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The RAF and nuclear weapons: 8


TSR.2 taking off for a test flight (photo ‘TSR1989FF’ on flickr/Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a way I hesitate to add any comments of my own to the notorious story of the TSR.2 and its cancellation, which has consumed reams of paper and gallons of ink over the years, and will no doubt continue to do so into the indefinite future.  But the aircraft has a place in my story because, amongst its many and contradictory roles, it was intended to be a nuclear delivery system. 

Let me put my cards on the table first.  This is not going to be one of those accounts of how the British aircraft industry and one of its finest-ever products were sabotaged by a socialist government, listening to slanted advice from journalists, self-interested American corporations and a zoologist.  Personally, I think the TSR.2 was ill-conceived, poorly managed, and ungainly in appearance (not that its “beauty” or otherwise should form the basis for any kind of judgement).  By 1965, it was overdue for cancellation.  On the basis of declassified Air Ministry files on the subject, I also believe a lot of people in the RAF at the time, including the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles ‘Sam’ Elworthy, would privately have agreed with me (1).

Here’s how the story went. The draft requirement for a strike/reconnaissance aircraft to replace the Canberra was first circulated in 1956 and issued in 1957.  To say the TSR.2 which resulted was an uneasy compromise between different requirements – close support for the army, long-range low-level strike against “tactical” and “strategic” targets with conventional and nuclear weapons, and reconnaissance – would be wrong, because no compromise was made, at the start or later; the requirements were simply added together.  The aircraft therefore had to be designed for short-runway, low-level and high-level supersonic performance, and the avionics especially for low-level strike and reconnaissance had to be superlative.  The Air Ministry wasn’t simply being greedy: politically, after Duncan Sandys’s 1957 Defence White Paper favouring guided weapons, it had become very difficult to justify work on new manned military aircraft.  Many hopes therefore came to be pinned upon a single surviving project. 

Initially, the TSR.2 requirement included carriage of Red Beard, a free-fall atomic bomb much smaller than the first-generation Blue Danube but still having a number of disadvantages, especially in the TSR.2’s punishing low-level flight regime.  In particular Red Beard could not be dropped at low level: the aircraft would have to pop up into enemy radar cover to “toss” the weapon.  By 1959 the Air Ministry was pressing for an “improved kiloton bomb”, which eventually became the long-lived WE177.  For the RAF the key advantage of WE177 was that it could be dropped at low level by TSR.2 in the “laydown” delivery mode. 

By this time the Ministry of Aviation (MoA) – responsible for defence procurement, and keen to preserve but also to rationalise and modernise the British aircraft industry – had placed an initial design contract with English Electric and Vickers, two rival companies in what became an unhappy marriage of convenience.  Neither company was given the power of a prime contractor, even after their forced merger into the British Aircraft Corporation.  Instead the MoA retained separate control of weapons, avionics and engine contracts, all of which placed important constraints on the airframe and vice versa.  The “softer” aspects of programme management on the TSR.2 were a disaster: English Electric, Vickers, the MoA and the Air Ministry didn’t think much of each other, and little was done to bring them together. 

Politically influential figures opposed the project almost from the start, including successive chief scientists at the MoD: Sir Frederick Brundrett thought there was too much feather-bedding of the aircraft industry, and Sir Solly Zuckerman was more impressed by developments in the United States (we’ll talk about the F-111 tomorrow).  Lord Mountbatten, Chief of the Defence Staff from 1959, was apt to point out that a perfectly satisfactory low-level strike aircraft, the Buccaneer, was already approaching service with the Royal Navy.  For the Air Ministry, however, the Buccaneer was subsonic and inferior: an aircraft they were determined not to have. 

The TSR.2’s extraordinary avionics were optimised for low-level blind bombing of targets in Europe, although political battles between the Air Ministry and Admiralty tended to portray the aircraft first and foremost as an “east of Suez” weapons system, and at one point “tribal forts” were given as a likely target (2).  From time to time, especially in 1960 and again in 1963, serious attention was also given to TSR.2 as a strategic strike aircraft, able to penetrate Soviet airspace and attack with a high-yield version of the WE177 or some or other stand-off nuclear weapon.  The Air Ministry drew up plans to deploy TSR.2 in Europe, and in Cyprus and Singapore where it could support CENTO and SEATO alliance nuclear commitments. 

In October 1964 a Labour government came to power.  Defence had been a real issue in the election, and Labour’s manifesto had made its views quite clear: “public money has been lavished on wasteful military projects … many thousands of millions have been spent on the aircraft industry … we shall submit the whole area of weapons supply to a searching re-examination” (3).  Labour wanted to divert money and people to the civilian economy instead; apparently there were 25,000 skilled engineering vacancies in the UK, and 20,000 people working on TSR.2 (4).  Although the plane was now flying, serious development work was still to come especially on its avionics and engines (5). 

On 14 January 1965, as aircraft-industry workers marched through London with banners reading “let us arm Britain ourselves”, Air Marshal Elworthy was recommending to ministers and officials that Britain should replace the TSR.2 – which, after an alarming and still ongoing series of cost escalations, was now likely to cost £5.8m each – with the broadly comparable American F-111, a snip at £2.1m (6).  The cancellation was announced in April. 


(1) My views on the subject are set out at greater length in ‘Aircraft procurement under Labour 1964-70: some myths’, Journal of the RAF Historical Society, special issue on cold-war air systems procurement (2017), pp. 39-57. 

(2) Target list attached to ‘strike weapons for TSR.2’, 13 Jan 1959, UK National Archives AVIA 13/1336.

(3) ‘The new Britain’, October 1964, online here.

(4) ‘The questions begin’, Flight International, 15 Apr 1965, p. 551.

(5) I don’t like “what-if” or “might-have-been” histories, but there are so many on TSR.2 that they just can’t be ignored.  Read the one on the Hush-kit website here

(6) Air Historical Branch history by Anthony Bennell, ‘Defence policy and the RAF 1964-70’, pp. 2.4-5.   

Suggested reading

Of the many books specifically on the TSR.2, the only one I would recommend without hesitation is Tim McLelland, TSR2: Britain’s lost cold war strike aircraft (revised and expanded edition, Crecy 2017). 

Bill Nuttall’s new book Britain and the bomb: technology, culture and the cold war (Whittles 2019) has much material on TSR.2 but also a broad perspective, and is very readable. 

Humphrey Wynn’s chapter 28 on TSR.2 in RAF strategic nuclear deterrent forces: their origins, roles and deployment 1946-69: a documentary history (HMSO 1994) is neutral and factual, as you would expect from an official historian. 

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