Victor Era 1962/68

100 Squadron reformed at RAF Wittering on 1st May 1962, as the second squadron to be equipped with Handley Page Victor B Mk II. Wing Commander Mike Robinson assumed command of the reformed Squadron. 100 Squadron had returned to Wittering as part of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Force, and in so doing assisted in providing the UK’s contribution to the NATO Retaliatory Strike Plan. The ‘Cold War’ was at its height, and the operational posture reflected this situation.

The V-Force, as the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent, was a critical part of co-ordinated nuclear strike planning in response to any attack on NATO. The criticality was related to the fact that V-Force bombers would reach their targets in the Soviet Union before USAF manned bombers, and RAF attacks had to be carefully integrated with strikes from US land-based ballistic missiles. To achieve co-ordination with missile strikes, the stress was on navigation; precise timing and track keeping were essential components of the nuclear retaliatory operation. The V-Force, also had the capability to act independently and inflict unacceptable levels of destruction on Eastern Bloc targets should the national need arise.

For the V-Force to be effective as a deterrent, it had to demonstrate the ability to react appropriately to a range of crises from rising political tension through to increased levels of actual military threat. A constant round of practice alerts achieved this, and no notice generation and dispersal exercises combined with the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) added to the maintenance and proof of this capability.

The Victor B Mk II aircraft was capable of Mach 0.95 performance at 45,000 feet and above. It could carry a 35,000-pound conventional bomb load, although the principal weapon, from design inception, was the free fall thermo-nuclear bomb code-named Yellow Sun 2. The stable mates of the Victors were the Valiant and Vulcan aircraft. Mark I versions of all three of the V Bombers had entered service in the mid-1950s with the Mark II versions of the Victor and Vulcan becoming available in the early 1960s. These later aircraft had much better performance and improved navigation and defensive systems.

The Victor had a crew of 5; two pilots, two navigators and an air electronics officer (AEO). The navigation ‘team’ consisted of a nav radar and a nav plotter. The nav radar had attended a 10-month course at the Bomber Command Bombing School at Lindholme on radar scope interpretation and the detailed operation of the Navigation and Bombing System (NBS) fitted to all V-Bombers. The nav plotter had completed at least one full tour prior to joining the V-Force and initially used very traditional techniques with flight plan proforma, a separate navigation log and Lambert’s Conformal Plotting Charts; however, these techniques changed when low-level tactics were introduced. The role of the AEO was a mix of air engineer, signaller and defensive systems operator. All Victors and Vulcans had been deliberately designed to generate sufficient electrical power to supply a small town, and this excess power was available for jamming equipment, which could be used across a wide range of frequencies to protect the bomber force during its high-level penetration of Soviet defences.

A new Victor crew arriving on the Squadron from the OCU at RAF Gaydon were qualified to fly the aircraft safely, but not operationally. The first task of the new crew was to complete a defined pattern of training sorties, some ground training requirements, and to become familiar with their assigned “Accounting Line Numbers” or ALNs; these were the routes and targets contained in the NATO and National War Plans. Only then could the crew be declared ‘Combat Ready’ and stand QRA. Achieving Combat Ready was the first step in a complex six-month training schedule for a crew to achieve, retain or improve their Bomber Command classification as a ‘constituted crew’. Operating as a constituted crew meant that the five men trained, flew, stood QRA and would go to war as a named team. Substitutes were not allowed because of the teamwork required to operate the V-aircraft, and the secret nature of target materials, which they regularly studied in “the vaults” built into the operations blocks at each V-bomber base.

In the 1960s, the V-Force squadrons contained the most elite aircrew of the Royal Air Force who had been specially selected for their skill and experience. The Bomber Command classifications, which individuals and crews strived for were, in order of excellence:
• Combat Ready;
• Combat Star;
• Select and
• Select Star – although this was later re-titled Command.
Very few crews achieved this highest standard.

If tension rose between the Soviet Union and the West, any resting crews would be called in from home, others would be recalled from detachments or leave and assigned specific ALNs. All available aircraft, including those in deep servicing, would be generated to a war footing and loaded with nuclear weapons. If the crisis continued or escalated, aircraft and crews would disperse to the 36 major airfields in the UK where Operational Readiness Platforms (ORPs) had been constructed for this purpose. The AOC-in-C Bomber Command regularly called generation and dispersal exercises; these were codenamed Exercise Mick and Exercise Mickey Finn respectively. These practised and demonstrated the operational capability of his Command to the UK Government and its people but – more importantly – to the Kremlin.

Dispersal of the force was designed to ensure that the maximum number of bombers would get airborne and be clear of the effects of a nuclear strike within the minimum warning time of just four minutes provided by the Ballistic Missile Early Warning system at Fylindales. Four aircraft scrambles from the ORPs were practised regularly; it was a very impressive sight to witness such large aircraft sitting peacefully on the ORP; the order would come to each crew over the Tele-scramble system from Headquarters Bomber Command, High Wycombe; sixteen powerful engines would simultaneously burst into life, the first aircraft would be airborne within 60 seconds, and all four would be away within two and a half minutes. The responsiveness, and the professionalism of crews of the V-Force Squadrons in terms of being the UK nuclear deterrent is exemplified by two examples. These were the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, and a software problem that occurred at the Fylingdales when the QRA crews were brought to readiness because, during a software update, the RCA engineers had forgotten to re-install the Moon’s profile and, when it rose, it looked like an attack by Soviet ICBMs.

To counter the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack without a period of tension, each V-Force Squadron maintained at least one aircraft at a state of full combat readiness. The aircraft was loaded with nuclear weapons, fully fuelled and “Scramble-checked” at pre-take off readiness. The QRA aircrews and ground crews virtually lived with the aircraft on a full time basis. The QRA was frequently tested at no notice, day or night, by Bomber Command HQ. When “Exercise Edom – Readiness state 02” was called over the Tannoy. Inevitably, there could be an element of inter-squadron rivalry as crews raced to be first in the cockpit with engines running ready for take off when the ‘scramble’ command came. This was a ‘way of life’ for the air and ground crews of 100 Squadron during this era. Periods of time on QRA were mixed with continuity training, dispersal exercises and individual aircraft detachments often to bases in North America. Typical of such detachments included a visit to Travis Air Force Base in the USA, and a three-aircraft detachment to the RNZAF base at Ohakea in February 1964.

No less important was the training provided for the ground crews. The Victor MKII was a very complex aircraft, and the ground technicians were all selected for the technical capabilities and skills. Ground crew were not allowed anywhere near a V-bomber unless they had completed requisite training often at the aircraft manufacturer. Each aircraft had its own named ‘Crew Chief’; he was of Chief Technician or Master Technician rank, and held responsibility for the first line maintenance of ‘his’ aircraft. When the particular aircraft was detached away from main base, the Crew Chief invariably flew with the aircraft to provide technical back up to the aircrew.

Flying these demanding aircraft was a dangerous occupation. On 20th March 1963, Flight Lieutenant Alex Galbraith and his crew took off from Wittering in XM714 for a Bomber Command Competition sortie. Also on-board was a navigator from 139 (Jamaica) squadron acting as an umpire. Soon after take-off, an engine fire warning occurred and, in the confusion that followed, the heavy aircraft stalled and crashed into the outskirts of Barnack village. The only survivor was the co-pilot – Flight Lieutenant Benny Jackson – who later rose to the rank of Air Marshal. The Bomber Command rule at the time was that the co-pilot should eject whenever possible to bring back the story of what had occurred so that any corrective action could be taken.

For the first two years of its existence as a V-Force Squadron, 100 had its own aircraft and ground crews. However, at the end of 1964 Bomber Command decided to ‘centralise’ all modes of servicing into a wing organisation. The aircraft and ground crews were no longer ‘part’ of the Squadron, which was reduced to aircrews only. Whilst this may have been more ‘economical’, it was not a popular move as it tended to break the strong relationships that had always existed between the ground and aircrews, and also the affinity felt by many of the ground crews with ‘their’ aeroplanes.

On 30th September 1964, Wg Cdr John Herrington assumed command of the Squadron. By this time, the aircraft were no longer in their all-over white ‘Anti-Flash’ livery but were painted in camouflage colours on the upper surface. They had all been fitted with more powerful Rolls Royce Conway engines, the navigation system had been updated and the bomb doors modified to accept the ‘Blue Steel’ Missile. Because of the ever increasing number of Surface to Air Missiles deployed along the Soviet borders, the operational mode had also been changed. No longer were the aircraft operating in waves on high altitude profiles using jamming to penetrate Soviet defences; instead, they were planned to operate individually and descend to low level under surveillance radar cover and so avoid detection. This was not the operating regime the aircraft had been designed for, and the change would eventually take its toll in terms of fatigue stress on the airframes.

The Blue Steel missile weighed 16,000 lbs and was powered by the Stentor rocket motor using High Test Peroxide and Kerosene as propellants to achieve a thrust of 35,000 lbs. The warhead was the 1.1 Megaton – Red Snow – similar to that contained in the Yellow Sun free-fall weapon. The missile’s control surfaces included a canard fore-plane, and it was guided from the launch position to the target by an inertial navigation system, which was aligned and corrected by the nav team en-route. From a low level launch at 250 feet, the missile climbed steeply to 55,000 feet accelerating to Mach 3; it then descended onto the target some 50 miles away from the launch point. On 27th May 1966, 100 Squadron carried out the first live launch of a Blue Steel Missile by any operational crew of a ‘V’ bomber squadron. It was given the title ‘Operation Fresno’. Norman Bonnor was the nav radar and Gordon Hagel the nav plotter in the crew commanded by Terry Austin.

Wg Cdr John Herrington handed over command of 100 Squadron to Wg Cdr Harry Archer in January 1967. In March 1967, the Squadron won the Bomber Command Bombing Competition outright, and were awarded the Laurence Minot Trophy. The work put in by the crews in their preparation for this competition was prodigious. This ‘victory’ was all the more unusual, in that 100 Squadron won it as a Blue Steel Squadron, and scored a ‘direct hit’! For this feat, not only were the Squadron awarded the Laurence Minot Trophy, but also Rolls Royce made a special award of a silver ‘Winged Lady‘ to the Squadron ‘for excellence’. In June 1968, Wg Cdr Archer was the overall commander of the Royal Review Flypast for HM Queen Elizabeth II at Abingdon, which marked the 50th Anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force. 24 V Bombers took part in this flypast, including 6 Victors from Wittering.

Although 100 Squadron continued to ‘keep it going’, the responsibility for the UK’s nuclear deterrent was handed over to the Royal Navy with the introduction of Polaris. The low level operating profile had caused main spar stress problems, and this necessitated a major engineering programme if the aircraft was to be retained in front line strike mode. This was not considered feasible and, combined with the need to replace the Victor K Mk1A tankers which were somewhat underpowered for the role, the decision was made to withdraw the Victor Mk IIs as bombers and convert them for the ‘Tanker’ role. The 100 Squadron aircraft were gradually withdrawn, and on 30th September 1968, the Squadron again went into ‘rest’ mode for the second time in 9 years.

100 Squadron had been ‘reborn’ for the second time in 1962 again as a front line strike squadron in the elite of Bomber Command, the V-Force. It was equipped with, arguably, the most advanced of the 3 V Bombers, the Victor MKII. During her 9 years as a nuclear deterrent Squadron, 100 Squadron had achieved much including the first launch of a Blue Steel Missile from a V Bomber, and had won the Laurence Minot Bomber Command Trophy outright. Truly 100 Squadron was Bomber Command Squadron ‘excellent’. A Squadron with such a proud record, and which had made such a contribution to the defence of the Free World would not be at rest for long. The journey would be resumed in a very short time.