Barnet’s role in building V bombers during World War 2
From Shyam Bhatia
London, December 12, 2021
A North London borough’s role in supporting the country’s strategic defences has been highlighted by a senior engineer who used to work for leading aerospace manufacturer Handley Page in Cricklewood.
Victor bombers built by the company at their Cricklewood factory in Barnetwere used from the mid 1950s to deploy ‘Yellow Sun’ Hydrogen bombs designed the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire. Four years later the same aircraft were adapted to carry nuclear tipped Blue Steel missiles focused on Cold War targets behind the Iron Curtain.
Details of the Cricklewood-built Victors were disclosed by 81 year old retired engineer Alan Dowsett who lived with his parents in Hadley Green and started his professional life in 1959 as an apprentice with Handley Page and worked for them until the company was wound up in 1970.
“The fuselage components of the bombers were built at Cricklewood”, Mr Dowsett told the Barnet Post. “The nose was built at Radlett, south of St Albans, and Rolls Royce engines were fitted at Derby. All the components finally came together at Radlett.
Dowsett, author of ‘Handley Page’, published by Tempus, was speaking at a December function (December 8, 2021) to highlight the new Brent Cross Town Visitor Pavilion. Local history enthusiasts and one Barnet councillor – Alan Schneiderman – were among the small group of visitors who attended his talk, entitled, ‘Handley Page in Cricklewood: A brief history from 1912 until 1965.’
Before, during and after his talk Dowsett explained how 83 Victors built at Cricklewood were part of the Royal Air Force’s ‘V’ Bomber force that also included the ‘Vulcan’ built by Avro and the ‘Valiant’ by Vickers at their own separate sites in the country. The Victor, Valiant and Vulcan all made up the UK’s strategic nuclear strike force until Royal Navy submarines took over the nuclear deterrent role using Polaris intercontinental missilies developed by the US.
A total of 83 Victor bombers were built by Handley Page and 39 were still in service in 1963 when a final handful were converted to flight refuelling tankers. They were finally retired in 1993. However the last aircraft ever to be produced by the company at Cricklewood and Radlett was the turboprop-powered Jertstream passenger aircraft. The Jetstream was still undergoing trials in 1970 when the company went into liquidation.
Dowsett, who graduated from Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Barnet with three ‘A’ levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry started his professional life as an apprentice with Handley Page and was working on the Jetstream when the company folded.
“We were working on hot weather trials with the Jetstream to prove it could work in hot weather”, he recalled. “They sent us to Khartum, Enetbbe and Fort Lamy (subsequently renamed as N’Djamena) in the former French African colony of Chad. Earlier trials were held in Dubai, Khartum and Fort Lamy.”
Although Dowsett worked only on commercial passenger aircraft, he and other members of staff were all too aware of the Victor being built alongside and in secret. Described as ‘boasting a futuristic design’ that epitomised the jet age of the 1950s and 1960s, the Cricklewood components were produced in secrecy before being added to in other locations. Nuclear missiles carried in its underbelly are thought to have been fitted at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire.
According to Dowsett some 3,000 aircraft were built and tested in Cricklewood by the time production of the Victor started in the late 1950s. Company founder Sir Frederick Handley Page started building monoplanes and biplanes from earlier factory premises at Woolwich, Farnbridge and Barking Creek. Cricklewood was for building bigger aircraft, including the Handley Page Transport and the HP 57 Halifax that was used to bomb Berlin during the Second World War. During the inter-war years the adjoining Cricklewood aerodrome briefly functioned as an international airport.
Dowsett’s talk was one of many events organised and hosted by Brent Cross Town to celebrate the opening of its new Visitor Pavilion. More events at the Pavilion are planned for 2022.