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.