V Bomber Quartet from Grub Street – Review by Paul Theobald

Grub Street and author and former test pilot Tony Blackman have brought together four great Cold War era titles which come from the publisher’s on-going and very sought after Boys series of books.

I thought I would bring you a combined review of these four great books, mainly because they cover the V Bomber aircraft of the Royal Air Force; the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan. These aircraft, forming Britain’s airborne nuclear deterrent, were on standby to be scrambled and airborne, fully loaded with nuclear bombs to their pre-designated targets behind the Iron Curtain just like their American counterparts from the Strategic Air Command. The V Bombers were also ready to deploy at very short notice to other airfields to make them less of a target from what was thought to be our biggest threat – the Soviet Union and her allies within the Warsaw Pact.

With the coming of the jet age after the Second World War the race was on to build fighter aircraft, but it was no different with jet powered long range bombers.  In January 1947 the British Air Ministry published operation requirements in the form of OR229. This called for a bomber which could deliver a payload of 2 x 10,000lb concrete piercing bombs, 2 x 10,000lb High Capacity bombs, 20 x 1,000lb Medium Capacity bombs, 20 x 1,000lb incendiary or cluster bombs or 1 x special gravity bomb. The aircraft should have a range of 3,858 miles in all weather conditions and reach a top speed of 575 mph, capable of flying up to 50,000 feet. Maximum performance was the order of the day and as such no defensive armament was requested.

Although the requirements would push engineering of the day to its limit, six companies tendered bids. On the 15th January 1948 a conference concluded that four of the original designs should be approved. Vickers received an instruction to proceed on 16th April 1948. In the same month Handley Page were contracted to produce two HP80 prototypes. Although Avro’s design was considered best at the conference the instruction for it to proceed was delayed until the Ministry of Supply was convinced Avro’s team had sufficient technical competence to handle the project. The first Avro prototype took to the air on August 30th 1952.

So that’s the background to the V Bomber Force. There have been many books and publications on the subject and there are examples of these aircraft in museums for people to see. But the story of the crews that flew them has rarely been told.  This has now become possible due to the combined efforts of Tony Blackman and Grub Street.

The first of these books is Victor Boys co-written by Tony and Garry O’Keefe. The Handley Page Victor was the third of the V bombers and the most long lasting, serving in the RAF until 1993 and doing invaluable service during the first Gulf War. Moreover in 1982 during the Falklands War it was the Victor tanker fleet based on Ascension Island that made the Vulcan Black Buck missions to bomb Port Stanley airfield in the Falkland Islands possible, along with the long range reconnaissance missions off the Argentinian coast.

Victor Boys tells the story of all the great things that were achieved, recounted firs hand by the operators themselves; both aircrew and ground crew. The book begins with recollections from test pilot Johnny Allan, who undertook the major development of the aircraft. There are stories of its work as a nuclear bomber during the Cold War, followed by testing of the Blue Steel bomb in Australia and its operation in squadron service. Finally there are first hand accounts of the Victor’s superb work as an air to air refuelling tanker during the Falklands War and later when providing a vital support resource for fighters and other aircraft.

The gripping book includes many previously unpublished photographs provided by the operators themselves. It would make a good companion to Contact by Bill Tuxford that I have reviewed previously for War history Online.

The Avro Vulcan was the second of the three V bombers built to guard the UK during the Cold War. Like the Spitfire, it has become an aviation icon, its delta shape instantly recognisable as is the howling noise it makes when the engines are opened up for take off.

Vulcan Boys is the first book of its kind where accounts are told completely first hand by the operators themselves. It tells the story of the aircraft from its design conception and through the Cold War when it played out its most important job as part of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, before, unbelievably; at the end of its service life it became well known to the public at large for its role in liberating the Falkland Islands for which it gained much celebrity.

The individual accounts of its crews detail how hours at a time were spent on readiness, waiting to be scrambled to defend their country in the event of a Third World War. In addition, how their aggressive skills were honed carrying out Lone Ranger sorties flying to the United States and westward around the world; similar to what USAF bombers are still doing today. The Vulcans often took part in Giant Voice and Red Flag exercises against the United States Strategic Air Command.

The attacks on the Falklands using Shrike missiles are described accurately and in great detail for the first time, including the story of the unscheduled landing at Rio de Janeiro when the in-flight refueling probe on one aircraft was broken.

Following on from the success of the first two books, Tony Blackman, in collaboration with Anthony Wright, brings you Valiant Boys to complete the V Force set. This is a fascinating collection of personal accounts of operating Britain’s first V bomber by both air and ground crew members. The book tells the story of the aircraft from its birth, taking off from Vickers tiny airfield at Brooklands; to its premature death from fatigue. There are tales of testing atom bombs in the Australian desert, dropping hydrogen bombs in the middle of the Pacific and as a complete contrast; attacking airfields with conventional bombs in Egypt during the very brief Suez campaign.

We are reminded of how the Valiant provided the UK’s nuclear deterrent with some armed aircraft on standby twenty-four hours a day, supported by their air and ground crews, ready to be flown at a moments notice on what could be a one way trip at the launch of a nuclear war.

Some Valiants were given a photographic role providing accurate images from high altitude and were used not only to gather military intelligence but also to survey the UK and countries overseas. Others were developed into flight refuelling tankers breaking point to point records before enabling Britain’s fighter aircraft to be refuelled and fly anywhere in the world.

This book completes Tony Blackman’s trilogy of the three V bombers. As Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Michael Beetham makes clear in his foreword “It is good to have a book written by aircrew and ground crew telling their stories and how they operated the aircraft so that all these things are recorded and not forgotten.” Not as well known as the Vulcan and Victor, the Valiant is often overlooked, this book will go a long way to redress the balance.

Just as you thought that you couldn’t get enough about the Victor, Vulcan and Valiant. Tony Blackman, again in collaboration with Anthony Wright, has written V Force Boys.

This book contains a fascinating collection of previously unpublished stories by V Force ground and aircrews for all three V bombers. Among other highlights, the book includes a first hand account of dropping the last British hydrogen or H Bomb, a description of how all the aircraft navigated before the days of GPS, the training the crews received and an armourer’s account of how the nuclear weapons were moved with complete safety but not in the regimented way that might be expected. In addition there are chapters that tell of incidents that would not be found in the RAF historical annals but show how vigilant guarding of the UK had its lighter moments. This book is a must and a great companion to the V bomber trilogy from Grub Street.

Reviewed by Paul Theobald for War History Online.

True Stories from 40 Memorable Years of the Last V Bomber
By Tony Blackman with Garry O’Keefe
Grub Street Publishing
ISBN: 978 1908117458

From the Cold War to the Falklands: True Tales of the Iconic Delta V Bomber
By Tony Blackman
Grub Street Publishing
ISBN: 978 1909808089

True Stories from the Operators of the UK’s First Four-Jet Bomber
By Tony Blackman and Anthony Wright
Grub Street Publishing
ISBN: 978 1909808218

All New Reminiscences by Air and Ground Crews Operating the Valiant, Vulcan and Victor in the Cold War and Beyond
By Tony Blackman and Anthony Wright
Grub Street Publishing
ISBN: 978 1910690383

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