During World War II, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Bomber Command deployed huge strategic bombers on a massive scale to bombard German cities at night. Postwar, the RAF sought to evolve its bomber fleet to the jet and nuclear age.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated that a single nuclear weapon could inflict more destruction than a hundred conventional bombers—and postwar London feared (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the United States and its nuclear umbrella would withdraw from Europe.
Indeed, though British scientists assisted the American Manhattan Project, they were denied access to its findings in 1947. Thus the UK independently developed its own 25-kiloton plutonium-implosion device, which was test detonated in the hull of the Royal Navy frigate Plym off Western Australia on October 2, 1952.
But how was the UK to deliver a nuclear weapon? Unescorted bombers proved excessively vulnerable to fighters during World War II, and advances in radar, anti-aircraft missiles and jet propulsion promised only to decrease bomber survivability. Thus the UK, like the United States and Russia, sought to develop jet-powered bombers that flew too fast and too high for interception. The British government actually approved three different designs to serve as the UK’s nuclear deterrent: the simpler, stopgap Vickers Valiant, followed by the more sophisticated Avro Vulcan and Handley-Page Victor.
The so-called V-Bombers shared many characteristics. Each had four engines and five crew—pilot, co-pilot, two navigators and an Air Electronic Officer—though only the first two crewmembers had ejection seats. They were all painted with white “anti-flash” paint designed to absorb the emissions from a nuclear blast and sported green satin navigation radars. All were eventually retrofitted with aerial-refueling probes and electronic warfare systems to jam enemy sensors and communications. Most importantly, the V-Bombers were all primarily intended to carry a single air-dropped nuclear bomb.
The docile-looking Vickers Valiant (107 built) was the simplest of the designs, with four Rolls Royce Avon turbojets buried inside its lightly swept wings. Entering service in 1955, the aluminum-skinned bomber could fly up to 567 miles-per-hour (the speed of a jetliner) and had a range of 4,500 miles when carrying large fuel tanks underwing.
On October 11, 1956, a Valiant performed the first test of an air-dropped 10-kiloton Blue Danube fission bomb at Maralinga, Australia. Valiants subsequently test-dropped two hydrogen bombs in 1957 and 1958, leading the UK to introduce the Yellow Sun, which carried a 1.5-megaton Red Snow fusion warhead. Meanwhile, a stopgap program called Project E supplied V-Bombers with American B28 and Mark 5 bombs activated via a dual-key system.
The Valiant’s sole combat deployment came in the 1956 Suez Crisis, a joint British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt prompted by concerns that the Nassar government would cut access to the Suez Canal. For four days, Malta-based Valiants struck a dozen undefended Egyptian airfields at night, unloading 500 tons of conventional bombs—but largely failing to put them out of action.
The more advanced Avro Vulcan medium-range bomber (136 built) entered service that same year. Essentially a modified delta-shaped flying wing, the Vulcan retained a vertical tail fin. Its four Olympus turbojets allowed it to attain speeds of 645 miles per hour, but it had a shorter range of 2,600 miles. The flying-wing configuration unintentionally lent the Vulcan a relatively small radar cross-Section, which may explain its success eluding interceptors when mock-attacking U.S. cities in air defenses exercises.
The sophisticated Victor (86 built), which entered service in 1958, was most striking in appearance, with crescent-curved wings and a needle-nosed fuselage making it resemble a rocket ship. The Victor boasted a superior range of 6,000 miles and a greater maximum bomb load of 35,000 pounds.
Through the 1960s, every RAF airbase maintained at least two V-Bombers loaded with nuclear weapons on standby alert, ready to take off on four minute’s notice. However, by the time V-Bomber force peaked at 180 aircraft, the concept behind high-altitude bombers was growing obsolete. Soviet interceptors could already fly up to twice the speed of sound, and ground-based missiles proved capable of shooting down higher-flying U-2 spy planes at 65,000 feet.
Thus, the RAF re-tasked the V-Bombers to penetrate enemy air defenses at low altitude to evade radar detection. The V-Bombers practiced approaching targets skimming at altitudes as low as 50 meters and were re-painted with mottled camouflage to make them harder to spot from above.
The RAF also tried to ensure delivery of the V-Bomber’s apocalyptic payload by developing the Blue Steel missile, launched beyond the range of air-defense missiles. Guided by an inertial navigation system, Blue Steel carried a Red Snow thermonuclear warhead to a target up to 150 miles away while traveling three times the speed of sound. However, the missile had an estimated 50 percent failure rate and used dangerous hydrogen-peroxide fuel.
Dissatisfied, the Defense Ministry instead planned to deploy the AGM-48 Skybolt, an American air-launched ballistic missile—only for Washington to cancel the program in 1963. When Kennedy realized how incensed London felt, he instead offered new Polaris Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile—sealing the fate of the V-Bombers.
After all, V-bomber airframes weren’t designed for the wear-and-tear of low-altitude penetration. First, the Valiant exhibited excessive fatigue in its wing spars and was promptly retired in 1965. Then higher-performing Victors began experiencing fatigue cracks and were withdrawn from the bombing role in 1968 as British submarines deployed the Polaris. Only the Vulcan remained in the tactical strike role carrying lower-yield Red Beard and parachute-dropped WE.177 nuclear weapons. All the V-Bombers were also successfully adapted for photo reconnaissance, tanker and electronic warfare duties.
The Vulcan nearly ended its career without firing a shot when the military junta ruling Argentina seized the Falkland Islands (or Malvinas, in Argentine parlance) in April 1982. To counterattack, the RAF tapped its last three Vulcan squadrons—which had been due for retirement that July! However, even flying from Ascension Island, straddling western Africa and eastern Brazil, the Vulcan lacked the range to perform a sixteen-hour, 7,600-mile round trip flight to the islands.
Thus, in seven “Black Buck” missions between April 30 and June 12, two Vulcans were refueled by eleven Victor K2 tankers (which also refueled each other) to strike targets in the Falklands. Black Buck 1 and 2 both strung twenty-one thousand-pound bombs across the runway of Port Stanley Airport at night. For Black Buck 4 through 6, Vulcans loaded with four AGM-45 Shrike anti-radar missiles acquired from the United States destroyed two small air defense radars, killing four, and lightly damaged the AN/TPS-43 radar that was their primary target.
The raids also experienced notable mishaps. The third and fourth missions were scrubbed due to inclement weather and a breakdown in the tankers. During Black Buck 6, Vulcan XM597 snapped its refueling probe and was forced to make an emergency landing in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil confiscated a still-loaded Shrike missile but let the Vulcan fly home a week later.
Cumulatively, the Black Buck raids inflicted only modest damage and did not prevent Argentine transports from using Port Stanley airport. Some analysts characterize the attacks as inefficient military theater, while other historians argue they nonetheless denied Argentine jet fighters usage of the airport and prompted counter-productive naval movements.
The Vulcan was retired two years later, though Victor tankers soldiered on through the Gulf War before being finally withdrawn in 1993. However, in 2007 the Vulcan XH558 was remarkably restored to flyable condition and flown at airshows for seven more years.
The later V-Bombers remain undeniably majestic aircraft. With appropriate upgrades, they might have served on as “bomb trucks” for delivering standoff weapons, much like the U.S. B-52. However, the V-Bombers were not destined to remain aloft because of the UK’s changing global posture and its adoption of more survivable ballistic-missile submarines for nuclear deterrence.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.