KIRIBATI

CHRISTMAS ISLAND BOMBERS 1

The aircraft that dropped Britain's first H-bomb, Vickers Valiant B, 1 XD818 of No. 49 Squadron.
It is seen at Christmas Island in November 1958 at the conclusion of the tests, ready for the
return flight to England which it made via Honolulu, the US.A. and Canada

           

Operation "Grapple"

 
Britain's first hydrogen bomb tests - 25 years ago

From an article in Air Pictorial magazine, May 1982

by PETER WILLIAMS  

THE PILOT'S commentary was clear and unhurried as the Valiant made its run-in at 45,000 ft. "Bomb gone" came the brief announcement and immediately the aircraft swung in a 60-deg. bank turn to port. The escape manoeuvre would take the aircraft to a position some six miles distant in the 30 seconds before detonation, a stark blinding flash at 8,000 ft. in the Pacific sky that would signal Britain's emergence as a nuclear power. It was 10.36 hrs. local time on Wednesday, 15th May 1957, six years almost to the day since the first flight of the Valiant prototype.

Captain "Mutt" Summers, who had made the Spitfire first flight, and "Jock" Bryce were at the controls on 18th May 1951 when the Vickers B.9/48 prototype, WB210, took off from the grass runway at Wisley, where the aircraft had been taken after completion at Weybridge. The following month the B.9 /48 was officially named the "Valiant".

Tragically the test programme was marred in January 1952 by the destruction of WB21 0 following a wing fire in flight. During the subsequent abandonment the co-pilot, S/Ldr. Fostet, was killed. It was three months before development flying could continue with the second prototype, WB215, but in June 1953 a pre-production Valiant took part in the fly past for the Coronation Review of the Royal Air Force.

The shoulder-wing medium bomber was of simple yet massive construction, its four turbojet engines buried in contemporary British fashion in the wing roots. Engines for the two prototypes were Rolls-Royce Avon RA.3s (WB210) and RA.7s (WB215). Production Valiants were fitted with more powerful Avon RA.28 Mk.204 engines with the consequent redesign of the air intakes to the familiar "spectacle" shape that permitted greater airflow.

A "backbone" member along the top fuselage centre-line supported the designed bomb-bay load of 1 x 10,OOO-lb. or 21 X 1,OOO-lb. bombs or 2 X 1,615-gal. fuel tanks. The crew of five (pilot, co-pilot, two navigators and an air electronics operator) were carried in a self-contained pressurised cabin. The manufacture of this very large assembly was sub-contracted to Saunders-Roe. A Mk.2 Valiant, WJ954, with backwards retracting undercarriage and in distinctive black finish, appeared at the 1954 S.B.A.C. Display. The Mk.2 was specially strengthened to undertake a low-level role, a role that in-service Mk.1 s were later forced to adopt with unfortunate results. The Valiant Mk.2 did not enter service but WJ954 was the in-flight refuelling trials aircraft for the type; the first air-to-air link taking place in March 1954 with a Canberra B.2 operated by Flight Refuelling Ltd. Eventually nearly half of the Valiant fleet was converted to the tanker role.

No. 49 Squadron's C.O., W/Cdr. K. G. Hubbard,
and his crew board Valiant XD818. They dropped
the first H-bomb on I5th May 1957 and each aircrew
member was subsequently awarded the A.F.C.
(Photo: courtesy G/Cpt. Hubbard)

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris,
wartime Chief of R.A.F. Bomber Command, inspects a
Valiant undercarriage. The massive nature of the tandem
wheels, compression struts and balancing cylinder is evident.
Vickers claimed that the undercarriage activator was strong
enough to lift a Viscount airliner (Photo: courtesy "R.A.F. News")
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Valiant's vintage years

In R.A.F. service the Valiant's conventional simplicity was destined to be overshadowed by the more striking appearance of its sister V-bombers. However, in 1954 the first of the Vforce was eagerly awaited at R.A.F. Gaydon, the home of the Valiant conversion unit, No. 232 O.C.U., and the ground servicing school. The aircraft proved to be easy to fly, with a docility that inspired confidence; and, once understood, the almost exclusively electric (112-volt d.c.) systems were relatively trouble-free.

Valiants of "A" Flight, No. 49 Squadron, at R.A.F. Wittering early in 1957
before Operation "Grapple". During operations the tailcone was replaced by
a fairing housing rear-facing cameras. The anti-flash white finish obscured
the nose radome and also, in later tests, the dielectric areas of fin and wing root
(Photo: G/Cpt. Hubbard)

No. 138 became the first Valiant squadron, receiving its aircraft at Gaydon in January 1955. Soon afterwards deliveries were made to No. 543 Squadron at R.A.F. Wyton and the Valiant eventually equipped ten R.A.F. squadrons: Nos. 7, 18, 49, 90, 138, 148, 199,207,214 and 543. Four types of Valiant saw squadron service: the B.1 bomber, B(PR).1 photo-reconnaissance aircraft, B(K).1 tanker and BPR(K).1 photo-recce. tanker. In all, a total of 104 Valiants was delivered, the last, XD875, to No. 207 Squadron in September 1957.

Valiants of "8" Flight, No, 49 Squadron, on the newly constructed dispersals
at Christmas Island. Groundcrews of "A" and "8" Flights alternated but aircraft
deployment was often mixed. "A" Flight's XD818 and XD822 are the interlopers here 
 
The years 1956 and 1957 were a period of eminence for the Valiant, which held the stage while the Avro Vulcan worked up in service and until the Handley Page Victor made its delayed entrance. Newly formed No. 49 Squadron was the unit chosen to participate in Britain's atomic weapon tests,  Operation "Buffalo", the drops taking place over Maralinga, the aboriginal "place of thunder", in Southern Australia. S/Ldr. E. J. G. Flavel piloted Valiant WZ366 for the first drop in October 1956. The same month Nos. 138, 148, 207 and 214 Squadrons were deployed to Luqa. Malta, from where they flew at the beginning of the Suez campaign. XD814 of No. 148 Squadron began the V-bomber attacks on Egyptian military targets on 31st October; the first and only V-bombers to operate in anger and the first big jet of any nationality to see action.

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Operation "Grapple"

The V-bomber force, although relatively small in numbers, possessed a capability significantly greater than Bomber Command's huge wartime fleet. That this was possible was partly because of developments in the turbojet engine and electronic precision navigation aids, but primarily through the advent of thermonuclear weapons.  

Historic XDBIB is the sale remaining Valiant. Delivered to No. 49 Squadron in November 1956,
the aircraft was fully converted to B(K); standard in 1962 and struck off charge at R .A. F. Marham
in 1965. Preserved at Marham since then, as shown here, XDBIB will eventually be displayed in the
new Bomber Command Museum at Hendon (Photo: R.A.F. Marham)

The Pacific programme of British thermonuclear tests, Operation "Grapple", began in 1957, following the earlier atomic trials in Australia. The testing of a large megaton-yield weapon had dictated that a new site be found and Christmas Island, a remote coral atoll 2 deg. north of the Equator, was chosen. The tri-Service and civilian task force for "Grapple" was commanded initially by Air Vice-Marshal W. E. Oulton and later by Air Vice-Marshal (later Marshal of the R.A.F. Sir John) Grandy. The Scientific Director was Mr. (later Sir William) Cook.

Although inhabited, with an economy based on the export of coconut products, the island had been largely neglected since World War II. Preparations had started the previous year to construct the support facilities and a 7,000-ft. runway, 25 miles of roads, a control tower, buildings for weapon assembly and a seawater distillation plant were some of the building works needed. The domestic accommodation was tented but more substantial buildings were provided for recreation purposes. Most of these works were carried out by the Army Task Group which included a detachment of Fijian troops.

The dropping point was off Malden Island, an uninhabited atoll some 400 miles south of Christmas Island. By dusk on 14th May the scientists had made the final checks on the apparatus sited on Malden that was designed to measure the air blast, heat and radiation levels. They withdrew and embarked in H.M.S. Narvik, Warrior and Messina.

The hours prior to the release of the bomb were tense and dramatic. Long before dawn the Shackletons of Nos. 204 and 206 Squadrons and Canberras of Nos. 76 and 100 Squadrons had thundered off from Christmas Island on weather reconnaissance and sampling sorties-with the added duty for the Shackletons of searching the danger area to ensure that it was free of shipping. At first light, Hastings of No. 24 Squadron and Dakotas of No. 1325 Flight had left for the target area laden with observers.

Ground equipment to match the Valiant. The armourer's infamous
"dinosaur" bombloading gantry was also used for underwing tank changes.
The aircraft flew "clean-winged" during operations from Christmas Island

The delicate task of loading the weapon into Valiant XD818 had been completed the previous day and now, crewed and ready, the aircraft waited in the grey cool hours of early morning. The signals traffic rose to a peak. "All clear" was received from Malden. Ships were reported in position. "All clear" came from the search flights and a constant stream of weather information came in from dozens of sources. The messages flashed between the task Force Commander on the Scientific Control Ship Narvik and the operations room on Christmas Island, culminating in the order for XD818 to take off. Piloted by W / Cdr. K. G. Hubbard, Officer Commanding No. 49 Squadron, the gleaming white aircraft taxied out on to the runway. For the few who watched it leave, the graceful rise and climb into the morning sky was so nonchalant as to be an anti-climax. On 31st Maya second and larger weapon was dropped, witnessed by representatives of the world's press. Testing continued at Christmas Island until November 1958-"Grapple X, Y and Z"-during which time the Valiants of No. 49 Squadron dropped a total of seven thermonuclear weapons.

Vital service

For more than eight years the Valiant was a vital part of Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent and later replaced the Canberra in NATO's strike forces. It also gave distinguished service in a number of ancillary roles. During 1959 and 1960 No. 214 Squadron pioneered the use of V-bombers in the flight refuelling role and, in so doing, established several non-stop flight distance records, including U.K. to Cape Town and to Singapore. A further significant achievement concerned the PR Valiants of No. 543 Squadron which, during an eleven-week period in 1964, photographed some 400,000 square miles of the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe).  

Valiants carried out trials with Blue Steel although the stand-oft weapon never became operational on the type. Trials were also undertaken with Super Sprite HTP assisted-take-oft rocket motors, and a proposal for twin 20-mm. tail-gun armament reached the design stage. But perhaps the most significant trials contribution was to the next generation of jet aircraft when Valiant WP 199 was used as a flying test-bed for the Kestrel/Harrier's Bristol Siddeley Pegasus vectored-thrust engine installation. 

In the early 1960s studies showed that the V-bombers could not expect to survive against improving Warsaw Pact air defences at high altitudes; their only chance would be a target approach at low level. Accordingly, after extensive trials in Canada, Valiants converted to the low-level role. To reduce visual detection the aircraft were repainted in a camouflage scheme reminiscent of W.W.II.

The aircraft structure was now subjected to much greater air loads, causing stresses that were probably outside the design parameters, and this certainly accelerated their demise.  

Investigations following the accidents to WZ363 and WZ396 revealed that fatigue cracks in the wing spars were prevalent throughout the Valiant fleet. Considered uneconomic to repair, the aircraft were grounded in December 1964 and withdrawn from service in January 1965 to be scrapped at their bases.

 
Bomber Command Museum

It is intended that the sole remaining Valiant, XD818, be eventually displayed in a new Bomber Command Museum at Hendon. The new museum is expected to open in November 1982. To help raise funds for this project, expected to cost £2.5 million, the R.A.F. Museum is issuing a new series of flown commemorative covers. Appropriately the covers will portray notable bombers of the last seventy years suitably linked with the events, squadrons and personalities of the period.

The Valiant cover will be issued in May, postmarked on the 25th anniversary of the first British H-bomb test. The aircraft is depicted in a specially commissioned painting by John Young, G.Av.A., and the cover has been flown to the Pacific test area to mark the event. Meanwhile historic Valiant XD818, Cinderella-like in unglamorous camouflage, waits to be spirited off to grace the splendid new ballroom at Hendon.

Christmas Island Valiant Bomber

Christmas Island Bomb Tests

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