Wiped from history books: Menzies’ plan for the Jindivik pilotless bomber to finance Woomera

Jan 27, 2021

Far from being duped, Prime Minister Bob Menzies and his Cabinet went to extraordinary lengths to support the development in Australia of British atomic bombs and thermonuclear components for the H bomb.

This was especially the case in the face of challenges in the early 1950s regarding the continued funding of the Long Range Weapons Research Establishment centring on Woomera, which covers a third of the South Australian desert.

The Australian government had invested heavily both in funds and prestige in the Anglo-Australian Joint Project to develop and test long-range guided missiles that could potentially carry nuclear warheads. However, in the late 1940s, there was a “cancellation scare” as the official history Fire Across the Desert put it.

It’s clear that both Prime Minister Menzies and his predecessor Chifley thought they had been promised access to the British nuclear deterrent armoury. By the early 1950s, guided nuclear-tipped missiles were increasingly recognised as being more important than full bombs, which were considered too destructive to be used, not least now that the opposition could reply in kind. Atomic bombs were, by the time Britain exploded its first off the Monte Bello Islands in late 1952, just the detonators for massively more powerful thermonuclear weapons.

According to the official history, the British were being pressed to give the Long Range Weapons Research Establishment “big glamorous projects” that would be “commensurate with the great labour and millions of pounds” Australia was expending to do what many were coming to see as ‘busy work’, such as developing the Jindivik target drone.

The official history says: “In the distance did lie the prospect of a long-range bombardment drone … some extension of the Jindivik target aircraft project, to produce a supersonic expendable bomber weighing 50 tonnes or more, presumably armed with an atomic bomb.”

But that is all it says about a conversion of Jindivik to a pilotless nuclear bomber.

During the Korean War, prototypes of the highly expendable Jindivik Mark I were being developed at the Government Aircraft Factory in Melbourne. The first was delivered to Woomera in October 1951. But it was not until August 1952 that it survived its first flight, controlled by a “crew” of four from the ground.

A little over six months later on March 31, 1953, the Deputy British High Commissioner in Canberra wrote a TOP SECRET letter to his counterpart in the Australian Prime Minister’s Department advising him:

“As regards other points raised in your letter, the United Kingdom Authorities, for their part would prefer that the arranged leak about the expendable pilotless bomber should be made in Australia and that the Australian authorities should be responsible for the arrangements for letting it out.”

“A suggestion to this effect” had been made to the chairman of the Australian Panel preparing for the Totem weapons tests to be held in October 1953.

“Perhaps you could let me know whether the Australian authorities concur in this suggestion.”

The UK authorities “would, however, like to be consulted before the pilotless bomber cover-plan is put into operation”.

A week later Queensland’s Maryborough Chronicle reported that a new contract for 64 Jindivik pilotless aircraft was being placed for specifications provided by the British Ministry of Supply. Whereas Jindiviks had only up to this point been described as “target planes” it was stated that some of the Mark II model ‘will be used at the Woomera range in secret tests involving the use of the recently developed ground to air and air to ground weapons’.

A month later, Prime Minister Menzies went to Woomera to launch the first Mark II Jindivik which, according to the Argus newspaper, “can be adapted to carry an atomic bomb”.

Under the headline “Rockets for A-bombs”, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported that:

“Technicians are already working on powerful guided missiles to carry big atomic bombs. The Federal and British Governments are discussing details of the extra money needed in 1953-54 to speed up the work at Woomera, which might increase Australia’s costs by £5 million above the present £9.5 million.”

The Barrier Miner said, “the stepping up of activity at the range may be a prelude to the testing of an even newer British atomic weapon.”

Under the headline PUSH BUTTON WAR the article noted it was hoped the opening up of Woomera to journalists on the day Menzies launched the Mark II ‘to see various Woomera activities that had all previously been strictly hush-hush’ would help to “stifle much of the ill-considered criticism that has long been hurled at the Long Range Weapons Organization. It has been said, for instance, that taxpayers’ money was being squandered.”

The aeronautical correspondent of Sydney’s Sunday Herald reported on 7 June 1953 that an ‘improved Jindivik pilotless aircraft’ had been commissioned and “one of the roles envisaged for it is that of an expendable bomber with an atomic warhead”.

A fortnight later Brisbane’s Sunday Mail and the West Australian both reported in virtually the same language that:

“Lengthy secret talks between Britain and Australia preceded Mr Menzies’ visit to Woomera with the British High Commissioner (Sir Stephen Holmes) early in May.

“The visit was ostensibly for Mr Menzies to launch the Australian-built Jindivik pilotless aircraft, but the real purpose, it was later disclosed, was to enable him to study the situation at Woomera before beginning the London talks. Several recent developments have pointed to the beginning of a new stage in the Woomera project.”

In late August the British Minister of Supply, Duncan Sandys, was in Australia and, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, “graphically described rockets designed with such deadly skill and precision that, travelling at more than 2,000 miles an hour, they can follow a bomber through every twist and turn or themselves carry a load of explosives to a pinpoint target in a distant territory.”

The SMH commented that: “Mr Duncan Sandys’ statement may be interpreted as Britain’s resolute answer to Russia’s claim to possess the secret of the most terrible of destructive weapons, the hydrogen bomb.”

Ten days before the Totem bomb tests began at Emu Field in mid-October 1953, the Adelaide Advertiser asked in an article headed “Plutonium Plus Jindivik”:

“How far has Britain gone in devising 2,000 m.p.h rocket missiles that can be fitted with an atomic warhead? … The coming spectacular explosions in Australia’s Dead Heart … will have a bearing on the extent to which the atom can be made a weapon of defence as well as offence. The piloted aircraft is on the way out.”

None of this appears in the official history of Woomera and Jindivik. The “planned leak and cover up” letter was provided to the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia but does not appear in the transcript index.

Hypersonic missiles are tested at Woomera these days. Jindivik worked out its days as a target drone.

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