RAF History 1954 - 1957

RAF Bomber Command was the last of the major commands to be founded, following a couple of years after the formation of Fighter, Coastal and Transport Commands. Its foundation was controversial, both on operational grounds, it not being entirely clear who the British planned to bomb, and on political grounds in that the expense of Bomber Command in the 1930s had resulted in Britains weak military standing in 1940 and thus its disastrous armistice with Germany. In the end, the undeniable efficiency of strategic bombing was accepted and Bomber Command was refounded in late 1950.

If the other commands were shadows of their former selves though, Bomber Command did not even rise to that status. When refounded, it deployed but a single squadron equipped with Airspeed Oxfords. Other options had been examined but a design developed in secret by Vickers for an improved Wellington, the Warwick, was considered too obsolescent to even consider building. There were a number of Arado 234s on British airfields but the experiences of the Ta-152 had prejudiced the British against using captured aircraft. In any case, the 234s were in very poor repair and represented more of a liability than anything else. The Oxford was, quite literally, the only bomb carrying aircraft available.

The Oxfords, of course, only lasted for a few months in service. They were replaced by Yorks, hastily converted to drop bombs through a hatch cut in the floor. The bomb aiming equipment was even cruder, a slaved sight mounted to view through a glazed hole cut under the nose. In some ways, the sight of the lumbering Yorks pretending to be bombers symbolized the whole state of Britain in the grim days of 1951-52; a country trying its best but woefully short of even the most basic necessities of life. A potential threat to what was left of the Commonwealth needed a defense had to be mounted and an offensive arm was part of a good defense but how was this to be achieved?

The Yorks soldiered on until 1955 when they were replaced by a small production run of Shackletons. These were built more or less to the original prototype configuration with mid-upper and tail 20mm guns and a manned bomb-aiming station in the nose. The bomb bay was modified to handle an 8,000 pound bombload. The Bombshacks as they were quickly dubbed were an improvement on the Yorks but by how much was debatable. Neither aircraft stood any chance of penetrating defended airspace, both were totally vulnerable to any form of modern air defense.

At best, this inventory of aircraft was good for training purposes only. The problem was that there were no options available. There were two interlinked difficulties at this point, both potentially fatal in their own right but together apparently presenting an insuperable obstacle. One was, of course, the lack of financial and material resources that had been plaguing the rebirth of the aviation industry since the end of the war.

The other difficulty was much more subtle. The success of the Martin-Baker MB.5 and Firebrand had primarily been due to their designs being carefully refined and designed in the years while they were being kept from prying German eyes. In the final analysis, they represented capital, credit that had been carefully accumulated and then expended. What the success of these aircraft had hidden was that the companies that had produced them were the second-rate members of the pre-war aviation industry, the ones it hadnt been considered worth evacuating to Canada. This is not to say that their designers werent talented, they were, in some cases very much so and, in the normal scheme of things, those designers would have moved to one of the larger companies and become the giants of the profession. No, the problem was that the companies were all desperately short of middle men, the technicians who took the work of the giants and did the painstaking detail work. The small companies were small companies because they lacked enough such technicians and, of those they had had, all too many had been killed in the American air raids.

As the Bombshacks entered service, RAF Bomber Command assessed this gloomy picture and made some grim decisions. They could build the required aircraft given time but the shortage of skilled manpower meant that a lot of time would be needed. Development of the next generation of aircraft would be lengthy. The specification had to be right, it had to be timely and it would have to produce an aircraft that would be modern when it entered service at the end of lengthy development. Above all, it was going to be a gamble. The aircraft designers would have to assume that, somehow, the material resources would be found. To make matters worse inadequate resources existed for a competitive design process. The correct proposal would have to be selected right from the start, and developed at the expense of any insurance policy. Bomber Command drew a deep breath and went for it. This was, to put it mildly, a courageous decision.

Bomber Command defined two aircraft for development. One was a long-range strategic bomber. The proposal selected was an outline drawing from the Airspeed Division named the Airspeed AS-730. This was a remarkable aircraft indeed. It was an unswept canard aircraft, fabricated throughout in stainless steel/brazed honeycomb sandwich. It was powered by four Armstrong-Siddeley P.159 Cobra jet engines stacked in pairs at the wingtips. It would have a crew of three, a pilot, bombardier-navigator and observer-navigator. The aircraft was 163.5 feet long and had a wingspan of 59.75 feet, giving it a takeoff weight of 158,000 pounds. The aircraft would cruise at Mach 2.6, at an altitude of 66,400 feet for a range of 4,740 miles. The British Aircraft Corporation stated that, provided the engines could be made available, the first prototype could fly in November 1959 and the tenth pre-production aircraft by December 1961. Service entry would be ten years after the date of contract signing. Bomber Command signed the development contract in May 1955 and the aircraft, now the BAC-730, started its design process.

The second aircraft was a shorter range tactical bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. This requirement became known as the TSR.2., TSR standing for Tactical Strike Reconnaissance. The selected design was a Miles design, the P.17A This was a high-wing, twin jet aircraft with a crew of two and represented a fundamentally different philosophy form the American bombers and the BAC-730. Those aircraft had been designed to fly too high and too fast to be intercepted. The TSR.2 was designed to fly low and fast, going under the radar rather than over it This concept had been examined by the Americans in the mid-1950s and rejected on the very sensible grounds that, while there was no known limit on how high an aircraft could fly, there was a very solid and unchallengable limit on how low it could go. Low-altitude penetration had been dismissed as a developmental dead end. The TSR.2 was to challenge that assumption. The TSR.2 was designed to cruise out to its target at Mach 2.05 then make a low altitude run under the radar at Mach 1.1. Its radius of action in that configuration was 1,000 miles. The development contract was signed in December 1955 with it being hoped the aircraft would fly in 1961 and enter service in 1965.

Neither of these projects was, of course, an immediate short-term solution. There was, however, an interim solution for the tactical bomber requirement. Blackburn had been developing a new, twin-jet naval strike aircraft, the Blackburn Buccaneer. This aircraft had actually been ordered in 1952 but work had been stalled by the lack of available engines. In 1956, a pair of Orenda engines, stripped out of a CF-100 were installed in the airframe. This allowed the aircraft to fly for the first time in May 1956. The results were nothing short of sensational. The aircraft appeared to be faster and more agile than hoped and it possessed the legendary strength of Blackburn airframes. The Royal Navy placed an immediate order for 100 aircraft designated the BAC Buccaneer S.1 powered by the Bristol Gyron Junior engine. The fact that the Gyron Junior owed so much to the Orenda that it was once described as howling with a Canadian accent was tactfully neglected.

Rolls Royce were the ones who made the great difference. They applied the materials technology inherited from the Orenda to one of three engines they had under development. The new engine, the Avon, offered 11,100 pounds of thrust as opposed to the 7,500 of the Gyron Junior and that turned the sensational into the spectacular. The new engines consumed less fuel, increasing range from 1,700 to 2,300 miles. It could carry an 8,000 pound bombload in an internal bomb bay and could manage Mach 0.85 at sea level. After some inter-service negotiations, the Royal Navy agreed to accept a one-year slippage in their deliveries by re-ordering their aircraft as the Avon-powered Buccaneer S.2 and Bomber Command ordered 100 Buccaneers of its own, equipping its six new tactical bomber squadrons. The two services agreed that the deliveries would be one-for-one with aircraft being delivered alternately to Bomber Command and the Fleet Air Arm. Despite the disruptions of 1957/58, the first Buccaneers were delivered in 1959. In less that a decade, Bomber Command had gone from the Airspeed Oxford that could carry a 250 pound bombload for a couple of hundred miles at speeds of less than 200 miles per hour to a state-of-the-art near-supersonic tactical bomber.

The provision of an interim and a long-term solution to Bomber Commands tactical requirement did not solve the interim strategic bomber problem. The BAC-730 would not be ready for at least a decade and probably 15 years. There was no way that Bomber Command could continue using the Bombshack for that period. To understand what happened next, it is necessary to revisit the state of mind that prevailed in 1955/56. Today, the ascendancy of the manned bomber is so complete that it is hard to believe that the proponents of using ballistic missiles for strategic attack seriously believed in the integrity of their case. With hindsight, we can see that their claims missiles represented a less expensive and more certain way of delivering nuclear warheads to distant targets than manned bombers were facile and insupportable. However, this was not the case back then. In 1955, the bomber versus missile wars were reaching their maximum level of noise and fury. It would be two years before the United States would cancel every one of its strategic ballistic missile programs in the famous 1957 Missile Massacre. It would be four years before thunderous explosions in the skies over Nevada once and for all laid the myth of missile invulnerability into its grave as missile after missile was blasted out of the sky by Zeus interceptors.

During the last two years of the Second World War, the Germans had become convinced that the American invasion, when it occurred would take place in the UK. They believed that cultural, political and strategic considerations made this inevitable. They thought that the close historical links between the UK and US would make the British Isles the primary target for the invasion armada they knew was concentrating in East Coast ports. Above all, they knew that strategically, the British Isles were the great fortress that guarded Europes west. No invasion beachhead on the European mainland could be secure, or even viable, as long as Britain was occupied by German forces. For that reason, the Germans had poured armed forces into Britain during 1946/47. Since they could not know where the Americans would strike, those forces contained substantial numbers of the Fi-103 cruise missile and the A-4 ballistic rocket. These were the German Armys corps and army level artillery and they could use them to cover any potential invasion site. In fact, by 1947, the United Kingdom probably had the greatest density of rocket artillery anywhere in the bloated Third Reich. Not only were there more rockets than anywhere else, the UK also had the technical experts assigned to maintain, repair and service the rockets. When the experimental establishment at Peenemunde vanished in a ball of atomic fury, these were also the most skilled and knowledgeable rocket experts in the world.

It is hardly surprising that there was a concerted effort to exploit this core of expertise. The German rocket artillerymen had no home to go to and the only skill they had was their ability to make the A-4 rocket fly. For the British, they held another advantage, they were cheap. People who had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do would work for coffee and cakes and, in Britain, the German rocket engineers did. In addition, the sheer volume of rockets that had been deployed to the UK meant that the engineering teams had plenty of samples to work with; capital expenditures would be low. Finally, the British lucked out. The men who stayed in the UK were not the scientists and engineers who had designed and built the A-4. The A-4 was the product of men who desired a perfect solution and cherished good engineering. The German rocket engineers were artillerymen who desired a workable and efficient weapon and cherished explosives arriving on target.

Throughout the early years of the 1950s, the German rocket men fired off dozes of A-4s loaded with various types of experimental package. They were employed by Vickers Engineering, becoming the foundation of a new division of that company, Vickers Dynamics Ltd and working under the chairmanship of a newly-returned scientist, Dr Barnes Wallis. Their first task was to simplify the A-4 and turn it from a finicky, unreliable and relatively short-ranged trinket into a reliable weapon of war. They abandoned the carefully-shaped ballistic shell for a simple cylinder topped with a cone, they simplified the engine, the fuel system, indeed almost every individual component of the system. By the time they had finished, the new rocket took an order of magnitude fewer man hours to build. It was also lighter, longer-ranged, more reliable and more accurate. The first test launch took place in late 1953 and was a success. Barnes Wallis, seeing the rocket soaring upwards across the Irish Sea, was heard to remark Well, we sent that one scudding across the sky didnt we. And the new rocket was immediately dubbed the Scud.

The first success was atypical of course. Rockets were still unreliable and as many blew up on the launching pad as made successful flights. However, slowly, the faults were found and rectified. In addition, the Vickers Dynamics design team made two very important changes, they lengthened the Scud by 50 percent and switched to integral fuel tanks. These changes doubled the range of the missile, the Scud Mk.2 having a maximum radius of almost 375 miles. Barnes Wallis became an enthusiastic convert to missile technology and conceived a grand plan by which a British strategic bombardment force could be built around missiles rather than manned bombers. He pushed his design team hard and, by 1955, they had produced a further improved version of the basic Scud. This, the Scud Mk.3, had a range of no less than 750 miles. A missile-based bomber force seemed to be, at the very least, plausible.

At this point, Sir Barnes Wallis went to the RAF with an interesting proposal. He and his German artillerymen had designed a new rocket, a breakaway from the German A-4 technology. It had two further changes in basic design, a new fuel system that was much lighter yet more efficient than the A-4s gas pressurization system. Also, the new rocket was radio-controlled and could be steered by the means of four vanes in the rocket exhaust. The new rocket would have a range of 1,250 miles, something beginning to edge into a useful operational range. Wallis made the pitch that would become familiar to the supporters of Missile Madness. The new weapons would be too fast to be intercepted, they would be cheaper than manned bombers and they would not put air crew at risk. The problem was, developing the new rocket would cost more than Vickers Dynamics could afford as a simple corporate venture. They had to have a government contract.

Hearing the proposal, the leaders of Bomber Command were appalled. Instinctively they knew that something was wrong with the picture being painted but they lacked the technical knowledge to argue with the distinguished scientist. They angrily referred to themselves as being saddled with the new missile, from whence came the new missiles name, Saddler B.1. In the end, a compromise was reached. The Saddler B.1 would become the interim strategic bombardment solution and would fill the gap between the already-obsolete Bombshack and the new BAC-730. However, the 730 wouldnt be ready for a decade or more and development could continue on both bombers and missiles. When both were mature, a decision could be taken between the intercontinental range strategic bomber and the intercontinental range missile. It was, all things being equal, a wise and diplomatic decision. It squared the circle, it gave Britain a choice of options that had previously been ruled out.

Only one problem was left and it was a major one. Other than the imported Canadian CF-100 Clunks Fighter Command was still flying the piston-engined Bandit F.5. It had to go, even allowing for all the non-military considerations that had made it a success, it was still obsolete. The problem was replacing it and there werent that many candidates. Hindustan Aviation in India had put a small jet into production, the Vampire, but its performance was already passe by the standards of late 1956. The Russians produced some very good fighters but they werent available; the Russians needed all they could get for their efforts to cleanse their territory of the remaining German warlord states. The MiG-19 was just what the RAF needed, only they stood no chance of getting it. There was one other option, one the British looked at with great reluctance. France made jet fighters.

France had skipped the advanced piston-engined fighter and gone straight for jets. In the beginning theyd paid for that decision. Their first jet, the Ouragan was delivered in 1953 but was something of a disappointment. It was fast enough, almost 60 miles per hour faster than the Bandit F.5 but was a fuel-guzzler of monumental proportions. Ouragan pilots would joke that they would take off, enter the landing pattern and touch down - and run out of fuel on the runway. It was only mildly an exaggeration. The Ouragan was also lacking in maneuverability but it was pleasant and stable to fly. It may not have been the best jetfighter around but it was a good way of introducing piston-engined pilots to the world of the jet.

The Ouragan was followed by the Mystere. The Mystere I was basically an Ouragan with mildly swept wings and tail and a more powerful engine. It never went beyond the prototype stage but was replaced by the Mystere IIC that featured a new 30mm cannon and a thinner wing. In 1955, the Mystere IIC became the first European aircraft to break the sound barrier in a dive and it seemed as if the type was destined for great success. This was not to be; the early examples started breaking up in the air; like the Germans before them, the French had completely underestimated the problems of swept wings and it was found that flutter was tearing the wings apart. The Mystere IIC was grounded and withdrawn from service less than three months after the first examples had been taken into service.

Fortunately, Dassault Aviation had a solution waiting. In parallel with the Mystere IIC, they had developed a heavier and more powerful aircraft, one that featured a new fuselage and wing structure. Thus aircraft, the Mystere IVA was ordered by the French Air Force and the first examples were delivered in mid-1956. It wasnt quite cutting edge but it was certainly good enough. It was capable of 695 miles per hour and could climb to 51,000 feet - putting Americas B-36s within its reach. Of course, the B-36 was already considered obsolete and being withdrawn in favor of the B-52 and B-60 but it was the principle of the thing that really counted.

The French focused their attention on Britain and made a very tempting offer. BAC could license built the Mystere IVA for the RAF. A successor to the Mystere IVA, the Super Mystere, was already in the works and it was proposed that BAC and Dassault team on this project to make the new aircraft a joint project suited to both French and British requirements. The Super Mystere was seen as being a strengthened and afterburning version of the Mystere IVA capable of 745 miles per hour and of reaching an altitude of 55,000 feet. French plans were for it to be delivered in 1961 but with British help and funding, it could be ready in 1959.

Tempting indeed and too good to pass up. Throughout late 1956 and into 1957, British teams spent more and more time in France, finalizing the details of the agreement. A first batch of twelve Mystere IVAs arrived in the UK to start the process of converting the RAF fighter squadrons to the new aircraft. It seemed like a perfectly workable and mutually beneficial agreement had been reached, and despite reservations on both sides of the channel, the multinational agreement was working just fine.

It was the calm before the storm.

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