15% DISCOUNT

Vickers Valiant

The only V-bomber that dropped ‘live’ nuclear bombs

WITH talk of the potential for nuclear conflict all too often in the news headlines following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is worth remembering that Britain was a prime mover in the launch of the atomic age – the UK becoming the third nation in the world to possess its own nuclear deterrent 70 years ago.

The first nuclear test conducted by Britain followed those by the US and Russia, with October 3, 1952 the date of Operation Hurricane: HMS Plym used as the platform for the bomb, the ship anchored 400 metres off Trimouille in the Montebello Islands, just off the coast of Western Australia.

On 11 October 1956, Valiant B.1 WZ366 of No. 49 Squadron became the first British aircraft to drop a live atomic bomb during the Buffalo R3/Kite test

(On 11 October 1956, Valiant B.1 WZ366 of No. 49 Squadron became the first British aircraft to drop a live atomic bomb during the Buffalo R3/Kite test)

Tests continued throughout the 1950s in and around Australia, with the first atomic bomb dropped from the air taking place on October 11, 1956, Edwin Flavell piloting WZ366 over Maralinga, South Australia. The plane itself was fitted with windscreen blinds to protect the crew from the intense flash of light caused by the explosion, and the aircraft was checked for potential damage and radioactive contamination on returning to its base.

The aircraft in question, WZ366, was a Vickers Valiant, a high-altitude jet bomber designed specifically for the role of carrying nuclear weapons – one of three British V-bombers alongside the Avro Vulcan and the Handley Page Victor. A year on from the first atomic test in 1956, the first Hydrogen bomb was dropped from a Valiant at 45,000ft over Malden Island in the Pacific on May 15, 1957.

The Valiant was the first V-bomber to become operational and the sole one to drop live nuclear weapons, thankfully only under test conditions. It would be 11 years after the US exploded the only two atomic bombs to be used in war on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Britain tested an air dropped nuclear bomb, but back in 1956 the fear of attack from Russian bombers required British aircraft to counter that threat with its own nuclear deterrent.

Vickers Valiant WP220 and WP213

(Vickers Valiant WP220 and WP213)

The first Valiants were built by Vickers aircraft at their Brooklands plant, near Weybridge in Surrey, in response to the Ministry of Supply requesting designs for a bomber capable of carrying at 10,000lb bomb, travelling at 500 knots at 50,000ft, with a range over 3,300 nautical miles. While the Valiant was behind the Victor and Vulcan on specification, its chief designer, George Edwards, fought for both the aircraft and the firm: he successfully argued that the simpler design was less likely to suffer failure or delay compared to the other two aircraft.

If less graceful that the its fellow V-bombers, it was a clean design with swept shoulder-mounted wings on a circular section fuselage with four Rolls Royce engines buried in the inner wing. The production model was the B.Mk 1 which served as bomber, in photo reconnaissance, and also as a tanker, with deliveries commencing in January 1955, Britain’s V-bomber force formally entering service on February 8.

The first squadron equipped with the Valiant was No. 138 at RAF Gaydon in Oxfordshire, 232 Operation Conversion Unit, OCU, forming around the same time to train crews up for the new bomber; 138 soon moving to RAF Wittering, home to Britain’s growing stockpile of nuclear bombs. At its peak, ten squadrons were equipped with the bomber, with crews selected for the new aircraft all boasting extensive experience – the first pilots had around 1,750 hours flight experience with at least one tour of flying the Canberra.

Valiant B (PR)1 of No 543 Squadron with a Canberra PR9 and PR7 of No 58 Squadron in 1961

(Valiant B (PR)1 of No 543 Squadron with a Canberra PR9 and PR7 of No 58 Squadron in 1961)

Despite being built to carry a nuclear payload, the Valiant was also used to drop conventional weapons, four squadrons hitting airfield targets in Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956. Operating from an airfield at Luqa on Malta, the bombing campaign would be the first time a RAF V-bomber flew a live combat mission, the next occurrence when Vulcans bombed the airfield at Port Stanley in 1982.

The early realisation that the Valiant would be an ideal reconnaissance platform saw a variant produced that would carry up to eight cameras instead of a bombload, the first of these delivered to 543 Squadron at RAF Wyton in June 1955. The Mk.1 variant was also able to carry a refuelling pack in the bomb bay, and despite in-flight refuelling at that point being a fairly new innovation, Vickers proved the Valiant was more than capable of providing this service for its fellow aircraft.

But the Valiants’ first priority was as a high-altitude V-bomber, a role it filled for around seven years until 1962, defence chiefs only then realising that improvements in Soviet technology had greatly enhanced their air defences: the MiG-17 and ground missile protection systems were highly likely to stop any Valiant attempting to penetrate Soviet airspace at high or medium altitude.

A switch to low-level tactical operations soon followed, but that exposed weaknesses in the ‘simple’ design, the harsher air conditions and turbulence not to the Valiants’ liking, and in August 1964, the crew of WP127 recorded what they thought was a large impact on a training mission. A safe landing was made but the starboard wing’s rear spar had fractured with the wing visibly sagging, an instruction immediately made to inspect all aircraft. The problem was widespread and the entire fleet was retired shortly after WP127s close call, with the last Valiant squadron, No. 49, disbanded in January 1965.

With the RAF’s tanker force abruptly retired, Handley Page Victors were able to fill that role, with the Valiants very quickly confined to the history books. Few remained shortly after retirement, with XD816 kept in an airworthy condition, taking part in the 1968 flypast to mark the disbandment of Bomber Command.

Vickers Valiant B1 XD818 at RAF Museum Cosford in 2006

(Vickers Valiant B1 XD818 at RAF Museum Cosford in 2006)

One of the final remaining aircraft, XD818, stood guard at the RAF Marham gate for several years, and it can now be viewed at the RAF Museum at Cosford, part of the Cold War Exhibition. The significance of XD818 was that it was the aircraft that dropped Britain’s first ‘live’ H-bomb off Malden Island, 400 miles south of Christmas Island, on May 15, 1957.

Other Articles You May Also Enjoy

RAF in Oxfordshire Part Two
RAF in Oxfordshire Part Two
RAF in Oxfordshire part two K-W
Read More
RAF in Oxfordshire Part One
RAF in Oxfordshire Part One
A hotbed of aircraft activity from pre-WWI to the present day, Oxfordshire remains a key location for RAF operations
Read More
83 Squadron
83 Squadron
Missing crew members from No. 83 Squadron finally found as Lancaster bomber is recovered
Read More
Gloster Javelin
Gloster Javelin
The short-lived jet that was the last to bear the famous Gloster name
Read More
RAF in Hertfordshire
RAF in Hertfordshire
For a county that skirts the northern sector of England’s capital city, Hertfordshire could be described as being a litt
Read More
RAF Leeming
RAF Leeming
Leeming still key to the nation’s air defences more than 80 years after its first squadrons arrived
Read More
42 Squadron
42 Squadron
Déjà vu as ‘Roxy’ takes command on the return to duty for No. 42 Squadron
Read More
RAF Waddington
RAF Waddington
Waddington welcomes its first Protector as the station expands its ISTAR force
Read More

Leave a comment