Britain And The Bomb


On August 6, 1945, the United States detonated a bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima unleashing devastation the likes of which had never been seen before.

It was the Atomic Bomb.

Three days later, 300 miles to the south west of the bombing site, the US repeated its action, this time over the city of Nagasaki. The combined result of just those two bombs brought the Empire of Japan to its knees and the Second World War to an end.

Ever since there has been a constant conversation about the balance between using such awesome destructive power to bring an enemy to yield, and the resulting loss of life.

The two atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 caused the deaths of 226,000 people, by comparison, the total loss of life during the nine-month bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe – the Blitz – killed 40,000. The atomic bombings lasted two days, the Blitz ran almost nightly for nine months. It is those stark numbers that brought into question the humanity behind the use of such weaponry.

The opposing argument to the use of the bombs in Japan was, and still is, that they swiftly brought an end to the suffering associated with World War Two in the Far East. 

The debate around the use of nuclear weapons in Japan in 1945 has continued to this day, and certainly is not the only contentious matter associated with the technology.

The devastation of the Japanese city of Hiroshima after the dropping of a nuclear bomb in WW2 010145 CREDIT UPPA-DPA-PA

The Immediate Post War Years

Often lost within the pages of nuclear weapon history are the early stages in the United Kingdom’s development and testing of the technology. And, as we will see, it has not always been a period of happy exploration between powers in the west with regards to ‘the bomb’.

In the months after the war, the USA stunned Britain by pulling up the draw bridge and ceasing cooperation around the future development of nuclear weapons.

This was known as the ‘end of the special relationship.’

Because of this the UK had to embark on its own journey towards nuclear armament. That journey took seven years.

The 1950s

In 1952 Britain was in a position to test a nuclear weapon of its own.

To do this it found a site off the western coast of Australia and an aging Royal Navy ship from WWII.

A bomb, containing plutonium, was placed on board an empty frigate, HMS Plym, and at 23:59 on October 2, 1952, Britain became only the third country to successfully detonate a nuclear weapon. Britain thus became a nuclear superpower, alongside the USA and USSR.

Following the successful detonation of the plutonium bomb on board HMS Plym, then Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the production of the Blue Danube Bomb – Britain’s first nuclear weapon. The initial batch of Blue Danube Bombs, a weapon also known as the Little Boy, was delivered to the Royal Air Force a year later in 1953.

However, Britain did not have the means to deploy the weapons for two further years.

That changed when the newly designed V bomber - the Valiant - entered service in 1955.

Britain’s nuclear weapons capability thus became live and was the responsibility of the V-Class crews based at Bomber Command, known as the V-Force.

Vulcan bombers from RAF Waddington in formation 020357 CREDIT CROWN COPYRIGHT

58 Blue Danube bombs were produced and placed with V-Force.

The Blue Danube weighed a hefty 4.5 tonnes and boasted a yield equivalent to that of 10 to 12 kilotons of TNT. But to those pushing the Government on with respect to its nuclear exploration, apparently that was not enough and soon plans were afoot to create a much larger version carrying a yield of around 40 kilotons.

Producing such a weapon would not be straightforward in large part due to the complexity of mining the materials required. It was a matter of cost and like the debate around morality, the argument around cost is another long-standing characteristic of Britain’s nuclear history.

Soon after Britain had taken receipt of its first Blue Danube, global bomb tech progressed with the testing of the first thermonuclear weapon by the United States. This, in turn, prompted the Soviets to do the same … and suddenly Britain’s brand-new nuclear arsenal became old fashioned.

A-Bomb. Credit: PA.
An American Atomic Bomb test off Bikini Island in the 1940s. Credit: PA.

Arguments to the contrary of spending millions, even billions, of pounds on nuclear weapons have not been centered upon the notion that to buy them would be a waste, instead the focus has always been on whether the money would be better spent on conventional forces.

This position came into play and was supported by eminent personalities as the decision over whether to upgrade the UK weapons cache to thermonuclear status was mulled over by parliamentarians in the mid-fifties.

One of those early doubters was First Sea Lord Earl Mountbatten, second cousin to HM The Queen and the Uncle of HRH Prince Philip.

Alongside Field Marshal Gerald Templer, then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Mountbatten felt that the expenditure required to continue developing weapons greater in destruction than that of the Blue Danube would be far better spent on strengthening conventional forces such as armour, aircraft and ships. 

Lord Mountbatten said:

“The nuclear arms race has no military purpose. Wars cannot be fought with nuclear weapons. Their existence only adds to our perils.”

He based his argument on the fact that Britain’s nuclear arsenal was, and would always be, small by comparison to those of the USA and Soviet Union and therefore any war that was ever going to come Britain’s way would have to be land based because each of those two nations had more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over, creating a status quo.

Mountbatten and Templer were hinting at a stalemate that became known as mutually assured destruction (MAD) and it is this principle that has maintained a world order of peace where the use of nuclear bombs is concerned right through to today.

Protesting Merseyside's carry colourful banners as they set out from Reading in the annual 50-mile ban-the-bomb march from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston to Trafalgar Square, London_0.jpg

However, Mountbatten and Templer would lose the argument and Britain would get its thermonuclear weapons. A cabinet report from Churchill’s government at the time read:

“If we did not develop megaton weapons we would sacrifice immediately and in perpetuity our position as a first-class power. We would have to rely on the whim of the United States for the effectiveness of the whole basis of our strategy.”

This paved the way for Britain to trial bigger, more advanced weapons just a couple of years later.

Britain's first H-bomb experiment was conducted on May 15, 1957, at Malden Island, today part of the Kingdom of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean.

The bomb was dropped from Valiant at a height of 45,000 feet, at the time the highest altitude a thermonuclear bomb had been dropped from in the world.

In the same fashion seen four years earlier, Britain became the third country on the planet to test a thermonuclear weapon. The small island nation, with its limited post-war financial reserves, was doing its best to keep up with the USA and the Soviet Union.

This test was part of Operation Dapple. The period saw further weapon tests in the region, including at neighbouring Christmas Island (called Kiritimati today).

Associated to the debate around the morality of using nuclear weapons in anger, is the debate about testing them in the name of science.

Critics of nuclear testing cited the impact on the environment, the health of indigenous people and the consequences to nature as their key reasons for opposing the practice. Much of that criticism has since been levelled directly at Britain for the decades-long consequences of its weapons testing at places like Christmas and Malden islands in the late fifties and early sixties.

At the time of the testing, Kiribati was still under British colonial rule and perhaps this is another key reason why the nuclear weapons programme of the era is still being pulled into question today.

In a 2015 statement to the United Nations, Ambassador Makurita Baaro, Kiribati’s permanent representative to the UN, made a passionate argument that was, at moments, scathing toward the UK about the testing his country had endured decades earlier.

The statement included the following messages:

“In 1962, my family spent time on our home island with my grandparents in a rural village in one of the outer islands in Kiribati. One evening, not long after sunset, there was a sudden flash of orange light that rushed up into a mushroom cloud high in the sky and then lit up the whole sky, bright orange.

“There was a flurry of birds, most of which fell dead to the ground, and the villagers ran to the church next to my grandparents’ home loudly saying, ‘Hail Mary.’ My father knew what it was. He heard it on the radio in the village. It was the nuclear test on Kiritimati (Christmas Island) which is more than 4,000 kilometres away. Fish died and floated to the surface of the water and we had a feast the next day.

“A year later, I started school for the first time, one of my classmates had no teeth. She never had teeth. Another boy in the same class had patchy white and brown skin and was forever teased for this. Both my classmates had something in common; they were born in Kiritimati where their parents where when atmospheric tests were conducted between 1956 and 1962.”

 Ambassador Baaro continued:

“Today, our communities still suffer from the long-term impacts of the tests, experiencing higher rates of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer, due to exposure to radiation. In some places, the environment and food sources remain highly contaminated although studies done by those who conducted these tests have cleared these areas and indicated they are safe for us.”

The 1960s

Protesting Merseyside's carry colourful banners as they set out from Reading in the annual 50-mile ban-the-bomb march from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston to Trafalgar Square, London_0.jpg

The special relationship between the UK and USA was repaired as the 1950s ended.

This rapprochement was prompted primarily by a fear that the USSR was advancing in its weapons development at a faster pace than that of the Western superpowers. The chief reason for this was the successful deployment of Sputnik into orbit around Earth.

Positive consequences of the recommencement of cooperation were quick.

The agreement allowed for the exchanging of nuclear technology, not exclusively limited to weaponry. The USA supplied Britain with nuclear fuel which directly resulted in the building of the UK’s first nuclear powered submarine, HMS Dreadnaught. In return, Britain briefed the USA on its state of the art propulsion technology, which was implemented into the building of an entire new class of American submarine.

Dreadnaught would enjoy a 20-year life with the Royal Navy after its launch by HM the Queen in 1960. It has the charming record of being the first Royal Navy submarine to surface at the North Pole. A feat its crew achieved in 1971.

Added to the agreement of joint exploration in nuclear technologies was a separate memorandum of agreement to share weapons. Chiefly, the deal was about giving Britain access to American bombs so that its own nuclear weapons reserve did not look so dwarfed by that of the Soviet Union. In exchange, the UK allowed the USA to park its Polaris submarines in Scottish waters.

But the deal was not all it was cracked up to be as the Americans would not simply just hand over US nukes to British personnel.

Instead, the arrangements that were agreed allowed for US nuclear weapons to be stored in locations that both American and British personnel would have access to. The oversight and day-to-day maintenance of the weapons remained in American control. Even the protocols that where designed should the weapons be needed by Britain (assuming the US gave authorisation) provided problems. It was timed at no less than ten minutes to hand the weapons over to British control, and ten minutes when the wrath of nuclear annihilation is closing in is a terribly long time.  

Britain rightly felt that all the barriers equated to America virtually having a veto on UK nuclear weapons policy. And it would not do at all. The American weapons were phased out almost as soon as they had been placed in the joint locations in the UK and Germany.

The 1960s saw the arrival of the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), an advancement in nuclear weapons strategy that arrived for Britain in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is sometimes thought of as being an exclusively American and Russian affair, but Royal Air Force personnel at Bomber Command found themselves painstakingly committed to the responsibilities that were heading Britain’s way should shots be fired by either side. Targets identified and programmed to be attacked included six cities, more than 40 airfields, several air defence control installations and 20 enemy IRBM launch sites. Britain was not assuming it could sit this one out. And for the first time, thanks to the arrival of IRBMs, Britain could boast having two methods of delivery: via missile, or via the V-Force.


Royal Navy Polaris submarines HMS Resolution, Revenge and Repulse on the River Clyde in July, 1987. Polaris equipped submarines were operational for 28 years until being phased out and replaced by Trident in the 1990s. Credit: PA.

In the weeks and months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Britain’s nuclear weapons age entered a new era when it secured Polaris. However, it would take a further six years to enter service with the Royal Navy following the brokering of a deal between Prime Minster Harold Macmillan and President John F Kennedy.

Polaris provided Britain with its first submarine based nuclear weapons system.

As part of the programme, from 1969 Britain’s nuclear deterrent included four Resolution class submarines each armed with 16 Polaris ballistic missiles. Each of those missiles was able to deliver three thermonuclear warheads.

Polaris submarines were based on the Clyde near Glasgow and later at Faslane. It provided Britain with at least one submarine on patrol at secret locations around the world, thus the UK had a constant at-sea nuclear deterrent.

Nuclear submariners Polaris missile control on HMS Resolution
Nuclear submariners Polaris missile control on HMS Resolution. Credit: MOD

Polaris remained operational for 28 years and became Britain’s sole nuclear deterrent programme after V-Force’s phasing out in the 1970s.

During their service, the Polaris submarines Resolution, Renown, Revenge and Repulse conducted 229 consecutive and continuous patrols. The contribution the crews of those submarines had given Britain for all those years was praised by Prime Minister John Major as the last of the submarines was retired. He said: 

“Because of these patrols any possible aggressor has known that to attack the UK would provoke a terrible response.”

The last submarine of the Polaris era, Repulse, was decommissioned at Faslane on August 28, 1996.

Polaris was replaced by Trident, an upgraded nuclear weapons system that had been secured following many years of purchasing and technology sharing between the UK and USA. It remains the UK's nuclear weapons system to this day.

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