The H-bomber will always get through

Cmnd. 124, Defence: Outline of Future Policy, is one of the most famous (and infamous) documents in British military history. It's better known as the 1957 Defence White Paper, or the Sandys White Paper after the Minister of Defence responsible for it, Duncan Sandys. It ended National Service, committed Britain to nuclear deterrence, and foreshadowed drastic cuts in conventional force levels. Aviation bore the brunt of these last. Fighter Command was to be abolished (though in the end it won a reprieve, at least until 1967) and a large number of advanced fighter types under development for the RAF were cancelled, including the Avro 720, the Fairey Delta 2, the Hawker Siddeley P.1121, and the Saunders-Roe SR.177. Only the English Electric P.1 and TSR-2 were spared (the latter only temporarily). Unsurprisingly, all this was controversial then and remains so today for those who remember such things. Certainly, the White Paper was a cost-cutting exercise: Sandys had a brief from the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, to find savings of £100 million from the defence estimates. But my interest here is the intellectual context of the Sandys White Paper: it wasn't just about saving money.

The thinking was that the coming of nuclear weapons, especially thermonuclear ones, had radically altered the nature of warfare. Here's how Sandys explained the basis of the White Paper to the House of Commons, on 16 April 1957:

The policy which we submit to the House in the White Paper is founded on the recognition of two basic facts. The first is that, in present circumstances. it is impossible effectively to defend this country against an attack with hydrogen bombs [...]

The second basic fact on which this policy is based is the fact that, whether we like it or not, we cannot go on devoting such a large part of our resources—and, in particular, of manpower—to defence. Since it must now be accepted that adequate protection against all-out nuclear attack is impossible, we believe that the British people will agree that the available resources of the nation should be concentrated not upon preparations to wage war so much, as upon trying to prevent that catastrophe from ever happening.

So the next war was likely to be a nuclear one, with little role for conventional forces such as the British Army of the Rhine. In the air, it was considered that the era of manned combat aircraft was drawing to a close, to be replaced by the guided missile. Sandys again:

We are unquestionably moving towards a time when fighter aircraft will be increasingly replaced by guided missiles and V-bombers by ballistic rockets, but all that will not happen overnight. The introduction of these new weapons will be a gradual process, extending over a good number of years, and even then there will still remain a very wide variety of roles for which manned aircraft will continue to be needed.

Here he was signalling a change to the established order, the one which had proved effective enough in the last war. Even against manned Soviet bombers, Fighter Command would need to be almost perfectly effective in order to be of any use at all: according to the Strath Report of 1955, just 10 hydrogen bombs used against Britain could cause 12 million civilian casualties. Civil defence measures might save many of these and preserve civil authority after a nuclear war, but only at the staggering (peacetime, of course) cost of £2 billion. And when bombers were eventually replaced by supersonic, long-range missiles, the air defence problem would become insoluble. Yes, this all sounds very familiar: the H-bomber will always get through, as the Daily Mail put it.1 The only way to stop it was to prevent it from taking off in the first place.

Sandys was born in 1908, the year of the first aeroplane flight in Britain. Most politicians of his generation would have been very aware of the shadow of the bomber in the 1930s (even the somewhat older Macmillan later said 'We thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear warfare today'), but Sandys perhaps had more experience of it than most. He became a Conservative MP in 1935, and married Winston Churchill's daughter that same year. In 1937 he became an officer in a Territorial anti-aircraft brigade protecting London. This led to the 'Sandys affair' in 1938: he alleged, in Parliament, that British air defences were inadequate. During the war, still in the Territorials, he apparently commanded a rocket-firing AA battery which apparently shot down a German bomber. He was also stationed near a missile proving ground at Aberporth at one point.2 And of course he was in London during the V2 blitz. So Sandys knew something about air defence and something about rockets, even if they were a far cry from the new monsters on the horizon in the late 1950s. Perhaps he was primed to be the author of this new paradigm?

What I don't know is the extent to which Sandys' rejection of air defence and civil defence was supported by expert opinion in the public sphere. There must have been equivalents of the 1930s air prophets writing books and articles declaring that the day of the aeroplane was over, and that there was no defence against the Bomb. But the contours of the literature are less familiar to me, and the obvious parallels with the 1930s could be misleading. For one thing I'm sure that American military intellectuals were much more influential now than they had been before the war. And for another, after Hiroshima and Bikini only the delusional could discount the terrible power of nuclear weapons. There was still plenty of room for guesswork in the calculations, but it was a question of the difference between total destruction and almost-total destruction. So, whereas in 1939 a local government like Finsbury might want a comprehensive shelter system to protect its citizens against bombing; in the 1950s Coventry and St Pancras controversially rejected civil defence entirely as a pointless waste of money. Still, things like CND and world federalism do seem like throwbacks to the 1930s, if now with an added sense of urgency. What about militarist alternatives, though? Was the nuclear deterrent the only positive proposal for adaptation to the new era? I don't know.

The problem was basing Britain's entire defence posture on the theory of a nuclear knock-out blow meant it was less able to respond to less extreme but perhaps more plausible threats. Sandys argued that if British conventional forces turned out to be insufficient in a time of war, then tactical nuclear weapons could be used without risk of escalation into an all-out nuclear exchange. Well, perhaps they could have been, but he was lucky this idea was never put to the test (as were many other people, come to think of it). This is the problem with potential revolutions in military affairs. What if P. R. C. Groves had managed in the 1920s to convince the British government to base its air defence on a big fleet of airliners? What if the World Disarmament Conference had led to an international (or at least European) air force in the mid-1930s? Or, for that matter, if air forces were to convert to combat drones in the near future? It's risky to turn the dreams of experts into reality. In 1957, though, I can see why Sandys thought the risk had to be run.

Further reading: G. C. Peden, Arms, Economics and British Strategy: From Dreadnoughts to Hydrogen Bombs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), chapter 6; Matthew Grant, 'Home defence and the Sandys Defence White Paper, 1957', Journal of Strategic Studies 31 (2008), 925-49.


  1. Daily Mail, 5 April 1957; cited in Matthew Grant, 'Home defence and the Sandys Defence White Paper, 1957', Journal of Strategic Studies 31 (2008), 943. 

  2. James Hamilton-Paterson, Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), 182. 

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5 thoughts on “The H-bomber will always get through

  1. Since the panic of 1938 arguably led to a transfer of manpower into AA Command that fatally undermined the BEF in France, Sandys might not have had the happiest of careers as a strategist-politician.

    With the advantage of hindsight, though, it is hard to argue that it was a mistake to cancel the ramjet/rocket interceptors. Or it would be if it weren't a Canadian article of faith that the cancellation of the Avro Arrow two years later in favour of the Bomarc wasn't the Worst Thing Ever. I had the vague impression that the Bomarc was a prototype ABM. But, as it turns out, it was href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bomarc"> much, much weirder than that. I'm particularly impressed that they even used a radioactive alloy for the airframe. Was everyone in the 50s crazy, or what?

  2. Post author

    I'm more impressed by the crazy idea of using nukes to defend against nukes! In the second day of the White Paper debate, one MP complained that it didn't say anything about 'the possibility of using guided missiles with atomic warheads in a defensive role to destroy attacking missiles'; I thought he was having a laugh. Seems not! (Also amusing is Richard Crossman asking why, if tactical nukes were sooooo very useful in replacing conventional forces, they weren't used at Suez. Good question!)

  3. I guess I got over the whole nuclear-tipped SAM thing when it was first brought to my attention at another Very Serious Place I frequent. [Hey, folx, Champions Online is awesome!] There is, however, also the fact that the Diefenbaker government sniffed the crazy and had their B0MARCs delivered with conventional warheads. This then became an election issue, and Pearson brought in the nukes, complete with American officers to oversee the precious, precious plutonium. Then Trudeau and the Waffle...

    Really, the world can't get enough of old Canadian politics....So my point, if I have one, is that I had internalised the nuclear warhead issue, leaving me to be astonished anew by "Mag-Thor." Honestly. How much additional payload did the decision to use "thoriated magnesium alloys" deliver?

  4. Matt Trudgen

    A number of interesting points and that was before the mention of
    "thoriated magnesium alloys"

    And yes, the use of nukes to defend against nukes was quite common in the hey day of North American air defence in the 1950s.

    USAF developed the BOMARC B SAM and the MB 1 Genie air-to-air missile while the U.S. Army deployed the Nike Hercules SAM. These weapons were withdrawn until the early 1970s, although by that point the air defence system had long ceased to be effective.

    Moreover, all the BMDs system developed and deployed in this period were nuclear tipped.

    And yes the Canadians. Having made committments with its allies to acquire nuclear weapons and even purchased weapon systems that required nuclear warheads they then decided to have a debate over whether Canada should "join the nuclear club."

  5. Post author

    Erik:

    Really, the world can't get enough of old Canadian politics

    ...

    Matt:

    Thanks for that. Nuclear-tipped AA does ring a bell now. It makes some sense in the context of North America, where there are at least some wide open spaces to hopefully blow the incoming aircraft (or missiles) up over. But over or even near Britain, it would have been an act of utter desperation to use or even acquire such weapons. Sure, better than having nukes detonate over your cities. And presumably the AA would be atomic not thermonuclear. But still.

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