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The Honest John in Canadian Service

The Honest John in Canadian Service Book Review

By Cookie Sewell

Date of Review March 2011 Title The Honest John in Canadian Service
Author John Davidson Publisher Service Publications
Published 2011 ISBN 1-894581-71-4
Format 24 pages, softbound MSRP (CDN) $9.95


One thing which developed during the early 1950s was the fact that the major armies had all decided that tactical nuclear warfare was a viable option, and as such they began to prepare for it by developing weapons systems to deliver them. Artillery rounds were seen as too small to deliver effect yields (other than the massive 280mm “Atomic Annie” in the US and even larger Soviet weapons) so in order to provide effective delivery systems the US, UK and Soviets all turned to unguided battlefield rockets.

The weapons thus developed, primarily the Soviet “Luna” series (FROG in its earlier designation in the West) and the US Honest John, served into the 1970s and in the case of the last FROG, the “Luna-M”, into the mid 1980s.

While the prime users are well known, what is less well known is the fact that both countries provided these systems to their European allies with the provision that they would receive the nuclear warheads for them if it ever came down to nuclear warfare in Europe. (Note that neither side ever sat down to consider when “tactical” nuclear warfare would become “strategic” nuclear warfare...)

As the closest ally to the US in the 1950s and 1960s, Canada was considered part of the US nuclear “family” and thus had been promised both aerial delivery and ground delivery nuclear warheads. To this end, the Canadian government negotiated and purchased a total of six MGR-1 Honest John rocket launchers; four of them formed the 1st Surface-to-Surface Missile Battery stationed in Germany, and the remaining to the 2nd Surface-to-Surface Missile Battery, a training unit which remained in Canada.

This nice little book covers both the basic development of the Honest John from 1950 through its retirement from service in Canada in 1972. (By that time the US had replaced it with the Lance guided missile). The missile was an unguided spin-stabilized solid-fuel rocket with a maximum combat range with the nuclear warhead of 42,650 yards (39,000 meters) and used a simplified “dial-a-yield” warhead of 10, 20 or 40 kilotons. All aiming and aiming calculations were manually created at first but later the primitive FADAC computer system was used.

The system was totally dependent on this calculations, and especially winds both aloft and at the launch site. A dedicated weather support vehicle was provided to the launcher sections for that purpose.

The system was based on the M386 launcher, essentially a US M139F series five-ton truck chassis extended and modified to carry the launcher rail at the rear of the chassis along with four stabilizing jacks. Supporting vehicles included the M55 long-body five-ton truck and an M62 wrecker to provide loading capability via its crane; since the latter was a dedicated support vehicle it could not be used for conventional wrecker service and had to be frequently tested to meet US nuclear surety standards. The 3/4 ton wind support vehicle carried the AN/MPQ-6 Wind Measurement Set on a special trailer. In case of nuclear war, a 2 ½ ton truck would accompany the section with its nuclear warheads.

Rockets had to be maintained at 77 degrees Fahrenheit and so once loaded an M2 heating blanket would be wrapped around the rocket body and warhead; this provided heating in cold weather and insulation from the sun in hot weather. It required electrical power from an onboard 3.5 kilowatt generator.

The book covers the operational history of the Honest John in Canadian service including one misfire incident when the missile locking pins were not released. Eventually snapping the pins, the rocket (which expends all its fuel and thrust in about 1.8 seconds) rolled off the launcher and rolled around merrily on the ground. No injuries other than to pride occurred. (This is unlike a US launch where the entire truck flew forward for some distance or the I-HAWK launch in Crete where the entire launcher flew out to sea as the missile was stuck to the rail by too many coats of paint!)

1st SSM Battery received authorization to wear a black scarf in honor of the Congreve rocket gunners from the 19th Century, and it was a point of pride with the unit.

The book also has a 1/35 scale tone painting plan in the centerfold which shows a complete Canadian M386 vehicle with missile loaded and markings.

Overall this is a pretty nice little read and covers both the Canadian and general US history of the rocket.

Thanks to Clive Law of Service Publications for the review copy.