"MAYFLIGHT! Mayflight!" Nuclear capable bomber coming into land at RAF Middleton St George – and despite its earth juddering noise, its precise presence has been largely shrouded in secrecy since the Cold War.

A month ago, we told how RAF Middleton St George – now Teesside International Airport – had been one of the “dispersal bases” for Britain’s nuclear bombers in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Just as you should never put all your eggs in one basket, so you should not keep all of your nuclear bombers under one hangar. Therefore Britain’s V Force, made up of Valiant, Vulcan and Victor bombers equipped to carry long range nuclear missiles, had ten main airbases and also another 26 airfields dotted around the country which were ready for them in a case of emergency.

Middleton St George, and RAF Leeming, were among those outer bases.

To ensure that aircrew, airfield and groundcrew at these bases were always ready, four bombers could drop in at, literally, a moment’s notices.

Aviation historian Geoff Hill, of Sedgefield, whose memorabilia has just gone on display in the departure lounges at Teesside Airport, has discovered that the V Force pilots would be sent into the air without knowing their destination. If they received one of the codewords “mayflight”, “kinsman” or “Mickey Finn”, it meant they were bound for Middleton St George.

A Vulcan and its crew at Middleton St George. Picture courtesy of Geoff Hill

A Vulcan and its crew at Middleton St George. Picture courtesy of Geoff Hill

Once landed, the bombers were handled at the south side of the airfield, near the ancient, and isolated, church of St George which stands just outside the perimeter fence. It is believed that the Blue Steel nuclear missiles, tipped with a 1.1 megaton Red Snow thermonuclear weapon, would have been stored on that side of the airfield.

The V Force became operational in the mid to late 1950s. Perhaps the first that the people of south Durham and North Yorkshire knew of having such things in their midst was when they were invited to the 1959 “At Home” Day at the airfield.

“The ‘at home’ days were a feature of RAF bases up and down the country during the 1950s and 1960s, eventually morphing into ‘Battle of Britain’ displays, and were usually held at the start of September,” says John Hunter in Grinton.

“My local base was Finningley, which is now Doncaster Airport. I attended many times. There were often similar displays at at least one other base on the same day, so the Red Arrows start their display at one and then flew to the next to close the display!”

On the cover of the MSG souvenir programme is a drawing of a nuclear bomber swooping dynamically around the globe. When operational, the V Force bombers were painted “anti-flash white”, because even though they were supposed to launch their missiles from 70,500ft and 575 miles away from the target, there would not have been enough time for the bomber to retire to a safe distance and so the paint was designed to reflect at least some of the radiation.

“The Victor bomber on the MSG cover is actually the prototype airframe WB771 – not in its anti-flash finish but a special livery for the first flight,” says John. “The stripe on the fuselage was actually red. There are very few coloured photos of the first flight.

“It was known as the HP 80 and first flew in 1952, and had to be transported by road from Handley Page’s Radlett factory to Boscombe Down, as the HP runway was too short! The RAF ordered an initial 25 in June and the name Victor was coined. It was preceded by the Valiant and Vulcan bombers.”

John is an award-winning professional artist who sells his work from his studio beside the B&B overlooking Grinton church that he runs with his wife. Aviation is one of his specialist subjects.

V Force montage, drawn by John Hunter, of Grinton

V Force montage, drawn by John Hunter, of Grinton

“My interest in the aircraft emanates from a commission I had a few years back from a gentleman who watched the first flight as a small boy and wanted this experience to be commemorated along with images of other early Victors,” he says.

Peter Richardson in Hurworth also spotted the Victor prototype on the cover. “The Victor certainly turned out to be a wonderful and extremely capable aircraft which was well liked by its crews, though sadly this prototype was lost with four crew deaths during its ‘teething’ period, which led to strengthening of the tail,” he says.

In 1959, 100,000 people attended the “at home” day at MSG. “Lined up on the tarmac for inspection were huge bombers – the Vulcan and Valiant,” said the D&S Times’ sister paper, the Evening Despatch.

At least one of the bombers took part in the display.

Just before MSG was handed over to civilian authorities in 1964, its south side was decommissioned by the Ministry of Defence. Its career as a nuclear dispersal base therefore lasted about four years, although in 2015, XH558, the last of the 136 Vulcans made, flew past it on its farewell tour.