Chapter C: The Blue Heat of Technology.
The most unfortunate part of the Lindemann-Tizard clashes was that had Lindemann actually stuck to his instructions, instead of veering off on his own tangent, he could have been a great success. On the question of turbine research Lindemann agreed with Tizard; jumping straight to an operational engine was premature and that the next step should be a flying prototype. This verdict, which had been unacceptable when it came from Tizard, was made acceptable to Churchill as it came from "The Prof". On the question of how to get to that flying prototype however things were less straightforward, not out of disagreement over the way forward but due to the lack of an obviously palatable option.
For the RAE's (Royal Aircraft Establishment) turboprop the matter of a flying prototype was simple; Griffith, along with the more practically minded Haine Constan, were dispatched to find a suitable industrial partner to develop the engine. By early summer they had selected Metropolitan-Vickers (Metrovick) one of the leading steam turbine manufacturers who, through the vast Vickers industrial empire, had access to almost any other specialism you cared to mention. On this basis Metrovick were given a standard Air Ministry contract to build and develop Griffith's turboprop engine (i.e. turn a bespoke prototype into an efficient and reliable design ready for flight testing). The engine was to be produced under the direction of the RAE teams and was to be flyable by the summer of 1938, an ambitious goal given the shear size of the laboratory prototypes. While this project would encounter considerable difficulties it was at least commercially straightforward, a stark contrast to the mess around Power Jets. While the promise of the jet engine meant the Air Ministry felt it had to pursue the idea there was no clear way forward, the ideal would have been to separate the wheat (Whittle) from the chaff (Power Jets), however the Four Party Agreement complicated the matter, not to mention the attitude of Whittle himself. The solution to this problem would come from a most unexpected source; the British Army.
Alan Arnold Griffith, a true giant of British engineering. Griffith pioneered countless advances and developments that were crucial to the jet age; his work on metal fatigue shaped a generation of aircraft, his application of aerodynamic theory to turbine design made modern efficient turbines possible and he pioneered the use of 'cascades' to test compressor and turbine performance outside of the wind tunnel, an approach that was (fortunately) ignored by rival nations until well into the 1950s, giving Britain time to build a dominant position in the world engine market. By the mid-1930s Griffith's perfectionist nature had led him to become fixated on theoretically more efficient (but considerably more complex) axial compressor gas turbine, while a natural caution led him to doubt the potential of jet thrust as an efficient means of propulsion. He therefore directed the RAE's research in the direction of the axial turboprop engine, a very different proposition from the relatively simple centrifugal jet engines of Whittle. When the Air Ministry decided to pursue both projects they began a development race between the two projects, made all the more hard fought as both Whittle and Griffith sought to prove the other was wrong.
The slow but steady "sweeping out" of the Army's old guard, or at least some of them, had finally taken with it the Master-General of the Ordnance Lieutenant General Hugh Elles. Replaced as Director of the Mechanisation Branch in the aftermath of the Matilda I debacle he was pushed out of the Ordnance early in 1937, though it would take until the end of the year before he got the hint and finally retired completely. His replacement as the new Master-General was Lieutenant General Frederick Pile, formerly commander of the Canal Brigade Mechanized Force he had had an outstanding Abyssinian War by the simple virtue of being the only armoured unit in Egypt. While his promotion to the Ordnance had been earned it was not entirely on merit, after the mistakes of Elles being 'double hatted' the Army Board wished to hedge their bets with mechanisation. A strong Ordnance would provide a useful counterpoint to the Mechanisation Branch under Major General Martel and, it was hoped, settle any disagreements between the Branch and the Royal Armoured Corps. The impacts of this on armoured design and the mechanisation of the British Army (and others) will be covered in later chapters, for our present purposes it is enough that this appointment prompted a shake-up of the work of the Ordnance and specifically the Ballistic Research Department.
The Ballistics Research Department (BRD) is an excellent example of the complex, but just about logical, world of British military research in the 1930s. A sub-department of the Ordnance based at the vast Royal Arsenal complex in Woolwich, it was notionally an Army unit, devoted to developing and testing shot and shell, from the smallest pistol to the mightiest heavy artillery. Over the years, however, its purpose had mutated somewhat, with a distinct shortage of new shells to test during the 1920s the department had become decidedly more theoretical in it's outlook, using the shell testing to become a centre of expertise on high speed aerodynamics and supersonic research in general. As a result of this drift (and the Army's decidedly stingy pay grades for scientist) the Director of Research was an Air Ministry man, Dr Alvyn Crow, and much of hiw staff was on secondment from either the Royal Aircraft Establishment, the National Physical Laboratory or the Admiralty Research Laboratory.
This had not been a problem with low volumes of actual 'Army' work, the Army Board where happy to get the benefit of high class scientists without paying the wages, while the other services were spared the expense of building their own test sites. This cosy arrangement was disrupted by the ramping up of Ordnance work and the concurrent of appointment of General Pile to oversee it. On the ballistics side there was a flurry of new work; The .256" and 9mm rounds for the next generation of small arms needed modern testing, HE and smoke rounds for the widely used Ordnance QF 2 pounder were under development and the brand new BL 4.5" medium gun needed new general purpose shells as combat experience had indicated a specialist counter battery piece (i.e. one dedicated to destroying enemy artillery) was of limited value. With all this work on, not to mention the more speculative long term research, General Pile decreed the BRD would have to refocus itself back onto purely on Army work.
The brand new QF 3.7” anti-aircraft gun undergoing trials at Woolwich. While the QF 3.7” was being put through it’s paces elsewhere on the same site the BRD was working on a radical alternative to standard AA guns – rockets. The basic problem with an AA gun was inaccuracy; the Ordnance and the BRD expected a single QF 3.7” would need at least 20,000 shots to register a single hit on a high and fast target. With a sustained rate of fire of (at best) 15rpm this meant the gun could expect one hit per 24 hours of continuous firing. To make matters worse the barrel life was expected to be in the region of 7,000 rounds, meaning the gun could be expected to wear through three complete barrels per hit. Taken together this was not a ringing endorsement of the anti-aircraft gun as an efficient or reliable defensive system. In contrast the proposed AA rockets were simplicity itself, with no expensive machinery or parts to wear out the only requirement were simple launching rails and vast numbers of cheap rockets that could be fired in 'barrages' at the target. With a cordite rocket almost as cheap as a shell it was an attractive option, if it worked, and finding that out was one of the Ballistics Department's main roles in the mid 1930s.
While the other services were naturally less than pleased they could hardly argue, there had never been a definite agreement about the use of Woolwich for rocketry work and it was undoubtedly true the Army needed it's ranges back. It was at this stage that the Air Ministry stepped in, proposing a new research establishment dedicated to rocketry research with a permanent base and a generally more secure footing than the ad-hoc arrangements at Woolwich. Quite aside from their genuine interest in rocketry the Air Ministry had realised that such an establishment would be the perfect home for Power Jets and various other speculative programmes, providing laboratories and workshops for experimental work but without the RAF having to shouldering the entire expense. While the other services soon rumbled the Air Ministry's ulterior motive, no-one in Whitehall is ever entirely altruistic, there was still a solid logic behind it; all three services were interested in rocketry and combining their efforts was the cheapest and most sensible option. That did not mean things went smoothly, if nothing else the Air Ministry had to be beaten down from it's overly optimistic hopes of an equal three way split of costs between the services, but by the summer of 1937 a basic agreement was in place.
The Air Ministry would provide and equip the site, with limited assistance from the Army and Admiralty, then all three services plus the civilian science agencies would provide the manpower. The site selected was RAF Martlesham Heath, close to the main rocket testing site at Orford Ness and convenient for the port of Felixstowe were cordite could be shipped in from the Royal Ordnance Factories by coastal freighters. Interestingly the area was already home to two existing research establishments; the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE) in Felixstowe, then the subject of an unedifying fight between the RAF (Coastal Command) and the RN (Fleet Air Arm) over control, and the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) which was also based at Martlesham Hall. For Tizard's committee this was not just a happy coincidence, while the proximity to the existing test range at Orford Ness was the main selling point for the other services, Tizard was focused on the experimental workshops and laboratories of those two establishments, either one ripe for considerable expansion in otder to accommodate both rocketry and Power Jets. In the end the tussle with the Royal Navy tipped the balance and it was A&AEE which got the nod, the Air Ministry trying to avoid needlessly aggravating the Admiralty over Felixstowe.
Frank Whittle and Power Jets did not take the news of their move to Martlesham Heath well, particularly the revelation they would not be getting their own facilities but would once again be tacked onto the side of a larger organisation. However there was little they could do, the Ministry had made it perfectly clear that no large grants would be forthcoming unless, and until, Power Jet's backers took up all their shares and made a significant capital investment, something the bankers at O T Falk still refused to do. Restricted by the Official Secrets Act he had signed as part of the Four Party Agreement, and fearful the alternative was seeing his work given to one of the big engine companies he desperately wished to avoid, Whittle re-located, consoling himself with the relative luxury of a well equipped workshop and competent staff to support his work. Before we leave Martlesham Heath it's worth looking in on Power Jet's other neighbour aside from the Rocket Establishment and the A&AEE, the RAFs decidedly unusual 'missile' programme.
It's worth clarifying right at the start the project used the word 'missile' in perhaps the broadest sense of the word; an internally powered weapon that moved itself to the target with some form of guidance mechanism. The RAF had been experimenting with missiles for almost twenty years by this point, ever since 1917 when 'Professor' Archibald Low had produced the remote controlled Ruston Proctor AT (Aerial Target, a code name to mislead spies). The AT was essentially a remotely controlled aircraft, loaded with a large warhead instead of a pilot, and was intended to fly towards the target using remote and/or gyroscopic control and then crash into it. While the initial tests were less than successful, indeed they resulted in the AT programme being cancelled before the War had ended, the idea of a missile remained alluring enough to re-emerge in the 1920s. The concept went through several mutations and at various points aimed at gyro-guided flying bomb, a target missile, a radio controlled air-launched missile, an 'air defence' missile for disrupting and destroying bomber formations and, most interestingly, a missile capable of homing in on enemy radar sites.
Of all of these the most successful was undoubtedly the target missile project which produced several excellent radio controlled gunnery target tugs, notably the Fairey Queen (a modified Fairey IIIF) and the Queen Bee (an equally modified DeHavilland Tiger Moth). The only other success was at best a qualified one, Larynx (Long Range Gun with Lynx engine), was perhaps the world's first anti-ship cruise missile, however it was not a particularly good one. The remote control system was delicate while the powerful Lynx engine was seemingly not well suited to remote control, shedding it's reliable reputation and suffering repeated failures. After a mixed testing programme in Britain, and a disastrous one in the deserts of Iraq, the RAE was forced to abandon field trials of Larynx and return to the drawing board. In truth by the mid 1930s the missile programme was in trouble, while the target aircraft were giving good service the other ideas were raising concerns for the Air Staff even as they overcame the technical challenges. The simple problem was cost; when a light bomber like the new Fairey Firefight was costing £15,000 a unit the estimated £4,000 cost of a one-shot missile was not very attractive, especially as despite all the progress the accuracy still left something to be desired.
It is likely that the entire programme would have been cancelled had it not been for the unintended side effects of one of Air Minister Churchill's earliest decisions at the Ministry. The decision to move the RAF off biplanes and into monoplanes had given the Air Staff a considerable headache, despite the best efforts of the commercial arms of the Foreign Office there was no chance the stockpile of suddenly obsolete biplanes could all be sold on. Indeed there was growing opposition to the sales from the Board of Trade as they feared government 'dumping' was distorting the market for British firms to sell new aircraft into, a not unimportant consideration give the state of the economy and the importance of high value exports. Reluctant to just scrap otherwise brand new aircraft, but with no prospect of being able to more profitably dispose of them, the Air Staff realised this mass obsolescence had comprehensively changed the economics of the missile programme. Without the need to build an aircraft the costs of say the guided missile dropped considerably, falling into the low hundreds of pounds for just the control gear and the warheads.
Thus it was that the missile programme was despatched to Martlesham Heath to join up with the A&AEE and continue it's work, the Air Ministry once again keen to rope the other services, in this case the Admiralty, into spreading the cost by rejuvenating the Larynx anti-ship missile alongside their own priorities. By the summer of 1937 RAF Martlesham Heath had become one of the hubs of aerial research and development in the United Kingdom, with experts on remote control, jets, rockets and experimental aircraft all rubbing shoulders on site and on the test ranges. Just as an extra spice the Orford Ness site was still in use by the experts from the Bawdsey Research Station as they continued to perfect RDF and the Chain Home system. With such a concentration of experts from different but related fields cross-pollination of ideas was inevitable, yet the Air Ministry was still surprised when the feverish atmosphere of experiment, research and testing produced something rather special.
Chapter 100! Huzzahs all round chaps and chapesses, we've made it this far. To celebrate have a monster update on previously obscure R&D porn.
Beginning at the beginning;
Frederick Pile was indeed head of armoured unit around the Suez Canal in 1936 so would have had an excellent war. OTL he ended up in Anti-Aircraft units, eventually being C-in-C of all AA units in the UK for the whole of WW2. This time round he's been diverted, AA units are a lower priority (something has got to give somewhere, AA is one of them) while mechanisation is higher up the tree. Pile had a solid enough background in armoured units, but was basically an artillery man (hence ending up in AA), however he had commanded enough tanks he should be solid enough and will certainly be able to stand up to Martell, if only because he's more senior!
A A Griffith, a man who could (indeed should) have been so much more famous and well regarded. Alas the poor bugger wasted years on axial turbines because he was just too much of a perfectionist. If he'd only focused on centrifugal turbines he could have got the turboprop up and running years earlier, maybe even in time for the Battle of Britain, which would have been fun for all involved. All his inventions are OTL, particularly the 'cascade' which was the only reason Britain kept her jet engine lead in the 1950s despite the government's best efforts.
A Rocket Establishment was in fact created in OTL, but not till 1940 at which point it was fairly low priority and got sent out into the West Country for safety. TTL the Army rearmament is forcing them out of Woolwich and somewhere near the OTL Orford Ness range is the obvious place. The AA guns vs AA rockets was OTL and produced the truly awful Z-batteries and such rubbish as the aerial minefield, hopefully we can avoid that but I make no promises.
So RAF Martlesham Heath, was indeed a big base for Experimental aero work along with Orford Ness and the Felixstowe area. Tempted as I was by Spadeadam for the Blue Streak parallel it just wasn't justifiable so Suffolk it is. Would the Air Ministry actually dump Power Jets out there? Well they didn't trust the bankers in OTL, and had doubts over the technical competency of the firm, so they were never going to just hurl money at them. However they also want to get things done so sending them to an RAF experimental base seemed sensible. However to counter that boost effort is being split three ways; jets, rockets and turboprops instead of a focused plan so it's not exactly perfect for jet porn.
Finally the RAF missile programme, surprisingly that is entirely OTL. While I was aware of Queen Bee and Larynx the rest was all news to me. However the Air Staff did have big plans for missiles for much of the 1920s and 1930s, alas they also had shallow pockets and more urgent priorities so most of the ideas were canned in 1936. However this time round thanks to Churchill they have hundreds of biplanes and nothing to do with them so they're willing to press on a bit longer. Would they send the missiles to the same place as jets and rockets? Maybe, it was the experimental aircraft testing base in OTL so it's not that odd a choice, what is an unmanned biplane with a bomb in it but an experimental aircraft?
Game Effect: If you haven't already guessed, I've stuck a rocket testing site into the queue.