FULLY COCKED 15 MINUTES: GENERAL CURTIS LEMAY
book. While LeMay was far from the crazed stereotype of the airforce generals in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (such as ‘Buck’ Turgidson, played by George C Scott), he was a very tough-minded man with an extraordinary grasp of every aspect of bombing. After all, it was he who firebombed Tokyo and sent Fat Man and Little Boy on their way. This driven individual was responsible for the fifteen minutes of Keeney’s title, that being the time needed from the moment a Soviet attack was detected to get hundreds of B-47s and B-52s into the air and ensure the ability to strike back. Eventually this was done with the aid of jet-propulsion units attached to the fuselage. Off they went, trailing huge plumes of black smoke, from runways shaped like Christmas trees to enable them to turn at speed for takeoff. What was dubbed ‘dial-a-yield’ enabled the US to include a bewildering range of nuclear devices in an arsenal that eventually numbered 32,000 weapons. Keeney’s book is dense with absorbing technical detail, whether regarding ‘Fail-Safe’, the brilliant idea conceived by RAND Corporation’s Albert Wohlstetter
AND THE COUNTDOWN TO NUCLEAR ANNIHILATION
By L Douglas Keeney (St Martin’s Press 372pp £16.67)
AT THE END of the Second World War the US was the sole nuclear power in the world, although paradoxically it did not possess a single functioning atomic bomb after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were big, complex devices requiring weeks to prepare and prime. The US also had an air force and navy capable of projecting power around the globe, even if in Europe the Soviets had a colossal advantage, with 4.5 million troops, 15,500 combat aircraft and vast numbers of tanks.
whereby the absence of any further s i gnal meant that US bombers turned homeward on reaching a pre-designated line, or the employment of deep-sea oil-rig designs to create offshore early-war ning radar s t a t ions amid 75-foot waves.
The obvious answer to this conventional imbalance was to rapidly stockpile nuclear bombs – the initial target was 200 such weapons – and combine them with a dedicated bomber force, Strategic Air Command (SAC). Unlike the 1,000-bomber raids of the Second World War, this would concentrate on small formations of ten or so planes, with only one of these needed to get through to its military or industrial target: the force of a single Hiroshima-yield atomic bomb was equivalent to the total payload capable of being delivered by 3,000 conventional bombers. The air crews chosen for these deep penetration missions into the Soviet Union knew that they would never come back if deployed, for this was a decade before mid-air refuelling became viable. ‘Kiss them goodbye and let them go,’ was how an operations chief put it.
A bomber crew races to the cockpit of a B-47
The air crew were a highly select group, liable to be transferred out for achieving ‘only’ 99 per cent in proficiency tests. They were glamour boys in an era that was unselfconscious about the vast consumption of ‘atomic cocktails’ of grapefruit
L Douglas Keeney’s deeply researched and vividly written book charts SAC’s organisational growth (it was bigger than Standard Oil), and the technological advances that accompanied it, from its beginnings in 1946 to its demise in 1992, when the nuclear bomber force was finally superseded by Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that could be launched from air, ground or sea. It is also the story of SAC’s two longest serving commanders, General Curtis LeMay (who took over in October 1948) and his successor from 1957 to 1964, General Thomas Power. Since Power was very much a disciple of LeMay, the latter is at the spiritual centre of Keeney’s juice and vodka. Life was spent in corrugated mole runs and station wagons, ready for that short sprint to fully ‘cocked’ aircraft, or on routine missions that flew round the clock, 352 days a year for thirty years, to guarantee instant response to an incoming Soviet strike. Contrary to what Kubrick showed in Dr Strangelove, their end runs meant flying at 400–500 miles per hour at tree-top level (so as to avoid Soviet radar) before releasing four bombs designed to drift down with the aid of parachutes. The blast was avoided by performing complex evasive manoeuvres in an aircraft fully shuttered-up against burning flashes of radiation.
Keeney has gone to great lengths to tease out information about mid-air disasters and refuelling explosions. An accident in 1961, when a B-52 broke apart in the air, left part of an armed hydrogen bomb somewhere under a field in North Carolina. As the plane exploded, its two bombs simply armed themselves in response to barometric fusing mechanisms, and it was merely the failure of a few final slivers of wire to connect that saved the town of Goldsboro
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011
from being erased from the map. The nuclear portion of one of the bombs has never been recovered. In 1968 a B52 crashed in Greenland, with the explosives of four Hbombs detonating without unleashing their full power. A nuclear alert was once also triggered by radar waves bouncing off the surface of the Moon and showing up as a swarm of Russian bombers on US early-warning radar screens.
Keeney’s accounts of successive tests remind us of what was at stake throughout the long Cold War. In 1954 a hydrogen bomb codenamed Bravo was tested on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. This ‘runaway’ bomb, which was expected to yield eight to ten megatons, exploded with the power of fifteen, each megaton being equivalent to one million tons of TNT. That was more than ever y bomb or shell used by a l l belligerents throughout the Second World War. Thirty miles away a sailor felt as if a ‘blowtorch was going across the back of my neck’. A radioactive cloud a thousand miles long drifted from the blast, which obliterated the atoll. Years later babies shaped like bunches of grapes were still being born to the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands.
By the early 1960s, both the US and the USSR were experimenting with thermonuclear bombs that carried a fifty to sixty megaton yield; in 1961 the Russians detonated such a device on an island in the Arctic Ocean. In order to compensate for the shortfall in the number of nuclear bombs in their arsenal – in 1959 the US had fifteen times as many bombs as them – the Soviets planned to use neutral freighters to drop bombs in US harbours. Four of those covertly delivered devices would have been 100
KENNETH O MORGAN
SPEAKING OUT TO END ALL WARS: HOW THE FIRST
WORLD WAR DIVIDED BRITAIN
By Adam Hochschild (Macmillan 356pp £20)
THE FIRST WORLD War dominated the public memory in twentieth-century Britain. For decades, this generally took the form of scathing denunciation along the lines of Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War! or A J P Taylor’s lectures, juxtaposing bone-headed generals, oblivious to the mass slaughter that cost 720,000 British lives, with a brave but disillusioned populace. This has been shown to be too simple minded. Patr iotic passion was the prevailing wartime outlook. Haig remained an icon until his death, the recipient of an earldom and a publicly funded ancestral Scottish mansion in Bemersyde. For all the éclat of the anti-war poets such as Owen or Sassoon, the greatest literary impact came from the bestselling patriotic verse of megatons each. Afterwards their bombers would go in, passing LeMay’s much larger, outward-bound SAC force. It was calculated that both sides would lose something in the order of seventy million people each in this initial exchange, which, if negotiations did not intervene, would then result in an all-out Holocaust.
By the early Sixties, SAC’s command had itself become fully airborne in twenty planes, while the President theoretically had fifteen minutes to helicopter over to Andrews Air Force base, from where he could hurtle away from the burning ruins of Washington in his own flying National Emergency Command Post (codenamed ‘Nightwatch’). But by then a finger on the button was no longer necessary, since both sides had dead-hand switch mechanisms whereby the machines could activate missile systems upon detecting light or thermal bursts in their vicinity. As bombers were superseded by ICBMs hidden in Nebraska or Wyoming, each missile being equipped with its own complex deception systems, human initiative and judgement were replaced by computers. The B-52s’ undercarr iages were sprayed black instead of white and sent to Vietnam and Laos for conventional raids.
At the end of his fine book, L Douglas Keeney sighs with relief that this era is over. Of course it isn’t. Many of the measures and countermeasures he describes seem highly rational to anyone not crazed by CND; one wonders how a future nuclearised Middle East will seem with leaders who think an apocalypse is a religious event or that guiding angels hover over battlefields. Then we might be positively nostalgic for General Curtis LeMay. ❑
Rupert Brooke. The British also cherished their Armistice Day, a unique national ‘ceremony for the fallen in battle’. Some historians have gone further, seeing generals like Haig, obsessed with their cavalry, as grand masters of strategy, their offensives at the Somme and Passchendaele wreaking hidden damage on the German militar y machine and leading to virtuous triumph in 1918 against almost insuperable odds.
Adam Hochschild, author of a fascinating book on Leopold II’s atrocities in the Belgian Congo, largely reverts to the earlier tradition. For him the war was ‘madness’, a gruesome saga of pointless cruelty. Its legacies lay in another war, inevitable from the outcome of the peace treaties, and in the brutalising of the moral sensitivities of mankind. But he reaches this conventional conclusion in an interesting and unconventional way, setting individuals supportive of and opposed to the war against each other. In some cases, they were related. Sir John French, the British commander of the grisly first year and a half, was the brother of Charlotte Despard, the cr usading anti-war dissenter and militant socialist. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, ardent suffragette leaders who became ferocious supporters of the war and advocates of conscr iption, broke with
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011