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 1

A team of the Canadian Army’s Royal Canadian Artillery training on a Douglas M31 Honest John short range unguided ground to ground rocket of the United States Army, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Anon., “Rocket Training.” Sherbrooke Daily Record, 13 July 1957, 1.

If I may be permitted to quote princess Irulan Corrino, eldest daughter of the 81st Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV, a beginning is a very delicate time. It is a tricky one too. Indeed, do you know when the Cold War began, my erudite reading friend? Well, do you?

And yes, this is but one of the many questions any museum working on a Cold War exhibition project might consider grappling with.

And yes, you are quite correct, my reading friend. Our princess, a minor character from Dune, a rather disappointing science fiction film from 1984, was indeed mentioned in a few issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2017, but back to our story.

Let us assume, a non binding assumption of course, that the Cold War began in 1947, in March, when American President Harry S. Truman expounded a foreign policy which became known as the Truman doctrine, a doctrine whose main purpose was to contain the threat posed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Said Truman, “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The United States had to “assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.” That assistance “should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”

And yes, there are eerie similarities between Truman’s statement and those made in 2022 by American president Joseph Robinette “Joe” Biden Junior, statements whose main purpose was to contain the threat posed by the Russian federation. Tiger and leopards cannot change their stripes or spots, it is said, and bears, it seems, cannot lose their claws.

Truman’s immediate goal in March 1947 was to convince the United States Congress to pass a bill which would allow him to support and assist the governments of Turkey and, even more so, Greece. His efforts proved successful.

If I may be so bold, Truman’s use of the expression free people was a tad ironic, if not downright deceptive.

You see, even though the republic of Turkey had been proclaimed in October 1923, the people of that country had yet to vote in a free and democratic election in March 1947. That only happened in May 1950 and yes, the party in charge since 1923 suffered a humiliating defeat.

The kingdom of Greece, on the other hand, had a repressive right of centre government embroiled in a murderous civil war since 1946, a war caused to a large extent by its marginalisation and persecution of former members of the left of centre Ethnikó Apeleftherotikó Métopo, the primary Greek resistance movement between 1941 and 1945, a dark period during which Greece was occupied by National Socialist Germany, Fascist Italy and an opportunistic right-wing Bulgaria.

The Greek civil war ended in the fall of 1949 with a victory of the American backed right of centre government and the defeat / banning of the Kommounistikó Kómma Elládas, the Greek communist party. Unsurprisingly, right of centre political parties went on to rule Greece as a result of the March 1950 election, but back to our topic of the week.

Moving along our non binding assumption that the Cold War began in 1947, yours truly would like to point out that said conflict began 75 years ago, an anniversary well worth remembering, the current year being of course 2022. According to the Gregorian calendar, that is.

And yes, my reading friend, you are quite correct. One of the thematic islands of the incomparable Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, is dedicated to the Cold War. That area of the museum is chockfull of aircraft, as you may well imagine. Mind you, one of the large items displayed in the Cold War island is a Boeing F-99 / IM-99 / CIM-10 Bomarc nuclear tipped anti-aircraft guided missile.

Do not panic, my reading friend! The Bomarc in question no longer has its nuclear warhead, a warhead with a yield similar to half that of the nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

One could argue that an aspect of the rearmament effort launched in the 1950s by the Canadian government as a result of the onset of the police action in Korea, as the American government initially called the Korean War, a key event in the history of the Cold War, might perhaps, I repeat perhaps, have been worth including in the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

In order to better understand the aspect in question of that rearmament effort, which consisted of the acquisition of a particular piece of hardware, a look at how said piece of hardware came into existence might be a good idea. Besides, did you really expect me to pass up an opportunity to pontificate? Honestly?

The saga of the… Honest John began in May 1950 when the United States Army Ordnance Corps, the branch of the United States Army responsible for supplying that service with weapons and ammunition, made a decision. It ordered its rocket research and development facility, the Redstone Arsenal, to conduct a preliminary design study for a large, unguided bombardment rocket. In August, the United States Army Ordnance Corps was itself ordered to conduct a limited launch program to investigate the performance of such a rocket.

Given the guided missile work already conducted at the Redstone Arsenal, the development of an unguided and relatively short range bombardment rocket should prove relatively easy, it was thought.

The onset of the Korean War, in June 1950, was a game changer. Preliminary design work on the bombardment rocket, then known as the Large Caliber Field Rocket, began in the fall of 1950, as a high priority project. In order to save both time and money, someone important ordered that available / on-the-shelf items be used as much as possible.

By October 1950, the initial design studies of the weapon were complete. Work on a quintet of proof of concept prototypes began that same month. That same October 1950, a well known and respected American aircraft manufacturing firm mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018, Douglas Aircraft Company Incorporated, joined the project in a research capacity.

The rocket was officially christened the Honest John in December 1950 and…

I see a hand poking through the ether. Do you have a question, my reading friend? Why was the rocket whose history is at the heart of this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee called, of all things, the Honest John? After all, this was not the sort of moniker which would flow off the pages of history books, provided such books would indeed be written if a third world war was to take place.

Well, according to one story, the name resulted from a short lunchtime trip, to a nearby Mexican city, made by a small group of United States Army engineers who happened to be working on the as yet unnamed bombardment rocket. On their way to the restaurant, the engineers stopped at a gift shop named, you guessed it, Honest John. As they ate their food and, perhaps, drank their beers, the engineers wondered what name would be appropriate for their new weapon. Half jokingly perhaps, one of them blurted out the words Honest John. There was much hilarity but, in the end, remarkably enough, the big wigs of the United States Army did not object. The name stuck.

Mind you, according to another story, a United States Army officer closely associated with the development of the rocket met a gentleman from Texas during a trip to what was then the White Sands Proving Ground of the United States Army, in New Mexico. It so happened that this civilian had a tendency to make unbelievable statements. Whenever his truthfulness was questioned, however, that gentleman steadfastly stated that, where he lived, he was known as Honest John. Colonel Holger Nelson Toftoy was tickled pink. Well aware that soldiers commonly came up with their own derogatory / complimentary nicknames if they did not like the official name or designation of a weapon, he thought that a catchy, easy to remember name like Honest John would prove popular. There was much hilarity when Toftoy submitted his idea but, in the end, remarkably enough, again, the name stuck.

Both stories are pretty cool.

A brief digression if I may. John Worthington “Honest John” Foulfellow was a con artist, a red fox actually, who, in the 1940 American animated musical fantasy Pinocchio, conned the gullible eponymous main character. Incidentally, the dastardly fox mentioned in Le avventure di Pinocchio. Storia di un burattino, a story published in book form in 1883 by an Italian author, humourist and journalist, Carlo Lorenzini, better known by the pen name Carlo Collodi, did not have a name. He was just a fox.

Douglas Aircraft seemingly signed a formal production contract in January 1951, a contract subject to the success or failure of the test firings of the proof of concept prototypes of the bombardment rocket. These test firings took place in June, July and August 1951. They went without a hitch. Although unguided, the Honest John was really quite accurate. The joint United States Army Ordnance Corps / Douglas Aircraft team had every reason to be pleased. It had designed, fabricated and tested a large rocket in less than 9 months.

Although not perfect, the Honest John seemed so promising that full-scale development was green lighted before the fifth and final test firing, in early August 1951. Indeed, the United States Secretary of the Army, Frank Pace, Junior, ordered that said development be given a very high priority. Deploying the new weapon to the Korean theatre of operation might, I repeat might, have been under consideration at the time.

God’s judgments are unsearchable, it was / is said, and his paths beyond tracing out – and so were those of the United States Department of the Army back in 1951. You see, the United States Army seemingly did not send the required detailed specification of the Honest John to the United States Army Ordnance Corps until February 1952. Worse still, said specification was officially approved only a year or so later.

Despite these perplexing delays, Douglas Aircraft signed a production engineering contract as well as a limited production contract in June 1952. From the looks of it, Redstone Arsenal tried to convince the United States Army Ordnance Corps that mass production of the Honest John should begin as soon as possible, using more than one main contractor. That effort failed. The rocket was as yet insufficiently developed to take that chance, it was said. As a result, Douglas Aircraft was asked, in late 1952 it seemed, to deliver a limited number of rockets which were to be used in special accuracy test firings. Completed in June 1953, these tests showed that the Honest John was ready for mass production. Official acceptance tests held in September confirmed that conclusion.

Douglas Aircraft delivered the first production Honest John to the United States Army in January 1954. That rocket, the first nuclear weapon operated in the field by the United States Army, was deployed in the spring of that year. Trials in simulated field showed, however, that the Honest John needed some serious tweaking to be fully satisfactory.

To accelerate deliveries, a respected American manufacturer of electrical devices, Emerson Electric Manufacturing Company, became the second prime contractor of the Honest John in January 1954. And yes, Douglas Aircraft had tried very hard to prevent such a splitting of Honest John production orders, until the United States Army told it to back off, that is.

Would you believe that the service introduction of the Honest John was by no means a foregone conclusion? Nay, it was not. You see, my reading friend, a rocket is only as good as the platform it is launched from. Development of that platform had yet to start when the proof of concept prototypes of that rocket began to get fired. Influential elements within the United States Army wanted that platform to be self-propelled. The catch with that perfectly reasonable request was that the somewhat fragile rocket could not travel while fully assembled. Attaching the warhead and quartet of stabilising fins would take about an hour, and require several vehicles to transport and move said fins and warhead.

Other influential elements within the United States Army, not to mention the United States Army Ordnance Corps, wanted to use a launch platform mounted on a trailer, a simpler and cheaper approach which also facilitate rapid firing. Rockets could indeed be assembled on their trucks and moved to the launch platform in fairly quick succession. A pair of perfectly workable concepts had been completed and tested when that approach was dropped, in May 1953.

By then, the prototype of a truck-mounted launcher had been ongoing tests for about 6 months. Treadwell Construction Company had done a good job. That relatively small American firm (and no other??) went on to deliver countless truck-mounted launchers to the United States Army – and other allied armies.

Mind you, a light weight launcher known as the M33 Chopper John, yes, yes, Chopper John, not Trapper John, was introduced around 1958. The largest Western helicopter at the time, the Sikorsky H-37 Mojave of the United States Army, could lift a Honest John on its Chopper John without any difficulty.

John “Trapper John” McIntyre, if you do not know, was / is one of the main characters in M*A*S*H, a hit American anti-military film released in theatres in 1970 and a hit American anti-military television series which aired between 1972 and 1983.

Even before the Honest John entered service, some / many people within the United States Army suggested that shorter range and longer range versions of it be developed. Douglas began to work on the latter, known as the Honest John Senior, in 1953 but the project was abandoned in late 1954. The Honest John Junior, on the other hand, was put in production as the Emerson Electric M51 Little John. Destined for use by airborne units of the United States Army, that short range nuclear tipped unguided ground to ground rocket developed by the Redstone Arsenal went into service in 1961.

By the time production of the Honest John came to a close, in 1965, nearly 14 900 of these rockets had been produced. The number of nuclear warheads produced during that same period is unknown.

You may be pleased to hear, or not, that, in its time, United States Army people were of the opinion that the Honest John was the easiest nuclear weapon to operate.

The 1950s were an odd time, an age of conformity on the one hand and an age of great change on the other. Nuclear weapons were to be used in every sauce, for air defence, on the battlefield, at sea against submarines, and…

You cannot believe that nuclear weapons were to be used in every sauce, now do you? Sigh. Would you believe that the United States Army began to use an atomic gun as early as 1953-54, from the looks of it? I kid you not. The M65 gun, colloquially known as Atomic Annie, fired a shell with a diameter of 280 mm (11 inch) with a yield similar to that of the nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many of the 20 or so M65s produced served in West Germany, South Korea and Japan. Only one of these unwieldy giants actually fired an atomic shell. That field test took place in May 1953, in Nevada.

Not to be outdone, of course, the government of the USSR ordered in late 1955 that Soviet atomic artillery pieces be developed, bigger ones, of course. The first of a quartet of 406-millimetre (16 inch) 2A3 Capacitor self propelled guns and the first of a quartet of 420-millimetre (16.5 inch) 2B1 Oka self propelled mortars hit the dirt in 1957. They did not prove successful and none of these heavy and large vehicles ever fired an atomic shell.

And no, there is no time to look at the history of the M28 / M29 Davy Crockett, an American recoilless gun whose projectile was sometimes informally known as the atomic watermelon. I kid you not, but back to the Honest John. All right, all right, I might deign to consider the possibility of writing a text on that nuclear fruit at some point in the future.

Given its battlefield role, the Honest John had to be mobile. As was said (typed?) before, each rocket was fired from a ramp mounted on a heavy truck. A crane mounted on another truck was used to transfer the body of the rocket from its transporter truck. A smaller truck carried the nuclear or non nuclear warhead of each rocket. The quartet of stabilising fins were attached to the body of the rocket before firing of course.

And yes, like the famous Peanuts comic strip character Linus van Pelt, your typical Honest John was rarely seen without its blanket. Not a security blanket, mind you, nay. A heating one. You see, if I may be permitted to paraphrase a Star Trek: The Next Generation quote, to function within established parameters, your typical Honest John had to be kept at a comfy 25° or so Celsius (77° or so Fahrenheit). Once the rocket was loaded on its ramp, the crew lovingly wrapped its boom cracker in its heating blanket. Mind you, said blanket also prevented the rocket from overheating in sunny or hot conditions.

From the looks of it, pointing a Honest John in the direction and at the angle which would ensure that it would impact where it was supposed to impact was initially done by hand, presumably with the help of a map and compass. And no, my facetious reading friend, I doubt that a wet finger was used to determine the direction of the wind.

Well aware that the crews manning its guns, howitzers and bombardment rockets could use a hand, the United States Army funded the development of a lightweight (90 or so kilogrammes (200 pound)) computer, the M18, also known as the Field Artillery Digital Automatic Computer (FADAC), to make the necessary calculations. Fielded in 1960 by the United States Army but also eventually fielded by allied countries, the FADAC was the world’s first semiconductor-based digital field artillery computer. Just imagine! Using that top of line contraption, one could perform 12 800 additions per second, or 12 800 subtractions or 750 multiplications or 375 divisions. Astonishing, is it not?

Mind you, the kettle in your kitchen is probably smarter than said contraption.

And yes, radium paint was used to make the dials of the FADAC visible at night. As a result, that computer was deemed to be a hazardous waste when it was taken out of service. All but one example of that pioneering machine were seemingly smashed to smithereens.

As you may have guessed, as you should have guessed in fact, my reading friend, the absence of a guidance system of any type meant that wind strength and direction could seriously impact the accuracy of the Honest John. As a result, it looked as if each battery could count on the services of a small yet dedicated meteorological team.

From the looks of it, two different types of nuclear warheads could be used with the two different models of Honest Johns put in production. The maximum yield of the first one was slightly larger than that of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The maximum yield of the second one was twice as high.

While one or more types of non nuclear / high explosive warheads were available, they were not, and by far, the ones favoured by the United States Army.

There was, of course, an inert warhead used for training.

Would you also believe that warheads packed with propaganda leaflets were seemingly developed? I kid you not. Said warheads were seemingly not widely used, however, for fear of provoking a (thermo)nuclear response perhaps.

Mind you, a special warhead carrying more than 350 bomblets loaded to the gunwales with a viciously toxic chemical known as GB was developed at some point (1960s?). Adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the early (?) 1950s as one of its standard chemical weapons, GB was / is also known as Sarin. That colourless and odorless liquid was developed in the late 1930s, in National Socialist Germany. Both the United States and the USSR found the recipe to that devil’s brew after the end of the Second World War and happily got cooking.

And yes, the maximum range of the two different models of Honest Johns hovered around little more than 25 and about 50 kilometres (15 and 30 miles). Better yet, the M50 variant of that rocket was far more accurate than the earlier M31 variant, a somewhat academic, dare one say (type?) pointless, improvement given the destructive power of a nuclear warhead. Do you feel safe, my reading friend?

By the way, the designation MGR-1 mentioned in the title of this article replaced the designations M31 and M50 in 1963.

And yes again, NATO planned to use these weapons of mass destruction to stop a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, via East then West Germany, regions of the globe where any rock tossed over a hill was liable to break a window on a house.

Mind you, the ground forces / army of the USSR, the Sukhopútnye Voyskayá Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, had nuclear tipped unguided bombardment rockets of their own. The first of these weapons, the 3R1, seemingly went into service around 1958. The longer ranged and far more common 3R10 entered service in 1960. The contemporary if longer ranged 3R9 bombardment rocket was a similar weapon fitted with a lighter high explosive warhead. Even longer ranged bombardment rockets entered service in 1964. These 3R11s and 9M21s could be fitted with a variety of warheads, either nuclear or non nuclear.

At the risk of going well beyond the limits of good taste, one had to wonder if the United States and USSR planned to fight on German soil until both sides ran out of Germans. Sorry, sorry.

If I may, the ingenuity deployed during the Cold War by male Homo sapiens to send to a heavenly place countless other Homo sapiens was / is truly heart warming. One can only imagine what might have been accomplished had that same ingenuity been deployed to do something, well, useful, but I digress.

Given the numerical inferiority of the forces fielded by NATO during the 1950s, calls for the introduction of weapons of mass destruction into the arsenal of the alliance’s army units became louder and louder as time went by. Thus it was that units of the United States Army based in West Germany began to field Honest Johns in 1955.

Weapons of that type arrived in Japan during that same year. As you may well imagine, the possible / likely presence of American nuclear weapons on Japanese soil infuriated a great many people. Did that anger change anything, you think?

Even though many West Germans suspected that nuclear warheads were stored in their country as early as 1955, that somewhat important piece of news was made public, by the United States Army, only in March 1957. The presence of these warheads on West German soil infuriated many people. Did that anger change anything, you think?

The United States Army test fired a Honest John in West Germany in May 1955. That rocket carried a non nuclear warhead, of course.

In March and April 1957, NATO’s military head, or Supreme Commander Europe, United States Air Force General Lauris Norstad, and the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s top policymaking body, announced that the armed forces of certain member countries of the alliance would be equipped with Honest Johns supplied free of charge as part of the American mutual defence assistance program. These bombardment rockets would be delivered without their nuclear warheads, however, because of an American piece of legislation, the Atomic Energy Act, which did nor permit the use of American nuclear weapons by allied countries.

The warheads of the Honest Johns operated by NATO countries would therefore remain in the custody of the United States Army, I think, as long as a state of peace and serenity remained in effect between the United States and its NATO allies and the USSR and the other signatory countries of the treaty of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance of May 1955. In times of crisis, however, said warheads would leave their heavily defended bunkers, to be found in secret locations, in order to be delivered to their intended users.

Interestingly, in May 1957, NATO’s Military Committee, the alliance’s top military advisory body, issued a massive retaliation / tripwire strategy document. Any nuclear or nonnuclear attack on any member of the alliance, it said, would result in a massive (thermo)nuclear response.

The list of NATO members which ended up using the Honest Johns offered by the American government was / is quite impressive: Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, United Kingdom and West Germany. It is worth noting that the rockets operated by the armed forces of Denmark and Norway were intended for use with non nuclear warheads.

From the looks of it, the West German armed forces were the first Western Europeans armed forces to be blessed with the presence of Honest John rockets, in the spring of 1959. Said rockets were initially intended for use with non nuclear warheads.

Other countries allied with the United States received Honest Johns at some point, namely South Korea and Taiwan. It is once again worth noting that the rockets operated by the armed forces of these countries were intended for use with non nuclear warheads.

From the looks of it, the armed forces of Greece, South Korea and Turkey fielded Honest Johns equipped with non nuclear warheads until the 1990s.

I see a hand poking through the ether. Do you have another question, my reading friend? Was the Canadian Army one of the recipients of warhead-less Honest Johns given away by the American government from 1957 onward? A good question. The answer to that question was / is no, but there was / is more to that story. This being said (typed?), you shall have to wait next week to read said story.

See ya later.

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Rénald Fortier