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The Royal Air Force and the Thor missile

Updated on July 26, 2016

The British get the Thor missile

For a brief period between 1960 and 1963 the Royal Air Force played a crucial role in delivering America’s ultimate response, the A bomb. Before the introduction into service of the Royal Navy’s fleet of Polaris armed nuclear ballistic missile submarines (HMS Resolution, HMS Revenge, HMS Renown and HMS Repulse) the RAF had been entrusted to take charge of a number of American Thor missile.

The history of this little known aspect of post war RAF operations started in 1955 when the US Department of Defense authorised the USAF to develop Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM’s). The resulting missile system was given the designation WS-315A Thor and was built by the Douglas Aircraft Company. They were, according to official documents, ‘Prime contractor responsible for airframe fabrication, systems integration and ground support equipment’.

The programme swiftly put together the entire delivery system with the first test missile being delivered to the USAF just 13 months after the award of the contract to Douglas Aircraft. The speed of construction was due to the perceived threat posed by the Russian SS-4 Sandal missiles that were being rapidly deployed across Central Europe.

Whilst the US could deploy Thor missiles in its own sectors, it needed assistance from its allies including Great Britain in deploying greater numbers to counter the Soviet threat. In January 1956 a briefing was held in Washington with the US Administration and a British Joint Services mission. Despite a lukewarm response the proposal to provide Britain with Thor missiles was reached during a meeting in March 1957 held in Bermuda between Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and US President Dwight D Eisenhower.

Speed was of the essence and the first Thor missile was to be delivered in 1958. The details of the arrangement saw the Americans provide the missiles, warheads, launch equipment and training whilst the RAF provided launch sites and manpower. Crucially permission to launch the weapons was retained by the United States.

Due to the design of the Thor missiles they were unsuitable for launch from submarines and therefore the Royal Air Force was selected as the service to operate the weapons. Even the RAF, however, had grave doubts about the Thor missile from the get go. The £10million price tag, the immaturity of the system development and above all the vulnerability of fixed launch sites all cast doubts over the programme.

The detailed plan, issued in late 1958, called for four squadrons each armed with 15 missiles to be deployed to 20 dispersed sites. Each of the four squadrons would operate from a headquarters airfield site and five firing sites, including the HQ site itself.

The chosen squadrons were 77(SM) Squadron at Feltwell, with satellites at Mepal, North Pickenham, Shepherds Grove and Tuddenham; 97(SM) Squadron at Hemswell with sites at Coleby Grange, Caistor, Bardney and Ludford Magna. 98(SM) Squadron at Driffield plus Carnaby, Catfoss, Breighton and Full Sutton) and 144 (SM) Squadron at North Luffenham with its satellites at Folkingham, Polebrook, Horrington and Melton Mowbray.

As with all military planning within 12 months the plan had changed quite considerably. The new organisational structure saw each launch site as a squadron in its own right. Thus the HQ’s and satellites became 77 (SM) Squadron (with 82,107,113 and 220 squadrons); 97 (SM) Squadron with (104, 106,142 and 269 squadrons); 98 (SM) Squadron with (150,226,240 and 102 Squadrons) and 144 (SM) Squadron with (223, 130, 218 and 254 squadrons).

On August 29, 1958 a C-124 Globemaster transport aircraft touched down at Lakenheath. Onboard was the first Thor missile to be operated by the RAF. This missile was taken to No 77 (SM) Squadron at RAF Feltwell and became operational on 3 September. Feltwell, like all the chosen launch sites, had seen a period of hectic, almost manic, construction with a convoy of lorry’s delivering concrete and a variety of launch components over the previous months.

The Thor missile were nothing like anything the RAF had used before, only the German V2 rockets of World War Two came close. They were large, bulky and cumbersome to maintain and move but their destructive potential was awe inspiring to anyone working with them. With a range of 1,500 miles and a warhead of one megaton (1 million tons of TNT) the Thor missiles were truly a superior weapon system. They were, however, powered by a dangerous mixture of liquid propellants, liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP1, a light cut petrol.

If the 60 foot long missile was awkward it was nothing compared to the massive undertaking that were the launch sites. The stand, on which the missiles sat, was 30,000lbs in weight, alongside it was a service tower and umbilical mast to provide electricity and fuel. A nearby hanger was built to maintain the missiles and a small railway track was constructed to move the weapons around more easily.

Added to this were the RAF personnel necessary to launch the weapons. Each site had 60 of all ranks plus administrators and RAF police. Another member of the ‘team’ was an American launch control officer (LCO) who shadowed his British counterparts and provided USAF authorisation for all launch commands.

In total some 60 Thor missiles were delivered to the United Kingdom and were incorporated into Bomber Command Alert and Readiness System and were all operational by May 1960.

Politicians, as is their want, change their minds, usually frequently and such was the case with Thor. The American system was seen as a stop gap ahead of a completely British system called Blue Streak. When the latter program was abandoned in April 1960 there was no future for the Thor’s too. By this time Polaris had been ordered for the Royal Navy and would go on to serve the nation until the early 1990s when it was replaced by the current Trident D5 system.

Only 12 British missiles were actually fired and these were at Vadenburg Air Force Base in California during what was known as Combat Training Launch (CTL). The first being during 98 (SM) Squadrons Exercise Lions Roar on 16 April 1959. The last took place in June 1962.

As an American system the end of the British involvement came on 31 May 1962 when the US Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates Jr, announcing that the end of the Thor force support for the RAF sites would terminate on 31 October 1964. In the event the British Government culled the program at the end of 1963 with the last Thor missile having already been sent back to America on 27 September 1963.


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    • stereomike83 profile image

      stereomike83 19 months ago from UK

      Great piece. I have written a hub about the UK during the Cuban Missile Crisis based on a book that I had read but whilst this talks of the Thor missiles, it focuses on the V force bombers. This was therefore a great read!