A proposal by the future inventor of the jet engine for an interceptor fighter plane was ignored by the British government two years before the Blitz, a newly discovered memo has revealed.
Sir Frank Whittle described how his design for powering aircraft would allow the RAF to combat Luftwaffe bombers if they attempted to take over Britain’s skies.
In a 1938 letter to the Air Ministry, Whittle even estimated the speeds that an aircraft powered by his engine would achieve at sea level as well as 10,000ft and 20,000ft.
‘The primary function of the interceptor fighter is to carry a pilot and his machine guns to within the vicinity of a raiding bomber for a sufficient length of time to enable him to achieve its destruction, preferably before it has reached its target,’ he said at the time.
A proposal by Sir Frank Whittle (bottom right), the future inventor of the jet engine, for an interceptor fighter plane to combat German craft was ignored by the British government two years before the Blitz
He believed the new fighter would have ‘so substantial an advance in performance’, that it would double the chances of a successful interception of an enemy aircraft.
But there is no record of the Air Ministry ever replying, and Britain’s ‘faffing about’ meant a six-year wait until the project, which could have saved hundreds of lives in the Blitz, being fully realised.
Now a new book detailing Whittle’s extraordinary life also looks into the missed opportunity by officials to turn a groundbreaking invention into a decisive weapon in the Second World War.
‘It’s quite a startling piece,’ Duncan Campbell-Smith, author of Jet Man, told The Times of the memo discovered in Whittle’s archive at Churchill College, Cambridge.
Whittle described how his design for a new type of aircraft would allow the RAF to combat Luftwaffe bombers if they attempted to take over Britain’s skies. Pictured: One sketch detailing blueprints for a jet engine devised by Sir Frank Whittle
‘[Whittle] definitely sent it but I don’t think he ever received a reply. It encapsulates the whole story. The Brits faff about. They don’t get into it until too late in the war. The more I read, the more I realised how very badly he had been treated.’
Though once rejected from the RAF on physical grounds, Whittle later made a successful application to the force and joined 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.
While studying, Whittle suggested the idea of a jet engine, which sucked in air, compressed and ignited it, then blasted it out of the back, propelling the plane forward.
The Blitz began on September 7, 1940, and was the most intense bombing campaign Britain has ever seen
He believed that the idea was the future of aviation and would propel planes, capable of flying at around 200mph at the time, at speeds of up to 500mph.
The Gloster Meteor: Britain’s first front-line jet fighter
The Gloster Meteor was the Allies’ first operational jet, with sorties starting in July 1944 with 616 Squadron.
Designed by George Carter, the prototype took off in secrecy from RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire on March 5, 1943.
Meteors were first based at RAF Culmhead in Somerset but were soon moved to Manston in Kent, closer to the action above occupied Europe and ready to intercept the dreaded German Luftwaffe.
The aircraft was quickly sent up to combat the menace of V-1 flying bombs, pilotless pulse-jet projectiles that were the forerunners of today’s cruise missiles.
They were fired from the Continent to later crash to earth over southern England. With a top speed of more than 400mph, Meteors notched up their first ‘kills’ of V-1s in August 1944.
By the end of the war 16 RAF squadrons were equipped with Meteor F3s and soon after the F4 version was flown, which was 170mph faster than its predecessor. By 1951 there were 20 RAF squadrons flying the Meteor and it became one of the best-loved aircraft in the air force inventory.
Even his lecturers found it difficult to comprehend, with one writing: ‘I couldn’t quite following everything you have written Whittle. But I can’t find anything wrong with it.’
But Whittle struggled to attract any interest in the inter-war period of the late 1920s, and so made his designs public by registering a patent in 1930.
Yet the RAF refused to put it on the secrets list so when the patent was granted in October 1932, engineers from the Third Reich were free to analyse the plans.
Famous German engineer Hans von Ohain would later tell him: ‘If your government had backed you sooner the Battle of Britain would never have happened.’
But the Ministry of Aircraft Production was sceptical and regarded it as a distraction from the urgent need to put enough fighters into the air to drive back the Nazis.
They did however give the project to the Rover car company, Campbell-Smith said, because some ‘very high-up people’, including Winston Churchill, had seen it and couldn’t ignore the idea completely.
But Rover never produced a engine that made it into the air.
Finally, Wilfrid Freeman, vice-chief of staff for the RAF, intervened and arranged for Rolls-Royce to take on the project. By early 1944 its engine was in the air, powering a Gloster Meteor which would reach speeds of 600mph.
Those present at a test flight were astonished to see a plane without a propeller take to the skies, and Sir Winston Churchill was said to have been so impressed that he said: ‘I want 1,000 Whittles’.
Eventually it was the Americans who would seize on the opportunities provided by the jet engine, and he would be forced by the British Government to hand over the technology.
Whittle’s son Ian, 86, recalled that his father threw everything into his work when war came.
Finally, Wilfrid Freeman, vice-chief of staff for the RAF, intervened and arranged for Rolls-Royce to take on the project. By early 1944 its engine was in the air, powering a Gloster Meteor which would reach speeds of 600mph. Pictured: A Gloster Meteor T7
‘When the war started he got very serious. He would disappear in his uniform in the morning and get back after I went to bed. He got so used to the British government sticking the knife into him. By 1948 his health was so destroyed that he resigned from the RAF.’
Whittle retired with the rank of Air Commodore on the grounds of ill health in 1948 and was finally recognised for his achievements.
He was knighted and awarded £100,000 (equivalent to £3.3million today) by the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors and later married American Hazel Hall and emigrated to the US, where he died in 1996.
How the Blitz was the most intense bombing campaign Britain has ever seen – claiming more than 40,000 lives
A boy retrieves an item from a rubble-strewn street of East London after German bombing raids in the first month of the Blitz, September 1940
The Blitz began on September 7, 1940, and was the most intense bombing campaign Britain has ever seen.
Named after the German word ‘Blitzkrieg’, meaning lightning war, the Blitz claimed the lives of more than 40,000 civilians.
Between September 7, 1940, and May 21, 1941, there were major raids across the UK with more than 20,000 tonnes of explosives dropped on 16 British cities.
London was attacked 71 times and bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights.
The City and the East End bore the brunt of the bombing in the capital with the course of the Thames being used to guide German bombers. Londoners came to expect heavy raids during full-moon periods and these became known as ‘bombers’moons’.
More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged and of those who were killed in the bombing campaign, more than half of them were from London.
In addition to London’s streets, several other UK cities – targeted as hubs of the island’s industrial and military capabilities – were battered by Luftwaffe bombs including Glasgow, Liverpool, Plymouth, Cardiff, Belfast and Southampton and many more.
Deeply-buried shelters provided the most protection against a direct hit, although in 1939 the government refused to allow tube stations to be used as shelters so as not to interfere with commuter travel.
However, by the second week of heavy bombing in the Blitz the government relented and ordered the stations to be opened. Each day orderly lines of people queued until 4pm, when they were allowed to enter the stations.
Despite the blanket bombing of the capital, some landmarks remained intact – such as St Paul’s Cathedral, which was virtually unharmed, despite many buildings around it being reduced to rubble.
Hitler intended to demoralise Britain before launching an invasion using his naval and ground forces. The Blitz came to an end towards the end of May 1941, when Hitler set his sights on invading the Soviet Union.
Other UK cities which suffered during the Blitz included Coventry, where saw its medieval cathedral destroyed and a third of its houses made uninhabitable, while Liverpool and Merseyside was the most bombed area outside London.
There was also major bombing in Birmingham, where 53 people were killed in an arms works factory, and Bristol, where the Germans dropped 1,540 tons of high explosives and 12,500 incendiaries in one night – killing 207 people.