Home Science The Frank Whittle Story Keeps Being Revived

The Frank Whittle Story Keeps Being Revived

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Hard working genius ignored by the establishment, we’d have won the war if only they’d listened to him etc.

The horror of the Blitz was two years away when Frank Whittle set out how to foil enemy bombing raids in a memo that has only just come to light.

The inventor of the jet engine described in detail how his design would allow the RAF to thwart Luftwaffe bombers. “The primary function of the interceptor fighter is to carry a pilot and his machine guns to within the vicinity of a raiding bomber for a sufficient length of time to enable him to achieve its destruction, preferably before it has reached its target,” Whittle wrote to the Air Ministry on October 25, 1938.

Whittle even gave an idea of the speeds that an aircraft powered by his engine would achieve at sea level, 10,000ft and 20,000ft. He included a design of the aircraft with a man sitting in front of a large jet.

OK, new memo, but all of this is already known.

Historians have recounted the story of how British officials missed the chance to turn Whittle’s invention into a decisive weapon in the Second World War, but the memo and its accurate predictions appear to have been overlooked.

No one missed a chance.

Rather, they took a decision. Worth noting that we did indeed win the war too.

The point was that sure, jet engines were obviously the future. Every engineer could see this – grandfather was in fact one of them. Went through Cranwell with Whittle in fact – at least, so family history insists, that first set of artificer, grubby handed technical type, apprentice boys allowed to go and try to be officers and gentlemen – and the 30s RAF was small enough that they continued to know each other.

The problem wasn’t the engine, nor the design. It was manufacturing and sourcing. Somewhere around 1936 to 1938 everyone finally woke up and realised that a real shooting war was going to happen. An air fleet was needed – fleet being the big word there. A lorra planes that is. Hurricanes, Spitfires, they were pretty good, even if not as grand as the jet plane was going to be. But at that time, in that place, a lorra, lorra, Hurricanes and Spitfires could be built. This was not true of jets.

Volume production might have been possible in 1941, or 1943, or summat like that. But by then it would have been too late. It was, that is, necessary to fight the war with what could actually be delivered in volume.

So, build the Hurricanes and Spitfires because that’s what could be built when things needed to be built.

Sure, both the Italians and the Germans had jet developments. As we did with Meteors by 1944. But they were never in volume, they didn’t change the course of the war even if useful at times.

Just to give an idea. A story – just a story – is that Whittle did go off to the boffins and talk about what you’d need to build his engines. And the bloke said, sure, yes, tungsten, we know where to get that. The bit that’s not story but reality is that Portugal is where we needed to get tungsten. The English supply, a byproduct of the Cornish tin mines, had been sold to the Germans around 1910 which they then used to build the Kaiser’s fleet.

So, yes, the Whittle jet engine. Could have been built, in small quantity, supply – of tungsten – being one problem, the manufacturing base another and so on. And yet the decision was to go with what could be produced in volume. Which was, probably, the right decision.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. A similar attitude is obvious about the great climate panic. Stupid claims that windmills and solar panels will ‘save’ us. But at the same time they claim the situation is so dire that we all died 30 years ago.

    If they were really serious, they’d admit that simple, off-the-shelf technology is the only way to go. That is, nukes for all our power, synfuel made from H2 and CO2 extracted from the atmosphere or ocean surface for the rest.

    It’s a good thing that what they really want is just something they think is pretty, and the climate nonsense is just the latest excuse. If there really was a climate problem we’d be totally fucked.

  2. Ditto the German rocket scientists (I’ve been waiting to use that) who had surface to air missiles that would have made both day and night Allied raids impossible. But working prototypes were still a couple of years down the line.

    A lot of good hindsight ideas on both sides never made it into production while a lot of really terrible ideas did. How Churchill escaped hanging by his generals for his bloody awful Action This Day mania has yet to be explained. The Thinkers have the best ideas but they are beaten to the marketplace by the Doers and as a result everything we see is at best second-rate.

  3. There’s an SF story about an imprisoned general and boffin from the losing side. Always trying to improve the weapons, never got the new ones to work right. The winning side went with what they had. Made lots.
    Arthur C Clarke perhaps?

    Just read ‘Blind Bombing’, a not bad story of the cavity magnetron, from the US viewpoint. It makes very clear why the Brits gave the magnetron AND the jet engine free of all IP encumbrances: they simply had no chance to build any of them in 1940 and needed someone else to do it for them. And when new anti-sub radars arrived, the squadron leaders were too busy fighting a war to drop everythuing to refit their aircraft overnight.

    Makes the current COVID bureaucracy look awful. Things got done in 1940/41
    “So gentlemen, those are the requirements, I look forward to your deliveries in 30 days”
    “Our bids you mean?”
    “No, the deliveries”

  4. One of the remarkable things about Whittle is that the RAF were willing to take a punt on him. Sent him off to Cambridge with his idea. Paid for it too. Gave him all the leave he wanted. For years they gave him every encouragement.

    The problem was the insistence on disarmament (and perhaps Whittle’s mental health). If the country refuses to pay for the military, then the military has no money for this sort of thing. So paying for him to go to Cambridge was about as much as they could do. So when the demand for weapons comes by 1937 or so, the panic means that radically new weapons rarely can be rushed into production. They need planes *now* and so that means conventional ones.

    WW2 is an interesting example of how governments pick winners. Some ideas worked well. Nuclear weapons for instance. Some did not. The V2 killed more building it than being on the receiving end of it. Strategic bombing? Not so much. Naval mines? Very much so. Ask the Japanese. Penicillin? Absolutely. PLUTO (a pipeline under the sea to Normandy) or the Mulberries? Not at all.

    I think the rule is anything Churchill was enthusiastic about was useless. I regret that Pykecrete did not come off. What the world really needs is a giant aircraft carrier made of ice.

    • I thought the Mulberries were a significant contributor to the success of D-Day. Though the one on the US beaches was destroyed in a storm a couple of days after installation, the British one carried on functioning, and was an important source of logistical supplies, until the beachhead expanded to include some real ports.

  5. The Swordfish proved pretty effective too, and that was about as far away from a jet as you can imagine. As engineers say ‘perfect is the enemy of good’.

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