English Electric Thunderbird
The English Electric Thunderbird was a British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 surface to air missile produced for the British Army
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

. The Thunderbird was primarily intended to attack higher altitude targets at ranges of up to thirty miles or so. AA gun
Anti-aircraft warfare
NATO defines air defence as "all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action." They include ground and air based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures. It may be to protect naval, ground and air forces...

s were still used for lower altitude threats. They were the Army's only heavy surface to air guided weapon and were not replaced (by another heavy guided SAM) when they left service.


The Stage Plan

The Thunderbird originated in a proposal to English Electric
English Electric
English Electric was a British industrial manufacturer. Founded in 1918, it initially specialised in industrial electric motors and transformers...

 in 1949 to develop a missile to provide ground based air defence to the British Army in the field. As such, it was intended to replace the barely mobile 3.7-inch heavy anti-aircraft gun
QF 3.7 inch AA gun
The 3.7-Inch QF AA was Britain's primary heavy anti-aircraft gun during World War II. It was roughly the equivalent of the German 88 mm FlaK but with a slightly larger calibre of 94 mm and superior performance. It was used throughout World War II in all theatres except the Eastern Front...

 that fulfilled this role during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. Like the 3.7, the new missile would be operated by the Royal Artillery
Royal Artillery
The Royal Regiment of Artillery, commonly referred to as the Royal Artillery , is the artillery arm of the British Army. Despite its name, it comprises a number of regiments.-History:...

. English Electric created a Guided Weapons Division to work on the project.

While the project was starting, the Ministry of Supply
Ministry of Supply
The Ministry of Supply was a department of the UK Government formed in 1939 to co-ordinate the supply of equipment to all three British armed forces, headed by the Minister of Supply. There was, however, a separate ministry responsible for aircraft production and the Admiralty retained...

 (MoS) began work on what would become known as the "Stage Plan", which envisioned a multi-stage program to provide an integrated air-defence network including new radars, interceptor aircraft, and missiles. As the missiles were the least understood technology, the MoS decided to implement their deployment in two stages. "Stage 1" called for missiles with a range of only 20 miles with capabilities against subsonic or low-supersonic attacking aircraft, which were assumed to be at medium or high altitudes. The Stage 1 missile would be used to protect the V bomber
V bomber
The term V bomber was used for the Royal Air Force aircraft during the 1950s and 1960s that comprised the United Kingdom's strategic nuclear strike force known officially as the V-force or Bomber Command Main Force...

 bases in the UK, as well as the British Army
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

 in the field. The Stage 1 missile would be later replaced with a much higher-performance and longer-range "Stage 2" system in the 1960s, based on the "Green Sparkler" missile. The Stage 2 missile was to have greatly increased range, speed and altitude capabilities.

Two entries were accepted for the original Stage 1 proposal, English Electric's existing project under the name "Red Shoes", and Bristol
Bristol Aeroplane Company
The Bristol Aeroplane Company, originally the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, was both one of the first and one of the most important British aviation companies, designing and manufacturing both airframes and aero engines...

's "Red Duster". Bristol's efforts were fairly similar to EE's in most ways, although it was somewhat less mobile while offering somewhat better range. Ferranti
Ferranti or Ferranti International plc was a UK electrical engineering and equipment firm that operated for over a century from 1885 until it went bankrupt in 1993. Known primarily for defence electronics, the Company was once a constituent of the FTSE 100 Index but ceased trading in 1993.The...

 would develop a single radar and guidance system to be used on both designs.


EE's design quickly developed into a fairly simple cylindrical fuselage with an ogive
An ogive is the roundly tapered end of a two-dimensional or three-dimensional object.-Applied physical science and engineering:In ballistics or aerodynamics, an ogive is a pointed, curved surface mainly used to form the approximately streamlined nose of a bullet or other projectile.The traditional...

 nose cone, four cropped-delta wings just behind the middle point of the fuselage, and four smaller control surfaces at the rear, in-line with the mid-mounted wings. The fuselage had a slight boat-tail narrowing at the extreme rear under the control surfaces. The sustainer was to be a liquid fuel rocket developed for the missile, and was launched by four large "Gosling" solid fuel rocket boosters lying between the control surfaces and wings. The boosters featured a single oversized fin of their own, and are particularly easy to spot due to a small flat surface at the end of every fin. This surface provided an outward drag component that help pull the booster away from the main body when released, helped by the booster's asymmetrical nose cone. Guidance was via semi-active radar homing
Semi-active radar homing
Semi-active radar homing, or SARH, is a common type of missile guidance system, perhaps the most common type for longer-range air-to-air and surface-to-air missile systems. The name refers to the fact that the missile itself is only a passive detector of a radar signal – provided by an external ...

, the Ferranti
Ferranti or Ferranti International plc was a UK electrical engineering and equipment firm that operated for over a century from 1885 until it went bankrupt in 1993. Known primarily for defence electronics, the Company was once a constituent of the FTSE 100 Index but ceased trading in 1993.The...

 Type 83 "Yellow River" pulsed radar
Radar is an object-detection system which uses radio waves to determine the range, altitude, direction, or speed of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships, spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain. The radar dish or antenna transmits pulses of radio...

 serving both as an acquisition and illumination system. The same radar was used with the competing Red Duster.

The test programme used development vehicles D1 to D4. The D1 and D2 established some of the basic configuration issues, whilst the D3 and D4 were used to test the aerodynamics of the design. The Army rejected the idea of using a liquid fuel rocket because of the difficulty in handling the highly reactive fuel in the field, so a solid rocket sustainer had to be chosen instead. Several different models of sustainer were tried, most of them known as the "Luton Test Vehicle", or LTV.

While testing of the Red Shoes was underway, the "competition" in the form of Red Duster was also entering testing. Red Duster demonstrated several serious problems, and the Army ended any interest in it. In the end the Red Duster problems were sorted out fairly quickly, and it entered service slightly before Red Shoes.

The production Red Shoes missile was officially named Thunderbird. It entered service in 1959 and equipped 36 and 37 Heavy Air Defence Regiments, Royal Artillery. It was the first British designed and produced missile to go into service with the British Army.

One of the missiles is now displayed outside the Midland Air Museum
Midland Air Museum
The Midland Air Museum is situated just outside the village of Baginton in Warwickshire, England, and is adjacent to Coventry Airport. The museum includes the Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre , where many exhibits are on display in a large hangar...

, Warwickshire
Warwickshire is a landlocked non-metropolitan county in the West Midlands region of England. The county town is Warwick, although the largest town is Nuneaton. The county is famous for being the birthplace of William Shakespeare...

, England. Another example on a launcher is displayed in The Royal Artillery Museum
Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum
Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum is a military museum in Woolwich in south-east London, England, which tells the story of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and of the Royal Arsenal.-History:...

, Woolwich, England.

Further development

While development of the Stage 1 missiles was still ongoing, work on the Stage 2 systems was proving to be too far in advance of the state of the art to realistically enter service while the Red Duster and Red Shoes were still useful. In the meantime, advances in radar technology were proceeding rapidly, so it was decided to produce interim designs using new continuous wave radars which would dramatically improve the performance of the existing missiles.

In the case of the Thunderbird, the "Stage 1½" design utilized the new Type 86 "Indigo Corkscrew" radar. As this was developed it changed names several times, becoming "Green Flax", and after some paperwork with that name on it was lost and assumed compromised, "Yellow Temple". In service it was known as Radar, AD, No 10 (fire control). The new radar greatly improved performance against low-level targets, as well as providing considerably better performance against electronic countermeasures
Electronic countermeasures
An electronic countermeasure is an electrical or electronic device designed to trick or deceive radar, sonar or other detection systems, like infrared or lasers. It may be used both offensively and defensively to deny targeting information to an enemy...


To support Thunderbird operations in the field the regiments were equipped with the new Radar, AD, No 11 (tactical control, usually called 'big ears') and Radar, AD, No 12 (height finder, usually called 'noddy') radar, giving them a longer range surveillance system. These radars were also known to Marconi
Marconi Company
The Marconi Company Ltd. was founded by Guglielmo Marconi in 1897 as The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company...

 as the S303 and S404, or to the RAF as Type 88 and Type 89. After leaving Army service in 1977 they were turned over to the RAF who used them for tactical control.

Several changes to the basic missile were undertaken as well. Although the size remained the same, the new version featured much larger boosters, mid-mounted wings with sweep on the front and back, and a new nose cone with a much higher fineness ratio
Fineness ratio
Fineness ratio is a term used in naval architecture and aerospace engineering to describe the overall shape of a streamlined body. Specifically, it is the ratio of the length of a body to its maximum width; shapes that are "short and fat" have a low fineness ratio, those that are "long and skinny"...

. The boosters lost their asymmetrical nose cones, but the surfaces on the end of their fins grew much larger. Overall the missile still looked much like the Mk. I version, as opposed to the Bloodhound which became much larger as it was upgraded.

The improved missile was known in service as Thunderbird 2. They entered service in 1966 and were removed in 1977.Thunderbird Surface to Air Missile System

Foreign Users

  • The Thunderbird 1 was purchased by Saudi Arabia
    Saudi Arabia
    The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia , commonly known in British English as Saudi Arabia and in Arabic as as-Sa‘ūdiyyah , is the largest state in Western Asia by land area, constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and the second-largest in the Arab World...

    , with 37 second-hand missiles purchased in 1967.
  • Finland
    Finland , officially the Republic of Finland, is a Nordic country situated in the Fennoscandian region of Northern Europe. It is bordered by Sweden in the west, Norway in the north and Russia in the east, while Estonia lies to its south across the Gulf of Finland.Around 5.4 million people reside...

     planned to purchase either the Thunderbird or Bloodhound missile in the early 1960s. The sale did not go ahead, but the country did take delivery of some training systems in late 1960s, used in training until late 1979. The delivery of these examples did not include warhead or propellant. Two airframes are on display in museums.

Negotiations were also held with Libya
Libya is an African country in the Maghreb region of North Africa bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, Egypt to the east, Sudan to the southeast, Chad and Niger to the south, and Algeria and Tunisia to the west....

 and Zambia
Zambia , officially the Republic of Zambia, is a landlocked country in Southern Africa. The neighbouring countries are the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to the south, and Angola to the west....



  • Length : 6.35 m
  • Body Diameter : 0.527 m
  • Fin Span : 1.63 m
  • Warheads : Continuous HE rod
    Continuous-rod warhead
    A continuous-rod warhead is a specialized munition that exhibits an annular blast fragmentation pattern. It is used in anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles.-Early anti-aircraft munitions:...

  • Range : 75 km

See also

  • Bristol Bloodhound - a similar weapon adopted by the RAF
  • Hawker Siddeley Sea Slug
    Sea Slug missile
    Sea Slug was a first generation surface-to-air missile designed by Armstrong Whitworth for use by the Royal Navy...

     - a similar weapon adopted by the Royal Navy
    Royal Navy
    The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

  • List of Rainbow Codes
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