Wednesday, June 22, 2016

USS Midway Launches a V-2: Operation Sandy

By Elijah Palmer
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

After the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, the Allies eagerly studied some of the advanced German technology they had captured.  One item of particular interest was the V-2.  This supersonic missile was developed by Germany to retaliate against Allied bombing of German cities.  First launched in 1944, over 3,000 were launched against Allied cities.  American forces captured much of this technology late in the war, including material to assemble dozens of functional rockets, and also accepted the surrender of top scientists from the program.
The American government explored many uses for these rockets in the years following World War II. Military functions were the most obvious, and so it was that the Navy decided to look into the possibility of launching these weapons from ships. This potential ability would greatly increase the striking range of these missiles, providing a long-range seagoing armament. With this in mind, Operation Sandy was born in 1947, to test a V-2 rocket off of a ship.

First, an appropriate launching platform was needed. The Newport News-built USS Midway (CV 41) was selected for the test as it had plenty of space for the large missile and any launching apparatus, and also had a steel deck.  Having a steel deck was a necessity since the rocket would start fires on the Essex-class carriers, which had wooden decks.  According to an official Navy report, Midway was also selected for  "its elevator capacity, its fire fighting facilities, and because of its steadiness at sea." A support frame was designed for a quick and stable setup and launch onboard ship.
Army ordnance experts at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico trained Sailors on the operation of the V-2.  Two missiles and spare parts were shipped across the country by rail to Hampton Roads where they were loaded onto USS Midway at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  The shipyard's iconic "hammerhead" crane at the shipyard lifted the rockets onto the flight deck.  After the missiles were onboard, two variants of a portable launching apparatus were tested with a dummy rocket and part of the crew was trained in handling it.  Firefighters also conducted extra training in case fuel spilled or the missile fell over during launch.  All of this preparation was done with tight security and armed guards.

When everything was ready, USS Midway, accompanied by four destroyers, headed out into the Atlantic. Along the way, select VIPs were welcomed aboard, including Admiral Forrest Sherman and Admiral William Blandy.  A full rehearsal was conducted the day before the launch was scheduled. On the morning of September 6, 1947, at a point about 250 miles southeast of Bermuda, the crew finalized preparations for launching the V-2. The rocket was lifted into a vertical position, secured in its launching apparatus, and finally, was fueled. 

The deck was cleared (observers went to the island) and the countdown began. 
Primary ignition started and the supports dropped from the missile. (From a US Navy documentary on Operation Sandy)
Main ignition and lift off. (From a US Navy documentary on Operation Sandy)
V-2 launching over USS Midway. (From a US Navy documentary on Operation Sandy)
During the first few seconds of lift off, the rocket tipped to a 45-degree angle, but corrected itself shortly thereafter. The V-2 reached 12,000 feet before it tumbled and broke apart. Even with this shortened flight path, the operation was deemed a success. The hope was that firing these large rockets could become a regular part of a carrier's fighting capabilities, with the whole process of setting up, launching, and clearing the deck for flight ops taking only a comparatively short time. While carriers did not adapt this form of weaponry, Operation Sandy and other tests helped further the ideas of shipboard missiles and long range firepower. 

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