Ministry of Defence

From 1946 to 1964 five Departments of State did the work of the modern Ministry of Defence: the Admiralty, the War Office, the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Aviation and an earlier form of the present Ministry of Defence. These departments merged in 1964, apart from the defence functions of the Ministry of Aviation which were merged into the Ministry of Defence in 1971.

The main purpose of the Ministry of Defence in the early 1950s was to co­ordinate the three services. At this point in its history it did not have the powers that it would later have. Duncan Sandys was appointed Minister in 1957 by Macmillan, and was given much extended powers. He is remembered for his 1957 Defence White Paper, which was (unfairly) blamed for the demise of a large part of the aircraft industry. It would be more correct to say that Sandys was the first to articulate changes that were inevitable and probably overdue.

The Ministry of Defence did have considerable influence on policy by means of the extremely powerful DRPC. It was this committee that decided general defence policy needs and hence which projects should proceed. The cancellation of the rocket interceptors was a direct consequence of a change in policy initiated by the DRPC, and the requirement for a ballistic missile originated with the DRPC.

The Treasury

The final arbiter was the Treasury. For a project such as Blue Streak, which could be considered as one of national priority, considerable delays were incurred as a result of Treasury refusal to release funds. The Spadeadam facilities were delayed for some six months as a consequence of Treasury reluctance, as this memo from the Ministry of Defence indicates.

You will remember that in February the Minister of Supply wrote to you in connection with the project to develop a rocket testing site in Spadeadam and emphasised the necessity of settling as quickly as possible the fate of our medium range ballistic missile project. We agreed at the time that nothing should be done about this letter since we had not yet settled the problems raised by the Long Term Defence Review. The Ministry of Supply, however, are now being held up by Treasury refusal to agree any expenditure at Spadeadam until the Financial Secretary has seen your reply to the Minister of Supply’s letter of 15th February [1956].2

Sir Frederick Brundrett, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Defence and chairman of the DRPC, wrote:

There is no doubt whatever that the political uncertainties stemming originally from the reports of the meeting at Chequers, and particularly the bitter hostility of the Exchequer and the Treasury to the project, have contributed to the difficulties, and in particular, specifically caused the work at Spadeadam to proceed at a speed less than the maximum that would have been possible had money been available.3

Again, an excerpt from a minute to the Minister of Defence in October 1957 reads:

During most of 1956 we were defending the very existence of Blue Streak against savage attacks by the Treasury.4

But amidst the controversy the military case was being made that

the conclusion from these arguments is that of all the weapons under consideration only the ballistic missile looks like having a reasonable chance of remaining comparatively invulnerable by 1970. What is more the firing sites for ballistic missiles will be difficult targets to destroy. It is clear, therefore, that unless we change our present policy of maintaining continuously in being an effective contribution of our own to the strategic deterrent, we must retain in the programme the ballistic missile.5

If, in 1957, Britain intended to maintain its deterrent, then it needed a ballistic missile, and Blue Streak was the only option, whatever the Treasury might have thought. Often delays meant that, in the long run, the whole project cost even more. Then came the financial crisis of 1958, when the entire Government

Treasury team resigned in protest at the size of public spending. £100 million had to be cut from Government expenditure, with the consequence that Macmillan wrote to the Minister of Defence and the Chancellor in December 1958: ‘on Blue Streak we should take all steps to reduce expenditure which can be taken without giving any widespread impression that the approved programme is being abandoned or retarded. … of the order of £1M.’6

It is difficult to see why the Treasury seems to have opposed the project so bitterly: other defence programmes such as the V bombers or the nuclear programme had been equally costly. It is impossible to judge how such economies affected the project, but it would not be unreasonable to say that the first flight of Blue Streak would have been put back by at least six to twelve months by the delays imposed whilst obtaining Treasury clearance. The point was also made more than once by Sandys that such economies would mean that as a consequence of the delays, the system would be late in service, and its useful service life concomitantly reduced.