Saturday, 3 July 2021

OT (but missile related): on Ian Fleming, Bond, and the fictional Moonraker ICBM

 Note:  an update was added at the end of the post, a day after initial publication

Recently, I was re-reading Ian Fleming's 1955 James Bond novel 'Moonraker'. The plot of this novel revolves around an ICBM test launch from a site on the coast of Kent. Re-reading the novel, I exclaimed at some point: "Ha, obviously a lofted trajectory!'.



That started me down a rabbit hole, for my next thoughts were: does the Moonraker test-flight and distances mentioned in the novel make sense? What if I modelled it in STK? 

So I tried, and discovered amongst others that Fleming apparently mixed up nautical miles and kilometers at some point. And used his car to measure distances.


Moonraker: the novel, not the movie

First, since most people will be familiar with the movie rather than the novel: the plot of the 1979 movie 'Moonraker' is quite different from the plot of the 1955 novel

Basically, the only things they have in common are the title and the name of the villain. In addition, both plots involve rocketry (but of a very different kind).

The 1979 plot of the movie starring Roger Moore involves Space Shuttles (one of which is named 'Moonraker') launched from the Jungle of Brazil; a stealth Space Station, (that has a radar cloaking device, totally ignoring that optically it would still be very visible and a naked eye object in the sky); and a plan by a megalomaniac Space Entrepreneur, Hugo Drax, to bombard Earth from that Space Station with a gas meant to exterminate the whole Earth population, except for a suspiciously Arian elite aboard his Space Station.

The 1955  novel plot on the other hand has no Space Shuttles and no Space Stations and, unusual for a Bond novel, all action takes place in the UK. The plot entirely revolves around the test launch of an experimental ICBM called 'Moonraker', developed by a megalomaniac entrepreneur called Hugo Drax, from an RAF test site on the coast of Kent in the UK. 


my 1965 Signet Book copy of the novel


The 1955 Moonraker plot

Let us first go into the plot of the novel a bit more in detail, for those not familiar with it, in order that you will better understand the analysis that will follow. Those of you who know the book, can move on to the next part of this post.

Somewhere in the first half of the 1950-ies, the development of a British ICBM and ICBM test site on the coast of Kent is being funded by a wealthy mineral merchant called Sir Hugo Drax, who ostensibly offers this service as a patriotic coronation present to the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II. The ICBM, called 'Moonraker', is meant to end the danger of a new war (note that the book was written less than 10 years after the end of World War II) because it will be able to strike any European country trying to atom-bomb London. There is nuclear deterence for you, in a 1950-ies novel!

Sir Hugo Drax, the villain, has a shady history. He purports to be a former British soldier who is a survivor of a Nazi Werwolf attack at the end of WW-II, the bombing of an Allied Headquarters. In reality, he perpetrated that bombing but was caught up in the resulting explosion, after which he took on the identity of one of the British casualties. His real name is Graf Hugo von der Drache, and he is a German Nazi and former SS officer c.q. Werwolf operative, who is longing for revenge on Britain for the German defeat in WW II. 

He hatches a plan where, using his post-war accumulated wealth from the trade in Columbite (a metal vital for rocket engines) and his Columbite stash, he develops and builds the Moonraker, a single stage ICBM with a range of 4000 miles, ostensibly for the British Government. 

The rocket is to be launched from a RAF facility on the chalk cliffs of Kent, on the Channel coast between Kingsdown and St Margaret's Bay. The target for the test launch is an empty part of the North Sea some 80 miles from the launch site  (i.e. it is launched on a highly lofted trajectory). Drax, however, plans - and nearly succeeds were it not for the interference by Bond - to illicitly swap the instrument payload for a nuclear warhead, and target Buckingham Palace instead. He has hidden a homing device for that purpose in a house on Ebury Street, London, close to the Palace. He is in cahoots with the Soviets, who supply him with the nuclear warhead as well as a 50-man crew of German ex-Werwolf and rocket experts from Peenemünde. They also attempt to provide him an escape by submarine.

James "007" Bond has his first encounter with Drax when his MI6 superior M wants him to investigate whether Drax cheats at cards (!) at the private Club 'Blades' of which M is a member. Drax does indeed cheat, and Bond then tricks him in overplaying his hand, causing Drax to lose 15000 British Pound to Bond.

Shortly after that, Bond meets Drax again as Bond is send on loan to Scotland Yard Special Branch, after one of the Ministry of Supplies' security agents on the Moonraker site, Tallon (who had discovered something was afoot, having spotted the Soviet submarine delivering the nuclear warhead to Drax), is murdered. With the help of a Special Branch agent already embedded in the facility, a female agent called Gala Brand (interestingly, one that proves immune to Bond's charms), he tries to find out what secret the facility is hiding. Following an assasination attempt on Bond and Brand and some further shenanigans, Brand is found out and kidnapped after she steals Drax notebook, and realises that the gyroscope settings for the test flight have been changed such that it will come down at another target than the empty piece of North Sea intended (this target turns out to be Buckingham Palace: Drax has hidden a radio homing devive in a house on Ebury Street close to Buckingham Palace). 

After Bond, in pursuit of the car with the kidnapped Brand, is captured too, Drax unveils his personal history and evil revenge plan to them, and places them, bound, in the Moonraker launch silo, with the intention that the exhaust flame from the launch will burn them to ashes. Bond and Brand manage to get rid of their constraints, change the gyroscope settings back to the original values, close the explosion-resistant metal doors between the silo and Drax office, and lock themselves in the shower of Drax' office, letting the water run, to survive the blast (and there you though Indy locking himself in a fridge in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was jumping the shark!). The Moonraker is launched, and Drax and his men are picked up by the Soviet submarine that speeds off towards the north, into the original target area. Upon impact of the Moonraker in the target area in the North Sea, the nuclear warhead explodes, causing a tsunami that sinks the Soviet submarine (all hands on board including Drax perish) and incidentally also creates havoc on the Dutch coast. 

Leads and information from the novel

Fleming provides several pieces of information on the Moonraker ICBM and the locations involved in the plot that are hepfull for this analysis.

1. the Moonraker facility in Kent

The location of the RAF facility from where Moonraker is launched is at the edge of a chalk cliff near Kingsdown and St. Margaret's Bay on the coast of Kent, overlooking the English Channel. The flame trench (rather a tunnel) of the launch silo ends on the beach. The location can be positively geolocated to the grounds of the Walmer and Kingsdown Golf Club, at about 51.17 N, 1.40 E (see image below). The Golf Course, established in 1909, was requisitioned by the British Government during World War II and turned into a facility for the Army, RAF and Royal Navy. After the war, in 1948, it was handed back and turned back into a golf course. 

For the purpose of the novel, Fleming let the Ministry of War hold on to the site for a few more years than they in reality did.


location of the fictional Moonraker site, between Kingsdown and St. Margaret's Bay


Ian Fleming in fact was very familiar with this area of Kent. He had a lease on a cottage on the beach of St. Margaret's, called "Summer's Lease", just 2.5 km south of the site, where he spent long weekends and hollidays with his wife and friends. Given his wartime background in Navy Intelligence, the existence of the former military facility close to his weekend hideout will certainly have been known to him, even though it was no longer used by the Government by the time he wrote his novel.

2. The location of the homing device at Ebury Street, London

Drax' house near Buckingham Palace in London, where he places the radio homing device for the Moonraker, is described as 'a small house at the Buckingham Palace end of Ebury street' and 'just behind Buckingham Palace'. From the description given when Bond is in pursuit of Drax' car with the kidnapped Gala Brand (who is initially brought to the Ebury Street house), it must be only a few meters from the corner of Lower Grosvenor Place and Ebury Street (this is called Beeston Place now but formerly was part of Ebury Street), near the corner with Victoria Square, at approximately 51.4979 N, 0.1455 W.


location of Drax' fictional house on Ebury Street (image: Google Streetview)


This is indeed very close to Buckingham Palace: some 350 meters from the Palace building itself, and only a hundred yards (as stated in the novel) from the surrounding Palace grounds.

Again, this was a familiar spot for Fleming: between 1936 and late 1939 he himself lived in Ebury Street, at number 22B, some 250 yards further along the road (a little bit too far to entertain the idea, as I initially did, that the house in question actually is meant to be number 22B: this would however not fit the location descriptions well). Interestingly, the previous tenant of the same appartement had been the infamous British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley.


Ebury Street 22B, London, Fleming's former home (image: Google Streetview)

Moreover, around the time he was writing 'Moonraker', Fleming and his wife Ann lived (when in London and not at their Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, where Fleming did most of his actual writing) very close to the actual location indicated: at 16 Victoria Square. This is only some tens of meters (!) from the indicated location in Ebury Street, in what is basically a side street of it (see Google Earth image below). This would place Drax' house and the hidden radio homing device almost in Fleming's proverbial backyard!

[added note: pretty much the same conclusions are reached in this blogpost on the "Mapping the World of James Bond" blog, which I only found after I wrote mine].

Fleming's Victoria Square residence. Ebury street at left.

3. The effects of a nuclear bomb detonation in this location

So what would the effects be, on Buckingham Palace and London, of a nuclear detonation at the indicated spot on Ebury Street?

This of course depends on the yield of the nuclear warhead. The warhead in question is provided by the Soviets in the novel. It stands to reason that it could have been an RDS-4,  a 28 kiloton device that was first tested by the Soviets on August 23, 1953. It was their first mass-produced atomic bomb, compact, weighing 1200 kg, and went on to become one of the warheads used on the first Soviet strategic nuclear missile, the medium range R-5M (or SS-3).

So what would a 28 kiloton RDS-4 detonation in Ebury street do? I turned to Alex Wellerstein's fabulous NUKEMAP website to answer that question. Below are three maps, the first two for a ground detonation (second map is a detail of the first), the third for a detonation at 600 meter altitude:

28 kiloton ground detonation. Click to enlarge

28 kiloton ground detonation: detail of ground zero. Click to enlarge


28 kiloton airburst at 600 meter. Click to enlarge

The results would be dramatic for both central London and Buckingham Palace (and a much wider area of southeast Britain when we consider the nuclear fall-out). Buckingham Palace would indeed be in the major devastation zone, with almost certain 100% casualties.

Drax' attempt to bomb London was eventually foiled by Bond and Brand. But how about the original test target in the North Sea: where would that be located?


4. The location of the Moonraker test target area in the North Sea

Here, we run into a bit of a problem: Fleming's descriptions of where the North Sea test target area is located, are ambiguous, as distances and descriptions given by him do not fit each other

He mentions a distance of '80 miles' from the launch site, but also describes it as being on a line 'between the Frisian Islands and Hull'. These two indications cannot be well reconciled as the mentioned line Hull-Frisian Islands is much further away than 80 miles, in fact over twice as far, close to 280-290 km or 175-180 miles (depending a bit on which of the Dutch Frisian islands you take). I will return to this later in this post.

What is also implicated in the novel, is that the bearing of this location as seen from the launch site is at an approximate 90 degree angle to the bearing of the secret target in London. This would place the bearing to the North Sea target site as seen from the Moonraker facility in Kent at about 19.5 degrees from north. This bearing would intersect a line between Hull and the Frisian Islands at about the middle of the latter line, near 53.2 N, 2.6 E, some 80 km from the nearest British and 145 km from the nearest Dutch coast: which seems very reasonable if you want it to be as far as possible from any land, at that range. By contrast, a distance of 80 miles along this bearing would place the spot much closer to the British coast, at around 52.26 N, 2.03 E, about 25 km out of the coast near Lowestoft.

Fleming seems to have choosen the "80 miles" value in order to get a similar distance between the Kent launch site and the North Sea target area, as the distance between the Kent launch site and Ebury street in London. This reveals something interesting: the real distance to Ebury street as seen from the Walmer and Kingsdown site is actually a bit shorter than 80 miles: 114 km or about 71 miles, 10 miles short. So why the '80 miles' then?

The likely answer is that Fleming did not take this distance from a map, but measured it by driving the distance in his car (or rather, have his stepson do that). Google Maps tells me that the road distance (as opposed to the distance as-the-crow-flies) between Fleming's house in St. Margaret's Bay and Ebury street in London is 81 miles. It is known that Fleming actually had his stepson drive the distance in order to check the fastest possible driving time between the two locations (which he needed for the car chase scene when Gala Brand is kidnapped and brought to Ebury Street).

Incidentally, the value helps establish that the miles mentioned in the novel are statute miles, not nautical miles. This is relevant, as in rocketry either kilometers or nautical miles are generally used, while Fleming, as a former Navy Intelligence officer, would have been familiar with nautical miles too. The average British novel reader on the other hand, would interpret 'miles' as statute miles, and that is what they appear to be here.

There is a potential for confusion here, and perhaps that is what happened and created the mismatch between '80 miles' and 'on a line between Hull and the Frisian Islands'.

Let us plot some of these distances (and the highly lofted trajectories involved) in a map. This is an oblique view of the situation, created with STK: note that the indicated 80 mile radius is in statute miles, while the outer circle, touching the line between Hull and the Frisian Islands, is 129 nautical miles instead (I did this for a reason, see below). For reference, 1 statute mile = ~1.6 km, and 1 nautical mile = ~1.8 km.

click to enlarge

One way Fleming could have introduced the erroneous description of the target area being "on a line between Hull and the Frisian islands" is by plotting the distance on a nautical map, e.g. an Admiralty chart, and making a mistake with the map units (perhaps after a drink too many). 

The 1950-ies era Admiralty charts had drawn scale bars in feet, nautical miles and meters, but not in statute miles, so Fleming might have converted statute miles to (kilo-) meters. Since 80 statute mile equals ~129 km, did Fleming perhaps by mistake plot 129 nautical miles instead of 129 kilometer? This would bring you close to a line between Hull and the southernmost of the Frisian Island. 

Alternatively, he could have mistakenly converted 180 miles instead of 80 miles, to kilometers (180 statute miles is ~290 km), which would bring you slightly further out, on the line between Hull and the northernmost Frisian Islands, at about 155 nautical miles.

5. The Moonraker maximum range and delta V

Before going to Drax' Kent facility, Bond is briefed on the Moonraker missile. From this briefing, we learn that the missile has a range of about 4000 miles (6437 km), apogee (the highest point it reaches above earth surface) at 1000 miles (1609 km), and can reach a speed of 15000 miles an hour. The latter translates to about 6.7 km/s.

Using STK, I modelled a missile trajectory with a range of 6437 km and apogee at 1609 km. For such a trajectory, I get a delta V of 6.44 km/s, or about 14417 miles/hour, so Fleming's ~6.7 km/s is not far off, certainly if we allow the "15000 miles per hour" to be a rounded-off value (during te briefing, this is said to be a value "in te neighborhood off"). In that sense, the specifications of the Moonraker appear realistic and correct.

The Moonraker itself is a single stage rocket: from the descriptions basically a V2 on steroids. That raises some eyebrows given the quoted 6400 km range. While both the USA and Soviet Union worked on single stage ICBM designs during the 1950-ies, none of this ever went beyond the design stage, and that was probably for a reason. The closest to it that did fly (and here I am obliged to the combined Hive Mind of Missile Twitter for their help) and had a range similar to the Moonraker was the US SM-65 Atlas, which first flew in 1957. This was however a "1.5 stage" rocket as it had two auxiliary jettisonable side boosters.

But let that be, and let us accept the premise of a single stage Moonraker. With a 4000 mile (6437 km) range, the whole of Europe and a considerable part of the Soviet Union would be in range: only eastern Siberia would not be. In that sense, the Moonraker missile would fulfill its quoted deterence role.


click to enlarge

So what would be the apogee of the highly lofted Moonraker test shot into the North Sea?

I used the 6.4 km/s delta V value I calculated, to determine the apogee altitude for the lofted trajectory
(a 'lofted trajectory' is where you fire your missile at full engine capacity, so you can test its maximum performance, but limit your horizontal range, by firing it under a very high angle, almost straight upwards. This way you can monitor the missile over almost its full trajectory from the launch site, and avoid overflying neighbouring countries. North Korea for example did this on several of their ICBM test launches).

The 80 statute mile and 129 nautical mile ranges respectively give quite similar results: an apogee at 3169 resp. 3168 km altitude. Quite a lofted trajectory indeed! It is only slightly less than the 28 July 2017 North Korean lofted test of a (two stage) Hwasong-14 missile.

The image below shows a maximum range operational trajectory (red) for the Moonraker, as well as the lofted trajectories for target sites at 80 statute miles (solid white), 129 nautical miles (dashed white), and the secret London target (dashed yellow)

click to enlarge


Fleming appears to have done his homework well with regard to ballistic missiles: his speeds, apogees and maximum ranges match. He did make a curious mixup in defining the North Sea target area for the lofted trajectory test around which the novel revolves: his stated distance in miles does not match with the description of "on a line between Hull and the Frisian Islands". Perhaps, he mixed up kilometers and nautical miles when measuring distances on a map. 

As an aside, we can deduce that he measured the distance between the launch site on the Kent coast and the secret target near Buckingham Palace in London by driving the distance in a car, rather than measuring it on a map. 

All locations mentioned in the novel were familiar to Fleming, as he lived or had lived in houses quite near them. 

Conspicuously absent in the novel: grid fins!

ADDENDUM 4 July 2021

Following publication of this post, some great questions were raised on Twitter about the fate of the Soviet submarine. How could it get to the impact area so soon?

In fact, with such a highly lofted trajectory, it would take the Moonraker some 38 minutes to complete its flight, from launch to target impact, giving the Soviet submarine some time to travel northwards. And the Soviet submarine is not sunk by the immediate blast effect of the nuclear detonation, but by the resulting tsunami wave, which travels further than the blast wave.

BBC Radio reporter Peter Trimble, who due to the tsunami perishes aboard the HMS Erganzer while live-reporting the test flight, tells his audience that he and the Navy ship are just north of the Goodwin Sands, with the target area some "70  miles north" of him. He could see the Moonraker launch, "must have been ten miles away". So this all places him some 10 miles (16 km) from the launch site.

He sees the Soviet sub at a distance of about 1 mile, heading north towards the impact area. After it submerges, he tells the audience that the ASDIC operator says it is travelling at 25 knots, or about 46 km/h (this is a bit faster than the Soviet submarines of this era were actually capable off: their peak speed when submerged was near 16 knots). This means that from the moment of launch of the missile (when the submarine left with Drax cum sui) to the moment of impact of the missile, it could have travelled some 29 kilometers towards the target area. This would place it some 100 km south of the impact area (going from the "80 mile" figure for the impact area distance to the launch site) at the moment of impact and nuclear detonation. Not quite in the impact area, as Trimble suggests.

I used an online tsunami speed calculator to get an idea of how long it would take the tsunami wave generated by the nuclear explosion to reach the HMS Erganzer and the submarine. A look at a bathymetry-map shows that the relevant part of the North Sea is between 25 and 50 meters deep. Bond's superior M, at the end of the novel, mentions that the wreckage of the submarine is located at a depth of 30 fathoms, or 55 meter. If we go with that value, a tsunami wave would travel at a speed of about 23 meter/s (or 83 km/h). It would take it some 80 minutes to reach HMS Erganzer. It would reach the Soviet submarine, travelling towards the wave at 46 km/h, a bit earlier, roughly 50 minutes after the detonation. The submarine by then, assuming a course straight towards the impact point, would be some 70 km from the impact point when it meets the tsunami wave.

This clearly does not tally with the live radio report, which suggests the submarine is in visible range of the HMS Erganzer when the tsunami hits (with both vessels hit at about the same moment). It is also clear that the sequence of events would take much longer than the novel implies: in the novel, which quotes a verbatim live radio report, it looks like the events unfold in matters of seconds.

Of course it is all fiction, and Fleming never meant Bond's adventures to be a poster-child for realism, so we should not be surprised by these lapses in the plot. Although it surprises me that Fleming, as an ex Navy Intelligence Officer, get's the missile part quite right, but not the nautical part!

I have been looking for information on whether a 28 kiloton nuclear explosion would be able at all to generate a tsunami strong enough to create havoc at 100+ km from the detonation site. I found this but the math involved is a bit too complex for me. Some of the approximate scaling equations at the end of the book, which are however for deep water, would suggest it to be not a big deal at this distance, in fact.

As a last note: Trimble, in his radio broadcast, mentions at a certain moment: "Twelve minutes past noon. The Moonraker must have turned and be on her way down". If we take this to mean that apogee was reached at 12:12 GMT, then, given the trajectory I modelled in STK, we can determine that launch of the Moonraker was around 11:53 GMT. Bond manages to reset the gyroscopes four minutes before the launch moment, Fleming tells us, which would be 11:49 GMT then, which could fit as Fleming also tells us that Bond, looking at his watch when he does so,  is leaving his hiding place for the missile at 11:47. This gives him 2 minutes to get to the missile and do his thing, and then two more to get back from the missile to Brand at Drax' office. In fact he must have done it in a minute, as he spends at least one minute (as at some point he says "only one minute more [to launch]" in the office before the launch moment.

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