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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Explore the role that the Royal Air Force played in the Cold War through the collections of the RAF Museums at Hendon and Cosford.

10,413 enrolled on this course

The RAF in the Cold War: a Victory plane flying behind a Thor missile, c.1960

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

10,413 enrolled on this course

  • 6 weeks

  • 5 hours per week

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  • Duration

    6 weeks
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    5 hours
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This free online course is a collaboration between the Royal Air Force (RAF) Museums and the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. It will introduce you to some of the major turning points in the history of Britain in the post-1945 era.

Explore the changing role of the RAF during the Cold War

Guided by Dr Ross Mahoney, Aviation Historian, RAF Museum, and Dr Emmett Sullivan, Senior Lecturer in History, Royal Holloway, the course will examine:

  • The role of the RAF in the early Cold War period;
  • RAF’s operations across the globe in an era of decolonisation;
  • Britain’s decision to develop a nuclear deterrent;
  • The development of the RAF’s strategic nuclear capability, the V-Force;
  • The role of the RAF in defending UK airspace;
  • The re-focus on NATO after East of Suez and the transfer of the strategic nuclear role to the Royal Navy;
  • The RAF’s contribution to NATO.

Consider how the RAF is remembered and memorialised

Finally, we will consider how the RAF has been remembered and memorialised through the Cold War and beyond, with the establishment of the RAF Museums at Hendon and Cosford, the National Cold War Exhibition, and the erection of statues and monuments after 1945.

The course makes extensive use of material from the archives of the RAF Museum to illustrate the Cold War history of the RAF and was filmed on site at RAF Museum Hendon and Cosford.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: We’re looking forward to you joining us for the Future Learn free online course– From World War to White Heat, the RAF in the Cold War. DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 21 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: We’ll be exploring the early period of the Cold War from the breakdown of the Grand Alliance in 1945 through to the Korean War, and the role that the RAF plays in this period. DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 30 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Much of this course is going to focus on the RAF’s role within NATO. But we want to consider what the RAF was doing further afield, whether it be in Malaya, Kenya, or ultimately, in the Falkland Islands. DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: We’ll be examining the evolution of the RAF’s strategic nuclear capability with development of British nuclear weapons, and ultimately, their deployment on the V-force. DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: We’re going to look at the responsibility of the RAF for defending the skies over Britain. DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: We’ll be examining the RAF’s changing role related to the refocus on NATO in the central front after 1968. DR.

Skip to 1 minute and 7 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Finally, we’re going to consider how the RAF is remembered by the public in statues and monuments, but also the establishment of the RAF Museum in Hendon in 1972. And then also, the establishment of the RAF museum in Cosford has allowed us very close-up inspection of some of the aircraft that played a pivotal role in Britain’s history.


  • Week 1

    The Early Cold War 1945-1953

    • Introduction

      During this activity we will introduce the main objectives of the course - and encourage you to think about one of the RAF's key Cold War roles - the nuclear deterrent - in more general terms.

    • The RAF in 1945

      Dr Ross Mahoney (Aviation Historian, RAF Museum) and I give a general overview of the course, why we selected this particular topic, and hint at what is coming in Week 1.

    • The Relief of Germany and the Berlin Air Lift

      Taking stock of things: in this, and the following sections, we will review where the RAF was in 1945 after six arduous years of war.

    • Changing Technology

      This activity will consider the evolution of the principal new aircraft the RAF acquired in the early Cold War period, with the coming of the jet age.

    • The Korean War

      We have a short discussion of the Korean War in this course relating to the RAF; but for the Cold War itself, it was a significant event

    • National Service

      From demobilization at the beginning of the week, we consider a form of conscription (under another name) from the late-1950s

    • Quiz

      This week we will be including a short quiz on some of the themes we have covered. The questions have multiple choice answers which are not necessarily 'right' or 'wrong' in absolute terms but represent different interpretations.

    • Week 1 Conclusion

      Here we draw together some thoughts about the first week

  • Week 2

    The RAF, the Empire, and a New Global Role

    • Introducton

      This week will look at the RAF beyond Britain and its NATO role, and to deployments and actions across the globe in the Cold War era and the period of decolonization.

    • The RAF in Germany before RAF Germany

      The RAF in Germany before RAF Germany - RAF Germany being the RAF organization of their forces in West Germany and then Germany 1957-1995. Here we look at the RAF in the years before RAF Germany was formed.

    • The Suez Crisis

      The Suez Crisis was a low-point in Britain's post-1945 dealings with the world. We briefly essay the circumstances around this disastrous adventurism.

    • The RAF's Global Operations Beyond the NATO Central Front

      We will spend a great deal of time during this course considering the RAF in Europe and the threat from the USSR. Ross felt we should cast the net wider, and here are a few examples of the RAF in action around the world.

    • A Diverse RAF?

      An important part of the RAF in a global role was the participation of the Empire – in the Second World War; and then as members of the Commonwealth.

    • The Falklands War

      The Falklands War may be considered as Britain's last imperial war. We consider it here as an action beyond NATO.

    • Quiz

      This is a short quiz on some of this week's themes.

    • Conclusions

      A few concluding comments for the week as a whole.

  • Week 3

    The Independent British Nuclear Deterrent

    • Introduction

      This week we will look at the efforts of Britain to become the world’s third atomic weapons state behind the U.S. and the USSR. This meant not only the diversion of resources for atomic research but also for new bombers.

    • Britain's Nuclear Deterrent

      From 1946 Britain found itself cut out of the Manhattan Project and its successors. This prompted the Attlee Labour Government in 1948 to commission Britain’s own Atomic Bomb.

    • The V-Force

      The V-Force became a matter of national pride as well as security in the 1950s. We will look at how these aircraft evolved in their commissioning and in service.

    • Thor and Skybolt

      Two U. S. missiles deployed by the RAF, or intended for the RAF’s V-Force, are considered in this activity.

    • Conclusions

      Conclusions drawn from week three of the course.

  • Week 4

    Defending the Skies

    • Introduction

      This week we will be focussing on how the RAF monitored intrusions into British airspace, and the areas over foreign soil and British seas which it had responsibility for.

    • British Skies

      While we will predominantly deal with how the RAF looked to counter Soviet bombers over Britain, this role also encompassed the seas around this island-nation and the NATO facilities the RAF were responsible for.

    • ‘Home Front during the Cold War’

      We tend not to think of a ‘Home Front’ to the Cold War, but the fear of bombers or missiles coming over was a constant concern, and did intensify at various points in the period, especially the early 1980s.

    • Intelligence Gathering

      Defending the skies also meant considerable and constant vigilance. This activity considers this in the context of the RAF over land and sea from the air.

    • Week 4 Conclusions

      Week 4 Conclusions

  • Week 5

    Aspirations, Cancellations and a New Role

    • Introduction

      As well as dealing with the changing role of the RAF from the 1962-65 period until the end of the Cold War, we will also reflect on the ‘missed opportunities’ associated with cancelled 1960s projects.

    • From Sandys to TSR-2

      In this activity we consider the limitation placed on the RAF’s procurement plans by the Government when it came to the newest technology available in the period 1957-65.

    • From Strategic to Tactical

      We started off this course saying that the RAF was arguably the finest tactical air force in the world in 1945. After 1968, this again became the RAF’s primary focus, and in a European environment.

    • Gulf War I

      The Gulf War 1990-91 was a major engagement for the RAF and other nations aligned to the U.N. - principally the U.S., but also Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as Britain.

    • Week 5 Conclusions

      Here we round-up this week of work, which largely deals with the last quarter-of-a-century of the Cold War.

  • Week 6

    Honouring the RAF in the Cold War and After

    • Introduction

      During this week, we will look at how the RAF Museums were conceived and built, as well as how the RAF is remembered through public memorials in and around London.

    • The RAF Museums

      Ross Mahoney discusses with colleagues at the RAF Museum the development of the Hendon and Cosford sites since 1972.

    • Memorials

      In this activity Emmett Sullivan will look at some of the memorials to the RAF in and around London.

    • Week 6 Conclusions

      Conclusions - for the course and the week

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

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Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the role of the RAF at the end of the Second World War.
  • Assess the role of the RAF as it developed in the early Cold War years.
  • Compare the RAF’s responsibilities with respect to Britain’s nuclear deterrent before and after 1968.
  • Debate with educators and learners Britain’s motivation in holding a nuclear arsenal in the Cold War.
  • Develop a knowledge of the Government’s strategy in procuring RAF aircraft from British industry.
  • Discuss the responsibilities of the RAF in an era of decolonisation overseas and with NATO.
  • Evaluate what the Government’s priorities were for the RAF in defending the ‘Home Front’ in the Cold War.
  • Explain why the Royal Navy were destined to deploy Britain’s nuclear deterrent after the Nassau Agreement.
  • Identify key turning points in the Cold War, and how the RAF responded to these.
  • Reflect on the way the public considers the history of the RAF through its museums and public monuments.

Who is the course for?

This course is intended for anyone with an interest in 20th-century history, the Cold War or the history of aviation. It doesn’t require any reading before you start or previous experience of studying the subject.

Who developed the course?

Royal Holloway, University of London

Queen Victoria presided over the grand opening of Royal Holloway in 1886. Since then the College has continued to grow in size and status to become one of the top research-led institutions in the UK.

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Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 4 Jul 2024

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