Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent Development – Part Eight

30 October 2020

Sir-Winston-Churchill-and-Clement-Attlee-at-an-event

1949 – While Britain raced towards their first nuclear weapon, Russia was also advanced in their building of a nuclear device. The Soviet design was an implosion-type bomb, based on the ‘Fat Man’ device which was detonated by the US in 1945. Russia’s speed in producing the weapon was due to the work of their Atomic Spies. 

Photograph of the first Soviet atomic bomb. © Minatom 

Along with Britain, the USSR and America were allies during World War II, but information on the Manhattan Project wasn’t shared with the Soviet Union. On 29 August 1949 the USSR successfully tested their first nuclear device, which they named RDS-1. The US codenamed the device Joe-1, named after the Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin.  

The West was shocked by the speed with which the Russians were able to conduct their first nuclear test. The event was discovered by the United States, who had a special test-detection system. WB-29 Superfortress aircraft were fitted with special filters to collect atmospheric radioactive debris.  When the US began to follow the trail of the nuclear fallout debris, they determined that the Soviet Union had effectively tested a nuclear weapon. On 23 September 1949 President Truman notified the world of the situation, announcing “We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR”.  

The Soviet Union had become the second nation to become a nuclear-weapon state. 

The codename for Britain’s nuclear test was Operation Hurricane. The preferred site for testing the British weapon was the Pacific Proving Grounds in the US-controlled Marshall Islands, where the US had previously carried out nuclear tests. In September 1949, a request was sent to the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the Americans turned down the request.  

Sites in Canada and Australia were also considered. William Penney carried out a feasibility study with the Canadian Defence Research Board.  The study noted several requirements for a test area: 

• an isolated area with no human habitation 160 kilometres (100 mi) downwind;
• large enough to accommodate a dozen detonations over a period of several years;
• with prevailing winds that would blow fallout out to sea but away from shipping lanes;
• a temporary camp site at least 16 kilometres (10 mi) upwind of the detonation area;
• a base camp site at least 40 kilometres (25 mi) upwind of the detonation area, with room for laboratories, workshops and signals equipment;
• ready for use by mid-1952.

In September 1950 the Monte Bello Islands were considered suitable and Prime Minister Clement Attlee, sent a request to the Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies. The Australians agreed that the site could be used. 

Sir Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee at an event at the Dorchester hotel in 1959. Photograph-Keystone Press

26 October 1951 – The 1951 general election was held just over a year and a half after the 1950 general election. Labour had won in 1950 with a slim majority of just five seats. In October 1951 the Labour government called a snap election with the hope of increasing their majority. However, the Conservative Party won with Winston Churchill returning as Prime Minister. 

In December 1951 Churchill’s government confirmed the choice of site for Operation Hurricane and on 26 February 1952 Churchill announced in the House of Commons that the first British atomic bomb test would take place in Australia before the end of the year. 

Winston Churchill was Prime Minister during the first ever nuclear test at Trinity with the US, and had been Prime Minister when Britain’s consent was given for the bombing of Japan. In Churchill’s brief spell away from Prime Ministerial duties Attlee had gone on to lay the foundations for Britain’s nuclear deterrent, but Churchill would be the man who presided over Britain’s first nuclear detonation. And like Attlee, Churchill believed in a ‘nuclear deterrence’ and the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Addressing parliament in November 1953, Churchill said he was looking forward to a time when “the advance of destructive weapons enables everyone to kill everybody else” because then “nobody will want to kill anyone at all.” 

VX770 Vulcan Prototype 1952 

Meanwhile the V-bombers were developing, in preparation to carry Britain’s new nuclear weapon. On 30 August 1952 at Woodford, ‘Roly’ Falk, Avro’s Test Pilot, dressed in his usual dress of a pinstripe suit, took the white Type 698 prototype (VX770) into the air for the first time. The Type 698 aircraft would eventually be named Vulcan.

On 24 December 1952, Handley Page’s chief test pilot Hedley Haxelden, piloted WB771 on its maiden flight. The aircraft was given the internal designation of HP.80. Ten days after the maiden flight, the Air Ministry announced the aircraft’s official name to be Victor.  

The Valiant had already made its first flight on 18 May 1951. This first prototype, serial number WB210 took to the air only 27 months after the contract had been issued. The Valiant pilot was Captain Joseph “Mutt” Summers, who had also been the original test pilot on the Supermarine Spitfire, and wanted to add another “first” to his record before he retired. In June 1951 the Vickers Type 660 was given the official name of Valiant. 

WB210 Valiant prototype © Rolls Royce 

Did you know? The V-bomber specification represented more than a 100% advance in speed and altitude performance on the piston-engined Avro Lincoln bomber, then in production for the RAF. 

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