1964 saw the first flight of a gleaming new state-of-the-art strike aircraft: the British Aircraft Corporation TSR-2. It promised to be a formidable war machine, capable of delivering four WE.177 thermonuclear bombs deep into the heart of enemy territory. Powered by two Rolls-Royce Olympus turbojets, the same engines used in the Concorde supersonic airliner, the TSR-2 had the unprecedented design goal of sustained supercruise. It was the aircraft that would single-handedly restore the Royal Air Force to the glory days of the Spitfire and the Mosquito.
Then the next year, the TSR-2 was cancelled.
Almost immediately, the conspiracy theories started to sprout up – and they proved surprisingly tenacious. When I worked in the British defence sector in the early 1990s, there was still widespread bitterness among the older generation about the TSR-2 cancellation. Almost everyone of that generation believed some version of the conspiracy theory.
Looking on the internet today, there seems to be a lot more skepticism on the subject. Like all good conspiracy theories, the ones surrounding the TSR-2 can never be proved or disproved. They make a lot of sense – but then so does the “official” story that the TSR-2 was cancelled because it was over budget, behind schedule and unlikely to meet its over-ambitious design goals. Those are pretty good reasons for cancelling any project. But was there another, more sinister, reason as well?
The alleged conspirators in this particular case were the United States government and the British Labour Party. You were probably expecting the first of these (they’re the conspiracy theorist’s target of choice, after all), but the second may need a few words of explanation. The Labour Party was much more left-wing in the 1960s than it is today. It was opposed to nuclear weapons, and it was opposed to big, powerful corporations. So are most people, of course... but when the Labour government came to power in 1964 – less than three weeks after the first flight of the TSR-2 – it was actually in a position to do something about it.
Right from the start, Labour hated the TSR-2 – not just because it was a nuclear bomber, but because it was one of the flagship projects of the previous Conservative government. Labour didn’t have much time for the British Aircraft Corporation, either – it was one of the biggest, greediest corporations in the country, representing everything they despised about capitalism.
But Labour weren’t the only ones who had the knives out for BAC and the TSR-2. The government of the United States felt exactly the same way – although for entirely different reasons. The horrifying fact was that, on paper at least, the TSR-2 was years ahead of anything the U.S. aerospace industry was turning out. As a result, BAC posed a serious competitive threat to U.S. interests – an unthinkable situation that had to be stopped at any cost.
That’s the way the conspiracy theorists tell it, anyway. The Labour government didn’t see eye-to-eye with America on many things – they refused to get involved in the Vietnam War, for example – but they saw eye-to-eye on this. The two sides allegedly came to some kind of devil’s pact, whereby the RAF would get the General Dynamics F-111 at a knock-down price in return for cancelling the TSR-2.
It didn’t quite work out like that. The TSR-2 was cancelled, of course, but the RAF never got the F-111. They had to wait until 1979 – and another Conservative government – before a fully-fledged supersonic strike aircraft came into service. That was the European joint venture, the Panavia Tornado – which, to the dewy-eyed fans of the TSR-2, was never more than a pale shadow of its 1960s predecessor.
To the skeptics, however, there’s no need for a conspiracy theory. To them, the TSR-2 was cancelled by the Labour government because it was inconsistent with their defence policy, and a waste of taxpayers’ money. Not only is there no need to invoke U.S. involvement, the skeptics say, but there isn’t a shred of evidence for it.
Or is there? When the TSR-2 was cancelled, BAC were instructed to do more than just stop work on it. They were told to destroy everything – even the tiniest piece of evidence that might allow the resurrection of the project at a future date. With the exception of a few scraps that ended up in museums, all the prototypes, wooden mockups, manufacturing jigs, design plans and other documents relating to the TSR-2 were systematically destroyed.
This is an astonishing video showing entire airframes going up in flames. It’s the most blatant example of government-sponsored vandalism in Britain since Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the monasteries in 1536.
So who ordered the destruction of the TSR-2? In the video, the British Defence Secretary of the time says it wasn’t him – implying, of course, that it was someone higher up. Surely the finger of blame points across the Atlantic, to Washington. Only the U.S. government – knowing, perhaps, that the RAF would never get those cut-price F-111s – had a vested interest in ensuring that the TSR-2 would never be built again.
For further reading on the subject, start with this excellent article from the Smithsonian Air and Space magazine: Cancelled: Britain’s High-Mach Heartbreak.