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The disgraceful story of the British Turbojet Engine

Promoted to Air Commodore in 1948, Sir Frank Whittle, with his own design of turbojet engine powering operational RAF aircraft at that time, had worked out the basic principles of his revolutionary new engine in 1929 and taken out a patent in 1930. All WW2 Allied aircrew were betrayed by the UK’s engineering/military establishment not taking him seriously, resulting in the “jet” engine not being available to Allied Air Forces until the war was nearly over. Thousands of lives, both military and civilians, could have been saved if Meteor jet fighters had been operational in 1940 instead of 1944 and a jet engined bomber in 1941.

In a conversation with Sir Frank after the war, Hans von Ohain, the German scientist who developed the world’s first operational turbojet, stated that "If you had been given the money you would have been six years ahead of us. If Hitler or Goering had heard that there is a man in England who flies a small experimental plane at 500 mph and that it is coming into development, it is likely that World War 2 would not have come into being”

In 1923 Whittle enlisted in the RAF and was sent for Technical Training at RAF Cranwell as an Aircraft Apprentice. He was taught the theory of aircraft engines and gained practical experience in the engineering workshops. His academic and practical abilities earned him a place on an Officer training course. He excelled in his studies, also becoming an accomplished pilot. Whilst writing his graduation thesis he formulated the fundamental concepts that led to the creation of his first turbojet engine. His performance earned him a place as an undergraduate at Cambridge University where he graduated with a First.

Encouraged by his Commanding Officer, in late 1929 Whittle sent his plans to the Air Ministry to see if it would be of any interest to them. With little knowledge of the topic, they turned to the only other person who had written on the subject - A.A. Griffith at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, who in July 1926 had published a paper on compressors and turbines.

Griffith appears to have been convinced that Whittle's "simple" design could never achieve the sort of efficiencies needed for a practical engine and went on to comment that his centrifugal design would be too large for aircraft use and that using the jet exhaust directly for thrust would be inefficient. The Air Ministry returned his comments to Whittle, describing his design as "impractical".

Without their support, Whittle, still a serving RAF Officer, formed his own company - Power Jets Ltd - to build his engine. Despite limited funding, and very basic research facilities, a prototype was created, which first ran in 1937 leading to the UK’s first jet aircraft making its first flight on 15th May 1941. How different would have been the outcome of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent air war against Germany if work on such an advanced engine had been started 8 years earlier, when first proposed by Whittle?

This betrayal was compounded by Atlee’s 1945 Government. The German Turbojet designs captured by the Soviet Union would have taken years to develop so Soviet aviation officials suggested to Stalin that the USSR buy fully developed engines from Rolls-Royce and copy them. Stalin is said to have replied, "What fool will sell us his secrets?”

To Stalin's amazement, the British government and its Minister of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps, were perfectly willing to provide technical information and a license to manufacture the latest design – the Rolls Royce Nene. These engines were then purchased and delivered to Russia with blueprints. Following evaluation and adaptation, this windfall technology was reverse engineered and mass-produced as the Klimov RD-45 jet engine. Developments of this engine then powered the MIG 15 jet fighter which proved to be superior to US aircraft in the Korean War and again led to the unnecessary deaths of more brave pilots and some very bad blood with our American comrades in arms.