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The 1957 Defence White Paper – Introduction

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan consider the implications of the 1957 Defence White Paper for the RAF.
EMMETT 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.
So 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?
ROSS 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.
And 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.”
And these were the basic assumptions underpinning the policy that was emerging in the Sandys White Paper.
EMMETT 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?
ROSS 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.”
And 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.
EMMETT 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.
ROSS 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.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: So in terms of path dependency, this is quite an important fork in the road, so to speak.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, it goes the wrong way is perhaps one way of putting it. Yes.
EMMETT 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.

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.

The Duncan Sandys Defence White Paper

(The link above will take you to The National Archives – follow the link ‘Sandys defence review 1957’ and you will be able to download summaries and cabinet papers relating to the White Paper.)

White Papers are by definition policy documents produced by the British government that set out their proposals for future legislation. The newly appointed Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys, wrote a new White Paper in 1957, which set forth a perceived future of the British military. It has earned a notorious reputation due to its overwhelming effects on the British defence industry and the armed forces, especially concerning the RAF. Sandys became Defence Minister on 14 October 1957 and maintained this role until 27 July 1960. The policies suggested were influenced by two main issues: the first being the economic state Britain found itself in following the conclusion of the Second World War.

Britain was still a global power, although somewhat behind the US and the USSR, with an empire largely still intact. Even until the mid-1950s, Britain was still the strongest European power in both military and economic terms, and far superior in the development of atomic energy compared to continental counterparts. However, with the gradual loss of Empire, India in particular warranting mention, and loss of productivity, Britain not only lost its place as a global power, but also as a European one. In 1954, Britain’s GDP was 22% higher than the France’s, and 9% higher than in Germany; by 1977, French GDP was 34% higher, and German GDP 61% higher. Perhaps more telling of the deteriorating economic situation in Britain were its comparative productivity levels. In 1954, Britain, France and Germany were on a relatively even keel, with Britain having a marginal advantage. By 1977, Britain’s productivity had increased by a measly 1.68% in comparison to 2.66% in France, and 2.77% in Germany. These were all symptoms of a crucial fact: Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy following the end of the Second World War, and became heavily dependent on US aid. Thus the Defence Budget, like other government departments, had to reflect on the changing situation, as shown by Sandys’ proposals to move towards more cost-efficient missile programmes, despite the ramifications for the RAF.

Politically and technologically speaking, the emphasis on nuclear deterrents had shifted towards the development of missiles, and this was reflected in Sandys’ White Paper. Missiles not only threatened aircraft in terms of a counter-strike weapon, but their increased development into the 1960s meant that these missiles could deliver nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. Politically, missiles became hugely important with the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, on 4 October 1957–10 days before Sandys became Defence Minister. The success of the Soviets caught the Americans by surprise, triggering the Space Race, which came to dominate geopolitical concerns between the superpowers in the wider context of the Cold War. Indeed, the launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments, all centred on missiles and it is therefore not surprising that the White Paper reflected these concerns. The Cold War therefore was to dictate British defence policy.

Recaps and clarifications

As a recap, ‘V-Bomber’ refers to RAF aircraft during the 1950s and early-1960s that comprised of Britain’s strategic nuclear strike force. These were officially known as the ‘V-force’ or ‘Bomber Command Main Force’. They comprised of three main types of aircraft: Valiants, Vulcans and Victors. The numbers of the V-force reached their peak in June 1964: with 50 Valiants; 70 Vulcans; and 39 Victors in service. It was this force that strategic weapons would be designed for, namely the Skybolt project, but with its cancellation, the V-Force effectively became obsolete in 1965, and with it so did the RAF’s role in providing Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

The Blue Streak* was a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) designed by the British. The missile order was issued in 1955 and the design was complete by 1957, with the intention of it becoming Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Blue Streak was cancelled without entering full production due to concerns that the missile system was too vulnerable to pre-emptive strike, as well as serious concerns about its expense. This was primarily due to the massive escalation from the first estimate of £50 million in 1955 to £300 million in 1959. The estimates to complete the project continued to grow, with the civil service putting a total cost price at £1.3 billion. It is hardly surprising that ministers opposed the project, and it was officially cancelled as a military project in 1960 on the basis of its huge costs. Britain’s replacement was the Skybolt missile.

As another recap from week three, the PGM-17 Thor missile was the first operational ballistic missile used by the US Air Force. It was undertaken by the RAF between 1959 and September 1963 as an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with thermonuclear warheads. Thor was deployed to the UK in order for a missile to be in range of Moscow. Twenty squadrons of the RAF Bomber Command, starting in 1958, operated the missiles; the No. 77 Squadron being the first active unit. By 1959 all other units had become active, yet all were deactivated by September 1963.

The Bristol Bloodhound was an important development for the RAF in the 1950s, as it was designed to be Britain’s main air defence weapon, protecting the RAF’s V-Bomber bases, in order to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent force, as we noted in week four. A surface-to-air missile, it entered service in December 1958.

The Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977 was responsible for nationalising the British aerospace and shipbuilding industries. British Aerospace was formed as a consequence. The Act merged the Hawker Siddeley Aviation, Hawker Siddeley Dynamics, British Aircraft Corporation and Scottish Aviation.

*the weapon Emmett continually confuses with Blue Steel.

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

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