Yet the genius of Sir Frank Whittle, the man who invented the jet engine, will go almost entirely unheralded when the 75th anniversary of his achievement falls next weekend.
His son, Ian, has accused successive governments of “marginalising” his father because Whitehall was slow to realise the importance of his invention, enabling the Germans to seize the initiative in jet development during the war.
He said his father’s place in history had been allowed to fade because of a reluctance to draw attention to the “mistakes” made by Whitehall in the past.
May 15, 1941 was the day Whittle’s revolutionary engine took to the skies for the first time, powering a Gloster E.28/39, the ancestor of every jet aircraft flying today.
These stories tend to grow with the telling so I’ll tell it as I’ve been told it. The important part is this:
Whittle, who honed his engineering skills in his father’s workshop as a boy, joined the RAF as an apprentice mechanic in 1923, where his superiors quickly marked him out as something of a genius.
Back then pilots were officers. And officers were gentlemen. As in the Army and Navy of the day. And, of course rude mechanics were not gentlemen. Good grief, they actually did things with their hands!
At which point someone thought, hang on a minute, we’re going to need officers of those mechanics and they’d better know about mechanics. So, umm…..they picked 8 rude mechanics to go off and train as officers. One of whom was grandpa, Bill Worstall. They would become pilots too, as well as rude mechanics, because pilots were officers and therefore officers were pilots, see? Definitely made a difference to Bill’s life, son of the head printer at the Yorkshire Press becoming an officer? This was a big deal back then: as were the elocution lessons. This was bounding across the class barriers.
As father has pointed out we’re both rather glad that Bill survived the 8 crashes that he had before he got married. One such crash even made The Times, which is more than his marriage did I think….
Frank Whittle didn’t make the grade: he was number nine on the list. Then the lad who was number 8 broke his leg on a cross country run/race and Whittle was bumped up.
As far as I know it’s true.
And two that I do know are true: No one ignored that jet engine for the war. Rather, they took an executive decision. We can build reasonably large numbers of things which are good enough (Hurricanes, Spitfires, and here on my desk I have the souvenir/memorial ashtray of Bill having worked on the program including landing the things on carriers) and diverting our limited resources away to this newer, better, but riskier, technology might be a bad idea. As, say, the German idea of building things like King Tigers and so on: they sucked up huge resources but there were never enough of them. Vast numbers of T34s and Shermans were the way to go, lower tech but numbers more than made up. They didn’t ignore the possibility, they decided against it, rightly or wrongly.
And Whittle had a fun meeting with a Ministry man. Showed the design (this was when everyone had indeed woken up, war imminent) and he said, hmm, yes, you’re going to need tungsten for that. From Portugal. Which all added to the fun that was had here. Out in the Beira at that time good quality tungsten ore could just be picked up in the fields. Wolframite. Wanted for anti-tank shells, armour plating and those jet engines. Thus all sorts of SOE shenanigans as mule trains collecting for the Germans were hijacked by Brits, mule trains collecting for the Brits vice versa and so on. Excellent novel, Robert
Goddard Wilson, “Small Death In Lisbon” based on the events. What really made that one fun for me is that it’s set in modern day Cascais, with the underlying plot all coming from those WWII days, and I was thinking about wolframite at the time and living in Cascais…..