Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Welcome. So in this session, we're going to start exploring the evolution of Britain's nuclear capability, especially surrounding its airborne nuclear capability because, of course, until 1968 and the introduction of sea launched ballistic missiles, Britain's nuclear deterrent was carried by the Royal Air Force, in particular the V-Force of medium bombers that come into service in the 1950s. But before we get onto that, we're going to explore why Britain ends up developing what was initially an independent nuclear force. So one of the things that really leads to this is the McMahon Act in America. Can you just explain a little bit more about that?

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Right. What we have with the Manhattan Project is a tripartite development of the nuclear, I'm sorry, atomic weapons that were eventually used on Japan in 1945. Now, what we see is the American government increasingly retreating from the position where they are prepared to share nuclear technology with its partners. So the McMahon Act following on from the Atomic Energy Commission starts to limit what the United States can pass on to other nations, even friendly nations like Britain, who actually had invested quite a lot in the development of the Manhattan Project. It was a decision relatively early on to move it to the United States for fear that Britain might be subject to either bombing or more unlikely overrun.

Skip to 1 minute and 40 secondsSo what we are seeing here is really the development of Truman's atomic diplomacy, not only as a threat to the Soviets, but actually saying we're not prepared to share these weapons further. And do remember that there was a proposal in the embryonic United Nations that no other nation should be allowed to develop them, and that nuclear weapons would be held in trust by the United States. The Soviets immediately rejected that perspective. So on one hand, it's an attempt to stop proliferation. On the other hand, it's to a certain degree cutting out one of America's major partners, and preventing that technology flowing to those who'd actually input into the process in the first place.

Skip to 2 minutes and 32 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Britain develops a bomb. Is this just a way of Britain maintaining a seat at the negotiating table? At the end of the day, Britain by 1945 is a declining power arguably. So is this just Britain trying to maintain its world status?

Skip to 2 minutes and 48 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: We, with the benefit of history, see 1945 as the beginning of a downward slope. The Attlee government certainly considered Britain was going to be a world power for the future. And I always refer to the 1948 British Nationality Act as something that reflects on that. Why give 800 million people British citizenship were it not for Britain to argue with the United States and for the Soviet Union that they spoke for a large proportion of the world in international negotiations? So I think there is an element where Britain did not have a view of itself as a declining power.

Skip to 3 minutes and 38 secondsMore than anything it was probably a power that was having difficulty in the aftermath of the Second World War, certainly the level of government debt was quite phenomenal. But it was trying to make sure that it was relevant for a future world. The Empire might be being taken apart, decolonisation as being integral to that, and the Americans who pushed for this were very clear. They fought against two imperial powers who'd annexed territories through conquest-- Germany and Japan. So even though they fought on the same side, they didn't want to see the Dutch or the French or the British maintaining an imperial presence in the same way.

Skip to 4 minutes and 28 secondsSo I think when we're looking at the decision in the post '45 period, it was to cement a position, and trying to regain Britain's relevancy in world affairs, not an attempt to shore up Britain on a downward slope. It's only when we see what happens with the growing superpower tension between the Soviet Union and America that we can put Britain's decline into perspective. In the post '45 period, up till even 1955, I think Britain was still very hopeful of being a third force in the world in that regard.

Skip to 5 minutes and 7 secondsROSS MAHONEY: OK. Why Bomber Command?

Skip to 5 minutes and 12 secondsBomber Command comes out in the Second World War arguably as a war winner. Plays a significant role in defeating certainly Germany, and would have potentially gone on and played a significant role against Japan. An airborne nuclear deterrent. What's the rationale?

Skip to 5 minutes and 26 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, first you have the precedent of the bombing of Japan that you could actually develop weapons of a deliverable size. And that's very important because the leaders in rocket technology in 1945 were the Germans. Neither the British or the Americans had anything comparable to the A-4, which we know more commonly as the V-2 vengeance weapon. And therefore delivery systems through anything other than the bomber wasn't conceivable at the time. That goes further forward when you start looking at the hydrogen bomb. Now, there are developments in America for missile technologies, but that takes most of the 1950s to actually become operational.

Skip to 6 minutes and 15 secondsBut the hydrogen bomb initially was considered to be about the size of a house because the refrigeration that was required to make the early versions work. It's only through the Ulam Teller breakthrough that they worked out how to actually reduce the size of the weapon. Now, if you go back to the controversial decision in 1949, 1950 when Robert Oppenheimer as a chair of the subcommittee for the Atomic Energy Commission suggested that the superbomb, the hydrogen bomb, wasn't developed. One of the reasons that he put forward was how are you going to deliver it? It's going to be so large.

Skip to 6 minutes and 56 secondsSo unless you are going to actually sail a nuclear weapon into a port, really the bombing force was the only credible way of delivering the weapon. In 1945, I would say right the way through until about late 1950s when you actually had missiles that could do the job even at short range. I don't think there was ever really very much doubt that if Britain had the bomb, it was going to be delivered by the RAF.

Skip to 7 minutes and 29 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Now, we have some context as to why the RAF eventually becomes the country's strategic nuclear deterrent which is its key role for the next 20 years or so. In the next session, we're going to start looking at the evolution of the RAF V-Force, the means by which Britain will deliver that capability.

Britain's Nuclear Deterrent

The Start of Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent

In this step we consider the following questions and statements:

  1. The McMahon Act effectively cut the British out of the legacy of the Manhattan project. Did that necessitate a British atomic programme?
  2. Was Britain’s ‘Bomb’ programme merely a way of ‘retaining a seat at the negotiating table’.
  3. Bomber Command was always going to be the preferred means of nuclear weapons delivery from the early 1950s.

Name the aircraft in the video.

Please also identify the aircraft we feature in this video in the discussion below. If you recognize them, let us know! If you have any memories of these types of aircraft, please share them.

Ross and myself will be using the RAF Museum exhibits as a backdrop to our discussions. The website to the museums gives plenty of information on all of the collections.

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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