Britain’s Cold War Nuclear Deterrent, The “V” Bombers

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A Brief History

On December 24, 1952, the British Handley Page Victor strategic bomber made its maiden flight.  The 4 engine jet bomber would enter service in 1958 as the third and last of the British “V” series of nuclear capable bombers, the other 2 members of the club being the Avro Vulcan and the Vickers Valiant.

Digging Deeper

In the post-World War II Cold War era, the United Kingdom (often abbreviated as “Britain”) struggled to remain a major world power in the face of the nuclear arming of the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR).  In October of 1952, the UK had finally conducted their first successful test of a nuclear explosion (known familiarly in those days as an “atom bomb” or “atomic bomb”), making the UK the third nation armed with nuclear weapons (after the United States in 1945 and the Soviet Union in 1949).  The devastation of Europe and Japan during World War II had impoverished previous world powers such as Britain, Germany and Japan, and allowed the rise of the United States and USSR to become the only “super powers” extant, especially insofar as they were both armed with nuclear weapons.

While Britain was a world leader in the development of jet engine technology and had fielded a serviceable military jet aircraft before the US or USSR (the Gloster Meteor, 1944) the UK  failed to develop a jet powered bomber before the US, who had fielded the North American B-45 Tornado in 1948. (The first jet bomber was the German Arado 234, introduced in 1944.)  Britain finally got a jet bomber into service in 1951, the Electric Canberra, though it was a “medium” bomber, only capable of 580 mph and a bomb load of 8,000 pounds.  Despite its excellent range (combat radius of 810 miles, ferry range of over 3000 miles), it was not the strategic bomber deterrent the RAF was looking for.

Enter the “V” bombers, strategic jet bombers meant to take the (nuclear) fight to the enemy in the enemy’s homeland.  The first of these “V” bombers was the Vickers Valiant, introduced into service in 1955.  With a crew of 5 and powered by 4 jet engines, the Valiant could carry a credible payload of a single Hydrogen bomb (10,000 pound thermonuclear bomb) or 21 X 1000 pound conventional bombs.  Capable of the long range of 4500 miles (using external fuel tanks) and a ceiling of 54,000 feet, the Valiant had a top speed of 567 mph.  A fleet of 107 of these bombers were built, and they served until their retirement in 1965.  The Valiant experienced combat in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, dropping conventional bombs on the Egyptians.

The next entry in the “V” bomber family was the Avro Vulcan, a futuristic looking (for the time) giant delta-wing bomber built as a “tailless design.”  Powered by 4 jet engines,, the Vulcan approached the sound barrier with a top speed of 646 mph.  With a ceiling of 55,000 feet and a range of over 2200 miles, the Vulcan could take its load of 21,000 pounds of conventional bombs or alternately armed with nuclear weapons to any point with aerial refueling.  The only combat seen by the Vulcan bombers was during the 1982 Falklands War, in which they dropped conventional bombs on Argentine positions, making the flight all the way from RAF Ascension Island, a then record for bombing missions of 6600 nautical miles round trip!  Called Operation Black Buck, a total of 5 missions were flown, with no losses of Vulcans.  The last of the 136 Vulcans was retired from active duty in 1984.

Finally, the third and last installment of the “V” bomber program was the Handley Page Victor, and a production run of only 86 bombers were built, all exclusively serving with the Royal Air Force.  Like the other “V” bombers, the Victor was powered by 4 jet engines, and its top speed was 627 mph, with a ceiling of 56,000 feet and an exceptional range of over 5200 nautical miles.  Capable of carrying a decent payload of 35,000 pounds of conventional bombs or nuclear weapons, the Victor was intended to operate as an individual aircraft, attacking by itself autonomously and without external guidance.  Increased Soviet radar detection capabilities and improvement in anti-aircraft missiles launched from the ground meant careful planning of mission profiles had to be made to exploit gaps in Soviet air defenses, including low level penetration when needed.  Like the other “V” bombers, the Victor was intended originally as a high altitude penetrator, but the previously mentioned developments made low level tactics mandatory in many circumstances.  Only 86 Victor’s were built, the least of the 3 “V” bombers.  The low level flight profile greatly accelerated wear and tear on the airframes, and hastened the retirement of the type from service as a bomber.  The Victor went on to continue service in the reconnaissance role and many were adapted as tanker aircraft for the aerial refueling of other types.  In the tanker role, Victors refueled Vulcans on their missions to bomb the Falkland Islands in 1982, and also served that role in the first Gulf War (1991).  The last of the fleet were retired in 1993, the end of the “V” bomber era.

Though built by different manufacturers, the British “V” bomber program is a little reminiscent of the American bomber saga of the Boeing built bombers, starting with the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-29 Superfortress, the B-47 Stratojet and the B-52 Stratofortress.  The American multi-engine jet bombers that appeared in the 1950’s were built in much greater numbers than the British “V” bomber fleet, with over 2000 B-47’s built and an additional 744 B-52’s rolling off the assembly lines.  The B-52 is still flying in operational combat today.

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you believe is the best jet bomber produced during the 1950’s? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Jones, Barry. V-Bombers: The Valiant, Vulcan and Victor.  The Crowood Press, 2001.

Bowman, Martin and David Windle. V-Bombers: Vulcan, Valiant and Victor.  Pen and Sword Aviation, 2015.

Buttler, Tony. British Secret Projects 2: Jet Bombers Since 1949.  Crecy Publishing, 2018.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by OS2 John Bouvia, USN, of a right side view of a British Royal Air Force Victor aircraft – Handley Page H.P.80 – being serviced on a ramp, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.