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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Now, while we're predominantly covering the period this week from circa 1962, 1965 through the end of the Cold War, some of the decisions which affect the Royal Air Force date from the 1950s. And one of the most notable-- and, in fact, from a notice board at RAF Cosford notorious decisions that were made were in and around the 1957 Defence White Paper, which is strongly associated with Duncan Sandys. Now, the story goes that Duncan Sandys was a rocket battalion commander in the Second World War and became quite fascinated by the potential for rockets and also missiles. And the less charitable perspectives were also putting this into context that he was Winston Churchill's son-in-law.

Skip to 1 minute and 1 secondSo as Minister for Defence, he put forward a White Paper which to a certain degree changed very much the fabric of the RAF. So Ross, what were the main shifts in policy that the Sandys White Paper embodied?

Skip to 1 minute and 17 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Well, of course, the Sandys White Paper is quite rightly notorious. There are few historians who have a good thing to say about it, certainly historians of the Royal Air Force. I think the key thing is the White Paper itself sort of was comprehensive re-shaping of national defence policy. Of course, one of the problems emerging in the late 1950s is Britain's economic strength and those sorts of problems. And so what we end up with is a need to base defence priorities on economic and financial strength. Behind all of this is some technological fetishism, you might describe it as. We see the emergence of rockets. Britain is starting to develop Blue Streak for example.

Skip to 1 minute and 58 secondsAnd this sort of view that missiles and rockets will replace manned aircraft. And all of this led to the basis of the idea that the Sandys White Paper will fundamentally alter the basis of military planning. Of course, the Sandys White Paper doesn't just cover the RAF. But it is notorious for that. Just to quote a couple of bits from the paper, the V force was to be quote "supplemented by ballistics rockets." So of course, Blue Streak, Thor, which we'll talk about, and the Fighter force, which of course at this time is essentially going to be responsible for defending the V force bases, to again quote, "will in due course be replaced by ground to air guided missile systems."

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 secondsAnd these were the basic assumptions underpinning the policy that was emerging in the Sandys White Paper.

Skip to 2 minutes and 51 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, now we talked about Bloodhound previously as being one of the manifestations of that missile defence strategy. It's not the only way that that emphasis on missiles came through. So a point we're going to talk a little bit about later is when the F-4 Phantom is ordered for the RAF. It doesn't have an internal gun system for example. So there is still this almost mesmeric appeal of missiles. Is there really any justification of this coming in 1957, nevermind later in the 1960s?

Skip to 3 minutes and 27 secondsROSS MAHONEY: It's a difficult one to assess. I mean, of course, we look back on it and we say this was a bad decision. But the preference for missiles, both in terms of unmanned aircraft, but also ground-based surface to air missile defences, missile technology has come along. And it's perceived that this is going to be the better way of defending air space. The problem is is that the eventual impact of this is that it has a crucial impact on Britain's aviation industry. There are two crucial statements within the paper. Firstly that, "the government has decided not to go on with the development of a supersonic manned bomber."

Skip to 4 minutes and 6 secondsAnd then secondly, that "the RAF are unlikely to have a requirement for flight aircraft of types more advanced than the supersonic P-1." The P-1, of course, is the English Electric Lightning. So other aircraft that are being developed are essentially after this point, except for a few others projects such as the P.1154 and TSR-2, most aircraft, such as the SR.53 behind us, are eventually cancelled.

Skip to 4 minutes and 33 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: And I was going to say, a lot of the implications of the White Paper for British aircraft development-- I mean, the SR.53 behind this incorporates rocket technology as well as jet technology. And at the time we were developing it, I understand the Germans were very interested in this as a point defence interceptor.

Skip to 4 minutes and 51 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, so the Germans are interested in the SR.53. And long-term implication, eventually we see a shrinking of the British aviation industry, eventually to the point where we end up with what we have today, which is essentially BAE systems though there are a couple of other companies. And the nationalisation of British aerospace industry. And Britain, arguably, loses its lead in aircraft development. The 1950s sees aircraft such as the SR.53, the Fairey Delta, which is in this hall, leading the way. The Lightning as an aircraft has challenges, but is the fastest climbing aircraft. It's highly advanced. We lose our advantage as a country. Arguably, because of the Sandys White Paper and the decision to look at focusing on missiles.

Skip to 5 minutes and 47 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: So in terms of path dependency, this is quite an important fork in the road, so to speak.

Skip to 5 minutes and 54 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, it goes the wrong way is perhaps one way of putting it. Yes.

Skip to 6 minutes and 0 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: All right, so what we are seeing early in this piece, and before that the main thrust of this week's discussions, is a political decision which is steering both the RAF and British defence industry more generally into a different direction from most of the innovations we saw and we talked about two weeks ago in terms of advanced bomber aircraft, et cetera, coming out of the V forces. So let's move on from this point and actually consider some of the developments that did go ahead.

The 1957 Defence White Paper – Introduction

A shift in emphasis in defence

In this step we address the following questions:

  1. What was the main shift in policy that the Sandys’ White Paper embodied?
  2. Why such a fascination with rockets and missiles?
  3. What were the implications of the White Paper for British aircraft development?

Please make your own comments on this topic and the video below.

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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