Friday, May 29, 2015

Wallis and Whittle

Grand Slam combat operations

Barnes Wallis and Frank Whittle, probably the best-known British inventors of the twentieth century, worked in the air-industrial complex. Both were supported very strongly by it because they came up with new ideas which were felt to be worth trying; their revolutionary inventions were supported because they were so novel, because they promised new offensive capabilities, which promised early victory.

In the summer of 1940 Wallis hatched an incredible war-winning scheme, `a monster bomber to smash the Germans'. By mid-July 1940 he had come up with a plan for a `High Altitude Stratosphere Bomber' (soon to be called the Victory Bomber). This would be a gigantic thing, with a fully laden weight of more than 50 tons, much more than the 30-ton future Lancaster bomber. It would carry 10 tons of bombs but at nearly twice the altitude of the future Lancaster, 40,000 feet, and for a considerably longer range. Wallis claimed to his superior in Vickers that `the new machine is going to be the instrument which will enable us to bring the war to a quick conclusion'. He explained that given the altitude they would operate at, they could fly `at their leisure and in daylight'. Large numbers were unnecessary: `irreparable damage could be inflicted on the strategic communications of the German Empire by . . . ten or twenty machines within the course of a few weeks'. He was confident that a new gyroscopic bombsight would give bombing accuracies of 150 yards from 40,000 feet. Such a machine had another advantage: Britain would have `the machine and the experience to enable us to step right into the forefront of transoceanic civil aviation directly war ceases'. It could fly direct to New York in twelve hours.

Vickers put this plan for a Victory bomber forward to Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, in November 1940: the aircraft, pressurized and built to Wallis's geodesic principle, which was successfully used in the Wellington bomber, would have six engines. A map showed that it could bomb Moscow from London. The idea was to attack coal mines, underground petrol and oil storage, oilfields and hydroelectric dams, to strike at these `sources of power' rather than humble power stations. Wallis's concept was one of `anti-civil engineering bombing', as he called it; he wanted to destroy great works. The project was taken up by the Ministry of Aircraft Production, but work was dropped in 1942.

Two crucial aspects of the scheme did live on. The first was the idea of attacking civil engineering works, in this case dams. In 1943 Lancasters carrying the `bouncing bomb' designed by Wallis destroyed, temporarily, some dams in the Ruhr region. The RAF did not bomb the repair work; nor did it repeat the use of the bouncing bomb - it was far too expensive in terms of crews lost. In fact the remaining stock of bouncing bombs was dumped in the sea at the end of the war. The second was the idea, already in play in the Victory bomber, of bombs much larger than conventional ones, which would destroy large and strong structures. Great ingenuity and resources went into developing this concept. Wallis planned that the Victory bomber should drop new 10-ton bombs, many times bigger than current ones. Wallis designed the 6-ton Tallboy and then the 10-ton Grand Slam bombs, which were dropped from 1944 and 1945 respectively, but from Lancasters. Tallboys were used with some success against great structures like U-boat pens, the Tirpitz, which was sunk in late 1944 as a result of the third attack with these bombs; the Grand Slams were used to destroy viaducts and bridges, including the Bielefeld railway viaduct. In fact the viaduct had been under continuous attack since June 1944 by US and then British airforces, the latter using Tallboys. It was damaged but was quickly repaired, and a bypass was built making the viaduct significantly less important. The bypass had to be used for years after the war, as the viaduct was destroyed in March 1945 by the first, and much celebrated, Gland Slam raid. Wallis's `bouncing bomb' was of course the subject of The Dambusters film of 1955. As told in the film, bizzarely yet influentially, Wallis battled with a bureaucracy disinclined to accept new ideas from engineers. Yet Wallis received massive support, to produce a weapon which was in the event used on only one raid, one whose results were not as great as expected.

After Wallis, perhaps the most famous wartime inventor was Frank Whittle, in British eyes the inventor of the jet engine. Whittle was an air force officer who had been sent to Cambridge to study engineering in the 1930s; like others, he was given the opportunity to stay on and he developed his idea of the jet engine. With air force support he was seconded to a private company set up to develop his ideas, and this company, with state contracts, was to carry the main but not the only early development effort. All this happened before the war: by 1939-40 the project was well under way. By 1939 plans were being made to fit it to an aircraft; by early 1940 the jet engine was on a list of `war winners' and by late 1940 was ordered into production.

There was a brief hiatus in mid-1940, but Lindemann's interest in jets was `an important factor in the remarkable renaissance in jet propulsion' in autumn 1940.14 During the war the number of jet engine projects multiplied, with the Whittle group one of many, in what was a state-orchestrated collaborative programme, involving many large firms in turbine engineering and aero-engines - essentially Metropolitan- Vickers from October 1940, De Havilland, who got an order in May 1941, Rolls-Royce from June 1941 (though they had employed a jet specialist, A. A. Griffiths, from 1939) and lastly Armstrong-Siddeley. Bristol too were involved. Yet belief in the power of the inventor meant Whittle, without question the key pioneer, was given a lot of scope despite the fact that many and in many respects more powerful players were in the game. His Power Jets company continued to be supported. The first British jet engine into service was a Rover / Rolls- Royce development of the Whittle W2, the W2B / 23, called the Welland by Rolls-Royce. The second was the Halford H-1 (later called the Goblin), designed by the piston-engine designer Major Halford for the De Havilland company. Halford was one the big three engine designers of the war alongside Roy Fedden, chief engineer at Bristol until 1942, and Ernest Hives, general manager of Rolls-Royce. The Goblin was considerably more powerful than the first Whittle engines but was, like Whittle's, a centrifugal compressor design.

A Gloster Meteor Intercepts a V-1 Flying Bomb
by Colin E. Bowley
1944- A Gloster Meteor of 616 Squadron operating from Manston in Kent intercepts a German V-1 Flying Bomb bound for London.
Shooting at a V-1 proved to be extremely dangerous. To be within range to shoot also meant being close enough to be damaged by the huge explosion and deadly flying shrapnel.
Some pilots were able to fly alongside and gently tip the wing of the V-1 to send it out of control and into the empty fields below.

The Gloster Meteor, a fighter equipped with two Wellands, went into partial service in June 1944 and was used against V-1 doodlebugs. However, it was no match for the new fighters powered by the Sabre and Centaurus engines. The De Havilland Vampire, with a single De Havilland Goblin, only came into service after the war, as did a new Meteor powered with Rolls-Royce engines. Such late deployment was not intended. Production orders had been given `off the drawing board' to the Rover car company in 1940. In early 1941 it was envisaged that British jet fighters would be operational in the winter of 1942-3. A jet engine factory at Barnoldswick in Lancashire costing £1.5m and employing 1,600 workers was ready before the engine, resulting in a serious waste of resources in 1942.

Engine development was in effect to be taken out of Whittle's hands late in the war. From 1943 it was intended to nationalize his Power Jets firm, which was supported by private interests, as indeed happened in 1944. Through a series of steps it became part of the civil service after the war. But as he became less important in the actual design, Whittle was celebrated as the inventor of the jet. In 1944 he became a public figure, garlanded with honours from the state and from engineering institutions. Though still a young man he was never to design a jet engine again. Development was now very firmly in the hands of great private firms committed to the next generation of jets. The surprising ending to this story should not obscure the level of support this RAF officer got from the ministry long before the war - remaining a career officer he was seconded to a private firm to develop his invention with government money. The authorities believed in the individual inventor; his special qualities were seen as essential to creativity.

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