RAF Fersfield – The Last Flight of Joseph Kennedy Jnr and Wilford Willy

There has been much written about the young Kennedy, his life, his family and his death, but a lot of information around his death has remained ‘unknown’ for many years. Even today, the actual cause of his death is not clear and will probably remain so.

Joseph Kennedy Jnr was based at RAF Fersfield (originally RAF Winfarthing) in Norfolk (Trail 27), and had only been there a few weeks before he tragically died on August 12th 1944, whilst operating on secret operations. A tragic loss, this is the last flight of Joseph Kennedy and Wilford Willy from RAF Fersfield, Norfolk, England.

The Crew – Lieutenant Joseph Kennedy Jnr.

Joseph Kennedy was born July 25th 1915, Nantasket, Massachusetts, he was the eldest brother of eight siblings including John F. Kennedy. He was son to Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. Throughout his life he had been pressured into the political life by his father who had high hopes that his son would become the future President. Joseph Jnr wanted to please. As war loomed, Joe Kennedy Jnr rose to the challenge seizing his opportunity to become the ‘shining light’ of the Kennedy family.

The Kennedy parents instilled a desire to be competitive, to win and succeed and to be the best. This came out in Joseph during his time at both home and at school. The pressure on Joseph was enormous, and it was clearly evident throughout his short life.

Joseph lived in the shadow of his younger brother John, who would captain a PT boat in the Far East, and in Joseph’s absence, go on to become President of the most powerful nation on Earth. John was the brighter, the more determined of the two, and this caused friction between them. Joe always wanting to ‘out-do’ his brother persevered, but never seemed to quite make it.

It was this determination and rivalry that perhaps led Joseph to do what he did, to impress, to be the best and the ideal way he thought was as a war hero.

With a remarkable academic background behind him, Joseph Kennedy joined the U.S. Naval Reserves on October 15th 1941, reporting to the Naval Air Station (N.A.S.) at Jacksonville, Florida the following day. After several months of training he received his commission and on January 10th 1943 he joined a flying patrol squadron. In May he became a Junior Grade Lieutenant transferring to a bomber squadron in the following July that year. In 1944, on July 1st, he was promoted to Lieutenant United States Naval Reserve. His military life would last just one more month.

Joseph was posted to RAF Dunkeswell serving under the RAF’s Coastal Command. Flying a PB4Y he would carry out U-Boat searches over the Atlantic around the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic. As he accumulated flying hours, he rarely came into any real danger, even when posted to cover the Allied invasion fleet over Normandy he rarely came into contact with any opposing aircraft or vessels.

Joseph Kennedy’s opportunity came when volunteers were asked for to undertake a special secret and dangerous operation. He jumped at the chance to be a hero.

Joseph Kennedy arrived at RAF Fersfield, Norfolk on 30th July 1944 where he was trained for two weeks.  On August 10th 1944 he wrote a letter home, it would be his last communication with his family. Joseph Kennedy was to become a pilot in operation Anvil.

Lieutenant Wilford John Willy

Sadly, Lieutenant Wilford J. Willy (s/n: O-137078), has remained in the shadows probably because the status of Joseph Kennedy Jnr. A tragic loss nonetheless and no less an important one. Willy was born 13th May 1909, New Jersey. He enlisted in the Navy in 1928, gaining his Naval Wings on April 30th 1937, just two years after he had married his sweetheart, Edna C. Schaffery, the women he left behind. On advancing through the rank of Chief Petty Officer,  he was awarded Lower Grade Lieutenant (April 28th 1942) and two months later, on June 26th, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant. Willy served at a number of operational stations, including Pearl Harbour, before being posted to RAF Fersfield, in Norfolk.

Willy, now an expert in Radio Operations and procedures, became the Executive Officer of the Special Air Unit One (S.A.U.1), the rank he achieved when he took off with Kennedy on August 12th 1944.

Operations Anvil and Aphrodite.

Whilst Drone technology and research had been around as early as World War I, it was still relatively unchartered territory. However, radio controlled drones (modern name Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or U.A.V.s) were already being used with relative success for target practice by the RAF and USAAF during World War II. The ‘Queen Bee’ being one of many used by the RAF. The Germans had also been investigating drone and guided bomb use through examples such as the Mistel aircraft (the most successful being a combination of either a FW-190 or Me-109 mounted above a Ju 88).

Both the  USAAF and USN were undertaking secret trials into drone aircraft operations with the view of attacking
the  heavily defended and ‘impenetrable’ submarine and ‘V’ weapons sites across northern France . The aim, to stop, or at least reduce, the Nazi’s use of the V1, V2 rockets and the development of the new V3 canon.

Codenamed ‘Aphrodite‘ by the USAAF,  and ‘Anvil‘  by the Navy, they were two secret operations running side by side. The idea behind these operations, was to remove all excess equipment from war-weary B-17s and B-24s, fill them with explosives, such as the British Torpex, put in radio receivers so that the drone (baby) could be controlled by a separate aircraft (mother) and fly them into designated targets. A volunteer crew of two would take off, set the aircraft in flight and then bail out over the U.K. or English Channel, leaving the ‘baby’ in the control of the ‘mother’ aircraft. These would then fly, by remote control, to the target when they would be put into a dive destroying whatever they hit.

The controls of the B-17 . The arm linkage moved the control column in response to the radio controls. (credit USAF)

The idea was remarkable but not new, and the equipment whilst innovative for its day, was limited to say the least. In all the operations undertaken only one drone ever reached its target, and that was through more luck than skill.

‘Azon’ (from AZimuth ONly*1) controls had been used successfully on individual 500lb or 1000lb bombs, where the control box was attached to the rear of the bomb and controlled by the bomb aimer through a joy stick. Using two directional controls (left or right) he could direct a bomb very accurately onto a given point. The downside of Azon, was that range and fall had to be determined in the usual way by the bomb aimer and could not be altered once the bomb had left the aircraft.

Azon had been used and proven in attacking bridges, railways and other longitudinal targets and was very accurate with a good bomb aimer. However, because of its limitations, it could only be used in one dimension and therefore was not capable a making a ‘baby’ take off.

Two aircraft types were identified for the project. Boeing’s B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ and Consolidated’s B-24 ‘Liberator’. These once converted would be given new identifications BQ-7 (usually B-17Fs) and BQ-8 (B-24D/J). In each case it was deemed that two crew members would be needed to raise the ‘baby’ off the ground, partly because of the strength needed to pull back the control columns in these heavy bombers. Once airborne, they would climb to around 20,000ft, arm the Torpex, set the aircraft on a trajectory to the target, switch on the receivers and bail out.

About twenty-five  BQ-7s were modified, but it is not known accurately how many USAAF BQ-8s were converted. However, it is known that at least two naval PB4Y-1s (the naval version of the B-24 of which 400 had been converted from B-24 status – these were given s/n 31936 – 32335) were converted to BQ-8 standard; one of which was flown by Lt. Kennedy and  Lt. Willy on the 12th August 1944.

A number of support aircraft were needed for each mission. Prior to the attack a Mosquito XVI of the 653rd BS would photograph the target. Then the ‘baby’ would be accompanied by at least one fighter (either P-38 or P-51) incase the ‘baby’ lost control and had to be shot down and for fighter escort; a ‘mother’ either a Lockheed Ventura or another B-17 modified to CQ-4 standard, and a photographic  Mosquito from the 8th Combat Camera Unit (CCU) to record inflight behaviour. A post mission photo reconnoissance operation was carried out by the 25th BG at Watton to analyse the effectiveness of the bombing. It therefore took a lot of fuel, crew and aircraft to fly one drone to its target.

Because of the design features of the bombers, the USAAF looked into removing the cockpit to allow easy departure. The only aircraft that received this treatment was B-17F, “Olin’s 69’ERS” 42-30595 formally of 560BS, 388BG at Knettishall. It was never used on an Aphrodite mission  and was scrapped post war after being used for training in the open cockpit mode.  The BQ-8  (B-24) also had modifications made in the form of a widened hatch in the nose allowing for an easier escape from the aircraft. Once modified, the aircraft would have had all previous markings removed, and a special white or yellow paintwork applied to identify them from other bombers. To assist the controllers in sighting the ‘babies’ whilst in flight, the aircraft were fitted with a smoke canister that would be ignited allowing the bomb aimer to see the aircraft as it began its dive. In addition to this, two cameras were fitted to some ‘babies’ that transmitted pictures to the mother or support ship. These pointed at the controls and through the plexiglass. A revolutionary step forward in drone technology.

A modified B-17 (BQ-7) with its canopy removed, this aircraft became a training drone. Credit USAF

In all, there were fifteen missions undertaken by the USAAF and USN, but none were to successfully hit their targets.  These included: Mimoyecques (Fortress); Siracourt (V1 Bunker); Watten (V2 Bunker); Heligoland (U-boat pens); Heide; Le Havre (docks); Hemmingstedt (oil refinery); Herford (marshalling yard) and Oldenburg (Power station). Both the operations and entire programme were cancelled only a few months after the Kennedy/Willy mission.

The last flight.

At RAF Fersfield, on August 12th 1944, Lieutenants Joseph Kennedy Jnr and Wilford J. Willy, both of the S.A.U. 1 of the Fleet Air Arm Wing Seven, boarded their converted B-24 Liberator, s/n 32271 (ex USAAF B-24J 42-110007)*2 and began their preflight checks. The aircraft was filled with 21,270lbs of explosive. At 17:55 and 17:56 two Lockheed Ventura ‘mother’ aircraft took off, followed by a further navigation aircraft and then the ‘baby’ at 18:07. The ‘baby’ climbed to 2,000 ft, the two ‘mothers’ 200 feet higher and slightly behind. They were joined by two Mosquitos, one for monitoring the weather, and the second, A USAAF F-8, to photograph the ‘baby’. This aircraft was flown by pilot Lieutenant Robert A. Tunnel and combat camera man Lieutenant David J. McCarthy. There was a further B-17 relay ship, a P-38 high altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft and five P-51 Mustangs to provide fighter cover.

The group set off toward the target at Mimoyecques , Northern France. They were to fly south-east toward the Suffolk coast, then turn south and head toward the target. Once level and stabilised, Kennedy and Willy handed over control to one of the ‘mother’ ships Then they reached the first control point (CP) at which time the group began to turn south; the ‘mother’ controlling the ‘baby’. Shortly after the turn was completed (about two minutes) Kennedy was heard to give the code “Spade Flush”, then at that 18:20 the ‘baby’ disintegrated in what was described as “two mid-air explosions” and a “large Fireball”.*4 The explosion, spread debris over a large area of the Suffolk countryside killing both crew members instantly. The following Mosquito also suffered damage and minor injuries to its crew. Following the explosion, all the aircraft were ordered back to base and the crews debriefed.

Many months (and indeed years) of investigations followed, but no firm conclusions could be drawn as to the precise cause of the explosion that ripped the aircraft apart. A number of speculative theories were drawn up, but the most plausible is that the electronic arming system was faulty and when Kennedy or Willy flicked the switch, an electronic short occurred that caused the bombs to detonate. Oddly the film that was in the following Mosquito has never been seen or made public – if indeed it was filming at that time.

The cause of deaths of Joseph Kennedy and Wilford Willy still remain a mystery to this day.

Joseph Kennedy wanted to be a hero. He wanted to be talked about as the one who achieved and outshone his brother. Sadly, this dream cost him his life.

Page 1 of August 23, 1944 condolence letter to the parents of Lt. Joseph Kennedy, Jr.,

The letter sent to the Kennedy’s after Joseph’s death.*3

Page 2 of August 23, 1944 condolence letter to the parents of Lt. Joseph Kennedy, Jr.,

The letter sent to the Kennedy’s after Joseph’s death.*3

This fateful mission and its two crew members are remembered across the world. In France, the Mimoyecques museum contains a memorial honoring both pilots, and their names are carved in the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridge. Kennedy has a ship the Destroyer ‘USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.’ DD850 named after him and this is now a museum in Battleship Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts. Both aviators were awarded the Naval Cross posthumously,

joe kennedy

Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy Jr, USNR, appears on the Wall of the Missing at the American Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

Lieutenant Jospeh P. Kennedy Jnr had no dependents but Lieutenant Wilford J. Willy left a widow and three children.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Azimuth being the clockwise horizontal angle from a given point (usually North) to a second given point.

*2US Navy and US Marine Corps BuNos, Third Series (30147 to 39998)‘  Joe Baugher, accessed 20/8/15

*3 Photos taken from ‘A People at War‘  Archives.Gov, Accessed 20/8/15

*4Crisis Hunter: The Last Flight of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.’ Paul Elgood, Columbia Point, 2014 pg 45, 65,

For a list of USAAF drones and pilotless missiles, see here.

For the details on Drones see Wikipedia.

For more information and types, see Mistel aircraft, on Wikipedia.

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4 thoughts on “RAF Fersfield – The Last Flight of Joseph Kennedy Jnr and Wilford Willy

  1. A fascinating article, thank you for all that research! I still don’t really see why they bothered. Why not just ring up Bomber Command?
    “Yes, of course, we can help. We’ve got a thousand planes completely free until 10pm. Shouldn’t be a problem, Very little fighter opposition. We’ll sort it out for you! Our fee? Ten thousand pairs of nylons!”

    Liked by 1 person

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