During World War Two, the Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force (RAF) established itself as the master of both precision and area bombing, extending the reach of British armed forces from the Sceptred Isle into the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe.
While its piston powered planes1 like the Avro Lancaster, Handley Page Halifax and later Avro Lincoln were dominant in the propeller era, they were falling behind modern standards. The RAF was arguably at the forefront of jet development (although they would have been much further ahead if they had backed inventor Frank Whittle in the first place) in terms of fighters, but they needed fast ground attack planes that weren't easy meat for modern interceptors.
The first British jet bomber was the English Electric Canberra, a high altitude, high speed bomber in the mould of the World War Two Mosquito fighter-bomber. It didn't bother with defensive armament since it flew higher and faster than any fighter plane sent against it. The Canberra was manned by a flight crew of three: a pilot, a navigator and a bomb aimer. Introduced in 1951, it would serve the RAF for more than 50 years. However, its bomb load was only around half of the load that a Lancaster could carry, and while it could carry Britain's nuclear deterrent, there was still a need for a better alternative.
A request for new designs was made and three designs were accepted to be built. These became the RAF's V-Force. Built for the country's nuclear deterrent, they would eventually prove themselves in dramatically different roles.
All three were designed to function as high level bombers, out of reach of enemy fighters. However, changes in both air defence technology and British requirements meant they had to undertake different roles throughout their life.
The first of the V-bombers to arrive was the Valiant. It was notably less advanced than the other two types accepted, but was eventually ordered because it could be pressed into service well before the others, despite the costs of developing three different large bombers. It had a crew of five: two pilots, an electronics officer, a navigator-plotter2 and a navigator-bomber.
The Valiant had a high mounted wing with pairs of Rolls-Royce Avon engines mounted inside the wing at the 'root', close to the fuselage. The increase this gave in aerodynamic efficiency was traded off by the more difficult maintenance access and complexity in building the structure of the plane around them. The wing itself had an innovative 'compound sweep' curved shape, where it was sharply swept back, near the root, with a gentler sweep over the rest of the wing. The tailplane was mounted halfway up the tail fin.
The Valiant was only slightly slower than the Canberra, with a maximum speed of 567mph. It had an even higher service ceiling3 and more importantly could carry more ordinance. In its nuclear role it could carry the 10,000lb Blue Danube bomb. Alternatively it could carry 21,000lbs of conventional bombs. This was pretty much the same as the maximum bomb load that the World War Two Lancasters carried when armed with their Grand Slam Earthquake bombs, and was well above what the average RAF heavy bomber had carried.
The Valiant first flew in 1951 and entered service with the RAF in 1955. Ten squadrons were made up of Valiants and 107 Valiants were built in total.
At 05:57 GMT on 11 October, 1956, Valiant WZ366 of Squadron no. 49 carried out the first airdrop of a British nuclear weapon. Part of the Operation Buffalo series of tests that were conducted at the Maralinga test range in South Australia, the Kite test used a version of the Blue Danube bomb with a three kiloton4 yield. The bomb was set to explode at a height of 150 metres and was originally going to have a yield of 40kt, but was reduced in case the airburst fuse failed. Previous tests of weapons had seen them exploded either from a metal tower or on the surface of the Earth.
At 19:37 GMT on 15 May, 1957, the first British test of a 'radiation implosion' thermonuclear device took place with Valiant XD818 dropping a Green Granite Small bomb. The bomb exploded at 2,400 metres above the sea off Malden Island in the central Pacific. While the yield of the bomb at between 200kt and 300kt was much greater than the earlier fission bombs, it was well below the predicted megaton of energy. The first test of a thermonuclear device where the yield matched the prediction (1.8Mt) was at 17:47 GMT on 8 November, 1957, off Christmas Island. The device was dropped by Valiant XD824 and exploded at 2,250m after 52 seconds of freefall.
Handley Page Victor
The most advanced of the three bombers ordered was the Victor. Like the Valiant it had a high wing with engines buried in the roots. Whereas the Valiant's cockpit was placed almost pod-like at the top of the fuselage, the Victor's cockpit was in the nose like a normal airliner. The nose was sleek and pointed; however, the rounded underside gave it a certain resemblance to a breast when viewed in profile.
The wings of the Victor were crescent-shaped, allowing it, like the Valiant, to be less swept back at the tips than at the roots. It had a high tailplane mounted on the top of the rear fin. Unlike most aircraft that are configured like this in a T-shaped arrangement, the Victor had a shallow Y. The whole look of the Victor was one of imposing menace.
Only the two pilots were actually given ejector seats. The navigator-radar, navigator-bomber and electronics officer had to bail out through the door in an emergency.
The first version, the B.1, used Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire engines, which, with 11,000lbs of thrust each, gave a slight increase on the Avon engines of the Valiant. The B.2s, the improved Victors, used Rolls-Royce Conways, which had upwards of 17,000lbs of thrust each, giving the big jet even more power to play with.
Even with Sapphire engines, the Victor was far faster than the Valiant, able to top 640mph in level flight and break the sound barrier in a shallow dive. It was also capable of carrying a much greater bomb load, up to 35,000lbs, which was more than the comparable US medium bomber, the B-47 Stratojet could hold (although only half that of the larger B-36 and B-52 bombers).
Although designed for high altitude attacks, where the plane needs to fly fast, straight and level, the big Victor was capable of impressive feats of acrobatics, especially for a large bomber.
A total of 80 Victors were built. The Victor first flew in 1952, and entered into service from 1958. The B.2 version flew in 1959.
If the Victor's visage was one of muscled menace, the Vulcan, the most iconic of any post-WWII RAF plane, had an other-worldly air about it.
Instead of conventional wings and tailplanes, the Vulcan had massive delta-shaped wings (?). Although considered the riskiest of the three options, it was found that the huge wings had numerous advantages. Their massive area meant that the wing loading, that is the force on the wings per unit area, was much lower, which allowed the aircraft to perform with amazing agility. Unknown at the time of design, the shape of the Vulcan gave it a minimal radar cross-section, making it much harder to spot on radar than other similarly-sized planes.
The cockpit was, like in the Valiant, mounted towards the top of the fuselage. It was a cramped affair and again only the pilot and co-pilot had ejector seats. The navigator-radar, navigator-plotter and electronics officer had to escape through the hatch in the bottom of the aircraft.
The Vulcan had four engines, once again mounted in the wing roots. While prototypes used Avon, Sapphire and Conway jets, the production Vulcans used Rolls-Royce Olympus engines. Such engines, when equipped with afterburners, powered Concorde. The original B.1 versions had Olympus 101 jets with 11,000lbs of thrust. By the time the later B.2 and B.3 Vulcans were built, they were using Olympus 201 and 301 jets with 17,000lbs and 20,000lbs of thrust each. The B.2s also featured electronic countermeasures to offer some kind of protection to the aircraft.
The Vulcan was lighter than the Victor, and had as much power to call on, so it was also a very able performer. One of its party tricks was being able to roar off into the sky at 45 degrees after take-off. Compared with the B-47, the Vulcan was of similar weight and had nearly twice the power. It was capable of well in excess of 600mph and could carry 21,000lbs of bombs.
The Vulcan was revealed to the public at the Farnborough Airshow. At the top of its take-off climb, the test pilot barrel-rolled the aircraft, something nobody thought possible with a large bomber. On the ground he was reprimanded, not on health and safety grounds, but because such antics were unbecoming of a bomber!
The Vulcans were designed to never be caught on the ground. They were held at a state of alert that meant within 15 minutes they could be airborne. They were able to operate from 5,000ft (1.5km) runways, allowing them to use many more runways than the American B-52 and B-47, which needed twice the distance to take off. Unlike similar aircraft of the time, Vulcans also didn't require airborne refuelling after take-off, allowing them to go straight on the attack. This was a massive bonus for the crews, who had attempted air-to-air refuelling of a Vulcan and found it extremely dangerous.
The first Vulcan flew in 1952, and they saw service from 1956. 102 Vulcans were produced in total.
A Vulcan was one of the stars of the James Bond film, Thunderball. The plot revolved around recovering nuclear weapons from a downed Vulcan.
A white paper produced for the government concluded that the V-Force could destroy Moscow and Kiev before the Americans had even entered Russian airspace. The V-bombers could fly higher than contemporary Russian Mig interceptors. Later in their life, the larger American bombers were tasked with NATO's penetration into heavily defended Soviet territory and the RAF's V-Force was to destroy less well defended targets in Eastern Europe.
The planes arrived too late to see service in Korea but the Valiant saw service during the Suez crisis and the Victor during the Indonesian-Malaysia conflict.
The big change in their role came with the improvements in surface-to-air weaponry that made high-flying planes easy targets. It was reasoned that, as long as they avoided known SA-3 missile sites, the V-bombers would have limited threat of interception under 1,500ft. The RAF's plan for using the new, ultra-sophisticated TSR-2 for low-level raids came to nothing as the new plane was cancelled, leaving the V-Force as the Royal Air Force's low-level nuclear strike bombers.
The RAF also cancelled their nuclear ballistic missile, Blue Streak, which was due to replace the fleet of V-bombers. Confusingly, the nuclear stand-off missile (a missile that can be fired a long way from the target, avoiding the need for the bomber to negotiate heavily defended areas) that the V-bombers would come to be armed with, was called Blue Steel.
As well as being retasked as low-level bombers, some Valiants and Victors were converted to perform tanker and reconnaissance duties.
Operating at low levels increases the stresses dramatically on the airframe of an aircraft. Parts of the wing spar of the Valiant were found to have been made from the wrong type of aluminium alloy, leading to a number of failures. This saw the Valiant withdrawn by 1965.
Loss of the Deterrent
The V-bombers had a massive payload capacity compared to their rivals, the Canberra and the strike aircraft of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. With the cancelling of the Blue Streak, the V-Force aircraft were the carriers of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the V-Force had been on 15 minute alert, ready to go into battle.
However, the introduction of the Royal Navy's Polaris submarines in 1969 meant that the baton was handed over to the Senior Service. The Victors had been suffering with fatigue issues from their low-level flights and so had been withdrawn from the nuclear roles in 1968.
The Vulcan retained part of its nuclear role, being armed with smaller, tactical weapons. Talk of replacement and retirement for the last of the V-bombers was on the table, though.
It was planned to buy in the American fighter-bomber, the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. The F-111 was the first swing-wing aircraft5, able to deliver a strike at supersonic speeds. Despite having a fighter designation, the F-111 was too heavy to be effective in air-to-air combat, and was almost totally used for ground attack. It had a top speed of over twice the speed of sound and had a similar payload to the Vulcan but compared unfavourably to the Vulcan in terms of range.
In the end, the F-111 was not bought by the RAF. By the early 1980s, the Panavia Tornado, a joint European venture, had started to replace the Vulcan as the RAF's primary ground attack aircraft. Like the F-111, the Tornado was a swing-wing aircraft. The Tornado was a strike aircraft, rather than a true bomber, delivering smaller payloads more accurately and at higher speeds. For comparison, the Victor could deliver 35 × 1,000lb bombs, and the Vulcan held 21, but the Tornado could only deliver three.
The SEPECAT Jaguar and Blackburn Buccaneer, as well as the Tornado, also carried the UK's tactical nuclear weapons, and operated as low-level strike aircraft.
While outclassed by the American fighters and bombers in raw number terms, the V-bombers were formidable opponents. They took part in a number of war games against the American military.
In the 1960s Skyshield 1 event, seven of the eight Vulcan bombers sent from Scotland and Bermuda to simulate attacks on major US cities were successful in attacking their targets and returning safely to base without interception. The following year, Skyshield 2 saw eight Vulcans again evade interception while attacking North America.
Although British newspapers reported the Vulcans' success against the American air-defence system NORAD, the Pentagon denied the news reports. A combination of the skill of the RAF crews, the advanced countermeasures, low radar cross-section and the Vulcan's agility had allowed it to embarrass the US armed forces.
Even in the 1980s, the Vulcan still had a trick or two up its sleeve. Taking part in the Red Flag war games, it could, under the right circumstances and despite its age, evade detection. At night and in poor weather, the Vulcan was able to avoid even the F-15 Eagle interceptor. The agility of the Vulcans even allowed the crews a bit of fun flying in the Grand Canyon on the way to Nellis Air Force base in Nevada (upon arrival, they found signs reminding pilots to fly well above the Canyon).
The V-Force's finest hour came when their combat future looked bleakest. Months from retirement, the Vulcan was called upon for one final set of missions. It was to be backed up by the Victor in what was to be one of the legendary bombing raids, attacking targets in the Falkland Islands ahead of the British retaking the Islands.
To the Gulf and Beyond
Black Buck was to be the last action the Vulcans would see. Despite the demonstrated need for long-range bombers, the Vulcan's days as a combat aircraft were over by the end of 1982; however, not all of them were retired. The preparation and implementation of the missions meant that many of the Victors had used up what remained of the life in their airframes, and with no prospect of them being repaired, they were retired. This left one Victor squadron flying and a large hole in the RAF's refuelling capability. Although VC-10 conversions were on order from the 1970s and Lockheed Tristars were ordered after the Falklands War, there was a need for some tankers quickly. Six Vulcans had fuel tanks installed into their bomb-bays and refuelling equipment fitted. This respite from the hangman only lasted a couple of years, though.
The last of the V-Force to see conflict was the mighty Victor, supporting RAF and US operations in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. Once again, the ageing bomber-turned-tanker proved its worth. Out of 299 sorties it was tasked with, it completed 299. No other RAF aircraft could match it.
By 1993, the Victor was grounded and in full retirement. Thankfully, none of the V-Force aircraft were ever called upon to perform the task they were designed for.
Five Victors survive; two are in taxi-able6 condition. There was an incident in 2009 where a Victor was demonstrating a fast-taxi, and it actually took off briefly, after a misunderstanding in the cockpit.
Only one Valiant survives intact, although sections of another two are on display in aviation museums.
19 Vulcans have escaped the scrapheap. Two of them are able to taxi and one of them is still able to fly.
RAF Cosford, the Shropshire branch of the RAF Museum is the only place where all three V-bombers can be found together.