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

In Memories 517, 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.

The Northern Echo: A Vulcan and its crew at Middleton St George. Picture courtesy of Geoff Hill

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.

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 in Swaledale.

The Northern Echo: The cockpit of a Vulcan nuclear bomber. Picture courtesy of Geoff Hill

Star aircraft, like the Red Arrows, would start their displays at one RAF base's 'at home' day and then fly on to the next base to complete the show.

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 still 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. However, several people pointed out that the plane on the MSG programme was wearing a different covering.

“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 that he runs with his wife. Aviation is one of his specialist subjects.

The Northern Echo: The Vulcan bomber and crew at RAF Middleton St George in the early 1960s

“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.

The Northern Echo: The last Vulcan visits Durham Tees Valley Airport, as it then was, on its farewell flight on October 10, 2015

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.