Rocket Propulsion Establishment (RPE) at Westcott

Like other post-war establishments such as Harwell and Aldermaston, Westcott was originally an RAF airfield before being taken over in 1946 as the Guided Projectile Establishment. In 1947 its status changed to the Rocket Propulsion Department of RAE, and then in 1958 it became the Rocket Propulsion Establishment.

A good deal of work was done on solid motors (all named after birds, since the Superintendent was a keen ornithologist), but in addition, there was a good deal of early work done on liquid motors using HTP involving German engineers who had come to Britain at the end of the war. These were the Alpha, Beta and Gamma series of motors. The Delta was a low-key liquid oxygen/kerosene programme, which became rather pointless once Rolls Royce began development of the RZ 1 and RZ 2 chambers. There was also a very considerable liquid hydrogen programme, producing some sophisticated chambers which could almost have been fitted directly into a rocket stage without much further work. In addition, P site was used by Rolls Royce in some early firings of the RZ 1 and RZ 2 before Spadeadam became available.

One of the major projects of the 1950s was the 1/6th scale silo, which must have been quite an impressive sight when the motors were fired inside the tube. Nothing remains of the site today, although there are still hexagonal pieces of concrete which formed the walls of the model silo to be found to this day.

Rocket Propulsion Establishment (RPE) at Westcott

Figure 2. Test stands for rocket motors at Westcott as seen in 2010.

Spadeadam in Cumbria was chosen as the site to test and develop the Blue Streak engines, and here Blue Streak vehicles were assembled for static firing before shipment to Australia. Rolls Royce ran the site as an agency.

The engine test area at Prior Lancy Rigg consisted of four concrete stands into which the engines could be mounted for test firing. Three remain, copied from a Rocketdyne design used at their California Santa Susana Field Laboratory site; the fourth has been demolished. This last and lost stand seems to have been built to a different design, using an innovative application of pre-stressed concrete to contain liquid oxygen spills.

Two static firing stands themselves stood at Greymare Hills and were large enough to accommodate a full Blue Streak missile. All firings were controlled from command centre bunkers connected to the stands by tunnels or surface cabling ducts.

After the demise of ELDO, Spadeadam was taken over by the RAF. Its primary purpose today is to provide a location for teaching of electronic warfare to RAF and other NATO aircrew.


The Germans pioneered the use of hydrogen peroxide as a rocket fuel in the early 1940s, powering the Me163 rocket fighter, and the V2’s turbine and fuel pump. British work was to take this much further. The key to a successful HTP motor is the choice of catalyst. When the HTP is passed over a suitable catalyst, it decomposes into steam and oxygen, and the decomposition is sufficiently energetic for the HTP to be used as a monopropellant. However, it is much more effective then to inject a fuel into the steam and oxygen. In British rocket motors this was always kerosene. The kerosene ignites spontaneously in the hot gases. Silver plated nickel gauze was used as the catalyst, and such catalyst packs could be easily inserted into the rocket chamber. The ratio of HTP to kerosene was around 8 : 1. Although the combination does not give a very high S. I. compared with many other fuel combinations, it has other advantages. Not being cryogenic, it can be left in the vehicle and does not need topping up. Nor does it need insulation as liquid hydrogen does: the insulation adds to the vehicle weight. Further, HTP is quite dense, 1375 kg/m3, as opposed to 80 kg/m3 for liquid hydrogen. This makes for a very much smaller volume and thus smaller tanks, again saving on vehicle weight. The later rockets developed by the UK using HTP technology were structurally very efficient.

Other engines were then developed using this combination: Spectre, Sprite, Scorpion, Stentor and Gamma. These were initially for aircraft use, although Stentor would be used in the Blue Steel stand-off missile, and Gamma would go on to power Black Knight and Black Arrow. Most of these were developed by commercial firms: Scorpion by Napiers; Sprite and Spectre by de Havilland; Stentor and later Gammas by Armstrong Siddeley, as they were then. Sprite and Super Sprite were designed to assist the take-off of large aircraft such as the V bombers and the Comet, but the increase in effectiveness of the jet engine meant that these units were obsolete before entering service in any major fashion. Scorpion and Spectre were intended for aircraft, to augment the jet engine. However, the HTP combination was to represent the principal British contribution to the rocket field.

The UK was to make hydrogen peroxide technology very much its own: no one before or since has made use of it on such a large scale. Early German and British work used compounds of manganese in one form or another to decompose the peroxide, often injected with the fuel, leading to a very messy exhaust. The secret lay in a metal gauze, through which the HTP was passed, and as it did so, decomposed to steam and oxygen at a temperature of around 500 °C. The gauze was made of silver coated nickel, and a catalyst pack was fitted at the top of the combustion chamber. Into these hot gases a fuel could be injected, and at that temperature they burned spontaneously, meaning there was no further ignition needed. This was very convenient, particularly in the rocket aircraft and the Blue Steel missile.

The largest HTP motor produced was the large chamber in the Stentor motor for Blue Steel, seen above, which had a thrust of around 24,000 lb at sea level. Although the small chamber would find use in Black Knight and Black Arrow, the large chamber was not developed further.

It has been argued that, in some respects, HTP was a technology in search of an application, and in some cases this was certainly true. The Sprite and Super Sprite were developed as rocket assisted take-off units for the Comet airliner and the Valiant bomber, but were far too sophisticated for simple RATO units, which were normally made from clusters of small solid fuel motors. The advantage of using several motors in clusters is that it was far less catastrophic if one failed. Having just two motors, one on either side, was much more hazardous, since the failure of one of the two would result in an off-centre thrust sufficient to make


Figure 8. A later Gamma chamber, as used on Blue Steel, the later Black Knights, and Black Arrow. The ring at the top of the motor was where the HTP entered the motor, which was made of thin tubes formed to the shape of the chamber and brazed together. The catalyst pack is shown on the lower right.

the aircraft lose control. Such an elaborate system, whereby the used motors would be jettisoned, parachuted back to the ground, then serviced for re-use, made very little sense.

The Scorpion was produced by Napier, and a twin-chambered version, the Double Scorpion, was fitted to Canberra bombers, enabling one of them to reach a new record altitude of 70,310 ft. They were to have been used for high altitude cloud sampling at the H bomb trials at Christmas Island (Operation Grapple), but


Figure 9. The Stentor motor developed for the Blue Steel stand-off missile.

the second Canberra was grounded during the crash investigations. There was also a proposal to fit it to the English Electric Lightning, but the Lightning’s performance proved to be quite good enough without the rocket. Rocket assisted take-off and rocket interceptors very soon became obsolete; the main contribution of HTP motors was to Black Knight, Black Arrow and Blue Steel – and it is questionable whether HTP was the correct choice for Blue Steel. However, a new use was to be found for HTP motors – in ballistic rockets. The original Gamma 201 motor for Black Knight used four Gamma chambers, a double-walled chamber developed by RPE. This chamber was later replaced by the small chamber from the Stentor motor, which used the tube-walled construction. Equally importantly, the 301 allowed better adjustment of the kerosene/HTP mixture ratio, making the motor more efficient.

The Stentor small chamber was carried over into Black Arrow, where the first stage motor, the Gamma 8, had, not surprisingly, eight chambers, arranged as four pairs. The second stage of Black Arrow was powered by the Gamma 2, which had two chambers, but with an extended expansion cone, as it would be operating in the near vacuum of altitude. This gave it a higher thrust than the first stage chambers.

There is a final footnote to British HTP work. Bristol Siddeley (who became part of Rolls Royce in 1966) were given a contract by the Ministry of Aviation to develop a high performance HTP motor of 7,500 lb thrust, following on from suggestions made by the firm in 1963. The development programme ran from January 1964 to December 19664. The chamber was designed to run at much higher pressures than usual – 1,000 psi – and a total of 118 firings were achieved, totalling 78 minutes. The thrust level of 7,500 lb was chosen deliberately so that the chamber could be used as a direct replacement for the existing Gamma chamber.

Unlike the existing Gamma chambers, the new chamber (named, for some inscrutable reason, Larch) was double-walled. The reason given for this was that ‘HTP tends to decompose on the hot surfaces in the cooling tubes, producing insoluble gases which can occupy an unacceptable proportion of the restricted passage of one or more of the tubes and lead to burnout’.


Figure 10. A Gamma 201 motor for Black Knight being test fired at the Armstrong Siddeley test site, Ansty.

The higher chamber pressures also gave an improved S. I.:

Standard Gamma Larch

Sea level SI 217 226

Vacuum SI 251 269

The new chamber (Figure 11), would also have been slightly lighter.

Replacing the existing Gamma chamber in Black Arrow with the new improved version meant that the vehicle could be stretched. As a consequence, the payload could be increased from 232 lb in polar orbit to 375 lb.

Despite the time and money that had been spent on the development, it was not taken further. When RAE did decide to uprate Black Arrow, it went for the solid fuel strap-on booster option. The Gamma motors of Black Arrow were to be the last HTP motors to be developed, but HTP motors did put Britain’s only satellite into orbit, and it is fitting that a British developed technology was used to do so.


Figure 11. The experimental high pressure ‘Larch’ chamber.


Figure 12. ‘The Larch’ HTP/kerosine test chamber.


The events that finally led to the cancellation of Blue Streak began as a consequence of a meeting at the Prime Minister’s country home, Chequers, in June 1959, referred to in Sandys’ note above. The guest list for that weekend is quite impressive:

Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister;

Sir Norman Brook, Cabinet Secretary;

Sir Roger Makins, Joint Permanent Secretary to the Treasury;

Sir Frederick Hoyer Millar, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office;

Sir Patrick Dean, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC);

Sir Richard Powell, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence;

Marshall of the RAF Sir William Dickson, Chief of the Defence Staff; Admiral Sir John Caspar, Vice Chief of the Naval Staff;

Marshal of the RAF Sir Dermot Boyle, Chief of the Air Staff;

Lt. Gen. Sir William Stratton, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff;

Lord Plowden of the Atomic Energy Authority.

This was indeed an august gathering: their brief from the Prime Minister was to try and look ten years into the future and plan for the changes that they saw coming. In the words of Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary, ‘The purpose of the meeting is to put in hand a study of future policy… This study will be undertaken by officials – the Prime Minister does not wish other Ministers to be troubled with it at this stage.’6. There may well have been a subtext behind that last comment, perhaps along the lines that the Prime Minister wanted a relatively disinterested viewpoint for his future-gazing. The Civil Service and the military could also give a longer term view – they would still be there, implementing policy, long after the politicians had gone.

Their focus, as can be seen from the people present, was foreign policy and defence. A major issue at the time was the size of the Defence budget – indeed, the appointment of Sandys as Minister of Defence, and the resultant 1957 Defence White Paper, was intended as the first step in the rationalisation of defence spending. The intention was to keep defence expenditure at 7% of total Government spending, and indeed the deterrent was invoked as part of this. Nuclear deterrence could mean less money spent on conventional arms. In anticipation, the Air Staff had provided briefing papers on the various deterrent options for the assembly.

The deterrent at that time was being maintained by the V bombers, which would shortly be supplemented by Blue Steel. Soon bombers would be obsolete in the strategic role, and the only possible replacement available was Blue Streak. In the words (almost) of another Prime Minister, There Was No Alternative. Blue Streak might have been highly unpopular in Whitehall, but in the absence of a viable alternative it was either Blue Streak or no deterrent at all.

The RAF were not happy with the tone of the discussion when it came to deterrent policy:

It was obvious in the Working Group’s discussions that our sister services resent the overriding priority afforded the Deterrent (at present in RAF custody) under HMG’s policy, and are covetous of the money and resources assigned to it. They have endeavoured to cloak these base motives by advancing arguments of expediency in the guise of military and political rectitude.7

It has been said that the Services often spend more time fighting each other than fighting the enemy, and this is quite a good example of that maxim. That atmosphere of inter-Service enmity (particularly between the Navy and the RAF) should be borne in mind when watching how events unfolded.

‘Base motives’ or not, at the end of their deliberations the Working Group ‘invited the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence to consider further with the Secretary of the Cabinet the question of a separate inquiry into the means of delivery of the British contribution to the nuclear deterrent’8.

Sir Richard Powell was the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence at that time, and having been given this brief, he wrote to Sandys, then Minister, about setting up an inquiry. As we have seen, Sandys was not at all keen for any inquiry.

Other matters intervened with the General Election of October 1959. During the run-up to an election much of Government is put on hold: Ministers have other pre-occupations, and there is little point in going ahead with projects if a change of government means they will be reviewed. There is always a hiatus in Whitehall as the new ministers come in and are brought up to speed on their department.

General Elections also give Prime Ministers the opportunity to reshuffle their Cabinet, and this one was no exception. Sandys was replaced as Minister of Defence by Harold Watkinson, a career politician who had been a businessman and had no great ideological position as far as defence was concerned – he set out to be a practical man, who would bring a businesslike approach to the department rather than an ideological one. His obituary in ‘The Independent’ newspaper says of him that:

He was, already, a highly successful businessman and, like many before and after him (the late John Davies and today Sir James Goldsmith spring to mind), believed that businessmen could handle government far more efficiently and effectively than could politicians. He found out, however, that politics was an art of its own, and that the methods of man management that he had evolved for himself in business were ineffective when applied to the emotional, and often tortuous, handling of political affairs.9

Sandys himself was moved to a renamed Ministry of Supply – now the Ministry of Aviation – with the brief to ‘rationalise’ the aircraft industry. In many ways this can be seen as a demotion, or certainly a sideways move, given that he had been Minister of Supply in 1952 – so much so he asked Macmillan for assurances that his Cabinet seniority would not be affected.

It could be argued that Sandys had fulfilled his brief as Minister of Defence, and had taken his reforms as far as he could. His personal relations with some of the senior military figures had not always been good, and it was probably time for him to move on. Whether the ongoing Blue Streak saga was also a contributory factor is open to debate.

Sandys having gone, the way was clear to the setting up of the British Nuclear Deterrent (Study Group) or BND(SG) (known affectionately to the Admiralty in a later incarnation as the ‘Benders’, presumably from ‘BNDS’). On the face of it, the composition of the Study Group was impeccable:

Sir Richard Powell, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence;

Sir William Strath, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Aviation;

Sir Frederick Brundrett, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Defence;

Sir Patrick Dean of the Foreign Office and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee;

Mr. B. D. Fraser of the Treasury;

Vice-Admiral Durlacher, Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff;

Lt.-General Sir William Stratton, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Air Marshal Sir Edmund Hudlestone, Vice-Chief of the Air Staff;

Sir William Cook of the Atomic Energy Authority.

This was a high-powered group of men, and any conclusion they arrived at would be buttressed by the authority of their rank. Needless to say, their deliberations would have to be extremely confidential, since any leak could have considerable consequences. Having said that, it is clear that the Ministry of Aviation seemed to be ‘out of the loop’, despite their Chief Scientist being a member of the Study Group. After the report had been issued, the CGWL, Sir Steuart Mitchell, complained that

Adequate opportunities did not occur during the drafting of their report by the Study Group for my Controllerate to brief you properly on the technical issues as they arose, nor to discuss with you the conclusions and recommendations of the report.

I write this to say that now that I have seen the report I am seriously disturbed at the picture it presents in so far as the technical issues are involved, and that I disagree with some of the conclusions.

I am having those technical aspects of the report which lie in my sphere examined (for the first time) in detail and will submit some comments on them to you in a few weeks’ time.

Comments such as these from the CGWL show that the BND(SG) must have been distinctly selective in whom it chose to consult. It also shows how well they were able to keep their discussions under wraps.

Sandys himself seems to have had no prior warning either. The Treasury was delaying the authorisation of funds for further development, and as late as 25 January 1960, he was writing:

Therefore, unless the Defence White Paper contains an announcement that Blue Streak is to be abandoned, which I regard as inconceivable, and which I would, of course, strongly resist, I must ask you to give the ‘all clear’ so that further serious delays can be avoided.10

The wording could, of course, be political disingenuousness, but it does not sound like the words of a man who has read the Study Group’s report – or at least

who has heard about their conclusions. The Chancellor, Derek Heathcote Amory, replied on 4 February:

I do not think it would be reasonable, at a time when the future of the weapon is the subject of a searching review as a major question of defence policy, to accept that the programme should suffer no delay… I am afraid therefore that I still feel unable to authorise the further expenditure referred to.11

He also cited a previous hold up of funds (the Prime Minister’s note of December 1958) as a precedent.

Another part of his letter caused one of the officials in the Ministry of Aviation to note:

The Chancellor is stretching things very far when he says that the possibility of the weapon coming into service late has been one of the considerations necessitating the current review. The Chancellor, having always disliked the Blue Streak policy, might indeed almost be thought to have done his best, by imposing financial restrictions, to ensure that he would be able to say that the weapon would be late and therefore not worth having but in fact it is only the complete hold up of fresh capital expenditure in the last four or five months that has caused us to wonder whether the little elbow room that we had in the R&D programme would no longer prove sufficient.

So who on the Study Group could be seen as opposed to Blue Streak? The position of the Services is interesting. Firstly, the Army would have no strong views on Blue Streak one way or other, except in terms of cost. Blue Streak would take up a relatively large proportion of the defence budget, money that could be used for conventional weapons. The positions of the RAF and Navy are more interesting.

Certainly, sections of the Navy, led by Mountbatten, were campaigning hard against Blue Streak and in favour of Polaris. A memo from Lord Selkirk, First Lord of the Admiralty, illustrates this quite clearly:

My aim last year was not only to make the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence, and other members of the Defence Committee aware of the potentialities of POLARIS, but also to check, so far as this was possible, the BLUE STREAK programme before it gathered momentum. We had some success. The decision at the turn of the year that BLUE STREAK should be allowed to proceed in 1959/60 was certainly accompanied by a growing realisation in the Defence Committee of its disadvantages and mounting costs.

Since then, however, BLUE STREAK has become more firmly established and it looks, at the moment as if the 1960/61 Estimates discussions this Autumn may strengthen it further. If this should be so, its formidable cost, as shown in the draft paper you attached, will become a most serious threat to our hopes of increasing the size of our conventional naval forces, even it the total defence vote were to be fairly substantially enlarged.

We must carefully consider our tactics for dealing with this. Whatever help we may get from the new CDS [Chief of Defence Staff, Mountbatten], I believe that we must be prepared to make the running ourselves.

As I see it, the Government is unlikely to go so far as to stop BLUE STREAK unless there is something which can be put in its place as the future British controlled contribution to the deterrent. From what you say, we are unlikely to be in a position this Autumn, even if we were asked to do so, to present for consideration a substitute programme for POLARIS submarines. What then can we do?12

And, of course, there the Navy hit the nail on the head. There was, at the time the Study Group began its deliberations, no single well-developed system that could be put in Blue Streak’s place. No British long-term possibility was even on the horizon, but there were possible American systems.

Polaris was showing great potential, but still had some way to go, and had other drawbacks, such as the need to build a fleet of atomic powered submarines from scratch. But during the few weeks that the Study Group deliberated, considerable progress was being made elsewhere on another missile – WS138A, or, as it would become better known, Skybolt.


Single stage. Launched 12 March 1959 at 20:20. Apogee 334 miles. No re-entry head.

BK03 was the second proving trial, and was successful except for an engine malfunction late in flight resulting in a long period of ‘cold’ thrusting (that is, decomposition of HTP in the absence of kerosene). The fault was subsequently traced to excessive heating of the propulsion bay, in which temperatures were measured during flight.

Control of the vehicle was satisfactory both during ‘hot’ burning and ‘cold’ burning. In this trial, the guidance telescope tracking was made the primary source of information and radar tracking was retained as the stand-by; this proved very successful. Very good tracking information was received until engine flameout, after which radar information was used during ‘cold’ burning.


Two stage. Launched 27 July 1965 at 03:30. Apogee 306.1 miles. Re-entry head: GW 20 coated with PTFE.

Shut down of the first stage occurred about 3% seconds early, and as a result it under-performed by about 700 ft/second. The head appeared to disintegrate on re-entry at a height of about 28,600 ft.


Two stage. Launched 29 September 1965 at 00:05. Apogee 376 miles. Re-entry head: GW 20 made of silica.

Подпись: Figure 102. The layout of the later two stage Black Knight vehicles. There was a misalignment of the radar beam (about 0.8°) tracking the vehicle which sent the vehicle further downrange than expected, but the second stage velocity increment was fortunately at 10° to the vertical, and uprange, which helped compensate for the error.

The head survived re-entry down to 100,000 ft, when flakes of silica were observed flaking off for several seconds before the break up at 45,000 ft. Only the transponder and the stainless steel base plate were recovered.


I have seen the Minister of Aviation’s minute to you of 16th July about military space.

I note that he does not believe that we shall be able to hold back over military space indefinitely. I must make it clear that I should find the utmost difficulty in agreeing to add to our programme what might well become yet another major defence role or commitment. I suggest we cannot start to build a vertical empire if our colleagues insist on our continuing to provide for the defence of a horizontal one. I am sure that, before we go any further, we need a cool appraisal of what our real military space requirements are, if any, and of the various ways in which they might be met, with full figures of probable costs and an analysis of the effect of such costs on the already horrible Costings. I understand that papers on all this are being prepared for the Defence Research Policy Committee and I hope that these, in particular that of the Ministry of Aviation, can be considered very soon.

These are examples of the Zeitgeist, the feeling that space and rocketry are not Britain’s concern, and more than that: that the UK does not have the resources to become involved, and that British projects will inevitably be inferior to American projects.

The apogee of enthusiasm for space in the UK was probably in 1964. This is the year when Black Knight had reached a total of more than 20 successful launches, when there were two successful Blue Streak launches, and when Black Arrow was given its go-ahead, being announced publicly at the Society of British Aircraft Companies (SBAC) dinner just before the 1964 election by the Minister of Aviation, Julian Amery. There was a feeling of optimism that ELDO might lead to a bright new future for Europe and for Woomera. Newspaper and magazine articles portrayed Woomera as a space port for the future. Even earlier in the 1950s, the hit BBC radio serial, Journey into Space, portrayed the launching of Commonwealth rockets to the Moon and to Mars from the Australian outback.

The last of the major aerospace projects were all initiated under Macmillan’s Conservative Government. The Wilson Government in 1965 cancelled the TSR 2 and other major military aircraft projects. Concorde and Europa survived because of their international dimension: the UK was treaty-bound to these projects, the Foreign Office fought for them, the Government did not want to seem anti­European, and, most importantly of all, because the way the treaties were written, not a great deal of money would have been saved by cancellation.

The same was not true of Black Arrow, but by comparison with the likes of Concorde or TSR 2, it was a fairly insignificant affair. Spending was put on hold, to be doled out in three monthly offerings. Needless to say, this budgetary regime, the consequence of any lack of decision one way or the other, had the effect of both delaying the programme and increasing the cost, by preventing any long-term planning or ordering of materials.

Returning to the theme of the Zeitgeist, it is interesting to look at the press view. There had been successes with the launches of Blue Streak in 1964 and 1965, and with the Black Knight launches. But the Black Knight programme had finished by 1964, and the ELDO launches were hardly good news, despite the fact that the Blue Streak stage had always performed as expected. There was always the Black Arrow programme, but this was deliberately (and by Treasury instruction) kept very low key at the outset. The R2 launch in September 1970 was a different matter. The failure drew widespread attention in the press.

The broadsheets kept their reporting quite factual, and there had obviously been some ‘spin’ from the Ministry of Aviation and from Farnborough. Almost all the papers refer to the ‘seventeen seconds that cost success’, obviously a reference to the drop in pressurisation. The tabloids were less forgiving.

Under the heading ‘Broken Arrow,’ the Daily Mail had the following to say:

One Christmas, as a child, we got a train set called Golden Arrow which was gleaming, expensive, bursting with concealed power – and didn’t work.

So we can understand the chagrin of the boffins who get a space set called Black Arrow which was gleaming, expensive and… etc.

The first all-British launch of a satellite to orbit Earth failed to lob into a space an object uncomfortably like a pawnbroker’s ball.

Its purpose, we are solemnly assured, was to tell us things we didn’t know about the upper atmosphere. To this end, the Black Arrow project has been costing us £3 million a year.

As the Americans are some years ahead of us in this sort of exploration, it is likely that we could get all the information we could possibly digest about the upper atmosphere simply by calling Washington at the cost of £1 per minute.

If, however, we insist in going it – albeit late – alone, we would do well to mark the fact that NASA’s budget is around £1,300 million a year. And even they are looking for European money to launch a recoverable, and therefore cheaper, space outfit.

Our dilemma lies somewhere between the facts that even £3 million a year is too much to pay for a damp squib, while it would cost us many times that amount to buy a share of the American Roman candle. Especially as they would want to light the blue touchpaper.

The worst part about the article is the tone of mockery. The Evening Standard, a few months later, under the headline ‘WHAT A JOKE’ was even more brutal:

The French laugh at it. The rest of Europe ignores it.

The Russians couldn’t care less. Most Americans don’t even know it exists.

It is run on a budget that makes a shoestring look like a hawser. It depends on out of date equipment, and its future is in doubt.

What is IT? The Black Arrow project.

Britain’s national space effort – the one intended to gain us admittance to the exclusive – and so far elusive – Space Club.

But Black Arrow is a joke… a joke on the British tax payer.

The article continues in this vein, but there is a more interesting passage at the end:

The first one went haywire and had to be destroyed seconds after launch.

The second performed perfectly, and the third, launched last September, failed to put a satellite into orbit and in so doing failed to gain Britain entry into the ‘Space Club’ …

Yet, ironically, the previous failures can be laid at the door of funds, or the lack of funds.

This shortage of cash has led, in turn, to a shortage of time. For although there is only one firing a year, time is still of the essence.

Particularly when the scientists involved have to use slide-rules rather than computers.

When you have to make do with second best electronic monitoring devices.

And when you have to resort to economies like using garage petrol pumps for measuring your rocket fuel.

For the truth of the matter is that where America uses dollars, France uses francs, and Japan uses yen, Britain falls back on good old ingenuity.

But it is fast becoming apparent that Space projects can’t live on ingenuity alone.

Both articles are, in different ways, making the same point. There is no such thing as a cut price space programme.

So much for the public perception of the British space effort. What was the Government’s attitude? They were, after all, the customer.

With the advent of the Wilson Government in 1964, the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) was set up as a counterbalance to the Treasury. One of its remits early in 1965 was to consider the UK space programme. To say that it was opposed to it in almost any form is no exaggeration. Thus one paper, when discussing the Small Satellite Launcher (Black Arrow) states: ‘There may possibly be a long term interest in TV transmission by satellite, but this is never likely to be economic.’ The first direct broadcast satellite was a Canadian satellite in 1972; nowadays, of course, Sky Television is ubiquitous. One of the problems with the Civil Service of the time, excellent though they may have been in many ways, is that they were not technically educated, nor had they any feeling for entrepreneurship. Even economists are seldom likely to spot the next future technology. This is re-inforced by a later paragraph in the paper:

… the fact remains that none of the applications of satellites at present even remotely in sight is likely to bring any economic return, either in terms of commercial profits to manufacturers, exploitation by HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] as operator, or, through international contracts, across the exchanges.

[This passage in the brief has been underlined and noted in the margin.]

One wonders how much consultation there had been with manufacturers, particularly those in the US. By 1964, two TELSTARs, two RELAYs, (medium orbit satellites) and two SYNCOMs (in geostationary orbit) had operated successfully in space. By the end of 1965, EARLY BIRD had provided 150 telephone ‘half-circuits’ and 80 hours of television service.

The paper then concluded: ‘This proposal [Black Arrow] should be resisted as strongly as possible. Either it should be killed right away or remitted back to lower-level …’

Another official in the same department as part of the same debate commented that competing with the US and USSR in space was ‘a wanton waste of resources’. With regard to ELDO,

… unless Europe is to go on indefinitely squandering more and more resources in a field without significant economic return, some country sometime has got to take the lead in calling a halt, even at the cost of seeming opposed to European co-operation.

Implicit in this statement was the notion that the UK should be that country. Then in 1965 came the first of the many disagreements in ELDO, followed later by the British reluctance to be further involved in the programme. It must have seemed odd to the remaining five members of the organisation to see the founder members, those who had pushed so hard for the organisation, to fall out in this fashion, and to lose enthusiasm for their own project.

A brief prepared for the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, by the DEA on ELDO noted: ‘. the ELDO programme in general and our own proposed satellite launcher and satellite development programme are of low economic priority and cannot be justified on economic grounds.’ And on the ELDO B launcher proposal: ‘. For much less money we could do more work than we do now in a field which is of direct concern to us and where we can make new technological contributions’. But these fields never seem to be specified in any of the documents.

So what proportion of the space budget was taken up by ELDO? A policy paper written in 1966 estimated that Britain would spend £20.65 million on space that year, of which ELDO’s share would be £13.5 million, or more than 65%. Black Arrow, on the other hand, would come to around £1.7 million – or 8%!

Was the space budget exorbitant? Another paper of the period gives these figures for the estimated expenditure on civil Research and Development for 1966-19672:

£ millions


Space programme



Atomic Energy Authority



Research councils*






Ministry of Technology**



Other Government departments



Post Office*



*excluding space ** excluding atomic energy

Take ELDO out of the space programme, and its fraction of research and development expenditure shrinks to around 2%!

All the documents disparage ELDO A (Europa) on the grounds of ‘obsolescence’. This is a half-truth. What, in this context, does obsolete mean? The purpose of a satellite launcher is to launch satellites, and ELDO A would be a very good medium-sized launcher in the 1960s. Technically, the US was moving forward into solid fuel boosters and liquid hydrogen, but essentially, the technology has changed hardly at all in the half century from the advent of Atlas and Blue Streak. Launchers have grown bigger, but the latest designs would be quite comprehensible to the pioneers of the 1930s. The problem was rather different: there was little European demand for a medium-sized satellite launcher. Given in addition its increased cost compared with US launchers, then demand would indeed appear to be minimal (although it would have been as effective or more effective than the Delta rocket used to launch the UK Skynet satellites – had it been available on time).

ELDO B was written off by the same officials as still being smaller than some US launchers (Titan III). They commented: ‘Even the advanced ELDO B launcher cannot be expected to be technically or financially competitive with American launchers’. This again misses the point, which is whether it would have been capable of launching the geosynchronous satellites for which there would be a market, and a market that exists today and is growing ever greater.

It is interesting to read Tony Benn’s (Minister of Technology, 1966-1970) summation of ELDO, published in the New Scientist magazine in February 1971:

… The foundation of ELDO was, in fact, the first offloading by Britain of a high technology budget that its own industrial weakness no longer permitted it to carry. France identified it as a chance to build an alternative space programme to the American one, and de Gaulle dreamed of carrying the French language and culture to French Africa and possibly even to Quebec. Germany saw it as a first foot back into rocketry which helped to compensate for the loss of Werner von Braun, and Italy as a place for her in the big league plus contracts for Fiat. For European ministers of science it offered new ways to win a national reputation that would be popular with a public for whom the technological unity of Europe was slowly beginning to be real, even if only through the televising of the European cup and the Eurovision Song Contest.

And further: ‘ELDO… suffered from the fatal defect of being a hardware system in search of an application which was in any way economic.’

The counter argument was put forward by the Ministry of Aviation that unless the UK or Europe had its own capability, the US would have had a monopoly. Without Ariane, and without the availability of Russian launchers from the early 1990s, that would have been true. It is also probable that despite the wishful thinking of civil servants, the US would have charged a very great deal for launching satellites that would have competed with its own in the lucrative communications market. Indeed, it could have charged almost what it wanted to, or alternatively have retained its monopoly in the communications satellite area.

Lest it should seem that all the preceding quotes have been taken out of context, or that the quotes have been carefully selected to provide a one-sided argument, it is well nigh impossible to find any quotes in favour of pushing forward any space programme outside the Ministry of Aviation and the Foreign Office – and indeed after around 1966 even the Ministry of Aviation, or Technology as it had become, accepted the demise of the British effort. The Foreign Office was not concerned with the technology at all – merely the political implications of withdrawal from present programmes with regard to Europe and Australia.

Be all that as it may, British withdrawal, painful though it was, took place. The British experience with ELDO bit deep: so much so that the UK has never again become involved with any launcher programme. Even the European Space Agency, ESA, was described by one minister in the 1980s, Kenneth Clark, as ‘an exclusive club designed principally to put a Frenchman into space’. Such wilful disparaging of one of the most commercially and scientifically successful space agencies is astonishing. The same minister also refused to fund the innovative British Hotol design, whilst at the same time declaring the engine design classified, and thus preventing development elsewhere.

Could commercial firms have carried on some of these projects? The companies involved in aerospace in 1971 were Hawker Siddeley Dynamics, successor to de Havilland, which itself had been swallowed up in British Aerospace, Rolls Royce and Saunders Roe, who by then were part of Westland (at this period they were working under the name of the British Hovercraft Corporation. Like too many of the Saunders Roe programmes, hovercraft seemed initially to have had a bright future but have turned out to be a dead end).

Saunders Roe, even as part of a larger organisation, were too small to be able to afford the capital investment needed for developing satellite launchers. Rolls Royce and British Aerospace could have worked together on further developments of Blue Streak, but this was only part of the problem.

As well as the rocket, launch sites are needed. Woomera was not suited to satellite launching, and, by this time, was near closure. Kourou, in French Guiana, did, however, have a Blue Streak launch pad. Ariane 1 was not launched until 1979; Ariane 4, which has been the mainstay of ArianeSpace, not until 1988. How prepared the French would have been to make the launch site available is, however, another question. In addition, NASA in its post-Apollo phase, was promoting the Shuttle very forcefully as the answer to satellite launching, with the re-usable nature of the craft. Indeed, it is arguable that part of the success of Ariane was the Challenger disaster of 1987, since by then NASA had almost halted its programme of satellites on conventional launchers.

However, Ariane was a more powerful launcher than all but the most sophisticated Blue Streak derivatives. Ariane 1 was optimised to put 1,750 kg into a Geo Transfer Orbit (GTO). A Blue Streak/Black Arrow combination, even supplemented with strap-on boosters or liquid hydrogen stages, would not have matched that performance. Ariane 4 and Ariane 5 are even more powerful.

But even if the three firms had joined forces to produce a launcher, who would have been their customers? The UK Government has launched some military communications satellites under the Skynet programme, but not on a scale large enough to justify such investment. The European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), ELDO’s sister organisation, and other European countries might have been customers, but the market in 1971 was still very thin.

There is also a further political dimension: the UK aircraft industry was not in good shape in the 1970s; indeed, it was nationalised by the Wilson Government

during that period. It was certainly in no position to undertake large speculative projects of this sort.


Woomera was, of course, the test range, jointly funded by the UK and Australia. It was run by the WRE (Weapons Research Establishment) based at nearby (relatively!) Salisbury, South Australia. The airfield at RAAF Edinburgh was used for the V bombers during Blue Steel trials and for transport generally. The Range was first established in 1947 under the Anglo-Australia Defence Project and the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) was declared for the purposes of ‘testing war materials’. It was sometimes referred to as the ‘Joint Project’. Most of the early work was devoted to surface-to-air missiles, which would result in the Bloodhound, Thunderbird and Sea Slug missiles. A Blue Streak launch site was built at Lake Hart, with the Black Knight launch sites not far away. Later, a Black Knight launch site was adapted for the Black Arrow satellite launcher.

Work began on a Blue Streak launch site set into the side on a canyon, with the intention of building a silo (‘underground launcher’) around it, but with the military cancellation this was abandoned.


Figure 3. Black Knight launch area at Woomera. There were two gantries, one of which was later adapted for the Black Arrow satellite launcher.

High Down

This was the test site for Saunders Roe, where Black Knight and Black Arrow vehicles were taken for static firing before being taken out to Woomera for


Figure 4. The High Down site on the Isle of Wight.

launching. It was situated by the old Needles Battery, on the top of the chalk cliffs overlooking the Needles lighthouse.


Liquid hydrogen is usually regarded as the most effective fuel for rockets. (In this section, it may be assumed that liquid oxygen is the oxidant. Fluorine is better theoretically, but is very hazardous environmentally, if from no other point of view.) This is because it has a very high exhaust velocity, or looking at it another way, a very high S. I. Thus the HTP/kerosene combination used in Black Knight and Black Arrow has an exhaust velocity in vacuum of around 2,500 m/s, whereas a well-designed liquid hydrogen motor can achieve exhaust velocities of around 4,400 m/s.

Using the rocket equation vfinal = vexhaust x ln(mass ratio), a liquid hydrogen stage of the same mass ratio would achieve a final velocity around 75% greater. On the other hand, the structural penalties of using liquid hydrogen means that the mass ratio would be significantly lower than an equivalent HTP stage. There are complications to liquid hydrogen vehicle design.

The first is that it is extremely cold boiling at -253 °C (20 K), and the second is that it has a very low density – 70 kg/m3 as opposed to around 1,300 kg/m3 for HTP.

The very low temperature of the liquid means the tank has to be well insulated, not only on the ground, but also from the heating effect of air friction

Hydrogenduring launch. Although effective insulation is

extremely light, this still adds weight to the vehicle. The low density means a large tank volume (almost 20 times that of HTP!), which again means extra weight.

Despite these drawbacks, liquid hydrogen is being used in an increasing number of vehicles, usually as an upper stage. The Ariane 5 central core uses liquid hydrogen, although it has the two large strap on solid fuel boosters to lift it to altitude. The Ariane 5 ECA (Evolution Cryotechnique type A) core has a burn time of 650 seconds.

RPE began work on hydrogen chambers in the late 1950s. At that time, they had no facilities for storing or producing liquid hydrogen, but instead used gaseous hydrogen pre-cooled by liquid nitrogen. A number of fully working Figure 13. A hydrogen/oxygen test chamber built chambers were built and fired at RPE Westcott. at Westcott (see Figure 14).

The larger chambers were capable of around 4,000 lb thrust: it would have been relatively easy to scale them up to, say, 8,000 lb, which would be well – suited to upper stages for Blue Streak, Black Knight, or Black Arrow. Such stages would have increased payloads very considerably. Whilst developing the chambers would not have been difficult, building a liquid hydrogen stage would have needed a considerable amount of development work and thus cost.

Based on this work, a variety of designs for launchers using Black Knight as the first stage were drawn up5. Some were pressure fed, others used turbopumps. Sketches of the designs can be seen below.

Calculations were carried out for a variety of configurations. Four different first stages were considered and three different second stages. A Cuckoo solid fuel motor was taken as third stage (calculations were also carried out for a two – stage version, without the Cuckoo motor, but only two of the combinations were able to put any payload into orbit at all). Payloads could no doubt be increased somewhat by a purpose-built third stage.


Figure 14. A hydrogen/oxygen chamber being test fired at the RPE, Westcott.



Подпись: VERSION l(o) LAUNCH MASS - 17,2.8 c LB LAU NCH THRU 5T - 2 l,feQ О LB. PAVLOAP (iQON.M.OR&rO- 8SL3 Подпись: VER5ION 2(a) LAUNCH MAS5 - 20,000LB. LAUNCH. THRUST- 2 5,00О LB. PAYLOAD (300N.M Oft&ll)—102.LB.


Figure 15. Various proposals for satellite launchers using Black Knight as the first stage and a liquid hydrogen/oxygen second stage.

Version 1 is the standard Black Knight, with a tank diameter of 3 ft and a sea – level thrust of 21,600 lb. Versions 2, 3 and 4 have a tank diameter of 4 ft 6 inches and sea-level thrusts of 25,000, 40,000 and 50,000 lb respectively. Version 3 would have a six chamber motor, and version 4 an eight chamber motor (effectively the first stage of Black Arrow). The lift-off weight was derived by assuming a thrust : mass ratio of 1.25.

Three variants of the second stage engine and propellant feed systems were examined:

(a) An engine having four chambers w ith turbo-pump feed of the propellants.

(b) An engine having four chambers with pressurised tank feed.

(c) A single chambered engine with pressurised tank feed.

The estimated payloads for each variant was calculated as being:


Launch mass





17,280 lb

88 lb

18 lb

56 lb


20,000 lb

102 lb

56 lb

76 lb


32,000 lb

324 lb

169 lb

248 lb


40,000 lb

377 lb

187 lb

289 lb

Versions 1 and 2 are really non-starters. Versions 3 and 4 are, on the face of it, fairly promising. However, the first stage of version 4 is in effect Black Arrow. Developing Black Arrow, where the intention was to keep the cost down by using as much Black Knight technology as possible, stretched the budget. Developing a liquid hydrogen stage, which would have been technically challenging, would have been much more expensive, and, as can be seen, payloads were not very significant. Some improvement could have been achieved with solid fuel strap-on Raven boosters, but not enough to make the design worthwhile.

Another major proposal was for a liquid hydrogen third stage for the Blue Streak satellite launcher and the Anglo-French launcher proposal. Although the Saunders Roe brochure for Black Prince is sometimes taken as the ‘definitive’ version of the Blue Streak launcher, there was, in reality, no such thing. Black Prince shows an HTP third stage, but the RAE realised that a liquid hydrogen stage could increase the payload considerably, and in this period, it was looking at 6- or 12-hour orbits for communications satellites. It is interesting to see the emphasis that this stage is given in the initial brochure for the Anglo-French launcher.

Two quite comprehensive studies were carried out: one by the RPE and one by Saunders Roe. Both go into considerable detail, including detailed analysis of the thermal cladding that would be needed for the liquid hydrogen tank.

The RPE produced the report for its design in April 1961.6 One of the more unusual features of the report is that it seems to be the only one written in this period (other than some ELDO reports) which uses entirely metric units. This leads to some slightly awkward conversions. For example, the diameter of the fuel tanks is 1.37 m… or 54 inches! This was obviously designed as a third stage for a Blue Streak/Black Knight combination. Indeed, the RAE had calculated the optimum mass for a liquid hydrogen third stage for the Blue Streak launcher to
be 2,270 kg, and the stage was designed around this weight, although later calculations showed the optimum mass as 3,630 kg.

There would be four motors in the stage, each of which was intended to produce a thrust of 9 kN (2,000 lb) with a chamber pressure of 50 N/cm2 (5 bar or 75 psi). One design being considered was what might be described as self- pressurising: a pressure-fed system, with the gases being used to pressurise the tanks coming from the fuel itself via a heat exchanger. The tank pressures could be relatively low given the low chamber pressure – 80 N/cm2 (8 bar or 90 psi)

Подпись: Figure 16. The RPE design for a liquid hydrogen/oxygen third stage to be used as part of a Blue Streak launcher. was the value being considered. This is quite an elegant solution, dispensing with the weight and complexity of a turbopump, yet avoiding the weight penalties of thicker tank walls and heavy gas bottles. The only drawback is that with the relatively low thrust, the burn time will be quite prolonged, which means carrying the unburned fuel up the Earth’s gravitational potential well as the vehicle gains in height.

The specification for the BSSLV third stage investigated by Saunders Roe required a motor which had:

(a) A thrust of between 3000lb and 4000lb (in vacuo) lasting for about 15 to 20 minutes.

(b) A thrust of between 40lb and 60lb (in vacuo) lasting for about 2Vi to 3Vi hours.

Communication satellites need to be in as high an orbit as possible, and the new vehicle could have put an appreciable payload in an orbit around 8,000 miles high. The usual method of doing this is the apogee motor, as discussed before. Bristol Siddeley came up with a design for a motor which used a motor with two large chambers and two small chambers. The large chambers would take the vehicle up to orbital height, but the small chambers would then be used to raise the orbit, with a

burn time of two or three hours.

Подпись: Figure 17. The BS 600 proposal with two large pump fed chambers and two small pressure fed chambers. To power such low thrust chambers with a pump was impractical. Pressurising the tanks usually meant carrying large and heavy gas bottles. Instead, the proposal was to use a heat exchanger to produce ‘hot’ (relative in this context) hydrogen gas. The gas could then be used to pressurise the tanks (a further heat exchanger would be needed for the liquid oxygen tank).

Rocket chambers are usually at quite high pressures – perhaps 40 times atmospheric pressure. At sea level, the escaping gases are opposed by atmospheric pressure, and higher chamber pressures make the motor more efficient. In the vacuum of space this does not apply. Chambers can be run at quite low pressures, and it was suggested in this case that a chamber pressure of only one atmosphere might well be feasible. This avoids the complication of pumps and the weight of gas bottles.

On the other hand, pumps are needed for the earlier boost phase, and unless they are discarded (which they were not), the vehicle is carrying unnecessary weight during the long cruise phase.


Bristol Siddeley had not done any work on liquid hydrogen motors up to now, and this proposal was marked in the Ministry of Supply file with a hand written comment:

Downey thinks we would be nuts to bring yet another firm into the space business.7

Downey was one of the senior officials in the Ministry of Aviation – the criticism is slightly unfair since Bristol Siddeley were already producing the Gamma motors for Black Knight.

Saunders Roe were given the task of designing the tank structure, and produced a substantial brochure8. In conjunction with RAE and Bristol Siddeley Engines, the parameters for the design were set:

7.0 Подпись: All Up Weight: Propellants: S.I.: lb approximately

5.0 lb approximately 400 lb. sec/lb

Two thrust phases:

(1) Boost: 3,500 lb for 8 minutes

(2) Cruise: 44 lb for 2 hours

It was estimated that such a design could put 900 lb in a 5,000 mile circular orbit or 600 lb into a 9,000 mile orbit.

Подпись: Figure 18. Saunders Roe’s proposal for a liquid hydrogen/oxygen stage.

In many ways this is an interesting idea, but on closer inspection has as many drawbacks as advantages. During the cruise phase, the large chambers and their plumbing are still attached to the vehicle, but as dead weight. Jettisoning them would make the proposal much more efficient but would not be easy. Secondly, a ‘slow burn’ is less efficient from a different point of view: as the vehicle climbs the gravity well as it moves further from the Earth, then it is taking unused fuel with it. From a gravitational potential energy point of view, it is better to expend the fuel in one big burst at the start of the orbit transfer – this does the opposite!

In the end, of course, all of this became moot. The third stage of Europa was to be developed by Germany, and the design chosen was very different. As a consequence of the ELDO B proposals put forward by the French in 1964, contracts were awarded for research into liquid hydrogen motors. Rolls Royce was one of the firms involved, and building on the work done at the RPE, began the design and testing of a motor called the RZ 20. The contract was shared with the French firm of SEPR (Societe d’Etudes pour la Propulsion par Reaction). Rolls Royce was to produce the thrust chamber part of the motor, with SEPR providing the turbopump assembly.

Val Cleaver, Chief Engineer of the Rocket department at Rolls Royce, wrote to the Ministry of Technology asking whether he could build the test stand at Spadeadam, which was a Ministry establishment, but being run as an agency by Rolls Royce.

JEP Dunning, Director of the RPE, protested that the test site should be built at Westcott, which already had extensive facilities for testing and firing liquid hydrogen chambers, although none of them had been as powerful as the proposed Rolls Royce chamber, seen below being test fired at Spadeadam (Figure 19). Cleaver pointed out that Rolls Royce were building the facility as a private venture. As he put it in a letter to the Ministry of Technology:

It was not possible for ELDO to commit any money for the necessary test facilities for these chambers. Therefore (and not without some difficulty, as you can probably imagine) I persuaded our Main Board to sanction the cost of a modest test cell for the purpose, as a P. V. Extension to the Components Test Area at Spadeadam.9

He went on to say:

We are most anxious to have the test facility at Spadeadam, for two very definite reasons:-

(a) Because if any larger operational programmes for hydrogen rocketry ever arise in the UK, it will be inevitable that their testing should be done at Spadeadam. It is highly desirable, therefore, to begin as we mean to go on, and start gaining early experience there as soon as possible.

(b) Because the team at Spadeadam desperately need some injection of new work, to raise morale and inspire some confidence in the future of the establishment (I am sure I do not need to emphasise to you the problems of this sort we have had since 1959, with the 1960 military cancellation and all ELDO’s subsequent ups and downs.)


Figure 19. Rolls Royce RZ 20 hydrogen motor being test fired at Spadeadam.

Given that it was a private venture, the costs were substantial: £54,000 for the construction costs, £15,000 for two liquid hydrogen road trailers, and £5,000 for the chamber itself, making a total of £74,000 (a contingency figure of approximately 10% was added to the estimate to bring it up to £81,000).

In the end, two firings, each of ten seconds duration, were achieved before the programme ran out of money. The total cost of the programme was £250,000.

Origins of Skybolt

In the words of the Air Ministry:

Following the Interdependence meeting between the Heads of Government of the UK, the USA and Canada in September 1957, a Tripartite Technical Committee met in Washington in December 1957 and established a number of sub-committees to cover specified areas, one of which was strategic air to surface weapon systems. [This] subcommittee decided that an examination of the field should be undertaken by a joint RAF/USAF Task Group which met in Washington in April and November 1958.

The Task Group then issued a requirement for a missile which was circulated to industry, and a meeting was held to evaluate these proposals. To the astonishment of the British representatives present, proposals were produced from more than a hundred American companies. The meeting narrowed this down to 15 firms, who then gave brief presentations. From these, the Douglas design was then chosen.

The USAF did not want to be left out of the scramble among the US armed services for nuclear weapons systems. A system such as the new proposed missile would significantly enhance the capabilities of Strategic Air Command (SAC), although it was not envisaged so much as a strategic weapon, a ‘city buster’, but rather more as a tactical device. SAC’s long range bombers would take several hours to reach the heart of the USSR and would have to overfly a

Origins of Skybolt

Figure 52. A Vulcan bomber carrying two Skybolt missiles.

good deal of hostile territory. The new missile was intended to be fired as the aircraft approached Russian borders, and the relatively low yield warhead was designed to suppress Russian air defences so that the aircraft would be able to deliver their multimegaton bomb load to Russian cities. Thus it was not a major weapon in the US arsenal, which already had Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ICBMs, as well as Polaris and the bombers of SAC. Instead, it was seen by SAC as a way of enhancing its credibility, and not being elbowed out by these other systems.

The initial requirement issued in January had been for a joint USAF/RAF missile with a range of 1,000 nautical miles, a weight of 10,000 lb and a c. e.p. of

3,0 ft. The warhead would have a weight of 600 lb and a yield of 0.4 Mt or 400 kT. A report on the progress of WS-138A, dated July 1959, was prepared by Group Captain Bonser of the Air Staff after a visit to the USA. WS-138A fitted British requirements perfectly. The range was such that strikes against almost any part of the Soviet Union could be launched without having to overfly hostile territory. Each Vulcan would be able to carry two missiles comfortably. Given that the US was to pay almost all the development costs, it would be an extremely cheap deal, and it offered the possibility of extending the useful life of the V bombers by several years.

Douglas estimated the overall cost of the programme to the RAF at between £42 million to £48.5 million, exclusive of development costs of some £2.5 million. The RAE considered that the predicted c. e.p. of 5,350 ft compared favourably with the Thor missile. WS-138A looked to be a bargain. In June 1959 representatives of the V bomber firms, Avro and Handley Page, as well as officials from the Ministry of Supply, visited Douglas to give them further details of the V bomber designs.

Skybolt was very different to Blue Steel or any of the other missiles carried by bombers since it was not intended to fly in the atmosphere, but was a fully ballistic missile. It had two stages, and was carried underneath the wings of the aircraft. Navigation was mainly inertial, but would include a star seeker sensor to improve accuracy (this is why it could not be carried in the bomb bay: the sensor needed a clear view of the sky). It was planned that the Vulcan would carry two missiles, one under each wing. There would be difficulties fitting the missile to the Victor (ground clearance was the issue), but the problem was not insuperable.

Thus by the time the BND(SG)13 had begun its deliberations, Skybolt was well under way. Its development costs would be paid for by the United States. It would extend the useful life of the V bombers for years to come – perhaps to 1970 or beyond. It needed little or no new infrastructure. There was just one snag – how to cancel Blue Streak in favour of Skybolt and make it look convincing.

Early drafts of the Powell report are fairly neutral in tone. As the weeks go by the tone sharpens, and the final report devotes ten or more paragraphs discussing the vulnerability of Blue Streak, with the scenarios becoming increasing convoluted. Thus:

If we assume that the Soviet attack would be made of ballistic missiles of an accuracy equal to that which we expect to achieve ourselves (0.55 NM) and that a warhead of at least 3 MT would be available, 95 per cent of the underground BLUE STREAK sites could be destroyed by between 300-400 Soviet missiles. Even allowing for the requirements of air-defence weapons for the protection of the Soviet homeland, and for the need simultaneously to pose a serious threat to the United States, we have no doubt that the Soviet stockpile by 1967 would be sufficient to provide these warheads for attack on the United Kingdom.

The crucial paragraphs read:

As ballistic missiles cannot be recalled once they had been fired, the political decision to retaliate must also have been taken before this means of evading a pre­emptive attack can be adopted. For this tactic to succeed, authority would need be delegated to order nuclear retaliation on radar warning alone. We do not believe that any democratic government would be prepared to delegated authority in an issue of such appalling magnitude.

This analysis shows that unless the political decision were delegated, the Soviet Union could carry out a successful pre-emptive attack on the BLUE STREAK sites, whether these were underground or on the surface; and that even if the political decision were delegated, the Soviet Union could still make a successful pre-emptive attack on the United Kingdom alone.

What of the vulnerability of the V bombers? The report has one paragraph:

Four minutes are presently required to enable the V bombers, when operating from the planned dispersal airfields, to take-off and fly clear of a nuclear attack on their bases. Given 24 hours warning the V bomber force will be able to react in time to evade a pre-emptive attack made with missiles launched on a normal trajectory. If, however, the Soviets were to fire missiles on low trajectories from East Germany, the effective time for evasive action might be as short as three minutes. The Air Ministry believe that with improved techniques it should be possible to reduce the V bombers reaction time. But, in any event, the arrival of the Soviet missiles would inevitably be spread to some extent and some of the bombers would probably be able to escape. Furthermore, for short periods during a time of tension, it will be possible to reduce this risk by maintaining a proportion of the force on standing patrol. In either event, however, the capability of the V bomber force would be greatly reduced.

Whereas Blue Streak, in its hardened silo, would apparently not survive, ‘some of the bombers would probably be able to escape’. To use a modern metaphor, this analysis does not seem to be using a level playing field. Furthermore, whilst some might be maintained on a quick reaction (four minute) alert, it will not be that many. Aircraft have to be serviced, crews have to rest. The three or four minutes mentioned is also the time from detection of the warning to the arrival of the missiles. The time between receipt of the warning from the radars and the order to scramble has not been factored in – and Bomber Command will not be keen to scramble unnecessarily. If the aircraft are scrambled, and the warning turns out to be false, the aircraft have to be turned back, landed and refuelled – taking them out of the picture until all this is done.

This analysis suited the Air Staff very well. It was, after all, the RAF who would operate Blue Streak once deployed, but the option of Skybolt now opened up a new range of possibilities. Rather than operating from a hole in the ground, the RAF would revert to its traditional role of flying aircraft. The V bombers would be given a whole new lease of life. As far as they were concerned, Skybolt was far preferable to Blue Streak.

In this context, the letter which Watkinson wrote to Sandys contains an interesting comment:

The Chiefs of Staff have been considering their attitude to Blue Streak and have now given me their unanimous advice that they find Blue Streak, as a fire first weapon, unacceptable. I am afraid Dermot sold the pass here to begin with.14

Dermot refers to Dermot Boyle, Chief of the Air Staff, and it is clear from Watkinson’s comment that Boyle was not at all reluctant to see Blue Streak go.

The Foreign Office representative (and more importantly, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee), Sir Patrick Dean, did send a note dissenting from the Study Group’s conclusions, but the Foreign Office had no great stake in the outcome – their main interest lay in the preservation of a British deterrent, which the report provided.

And not surprisingly, it was the Treasury representative that was the most vociferous in his opposition. One of the key phrases in a memo he wrote to the rest of the Study Group is: ‘… surely we would not decide to equip our troops with spear proof shields if we know that by the time we have made their shields the enemy is going to have fire arms’ – in other words, the Blue Streak silo may be adequate now, but it won’t be by the time the missile is deployed. Elsewhere in the same memo he says, ‘I think we ought to “show our working” somewhere’, which is presumably a reference to the 300-400 missiles.

As an advisor to the air staff put it:

Mr Fraser’s letter is clearly directed to killing at Blue Streak in two stages – first comes the politically more acceptable proposition that we should abandon underground deployment for Blue Streak. When this is accepted, the need to have the weapon at all can be questioned.

And so we must then try and see why the report comes to the conclusion that it does.

The oddest feature is that prior to the report, there are many estimates made by the Air Staff and the Ministry of Supply as to the survival rate of Blue Streak in a silo. To give one example, one Air Ministry memo gives the survival rate of Blue Streak when attacked by a one megaton warhead missile thus:

c. e.p. 0.5 nm

1 nm

2 nm

3 nm

4 nm

Above ground 0%





Below ground 50%





Quite how these figures were arrived at is not clear. Above ground survival rates are easy enough to estimate, but the underground figures depend on the survivability of the silo, and it is never made clear what assumptions are being made in all these various estimates. The other major factor is the c. e.p. of the missile – obviously the more accurate, the higher the ‘kill rate’. The Powell report assumes a c. e.p. of 0.55 miles, although with no apparent justification. Interestingly, the chairman of the JIC is a member of the committee: the estimate of the accuracy of Russian missiles obviously does not come from him, and, more interestingly, he writes a note subsequent to the publication of the report to say he does not agree with its conclusions.

It is clear from all these memos and estimates that the supporters of Blue Streak thought that they had an unassailable case; that underground-based Blue Streak would survive a Russian attack relatively unscathed. The first time this assumption was queried was in a rather obscure paper written for the equally obscure Air Ministry Strategic Scientific Policy Committee in October 1959. The paper is unsigned, but bears all the hallmarks of Solly Zuckerman, Chairman of the Committee, later to become Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence. The important section is hidden away in paragraph 17:

The vulnerability of static bases to ballistic missiles depends upon the accuracy and power of the attacking weapons. The operational reliability of any missile system also affects the number of missiles required to knock out any target given a specified accuracy. Intelligence estimates of present Russian missile accuracy and known results of USA test firings indicate that there is no technical or scientific obstacle to the achievement of an accuracy of some 2500 ft [0.42 nautical miles] for comparatively reliable 500/1500 mile range missile systems. In the case of the USSR we should expect this level of accuracy to be achieved at the latest by 1970, and possibly sooner.

He then goes on:

Given that the enemy knows through his intelligence services where our fixed installations are, and making the prudent assumptions that he can launch a surprise attack of sufficient speed and accuracy, it must be concluded that by about 1970 at latest, and possibly before, the USSR could neutralise all fixed UK static bases, whether they be airfields or above ground or below ground missile sites.15

This is true in a very limited sense. The underground sites could be destroyed if the scale of the attack is great enough. The question then comes whether the Russians could or would launch an attack on this scale. The Powell report maintained that 300-400 3MT missiles with a c. e.p. of 0.55 miles could destroy the launchers. The more important questions were whether the Russians were capable of launching such an attack, and whether they would actually do so.

Professor William Hawthorne was also a member of the same committee, but he was already a silo sceptic, as a note to CGWL, Sir Steuart Mitchell, in 1956 indicates: ‘I can imagine a few “impregnable” subterranean fortresses being built at enormous expense, but not many, since politicians may find them hard to justify.’16

The picture is further complicated by the close relationship between Zuckerman and Mountbatten. In 1959 Mountbatten became Chief of the Defence Staff, and Zuckerman was a highly influential Government scientific adviser.

Zuckerman was adept at finding his way around the ‘corridors of power’ being offered the post of Minister of Disarmament in the first Wilson administration (he refused). He was certainly heavily involved in many of the negotiations about Polaris and Skybolt with the US Government, and had very decided views on military matters and the deterrent. As well as being an active proponent of Polaris as against Blue Streak, he is supposed to have wielded considerable influence, in conjunction with Mountbatten, in the decision to cancel the TSR2 aircraft. It is interesting therefore that the first suggestion of vulnerability comes from someone associated with Mountbatten.

All these arguments would soon become academic (although objections to the report would rumble on for two or three months), since the Chiefs of Staff used the conclusions of the report as a pretext for a letter to Watkinson, the new Defence Minister:

You stated in a minute dated 5th January, 1960, that you wished to obtain a decision of the future of BLUE STREAK at the first Defence committee meeting after the return of the Prime Minister, and you asked the views of the Chiefs of Staff on the matter.

We attach no military value to BLUE STREAK, and we recommend the cancellation of its further military development for this purpose, together with the planned deployment.17

The reasoning was that if Blue Streak was vulnerable to a Soviet attack, then it would have to be regarded as a ‘fire-first’ weapon. Politically, this was completely unacceptable. Earlier in the same paper, they had said,

We need a new strategic nuclear weapon system… in about 1966, but since we regard BLUE STREAK as a ‘fire-first’ only weapon we do not consider it meets this need. We therefore recommend the cancellation its further development as a military weapon. We also recommend the cancellation of the planned deployment.

The ‘fire-first’ argument comes directly from the BND(SG) report18, which contained the fatal lines:

. authority would need be delegated to order nuclear retaliation on radar warning alone. We do not believe that any democratic government would be prepared to delegated authority in an issue of such appalling magnitude.

It can be argued that the conclusions of the Powell report were, at best, disingenuous, at worst, downright dishonest. Some immediate objections were ruled out by pointing to the terms of reference (‘Our main object has been to examine the technical and operational factors’) which said that the study should not take political factors into account. This neatly avoided one very obvious objection.

In the scenario postulated, the Soviet Union would launch a surprise attack on the UK using 300 to 400 missiles, each armed with 3 megaton warheads and having an accuracy of 0.55 miles c. e.p. This attack would be sufficient to destroy the Blue Streak silos with the missiles inside, and thus the UK would not be able to launch a counter-attack – in other words, we would not be able to deter the Soviet Union from launching such an attack. The Soviet Union could thus attack the UK unscathed.

But could anyone on the study group have justified a scenario whereby the Soviet Union launched an attack of 1,200 megatons, or 1.2 gigatons(!), on the UK whilst America stood by and watched? That America would allow its troops and servicemen stationed in the UK to be annihilated? That the launch of 400 Soviet missiles, even if it later became clear that they were not aimed at America, could occur without the American authorities launching at least some missiles in retaliation? It could also be argued (as some in the Ministry of Aviation later tried) that such an attack would also be a self-inflicted wound for the Soviet Union – the fallout generated from such an attack (made all the worse by the explosions being ground bursts), coupled with the prevailing westerly winds, would render Europe and most of European Russia completely uninhabitable.

There is also a further assumption, which is that all 400 missiles are serviceable, ready to fire, and are launched (and arrive!) successfully. If 400 warheads are needed to take out Blue Streak, how many missiles would Russia have to fire in order to achieve this? What sort of ‘safety factor’ would be needed to ensure that 400 arrived on target?

It was all very well to say that such considerations were not within the terms of reference if the scenario postulated is clearly absurd, and it is certainly arguable that a scenario whereby the Soviet Union launches more than 400 missiles at the UK without American retaliation (and thus a global war) is absurd. There is the further point that 400 missiles would represent a very considerable portion of the Soviet arsenal. Would they be prepared to devote such a proportion merely to take out the deterrent of what was, in Cold War terms, such a minor opponent? Indeed, taking the serviceability point, nearer 600 missiles would be needed. Sir Patrick Dean, as Chairman of JIC should have been able to give an estimate of the number of Soviet missiles based in Europe, and the answer would probably have been nowhere near the number assumed in the report.

It would also be extremely difficult to invent any plausible political situation whereby the Soviet Union would launch such an attack on the UK in absence of an attack on itself. Britain would never launch first, since they knew all too well how vulnerable the UK would be to any nuclear attack, let alone one on this scale, and the Russians would know that too. A British attack would be, in the jargon, a ‘second strike’, which was the point of the silos being able to survive the initial strike. But what political situation could see the Soviet Union launching 400 missiles at the UK and the UK alone? Such a scenario would also have to assume that the attack would be launched in the sure and certain knowledge that America would not become involved.

Moreover, the report stated that:

The current Joint Intelligence Committee assessment is that we should get strategic warning of at least 24 hours before any heavy Soviet attack on this country. There is therefore no need to maintain our deterrent forces constantly at maximum readiness in order to guard against a “bolt from the blue” attack. But even if there is a period of rising international tension before the outbreak of hostilities, there is still a possibility that the enemy will attempt to achieve tactical surprise in the timing of his attack. The longer the period of such tension the greater the scope for tactical surprise, because deterrent forces cannot be maintained indefinitely at maximum readiness.19

So there is no surprise attack, no ‘bolt from the blue’, but, on the other hand, the Russians were supposed to be capable of co-ordinating the launch of several hundred missiles all within half an hour of each other without anyone noticing.

But what of the ‘technical’ factors? These too can be challenged, and indeed they were. 1.2 gigatons of nuclear explosion almost certainly would have taken out the Blue Streak silos, but there were a considerable number of caveats to this scenario too.

Firstly, we will assume the attack happens during what was called, rather euphemistically, a ‘period of tension’. During such a time, it is probable that some of the missiles would be fuelled and ready to launch. Because of the restrictions involving liquid oxygen, this would not be very many. The probability would be that the missiles would be rotated: after so many hours, the missiles that were fuelled up would be stood down and other missiles made ready in their place. Even those missiles armed, fuelled with kerosene, but not liquid oxygen, could be launched within about 15 minutes at the very most.

In order to ensure that all the Blue Streak silos were destroyed before any missiles could be launched, the attack would have to be very carefully co­ordinated, such that all the attacking missiles arrived within a very short space of time, of the order of 15 minutes. There are problems to this.

The first is that the attacking missiles will be launched from a variety of launch sites, and will have a different time of flight. Thus their launch times would have to be very carefully co-ordinated. There is also the problem that around six or so missiles would be allocated to each silo. This brings the problem of ‘fratricide’, when another warhead in the vicinity of a 3 megaton blast might well be destroyed. Further, once the first explosion has taken place, there will be a very considerable disturbance of the atmosphere, to put it mildly! An incoming warhead that meets the shockwave from such a blast would be thrown off course, so to speak. The chance of it still arriving at its aiming point is remote. Yet if the attack is staggered to allow for this, then it does give windows of opportunity, small though they may be, for a Blue Streak launch to occur. The whole point of making such an attack is to ensure that no retaliation is possible.

But let us assume that the scenario is technically possible, that such an attack is possible, and that it would take out all the silos. What of the alternative possibility: the V bombers armed with Skybolt?

There was no intention, at this stage, that the RAF would mount standing patrols in the same way that SAC did. The best Bomber Command would have to offer would be aircraft on Quick Response Alert (QRA). These aircraft could be scrambled very quickly when the order was given. Unless the crew was strapped in, with the engines running (which was a possibility, although such a state could not be maintained for long), it would take some minutes before the crew could get into the aircraft, start the engines, taxi to the runway, take off and get clear of the airfield.

There were half a dozen V bomber bases, all in eastern England. During ‘periods of tension’, the aircraft could be dispersed to alternative airfields – up to 24 were planned. The facilities at some of these dispersal airfields were not entirely adequate, and such a dispersal could not be maintained for any period of time due to the lack of maintenance facilities. Even so, with 300-400 missiles at their disposal, the Soviet Union could launch a dozen or so at each airfield, and, QRA or not, the chances of an aircraft surviving such an attack, even in the air, is remote.

Sixty Blue Streak silos or sixty bombers on airfields? Which would stand the greater chance of survival? In the face of an attack on such a scale, the probable answer is that neither would survive, and in the event of an attack on a lesser scale, I would put my money on the silos.

There is also a rather more subtle psychological point in favour of aircraft rather than missiles, which usually gets oblique mentions in such discussions, but which did appear to loom large in minds of officials and politicians. The launch of a missile is irrevocable. Once the button has been pressed, there is no way of recalling the missile or even of destroying it in flight. Aircraft, on the other hand, give something of what might called a ‘time cushion’ – they can be sent on their way, but it will still be a matter of some hours before the pilot finally presses his button to launch his missile. This reduces the chance of ‘launch by mistake’ – in other words, it might appear that the UK has been attacked, and so it is imperative to react. Suppose the button is pressed – and the report of the attack turns out to be false. If you have pressed the button in a missile silo, you have started a nuclear war. If you have scrambled aircraft, they can be recalled. This would explain a good deal of the Whitehall dislike of Blue Streak. When Polaris took over from the bombers, there was still that time cushion. There was not the same sense of urgency to get in your response before your deterrent was destroyed.

But to return to the Powell report: once circulated, it drew one of two responses, depending which side a person was on, and by this time, there were few who were neutral. If someone was against Blue Streak, then the report was read and used as conclusive evidence that Blue Streak should be cancelled. So many eminent people can hardly be wrong. Someone in favour of Blue Streak faced an uphill task in trying to defend the missile. Even though the conclusions might be absurd, the reputation of the project had been tarnished – perhaps irrevocably so. (Another way of telling which side someone was on was whether they referred to ‘fixed sites’ (against) as opposed to ‘underground launchers’ (in favour)!)

Sir Steuart Mitchell’s response is typical of many of the incredulous memos which came from the Ministry of Aviation:

The vulnerability of underground Blue Streak is, in my view, grossly overstated in the report. As a result, Blue Streak is presented to Ministers as exclusively a fire first weapon, with all the serious disadvantages thereof. This, in my view, is based on misunderstanding of the technical facts.

The report, in my view, accepts much too light heartedly the technical concepts of the WS.138A weapon system. History is strewn with weapon system concepts in which USAF expressed total confidence and which they pursued with great ardour for a year or two and then totally dropped. WS.138A today is where Hustler was four years ago except that the confidence and enthusiasm in WS.138A today is less than in Hustler four years ago. Hustler today is dead. To any technician familiar with the problems of a ballistic missile fired off a fixed site, the thought of putting our deterrent shirt on an American plan to fire such things off an aeroplane and having them in Service operations in the UK by 1966 or soon after as stated in the report is alarming. In my view the plan proposed in the report is dangerously unsound.20

‘Seriously unsound’, ‘grossly overstated’, ‘alarming’, ‘dangerously unsound’ – these are strong words indeed in this context, not phrases in common use in Whitehall. These are from the Government’s chief expert on guided weapons! And he goes on in a further memo to say:

To provide… 375 sites and missiles, together with roads, services, centralised communications; to give training and firing drill to crews; and to bring the whole edifice to such a pitch that they can fire the whole lot within a few seconds of the correct moment is, by any yardstick, a gigantic undertaking. It amounts in fact to an effort about six times bigger than the Blue Streak effort which it is trying to pre­empt. This aspect is dismissed in the report as simply being ‘within the Russian capability’ …

All these factors, in our view, added to such a gigantic total that while by itself it may be technically feasible yet it is not a practical probability. We think that the very size of this pre-emptive effort is so big as to constitute a deterrent in its own right – providing Blue Streak is deployed underground.

All this is virtually ignored in the report. .

If our politicians are at all competent, it is difficult to conceive of a war with Russia involving the UK but not also involving the USA.

If however such a situation came about, e. g. Middle East oil, it is most unlikely that Russia would pre-empt our Blue Streaks. She would surely fight such a war with conventional weapons (and win it easily this way), knowing that we know that if we “fired first” with Blue Streaks resultant Russian retaliation would destroy the UK.

Pre-empting Blue Streak in such a war is probably the last thing the Russians would do because if he did it would leave himself open to a ‘fire first’ blow of shattering size from the US.21

And then with regard to the arguments about the relative vulnerability of the V bombers and Blue Streak, Sir Steuart wrote yet another memo:

Blue Streak is condemned because of alleged inability to withstand 300 3MT rockets directed against 60 sites. It is therefore fair to consider what 300 3MT bursts could do to our V bomber force.

The Air Ministry claim that they can get “4 bombers airborne from an airfield in 4 minutes”, – presumably four minutes from the local order to scramble.

The distance travelled by a typical V bomber from the point of take-off (i. e. from point where airborne) is

After 1 minute airborne flight. 6 n. miles.

After 2 minute airborne flight. 13 n. miles.

After 3 minute airborne flight. 20 n. miles.

The disabling radius of a 3 MT airburst against a V bomber is approximately as follows:

V bomber on ground… 14-15 miles (not tethered since it is about to take off)

V bomber airborne between zero height and 12,000 ft… 12 miles

One 3 MT burst over the airfield… would therefore disable not only all aircraft still on the airfield but also all airborne bombers within 12 miles of the burst.

Further, it would be reasonable to suppose that the Russians, in addition to the airburst directly over the airfield would at the same time lay on two additional airbursts along the direction of the bomber flight path.

It will be seen that the combination of one airburst over the airfield and two airbursts about 14 miles away and about 30° to the axis of the runway would disable not only all aircraft still on the runway but also all aircraft that had become airborne during the preceding 3 minutes. If these rocket bursts occurred at any time within the period up to 6 (not just 4) minutes before the order to scramble, it is difficult to see how any significant number of the bombers could escape.

I do not know the number of airfields which the V bomber force would use under dispersal conditions, but if one supposes the number to be, say, 50 at the most, then to carry out the attack outlined above would require a total of 3 x 50 = 150 missiles.

If the Russians were in any doubt as to the direction of take-off of the 7 bombers, they could remove the ambiguity by placing two other airbursts 14 miles at 300 from the other end of the runway to cover the reverse direction of take-off. Thus, for 50 airfields, would require a further 100 missiles, thus bringing the total missiles up to 250, which is still below the 300 postulated for the knocking out of Blue Streak.

Further, a number of the dispersal airfields are understood to be sufficiently near each other for the damage radius of a burst on one airfield to overlap on to the neighbouring airfield, thus reducing the weight of attack required.

Finally, it should be realised that the bomber bases in East Anglia would only get 2‘/г-3 (not 4 minutes as commonly stated) warning by BMEWS of the Russian 1000 mile rocket if fired on a low trajectory from satellite territory.

[BMEWS: Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. There was a station at Fylingdales on the North Yorks Moors.]

This was just one of many objections – and this from the Government’s principal expert on missiles. Sandys was writing similar memos as late as March.

So, if the report was so obviously flawed, why was it put forward, and why was it accepted so uncritically? One reason was that the answer it gave was the answer that a lot of people wanted. Never mind the argument, look at the conclusion. Another reason was that the Study Group had been composed of some very eminent men, and there was the obvious appeal to authority – a group as eminent as this could hardly be wrong.

But in one sense the argument had already been lost. Blue Streak had had sufficient doubt cast upon it that revival became impossible. (Similarly, later, when the US Secretary of Defense Macnamara cancelled WS.138A/Skybolt, but still offered it to Britain, Macmillan rejected the offer on the grounds that ‘the lady’s virtue has been impugned’. The same was happening to Blue Streak.)

Indeed, the battle went outside Whitehall with the publication of an article in the Daily Mail on 4 February 1960. The headline ran ‘Blue Streak is a damp squib’ and went on:

This is the key problem – one of the most critical defence questions this country has faced – that Mr. Harold Watkinson, a senior cabinet minister, was put into the Ministry of Defence last October to solve…

His brief from the P. M. was short and to the point. First, Britain must continue trying by all means within financial reason to remain an effective nuclear power.

Second, an attempt to do this by striking a new balance between the runaway costs of the deterrent and our obvious weakness in conventional forces.

With this in mind, it follows inevitably that the first file called for by Mr. Watkinson in the Ministry of Defence was labelled ‘Blue Streak’.

In the days of his predecessor, Mr. Duncan Sandys, this file was the sacred cow. Mr. Sandys had made up his mind unalterably that Blue Streak, secure in its underground cells, was the answer for Britain.

It is said that throughout last summer Mr. Sandys faced increasing pressure from financial and military experts to think again. Apparently, he was obdurate. Only in his successor has a ready listener been found.

The most disturbing aspect of the cost of Blue Streak was strengthening military opinion that this fabulously expensive weapon would be secure underground only for a few years at most.

Once the Russians could guarantee the accuracy of their rockets within half a mile, Blue Streak would be as vulnerable as today’s Thors which stand plain for all to see fixed on their surface-launching pads in East Anglia…

The most interesting feature of this article is: where did the journalist get his information? To be as well informed as this suggests a leak from someone close to the top – although there is nothing new in that. And, further, although Blue Streak is portrayed as obsolete, no alternative is mentioned.

Other newspapers also picked up on the political implications of the struggle: another article mentioned the constant redrafting of the Defence White paper, and noted of Sandys that if he wins this Cabinet battle his personal standing among Ministers will be immensely enhanced. If he loses, his resignation cannot be ruled out.’

But despite all the arguments between Ministries and their civil servants, as we have seen, the Chiefs of Staff short-circuited the whole debate in their letter to Watkinson saying that they attached no military value to Blue Streak as a weapon, and recommending its cancellation. This was to put Watkinson in a very difficult position. He had only been Minister for Defence since the October 1959 election, and in his first Cabinet post (he would disappear from the Cabinet in the reshuffle known as ‘the night of the long knives’ in July 1962). Irrespective of all the papers from the Ministry of Aviation, and from Sandys, a Cabinet colleague who had been in successive Conservative cabinets since Churchill’s election victory of 1951, and who had been the originator of the project, Watkinson had now received a memo from the Chiefs of Staff to say they had no confidence in the weapon. There was little he could then do. If his Chiefs of Staff told him that they attached no military value to a project then Watkinson was in no position to argue. He wrote to Sandys on 9 February and, unusually, the word ‘personal’ is handwritten at the top. The letter reads:


Single stage. Launched 11 June 1959 at 22:33. Apogee 499 miles.

BK04, the first re-entry experiment with a separating spin-stabilised head, was very successful. The main stage reached its designed burn-out velocity and both guidance and control of the vehicle were satisfactory. Telemetry on the main stage worked throughout the flight to apogee and re-entry, and valuable information on systems performance was obtained. The head separation, turnover and spin-stabilisation system was successful. The head re-entered (200,000 ft) at 11,740 ft/second, telemetry worked throughout to impact, except for a short period during re-entry, and some information on re-entry dynamics and heating was obtained. Recovery of the head with the patches of materials under test attached to it yielded valuable information on ablation during re-entry.

The photograph in Figure 90 is a time lapse picture of the re-entry of the head and of the main rocket body. (The stars in the background appear as streaks due to the long exposure time.) This was one of the reasons Woomera was chosen for
the trials: clear skies with no cloud or smog (the flights were also scheduled for moonless nights, for obvious reasons). A further advantage of the range is that the remains of both the head and the rocket body could be collected and examined later (provided they could be found!).

Подпись: Figure 90. Re-entry photograph for the first separating head, BK04.

Подпись: Э0О IOOO 1020 1040 1060 1080 1100 TIME (SECS) Figure 91. Graph showing the re-entry head temperatures for the BK04 flight. These data showed that the peak temperatures were close to the predicted value, and that any reentry head based on this design would not burn up on re-entry.

Data was sent from the re-entry head by radio (later heads would have a tape recorder) for analysis. The graph in Figure 91 below shows the temperature at the head of the re­entry body.3 The results from the flight vindicated the choice of design: the heating was well within acceptable limits.

Although Black Knight had fulfilled its original purpose, RAE was interested in some of the other phenomena observed during re-entry, and the range at Woomera was equipped with better optical and radar equipment for the gaslight and Dazzle series of flights. The US was also interested in the results, which meant that the programme became a UK/US/Australian collaboration.

BK04 also set up the altitude record for a single stage vehicle until January 1962, when the launch of a Thor lifted an Echo-2-prototype balloon to a height of more than 900 miles.