Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Tony Blackman & Anthony Wright
Grub Street, November 10, 2014
ISBN: 9781 909808218
Tony Blackman has completed the trilogy of V Bomber ‘Boys’ titles with this volume. The first into retirement, and with less glamour than its siblings, the Valiant has long had a lower profile than the Vulcan and Victor, and many of its crew clearly feel the need to redress the balance a little. The book gets off to a cracking start with Jock Bryce’s very drama-filled prologue – he was involved in prototype testing, and it bears reminding that this was but a handful of years since the pilots involved would have earned their spurs in considerably slower machines. After this start some of the early chapters are much more dry.
The book suffers from the defect of many of the Boys books in that, with each chapter being from a different contributor, some of the type’s episodes are repeated by different participants. In this case it is the testing of nuclear weapons in Australia and the Pacific – Operation Grapple - (which in hindsight was the Valiant’s greatest contribution to GB’s defence effort) which becomes somewhat repetitive.
Just when one’s hands are becoming radioactive, so to speak, a pithy story comes from the unlikely quarter of a Valiant AEO! Where the book does add value is possibly the best description I have come across of the tedium of tours on the V bomber squadrons in that era – tedium as in having to do sustained shifts of QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) - often in accommodation that today’s illegal immigrant might find wanting. There is plenty of period detail – one that caught my eye was the mention of the use of an Air Weapons Range at Sandbanks in Dorset – now the location of the priciest real estate in the UK! Another that AEOs were assessed on their skills with a Morse key!
Of course the Valiant’s career came to an abrupt end due to spar fatigue/failure, and this book sets out how extraordinarily lucky was the RAF that no crew was lost in the initial discovery. It was brought on by relegating the machine to a low-level role (with attendant higher stresses) for which it had never been designed. At this time (1964) Russ Rumbol writes that he was nav plotter in a Valiant tasked with displaying around the country one September day. When they ultimately landed at Marham “word came that one man watching our display at RAF Waddington had had a heart attack and died. Someone suggested this was a Vickers stress engineer. This was never resolved.” !
Another good story re a rather obnoxious Sqn Ldr Alder, who brooked no interference from the rest of his crew and made the classic mistake of displaying at the wrong airport in Ulster.
The book does a good forensic job in establishing who knew what (in the RAF, MoD and Vickers) about the metal fatigue problems that finished the aircraft. One Barry Jones is quoted, pondering why 100 Hastings (prop driven bombers of a slightly earlier vintage, which had the same alloy in its wing spars), were recalled for spar replacement, when the Valiant (which one might have thought had a potentially longer future career), was not.
The appendix deals with the very uncomfortable issue of the British (& Australian) Government’s failure adequately to compensate the hundreds of air and ground crew who were exposed to radiation in the nuclear testing programme. Disgraceful government obfuscation continues to this day.
So Valiant Boys addresses some useful topics, and sheds light on the tribulations of the era, but it is not a page-turner in the manner of many of the fighter/ground attack ‘Boys’ titles.
A magnifcent line-up of Valiants on Op Grapple. I am guessing beer consumption was high.