History Friday: Videos of The Sphinx Project & Laying Down A Marker

It is a well establish principle when doing historical research that a source is regarded as “more reliable” the closer it was to the actual event, in both time and space. For example, if MacArthur’s chief of air operations General Kenney reported on Leyte Operations on December 1944 in a combat diary, that record is simply closer to the actual event than a statement made about those operations in his memoirs ten years later. Obviously this is not the only factor that decides the reliability of a source, but it is one of the more important. All other things being equal, a researcher should access and weight the former far more than the latter.

What I have found time and again — and written about here in my column — is that most World War 2 (WW2) histories, whether academic or popular histories, don’t bother to evaluate those wartime documents and they repeat the easier to access institutional narrative histories. This is becoming an increasingly problematic approach to history writing as the massive digitization of past primary source records and film material are now readily available outside traditional national archives.

It is in that vein that I am using this column to “lay down a marker” for evaluating US Army Air Force/US Air Force post-war institutional and oral histories using Sphinx Project official project result films from the Critical Past web site video service. The Critical Past web site has taken official government films and packaged them as video and digital photo content for purchase, but has left samples of the video content on-line.

The Sphinx Report coverpage for the Camp Hood Exercises

Historical Background
The Sphinx Project was a post-German VE-Day surrender, pre-Japanese VJ-Day surrender US Army crash project to take every weapon and tactic it had to create a uniform combat doctrine template to apply to Japanese “cave warfare tactics” seen in Biak, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. There were several separate Sphinx Project exercises by different parts of the Army. The best known of those exercises were the Army Ground Forces (AGF) exercises at then Camp Hood, (Now Ft. Hood) Texas in June-July 1945 hosted by the Tank Destroyer Command, and the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) exercises with live lethal chemical agents at the CWS Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. There were also two other exercises that are less well known by WW2 researchers that I intend to write on in this and future columns. The CWS and the US Army Armored Command’s Medical section did testing with a one-two punch of aircraft delivered defoliant and Napalm at Ft. Knox Kentucky, and the Army Air Force (AAF) did an exercise which was a round of conventional weapon air strikes on the same Dugway Proving Ground caves the CWS used in its lethal chemical tests.

What follows is a listing of the seven videos that were clipped from that AAF test report film with comments on content and their relation to U.S. Army Air Force politics/doctrine.

1. A project to review methods of attack against Japanese-type fortifications at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.
Location: Utah United States
Date: 1945
Duration: 4 min 5 sec


Comment: This is an introduction to the objectives of the project, and an introduction to several weapons including the 75mm armed B-25H Mitchell with AN/APG-15B range only radar and the 11.75-inch “Tiny Tim” rocket. The B-25H and AN/APG-15B was a Pacific Theater only weapon. It was used in China by General Chennault’s 14th Air Force and on USMC PBJ (B-25H in Marine Corps blue) in the Central Pacific to destroy Japanese controlled small ship traffic. Several B-25H with that radar were trialed without results in Mac Arthur’s South West Pacific Area at the same time, but Japanese barge and small ship traffic had gone extinct before it arrived. The radar allowed B-25Hs to engage Japanese ships with 25mm auto-cannons outside their effective range of 2,000 yards. The “Tiny Tim” is essentially a 500lb bomb on the end of an oil pipeline section with three 4.5 inch rocket motors inside. It was on two US Navy carriers in the Pacific. One, the USS Franklin, was struck by Kamikazes without using it and small numbers were used from a second carrier on Okinawa with no significant results reported.

2. US P-38 fighter makes napalm attack on hillside to review methods of attack against Japanese-type fortifications.
Location: Utah United States
Date: 1945


Comment: This short film shows a P-38 Lightning fighter making a low level pass dropping Napalm at the mouth of a old mine shaft. The announcer was dismissive of both the accuracy and effect of the weapon, since it did not close a cave mouth. This was not born out by Pacific Theater combat results, as the mass use of Napalm by General Kenney’s 5th Air Force at the Ipo Damn in Luzon, Philippines was key to the victory. This was the first of a number of General H. H. “Hap” Arnold’s Bomber Mafia Men versus Pacific flyer issues in these films.

3. P-38 Lightning planes drop bombs over a target area in Utah to review methods of attack against Japanese-type fortifications.
Location: Utah Dugway Proving Ground
Date: 1945
Duration: 3 min 38 sec


Comment: This section of the film shows low level and “Glide Bomb” attacks by P-38s into mine shafts with 1000lb bombs. The film is dismissive of dive bombing tactic as being accurate, which it was extremely so in USMC and US Navy hands. There is a good reason for this. USAAF fighters uniformly lacked large dive brakes. This meant they had to drop bombs far earlier in a dive to have any chance of avoiding a crash. The dive brakes on the US Navy Dauntless and Helldiver dive bombers made them slower in a near vertical dive, and hence, far more accurate than USAAF fighters.

4. A P-47N Thunderbolt aircraft fires Tiny Tim rockets in Utah to review methods of attack against Japanese-type fortifications.
Location: Utah Dugway Proving Ground
Date: 1945
Duration: 3 min 25 sec


Comments: In this video clip you see the P-47N Thunderbolt fighter and A-26 Invader light bomber firing a pair of 11.75-inch “Tiny Tim” and up to 10 each 5-inch high velocity aerial rockets (HVAR) in the same firing pass. As the two rocket types had radically different trajectories, the P-47N pilots had to split their attention to different sections of their sights in the same firing pass, with neither rocket attack being cave-destruction accurate. The A-26 was so grossly inaccurate with the “Tiny Tim” that its use on the aircraft was not recommended.

The emphasis on maximum bomb load and a single pass on the target is a pure European Theater, “Bomber Mafia”, tactical template. Pacific Theater USMC, and Philippine Campaign US Army Air Force fighters, made multiple passes striking ground targets. The Pacific Theater was always lean on munitions compared to the 8th, 9th, 12th and 15th Air Forces in Europe and they never faced German anti-aircraft defenses. There was the additional fact that the 25mm Japanese auto-cannon’s twin and triple mounts could not track targets faster than 280 knots air speed. German 20mm, 37mm and 50mm auto-cannons did not have this weakness and their were far more of them with better optical sights and better mechanical computer “predictors.”

Also missing here was mention of “VT” or radar proximity fused rockets. VT-fused rockets were like aerial canister fire in terms of fragmentation and could far more easily place deadly fragments into cave openings to destroy equipment and kill men inside caves. The USAAF Bomber Mafia was deeply afraid of VT-fused rockets as they made their heavy bomber “Combat Box” obsolete. There was much in the way of USAAF obstructive weapons development politics with VT-fused rockets and bombs to prevent their deployment anywhere, but particularly in Europe, for fear of USAAF Heavy bomber formations facing German copies of American VT fuses.

5. Bomber planes drop Tall Boy bombs over a target area in Utah to review methods of attack against Japanese-type fortifications.
Location: Utah Dugway Proving Ground
Date: 1945
Duration: 2 min 58 sec


Comment: This is the first and only wartime AAF film that I have seen that admits the inability of high altitude bombers to hit point targets. The film communicates this by showing a B-29 dropping the British Tall Boy bombs on a series of cave targets and missing every time.

6. B-17E and B-29 planes bomb a target area in Utah to review methods of attack against Japanese-type fortifications.
Location: Utah Dugway Proving Ground
Date: 1945
Duration: 2 min 39 sec


Comment: This is the first and only wartime AAF film that I have seen that admits the the inability of Medium and Heavy bombers to hit point targets at from 2,000 to 10,000 feet altitude using horizontal bombing. The film recommend the use of three B-17 or B-29 bombers “Vee” of three planes dropping tight clusters of 1000lb and 2000lb bombs to overcome deflection errors in dealing with point targets. The clip closes showing a six plane squadron of B-29s in two trailing “Vee” formations.

General Curtis LeMay’s post-war claims that strategic bombers “didn’t do tactical missions” needs to be understood in relation to this late Summer 1945 film. These small heavy bomber formations were common with 5th Air Force B-24 groups supporting ground troops in the Luzon.

7. Photographs evaluate the results of attacks and show destroyed Japanese-type fortifications in Utah.
Location: Utah Dugway Proving Ground
Date: 1945
Duration: 1 min 13 sec


Comment: This is the last clip from the AAF Sphinx Project film I found at the Critical Past web site. It is a summary of the effects of the weapons used with the observation that the effective circular error probability (CEP) for closing cave entrances — the measure of effectiveness in this test series, amounted to the crater diameter of the bombs used.

Closing SummationThe Sphinx Project video clips show that many of the post-war claims of the US Army Air Force “Bomber Mafia” as placed in their institutional history are not supported by wartime tests of their primary weapons, the B-17 and B-29 bombers. Nor are their claims regards air doctrine to be used during the cancelled Operation Olympic Invasion of Japan. This is a powerful example of the real power of the new Digital technology to change our understanding of 20th Century history past the old institutional narratives.

8 thoughts on “History Friday: Videos of The Sphinx Project & Laying Down A Marker”

  1. Mike K,

    The USAAF had a whole series of guided bombs either broadly equivalent or superior to the German ones.

    The issue with them was they could not be used in high altitude, close formation, “Combat Box” bomber streams. Thus they were not used to any great effect in European or Mediterranean theaters.

    Only 10th and 14th Air Forces used them to any effect because;
    a. Their were not enough heavy bomber groups or “Strategic targets” so the Bomber Generals could pull rank and ignore theater commanders, and

    b. Because of “a” they had to focus on lines of communications — road and railway bridges — for which the radio controlled VB-1 Azon bomb was well suited.

  2. “for which the radio controlled VB-1 Azon bomb was well suited.”

    I agree but the European war ended in May and the Pacific war was still going on. Were any used on those cave sites ? Maybe there wasn’t time but the German guided bombs were very accurate against ships.

  3. Mike K,

    When General Curtis LeMay committed XXI Bomber Command and 20th Air Force to the low level incendiary campaign over Japan, he aborted any use of aircraft dropped guided weapons from Strategic Army Air Force B-29s in WW2.

    B-24’s and A-26 bombers in MacArthur’s Far Eastern Air Forces (AKA the 5th, 7th and 13th Air Forces under General Kenney) the 10th Air Force from Burma and Chennault’s 14th Air Force were all going to make extensive use of several kinds of guided bombs.

    These are notes from my “From the files of the Air Technical Service Command” Operation Olympic guided weapon deployment list —

    The Vertical Bombs

    1) In June 1945 efforts to ship 10,100 surplus VB-1 Azon “A-1
    vertical controllable bomb fin tail” kits from the ETO/MTO (about 1/2
    & 1/2 each) to the 10th & 14th Air Forces in the China-Burma-India
    theater began. The C-B-I bound AZON kits would be joined with about
    4,000 more new radio kits (AN/CRW-7) from the RAZON bomb to bring them
    up to a limited “A-2 tail fin” standard. This would allow up to 45
    separate AZON to be guided at once rather than the previous limit of
    five in a mission. There was a full B-24 (HB) Group (308th?) and a
    P-38 droop snoot squadron assigned to that group with 10th AF. A total
    of 65 of the 1st generation AZON control systems were present in that
    B-24/P-38 group. A further two B-24 attrition replacements per month
    were being outfitted for AZON for the 10th AF.

    2) The A-26C replacements for 85 B-25’s of the 14th Air Force were all
    going to be fitted with AZON-RAZON controllers.

    3) The FEAF was to receive 18 AZON-RAZON B-24 control ships with a
    further 18 control ship attrition spares.

    4) The next three B-32 Squadrons to be deployed to the Philippines
    for the FEAF would be 100% AZON-RAZON controller equipped.

    5) A total of 500 AZON-RAZON controllers were on order at war’s end
    inclusive of the 14th AF A-26 and the B-24 & B-32 of the FEAF, but not
    including the 65 1st generation Azon controllers already in the 10th AF.

    6) Three thousand (3000 ea) new VB-1 with the A-2 controllable fin
    and AN/CRW-7 radios plus both nose and tail fuses, which the A-1
    lacked, were on contract at war’s end. At some point the improved A-3
    fin would have been cut into production that had improved radio guidance.
    These 3,000 VB-1 AZON were a stop gap production run scheduled to be
    completed Sept/Early Oct 1945. The V-J Day surrender resulted in the
    cancellation of 2000 VB-1 including all the proposed improved A-3

    7) The FEAF had 1000 improved A-2 tail kit VB-1 Azons on-order at
    war’s close. The first shipment of 500 was on the way to FEAF on V-J
    Day with another 500 due for shipment shortly after.

    8) VB-2 Azon based on a 2000lb bomb rather than the standard AN/M65
    1000lb bomb was developed but never requested by the using theaters.
    Testing found that it has a lower control altitude due to high speed
    dynamic instability. The using Air Forces did not want to fly lower if
    at all possible.

    9) The VB-3 Razon was in production at the end of WW2 with 23,000 on
    contract. The V-J Day surrender resulted in 20,000 of the order being
    cancelled. There were 1000 VB-3 on order for the FEAF “combat
    testing” on B-24 and B-32.

    General Azon notes: The Azon series bombs suffered from several
    defects including dynamic instability over 15,000 feet above ground
    altitude drop height, limited (5) control channels, high visibility
    requirements, quality control issues and extended straight and level
    bomb runs. The AZON-RAZON controllers were the “CRAB plus “JAG”
    devices used to guide RAZON thru the Norden bomb site. This system was
    found to be equally capable of guiding AZON with the added capability
    of allowing AZON bomber formations to execute evasive action including
    turns, climbs and dives, after AZON release, unlike the 1st Generation
    controllers used in Europe and Burma. The tested tactics called for
    three control ships in a nine-plane, three “vic”, horizontal formation
    to control three patterns onto the same maneuvering target, creating
    a large dense pattern that a destroyer could not escape. The A-1 tail
    kits only had a nose fuse and were subject to fuse problems in bridge
    attacks. The A-2 fins being produced at wars end has both a nose and
    tail fuse and the modified AN/CRW-7 radios from the VB-3 Razon. A
    further “A-3” kit was under development with a modified radio control
    link less subject to radio interference that turned on only during
    bomb guidance, rather than continuously starting some minutes prior to
    bomb release. The AZON platforms of the 10th & 14th AF (A-26, B-24 &
    P-38) were to launch a concerted transportation campaign aimed at
    Chinese and SE Asian railways and bridges to freeze Japanese ground
    forces in place in support of the Pastel deception plan.

    ROC, Glide bombs & Weary Willie/Abusive kits under construction

    1. There was a strong possibility that a few 20th Air Force B-29’s would have been converted as radio/TV control ships for the Weary Willie/Abusive heavy bomber drones using either worn out B-24 or B-29 bombers.

    To be continued…

  4. Micheal K,

    I recommend that you get a copy of “Near Miss: The Army Air Forces’ Guided Bomb Program in World War II” by Donald J. Hanle through your local public library inter-library loan.

    “Near Miss” shows that LeMay removed the VB-1 Azon and VB-3 Razon radio guided bombs as an option for the Pacific B-29 strategic air campaign when he went over to mass use of incendiaries at night. The Chemical Warfare Service records and post-war histories of incendiary bomb orders for late 1945 and 1946 make clear that incendiaries were going to be the primary payload (80%) for our B-29 force as long as the war lasted.

    The “Transportation Campaign” General Spaatz was going implement and so dramatically framed in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) would have been a collateral effort of between one squadron and three squadrons of B-29′s using AN/APS-7 Eagle Radar to drop British supplied Tall boy and Grand Slam bombs against Japanese bridges. These bridges would have been East of Kyushu.

    The B-32s and B-24s of MacArthur’s FEAF would have been the primary user of guided bombs in the Invasion of Japan with the A-26s of Chennault’s 14th Air Force a close second, against Japanese railroads in Kyushu and China receptively.

    The FEAF was to have been reinforced with two Squadrons of British RAF Lancaster bombers dropping Tall boy and Grand Slam bombs on the Kanmon Undersea Railway tunnel.

    None of that is in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS).

    Only some of it is in the National Archive documents Donald J. Hanle found.

    Below is one of the better reviews of “Near Miss” that have found:

    Near Miss: The Army Air Forces’ Guided Bomb Program in World War II by
    Donald J. Hanle. Scarecrow Press (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing
    Group), 2007, 368 pp., $76.00.

    Operation Desert Storm’s air campaign began at 2:10 a.m., Baghdad
    time, 17 January 1991. During the following days, television stations
    treated millions of people around the world to scenes of
    precision-guided munitions (PGM) hitting targets with near-pinpoint
    accuracy in “downtown” Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq and Kuwait. The
    US Air Force had finally realized its long-sought-after but rarely
    achieved goal of precision strike. In a real sense, these modern
    air-to-surface weapons were the “grandchildren” of developmental
    weapons from various PGM programs initiated by Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold,
    chief of the US Army Air Forces (AAF) during World War II. Before the
    publication of Donald Hanle’s Near Miss—the first in-depth,
    book-length treatment of these programs—very few people knew about
    these early attempts to develop PGMs.

    Using organizational histories, records in the National Archives and
    those of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, World War
    II technical reports, and the personal papers of Arnold and Gen Carl
    Spaatz, supplemented by numerous secondary works, Hanle has produced a
    comprehensive history of the AAF’s PGM programs of World War II. A
    retired US Air Force intelligence officer with a long and deep
    interest in airpower and World War II, he was a professor at the
    National Defense Intelligence University, Washington, DC, where he
    served as director of Terrorism and Asymmetric Warfare Studies and
    taught courses in intelligence analysis and military capabilities
    analysis. He also wrote Terrorism: The Newest Face of Warfare
    (Pergamon-Brassey’s, 1989). In Near Miss, readers will see the
    author’s intelligence background at work as he extracts data and
    information from technical reports and other sources, weaving the
    material into a scholarly yet easily read and understood account of
    General Arnold’s PGM programs.

    By mid-1943, a year after the AAF began bombing German industries, it
    had become evident to all but the most devoted advocates of
    high-altitude daylight precision bombing that the actualization of
    this doctrine did not even come close to the prewar boast that bombers
    with the Norden bombsight could place a 250-pound bomb into a pickle
    barrel from 20,000 feet. The reality of the air war over
    Germany—overcast skies, smoke from factories, German antiaircraft
    defenses, and a myriad of other factors—produced an average circular
    error probable of about half a mile (that is, half of the bombs
    dropped fell inside a circle a half of a mile in diameter, and the
    other half fell outside) with many bombs hitting the ground up to five
    miles from the designated target. By the end of the war in Europe in
    May 1945, the strategic bombing of Germany had killed between 350,000
    and 700,000 civilians.

    Because of this poor performance, General Arnold sought to improve
    bombing accuracy significantly and reduce collateral damage by
    developing various types of PGMs. By the end of the war, the AAF had
    experimented with glide bombs, vertical bombs (VB), jet bombs (JB),
    and war-weary bombers that used “primitive” radio and television
    control systems to direct the weapon to its intended target (Operation
    Aphrodite). Despite the money, effort, and Arnold’s personal influence
    and effort, these programs had produced very little by the end of the
    war: the VB-2 Azimuth Only (AZON), used with limited success in
    Holland and Burma by September 1945; the VB-3 Range and Azimuth Only
    (RAZON), used with limited but good success in the Korean War; and the
    JB-2 “Loon,” an American version of the German V-1 “buzz bomb,” a
    prototype that became the ancestor of the US military’s cruise missile

    In his book, Hanle examines every major PGM program that the AAF
    developed during the war. He first presents the origins of the general
    PGM program, mainly the fruit of General Arnold’s personal efforts to
    obtain weapons with significantly greater accuracy than contemporary
    gravity bombs. Arnold hoped that their expected combat use would speed
    up the destruction of German industry, limit collateral damage, and
    reduce aircraft and aircrew losses—goals sought by today’s air
    leaders. The author discusses the research, development, and combat
    employment (what the Air Force now calls operational testing) of each
    weapon system in sufficient detail but without devolving into
    minutiae. Finally, he offers an extensive discussion of the reasons
    for the general failure of these early PGM programs. Consequently,
    readers will acquire a thorough understanding of the origins,
    development, and problems of Arnold’s programs.

    Hanle correctly cites three main reasons for the general failure of
    the “primitive” PGM efforts. As the reader might suspect, the most
    significant reason involved the rudimentary state of technology for
    the radio- and television-control systems. Today’s PGMs utilize
    satellites, computers, microprocessors, laser beams, digital networks,
    and circuit boards to achieve pinpoint accuracy—sophisticated
    technology not available in the 1940s when radios used fragile vacuum
    tubes and copper wiring. Second, the author discovered significant
    resistance to the PGM program from operational commanders who
    generally saw these “Buck Rogers fantasy weapons” lying outside
    accepted strategic bombing doctrine and wartime operational practice,
    generally considering them a waste of resources. Finally, he found
    that the success and momentum of these programs depended, to a
    significant degree, on Arnold’s personal interest and involvement
    (especially so, given the resistance from the operational commanders
    to the PGM programs), which many design developers saw as meddling.

    In summary, Near Miss is an outstanding and scholarly, yet highly
    readable, history of the AAF’s PGM programs of World War II, perhaps
    the last major subject of this war to remain unexplored from
    unclassified documents. Until several years ago, I knew only about the
    JB-2 Loon and Operation Aphrodite. (President John F. Kennedy’s oldest
    brother Joseph died when his radio-controlled and explosive-filled
    B-24 prematurely exploded on 22 August 1944.) Then in July 2005, I
    became an Air Force historian at Eglin AFB, Florida, where the AAF
    conducted much of the testing for these first-generation PGMs, and
    learned more about them from the material in the Air Armament Center’s
    history office. Thus, from a historical, professional, and personal
    perspective, it was exciting to discover that someone had finally
    written about this previously almost forgotten aspect of World War II
    that portended so much, once the technology and the commitment to
    pursue the development of PGMs became available after the late 1960s.

    Dr. Robert B. Kane

    Maxwell AFB, Alabama

  5. Note: There was a slight update to add URL links and a photograph of the Camp Hood Sphinx Project Report.

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