Gp Capt Kenneth Hubbard

Pilot who carried Britain's first H-bomb

Kenneth Gilbert Hubbard, pilot and air-force officer: born Norwich 26 February 1920; DFC 1944; OBE 1952; AFC 1957; married 1946 Daphne Taylor (marriage dissolved 1953), 1976 Margaret Grubbe (died 1997); died Blythburgh, Suffolk 22 January 2004.

Kenneth Hubbard became part of military history on 15 May 1957, as the pilot of the Valiant jet bomber that dropped Britain's first H-bomb off Malden Island in the South Pacific during the Christmas Island tests, code-named "Operation Grapple". His aircraft, the Valiant XD818, can be seen in the RAF Museum at Hendon.

Hubbard was the officer commanding No 49 Squadron which played the major role in the operation. Valiant aircraft of the squadron carried out a further two drops after the initial one, before the target zone was moved to a point off the south-east tip of Christmas Island itself. The next live drop, code-named "Round C", took place on 8 November 1957 and was the first to break the one-megaton yield. Three additional live drops during the period April to September 1958 produced yields between two and three megatons.

The message to the world was that Britain had moved into the thermonuclear age. In 1958 the United States became partners with Britain in nuclear-weapon design and manufacture in the strategic interest of deterring the Soviet Union.

Operation Grapple thus saw the end of British independent nuclear weapon tests, which had been instigated by the post-war Labour government after the US stopped the exchange of nuclear weapon technology in 1946. The nuclear-weapon development programme had continued after the Conservative Party came to power in 1951.

At the same time the RAF required a new generation of strategic jet bombers. In 1947 the Air Ministry issued two requirements, one of which resulted in the Valiant BI bomber, which became operational in 1955. This was followed by the Vulcan in 1956 and the Victor in 1957. A Valiant from No 49 Squadron dropped the first A-bomb over the Maralinga test area in South Australia on 11 October 1956.

Wing Commander Ken Hubbard took over the command of No 49 Squadron on 1 September 1956 at RAF Wittering, and, in his words, "embarked upon the most fascinating period of my life". He introduced an intensive training programme concentrating on consistent precision flying and bombing accuracy. The existing Valiant aircraft were used first until the new "Grapple" specification all-white Valiant bombers were available from Vickers. They arrived in the middle of November.

Hubbard and Valiant XD818 departed RAF Wittering on 3 March 1957 - destination Christmas Island in the Pacific, via Northern Ireland, Canada, California and Hawaii. They arrived nine days later. The squadron's intensive training programme had to be completed by 5 April, and the operational phase started the following day, in order to meet the scientific requirements for the first live drop, scheduled for the middle of May.

Hubbard's task, with his crew, was to drop an H-bomb from the plane, flying at Mach 0.76, height 45,000ft. The bomb, code-named "Short Granite", would explode at 8,000ft at a precise point 1.5 miles off Malden Island. A time delay and predetermined flight plan would take the Valiant 9.15 nautical miles away from the site of the bomb burst. Contingency plans were put in place should the bomb-release mechanism fail, as the aircraft would not be able to return to the main base at Christmas Island because of the risk to 3,000 personnel.

A full dress rehearsal took place using a 10,000lb bomb with a high explosive warhead. The result was satisfactory and the live drop was planned for four days later. On the morning of 15 May Hubbard and his crew boarded Valiant XD818 for their historic flight, and the H-bomb was dropped as planned. Hubbard carried out the escape manoeuvre. In his book Operation Grapple (1985) he wrote

We removed all anti-flash screens and I turned the aircraft through 90 degrees to port; as we turned, the sight which met our eyes was truly breathtaking. There, towering above us (remember we were at 45,000ft) was a huge mushroom shaped cloud, with the stem a cauldron mass of orange as the fire ball had developed and the hot gases risen into the atmosphere, progressively fanning out and forming a white canopy . . . This top must have reached an altitude of approximately 60,000ft, with ice-caps forming. It really was a sight of such majesty and grotesque beauty that it defies adequate description.

For his completion of Operation Grapple Hubbard and his crew received the Air Force Cross.

Hubbard never doubted the necessity of the H-bomb tests and the need for Britain to have a nuclear deterrent. He was proud of the part his squadron played in Operation Grapple and did not have a great deal of sympathy for the anti-nuclear protesters.

Kenneth Hubbard was born in 1920, the son of a professional footballer, and educated at Norwich Technical College. The gathering war clouds in late 1938 gave him the opportunity to fulfil his childhood ambition to become a pilot. He applied to the RAF, was accepted for pilot training and commissioned as a Pilot Officer in 1941. He trained as a flying instructor at RAF Cranwell and then served at RAF Grantham.

In 1943 Hubbard was posted to No 205 Group in Italy. He completed an operational tour with No 70 Squadron, flying Wellingtons from Foggia in Italy. During this time he was involved in bombing operations against targets in Italy, Yugoslavia and Romania. The squadron also carried out tactical bombing in support of the advancing Allied armies. Hubbard received the DFC and was promoted to Squadron Leader.

After a spell as flight commander of an officer training unit at Quastina in Palestine, Hubbard returned to 70 Squadron as Group Training Officer, and from August 1946 he commanded No 104 Squadron in Egypt.

In 1947 he joined the Directing Staff of the Flying College on its formation at RAF Manby. From 1951 to 1953 he was Station Commander of RAF Shaibah, in Iraq, and was involved in the evacuation of British personnel from Abadan in Iran during the political crisis that followed the takeover of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by the Persian authorities. For this he was appointed OBE in 1953.

In January 1955, following a staff- officer appointment, he was promoted and posted to the V-bomber force, taking command of No 49 Squadron in September 1956 until the conclusion of the Grapple test series in 1958. Hubbard then served at HQ Bomber Command and, as Group Captain, commanded the RAF stations of El Adem, Libya and then Scampton, in Lincolnshire, the base for three Vulcan squadrons. His final appointment was Group Captain Training at HQ Transport Command between 1964 and 1966.

During his career in the RAF Hubbard flew 35 different types of aircraft. For 25 years he was President of the Megaton Club formed from members of No 49 Squadron who had participated in Operation Grapple. They met annually at the Royal Air Force Club, Piccadilly.

In 1975 Hubbard joined his cousin's company, Hubbard Reader Group, as a director for seven years. Following his retirement in 1982 he devoted his time to caring for his wife Margaret, and his animals, including his much-beloved dogs, and also finding time to write his book, Operation Grapple.

Hubbard's sympathetic, but no-nonsense, approach made him the ideal person to chair the local review committee for parole at HM Prison Blundeston and he did much work for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. He was very interested in village life and gave unstintingly of his time. He enjoyed nothing better than a chat about international and local affairs over a G and T in the White Hart.

Michael Simmons

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