Highland Archives


By Stephen Cashmore and David Bews

For months they had eaten, slept and breathed it; had devoted their every waking hour to discussing it, refining their techniques, honing their skills and, above all, mentally preparing themselves for the hour that, as sure as night followed day, had to come. Yet now that it had arrived the whole thing seemed surreal. The captain double-checked his encoded orders. There was zero error margin, for the world had perched on the edge of an abyss ever since 1949. But this time, there was no false intelligence, no defective communications. This time it was for real.

As the B-47 ‘Stratojet’ of Strategic Air Command flew east from its home at Edwards Airforce Base, its crew lapsed into a deep, reflective silence. Most of them were thinking of their wives and families, trying to etch into their consciousness all the small, insignificant details of those last hours they had spent together, laughing, carefree, careless of the Armageddon that hung over them like a dark mushroom cloud. Would they ever again enjoy such moments? Probably not, but it was best not to let one’s thoughts lapse into melancholy. They had a duty to perform, a job to do. Beneath them, in the B-47’s bomb bay, was tucked a Mark 43 atom bomb, twenty times more powerful than the one that had devastated Hiroshima, vaporising 100,000 human beings. What would their bomb do to Moscow? How many innocent Russians would never see another day dawn, all on account of the plutonium-packed cylinder, which would soon drop from the sky? No matter – their own politicians had started it. America had always said it would never instigate hostilities, it would only respond to an act of nuclear aggression. But when it did respond – watch out! To ensure the maximum retaliatory hammer-blow, Strategic Air Command kept at least a hundred fully tooled-up B-47’s in the air at any one time.

The B-47 had a optimum range of 4,000 miles, too short to get it to Moscow even at the best of times, and now that things were terminally serious the bomber’s range could expect to fall by at least 20 per cent. Which United Kingdom airfield were they due to land at for refuelling? The captain consulted his flight map. His plane was booked to touch down at a reserve runway on the very northern fringe of the Scottish mainland, a place none of them had heard of, never seen, and never expected to revisit for, as the place was certain to be a target for the Soviet’s nuclear warplanes, there would be nothing left to return to. And the name of this remote airfield? Dounreay.

We know, of course, that the above is nothing but a fiction. Nevertheless, in the early 1950’s it was a high possibility, planned for and anticipated with deadly seriousness, product of a time when ballistic technology had temporary outstripped weapon delivery systems, when land-based facilities still played a leading part in war planning.

Prior to the 1960 dawn of the Polaris Age, the vast distances between the major US cities and their Soviet counterparts drove aircraft designers of both superpowers into a frenzied, money-no-barrier drive to build bombers with ever longer operational ranges. The breakthrough came in 1955 with the coming into service of the 10,000-mile range American B-52 ‘Stratofortress’, undoubtedly one of the greatest of all warplanes. The Russians, relying on second-hand or stolen-by-espionage technology, unveiled their Tu-95 ‘Bear’ a year later. This beast could fly 7,800 miles without refuelling.

The British, poor relations of their American allies struggled along the same path, their aim an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. This grandiose scheme, which was in certain respects nothing but the final blusterings of an expiring one-time global power, has kept our country’s place at the top table of world powerbrokers. Despite all the understandable moral arguments against it, without our nuclear capabilities we would be as influential today in world affairs as Denmark or Switzerland, which is perhaps not saying very much.

Being much closer to their assumed future enemy, British bombers would require an operating range of 2,500 miles to fly to Moscow and back. This figure, however, is a little simplistic. No-one going to bomb Moscow could realistically expect to do so without having to fly at maximum speed for most of the journey. Such speeds would gobble up fuel at an alarming rate. To counter this, the RAF commissioned the building of the famous ‘V-Bomber’ Force, the ‘Valiant’, ‘Vulcan’ and ‘Victor’ models which came into service between 1955 and 1958, and all of which had the capability of reaching Moscow on one fuel charge. The possibility of their returning from such a devastating mission was a thing best confined to the imagination.

Prior to 1955, it can be seen that neither of the Western powers had a bomber with a ‘Russia and return’ range. En route refuelling bases were essential. Britain was the ideal stepping stone on the American flight-path to Russia. The late world war had left England and Scotland studded with military airfields, some of them little more than flat fields with a few shack-like hangars; others tarmac and concrete strips surrounded by purpose-built storage and maintenance facilities. But, no matter how sophisticated an airfield’s support hardware, to be of use in the nuclear age it had to possess one vital attribute – a concrete runway, at least one-mile in length.

When the British strategic war planners mapped out the forward development track for their country’s nuclear deterrent away back in 1947, they were still 5 years away from actually exploding an atomic bomb. No matter, the Chiefs of Staff ordered the design and build of a long range bomber force, and gave instructions for the maintenance of those wartime airfields with runways long enough for the new warplanes to take off and land on. In Scotland the primary V-Bomber bases were Prestwick, Kinloss, Macrahanish, Leuchars and Lossiemouth. Given the possibility that a Soviet pre-emptive strike might disable the main bases, a number of secondary airfields capable of handling V-Bombers had to be identified. North of Inverness, there was only one such airfield, HMS ‘Tern II’, which had been taken over by the Admiralty from Coastal Command in July 1944, and was being run by them on a shoestring care-and-maintenance budget. Where was this ‘HMS Tern II’? It was located in Caithness, nine miles east of Thurso at a place called Dounreay.

Given that ‘HMS Tern II’ had played no part whatsoever in the Second World War, it is puzzling at first to imagine just what persuaded the Admiralty to maintain an incomplete airfield for the eight years between 1945 and the coming of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. One likely theory is that, initially at least, the Navy saw Dounreay’s potential as a base for Shackleton and Lincoln bombers, booked for use as submarine and warship hunters in the northern seas between Scandinavia and Greenland. As this outdated war thinking passed out of fashion with the 1949 Soviet acquisition of atomic bombs, it is possible that Dounreay became a focus both for America’s Strategic Air Command need for one-stop British bases for refuelling its B-47 bomber fleet, and of the RAF’s projected network of V-Bomber stations. Whatever the reason, we may be sure that when Sir Christopher Hinton first set eyes on the dream site for his fast breeder reactor project in May 1953, his enthusiasm would have been tempered by his knowledge that Dounreay figured in the Air Ministry’s nuclear deterrent plans. After all, hadn’t Sir Christopher himself, as engineering kingpin of the Windscale nuclear site, played a not insignificant role in providing the plutonium that went into Britain’s atomic bombs?

In the first of these two articles we saw how the MP for Caithness and Sutherland had spent the final weeks of 1953 fretting over the diminishing political credibility he had with his electorate. Sir David Robertson wrote to Duncan Sandys, Minister of Supply, on an almost daily basis, reminding the Minister that an announcement confirming the selection of Dounreay as chosen site for the pioneering fast breeder reactor project, was long overdue. Everybody knew that the thing was going to be built at Dounreay, so why on earth not give the official say-so? The answer was simple – Duncan Sandys could not confirm what he knew to be still in doubt.

To be frank, Sir David Robertson, although he had access to more than a few influential ears, was not numbered amongst the elite politicians who knew anything definite about Britain’s top-secret plans for a retaliatory nuclear war. Outside of the Prime Minister and the military top brass, next to no-one, not even cabinet ministers, was kept fully informed about how many atomic bombs were being assembled at Aldermaston, or on which Russian cities those bombs were to be targeted. Some may maintain that in a democracy, nothing should be withheld from the people’s representatives. This is na´ve idealism. Members of Parliament are elected to represent their constituents; they do not run the country. Indeed, whether or not we care to admit it, the very mechanism of democracy leaves it open to exploitation by those who are able, by whatever means, to influence the results of elections.

It was, of course, necessary for scientists engaged in the atomic weapons programme to be privy to some of Britain’s nuclear secrets, and we now know that, to their everlasting shame, certain of these technocrats betrayed atomic secrets, either for money or through misplaced political sympathies. No doubt others connected with Britain’s atomic bomb project went to their graves as undetected traitors, the kind of treacherous nonentities writers of spy fiction thrive on. David Robertson’s patriotism was probably beyond question, but for Duncan Sandys to tell the Member for Caithness and Sutherland everything he himself knew about the negotiations over Dounreay’s future would have been contrary to accepted Government practice. Sandys merely told Sir David that the Air Ministry was placing minor obstacles in the path of the Dounreay fast reactor project. That was all the MP needed to know. Weren’t there enough and more redundant military airfields in Caithness under Air Ministry control? Must they seek to thwart plans of great national importance just because they had for so long had their own way? The Minister of Supply wholeheartedly agreed, with his good friend, Sir David, but . . .

Throughout the latter half of 1953 a series of high-level meetings were held at Whitehall, designed to persuade both the Air Ministry and the Admiralty that Dounreay’s future would be best served by surrendering the airfield to the Ministry of Supply’s Atomic Energy organisation. Sir Christopher Hinton had been adamant – Dounreay was where he wanted his experimental fast breeder reactor built, and no-one thought himself qualified enough to argue with such a formidable personality. Had not Hinton masterminded the conversion of Risley, Springfields and Windscale from outdated military facilities into dynamic centres of nuclear excellence? Perhaps even more persuasively, alarmed by the production-crippling coal famine of 1951, had not the Government given the then powerful Confederation of British Industry an undertaking to pursue with all vigour the development of cheap and self-sufficient nuclear power, of which the fast breeder reactor seemed the best way forward? Against this the military chiefs offset the paramount importance of retaining the Dounreay runway for use both by our American allies, and our soon to be on-stream V-Bomber force. At length, a compromise appears to have been reached.

In a letter dated 10th December 1953 the Minister of Supply gave five undertakings to the Secretary of State for Air:

    1. The Ministry would be consulted about the siting of the atomic energy buildings, including any future extensions.
    2. The main Dounreay runway and its approaches would remain unobstructed, and full consultation must take place prior to sanctioning the construction of any buildings which might interfere with planes landing or taking off.
    3. That certain existing military buildings would be left intact for use in a future war.
    4. That in the event of a war, the runway and associated buildings would be immediately available for operational use, irrespective of whatever construction stage the atomic energy plant was at.
    5. That the Atomic Energy Organisation would at no future time erect buildings or take any action which would interfere with the wartime availability of the main runway, without the agreement of both the Air Ministry and the Admiralty.

These were stiff and potentially restrictive conditions. It could have been worse; the Air Ministry’s original insistence that all atomic energy operations at Dounreay must be shut down in the event of war was dropped. The rest of the conditions were accepted, as was the Atomic Energy Organisation’s obligation to maintain both runway and military buildings in good repair. At last, pending the approval of, presumably, the Prime Minister himself, the Dounreay fast reactor project was to receive the green light.

By 1955 everything had changed. The UKAEA became feu holders of the Dounreay site. A combination of circumstances had much reduced Dounreay’s potential importance as a military facility. With the arrival of the B-52 ‘Stratofortress’, the Americans no longer needed refuelling stops in this country. In any case, the USAF was busily acquiring its own bases all over Britain. And within a few years, submarines armed with nuclear-tipped missiles would become the spearhead of America’s military muscle. There remained the question of a Far North base for the RAF’s V-Bombers. In 1954, a contract was awarded to Farren’s for the westward extension of the 4,000 feet tarmac main runway at Wick airport. When the work was completed in 1955, Wick’s chief runway stretched another 2,000 feet towards Ackergill. The airport was now available for use by V-Bombers, but the thought of a ‘Vulcan’ fully loaded with atomic bombs, landing there on a fog-bound afternoon, is not one that sits easy in a reflective mind.

Dounreay remained one of 52 prime Soviet nuclear targets until at least 1990. To be honest, even if it had not been so, in the event of a nuclear war, few of us in Caithness would have survived. In 1980, a Russian military planner concluded that, an all-out nuclear war would result in the detonation of 14,747 nuclear devices on 1,300 Northern Hemisphere locations. Killed instantly would be 750 million people. A further 340 million wounded would have died a week later. All rainwater would become contaminated, poisoning crops and killing livestock. Famine would stalk the world, the socio-economic system would collapse, driving at least of third of all survivors mad. Within a year of the war’s outbreak, 2 billion human beings would be dead, and the situation would only get worse. These statistics define the term ‘nuclear deterrent’.

While available documents from the Public Records Office were used in this article, much relevant material remains, understandably, under official lock and key. This has resulted in our indulging in a little plausible speculation while compiling the above. We may be wrong. Please tell us if we are.


Highland Archives Index


Steven Cashmore 1999

David Bews 1999

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