Some five miles over enemy territory, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets manoeuvred his B29 Superfortress into position above the target. At 8.17 am bombardier Major Thomas Ferebee released his bomb-load. Forty-three seconds later, after free-falling for over 4½ miles, the weapon detonated 1,900 ft above the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
At ground-zero the temperature of the air soared to in excess of a million degrees Celsius as a blinding white fireball lit up the morning sky. Within minutes a thick mushroom cloud had risen eight miles above the city. In an instant, a single explosion had wrought more destruction than any thousand bomber raid mounted by the Royal Air Force or United States Air Force, but on a unimaginably horrifying and frightening scale. Three days later, at 11.02 am on 9 August 1945 a second device was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki. The two attacks would claim over two-hundred thousand lives. The world had witnessed the terrifying birth of nuclear warfare.
The post-war world saw a very different geopolitical climate. Following the end of hostilities, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union spiraled out of control; a clash of mismatched ideologies led to an unprecedented era as East and West fought for supremacy in the "Cold War". One manifestation of the friction between these two superpowers and their allies was an arms race, as each superpower sought to develop stockpiles of conventional and nuclear weapons.
For the British Royal Air Force, the First and Second World Wars had been dominated by propeller-driven aeroplanes and it was only during the Second World War that successful and sustained bombing operations against an enemy had been achieved. Towards the end of the war the newly developed jet engine promised to revolutionise aerial warfare, yet it arrived too late to have any significant impact on the outcome of the Second World War. However it was a technology that would come to dominate post-war military aircraft design. Fuelled by the escalating antagonism of the "Cold War", a technological duel between nations developed, each conceiving aircraft which could fly far faster and higher than before and deliver yet more devastating payloads.
During May 1951 the Royal Air Force's first jet bomber entered service with No 101 Squadron based at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. The English Electric Canberra, designed by a team led by William Edward Willoughby Petter, was powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon engines producing a top speed of 540 mph. The sixty-three foot long Canberra had a ceiling height of 48,000ft and was able to carry a bomb-load in excess of three tonnes. However, by the mid-1950s the Royal Air Force was aware that the Canberra would need replacing and began considering the most appropriate design to meet their requirements.
General Operational Requirement (GOR) 339, issued in 1956 by the Royal Air Force, determined the specification for the Canberra replacement. Operational Requirements are intended to allow an operator to determine a specification for an operational need and transfer the responsibility for meeting that specification to those organisations best able to find a solution for that requirement. Thus submissions to meet GOR 339 were invited from the British aviation industry.