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Emmett Sullivan introduces this week’s discussion on the development of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Welcome back to From World War
to White Heat: The RAF in the Cold War. This week, we’re going to deal with the period, principally, of 1945 to 1962, from Britain’s involvement with the development of the atomic bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki right the way through to the cancellation of the Skybolt programme by President Kennedy in December of 1962. Now, if you go and look at Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War, very early on he talks notably about Britain’s involvement in the Manhattan Project, a co-development along with the United States and Canada, and talks about the atomic bombing of Japan as the knockout blow.
So, this change in weapons technology changes the perception of what countries can do to end wars and ultimately leads to a change in the role of the RAF. Now, what we are seeing in the period after 1945 is the decision to develop an independent British nuclear weapon, both an atomic bomb and then later a hydrogen bomb, as the Americans decide not to share further nuclear secrets after the Manhattan Project has ended. We then see the commissioning of a new fleet of strategic bombers. As with America and the Soviet Union, there’s never any real question that the initial delivery system for Britain’s nuclear deterrent was going to be the RAF.
So, we see the origins of the V-force– the Valiant, the Victor, and the Vulcan. And beyond that, we’re going to look at the change in the technologies that were applied at the time, particularly the equipping of the V-force with missiles which can deliver nuclear weapons at some considerable distance. And this is possibly the significance of Skybolt in the story we’re going to tell today, because Britain was heavily committed to the development of this American project. And when Kennedy cancelled it in December 1962, it left a void in the way that Britain was going to modernise and keep relevant its way of delivering nuclear weapons.
Now, as a result of that decision in America and subsequent negotiations between Kennedy and Macmillan, by 1968, we have a change in Britain’s role when it comes to the delivery of nuclear weapons. No longer is the RAF the front line. By 1968, it’s the Royal Navy in Polaris-missile-capable submarines which embody Britain’s potential use of nuclear weapons for strategic reasons. So, as a result of a political decision, a decision to cancel a programme in America, there was a substantial shift in the way that Britain conceives of how it is going to maintain its nuclear force. So, from 1962, the RAF is looking at a modernisation of its force through new missiles. By 1968, the strategic role is with the Royal Navy.
And while the RAF retains a tactical nuclear role, it is no longer the principal force that is going to deliver nuclear weapons at time of war or major conflict. So, with those thoughts in mind, let’s move on and deal with the first segment for this week’s course.

Over the course of this week we will be looking at:

  1. Britain’s decision to become an independent nuclear weapons state;
  2. The establishment of a strategic bomber force to deliver the deterrent;
  3. The development of an air-launched missile force to extend the effectiveness of the bomber force.

Name the aircraft in the video.

Please also identify the aircraft we feature in this week of videos 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 museum gives plenty of information on all of the collections.

Introduction by Lauren Semple and Emmett Sullivan

Lauren and myself set the stage for this week’s discussion of Britain’s independent development of a nuclear deterrent. We have two interviews in the videos which follow over this week of work – with Seb Cox and Andy Marson – which add detail to our discussions.

From the Manhattan Project to Skybolt

This week’s focus is on the period from 1945 to 1962, from the end of World War Two up until the cancellation of the Skybolt programme by Kennedy, during the height of the Cold War.

As a recap, during World War Two Britain was one of the three partners involved in the Manhattan Project, a programme led by the United States, alongside Canada, that focused on researching and developing the world’s first nuclear weapons that were ultimately dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the war.

Initially, Britain had a more developed and advanced nuclear programme than the United States, circa 1941, but the US effort into nuclear research and development quickly overtook its British equivalent. This prompted Britain to aid America in their project in lieu of their own nuclear development.

An important conference was held in Quebec from 17-24 August 1943, where it was agreed between Roosevelt and Churchill that cooperation on nuclear development existed between the two countries, and this would continue after the war.

However, as we will discuss in more detail in the next section, Britain was effectively forced out of the Manhattan Project by the McMahon Act* of 1946, which stated America would no longer share any information regarding atomic weapons with any other country, leading Britain to pursue their own independent nuclear programme. If you are interested in following up on the Quebec Conference, Yale University’s Avalon Project gives the agreement between Britain and America on ‘tube alloys’ – the British code for atomic development.

Understandably, with the procurement of atomic and (later) hydrogen bombs came a shift in the way that warfare was viewed, and the role of the Royal Air Force in Britain became pivotal, not only in their nuclear programme, but as the main line of defense for the country. As the only conceivable and practical way to deliver nuclear weapons in 1945 was to drop them from planes, the RAF became fundamental in Britain’s independent nuclear programme, which led to the development of the V- Force.

The Vulcan, Valiant and Victor became crucial for the RAF during a large proportion of the Cold War period, and we can see how nuclear technology evolved alongside the V-Force, up until the creation of the Polaris programme which saw the Royal Navy become the main line of nuclear deterrents with the advancement in submarine-based weapon systems from 1968 onwards.

*(Although, at one point Emmett/I mispronounce ‘McMahon’ for something similar … but still wrong. Sorry. Moving on….)

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

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