1957 Defence White Paper

The 1957 White Paper on Defence (Cmnd. 124) was a British white paper setting forth the perceived future of the British military. It had profound effects on all aspects of the defence industry but probably the most affected was the British aircraft industry. Duncan Sandys, the recently appointed Minister of Defence, produced the paper.

The decisions were influenced by two major factors: the finances of the country and the coming of the missile age. Where before combat in the air would have been between aircraft, with high flying bombers carrying nuclear weapons and fast interceptor fighter aircraft trying to stop them, now the guided missile, particularly the surface-to-air missile, threatened all aircraft. The emergent space age showed that missiles could also deliver those nuclear weapons anywhere in the world.

Main aspects of paper

The role of missiles

UK war plans of the 1950s were based on a "three-day war", in which the Warsaw Pact's forces would begin with a conventional attack in Europe, but the war would quickly progress to the use of nuclear weapons. From that point, strategic weapons would be unleashed and the battle would be between the strategic bombers and the opposing defences. The massive superiority of the western air forces meant this battle would be short and largely one-sided, but the UK would have to survive at least one wave of Soviet attacks.

To handle this attack, in the post-World War II era the Royal Air Force deployed the ROTOR radar network that covered the entire British Isles in order to attack any strategic bomber that might attempt to approach. The defensive weapons of the system included new jet-powered interceptor aircraft and, originally, reorganized anti-aircraft artillery with new tactical control radars. By the early 1950s, the increasing speeds and altitudes of bombers meant they could "toss" their weapons from ranges outside even the largest anti-aircraft artillery, and plans began to replace these weapons with surface-to-air missiles.

By the mid-1950s, the USSR was known to be developing a variety of ballistic missiles able to deliver nuclear warheads. Split into classes based on their range, much of the attention was on the longest-ranged intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). However, short-range missiles were both less expensive and easier to develop, and these had the performance needed to deliver a warhead to the UK from bases in East Germany. There was no defence from these medium range ballistic missiles and it appeared they would be widespread by the mid-1960s.

The introduction of strategic missiles seriously upset the nature of the UK's defensive posture. The only way to stop an attack from missiles would be to stop it from being launched, and the only way to do that was through deterrence. Although the survival of the V force was demanded even before this point, there was some expectation that it would survive direct air attack given the ROTOR defence. With missiles, there was no way to do this. Any attack would require the immediate launch of the V force to ensure its survival - even if an initial attack was made by bombers, missiles were sure to follow. In this case, there was no point trying to defend their airfields - they would either be empty or the war was already lost.

In such a scenario the need for air defences was essentially eliminated. If an attack occurred, even the complete attrition of attacking bombers would have little to no effect on the ultimate outcome. As a result, the White Paper cancelled many defensive systems, like the Blue Envoy SAM and Saunders-Roe SR.177 interceptor, and significantly reduced the scope and mission of the Linesman/Mediator network that was being planned to replace ROTOR. Linesman was now tasked mostly with intercepting aircraft carrying carcinotron jammers, which the Soviets might use to mask an attack.

Aircraft industry reorganization

The paper stated that the aircraft industry should re-organise, with a number of smaller companies becoming a few larger ones. It was made clear that new contracts would only be given to such merged firms, including the only new aircraft project, which would become the TSR-2.

Under pressure, in 1960 English Electric, Bristol Aeroplane Company and Vickers-Armstrong merged to form the British Aircraft Corporation, or BAC. Hunting Aircraft soon joined the BAC group. In the same year, de Havilland, Blackburn Aircraft and Folland merged into Hawker Siddeley, which had already consisted of Armstrong Whitworth, Avro, Gloster and Hawker since 1935. Westland Aircraft took over all the helicopter manufacturers, including Saunders-Roe, Fairey Aviation and Bristol's helicopter work. Saunders-Roe's hovercraft work was spun off and merged with Vickers Supermarine as the British Hovercraft Corporation.

Very few companies were left independent after this wave of mergers, leaving only Handley Page as a major independent, along with the smaller companies like Auster, Boulton Paul, Miles Aircraft, Scottish Aviation and Short Brothers. Most of these disappeared by the 1970s, leaving only Scottish Aviation to merge into British Aerospace in 1977, and Shorts, which was purchased by Bombardier in 1989.

Engine companies were likewise "encouraged" to merge. In 1959 Armstrong Siddeley and Bristol's engine division merged to become Bristol Siddeley, but were shortly purchased by Rolls-Royce in 1966, leaving RR as the only major British aircraft engine manufacturer.

Reduction in manned aircraft projects

With the development of missiles, those roles that missiles could cover meant that certain aircraft in development could be cancelled.

These included the next generation of supersonic interceptor for high flying bombers, the F.155 and the interim aircraft that would have covered it until introduction in 1963, namely the Saunders-Roe SR.53 and Saunders-Roe SR.177. The Avro 730 supersonic light bomber was also cancelled, as was the Blue Rosette nuclear weapon to arm it. Oddly, the Blue Envoy surface-to-air missile was also cancelled, although it would have been more in keeping with the spirit of the paper. The English Electric P.1 (which would become the Lightning) was spared only because it was too far advanced to bother cancelling.

The Royal Auxiliary Air Force's flying role was also brought to an end.

Restructuring of the British Army

The British Army was to be reduced in size and reorganised to reflect the ending of National Service and the change to a voluntary army, and to "keep the Army abreast of changing circumstances, policies, weapons and techniques of war". 51 major units and a large number of smaller ones were to be disbanded or amalgamated, leaving the army with a strength of 165,000 officers and men. The process was to be carried out in two phases, to be completed by the end of 1959 and 1962 respectively.[1]

The Royal Armoured Corps was to be reduced by the amalgamation of:

The Royal Artillery was to lose 18 major and numerous small units. The Royal Horse Artillery was to be cut to three regiments.

The infantry of the line was to undergo major changes. Existing regiments were to be grouped in "brigades". Each brigade was to have a single depot with those of the individual regiments being reduced to the status of regimental headquarters. There was to be a reduction in the number of regular infantry battalions from 64 to 49 by the merging of pairs of regiments. The brigades and regiments were to be:

The Royal Engineers would be reduced by approximately 15,000 officers and men, with divisional engineer regiments to be replaced by field squadrons. The Royal Signals was to lose 13,000 soldiers by reduction of second-line units. Some of the work of the Royal Army Service Corps was to pass to civilian contractors, allowing a loss of 18,000 men. The Royal Army Ordnance Corps was to lose 11,000 soldiers, and was to be organised more efficiently with a large number of depots closed. The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was to lose 23,000 soldiers. Other arms and services were to be reduced in proportion.

Ending of air branch RNVR

Since 1938 the Air Branch of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve had been contributing reservists for air operations. From 1947 it had been curtailed to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and fighter units only — there being a large number of propeller aircraft still in use. The increasing complexity of weapons system and the use of helicopters for ASW was thought to be beyond what reservist training could manage. With the ending of the Air branch, the Short Seamew was no longer required and production was cancelled.


  1. Merged regiments and new brigading — many famous units to lose separate identity, The Times, July 25, 1957.
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