Chapter XCIX: A Step Towards a Smaller World.
Outside of purely domestic concerns the start of 1937 saw one of the landmarks in aviation history, the culmination of decades of theoretical and practical research from laboratories and workshops across Britain. 12th February 1937 saw the first testing of the W.U. (Whittle Unit) jet engine which, though affixed to a bench and far from perfect mechanically, marked the transition of the jet engine from theoretical paper designs to (mostly) functional reality. The W.U. had been produced by Power Jets Ltd under a decidedly unusual government contract, the Air Ministry even thought it was 'irregular' which is about as strong language as a 1930s civil servant ever (officially) used. Essentially Power Jets existed purely to develop the ideas of then Squadron Leader Frank Whittle and had only one product, the centrifugal jet engine, and one customer, the Air Ministry. The result was the 'irregular' Four Party agreement between Whittle, his backers at General Enterprises (a firm specialising in cigarette vending machines of all things), the merchant bank O T Falk and The Air Ministry. The agreement set-up Power Jets and arranged the initial series of development contracts tied to performance milestones such as power output and hours run. Therefore early in Spring 1937 the Air Ministry visited the Power Jets site to review the W.U., check the milestones and approve the next tranche of money. This simple enough visit was enlivened by the presence of the Air Minister himself Winston Churchill.
It is hard to over-estimate the impact a jet engine, even one as Heath Robinson as the W.U., had on those who saw it for the first time all those years ago. Even the mightiest internal combustion engine cannot produce the same impression of power and energy that a jet can, and thus almost everyone who saw it was converted by the 'blazing blue jet flame' into true believers. It was undoubtedly for this reason that Sir Henry Tizard, Chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee (ARC, The Air Ministry body responsible for, among other duties, jet engine work), had invited Churchill to the Power Jets site; the jet engine was not universally popular within the Air Ministry and having the Air Minister's personal support would be invaluable. If Tizard's intention had been for merely a slightly higher priority for jet work with a view to a flyable prototype, the most probable outcome as he was not by nature a gambler, he miscalculated. Completely persuaded by the test Churchill dismissed Tizard's moderate solution, instead pushing for jets to receive the highest possible priority and the immediate development of an operational type.
The Whittle Unit just after it's first triumphant test run. Having successfully taken Whittle's idea of a centrifugal gas turbine jet engine to the stage of a working prototype Power Jets began running into serious problems. The firm was too small, numbering less than a dozen employees, lacked it's own premises (it rented a workshop from the steam turbine manufacturer British Thomson-Houston) and the financial backers were fretting over the expenditure necessary to ramp up for full development work, wanting to wait for Air Ministry funding before spending their own money. This attitude did not endear the company to the Ministry, a significant problem as the company's reputation was already fairly low; in the opinion of many of the Ministry's technical experts Power Jets were just not up to the job, struggling over issues that a larger, more experienced company would have solved in house without bothering the Ministry with.
While it is obvious in hindsight that jets were indeed the future it was not so at the time, away from the sound, fury and intoxication of the jet tail pipe a rational observer would want to hedge his bets. Within the Ministry there was a strong lobby who supported Alan Arnold Griffith and the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) who were pursing the turboprop engine. (Both a turboprop and jet engine used a turbine to generate large amounts of hot gas, a jet engine expels them out through carefully shaped nozzles to generate thrust, a turboprop uses the them to drive a conventional propeller). To give this some context the Air Ministry in general, and ARC in particular under Tizard, pursued a portfolio approach to all development, spreading funding between speculative high risk projects and the 'blue chip' near certainties. The classic blue chip example was the Merlin, a highly refined and evolved version of the famous V-12 "R" racing engine, it was a long standing ARC project, it's PV-12 (Private Venture) moniker being just one of the many subterfuges the Ministry had to resort to in order to hide their re-armament work from the appeasement lobby. While Rolls Royce had no actual contract for the Merlin, it did have an 'understanding' that the RAF would buy it once completed, and in the 1930s aero industry the word of the right chap at the Ministry was as good as any contract. At the other end of the scale were more revolutionary engines such as the Napier Sabre, a complex 24 cylinder H-block engine that aimed for 2,000hp+ and the unusual Rolls-Royce Crecy, a V-12 two stroke engine designed for 'sprint' interceptors that needed maximum power with almost complete disregard for fuel economy. In the middle lay the engines still under development but that were promising enough to merit inclusion in aircraft specifications, in 1937 that list included the Bristol Taurus and Hercules, both 14 cylinder two-row radials, and the Rolls-Royce Peregrine/Vulture engines, the Peregrine being the final development of the venerable V-12 Kestrel while the Vulture was two Peregrine bolted together on a common crankshaft into an X-Block. While not all of these projects would run smoothly, some would in fact never progress beyond a prototype, there were enough designs at various different stages to ensure a smooth 'production line' of new engines with increasing power and range, which was the Ministry main objective all along. In this grand scheme it was Tizard's preference for gas turbine engines to remain out at the speculative end, at least until the technology matured, an objective very much at odds with that of his newly converted boss.
In an well intentioned attempt to solve the impasse Churchill arranged for his old friend Professor Frederick Lindemann to have a place on the various Air Ministry technical and scientific committees, doubtless hoping that Lindemann could get a better understanding of the problem and convince either Tizard or himself that the other was correct. It was not a bad plan, Lindemann had been a colleague of Henry Tizards and had served as Churchill's unofficial science adviser for years, making him theoretically ideal for the role of liaising between the two. Sadly it did not work out that way, Lindemann and Tizard's relationship soon soured as they began working in close proximity and Lindemann began to ignore his limited brief and started pushing his own ideas, not just on engines but on everything from fuel types to aerial detection. While not entirely a bad thing, it was on Lindemann's recommendation that the illustrious Reginald Victor Jones began his long and successful work with the Air Ministry, normal committee work ground to a halt as meetings degenerated into arguments, typically with Lindemann in a minority of one but confident of Churchill's official backing. It soon became clear that either Tizard or Lindemann had to go, logic would suggest that Tizard's long record of achievements in his years at the Air Ministry would make him the obvious choice, however Churchill's respect for Lindemann's abilities was boundless and it was ultimately the Minister decision.
And I'm back, apologies for the delay but here's an update by way of apology.
Ahh the wonderful story of British jet engine development, a triumph of political ineptitude over engineering genius. It's enough to make you weep it really is. Anyway the W.U. date is brought forward a couple of months as (a) more money sloshing around and (b) it fits the narrative better! However the strange story of Power Jets is OTL, not the Air Ministry's finest hour by any stretch. OTL Tizard liked it but the Air Ministry spent over a year messing around between the WU test and the next development contract, which itself was inadequate. Someone really should have been shot over that, it was just criminal.
The WU itself did make a convert out of almost everyone, every account I've seen of RAF staff visiting the test site has them impressed and converted by the power and the "blue flame". The only exceptions where Griffith and his staff (a man I've always felt slightly sorry for) and Stanley Hooker who, after being initially unsure, went on to become one of the greatest jet engineers who ever lived. However as Churchill did not have an engineering type of mind, I can in fact think of few people less well suited to engineering, it seemed inconceivable he wouldn't get excited by it. Mind you it seemed equally inconceivable that he'd get it bang on perfect and not cause almost as many problems as he solved.
Up next; The exciting conclusion to the jet story, then the exciting conclusion to the ship builders strike, then a probably not exciting budget followed by something else!
That just leaves one question for Davout - Does engine porn count?