25th July 1957. Cutting the Coat…
In times of national financial stringency often the military is seen as a soft target for the axe, so it was in 1957 when a Bank Rate of 5-7%, the highest since 1921, saw the government looking to reduce expenditure.
Today The Times headline in 1957 announced: ‘Merged regiments and new system of brigades with many familiar units to lose their separate identity’.
It went on: ‘The British Army was to be reduced in size…leaving it with a strength of 165,000 officers and men. The process was to be carried out in two phases, to be completed by the end of 1959 and 1962 respectively’.
The February 1957, Sandys’ White Paper Directive envisaged armed forces of c380,000; half the size of 1954, but also included measures affecting the aircraft industry, as the development of ground to air missiles was now optimistically seen as the future for defence.(1)
The Directive was driven through by Sandys who brooked no opposition from the Service Chiefs, with Enoch Powell describing the atmosphere in the Minister of Defence, as ‘abrasive’, a view supported by Sir Richard Way, Deputy Secretary at the Ministry.
Sandys had a reputation for cost-cutting going back to 1953 when he spearheaded cost-cutting on aircraft carriers, so when Harold Macmillan took over in 1957 as Prime Minister, he supported the Minister aware that a 1946 Act had given greater power to politicians. (2)
The fallout from the review was the rapid amalgamation of household names of aircraft manufactures, so in 1960 English Electric, British Aero Company and Vickers Armstrong became British Aircraft Corporation.
Then Hunting Aircraft joined De Havilland, Blackburn Aircraft and Folland to become Hawker Siddeley, which already embraced Armstrong Whitworth, Avro, Gloster and Hawker since 1935.
One result of the 1957 review was the cancellation of aircraft in development, the next generation of supersonic interceptors, as against high flying bombers. Thus the F 155, SR 53 and 177 and Avro 730 were cancelled, as was Blue Rosette the nuclear weapon to arm it.
Then Blue Envoy surface to air missile was surprisingly cancelled, though the English Electric P1 Lightning was spared as it was too far advanced to cancel.
However in a seemingly volte-face, the later 1959 Defence White Paper made no reference of deterrent defence and confirmed the importance of conventional forces with the army increased to 180,000.
(1) Sandys was Tory, Secretary for Defence.
(2) Under MOD Section 1 of MOD Act 1946.
(3) Westland took the helicopter work of Saunder’s Roe, Fairey Aviation plus Bristol’s . The Hovercraft element of Saunders’ was merged with Vickers-Supermarine as British Hovercraft Corporation; Handley Page remained independent.
Auster, Boulton Paul, Miles Aircraft, Scottish Aviation and Short Brothers (bought by Bombardier in 1989), merged with British Aerospace in 1977.
In 1959 Armstrong Siddeley and Bristol Engine divisions merged into Bristol Siddeley, to be bought by Rolls-Royce in 1966.
PRO.AIR 19/856 Extract of Minutes of Meeting of PS 20.2.1957.
Government and Armed Forces in Britain 1856-1990, Paul Smith.
Enoch Powell described Sandys at his time at Housing as ‘exacting’ (The Independent, 27th November 1987).
Alistair Horne. Macmillan. London 1988. p.245.