The devastating German V-1 rockets that rained terror and death down on the inhabitants of London in World War II, during the ‘Blitz,’ had their birth in Arcadia, Fla.
An old black and white picture showing a motor-driven flying bomb sitting on a four-wheeled carriage on a narrow-gauge railroad track 85 years ago was where it all began, according to Howard Melton, a DeSoto County historian. He maintains this was the basis of German rocket scientist Werner Von Braun’s V-1 “Buzz Bomb” that pulverized London two decades later.
On the flip side of the picture it notes: “‘Kettering Bug’ being tested October 1918 at Carlstrom Field, Arcadia, Fla. was developed by Charles F. Kettering as the first ‘guided missile.’ It had a range of 15 miles and was guided by a gyroscope. The plane weighed 300-pounds and carried a 300-pound bomb.”
The “Kettering Bug” was named for its inventor Charles F. Kettering, a 1904 Ohio State University engineering graduate. Before his death he was the co-holder of more than 140 U.S. patents. Kettering was also a major player in the early days of General Motors Corp.
After selling Delco Corp. to GM in 1916 and joining the staff of the giant auto maker as a vice-president, the young engineer turned his talents to designing war machinery. One of his inventions was the flying-bomb tested in Arcadia before the end of the first World War.
According to information in Lindsey Williams’ column: “Our Fascinating Past,” that appeared in the Sunday Charlotte Sun newspaper in Port Charlotte, Fla., “The U.S. Navy convened a committee to study possible new weapons. An ‘aerial torpedo’ seemed promising.
“The U.S. Army Chief signal officer — then in charge of the Air Corps — appointed a review board to study the Navy suggestion. A majority report rejected the concept of an ‘automatic flying’ as impractical for military use.”
Despite the thumbs down by the Navy’s board of inquiry, Kettering talked the Army brass into allowing him to pursue the concept of a flying bomb. Working with Orville Wright the two men developed a working model.
His group constructed a pilotless bomb with a 12-foot wingspan powered by a four cylinder, two-cycle gas engine. The experimental bomb was first tested at Wright-Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio.
Initial tests were not promising, but Kettering and Orville Wright continued perfecting their guided bomb. Eventually the missile’s test record improved.
As a consequence, further tests were scheduled at Carlstrom Field near Arcadia.
By 1918 Arcadia was known as “The Aviation Capital of Florida.” It boasted two Army airfields, something almost no other town in the state had at that time, Melton explained. The terrain was flat and could be used to land airplanes on. Because it had little or no up grading, it was the perfect place to build an airport.
Likewise, he said, it was also the perfect place to test a pilotless, experimental aircraft that was designed to crash and explode.
A dozen of the pilotless planes were built in Dayton and shipped to Dorr Field, the other Army Air Base just east of Arcadia. The experimental winged bombs were tested in 1918 at Carlstrom Field.
According to Melton quoting Gene Burnett’s article in “Florida’s Past,” “… among those observers was a young lieutenant named Jimmy Doolittle. As a colonel in World War II, Doolittle led the first air raid against Japan.”
It was Doolittle’s job to critique the “Kettering Bug.” The lieutenant gave Kettering’s flying bomb low grades after watching the tests at Carlstrom.
“Despite these erratic test results, the Army was encouraged enough to order a limited production of the missile,” Burnett wrote. “One enthusiastic observer, Col. H. H. ‘Hap’ Arnold (later commander of the U.S. Air Force in WW II) hurried to France in October 1918 to inform Gen. John J. Pershing of this ‘exciting’ new weapon. A flu attack delayed Arnold and he arrived at the front only in time to hear the guns celebrating Armistice Day, Nov. 11.”
In Williams’ account of the flying-bomb testing program near Arcadia at the dawn of the aviation era he provides insight into what was happening on the ground with the pilotless-bomb testing at Carlstrom Field.
“Navy and civilian experts came to (Carlstrom) to watch. The missiles were mounted on a carriage that ran down a long rail track. At takeoff speed the plane lifted away from the carriage.
“Distance to the target and wind speed were calculated. Then the launching tracks were aimed. An electrically driven gyroscope maintained level flight. An odometer coupled to the motor’s crankshaft activated electric motors after a predetermined number of revolutions. This drew out bolts holding on the wings. Then the fuselage and payload — a 300-pound chuck of concrete — plunged to earth.
“The number of variables was daunting. The first flights were erratic. This frustrated Kettering. When one missile failed to level off and climbed out of sight. Kettering muttered, ‘Leave the damn thing up there!’ and stalked off the field.”
The ground crew headed off across the prairie east of Arcadia in a Model-T Ford searching for the wayward guided missile. They found it 21 miles away where it crashed after running out of fuel. Eventually the testers had a successful flight that flew a programmed 15 miles and missed the target by only two degrees, according to Williams.
Although the Arcadia flying-bomb never amounted to much in World War I, Melton notes in one of his historical pieces, “After WW I, it was perfected by German scientist Werner Von Braun and used to heavily damage London, England in the form of V-1 rockets.”
Von Braun was appointed to oversee the German rocket program shortly after Hitler came to power in 1934. It was von Braun who suggested the development of the “Buzz Bomb.”
In a little over a year, during WW II, the German war machine launched 9,251 of the 4,800-pound flying-bombs, mostly on England. Each contained a 2,337 pound warhead that could cause severe damage upon contact with the ground.
Like Kettering’s flying bomb of WW I, the German bomb was similar in a number of ways. It took off from a tracked runway like the American inventor’s, it was programmed to fly a specific distance to a target and quit in midair after running out of fuel like Kettering’s and it had a short, stubby wingspan like the flying bomb two decades earlier.
Unlike the pilotless bomb perfected in Arcadia, the V-1 “Buzz Bomb” was powered by a pulse-jet engine with a range of more than 10 times what its local counterpart could fly. It had almost eight times the explosive wallop of the WW I vengeance weapon Kettering built. But the general concept first experimented with in Arcadia during WW I was perfected in Nazi Germany and used with deadly results.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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