal government would buy it, and that was that. Provided of course that said government thought that the military’s demand had merit.

Indeed, the federal government had a mutual defence assistance program of its own, through which it supplied several member countries of NATO with various types of military equipment, both new and used.

Throughout the 1950s, by the way, Canada’s yearly defence spending always amounted to more than 4 % of the country’s gross domestic product – 3 or so times the yearly percentage since the early 2000s.

So, no Honest Johns for the Canadian infantry brigade group stationed in West Germany?

Well, actually, by June 1957, the federal government had seemingly changed tack. Said infantry brigade group would be equipped with Honest Johns, it was said (typed?). When these weapons would be bought, yes, yes, bought, and delivered had yet to be determined, however.

In July, officers and men of the Canadian Army’s Royal Canadian Artillery began to arrive at a United States Army post to start a Honest John training course. By mid August, more than 30 officers and men had travelled to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and completed said course.

And yes, my eagle-eyed reading friend, the photo which adorned the first part of this article portrayed some of these officers and men. The caption of said photo, found in the pages of a July 1957 issue of Sherbrooke Daily Record, a daily newspaper known in 2022 as The Record, published in Sherbrooke, Québec, my homecity, read as follows:

The first group of Canadian artillery men to be attached to a U.S. ‘Honest John’ Rocket battalion this week have completed their training with the 159th U.S. Rocket Battalion at Fort Sill, Okla. Canadian gunners are shown preparing to set the rocket in a pit for firing.

But back to our story.

Would you believe that, in October 1958, the federal government announced it would acquire a dozen Martin M4 Lacrosse short range nuclear tipped ground to ground guided missiles, devoid of warhead of course, for use in West Germany? Well, it did. And luckily, said government ditched that purchase in March 1960. You see, the overly complex Lacrosse was not quite up to snuff when it was declared operational, in mid 1959. Indeed, it was taken out of active service in February 1964, for reasons of obsoleteness – a record for short-liveness as far as American nuclear tipped missiles were / are concerned.

That same March 1960, Canada’s Minister of National Defence, George Randolph Pearkes, announced the purchase of several Honest Johns, devoid of warheads of course, for use in West Germany.

Why no warhead, you ask, my reading friend? Well, you do remember the aforementioned Atomic Energy Act, do you not?

Would you believe that the Canadian Army might, I repeat might, have briefly considered the possibility of renaming its Honest Johns? You see, some people might, I repeat again might, have expressed concern other people might use that moniker to poke fun at a gentleman mentioned several times in our stunning blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2020, Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker. You have doubts about that whole thing, my reading friend? Well, so do I.

Assuming they existed, these concerns may have resulted in part from a query addressed to Pearkes, in the House of Commons, on the day of the announcement of the purchase of the Honest John. Québec opposition member of parliament Azellus Denis wanted to know if Pearkes was in a position to tell that house if the American Honest John was more accurate than the “Honest John” with whom said house was so familiar. Much hilarity ensued, at least on the official opposition side. Denis seemingly got no answer. No, my reading friend, no “fuddle duddle” was uttered that day.

Incidentally, Denis served longer, as both a Member of Parliament and Senator, than any other Canadian politician in history: a mind blowing 55 years, 10 months and 20 days between October 1935 and September 1991.

Did you know that Denis helped a well-known journalist get elected in the Québec general election of June 1960? The, how can I put this, somewhat deplorable methods allegedly used by Denis’ people left the budding politician speechless and shocked. That budding politician was… René Lévesque, a gentleman mentioned several / many times in our effervescent blog / bulletin / thingee since September 2018.

Is it not ironic that a member of the political party led later on by Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliott Trudeau, a strong defender of Canadian unity, played a significant role in launching the political career of Lévesque, a strong promoter of Québec independence? But I digress.

And, err, before I forget, Trudeau was mentioned in our you know what, several / many times, since June 2019.

The aforementioned concerns regarding the poking of fun may also have resulted in part from a speech made in Toronto, Ontario, in early April 1960 by the leader of the official opposition. In said speech, Lester Bowles “Mike” Pearson blasted the defence policy of the Diefenbaker government which had cancelled the triumphant Avro CF-105 Arrow supersonic all-weather bomber interceptor. A government which was sticking with the Boeing IM-99 Bomarc nuclear tipped anti-aircraft guided missile, a troublesome weapon whose production run was being reduced by its main user, the United States Air Force. And now, claimed Pearson, that same government was interested in another American missile, a rocket in fact, a weapon whose name was, strangely enough, Honest John. The partisan crowd roared in approval.

You will of course remember that Pearson was mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since June 2019.

A question asked in late March 1960, by an opposition Member of Parliament, Paul Theodore Hellyer, touched upon a far touchier topic that the Honest John’s accuracy, or the truth speaking record of the prime minister, however. That gentleman mentioned in several issues of our you know what since December 2018 wanted to know whether or not the rockets delivered to the Canadian Army would carry a nuclear warhead.

That was a touchy topic indeed. True enough, starting in 1958, the Diefenbaker government had pretty much agreed to issue nuclear weapons to the Canadian military before too long, the Bomarc missile and Honest John rocket, for example, not to mention the (thermo)nuclear bomb carried by the Lockheed / Canadair CF-104 Starfighter supersonic strike aircraft – a type of machine represented in the stupendous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, in the form of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.

The catch was that the general public was not necessarily aware that Canada was about to join the so-called (thermo)nuclear club. Not everyone was pleased when that information became public. Indeed, some influential members of Parliament within the governing party were not too thrilled either. One such influential gentleman was a member of Diefenbaker’s cabinet, the Secretary of State for External Affairs no less, Howard Charles Green, a gentleman mentioned in a January 2022 issue of our you know what.

As the weeks turned into months, the Diefenbaker government found itself mired in a deepening nuclear morass. Try at it might, it could not simultaneously appease the country’s vocal anti-nuclear groups and the equally vocal pro-nuclear groups, not to mention the very pro-nuclear administration headed by American president John Fitzgerald Kennedy – a gentleman mentioned in September 2019, February 2021 and April 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

In the meantime, Bomarc missiles could not be delivered to the pair of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadrons formed in December 1961 and September 1962. As well, the Douglas MB-1 Genie unguided nuclear tipped air to air rockets which provided their biggest bang to the McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo supersonic all-weather bomber interceptors, delivered to the RCAF from September 1961 onward, could not be delivered either.

Mind you, the official opposition could be quite wishy washy whenever the introduction or non introduction into service of nuclear weapons was brought up, until January 1963 that is. That month, Pearson finally gathered his courage in both hands – and his speech notes with another. Canada, he stated, should live up to its commitments.

In a minority position since the federal election of June 1962, Diefenbaker found himself under attack from several of his own members of Parliament and / or ministers in early 1963. A February vote of non confidence led to an election, held in April. Pearson did not win enough seats to win a majority but was nonetheless able to form a government.

The great fight around Canada’s nuclear weapons was pretty much over. Or not. You see, in a most interesting report issued in early 1964, an all party Special Committee on Defence set up the previous year reported almost unanimously, among other things, that the Honest John was a worthless weapon which would never be used in battle. In anticipation of its replacement with a more effective weapon, the committee suggested that the battery within the Canadian infantry brigade group be transferred to a larger unit, possibly a British one I think. The Pearson government thanked the committee for that recommendation and ignored it.

It so happened that the Royal Canadian Artillery’s battery of Honest John bombardment rockets (4 launching vehicles and 16 (?) rockets), formed in September 1960, had indeed gone to West Germany in December 1961, leaving behind another battery (2 launchers) used for training in Canada. And no, these rockets had no nuclear warheads.

Until April 1963 and the defeat of the Diefenbaker government, one had to wonder if the Canadian Army might have been forced to go to war without its Honest Johns. You see, it seemingly had no high explosive warhead inventory and, it seemed, no intention to acquire any. And yes, such warheads had an explosive yield 35 000, if not 70 000 times smaller than that of the Honest John’s nuclear warhead.

This being said (typed?), had the USSR decided to invade Western Europe, American / NATO pressure on the Canadian Army to accept the nuclear warheads regardless of what the federal government said or wanted might have proved irresistible.

In any event, the change in government led to an acceptance of the need to proceed with the delivery of the Honest John’s nuclear warheads if the USSR decided to invade Western Europe. Until then, these boom crackers would remain in a pair of heavily defended bunkers on West German soil. Canadian and British bunkers if you must know. Even though American soldiers had custody of the warheads, inside the bunkers, the soldiers patrolling the sites were Canadian and British. The specially trained and very friendly guard doggies which accompanied them were seemingly West German. Go, NATO, go!

And no, the federal government did not have to buy the nuclear warheads of its Honest Johns. Its American counterpart provided those free of charge.

The obsolete Honest Johns of what had become by then the Mobile Command of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) were seemingly put to pasture around June 1970. These weapons of mass destruction were not replaced.

Indeed, back in September 1969, the federal government led by the aforementioned Trudeau had unilaterally decided to drop, no pun intended, well maybe a little, the (thermo)nuclear weapons of the Starfighter squadrons of Mobile Command. The pilots of these aircraft would be dropping high explosive bombs as soon as their machines got modified. At the time, said government had also cut the number of launchers in the Honest John battery based in West Germany from 4 to 2, before cutting it from 2 to 0 in 1970.

Canada’s NATO partners obviously did not appreciate the unilateral decision of the federal government regarding the Starfighter which, according to them, significantly weakened the alliance, as well as Canada’s influence within it. Dare I suggest that said influence has been steadily diminishing since 1969?

Oddly enough, the Douglas AIR-2 Genie rockets of the Voodoo squadrons of the CAF’s Air Defence Command were not put to pasture around 1969-70 but remained in service until July 1984 or so, the last Voodoo being taken out of service in 1985.

Even though the federal government chose not to replace the Honest Johns of the mechanised brigade group stationed in West Germany in 1970, the lightweight air transportable towed launcher of the weapon which replaced them in countries other than Canada, the LTV MGM-52 Lance short range nuclear tipped ground to ground guided missile, was manufactured in Malton, Ontario, by Orenda Limited, a firm then jointly owned by American aerospace giant United Aircraft Corporation (40 %) and Hawker Siddeley Canada Limited (60 %), a subsidiary of a British industrial giant, Hawker Siddeley Group.

Need I remind you that Hawker Siddeley Canada was mentioned in a March 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, or that United Aircraft was mentioned many times in that same awe inspired medium since August 2017? I thought so. Thank you.

A time of service in the Canadian Honest John battery based in West Germany was a seemingly quite peaceful if busy experience. One day, however, the locking pins of a rocket fired during an exercise would not let go. Whether the source of the problem was mechanical or human is unclear. By the way, did you notice that the words unclear and nuclear are all but identical? Sorry, I digress.

In any event, the massive power of the rocket’s engine (about 39 000 kg / 380 kilonewtons (Hello, EP!) (86 000 pounds) of thrust!) quickly overcame the will to resist of said locking pins. Resistance was indeed futile, to paraphrase the Borg. Sorry. Its solid fuel expended by then, which took only a few seconds, the Honest John left its ramp, fell off its heavy truck and happily rolled around on the ground. Whether or not the rocket was fitted with a dummy warhead or a high explosive one is unclear.

And if you think that was wild, you will be tickled pink to hear that an American Honest John crew allegedly had an even wilder experience. Yea. When the locking pins of the rocket it was firing during an exercise would not let go, the entire truck lifted clear off the ground and flew forward for a short distance, before crashing that is. Explaining that tiny oopsy to the unit’s commanding officer might not have been a fun experience. Whether or not the rocket was fitted with a dummy warhead or a high explosive one is, yet again, unclear.

And yes, a similar oopsy could have happened in wartime, with a nuclear warhead on board. Pleasant dreams, my reading friend, pleasant dreams.

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Rénald Fortier