Honest John and Corporal Rockets

Honest John Rocket

Corporal Rocket

The Ordnance Corps responded promptly to meet part of the Hodge board’s recommended requirements with a special-purpose large-caliber rocket, later known as the Honest John.9 Conceived in 1950 as a direct-support atomic weapon carrier and fielded four years later, the 762-mm. Honest John was a solid-propellant fin-stabilized supersonic free-flight rocket developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company to complement medium- or long-range tactical-support artillery.

The earliest Honest Johns were hastily improvised weapons to augment existing artillery when ammunition problems in Korea were still acute and when the threat from the Soviet Union seemed particularly great. Although capable of firing high-explosive conventional warheads, it was the first large-caliber rocket to carry an atomic warhead. The rocket was based partly on a crude German experimental rocket and partly on a rocket designed by the Navy. The launcher was a simple track, mounted on a standard Army truck, but the mechanism provided the United States with the first opportunity of linking a nuclear warhead with a mobile surface vehicle. Because of their makeshift nature, the rockets soon needed replacement. The improved Honest Johns, which finally reached the field in 1961, had a range of 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) compared to the earlier rocket’s 16-mile (25.7-kilometer) range and had greater accuracy and reliability. Weighing several tons, the rocket’s self-propelled launcher was so light and its fire control so simple that the system had greater battlefield mobility than conventional heavy artillery. The Honest John was aimed and fired in the same manner as cannon, and it could be used in terrain where it was impossible to move an 86-ton atomic cannon that had also been developed. The Honest John presented less of a camouflage problem in position than the heavy gun, but because the back blast upon firing was plainly visible, the rocket launcher had to move out of position quickly to reduce the effects of enemy counterfire. The U.S. Marine Corps and numerous foreign nations also adopted the rocket.

The original Honest John rocket batteries each had three rocket platoons, each with two sections. Each of the six sections had one self-propelled rocket launcher. Until 1957, one battery was attached to each 280-mm. atomic cannon battalion for administrative and operational control. But between 1956 and 1957, the batteries were reorganized as single-firing battery battalions. The firing battery had two firing platoons of two launchers each. Sufficient personnel and equipment were provided to employ the firing sections individually, either as platoons or as battalions, giving the desired flexibility.
Fielding the New Missiles

Spurred in its development by the Korean War and by the Army’s desire to gain a nuclear role in national defense planning, the Corporal, the first surface-to-surface ballistic guided missile with a range of 25 to 75 nautical miles (46.3 to 138.9 kilometers), was an outgrowth of the WAC-Corporal. So named because it was an advance over those in an earlier series known as Privates, the Corporal was developed to provide the Army with a weapon that could deliver a nuclear warhead, extend the range of field artillery, and furnish a readily available means of all-weather heavy fire support. Although it was fielded in 1955, it was never altogether satisfactory. The liquid-fueled Corporal was susceptible to countermeasures, requiring many items of specialized ground equipment and a correspondingly large number of personnel; its mobility was poor and its fueling process slow; and the intervening time between target assignment and actual firing was excessive, given the fuel’s highly corrosive nature. All defects were to be avoided in the second generation of the missile. Despite some improvements, however, many of the criticisms of the earlier missile also applied to later models. The program’s original objective was to provide a total of sixteen battalions in a state of combat readiness by July 1954, but only three battalions were active by that date and none was operational. With the end of the Korean War, however, the goal was reduced. By 1957, eight Corporal battalions were assigned in Europe and five in the United States, the latter number subsequently reduced to four. Despite its shortcomings, the Corporal set the stage for improved tactical-support guided missiles and remained operational until 1964, when the solid-propellant Sergeant replaced it.

The objectives of field artillery missiles and rockets were to provide all-weather fire support for land, airborne, and amphibious combat operations beyond cannon-range coverage; great destruction against “hard” targets, such as tank formations and fortifications; and fire support for combat troops making deep penetrations, such as airborne assaults or armored breakthroughs. Initially, the missile and rocket units were organized in much the same manner as conventional artillery units, with a battalion headquarters and headquarters battery, medical detachment, three firing batteries, and a service battery. In the case of the Corporal, a battalion had an aggregate strength of about 850. This structure was soon reduced by one missile battery, to an aggregate strength of 531. Tests, however, showed that so large an organization was unsatisfactory for any unit whose primary mission was the delivery of nuclear firepower. To achieve a sufficiently large volume of fire with conventional artillery, several guns were grouped in batteries and several batteries to battalions; however, to achieve the same volume of fire with the nuclear-capable Corporal and Honest John, only one missile was needed. Therefore, to exploit the potential of three missile-firing batteries in a battalion, the batteries and missiles would have to be dispersed over a very large area, thus counteracting the operational and logistical advantages of centralized battalion control. These considerations resulted in a single-fire unit organized with a headquarters, headquarters and service battery, and one missile battery with two missile-launching sections. All support functions, including ammunition supply, motor maintenance, and personnel administration, were consolidated at battalion level. The units had limited capability for simultaneous defense against ground attack and no capability against an air attack, thereby requiring that other units provide local security support. The missiles were employed in pairs to ensure timely atomic artillery fire support.

The batteries of the Corporal and Honest John battalions were similar except that the Corporal’s firing battery included a guidance platoon since the missile received commands from the ground during flight. The principal difference in employment of the Honest Johns and Corporals was the time needed to occupy a position and fire. Generally, three battalions each of Honest Johns and Corporals were allotted to a corps.

A battalion practiced four methods of operational deployment. The first was for the battalion to operate in a single area, its batteries colocated until the mission was accomplished, thereby not only reducing command, administrative, mess, local security, and launcher reloading problems but also making it possible to engage targets of opportunity in a minimum amount of time. Its main disadvantage was the increased possibility of the entire unit being detected and destroyed by the enemy and, if that failed, the impending need to displace immediately from the now compromised firing site. The second was for the battalion to split off the firing battery, thereby on the one hand reducing the former’s vulnerability to enemy attack but on the other hand making administrative, mess, and other command functions to the latter more complicated. The third, a variation of the first, involved deploying the battalion to an assembly area with natural cover or camouflage and then temporarily relocating the firing batteries to predesignated firing positions to execute their mission. In this way, with the firing batteries separated for only short periods of time, centralized battalion functions remained unhampered and the assembly area essentially secure. The fourth entailed deploying the firing batteries in their initial firing positions. After the mission was completed, the elements would displace to the vicinity of their alternate firing positions for reloading, thus being ready to attack targets of opportunity without any appreciable loss in time. But survey and communications problems were more pronounced than in the other three methods, and displacement was just as difficult as in the third method. Also, sustained and maximum rates of fire were hard to achieve. Army leaders felt, however, that the high degree of protection against nuclear attack outweighed these disadvantages. On balance, the method employed thus depended on the tactical situation, the operational mission, and the current intelligence on enemy capabilities.


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