Not really quite Frank Whittle’s story

It was an idea given little credibility at the time but pioneering tests on an invention 80 years ago were the beginnings of what brought the world into the jet age.
Bumbling bureaucrats dismissed Sir Frank Whittle’s idea as ‘impractical’, allowing Nazi engineers to peruse plans that could have won Britain the war with ease.
After years of being discredited, the RAF officer eventually tested his crude jet engine at a small factory in Rugby, Warwickshire, on April 12 1937.
Yet it would be years still before the RAF and the world would finally recognise the potential of an idea that allows millions to travel the globe today.
Frank Whittle was once rejected from the RAF, passing the academic test but failing physically, struggling with the physical assessment and measuring just five foot.
But after subjecting himself to a gruelling physical and diet regime, he applied again and was accepted, reporting for duty as an apprentice at RAF Cranwell in 1923.
Academically gifted, he was recommended for a cadetship and began RAF College at Cranwell, where students would write a scientific thesis every six months.
It was here that Whittle, obsessed with the future of aviation, first considered the idea of a jet engine that could fly at high altitudes and unfathomable speeds.

Re the engine itself, no, the RAF realised they had a blinder there. Also that 20s metallurgy wasn’t really going to be good enough. And by the time that was good enough we were in the early stages of preparing for the war (and the Ministry wasn’t that dumb, really, they knew very well that to build jets they needed tungsten the major supply of which was in Portugal – there’s record of a meeting between a Min. bod and Whittle confirming this). At which point, do we expend our resources on an untried new technology? Or build out those Spitfires etc which we know work and we can build in quantity?

For better or worse they took the second decision and it’s not obvious that that was the wrong one. In war good enough in quantity can be better than better but in short supply.

And his cadetship, according to the story, wasn’t quite like that either, as I’ve mentioned around here before. This is how the story goes at least.

Officers were gentlemen, by definition. Therefore only gentlemen could be allowed to become officers of course. An apprentice was someone who worked upon engines ‘n’stuff, an artificer perhaps. Not a gentleman’s occupation, obviously. Pilots were gentlemen, the mechanics were, well, rude mechanics.

The RAF then had a bit of a rethink as they realised that knowing how to pass the port wasn’t really the major qualification they needed in a pilot nor indeed an officer. So they selected 12 artificers to go off through Cranwell to become officers. A test, you see? Whittle was number 13 on this list. And then one of the 12 broke his leg in a cross country competition (look, I’m telling you, this is how the story goes!) meaning that Whittle got shunted up and went to Cranwell.

And that is the story. Proof of this have I none except that one Bill Worstall was one of his fellow artificers sent on the same course as one of the 12. And if that’s how Gramps told the story then that’s good enough for me and it damn well should be good enough for you.

36 comments on “Not really quite Frank Whittle’s story

  1. Obviously the Mail’s done its research on Wikipedia, for that’s the version on there. Yet strangely it omits Whittle passionate early commitment to socialism and his proposal that the technology be nationalised (before he saw sense and started attacking Labour)

  2. In war good enough in quantity can be better than better but in short supply.

    cf Tiger v T-34

    The Germans pursued turbojet development and produced the first effective fighter (Me 262), but it was too late and too few in number to have much effect on the war.

  3. Re the Spitfire, it might have been relatively easy to build but wasn’t it difficult to repair? Until they started to use those car mechanics and sheet metal workers in Cowley?

  4. @Diogenes

    It might or might not have been difficult to repair, but one one thing (among the many) that led to the result of the Battle of Britain being Britain’s to lose was their collection and repair network for Spitfires and Hurricanes. Very efficient and highly effective.

    The Nazis didn’t have anything like it at any stage in the war – though appreciate large proportion of their downed aircraft landed in England in the BoB

  5. “first effective fighter (Me 262), but it was too late and too few in number to have much effect on the war.”

    -It was too expensive

    When they realised they were in deep do do they tried to do the Heinkel 162. Bit of plywood with a turbojet on the back and a hitler youth in the cockpit. Target was for 4,000 a month production figures from jan 1945. La La land.

  6. Flatcap Army – “Obviously the Mail’s done its research on Wikipedia, for that’s the version on there.”

    I am not convinced of Worstall Senior’s account either. For one thing, the RAF was always built around a rejection of the Army’s aristocratic pretensions. They did not seek out gentlemen to be officers. Yes, they had different groups with claims to different social status. But they looked at the Regimental Messes and the like and they rejected them. They wanted an aristocracy of the mind. The White Heat of Technology. Regardless of birth.

    “Yet strangely it omits Whittle passionate early commitment to socialism and his proposal that the technology be nationalised (before he saw sense and started attacking Labour)”

    Penniless inventor supports giving the government huge sums of money to, for instance, support his research. Elderly pioneer in possession of many valuable patents wants lower taxes. Makes sense. Especially as Whittle had a breakdown and the government nationalised everything. Not sure if he was compensated. He pretty quickly took off for the US.

  7. Hallowed Be – “It was too expensive”

    Is that true of the Me-262? The German jet engines seem to have been cheaper than ones behind their propellers.

    Costing RM10,000 for materials, the Jumo 004 also proved somewhat cheaper than the competing BMW 003, which was RM12,000, and cheaper than the Junkers 213 piston engine, which was RM35,000.[10] Moreover, the jets used lower-skill labor and needed only 375 hours to complete (including manufacture, assembly, and shipping), compared to 1,400 for the BMW 801.

    “When they realised they were in deep do do they tried to do the Heinkel 162. Bit of plywood with a turbojet on the back and a hitler youth in the cockpit. Target was for 4,000 a month production figures from jan 1945. La La land.”

    But that was because of a whole range of materials in short supply, not just engines. Still was that unrealistic?

    Between 5,000 and 8,000 004s were built;[13] at the end of the Second World War, production stood at 1,500 per month.[4] The Fedden Mission, led by Sir Roy Fedden, postwar estimated total jet engine production by mid-1946 could have reached 100,000 units a year, or more.

    That was for the Jumo 004 engine but still, imagine 100,000 of them a month.

  8. They’d have to produce that many of them since they burned out in relatiely short order compared to the prop engines.

  9. Worstall Sr Sr’s account of it was rather to show that the RAF changed their minds a bit on this in their early years. We are talking only 3 or 4 years after the organisation’s beginnings after all.

    That as an engineer, a hands dirty one too, son of a printer on the Yorkshire Post, he made it to Air Commodore seems to show that they did.

  10. @Diogenes,

    The Spitfire was no harder to fix than any other metal-skinned monocoque aircraft (like the Bf109), it was the comparison to the tube-framed, fabric-skinned Hurricane that made it seem harder to repair (bullet holes in the back of a Hurricane were, literally, just patched up with a needle and thread, on a Spitfire it was a metalwork job)

    The downside of the lighter structure and lower drag, and thus why the Spitfire got better kinematics out of the same powerplant compared to the Hurricane, was more difficult manufacture and repair.

    On the other hand, the Hurricane was the peak of the old-school stick’n’string design school and was second-line by 1942 and out of production by 1944 (still valued, reliable and effective for ground attack in the Far East) while the Spitfire had the growth room to double its installed horsepower, gain over 100 knots of top speed, and stay in production and first-line service to war’s end (and Seafires flew combat missions off HMS Triumph in Korea) without anything like the nausea that the Hurricane’s replacement, the Typhoon, experienced (everything from tails falling off, to controls freezing at speed, to the legendary build quality and reliability of the Napier Sabre engine… there’s perhaps a reason that the Tiffy vanished with great haste after VE-Day)

    The nearest we got to a “bad Spitfire” was the Mark XII, adapted into the Seafire 17, which was a hasty lash-up to get the new Griffon engine installed in a Mark IX airframe (itself a bodge from putting a bigger Merlin into the Mark V): lots more power, speed, acceleration and climb – handy for chasing V-1s in the Diver Belt, or tip-n-run Fw190 fighter-bombers – but because the Griffon turned the prop in the opposite direction to the Merlin, the airframe was rigged the wrong way around.

    Awesome performance, but while it was able and eager to fly very fast indeed, it also wanted to fly sideways…

  11. “In war good enough in quantity can be better than better but in short supply”

    Too true. I’ve read that the thinking was that it would take 4 regular* Sherman tanks to take out 1 Tiger tank but you were far more likely to find 4 Shermans on the battlefield than 1 Tiger.

    (*The Sherman Firefly, up-gunned to the British 17pdr, was a different prospect. Still the same shit armour but at least they could shoot back at battlefield distances).

  12. allowing Nazi engineers to peruse plans that could have won Britain the war with ease.

    Hmmm. This is overegging things a bit I think. Jet engines or not, we’d still have needed Overlord and the Luftwaffe were barely present during that operation. Even now we don’t often drop paratroops out of jet-engined aircraft en masse. Hard to see what jet planes could have done in the ground war post D-Day when the allies had total air superiority anyway.

  13. I’m not a member of the Whittle fan club.

    The centrifugal flow turbine was a technological dead end as the size of them made them unaerodynamic.

    Jet engines these days are all axial flow which seems a development of steam turbines, a technology which predates Whittle by 50 years.

  14. @Hallowed Be,

    The He162 was flawed on several levels. Build quality was atrocious; even the prototypes and pre-production aircraft suffered frequent structural failures in flight, usually fatal.

    The other pachyderm in the room was fuel: although the jet engines needed kerosene rather than high-octane petrol, Nazi Germany was licking the bottom of the barrel for any sort of POL by 1944 and the jets burned more oil than piston-engined fighters.

    Even the Me262s they did produce were mostly grounded for lack of fuel: adding thousands more aircraft to the flight line wasn’t going to summon up the fuel to fly them, even before the concept of Hitler Youth with a few hours in gliders trying to fly and fight a 500kt jet aircraft got tested.

    Like most late-war Nazi wunderwaffe, the project owed a lot more to high-level desperation and low-level “please don’t take me out of this nice safe office and send me to the Eastern Front!” displacement activity, than any sort of credible plan.

  15. Street Sparrow – “The centrifugal flow turbine was a technological dead end as the size of them made them unaerodynamic.”

    The MiG-15 didn’t seem to do too badly in Korea. The MiG-17 did OK in Vietnam. I expect somewhere in the world someone is still flying those engines.

    People would move away from them but at a much later date than the end of WW2.

  16. SS: Exactly. I hadn’t seen much about German jet engine development until I went to Duxford about 20 years ago, and saw in one shed some racks with old German jet engines on them. They all had axial flow compressors, and it was then that I realised the Germans were onto a better development line than Whittle. If the war had gone on longer and we saw German & British jet aircraft in combat, I’m really not sure if the RAF would have come out on top there, except perhaps for numerical superiority.

  17. abacab – “They’d have to produce that many of them since they burned out in relatiely short order compared to the prop engines.”

    German tanks lasted, on average, a month. I expect that most airplanes had life expectancies in weeks. Virtually all kills are of new pilots.

    Jason Lynch – “The other pachyderm in the room was fuel: although the jet engines needed kerosene rather than high-octane petrol, Nazi Germany was licking the bottom of the barrel for any sort of POL by 1944 and the jets burned more oil than piston-engined fighters.”

    The Jumo 004 could run on three types of fuel:[9]

    J-2, its standard fuel, a synthetic fuel produced from coal.
    Diesel oil.
    Aviation gasoline; not considered desirable due to its high rate of consumption.

    German jets were occasionally run on roughly “refined” crude oil. That is, they spun it in a centrifuge and took off the more liquid parts. Jets in those days were beasts that could run on almost anything compared to the problems piston engines had with anything but the best fuel.

  18. @Andrew C,

    Much mythology about the “Tiger versus Sherman” piece, but folk like Steven Zaloga have pointed out that despite misidentifying every German tank as a “Tiger” (just as every artillery piece was an “88”) the US encountered real. live Tiger Is a total of only three times from D-Day to VE-Day, and only one of those might have had M4 Shermans involved.

    The “four Shermans to one Tiger” came from the fact that Tigers were often encountered singly or by troops, while Shermans were cutting around by troops or squadrons: and because of the sheer numerical disparity. In April 1945 (the third time US forces met Tiger Is) the Allies had about 11,000 tanks operational, while the Germans had 90 tanks (all types) available on the Western Front.

    On the (still rare) occasions when Shermans met Panthers in direct combat, the results were much better for the M4s than myth allows: at Arracourt, the Shermans lost 14 of their own while killing 55 Panthers (exactly the opposite to the usual claimed ratio).

    And one of the factors criminally overlooked in the “Tigers pwn Shermans for the lulz” tank-on-tank comparison, is that it’s not the tanks’ main job. Watch “Fury” and – even allowing for the exaggerated awesomeness of Tiger 131 – notice how many US infantrymen successfully take their objectives and survive the process because they have a troop of Shermans in direct support, while the German troops are forced to surrender, flee or die because their superior wonderpanzer always seems to have a note from its Mum saying it can’t fight there that day.

    Out of 1305 Allied tanks lost in northwest Europe (1944-45) only 189 (14.5%) were taken out by enemy tanks, with mines, anti-tank guns and infantry weapons all causing more losses than enemy armour. (WO 291/1186, “The comparative performance of German anti-tank weapons during WWII.”, OR report dated 24 May 1950)

    Or, tl/dr, in 1939-45 the job of tanks was supporting infantry in taking and holding ground, and the Sherman was much better at that than its German opponents.

  19. I can see the level of knowledge exceeds mine here
    smfs- ok jumo was a good option.. If Goebels/Udet had their act together during the war and got the administration working then could have made some difference.

    Jason Lynch – yeah that what i mean. Goebels good pre-war, but did a very poor job during it.

  20. My father in law worked on the Merlin’s at Crewe, he was a skilled car mechanic. It was an advanced machine that needed special attention in service and therefore a lot of skilled men on that as well. In the early 50’s I played rugby at Cranwell, funny place really, all rather snooty suburban we felt.

  21. Jason Lynch – “In April 1945 (the third time US forces met Tiger Is) the Allies had about 11,000 tanks operational, while the Germans had 90 tanks (all types) available on the Western Front.”

    So you’re saying it wasn’t 4 to 1, it was about 120 to 1?

    “Watch “Fury” and”

    I am sorry, but did you just cite a Hollywood film as a source? A Hollywood film starring Mr Angelina Jolie? I have to say that is an interesting approach.

    “notice how many US infantrymen successfully take their objectives and survive the process because they have a troop of Shermans in direct support”

    Or perhaps it is because it is a Hollywood film and in Hollywood films GIs usually successfully take their objectives and survive the process. No doubt had the Germans won, we would be watching films of German soldiers doing likewise.

    “Or, tl/dr, in 1939-45 the job of tanks was supporting infantry in taking and holding ground, and the Sherman was much better at that than its German opponents.”

    In other words, the Western Allies did not understand how to use tanks, they could not, or at least did not, motivate their soldiers to break through German lines and then drive all over their rear area to their heart’s content. Indeed they allowed the Germans to fight them to a stand still and then walk, slowly, away only to reform another defensive position further away.

  22. @SMFS,

    One does wonder how, given the apparent total supremacy of the Wehrmacht’s armoured forces and your description of the incompetent, ill-equipped Allies, the odds became so skewed against them given that the Germans started with complete, total armoured supremacy (not one single Allied tank in France on 5 June 1944).

    How on earth did those German masters of war fail to crush their bumbling Allied adversaries under the Teutonic tracks of their puissant panzers?

    Where, perchance, are the records of battles where the invincible German panzers sliced unstoppably through Allied tank formations leaving trails of blazing Shermans in their wake? There must have been some, surely? Wasn’t there an attack at Mortain, where eight Panzer divisions… were repelled with the loss of half their armour to those incompetent, ineffective Allies before retreating?

    After all, the superior German forces in Normandy outmanoueuvred the Allies brilliantly, with an eighth – some sources claim even a quarter! of their forces escaping unscathed. We should particularly admire the way they skilfully divested themselves of the burdensome tanks, artillery and vehicles that the Wehrmacht was so generously supplied with and could replace so easily.

    I use “Fury” as a reference because it’s more accessible and more familiar to many than the ORS papers, and it illustrates the point I’m explaining. Oh, and it does cover the tiny, trivial detail that the Allies were advancing from Normandy to Germany and doing what is colloquially called “winning”, while the allegedly superior, better-armed, better-trained Germans were conducting the activity known to laymen as “losing”.

    Or at least, “losing” is what it’s traditionally called when – after four years of preparation time, against an opposed amphibious assault, and holding terrain that a Women’s Institute knitting circle should have been able to defend – you lose three-quarters of your troops, ninety per cent of your tanks and are reduced to a panicked flight to the Siegfried Line, all in the space of three months.

  23. Jason Lynch – “One does wonder how, given the apparent total supremacy of the Wehrmacht’s armoured forces and your description of the incompetent, ill-equipped Allies, the odds became so skewed against them given that the Germans started with complete, total armoured supremacy (not one single Allied tank in France on 5 June 1944).”

    None in France. But plenty in North Africa and then Italy. Given the 120:1 ratio you claim, this is not really all that surprising. Poor little Germany – half as wealthy as Britain with a fraction of the population of the British Empire – fought against pretty much the entire world. That it lost is hardly a surprise. That it did so well for so long is surprising.

    “How on earth did those German masters of war fail to crush their bumbling Allied adversaries under the Teutonic tracks of their puissant panzers?”

    Because the Soviet Army had already crossed the German border? Because they had fought and bled for three years in Russia? Because they were always so badly out numbered that even basic competence would have seen them defeated?

    “There must have been some, surely?”

    Why? I don’t see anyone claiming there were.

    “After all, the superior German forces in Normandy outmanoueuvred the Allies brilliantly, with an eighth – some sources claim even a quarter! of their forces escaping unscathed.”

    When you find yourself this deep in the hole you really should stop digging. That you need to respond in such a hysterical way shows how badly you have lost the plot.

    “We should particularly admire the way they skilfully divested themselves of the burdensome tanks, artillery and vehicles that the Wehrmacht was so generously supplied with and could replace so easily.”

    No one has claimed they were generously supplied or that they could replace their tanks easily. That is kind of the point. They lost because they were grossly outnumbered.

    “I use “Fury” as a reference because it’s more accessible and more familiar to many than the ORS papers, and it illustrates the point I’m explaining.”

    And yet it shows roughly zero understanding of WW2 or the way that tanks fight.

    “Oh, and it does cover the tiny, trivial detail that the Allies were advancing from Normandy to Germany and doing what is colloquially called “winning”, while the allegedly superior, better-armed, better-trained Germans were conducting the activity known to laymen as “losing”.”

    So they were. The Germans were not allegedly anything. They were superior. They were better armed. They were much better trained. The galling thing about Germany was that they were so outnumbered, so weak, and yet they did so well. Because their strengths were ultimately intellectual. Britain was outfought because the Germans did so much better with what little they had.

    “are reduced to a panicked flight to the Siegfried Line, all in the space of three months.”

    The Germans strolled back to the German border in their own time and at their own pace. Without much evidence of the Allies being able to catch them much less put pressure on them. It is remarkable really.

  24. A minor hobby of mine is reading first-hand accounts of the desert war. It always strikes me that the British accounts concentrate on what was missing – we were below strength, we didn’t have a full issue of ammo, we hadn’t been on leave for ages, the field kitchens hadn’t caught up – and explain why it was that they couldn’t be expected to fight effectively in the circumstances.

    If you then look at say von Mellenthin or Heinz Schmidt, the attitude seemed to be much more “well, we’ve got an anti-tank gun, a few trucks, a handful of infantry and a bit of petrol… what can we do with this?”.

    And then you look at the second battle of Alamein, and Monty’s near-defeat despite the odds makes a lot more sense.

  25. There are exceptions of course – Popski, the LRDG, the SAS, pretty much the whole of the Western Desert Force under Wavell and O’Connor. But for mainline units for most of the time the differences are striking.

  26. Almost totally OT, but I’ve just read BOMBER by Len Deighton. What a book that is. No idea how accurate historically and technically, though I assume quite a bit, but it’s a great piece of work and highly recommended.

  27. “In war good enough in quantity can be better than better but in short supply.”

    Unless your ‘better’ is a city-destroying A-bomb of course…

  28. “Jet engines or not, we’d still have needed Overlord and the Luftwaffe were barely present during that operation.”

    As SMFS points out, “the Soviet Army had already crossed the German border.” Our western European actions were to save some of Europe from the Soviets. They were well on their way to defeating Germany without Overlord.

    The critical problem for the Luftwaffe at war’s end was not hardware. It was the lack of pilots. The attrition of the the strategic bombing campaign left them in dire straights. Then, against Bomber Commands desires, switched to tactical bombing, attacking transportation and fuel. The Luftwaffe didn’t have enough fuel to properly train replacement pilots.

    The Japanese had a similar problem. Too many pilots gave their lives for their Emperor.

    ‘Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.’ – Patton, the movie.

  29. The Soviets hadn’t reached Germany by June 6th 1944. They only unleashed Operation Bagration on June 22nd and that started from east of Minsk. They didn’t reach the old German/Polish border until early 1945.

  30. Jim, you are correct in the detail. But the point remains that the Soviets were well on their way to defeating the Germans, and would have done so without Overlord.

  31. SMFS,

    I’ll leave you with the detail that, by your definitions, the Germans won a clear tactical and operational victory at Stalingrad, extracting a larger remnant of the forces they committed to battle than they did in Normandy; and the survivors also forming the next defensive line in their own time without any prompt pursuit or breakthrough. Obviously, von Paulus won and Zhukov failed.

    Possibly not quite the point you thought you were proving, and definitely not the mainstream view, but if you’re considering performances like Normandy and Stalingrad to be proof of superior German performance, it explains a fair bit of your expressed viewpoint.

  32. Jim – “The Soviets hadn’t reached Germany by June 6th 1944. They only unleashed Operation Bagration on June 22nd and that started from east of Minsk. They didn’t reach the old German/Polish border until early 1945.”

    They crossed into Eastern Prussia during August 1944.

  33. Jason Lynch – “I’ll leave you with the detail that, by your definitions, the Germans won a clear tactical and operational victory at Stalingrad”

    I don’t see anyone claiming Normandy was a victory for the Germans. Stalingrad is noticeable as defeats go because the Russians fought with their strengths – a very large supply of basically equipped and very disposable young men. Rather than to the German strengths.

    “Obviously, von Paulus won and Zhukov failed.”

    Paulus. Not a “von”.

  34. We won in Normandy because we had air supremacy, naval supremacy, and a crushing advantage in artillery. Man for man the Krauts were better than the soldiers of the democracies so we cunningly didn’t take them on man for man.

    The Sherman was crap. Source: my father, who was delighted to have Churchills instead. Good armour, and its popgun could use sabot ammunition to knock out even the best German tanks if it got close enough. In the bocage you could get close enough. And its short gun barrel gave it an advantage: German guns would get entangled in hedgerows.

    Once you were out on open ground it was much more difficult except that the Typhoons were capable of driving the German tanks away. The tactics of the Typhoons (“cab rank”) were so good that the Yanks reluctantly copied them.

    And if you knew how many efforts to discuss The War it took to let me get even that small haul of info out of him! Jesus, he must have found it unpleasant. In fact after the war he never shot again except to teach us to shoot. “Next time the Germans might be Russians” he observed.

  35. Goebels good pre-war, but did a very poor job during it.

    Goebbels was the propaganda minister. I think you must mean Göring.

    Göring was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but Goebbels was worse.

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