If only Whittle’s big idea had taken wing in 1940
Britain's fondness for recalling the past surely finds its most fitting rationale in this summer's high-profile 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Fly-pasts of warplanes mark Churchill's oratory, while film-makers and writers remind us, almost weekly, of the debt we owe The Few who fought in the blue skies over southern England.
Ironically, on this week in 1940 the Luftwaffe was kept out by Britain's natural defence system — lousy August weather. Maybe some pilots quietly blessed it, for they knew the location of a Spitfire's fuel tank could make death in one particularly awful.
Today's commentators rarely dwell on such horrors. Yet, while they recall the pilots' sacrifices, they also never ask if the Battle of Britain were itself avoidable. I once hosted a dinner for Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine. He wryly recalled what Hans von Ohain, the brilliant Nazi aero-engineer, told him after the war: “If your government had backed you sooner, the Battle of Britain would never have happened.” Could Ohain have been correct? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.
History has been unkind to Whittle, although his legacy makes him the most influential Briton of the last century after Churchill himself. But no one can dispute that in 1937 he built and ran the world's first gas turbine jet engine. Yet he had conceived the idea back in 1929, as a young RAF officer. The Air Ministry had dismissed it as “impractical”. Only in 1936, when his RAF friend Rolf Williams rustled up £2,000 from the City, did the jet graduate beyond paper. A brilliant aviator, Whittle saw the limits of the piston-engined aeroplanes he flew. He conceived a new power-plant that could take aircraft faster and higher, using gas turbines to create a propelling jet. Throughout the 1930s, it exasperated him that Whitehall would not back the idea. It only gave him grudging support as war approached.
Had the will existed, we would have had jet aircraft by September 1939. They would have been like the Gloster Meteor, the pioneer British jet fighter we eventually got in 1944, with twin jets and a speed well over 400mph. This aeroplane would have co-existed alongside the Spitfire but been kept back in Britain for defensive purposes, with the finest pilots. Secrecy would have prevented its use in France. The Luftwaffe would have first encountered it in July 1940, during the ‘Channel Battles’, the first phase of the Battle of Britain.
British morale would have soared as the Press revealed the new weapon. Churchill's speeches might instead have boasted how easy it was to repel the Luftwaffe. Unable to bomb Britain, lives would have been saved.
Had we built jet fighters by 1940, might not the Germans have done so too? I doubt it. With few spies in Britain, they would not have found Whittle's work in time. Granted, Hans von Ohain's own jet engine flew first, in 1939, but it was a dead-end design. Whittle's jets by contrast were reliable and mass producible from the outset. Churchill was ecstatic when Britain's first jet flew in 1941.
Frank Whittle always knew his invention could have given Britain demonstrable air superiority by 1940. Ohain's comment to him was right. With RAF jet fighters, the Battle of Britain would have ended quickly. But what did Whittle himself say? In my TV documentary , he simply remarks that “we could have had a much bigger influence in the war than happened”.
Nicholas Jones produced Whittle —The Jet Pioneer, available on DVD from quantafilms.com