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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Welcome back. As we continue to explore the development of the RAF’s role in Britain’s nuclear deterrent, we’re stood here at the RAF Museum in Cosford by a Douglas Thor Missile, which represents an interesting sideshow, in some respects, to Britain’s nuclear deterrent, as it’s an intermediate-range ballistic missile that was deployed to Britain in the late 1950s, early 1960s. So Emmett, could you tell us a little bit about the context of why the RAF ends up operating a missile that it’s never operated since?

Skip to 0 minutes and 40 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: 1957– US President Dwight D. Eisenhower became concerned that the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Programmes that the Americans were developing, principally the Atlas missile, would not come online quickly enough to be a real threat against the Soviet Union. 1957 is the year, of course, of Sputnik. Now, what we have with the Thor missile behind us and the Jupiter missiles, which were deployed to Turkey and to Italy, are intermediate range nuclear missiles, which, from European NATO bases, can hit most of the Western Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries. So the basing of these missiles in Britain and continental Europe is a form of stopgap measure until the Americans actually have a credible and operational intercontinental ballistic missile force.

Skip to 1 minute and 40 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Is there something more to this? Because the Americans or the RAF deploy 60 missiles. But they’re dual key, in that, to be launched, an American has to do it. So, are these missiles essentially on loan? And as they’re deployed, what’s the context? Where do we get to? Because, of course, in the time they’re deployed, we have the Berlin crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis. So, tell us something about that.

Skip to 2 minutes and 5 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: We are very much saying a cementing of Britain and America in the context of the nuclear deterrent within NATO. And that level of cooperation extends all the way through the 1960s. We’re going to talk a little bit about it in the context of Skybolt. But it was Eisenhower and Macmillan that signed the Skybolt Deal while the Thors were still operational on British soil. Now, they’re not stationed as United States Air Force missiles, they’re stationed as Royal Air Force missiles. But the dual key, the consent from both parties, is quite important, because it is suggesting that no independent politician can make a leap forward without proper consultation.

Skip to 2 minutes and 53 seconds It’s also embedding, if you like, structures within NATO that will allow for integration of nuclear forces in times of crisis. And you mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Thors were actually put onto alert during that period.

Skip to 3 minutes and 8 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: OK, but doesn’t this also suggest a change in Britain’s position in the world? Because, of course, that dual key arrangement doesn’t work for the whole of the American’s nuclear weapons–

Skip to 3 minutes and 18 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: No.

Skip to 3 minutes and 19 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Capability. So, what does it suggest about Britain’s role in the world? And also the RAF’s role in the world?

Skip to 3 minutes and 26 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: I think with decolonisation and the withdrawal from empire– which, of course, is very much a policy which the Americans are pressurising Britain immediately after the Second World War. We’re seeing Britain finding a role which– diminished is perhaps not quite right in that regard. But it’s serving specific functions within maintaining a credible deterrent against the Soviet Union. So we see the RAF in particular, although maintaining a strategic bombing force, starting to specialise in particular forms of interdiction and attack with conventional weapons and free-fall nuclear weapons, as well as maintaining a standoff capability until 1970 through the Vulcans.

Skip to 4 minutes and 18 seconds So I think that the relationship is moving, to a certain degree, where Britain is becoming more dependent on the Americans for the provision of technology. But in terms of diplomacy, it’s an important partner of America, moving forward both NATO, but also thinking about how the Royal Air Force is then going to integrate within NATO command.

Skip to 4 minutes and 44 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: And finally, Project Emily– the code name for the deployment of these missiles to the UK– is cut short. Why is that? What’s the context? What’s going on? And how does that ultimately affect the Royal Air Force?

Skip to 4 minutes and 57 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: What we are seeing in 1963 is the ending of the intended 10-year deployment of Thor. And that’s really for two principal reasons– firstly, you have a certain degree of rapprochement after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Certainly part of the unspoken deal that saw missiles removed from Cuba was the withdrawal of the Turkish Jupiter missiles, which the Soviets strongly objected to. Well, ultimately, we are seeing the technology moving on. The Jupiters were already almost antiquated by 1962, ‘63. And with the Thors, we are seeing them being replaced– firstly by Atlas, as an intercontinental ballistic missile, but then the development of the Titan and the Titan II missiles. And particularly in America’s case, the Minuteman missiles.

Skip to 5 minutes and 55 seconds Now, you’ve got to remember that Robert McNamara and John F. Kennedy, after the 1960 election– which was partly fought on the missile gap– commissioned 1,000 Minuteman missiles. So America’s ability to hit the Soviet Union is not dependent on forward bases. And where we see the RAF integrating with missile forces in future, it’s theatre or tactical nuclear weapons– again, largely controlled by the Americans.

Skip to 6 minutes and 26 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Thank you. We’ll continue this discussion about the RAF and its role in the nuclear deterrent when we talk about Skybolt– the so-called sale of the century– in further sessions.

Thor in RAF Colours


Here are our comments and questions for this video step:

  1. Project Emily came out of Eisenhower’s concerns in 1957 that long-range ICBMs would not come online quickly enough. Bomber Command thus operated c.60 Thor missiles in RAF colours for the Americans 1959-63.
  2. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the RAF Thors were put on alert - with each having a warhead approaching 1.5MT
  3. Project Emily was cut short by five years - there was never an attempt to build another land-based IRBM missile force in Britain.

You are welcome to add your comments below.

In RAF colours: the Thor

There are a few terms that are commonly used when referring to nuclear weapons that give us an understanding into the distance that these weapons could reach.

Some examples are:

  • A medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) is a type of ballistic missile with a range between 1,000-3,000 kilometres.
  • An intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) is a ballistic missile with a range between 3,000-5,500 kilometres.
  • An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is a guided ballistic missile with a minimum range of 5,500 kilometres or above that has the capability to deliver nuclear weapons and could also deliver more than one warhead at a time.

The PGM-17 Thor missiles were manufactured by Douglas Aircraft in the United States, nominally designed in 1957 and produced until 1960. The Thor missiles were classed as an IRBM, or ‘theatre ballistic missile’ (TBM) as its range fell into this category. This meant that it could be used against targets in the theatre of war and, primarily, the Soviet Union.

The designs for the Thor missiles began to be developed in 1957, out of fear that the Soviet Union would soon develop an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S., before the Unites States could develop their’s first. In this sense, they were a ‘stop-gap’ measure to ensure that, when placed in Britain, the Thor missiles would be able to reach the Soviet Union. This was codenamed Project Emily, in which Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harold Macmillan agreed that between 1959 and 1963, 60 Douglas Thor missiles would be transferred to the UK as part of a joint nuclear deterrent programme. However, once manufacturing was completed for the United State’s first generation of ICBM’s, the Thor missiles were swiftly retired and returned to the U.S. by 1963. The SM-65 Atlas was the first ICBM that the United States developed, followed by Titan I and II, and the Minuteman in 1962. The various versions of the Minuteman were ordered in large numbers by the US.

Initially, the Thor missile transfer was seen as an indication that relations between the United States and Britain were improving, after the 1956 Suez Crisis considerably strained them. However, in this agreement, it was termed that while Britain were in control of firing the rockets at their chosen targets, the warheads would be under the control of the United States, and so the weapon could only be used if it had approval by the U.S.

The PGM-19 Jupiter missiles manufactured by the U.S. played a similar role as the Douglas Thor missiles, however they were a MRBM and were substantially more accurate, with precision estimates of 0.80km from the target. These missiles were deployed into Italy and Turkey as part of NATO’s Cold War deterrent against the Soviet Union. They were removed as part of an agreement during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

As a final note, the Warsaw Pact was the Soviet Union’s equivalent to NATO, which consisted of a mutual agreement of defense between Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union, signed in 1955.

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This video is from the free online course:

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

Royal Holloway, University of London