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The 'Secret' World of Vickers Guided Weapons
by John Forbat
Tempus Publishing
255 pages, sbk
US$26.00, 17.99


John Forbat started work at Vickers as an apprentice in March 1951, and a year later he was selected to join the organisation that later became the Guided Weapons Department. Working as a trials engineer, and later as head of the Test Group, he had first hand experience of the tribulations involved in developing guided weapons in the days before micro chips, digital databuses and Global Positioning Systems.

During World War 2, Vickers at Weybridge, under the leadership of Barnes Wallis, had been responsible for developing the Tallboy and Grand Slam deep penetration bombs. During the latter stages of the war, engineers in Germany had experienced some success in producing a number of guided weapons. After the war, Vickers management expected the potential market for similar weapons to be very small, and so it decided to concentrate on conventional aircraft. However, by 1949 Barnes Wallis had begun studies of a guided bomb which later received the code name Blue Boar. Blue Boar was a television guided gliding bomb, planned in two variants: 5,000 lb and 10,000 lb. A TV camera in the nose transmitted a picture back to the bomb aimer who then transmitted the required steering corrections to hit the target. After a significant amount of design work, including drop testing of aerodynamic prototypes, the contract was cancelled in August 1954. For night bombing a Flare Bomb would be needed to provide target illumination for the camera, and cancellation was probably related to the need for an all-weather day/night weapon such as the forthcoming Blue Steel.

At about the same time, work also began on the Red Rapier expendable bomber. Initiated by Chief Designer George Edwards, Red Rapier was a ground-launched flying bomb, guided by radio beams. Drop testing of scale models was carried out at Woomera in Australia, but the project was cancelled in 1954 due to a change in policy in favour of manned aircraft.

Vickers inherited the Red Dean air-to-air missile from Folland Aircraft in 1951. Red Dean was an active-homing radar-guided missile, planned as the main armament of the Gloster F.153D 'thin wing' Javelin all-weather fighter. Applications also actively considered were the Avro Canada CF-105 and the projected English Electric Canberra P.12. Air launches and captive-carry seeker head trials from Canberra aircraft were intensively pursued - including one alarming incident where a missile failed to release from the aircraft after ignition of its rocket motor, and the Canberra was left rolling and yawing for several seconds before the missile fell off. Despite all this effort, Red Dean was cancelled in 1957 when the F.153D was axed in Duncan Sandy's famous 'no more fighters' defence white paper.

After all these setbacks, in 1957 Vickers decided to initiate a private venture project for a man-portable anti-tank missile. This project became known as Vigilant. The wire-guided Vigilant was eventually ordered by the British Army in 1961 and Vickers also succeeded in exporting the missile. Unfortunately, in 1962 the Vickers Guided Weapons team that had achieved this triumph was disbanded and absorbed into the much larger British Aircraft Corporation team at Stevenage.

The reasoning behind the design concept, and the progressive evolution of the design of each of these guided weapons as successive problems are overcome, is related by the author in quite some detail. The design, development and testing of the various components of a missile, i.e. warhead, fusing, guidance, control, rocket motor, internal power and launching system are all described and illustrated with black and white photographs and line diagrams. Nearly all of this information was of course originally classified as Secret.

The reader will notice a number of typographical errors in the text, which are presumably due to sloppy proof-reading. On page 235 there is also an odd piece of isolated text in the middle of a section of photographs, which starts in the middle of a sentence.

Compared to other manufacturers, the achievements of the Vickers Guided Weapons team at Weybridge have been largely untold, and so this book fills an important gap in the history of British aviation. The amount of detail included in some sections may put off casual readers, but the technically literate will find a fascinating book which charts the early days of guided weapons, and the people who made them possible.


- John Hayles


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First Created: 25 August 2006 - Last Revised: 26 August 2006
Copyright © 2006 John Hayles.     e-mail: john@aeroflight.co.uk