Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA)
600 Chennault Circle, Bldg. 1405
Maxwell AFB, AL 36112-6424
United States Air Force Oral History Collection.
Interview of Major General (ret.), Samuel SIMMS, United States Air Force.
GB: General, I wonder if today we can begin by discussing your role in the development of guided weapons?
SS: Well, let me begin by saying that it is a common-place popular belief that “arms races lead to war.” This neglects the reality that both the approach of war and war itself stimulate rapid weapons development. As Dr. Johnson said, “the prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully.” In the late Thirties, the looming prospect of war—in Europe, in the Far East—encouraged all sides to develop new weapons. We all expected that there would be a much more dreadful re-run of the Great War. In fact, the wars that followed were much more limited. Still, there was an immense impetus to develop new weapons.
GB: And was that true even in the United States?
SS: Oh, very much so. All of us who had gone through the Great War, who had seen what the modern technology of that time could do, were very alert to the issues.
GB: Can you tell me what were the broad areas or categories of weapons that the Army Air forces sought to develop, and then about your own area of responsibility?
SS: Certainly. If we leave aside the development of new aircraft, then we sought to develop new weapons in several areas. Bear in mind that other countries had jumped well ahead of the United States in several key areas. The British had, unbeknownst to us, developed radar. That, I think, enabled them to fend off Germany’s air attack in 1940 and achieve an acceptable negotiated peace. The Germans had begun to develop guided missiles of several types. One was the smaller plane-like weapon powered by a small jet engine. The other was a long-range ballistic missile. If the Germans had advanced far enough with either of these weapons by 1940, then I think that Britain would have been pounded into submission. So, obviously, we felt the need to catch up in both of these areas. Then there was the Manhattan Project. I was not involved with any of these efforts at that time.
GB: Which brings us to your own area of expertise and responsibility.
SS: Indeed. Beginning in 1939, my work focused on the highly accurate delivery of ordnance by means of remote controls. Let me say, that this made me a bit of a black sheep in the Army Air Force community. In general terms, there were the followers of Douhet and there were the air defense advocates of pursuit or “fighter” aircraft. Some of us used to joke that our friends belonged to either “The bomber will always get through” school or to the “Not if I can help it” school.
GB: You didn’t belong to either school?
SS: No. I did think that the bombers would get through the air defenses. I just didn’t think that the bombers could inflict the kind of damage that would actually drive a country into submission. Dropping hundreds of tons of high explosives on people would damage the targets, but the human spirit is very resilient. Even in a bad cause. Perhaps most of all in a bad cause. I grew up in the South after all. And in the process of not-quite-achieving the end-goal, you would be setting fire to grandmothers and five year-olds.
GB: So the role of airpower would be best directed toward providing flying artillery to support ground forces?
SS: Again, no. I didn’t believe in just dumping ordnance on cities, even with the limited precision we could achieve with the Norden bomb-sight. I had a different idea. I believed that very discriminating and targeted attacks could unhinge the key elements in any modern society. It is the infrastructure of transportation, communication, and energy that allow any highly-developed society to function. If we could destroy bridges, power-plants, radio stations and telephone exchanges, we could put enemy military operations at a severe disadvantage. Come to that, it is a comparatively few key decision-makers who decide the direction taken by a highly organized and bureaucratized society. If we could strike at the enemy leadership in the same way that we struck at the infrastructure, then untold numbers of lives could be spared.
GB: And this belief guided, so to speak, you own efforts? Can you talk about specific programs or weapons systems intended to achieve this aim?
SS: Of course. There were two programs that I supervised. The first of these sought to turn ordinary “dumb” bombs into steerable weapons that would not miss the target. Take bridges for example. They make difficult targets. They don’t move, but they’re long and narrow. The enemy defends important ones with anti-aircraft artillery. The air defense drives the attacker higher, making targeting more difficult. With bridges, going wide on a drop or having cross-winds shift the course of the bomb ever so slightly leads to a miss. What we wanted was to be able to control the fall of the bomb very exactly.
GB: Did you succeed?
SS: Yes and no. My men developed a tail-package that could be bolted on to the bomb in place of the normal fins. The tail-package had rudders to steer the bomb left or right along the azimuth. They were radio-controlled from the plane. We had less success with ailerons to control the pitch of the bomb. What they did manage to achieve was the installation of a gyroscope that kept the bomb from rolling on its axis in air. Finally, it had a flare installed in the tail. The smoke from the flare helped the bombardier keep the bomb in sight as he sought to guide it to the target. So long as the plane was directly over the target, you had a great probability of hitting it. Because it was steerable only to left or right on the azimuth, it was called an Azimuth Only (or Azon) bomb.
GB: You mentioned a second project.
SS: Yes, “Aphrodite.” This was a vastly more complicated project. The steerable bombs I just mentioned were intended to be dropped from a bomber directly over the target. This solved one problem, but moved us on to the next one. They were only heavy to very heavy pieces of ordnance: 1,000 pound bombs at first, then 2,000 pounders. That may seem like a lot. It is if you’re attacking a relatively soft-shelled target like a bridge.
But the tendency from the 1920s on had been to “harden” the physical structures containing key facilities. Our own Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor offers a good example. We knew from intelligence reports that the Germans had constructed bunkers at Zossen outside Berlin. These would house their signals intelligence people and their high command in case of war. All these were buried deep in the earth and had heavy reinforced concrete roofs. Even a 2,000 pound bomb wouldn’t do enough damage to a site like this. Yet these were exactly the sort of places that we would need to destroy in my theory of how air war should operate.
After much feverish work, the team attacking on this problem arrived at a solution. It was to create a system of remote controls for an aircraft, then to pack that aircraft with a huge amount of high explosives. As much as 10,000 pounds. Essentially, the plane would become a flying bomb that could be directed to a target, then crashed into the target. It would detonate on impact.
GB: How was it controlled? Fully or partially? From the ground or from an accompanying aircraft?
SS: Well, these were early days, so the system was bulky and crude. I won’t rehash the whole history of the development of autopilot systems since 1912. Suffice it to say that it already was possible to have an on-board mechanism fly a plane straight and level on a compass course. From that starting point, we added refinements of the steerable bomb. One refinement came with the placing of small television cameras—then very new—in the remotely controlled aircraft. One camera observed the instrument panel; the other looked downward at the ground. Essentially, these allowed us to greatly refine the course as the plane approached the target. In addition, the new developments allowed the plane to dive onto the target.
GB: And were these flying bombs to be controlled from the ground from take-off to target?
SS: No. Again these were early days. A pilot and flight engineer would get the plane aloft. Then they would arm the bomb and turn-over control of the plane to a mother-ship. After that, they would bail-out. The mother ship would guide the plane to target, then send it into a dive.
GB: How close did the mother ship have to be?
SS: Oh, within about a mile, and above the bomb-plane.
GB: so, it couldn’t be controlled from the ground after take-off?
SS: We never tried that.