Obituary:Sir Frank Whittle

Anthony Furse
Friday 16 August 1996 23:02

It is sad that John Golley, who knew him so well, should have repeated so many of the old myths about Frank Whittle [obituary, 10 August], writes Anthony Furse.

There is no doubt that most of the delays in making British gas-turbines to Whittle's designs were due to his long refusal to allow any of the established aero-engine manufacturers to work on his designs.

As a serving officer, the RAF not only kept him on full pay whilst he took an Engineering degree at Cambridge, and did a further year as a postgraduate, but continued to do so when he decided to allow his invention to be developed by a private company, stipulating only that the Air Ministry must have Free Crown Usage of engines developed to his patents.

Despite the adverse report on Whittle's invention from Dr Griffith of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in 1937, Air Marshal Sir Wilfrid Freeman, Air Member for Research and Development, continued to back Whittle, on the advice of Professor Tizard, providing first pounds 1,900 towards a total cost of pounds 9,000, and then a further pounds 6,000, before the outbreak of war. Early in 1940, Freeman listed the gas turbine as one of the few "potential war-winners" and backed the decision to give contracts to Rover to put Whittle's engines into production, because Whittle refused to work with the aero-engine firms.

Churchill's decision to put Beaverbrook in charge of Aircraft Production led to the departure of Freeman, Tedder and Tizard, Whittle's three main supporters, by December 1940, and although full information about his invention was given to the GEC company in the United States, and to de Havilland, Metrovick and Armstrong Siddeley in Britain, as early as 1941, and although Rolls-Royce gave Whittle endless help, production of Whittle engines was restricted to the Rover company until Freeman returned to the Ministry of Aircraft Production with full executive powers in October 1942.

Co-operation between Rover and Whittle had deteriorated by then and Whittle had become a difficult colleague under the stress of his work, and the side-effects of his dependence on benzedrine, to which he had been addicted since 1940, and Freeman realised that Rover lacked the resources to make successful engines. After failing to persuade Whittle to throw in his lot with Rolls-Royce, he judged that to force the issue might make things worse, and simply transferred the Rover gas-turbine factories to R-R instead.

Hives, and Sidgreaves, his Chairman, were far too committed and patriotic to have worried about the effect on their piston engine business of a switch to turbines, and but for Whittle's prejudiced phobia against the aero-engine establishment, he could have been given the full support of Rolls-Royce as early as 1940. A great man, but at times his own worst enemy.

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