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Sunday, February 17, 2008

British Rocketry: a defence

HMS has sent us a note pouring scorn on our assertion that after the WW2 Britain led the world in rocketry. Unfortunately this view reflects the misconceptions about Britain's succesful rocket programme in the forties and fifties. Britian has never had a national space agency and so the work on rockets was carried out by a mish-mash of government bodies and private firms which never gave the industry a voice. Much of it's achivement is little known and because the UK programme was cancelled so long ago few people remember its successes.


It was a team from Britain (not America or Russia) who became the first allies to assemble and launch four V2 rockets in October 1945 at Cuxhaven in Germany. This was a huge operation. 400 railway cars and over 70 Lancaster flights were needed to gather the 250,000 parts and 70 specialised vehicles needed for the operation. Whilst German technicians were used to deal with the launch procedures the assembly and testing were done by British scientists.


The Russians sent their German technicians home in 1949 and worked, from then on, with Russian experts only. In America Operation Paperclip had gathered together a group of German V2 engineers led by Wernher von Braun. However he and his team were virtually ignored by the US and they struggled from 1945 to 1957 with hardly any funding. It was only the Soviets' launch of Sputnik in 1957 that produced the funding that kicked off the space race.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the focus on rocketry, as elsewhere, was being pushed by the need to develop missiles cabable of launching nuclear warheads. The Americans had signed an agreement in 1954 to co-operate with the UK in developing a successful ballistic missile. The Americans had White Sands Proving Ground. The Russians had the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The British had..the Isle of Wight. All of Britain's rockets were made at the Saunders Roe factory in East Cowes (where all of the Saunders Roe hovercraft were subsequently built). The completed rockets were then driven up to the Needles where a special rocket testing facility was built high on the cliffs. This enabled the rocket exhausts to be funneled out over the sea. Britain always suffered by its lack of suitable launching sites so the rockets then had to be shipped to Woomera in Australia for launching.

High Down (original name) testing site near the Needles.



The first significant rocket built there was the very macho sounding Skylark. A sounder rocket, like its contemporary the US Redstone. However the Redstone had a maximum altitude of 94.5km whilst the Skylark managed 150km on its first flight in 1957. The Skylark was a very succesful rocket and there were 441 launches, the last being launched from Sweden by the European Space Agency in May 2005. In one night in the fifties 6 rockets were launched from Woomera, a record for mass launching.

The last Skylark: Sweden 2005


The Black Knight rocket was first launched from Woomera on Sep. 7, 1958, and reached what was then a new record altitude of 564 km – an impressive achievement considering that the first Soviet and American satellites, Sputnik 1 and Explorer 1, had already been launched. It was certainly the equal technologically of equivalent launchers from America and superior to the Russian rockets.

Black Knight goes for the record.

Black Knight was a developmental rocket used as a test bed for the planned Blue Streak ballistic missile. The engines of the Blue Streak were based on an American design but British engineers significantly improved on the original, especially in the areas of efficiency and reliability. Reliability was a key area where the UK outstripped both the US and the Russians. 85% of British rocket launches were successful whereas over the same time period the American and Russian experience was less happy.

Blue Streak



The cancellation of the Blue Streak project in April 1960 was the beginning of the end for British rocketry, although the Blue Streak lived on as the first stage of the European multi-stage rocket Europa. All the research from the work on the rocket was passed to the Americans and the designs developed for the Blue Streak silos heavily influenced the design for the Titan II silos.


Apart from the Treasury's refusal to invest more funds the reason for the end of the British rocket programme was the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force opposition to the concept of ground-based ballistic missiles, favouring either an aircraft or submarine launched deterrent.

The Isle of White facility at High Down was closed following the cancellation of the Black Arrow but there are still some of the buildings and test pads to see.

High Down today.

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