A Very British Bomb

A fascinating account of the birth of the British nuclear program and the Anglo-US hostility it generated. Additionally, I have covered the testing of the first weapon in a previous article you can view here.


Operation: Hurricane Atomic Bomb

Operation Hurricane BombThe Operation: Hurricane atomic bomb was Britian’s first nuclear weapon. Development of the project began following a secret cabinet meeting of the British government in 1946 after the US passed the McMahon Atomic Energy Act of 1946 which barred the British and anyone else from gaining access to nuclear test data from the Manhattan Project despite Britain contributing its own scientists to the development of the American program. These scientists would ultimately work on the British bomb which received the codename “Hurricane”. As a result the weapon greatly resembled the American “Fat Man” weapon which was dropped on Nagasaki.

The design of the weapon incorporated a hollow core consisting of 7kg of plutonium. There were other designs planned including the use of Canadian manufactured plutonium for a Canadian nuclear weapon program. The Canadians, like Britain, had contributed scientists to the Manhattan Project and now felt shut out by the US who seemed determined to hold a monopoly on nuclear weapons. However only the British 7kg core design was used in the test.

The weapon was ready for testing in 1952 by which time the Americans had lost their nuclear monopoly to the Russians who detonated their first weapon in 1949. Working in conjunction with the Australian government, who were the only British Commonwealth country with the vast expanses of territory needed for safe testing, the islands of Monte Bello off the north west coast of Australia was selected as the test site. Instead of being dropped by an aircraft or on a fixed land platform it was instead placed inside a decommissioned River-class frigate, HMS Pym. Reports claim that at the time there was a very real belief by British intelligence that any pre-emptive attack from the Communist block would begin with suicide ships being charged into major naval installations with a nuclear weapon onboard,

The test was carried out on the 3rd October 1952 and catapulted Britain (and by association Australia and Canada) in to the nuclear age becoming the third nuclear power. The blast was 25 kilotons in power and left a saucer-shaped crater on the seabed 20ft deep and 980ft across. The test results were used to develop more effective nuclear weapons in the future that included American made warheads after the US amended the McMahon Atomic Energy Act in order to promote commercial nuclear development and better equip its allies in the face of an increasingly powerful nuclear Soviet Union.

Op Hurricane 25kt

Effect of a 25 kiloton nuclear weapon detonated in the centre of London (Nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap)

Weapon File: Blue Steel

blue steel

The Blue Steel missile was developed by Avro during the late 1950s after the British Air Ministry rightly predicted that Soviet air defences would become so strong after 1960 that traditional high altitude delivery of gravity nuclear weapons would become impossible. Blue Steel was intended to be launched by the RAF’s V-Bomber force – Valiant, Victor and Vulcan – outside of the range of Soviet defences protecting the intended target. Ultimately the Valiant was relegated to the tanking role before the weapon was made available to it but both Victor and Vulcan carried the weapon throughout the 1960s.10_Victor

Blue Steel was a large weapon by any standard. It had a weight of some 17,000lbs and was over 10m long making it longer than the Folland Gnat training aircraft. At first the weapon was intended to have a range of 50 miles but this was deemed inadequate by the late 1950s and was extended to 100 miles with guidance provided by an inertial navigation system which was claimed to be able to get the weapon within 100 meters of the aim point. Power came from a liquid fuelled rocket motor that could accelerate the weapon to Mach 1.5 for the flight phase to the target and then as it neared the target the motor would accelerate it to Mach 3 in order to penetrate the target’s defences.

The missile was originally intended to be armed with one of Britain’s nuclear warheads already in service namely Orange Herald and Green Bamboo. Orange Herald was a test weapon to prove that Britain could develop a Megaton sized nuclear warhead. Green Bamboo was one of the first thermonuclear devices developed by the United Kingdom. While Blue Steel was developed around the rather large diameter of the Green Bamboo warhead, ultimately neither of these devices were installed on the missile. Instead the Red Snow warhead was used which was a device based on the more advanced US W-28 thermonuclear weapon.570571bs

Development of Blue Steel was wrought with difficulty mainly concerning the guidance system. Also, while Avro claimed a Mach 3 terminal speed the weapon was often recorded at a speed of around Mach 2.5 during the attack which increased its vulnerability. An even bigger problem was that as the weapon was about to get operational the V-Force went through a dramatic shift in operational doctrine. The destruction of Gary Power’s U-2 spyplane at almost 70,000 feet by Soviet Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) in 1960 proved once and for all that altitude was no longer an ally to the V-Force. Consequently out went the anti-flash white scheme that had become so synonymous with the V-bombers, replaced by camouflage as aircrews resorted to a low level penetration role to fly under the Soviet radar to avoid detection. Blue Steel was always intended to be launched at high altitude to gain maximum speed and range and so the weapon was hurriedly modified to be able to launch at 1,000 feet but this had an adverse effect on it’s performance.

Blue Steel served on the two remaining V-bombers between 1963 and 1970. Throughout its service life its limitations were obvious. It’s liquid fuel required a considerable amount of time to fill the tanks in the missile, several hours in fact. The fuel could not be simply left in the missile continuously because it was highly unstable and there was a risk of explosion. A fuelled Blue Steel had to be guarded at all times from both Soviet spies and careless RAF armourers who might collide a truck with it while it sat under a Vulcan on alert. Soviet defences also improved dramatically in the 1960s thanks in no small part to the experiences over the skies of Vietnam where Soviet advisers could test their systems against the latest western countermeasures employed by the US. It got to such a point that Blue Steel’s vulnerability actually made the Vulcan and Victor (with their onboard ECM equipment) using traditional gravity nuclear bombs the more effective nuclear deterrent therefore completely negating Blue Steel.

Damage to London with Blue Steel warhead (SOURCE: Nukemap)

Damage to London with Blue Steel warhead (SOURCE: Nukemap)

It is important to note that Blue Steel was always intended to be replaced by the Anglo-US Skybolt missile in the early 1960s until the US pulled the plug on the weapon. Blue Steel Mk.2 would have largely alleviated the problems with the original Blue Steel but this was cancelled when the UK government elected to pass the nuclear detterent to the Royal Navy and their Polaris submarines.

  • Length: 10.7 m (35 ft)
  • Wingspan: 4 m (13 ft)
  • Diameter: 1.22 m (48 in) minimum
  • Launch Weight: 7,270 lb (3,300 kg)
  • Speed: Mach 2.3
  • Ceiling: 21,500 m (70,500 ft)
  • Maximum Range: 240 km (150 mi)
  • Guidance: Inertial
  • CEP: ~100 metres
  • Warhead: Red Snow thermonuclear (1.1 Mt)