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English Electric Thunderbird

During World War II, a British SAM programme was established with the system known as Brankemine. Although the missile programme was inadequately funded, the first test firing took place in September 1944. The programme continued until 1947, proving to be a promising system. However, work ceased on the program and most of the expertise was dispersed. In 1949 English Electric started a SAM program known as Red Shoes, later to enter service as Thunderbird I. The Royal Artillery became operational with Thunderbird I in 1959. Between 1956-59 Thunderbird II was developed and entered service in 1963. The new missile was of superior performance, and by using the same mobile radar as Bloodhound II, (the Ferranti Firelight) overall system performance was also enhanced. The Bristol Bloodhound and the English Electric Thunderbird were surface-to-air guided missiles with intricate radar tracking devices, in production for the R.A.F. and the Army, respectively. Thunderbird was originally an Air Force and Army project. Later, two different operational requirements became obvious and the Army went for the Thunderbird and the Air Force for the Bloodhound.

From a technical point of view these two weapons are not inferior to the American Hawk weapon, and the British were of the view that they offered considerable advantages over the Hawk. Bloodhound and Thunderbird were offered to the Continent. The only continental country to have taken either of them was Sweden, which took Bloodhound. But the United States Hawk was ordered by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries.

Although Anti-Aircraft Command had been disbanded by 1957, armies in the field still needed anti-aircraft protection. To find the answer to this a limited production order was placed for a surface-to-air guided weapon originally known as Red Shoes but in its operational manifestation as Thunderbird. This would give the Army its first opportunity to train with a mobile weapon of this type.

In 1950 Ferranti's was entrusted with the development of important components of the Bloodhound I, a first-generation surface-to-air guided weapon designed for the Royal Air Force. Ferranti's was made responsible for the guidance and control of Bloodhound I, and for the launch control equipment related to it. Development was carried out on the basis of cost-plus.

Before work on the Thunderbird was completed, and even before there was delivery of it, the UK was proceeding with the development of a more advanced version. By 1958, successful trials of the mobile anti-aircraft weapon Thunderbird had been carried out in co-operation with the Australian Government and deliveries to the Army had started. In addition, work was proceeding on the development of a more advanced version.

The Public Accounts Committee of 1959–60 found, first, that the original estimates made in the case of Thunderbird, Seaslug and Firestreak were so far from reality as to be useless. The contracts for the development of the Bloodhound missile were on the same basis as those for the development of the Seaslug, Thunderbird and Firestreak missiles, namely cost plus. The contracts for the production of the Bloodhound missile were on the same basis as the contracts for the production of Seaslug, Thunderbird and Firestreak, namely fixed price.

Thunderbird was originally estimated to cost £2½ million, was by 1960 estimated at £27 million. When the Ministry's funds were restricted, it accepted the offer of the contractor, English Electric, to put up £750,000 of its own money, the Ministry of Supply promising to reimburse that money either out of the cost of the weapons when they were delivered or as some part of cancellation compensation. The Ministry of Supply did all this without consulting the Treasury, which was justifiably annoyed when it found that it had to pay on delivery or cancellation a sum of £750,000 to which the Government had been committed without Treasury approval—a most unusual eventuality.

The profit arising on the Bloodhound I contracts was greater than expected when those contracts were negotiated. In order finally to dispose of all aspects of the Bloodhound I contracts between Ferranti made a refund in respect of these contracts of a total of £4,250,000.

The Thunderbird was similar in performance and operational use to the Nike-Hercules. It is designed for mobility and ease of handling and is fired from a compact wheeled launcher. The solid-fuel Thunderbird is 21 feet long and has a wing span of 5 feet 3 inches. The center section is 21 inches in diameter. The Thunderbird missile could reach 50,000 feet; it has a solid-fuel motor, and a semiactive homing guidance system. With a range of 40 to 60 km, it can successfully cover the whole corps area; an advantage not enjoyed by any other corps in NORTHAG, which must rely on the Hawk/Nike belt (that does not extend to the FEBA). In peacetime, each regiment had 12 launchers, but these would be augmented in an emergency. The surveillance radar, the No II Mk I, displays to 200 km. It was a good system, though it requires a large number of vehicles to make it mobile.

In 1961 the Army moved a regiment of Thunderbird guided missiles to Germany. Thunderbird 1 was in service with the British Army of the Rhine. It was to be succeeded in the mid-1960s by Thunderbird 2. By 1965 trials were in progress of Thunderbird 2 surface-to-air guided weapon, a greatly improved successor to Thunderbird 1. It was to be fully mobile and air transportable.

Thunderbird II served with 36 Heavy Regiment RA until 1976. By 1975 there was one regiment equipped with Thunderbird surface-to-air missiles in service. Considerations of cost and effectiveness of the Thunderbird missile system showed that it was unlikely to be worth while retaining it in service for more than a very few years. Studies of possible replacements of this missile system were being undertaken under NATO auspices. With the demise of Thunderbird in 1977, the Battery remained an air defence battery equipped with Javelin in 45 then 40 Regiments in Hohne.

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Page last modified: 15-07-2016 19:24:54 ZULU