Honest John and the decade of nuclear artillery

Many Canadians watching media footage of Iran or North Korea launching surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) capable of carrying nuclear warheads are likely too young to remember Canada’s own foray into the world of surface-based nuclear capable weapons systems.

In 1962, John Diefenbaker’s government approved the purchase of the “Honest John” for NATO service in Germany, a rocket that despite its name was not christened after the prime minister. (It was chosen over a weapon system with a more Canadian name called “Lacrosse.”)

The Honest John was one of several nuclear capable systems authorized by the Conservative regime of the time, the others being the BOMARC surface-to-air missile (SAM), the Genie air-to-air missile (AAM) used by the CF 101 Voodoo, and the earliest of the four types of nuclear bombs carried by the CF 104 Starfighters in Europe.

The actual provision of nuclear warheads for these systems was a dominate theme of the 1963 general election – one might say “defence” has never stood higher as a peacetime issue on the hustings.

The Canadian air force assumed responsibility for the BOMARC missile system. The Honest John was the army’s sole nuclear capable delivery system responsibility.

Ironically, the creation in September 1960 of the army’s two SSM Batteries – one for deployment and one for training – occurred simultaneously with disbandment of the army’s anti-aircraft artillery school and the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. The two SSM Batteries not only took over the space that these organizations occupied at Camp Picton in the fall of 1960, but also a great many of the personnel.

Training on the Honest John system itself took place in April and May of 1961 in Fort Sill, home of American artillery. On October 27, an Honest John missile was fired at Camp Petawawa, the first by the 1st SSM Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery. In December, on one of the last rotations by ship, over 225 men of the 1st SSM Battery were deployed to Hemer, Germany, to become part of the British Army of the Rhine under command of the brigadier commanding 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade (4 CIBG).

The 1st SSM Battery had four launchers. The role of the missiles was counter battery and harassment. The missiles were free flight and only had a range of about 30 km. Accuracy was adequate for a system delivering a nuclear warhead between 300 and 1500m. Canadians in Europe used the warhead with a 2kt yield. There were compatible warheads with higher yields.

It was intended that the two forward deployed launchers would fire and then leapfrog backwards through the two other launchers in what was a “shoot and scoot” concept. 1st SSM had 115 “operational” missiles and a reported 16 warheads available from 69 US Army Missile Warhead Support Detachment of the US Army Special Ammunition Storage Command, which also provided nuclear warheads to a British Army Artillery regiment of six launchers.

Unlike the aircraft of the Royal Canadian Air Force, both Brit and Canadian SSM units had to obtain the nuclear warheads from this American custodian detachment co-located with the British Corps, which included 4 CIBG.

Authorization for release of nuclear warheads would come directly to the American storage unit in event of a “first strike” situation. The authority for nuclear warhead release, in most circumstances, was expected to be the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) who would also pass authority to use the nuclear warheads to the Canadian SSM Battery through the Commander 4 CIBG. The authority to initiate targets was delegated to the British Corps Commander following presidential release.

There was also a process for the Canadian prime minister to authorize this use by the Canadian missile unit. Presumably the U.K. had a similar national procedure.

The 1st Canadian SSM Battery, although an artillery element, did not come under the purview of 4 CIBG’s senior artillery officer, the commanding officer of 4 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Regiment (4 RCHA). The officer commanding the Battery received instructions from Canada’s brigade commander.

It should be noted that the practice warhead used for training by the Canadians was never the same as the nuclear warhead actually planned for use.

Fortunately, Canadian gunners in 1st SSM Battery on more than one occasion demonstrated the Canadian soldiers’ flexibility to cope with something different from what they had previously trained. There can be no doubt, that if required, a Canadian launched nuclear rocket would have been sent down range.

It seemed to me that many gunners with SSM Battery experience went on to be Regimental Sergeant Majors of conventional artillery units, reflecting the quality of the men who served in Canada’s short-lived nuclear capable SSM organizations.

The 2nd SSM Battery, with two launchers, had been created to provide trained personnel for Europe – over 700 in fact. In August 1962, 2nd SSM Battery was moved from Picton to CFB Shilo where it remained until disbandment in September 1968. That same year, 1st SSM Battery was reduced to two launchers and moved from Hemer to Isherlohn. In 1970, this Battery was also disbanded.

The history of the Canadian army’s surface-to-surface missile batteries only spans a decade, but for a short time our brigade group positioned in Germany packed a nuclear punch.

No doubt that gave the commander of 4 CIBG, and our representatives in the NATO chain of command, a little more “clout” in the backroom debates at various headquarters. This was a far cry from the “influence” of the early Trudeau era garnered by our Canadian 4 CMBG in Lahr, which was almost reduced to a “mechanized” brigade group without tanks.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC) served in CFE HQ in the early 80s. Research assistance was provided by Sgt MH Thomas, CD.

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