Conceptual map of Cold War nuclear weapon deployment

Book review: ‘Britain and the Bomb: Technology, Culture and the Cold War’

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How Britain’s most ambitious project in the field of aviation became a victim of political pragmatism.

Half a century ago, Britain was at war. Not a conventional war in the sense of the two global conflicts that dominated the second and fifth decades of the century, in which armies, navies and air forces physically entered into armed, gladiatorial combat to establish advantage and ultimately victory. Rather, a new type of war fought with threat posturing, escalation of technology potential and diplomatic strategy.

The Cold War, with its ever-present risk of nuclear deployment, was more like a political game of chess. The endgame, if we ever came to it, would put the slaughter and destruction of previous world wars in the shade.

‘Britain and the Bomb: Technology, Culture and the Cold War’ (Whittles Publishing, £18.99, ISBN 9781849953894) is W.J. Nuttall’s fascinating account of the technology and culture surrounding one often overlooked aspect of the Cold War: the nuclear strike bomber TSR2, which in April 1965 was cancelled by the Labour government. While TSR2 might have faded in our collective memory compared with Trident in the 1980s, its cancellation was to have a critical impact on Britain’s approach to its nuclear deterrent programme, paving the way for the Chevaline upgrade of the country’s submarine-based nuclear capabilities.

As Nuttall explains, TSR2 was “the most ambitious aviation project ever conceived by the British”. Its success was directly linked to the UK’s aspirations and yet only one aircraft from the project – the XR219 – ever took to the skies and it only achieved supersonic speeds once. Its cancellation, Nuttall believes, was is if the United States had cancelled the Apollo programme immediately after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. If Britain had continued with TSR2, he claims, it would have had an engineering success on its hands the likes of which would have made Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel proud.

Nevertheless, he admits, while the scrapping of the project robbed the UK of what might have been a glorious future in terms of how far it could develop aviation technology, the fate of the TSR2 was nonetheless probably “a sensible decision in Cold War defence policy”, where political pragmatism outweighed nationalism.

Anyone expecting ‘Britain and the Bomb’ to be a specialist biography of the TSR2 will be left wanting (there are plenty of these in print elsewhere). Where Nuttall excels is by placing the Cold War in a social and technological context that invites the reader to come to a closer understanding of why this complex aspect of recent history - for many of us in frightening living memory - is so important. It’s also a vital parable for our time. Anyone doubting the far-reaching effects of the Cold War era should turn to Lord Owen’s foreword to ‘Britain and the Bomb’ in which he forecasts that “despite sincere moves towards global nuclear disarmament” Britain will remain a nuclear weapons state for at least another century.

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