Tuesday, 25 July 2017

British Rockets in the 1950s - (Black Knight, Blue Streak and Black Prince)

The British Research and Development branch of the military first sought to understand the German aptitude for rocketry in the spring and summer of 1945. A secret branch of the British Army, named T-Force, sought to locate and capture German scientists and technology.
Around this time and continuing after the war was Operation Backfire.

Operation Backfire was an Allied effort to gather and exploit German rocket technology, conceived by Junior Commander Joan Bernard of the British Auxilliary Territorial Service and with the support of the American government, (the operation was overseen by Maj, R. Staver of the Rocket section of the US Ordanance offices R&D dept who had been on the ground in Nordhausen in Germany in the spring, Staver himself searched laboratories looking for technicians and scientists working on the V2 rockets.)

Throughout the majority of the war Bernard held a number of posts all related to ballistic missiles in some form or other. To highlight this clearly I’ve constructed the following time line for Joan Bernard:

  • 1940 - Joined ATS, posted to Anti-Aircraft Command
  • 1941 - (30th May) Promoted to Second Subaltern, first officer rank of ATS
  • 1944 - Based at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force - SO Air Defence Division
  • 1945 - (Jul) Special Projectile Operations Group (tactical planning of defence against V1 and V2 rockets)
  • 1945 - (Aug) - Promoted to Junior Commander

Following the end of the war in Europe, Bernard left the military, but Operation Backfire continued.

Just to the north of Arensch in Germany in October 1945, Allied forces ordered a demonstration of at least three V2 rockets to be launched. The potential of this frightening weapon must have been evident as the basis of the V2 went on to inspire the first space rockets on both sides of the Atlantic.

Blue Marker points to Cuxhaven
Cuxhaven germany.jpg
Cuxhaven and surrounding region

The V2 rockets were mostly built in the famous underground Mittelwerk factory, hidden in the Kohnstein hill, by slaves taken from the nearby concentration camp.
American forces had already removed much of the technology when, just before the Soviet forces took control of the area, the British were allowed to go and remove as much material as they could. They found enough equipment to build nearly eight V2 rockets. Realising that some vital parts were missing, specifically battery packs for the guidance systems, a huge search was conducted throughout Germany. Finally, to get the some 250,000 parts back to Cuxhaven, further north west of Arensch, 400 railway cargo carriages and 70 flights took place.

The hydrogen peroxide fuel and rocket motors were already in British hands thanks to the efforts of the T-Force earlier in the year and the missing tail assemblies were provided by the Americans who had also already acquired them.
Whilst at Cuxhaven, three demonstration launches took place by German personnel for operation staff.

  • Date: 2 October 1945
    • Time: 14:41
    • Height of Flight: 69.4 kilometres (43.1 mi)
    • Distance of Flight: 249.4 kilometres (155.0 mi)
  • 4 October 1945
    • Time: 14:16
    • Height of Flight: 17.4 kilometres (10.8 mi)
    • Distance of Flight: 24 kilometres (15 mi)
    • Engine failure shortly after launch
  • 15 October 1945
    • Time: 15:06
    • Height of Flight: 64 kilometres (40 mi)
    • Distance of Flight: 233 kilometres (145 mi)
    • Press and Allies were invited to attend

In 1946 the British Interplanetary Society chaired by Ralph A. Smith, learning of the government's interest in rocket technology, submitted a proposal for a suborbital flight based on a modified V2 rocket. As we learned in the previous post; this was, sadly, rejected.
The more cynical might speculate that with no overt military application, Smith's proposal was an expense that the government had no interest in.
Coincidentally or not, the British government went on to research and develop a launch system capable of carrying a nuclear warhead from 1950 onwards. This included the Black Knight and Blue Streak rockets, tested and launched from sites in the UK and in Australia.

List of test and launch sites:
  • Isle of Wight, UK - Test
  • RAF Spadeadam, UK - Test
  • Woomera, Australia - Test and Launch

In 1955 the British government approached the company Saunders-Roe to develop and produce the Black Knight rocket. Saunders-Roe was approached due to its close relationship with the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

Image: Wikipedia

Black Knight itself was to be an experimental rocket to see how it would cope, primarily with re-entry into the atmosphere. This came about following fears that the Blue Streak nuclear ballistic missile programme that had recently been initiated might simply burn up when re-entering the atmosphere; an unknown due to the fact that Britain had never developed a ballistic missile, it being a relatively new field of scientific study.
The first Black Knight was launched from Woomera on 7th September in 1958 and was launched a further 21 times until 1965 with zero major failures.
Data gained from this programme was invaluable to the future of rocketry and the scientific community as a whole in the UK and America and enabled Britain to continue to develop the Blue Streak programme.

Initially outlined in 1955 and design proposal completed by 1957, Blue Streak was to be the nuclear deterrent that Britain felt that it needed. Having proven concepts with the Black Knight programme, further work was done to make Blue Streak a reality.
de Havilland Propellers won the contract to produce Blue Streak. Utilising an uprated Rocketdye S3D engine which was to be developed by Rolls Royce and designated the RZ.2

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Blue Streak

The engines were unique for the time by being able to be vectored by up to 7 degrees, allowing for controlled flight by autopilot. The spiralling cost of the programme (£50m in 1955 to £300m by 1960) led to the military project being cancelled.

On 13 April 1960 Defence Minister Harold Watkinson announced the cancellation of Blue Streak as a military programme and stated:

"the Government will now consider with the firms and other interests concerned, as a matter of urgency, whether the Blue Streak programme could be adapted for the development of a launcher for space satellites.”

This meant that the initial 1957 proposal for a combined Black Knight/Blue Streak launch vehicle was again proposed and, this time, met with a positive reaction.
The new project was named Black Prince but was referred to as the Blue Streak Satellite Launch Vehicle (BSSLV) in official documentation.

The first designs of this was to make use of existing technology to cut costs. The proposed design was to have Blue Streak as the first stage with Black Knight making up the second stage. The third or ‘Vernier’ stage would then travel the remaining distance to orbit to deposit the payload.

Proposed Design for Black Prince

Sadly by late 1960 it was realised that there wasn’t a large enough Budget for both satellite launcher AND satellites. With many British military satellites already having placed into orbit by American launchers, Black Prince was also abandoned not long after several alternative designs were considered and Britain had approached, unsuccessfully, other commonwealth nations to help them make up the shortfall. Instead, Britain joined the multinational Europa Launcher project
Britain finally launched their own satellites in the 1960s which we will get to in a later post...

1 comment:

  1. Great to see that the historical success of the UK in launcher technology is being preserved. The virtual world of Second Life has a whole collection of working life size interactive models that are worth a look, just visit Space UK.


Black Arrow - Britain’s First Satellite Carrier

Hi to all!  I have recently been having some time off which is why there haven’t been any posts for a couple of weeks but I am now back...