Qioptiq logo Raytheon

OF SYDNEY CAMM, TSR-2 and POLITICS By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


tsr229 May 15. “All aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right”.

The above words, spoken on the subject of TSR-2 cancellation shortly before his sudden and untimely death in March 1966 at the age of 72, are a constant reminder of how sovereign capability is so easily damaged by politics.

While a range of myths regarding TSR-2 have been allowed to build up over the fifty years since the project was cancelled few will argue that the decision changed the course and direction of the British aircraft industry. They may well also argue about the true merits of the aircraft, the problems and the specific issues that it might or might not have had but the bottom line is that this was truly an outstanding aircraft design that was well ahead of foreign competition. Late, over budget, costly and perhaps to be considered still high risk it may have been but in the manner that the Government walked away from the project will I guess remain the subject of debate for military aerospace historians for decades to come.

Conspiracy theories abound around TSR-2 of course and I suspect that there is more than a degree of truth in some of them. Did, for instance, the Americans really pile pressure on the Wilson Government to get the TSR-2 programme stopped because they feared the damage that it could do to their defence industry? Is it true that the Americans caused the Australian government to walk away from being the first potential export customer for TSR-2? Did the aircraft have serious design issues or was it simply that the Labour Party, having long been opposed to the TSR-2 project chose to cancel it purely out of spite? Was it simply about lack of money or that the project was run by committee perhaps? Or was its fate sealed by the forced merger between Vickers Aircraft and English Electric that created the British Aircraft Corporation?  Maybe it really was about cost and risk? Well, I know what I believe but it is not for me here to attempt to persuade you from believing whatever it is that you will.

Weeks later than I had originally intended to recall the moment fifty years earlier on April 7th 1965 that TSR-2 was cancelled I choose to do so now. I will also take the opportunity of recalling the great Hawker Siddeley man whose choice words I have used to open this piece. On the subject of the late Sydney Camm it must be said from the outset that with TSR-2 being a British Aircraft Corporation project he himself had no direct role in its development. But he regarded the advanced features of this high performance aircraft that was already well into its initial flying programme as being superb. Neither an I in any doubt that Camm shared the pain and the anger of yet another fine UK military aircraft development that was killed-off by politics.

A past President of the Royal Aeronautical Society (1954/5) note that the Sir Sydney Camm Lecture was established in 1971 to commemorate his significant achievements in the field of aeronautical engineering. Given every second year the lecture is most usually presented by one of the most senior members of the Royal Air Force. In 2011 the lecture was delivered by Air Chief Marshall Sir Simon Bryant in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief Air Command. In 2013 it was delivered by the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Dalton. The 2015 Sydney Camm Named Lecture will this year be delivered by Air Marshall Sir Baz North, Deputy Commander Capability and Air Member for Personnel and Capability. Entitled ‘Air Power and the Defence Aerospace Industry in the Whole Force Era’ the lecture will be delivered at the Royal Aeronautical Society on Monday the 8th of June.

Responsible for the design of numerous aircraft such as the Hawker Hurricane, Hart, Fury, Typhoon, Tempest, Sea Fury, Sea Hawk, Hunter and also the predecessor aircraft to the Harrier jump jet Sydney Camm is a giant amongst men within the world of aeronautical engineering. He is remembered in great affection by those that knew and worked with him with every justification and the aircraft that he played a part in their design live on to be a fitting memorial to one of the greatest aeronautical engineers this country has ever known.


Elected into office with a majority of just four seats in October 1964 the first Labour Government of Harold Wilson was quick to further undermine the TSR-2 programme by publicly denigrating the project. TSR-2 had a great many enemies through the course of its development not least of which was the Royal Navy in the form of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten who, at the time the Wilson government was formed, was the First Sea Lord. Although Mountbatten was to be completely ignored by the Australian Government when on a visit to the country he is alleged to have attempted to persuade them to change their mind on buying TSR-2 that he did rubbish the aircraft may be seen as having created more than sufficient seeds of doubt and that also played into the hands of a US government eager to sell the F-111 to Australia.

There were other factors to take into account of course. The high expense of developing both the Anglo-French Concorde and TSR-2 almost at the same time played heavily on the minds of the Wilson Government including senior Cabinet Ministers Roy Jenkins and Dennis Healey. That TSR-2 was an expensive development and that it would be a high price for the Royal Air Force to pay can hardly be ignored. During the period ahead of cancellation the Royal Air Force had already attempted to distance from the project. Neither can other issues be easily ignored such as the rising cost of funding publically owned industries such as British Railways and the National Coal Board. High and still rising inflation and interest rates combined with rising wage demands and increasing industrial unrest proved equal headaches for Wilson to solve. The bottom line was that funding was tight.

It is hardly surprising that Labour had little love of the private sector and in denigrating TSR-2 on cost and other grounds the Wilson’s government were after all only continuing the critical stance that they had adopted during the final three years in opposition. The cost of TSR-2 was certainly rising and conspiracy theorists would probably argue to this day that TSR-2 development had been hampered by the Air Staff being entrenched with the view that they did not want an aircraft designed for the Fleet Air Arm. This, so the argument goes, they raised TSR-2 specification to the point that it became almost undeliverable. All that maybe nonsense or perhaps it may not. That said, I am in little doubt that there is rather too much invention surrounding the TSR-2 cancellation story today and rather too little in the way of well researched facts.

Hardly coming as a surprise the official public announcement of the TSR-2 cancellation came on 7th April 1965 which also happened to be Budget Day. I was just sixteen years of age at the time but I remember it almost as if it was yesterday. It was a crushing blow and arguably the final and most damaging of all acts in the history of the British aircraft industry. Arguably it was one from which the industry would never recover although in looking at the industry today that would only be true to an extent.

This was not the first time that the Wilson Labour Government had caused huge damage to the UK aerospace industry and it would not be the last. Whilst the attempt subsequently failed, in the first Labour Government attack on the UK aviation industry just weeks after having been elected it was announced that Britain intended to withdraw from the Anglo-French Concorde project. Thankfully it was quickly found that a specific clause in the agreement to co-build Concorde meant that if the British withdrew they would still have to part-fund the project all the way through to completion. Some argue that the subsequent cancellation of TSR2 was a backlash by the Wilson Government caused by its failure to walk away from Concorde and I suggest that there was more than a degree of truth in this.

While there may well have been a degree of spite my view has long been that the final act of betrayal lay in the hands of Admiral Mountbatten who was clearly determined to stop the Royal Air Force from having TSR-2. Mountbatten believed that the Royal Air Force should acquire the same aircraft as a replacement for the Canberra Bomber as the Fleet Air Arm had had acquired in the form of the Blackburn Buccaneer.

Mountbatten was not alone despising the TSR-2 development programme. The US military aircraft industry was also concerned that the British might just have landed on a potential international market winner. They too wanted an end to TSR-2 and to effect this they likely sought to provide the Wilson Government with an alternative aircraft that could be theoretically bought off the shelf. Following cancellation of TSR-2 the Government did in fact announce that the Royal Air Force would acquire the General Dynamics F-111 but thankfully, following significant problems and issues, the order was rescinded. The Royal Air Force did in fact get the sub-sonic Buccaneer aircraft which served it well alongside McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom’s which it also acquired.

In summary, suffice to say on my part that by ordering the cancellation of the TSR-2 Harold Wilson’s Labour government committed a ruthless act that not only weakened Royal Air Force capability but also seriously undermined the future of the UK aviation industry as a whole. In doing so it open a long term question in regard of future Government commitment to sovereign capability. TSR-2 cancellation destroyed trust and confidence and it left a bitter taste in the mouth of industry that has lasted until this day. Rightly or wrongly it was a decision that would come to be regarded as an unforgivable act and that would impact on the lives of the quarter of a million people engaged in the aerospace industry back then for a whole generation.

BATTLESPACE Comment: An excellent piece and reflects the lack of Government support for key UK technology. TSR2 not only killed an advanced aircraft but also the most advanced airborne radar in the world, which may have been the real US worry given the Westinghouse radar development programs for the USAF and export which later went on F-16 and other aircraft. The Editor saw a graph of projected radar production at Ferranti’s Crewe Toll, Edinburgh facility, which went into a steep dive following the TSR2 cancellation. However all was not lost as, albeit later, the Tornado was equipped with the Ferranti Terrain Following radar developed originally for TSR2. However this technology is now owned by Selex with BAE having got out of radars to concentrate on its US business.


Tel: 07710 779785

Back to article list