Supporting the Vulcan: RAF Police Dogs and the Standard Vanguard

The Alsatian dog at the RAF Museum, London

Source: Norman Brice, RAF Museum London

One exhibit in the Hendon museum which is often either overlooked or misunderstood is the Alsatian dog sometimes found by the entrance to the Avro Vulcan or by the Blue Steel missile.

From the late 1950s until April 1969, Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was provided by the RAF’s V-Bomber fleet – the Vickers Valiant, Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on airfields across eastern England, there were always a dozen or more V-Bombers on Quick Reaction Alert, fully fuelled and armed with live nuclear weapons, their crews permanently in flying suits in a caravan or hut nearby, ready to launch within 5 minutes of an alert, on what would have been a one-way trip to Moscow, Leningrad [once again St Petersburg] and airfields and submarine depots in the far north of Russia.

A nuclear bomb cannot easily be detonated and certainly not without the appropriate authorisation codes. But at the same time, they had to be protected.

Possible risks to the devices included airmen suffering mental health crises – and there is a story of just one such incident at RAF Sculthorpe when it was used by the United States Air Force;  a sergeant reputedly threatened to blow himself up that way (though strenuously denied by the USAF at the time). Not to mention activists from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – think of the “Peace Women” at Greenham Common when cruise missiles were installed. And the theoretical fear of local communist sympathisers and Soviet Spetsnatz (special forces) parachuted in for sabotage.

Blue Danuble bomb

Source: AWRE

Britain’s first atomic bomb – Blue Danube – had very unusual arming mechanisms. Modern nuclear weapons are complete and self-contained when loaded onto submarines (or in the USA, also aircraft and missiles). But Blue Danube was different. The plutonium core – the nuclear heart of the bomb – was no bigger than a grapefruit and had to be inserted separately immediately before take-off, a process known as “Last Minute Loading”.  If the Vulcan was on 5 minutes readiness to launch, the core had to be stored right by the aircraft, out in the open on the dispersal pan. So was vulnerable to theft or malicious damage.

Source: AWRE

Hence the need for an RAF policeman and his Alsatian dog to guard the weapons. Guards were issued with photographs of the only seven personnel permitted to enter the aircraft: the Station Commander, five aircrew and NCO Crew Chief. All others approaching were to be challenged and the guards were armed and authorised to use lethal force as a last resort to protect the bombs.

Source: AWRE

The alertness of these guards was often tested, including sometimes by members of rival V Bomber squadron aircrew from nearby airfields, who were not above using sausages as a decoy (for the dog, not the Corporal)!

When the klaxon went and the Tannoy broadcast the dreaded order:

“ATTENTION, ATTENTION, ATTENTION. This is the Bomber Controller for bomb      list Delta. SCRAMBLE SCRAMBLE . Authentication WHISKEY NINE JULIET E-            Hour One Zero Zero Zero Zulu”

the duty crew would grab their “Go Bag” from the secure vault, containing their routing map, target details and that day’s authentication codes, then jump into their vehicle to race out to their aircraft and take off. To ensure the car would always start, even in the depths of a snowy winter’s night, it was permanently connected to a battery charger and sump heater. Many times were they in such a hurry, they “forgot” to disconnect the cables, leaving the long-suffering Crew Chief to rewire them.

Transport Car to the V Bomber

Source: Norman Brice, RAF Museum London

Dogs and passenger cars do not have the glamour of a shining white Vulcan – or Hendon’s in its low level wrap-around camouflage colours. But they played their own crucial part in Britain’s defences.

About the Author

Norman Brice: Volunteer

Volunteer Norman Brice

It all started very many years ago when, lying in my pram, I was awoken by what I later knew as Spitfires on their finals to RAF Biggin Hill, just a handful of miles away. As a schoolboy I was captivated by the annual September Battle of Britain Days at Biggin Hill with a vast range of visiting aircraft, including all three V-Bombers in gleaming anti-flash white.

Fast forward very many years past retirement I joined the RAF Museum London as a volunteer as a Vulcan and Cold War tour guide.