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Emmett Sullivan outlines the role the RAF took in defending the country and its interests in the Cold War.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Welcome back to the RAF in the Cold War. And this week we want to deal with an aspect of the RAF which will be very familiar to you, something that we might see as their primary role in defending Great Britain and the territories it’s responsible for. Now, in the context of the post-Second World War period, many of our attitudes are very heavily informed by the Battle of Britain and the idea that we managed to hold off the Luftwaffe and then ultimately a German invasion through the efforts of our fighter force. Well, what we have behind me is a Victor tanker, and then further behind me is a Sabre interceptor.
What we see in the period after 1945 is a continuing development of that responsibility for the RAF. The Victor tanker was designed to help keep aircraft aloft, so we have inflight refuelling, and the Sabre was bought from North America in the late ’40s, early ’50s so that the RAF could have a good body of reasonably modern aircraft to defend British territory against the threat of Soviet bombers.
Now, one of the things we’re going to develop as a theme as we go through this week is to actually look at what the responsibility of defending British territory meant, because you will remember that although we have the development of the V - Force, the strategic bomber force, they are always intended to be a retaliatory force. There was never any intention of this country having a first strike capability. That meant a lot of effort was put into defending the airfields from which the V - Force would actually take off from.
So if we’re looking at the Soviet bomber force in the 1950s and the 1960s, one of the major roles of the RAF in defending our airspace was actually defending its own assets that could strike back against the Soviet Union. Now, that’s at slight variance to what we might have expected in terms of, if you like, a projection from the Battle of Britain. We’re going to deal with some of the technological change as ever, but we’re also going to be looking at issues about whether it is better to have manned aircraft as interceptors or to rely on missile defence to shoot down far off bombers.
We’re also going to be thinking about the changing role in tactics of the aircraft that led to the defence of the British airspace. So while we have dealt with the development of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, now we are looking at, if you like, the defensive role and what might be seen as a very positive part of the RAF’s responsibility, and how that was executed as threat and counterthreat developed in the post-‘45 period. Thank you very much. We’re going to move on to the first segment of the course.

Defending the skies.

This week we examine:

  1. The threat of nuclear bombers from the Soviet Union
  2. The responses of the RAF
  3. The changes we see with changing technology.

The Soviet bomber and the British interceptor.

Throughout the Cold War, the primary objective of the RAF was to defend Britain. This week’s topic will deal with the changing role of the RAF in this regard. We will be tracing the progression of defensive technology, in regards of aircraft, missiles and radar, and how those advances affected strategy. We will also consider this from a cultural perspective, discussing how Britain’s defence measures were portrayed in the media.

It is firstly important to highlight how the memorialisation of the Battle of Britain has greatly influenced the continuing responsibility of the RAF. The Battle of Britain (July-October 1940) was one of those key events that remains very much in the minds of the British public. Last year’s air show at RAF Cosford, to commemorate the 75th anniversary, shows the lasting effect that the RAF’s defence of Britain has in popular memory. The successful defeat of the Luftwaffe was not only a huge morale boost during the Second World War, but established a degree of faith in the Airforce for decades to come. The RAF’s role of ‘protecting Britain’s skies’ continued if not grew more important during the Cold War, due to the increased destructiveness of threatening weaponry.

Examples of two key aircraft during the Cold War period are mentioned in the introductory video in the next step.

The Victor Tanker (Handley Page Victor)

We discussed the Victor as a strategic nuclear bomber in the early Cold War period earlier in the course, but it played a much more important role in the long run in enabling inflight refuelling, meaning other aircraft could stay active for longer periods of time, including defensive fighters and interceptors. The Victor Tankers had notable service during the Falklands Conflict (1982), which we discussed in Week 2. The Victors had no defensive weapons on board, with the aircraft relying on its speed and height to avoid opposing fighters in the 1950s as a bomber. It ended up being the longest serving of the V-Force aircraft, retiring in 1993 as a tanker.

Sabre Interceptor (Canadair Sabre)

The Sabre was an American design which was manufactured under licence in Canada* – hence Canadair – as well by North American in America. Britain bought the aircraft from Canada as an act of diplomacy, to support the exports of a Commonwealth country. The Sabre in RAF colours was deployed to defend against the superiority of Soviet aircraft, such as the MiG-15, which was one of the best jet fighters of the time, and against which American Sabres fought in the Korean War. The Sabres were primarily was used in West Germany – where the likelihood of encountering Warsaw Pact fighters such as the MiG-15 was high, although some Sabres were used to also defend Britain. Ultimately this American-designed, Canadian-built fighter was replaced in the mid-1950s with the Hawker Hunter.

A key concept in understanding the deployment of the V-force (Britain’s nuclear strike capability) was that fundamentally it was a retaliatory force. It was never an aim of British forces to have a ‘First Strike’ capability. The First Strike capability is a country’s ability to attack the enemy first with such an overwhelming force so as to severely limit their means of retaliation. Britain’s focus has always been placed upon defence and deterrence only.

However, defence was not as we might have previously expected. Unlike in the Second World War, where Britain’s large populated cities were protected there is a shift of importance from the late-1950s, with the RAF charged mainly on defending the V-force airfields. It is important to be aware of this change in strategy from the Battle of Britain – now the critical instruction was to defend Britain’s assets and her ability to strike back. To a certain extent the RAF was defending the retaliation capability first, and the British population second. As we will cover this week, that deterrence threat may have been Britain’s first line of defence.

After this week, you should have a broad understanding of how the role of the RAF changed throughout the Cold War, in its responsibility in defending Britain, but also grasp a sense of how that responsibility has been memorialized in a very positive manner – something we will return to in Week 6.

*In the video Emmett said ‘America’. Which was wrong. We will probably have a quiz in week six in ‘Emmett’s Errors’.

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

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