Join Date: Sep 2011
Location: Westerham, Kent
Air Commodore Arthur Steele
Air Commodore Arthur Steele, who has died aged 88, was captain of a Valiant bomber during Operation Grapple, the testing of Britain’s first thermonuclear weapon (the H-bomb) in the South Pacific in 1957
Air Commodore Arthur Steele - Telegraph
The aim of Grapple was to test the performance of nuclear weapons dropped from the RAF’s V-bomber aircraft, and the site chosen was Malden Island, 400 miles south of Christmas Island.
Specially equipped Valiants of No 49 Squadron, based at Wittering, were allocated for the task, and Steele, a highly experienced pilot and flying instructor, was made responsible for a concentrated training programme for the four crews selected for the first phase of Grapple .
The aircraft arrived at Christmas Island in early March 1957, and Steele supervised a further intensive period of trials and training to familiarise the crews with the target and operational procedures.
On May 15, No 49’s CO, Wing Commander Ken Hubbard, dropped the first weapon successfully. For the second drop, on May 31, Steele flew the backup aircraft; and for the third and final test, he and his crew were given the lead role.
On June 19 Steele climbed to 45,000ft and carried out a practice run over the target before he was given clearance to drop his bomb. Fifty seconds after release, the bomb exploded at the predetermined height of 8,000ft.
Steele had erected the anti-flash screens in the cockpit of his aircraft before making a precisely executed turn away from the explosion and before the shock wave was felt in the aircraft. The drop was a complete success.
A few days after Steele’s flight, the squadron returned to Wittering having carried out the largest joint service operation to be mounted since the end of the Second World War. Hubbard said of Steele: “He was a perfectionist both in the air and on the ground. No man could have devoted more time, energy and expertise to the training task, which was the vital factor to our success. Neither could I have wished for a more loyal officer.” Steele was awarded a Bar to an AFC he had received a few years earlier.
Arthur George Steele was born on October 2 1923 at St John’s Wood, north London, and educated at William Ellis Secondary School. He enlisted in the RAF in June 1941, at the age of 17, and trained as a pilot in Canada, where he remained as a flying instructor until his return to Britain in January 1945.
After converting to the Mosquito he joined No 110 Squadron in Burma, flying ground-attack and bombing operations against the retreating Japanese forces. He was then deployed to Java during the early stages of the disturbances by Indonesian guerrillas.
Steele was released from the RAF in the summer of 1946 but rejoined three years later, when he became the flying instructor on No 31 Squadron at Hendon. He spent almost three years on Examination Wing at the Central Flying School and was awarded his first AFC.
After converting to jet bombers, Steele served on Canberras with No 617 Squadron before becoming one of the early pilots to join the new V-Force.
His participation in the H-bomb tests was followed by three years in the Air Ministry, after which he returned to the V-Force as chief instructor at the Valiant and Victor conversion unit at RAF Gaydon. He then served at HQ 3 (Bomber) Group and at HQ Bomber Command, and was appointed CBE.
In June 1969 Steel assumed command of the large airbase at Wyton, the home of the RAF’s strategic photographic and electronic reconnaissance forces with squadrons of Victor, Comet and Canberra aircraft.
On promotion to air commodore, he was Air Commander in Malta, then Commandant of the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre at Biggin Hill. He retired from the RAF in 1978.
For a number of years, Steele was the house manager at Boughton House, the Northamptonshire home of the Duke of Buccleuch. For 23 years he was honorary president of No 1101 (Kettering) Squadron of the ATC, an organisation he held in great regard.
A skilful carpenter and handyman, in the 1970s Steele restored and converted a seagoing boat, which he moored on the Thames and used as a family home during one of his tours in the MoD.
Arthur Steele married, in 1944, Eileen Sellon. She died in 1979, and he is survived by his second wife, Rachel, and by two daughters of his first marriage.