The 1957 Defence White Paper – Introduction
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A shift in emphasis in defence
In this step we address the following questions:
- What was the main shift in policy that the Sandys’ White Paper embodied?
- Why such a fascination with rockets and missiles?
- 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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Royal Holloway, University of London online course,
From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War
(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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