We tend to think of drones as the ultimate early 21st century technology, but they go back much further than that - the picture at the top of this post is from a set of late 1930s cigarette cards and shows the Queen Bee remote controlled plane.
In fact the Queen Bee was designed as a target, not as a weapon itself. After all, how do you train the crews of AA guns and fighters without a target? And how many volunteers are you going to get for that, even for towing a target? The plan was to shoot NEAR the drone, not AT it, but accidents happen.
So, the Queen Bee actually first flew in 1935. It could be flown manually, and this was the case for the first trials, but an unmanned version was flown at the 1935 Farnborough Airshow.
The basic design was based on the hugely successful two seater trainer, the Tiger Moth, with the same engine, wings and undercarriage, but with a wooden rather than metal fuselage. The radio control machinery sat in the rear “pilot” cockpit. Over 412 were built between 1935 and 1943, many for the Fleet Air Arm and supplied as float planes with catapulting points so that they could be launched from ships (the Queen Bee based on HMS Australia had a dummy pilot, named “Fearless Fred”!). One advantage of the wooden construction, apart from being much cheaper, was that they were more buoyant when it came to recovery at sea.
The Queen Bees were surprisingly capable, with a top speed of 104 mph and a range of 300 miles. Controllers could be in another aircraft, on a ship, or just on land. One consequence of the introduction of remote controlled drones, and therefore “realistic” targets, was to show how awful contempory AA defences really were. Reportedly, Queen Bees could be flown up and down in front of the Fleet without getting a scratch, and during a demonstration in front of the King the drone had to be, allegedly, deliberately crashed to spare the Navy’s blushes. Nonetheless, intensive training with Queen Bees in the Mediterranean fleet in 1936 reportedly improved confidence against the expected threat, Italian Savoia Marchetti 81 bombers conducting a “Pearl harbour” style pre-emptive attack on Alexandria. Queen Bees were also sent to Singapore, crated and by ship. Tragically, although they were used from at least 1939 onwards for target training, the Pacific Royal Navy was woefully under prepared for Japanese air attacks. Perhaps the relatively slow and steady Queen Bees generated a sense of over confidence.
Although never intended as weapons of war as such, it is tempting to imagine how they could have been used if Operation Banquet had been activated, the plan to throw everything that could fly, including Tiger Moth trainers, against a German invasion of Britain. A Queen Bee loaded with explosive would make an awfully big bang.