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Tarrant Rushton's Nuclear Secret

Tarrant Rushton was a large RAF base used for glider operations during World War II. It was then taken over by Flight Refuelling for the conversion of aircraft for the development of aircraft in-flight refuelling.

However, between 1958 & 1965, the Tarrant Rushton airfield had a much more secretive and less publicised role. This was in support of the nation’s nuclear bomber deterrent, as Tarrant Rushton airfield became a QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) dispersal unit.  During 1958, contractors Costain reinforced the main runway and carried out other work to ensure the giant bomber aircraft could be accommodated. At times just a few miles from Blandford, there would have been up to four RAF Vickers Valiant bombers at Tarrant Rushton ready to become airborne in minutes charged with nuclear weapons. The bombers were from 148 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk. As there was no suitable accommodation at the airfield, an old US Air Force Hospital building at Martin was used. At the time, the nation’s nuclear bomber force was known as the V-bombers because the three types of aircraft involved were called the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan. In 1952, Britain had tested its first nuclear weapon detonating a bomb off Western Australia.

A V-bomber Dispersal Unit involved the concept of dispersing nuclear bombers to outlying airfields to escape the effects of enemy attacks on the main bases. As it was essential for the aircraft to take off quickly, this avoided long queues of aircraft waiting to take to the air. Not far away, there was another V-bomber Dispersal Unit at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton.

In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the nation to the brink of a nuclear world war. The aim was to have 200 V-bombers in the air before the Soviet missiles landed. There were three levels of readiness – 15 minutes, five minutes and two minutes. Under the highest level, the bombers would be sat at the end of the runway with engines running. Their role would have been to drop nuclear bombs on Russia. Meanwhile the people of Blandford and the surrounding villages would have had to take cover as best they could. During the Cuban missile crisis, it is possible the two minutes warning stage could have been activated.

As the V-bombers gradually became more vulnerable as a weapon force, the RAF stopped using Tarrant Rushton as a dispersal point. Flight Refuelling left the site in the 1970s and the Tarrant Rushton’s airfield finally closed in September 1980.

(Illustration: Vickers Valliant)


  1. I worked at flight refuelling in 1948 during the Berlin Air Lift, such happy memories, especially keeping the mechanics happy with tea and wads. I met my husband there. Can't think anyone would remember me as I am now in my 91st year, but I remember Sir Alan Cobham, Joe Sword , Johnnie and Titch doyens 0f the Canteen, and lots of the pilots who were on a quick turn around, I repeat "Happy Days"

    1. Do you remember Robert ben Marshall ? He flew Halifax bombers towing gliders . He took the spire off tarrent st Mary church 🤦‍♂️😆

  2. Interesting. Just posted a short piece on Sir Alan and his ‘flying circus’ and also hope to do something on the Berlin airlift later.

  3. Hey what a brilliant post I have come across and believe me I have been searching out for this similar kind of post for past a week and hardly came across this. Thank you very much and will look for more postings from you Best Waffen online service provider

  4. Amember of my family Tom Barnes was Sir Alan Cobhams personal driver and used to travel 'all over' with him.

  5. I don't think it was a particularly large base. But I am from Blandford and still remember hearing and seeing Canberras fly out of there. I joined the RN in 1970 and we used Rushton trailed targets. I think it was Hunters that flew out from Yeovilton as Tarrant Rudhton was on the verge of closure. I also went Bird spotting/nesting up there as a kid.


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