1957 Defence White Paper


The 1957 White Paper on Defence (Cmnd. 124) was a British white paper issued in March 1957 setting forth the perceived future of the British military.[1] 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.

In the past, 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 ballistic missile could deliver these weapons with no possible defensive response. In this new environment, the interceptors and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), along with their associated radar networks, seemed superfluous. Likewise, it appeared new manned aircraft of any sort would have little utility in airspace dominated by SAMs. Numerous ongoing projects were abandoned, leaving too little work for the large number of aircraft companies. The paper suggested that the companies join forces to rationalize their operations for a future in which there would be smaller numbers of military projects.

Finally, the Army had a strong presence in Germany as a counter to Warsaw Pact forces, but ultimately its goal was simply to act as a tripwire force to deter an attack - the actual battle was assumed to be carried out by nuclear weapons. The size of the Army was far larger than it had to be for this role, and led to reductions in the Army's size. Only the Navy was left significantly unchanged, although it refocussed on force projection rather than all-out battle with a Soviet fleet.

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 tactical nuclear weapons. NATOs overwhelming air superiority would win the resulting battle. From that point, if the war continued, 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 internationally 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. While studying the issue, planners of an anti-ballistic missile system code-named Violet Friend ultimately concluded no effective defence against these weapons was possible. The only way to stop an attack 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 required 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 sign of an attack would require the immediate launch of the V force to ensure its survival - even if bombers were detected, missiles were sure to follow anyway. 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 once the missiles arrived. Much more likely was the opposite scenario, a missile attack on the V-force with Soviet bombers arriving later to hit targets that would likely have already been destroyed. With no existing system for detecting missile launches at long range, this became the primary concern.

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 radar network that was being planned to replace ROTOR. To provide an indication of such a missile attack, the UK arranged to have a US BMEWS radar sited in England. Linesman was now tasked mostly with intercepting aircraft carrying carcinotron jammers, which the Soviets might use to mask BMEWS.

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 its introduction in 1963, namely the Saunders-Roe SR.53 and Saunders-Roe SR.177. Sandys felt that the existing interceptor fleet would serve until the Bristol Bloodhound was in service, and after that point, a bomber attack was unlikely as the world increasingly switched to missiles. As such, even the Blue Envoy surface-to-air missile was also cancelled; although it offered much higher performance than Bloodhound, by the time it arrived in the mid-1960s it would have nothing to shoot at.

The RAF was especially critical of one part of Sandys' conclusions. They noted the introduction of the Tupolev Tu-22 and Myasishchev M-50 supersonic bombers would occur before Bloodhound was fully deployed, and that their existing interceptor aircraft like the Gloster Javelin were incapable of successfully attacking these aircraft. Sandys relented and allowed the English Electric P.1 (which would become the Lightning) to continue development, along with a new air-to-air missile to arm it, the Hawker Siddeley Red Top.

The Avro 730 supersonic light bomber was also cancelled, as was the Blue Rosette nuclear weapon to arm it.

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

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. Scottish Aviation remained independent until 1977 and Shorts 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.

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.[2]

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

Infantry Changes

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 (with changes to 1966):[3][4]

Royal Artillery Changes

The Royal Artillery saw many changes, mostly in the way of AA units. When AA command was disbanded in 1955, many of the regular AA units were not disbanded like their Territorial counterparts, but disbanded in 1958/62.[5]

  • Royal Horse Artillery
  • Royal Artillery
    • 2nd Field Regiment formed from 2nd RHA
    • 5th Field Regiment formed from 5th RHA
    • 10th Anti-Tank Regiment disbanded, personnel transferred to 5th RA 1958
    • 15th Medium Regiment disbanded, personnel to 21st Medium Rgt 1958
    • 23rd Field Regiment placed in suspended animation, personnel to 32nd Medium and 42nd Field Rgts 1958
    • 31st (Driver) Training Regiment placed in suspended animation 1961
    • 33rd Parachute Light Regiment disbanded to form 7th Parachute Rgt RHA 1961
    • 41st Field Regiment placed in suspended animation, personnel to 49th Field 1961
    • 47th (Field) Guided Weapons Regiment reformed 1957
    • 48th Field Regiment placed in suspended animation 1959, disbanded 1962
    • 51st Coast Regiment disbanded 1958
    • 52nd Locating Regiment placed in suspended animation 1958, disbanded 1962
    • 58th Medium Regiment disbanded 1959
    • 61st Field Regiment disbanded 1959, personnel to 45th Regiment
    • 64th Training Regiment disbanded 1962
    • 67th Selection Regiment disbanded 1957
    • 68th Selection Regiment placed in suspended animation 1961, disbanded 1962
  • Anti-Aircraft Command (Anti-Aircraft Command or AA Command was disbanded in 1955, but most regular AA units were disbanded in 1957 or 1958)
    • 21st Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment placed in suspended animation 1964
    • 30th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment placed in suspended animation, 1958 personnel to 24th and Junior Leaders Rgts
    • 35th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment disbanded 1958
    • 38th (Signallers and Technical Anti-Aircraft) Training Regiment placed in suspended animation 1960, personnel to Junior Leaders and 31st Training Regiments
    • 43rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment placed in suspended animation 1959
    • 44th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment placed in suspended animation, personnel to 32nd Medium Rgt 1958]
    • 46th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment placed in suspended animation 1958
    • 53rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment disbanded 1957
    • 54th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment suspended animation in 1958, disbanded 1962
    • 55th Royal Artillery Training Regiment suspended animation in 1958, disbanded 1962
    • 56th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment suspended animation 1958
    • 57th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment suspended animation in 1960
    • 72nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment disbanded 1958
    • 74th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment suspended animation 1958
    • 77th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment suspended animation 1958
    • 80th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment suspended animation 1958 disbanded 1962

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. ^ Statement on Defence, UK National Archives, 1957. Retrieved 2020-07-15
  2. ^ Merged regiments and new brigading — many famous units to lose separate identity, The Times, July 25, 1957.
  3. ^ "Training Depots, 1946-1968 [UK]". web.archive.org. 2007-12-18. Retrieved 2020-03-14.
  4. ^ Frederick, Army List Order 1960, pp. XXX-XXXIII.
  5. ^ "British Army units from 1945 on - Royal Artillery". british-army-units1945on.co.uk. Retrieved 2020-03-17.

External links

  • March 15, 1957 Draft copy of 1957 Defence White Paper
  • March 30, 1957 Draft Copy of 1957 Defence White Paper
  • https://archives.nato.int/reorganization-of-united-kingdom-armed-forces;isad - REORGANIZATION OF UNITED KINGDOM ARMED FORCES - statement by UK representative to NATO allies, including details of drawdown of I (BR) Corps and 2nd TAF.