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Special Weapon, Special Relationship: The Atomic Bomb Comes to Britain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Ken Young

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)523-556
Issue number2
PublishedApr 2013

King's Authors


Post-1945 US war planning assumed that if conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union occurred it would be prosecuted by B-29s flying flying the atomic bomb from forward bases in East Anglia. In terms of Anglo-American relations, the decision to base an atomic strike force in England was surely one of the most significant of the early Cold War years. Yet, in contrast to the formal arrangements made elsewhere, basing aircraft and their necessary atomic support facilities in England was agreed informally, almost casually, as early as 1946. Once agreed, construction work commenced immediately, and the installations were largely complete within months, as bomb preparation and loading facilities were established at two disused airfields, Lakenheath and Sculthorpe. At the outbreak of the Korean conflict, atomic-capable aircraft, complete with bomb components, were for the first time deployed to these and other East Anglian airfields, amidst anxieties about sabotage and a pre-emptive Soviet air strike. The paper shows that while the establishment of a US atomic strike capability in England was a vital strategic priority, this strategic need was met through an entirely informal arrangement, in striking contrast to those that the United States made elsewhere in the world. That this was so is attributable to the mutual trust that existed between the two air force chiefs, Carl Spaatz and Sir Arthur Tedder. However, that informality would soon engender concern in Britain as the lack of symmetry in Anglo-American atomic relations became more apparent.

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