Plan SPEEDWAY, 1948

While I was conducting research in the National Archives recently I came across a rather curious document from 1948. This particular memorandum by the British Chiefs of Staff outlines a joint Anglo-American strategic plan, codenamed SPEEDWAY, for if war broke out with the Soviet Union on or before 1950. I have come across plan SPEEDWAY before, as it crops up now and again in the literature. However, not until now have I been able to cast my own eyes upon it. I think plan SPEEDWAY makes for very interesting reading in that it highlights just how precarious the military balance was between the Western powers and the Soviet Union during the immediate post-war years. In turn, it shows how British and American anxieties about Soviet conventional superiority, both real and imagined, played an important role in shaping thinking about nuclear weapons in those nations.

Plan SPEEDWAY worked on the assumption that at the start of a major war the Soviet Union would launch two major offensives in the Middle East and mainland Europe in addition to mounting other minor actions elsewhere. The Western Allies would be thrown immediately on the defensive, and the only offensive action which they could hope to take strategically in the early stages of the war was from the air. The burden of these strategic missions would fall on the US Air Force since it was the only Service which possessed ‘the equipment required for this task’ i.e., atomic weapons. This air offensive would be carried out by 400 atomic-armed US heavy bombers, operating out of the UK, Egypt, and Okinawa, and would be supported by a smaller force of 160 British medium bombers which did not possess the necessary range to conduct operations over Russia.

The primary task of this combined bomber force was to assist in the defence of the Middle East and the UK. Atomic weapons would have been employed from the outset, although the Chiefs of Staff were uncertain as to how many bombs would be made available, that guarded information remained with their American counterparts. What was clear was that the Allied air forces would not be strong enough to prevent a Russian build-up in Western Europe and at the same time slow an advance in the Middle East.

The situation on the ground looked equally bleak. As British and American airmen took to the skies, soldiers would be fighting a hard battle on the ground. In Western Europe, a total of 11 Allied divisions and 500 tactical aircraft would confront an estimated attacking force of 50 Soviet divisions and 6,000 tactical aircraft. Foreseeing later NATO doctrine, Allied land forces would adopt a Forward Strategy and mount a defence on the Rhine for as long as they could holdout. Considering the lopsided nature of the military balance, however, it is not surprising that the Chiefs of Staff arrived at their rather frank conclusion that ‘if the enemy presses his attack we cannot hold Western Europe’.

Likewise, forces in the Middle East were small – 3 scratch divisions and 300 combat aircraft – and it was unlikely that they could prevent loosing territory and oil. The plan for naval forces appeared more optimistic, yet bittersweet. The Chiefs’ were certain that the Allies had the sufficient strength and skill to keep open the sea lanes of communication and protect its shipping, however, by the time Western Europe was overrun, Soviet tactical aircraft would join the naval-air forces to constitute a serious threat to the approaches to the UK and in the Mediterranean.

Airpower was now seen as the greatest threat. A corollary of this was that the defence of Europe was becoming to be seen as a prerequisite to the successful defence of the UK home islands. If the enemy’s air forces were not held as far to the east as possible, then this would invite air attacks from fixed positions in the Low Countries and Northern France.

So that, in essence, is plan SPEEDWAY. So, what was the predicted outcome if the plan had been implemented in say 1950? If you have not guessed already, it did not look good for the British. The Chiefs of Staff offered two potential outcomes to such a war which would ‘lie between the two extremes of such complete success of the atomic offensive…or failure of the offensive to prevent a critical air situation developing in the UK’. These were not particularly nice outcomes for anybody involved. Yet, the faith in atomic airpower would remain steady throughout the 1950s as nuclear weapons became increasingly to be seen as a panacea to many of the West’s strategic dilemmas.