Making Jet Engines in World War II: Britain, Germany, and the United States

Making Jet Engines in World War II: Britain, Germany, and the United States

by Hermione Giffard


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Our stories of industrial innovation tend to focus on individual initiative and breakthroughs. With Making Jet Engines in World War II, Hermione Giffard uses the case of the development of jet engines to offer a different way of understanding technological innovation, revealing the complicated mix of factors that go into any decision to pursue an innovative, and therefore risky technology.
Giffard compares the approaches of Britain, Germany, and the United States. Each approached jet engines in different ways because of its own war aims and industrial expertise. Germany, which produced more jet engines than the others, did so largely as replacements for more expensive piston engines. Britain, on the other hand, produced relatively few engines—but, by shifting emphasis to design rather than production, found itself at war's end holding an unrivaled range of designs. The US emphasis on development, meanwhile, built an institutional basis for postwar production. Taken together, Giffard's work makes a powerful case for a more nuanced understanding of technological innovation, one that takes into account the influence of the many organizational factors that play a part in the journey from idea to finished product.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226388595
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/10/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,009,107
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Hermione Giffard is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of History and Art History at Utrecht University.

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Making Jet Engines in World War II

Britain, Germany, and the United States

By Hermione Giffard

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-38862-5


Turbojet Production during World War II

National Socialist Germany built 6,569 jet engines during World War II — almost nine times as many as Britain, and more than twenty-two times as many as the United States produced in the same period (see tables 1.1 and 1.2). Traditionally, this is taken to indicate an astonishing German technical success, all the more so given the dire state of the National Socialist economy at the end of the war. Not only is the country's production record hailed, but it is also taken as evidence for the usefulness and indeed superiority of Germany's engines. Yet although Germany produced the highest number of engines, it also produced the lowest quality engines. Material and labor shortages made cheap turbojets that would have been unacceptable in Britain or the United States attractive weapons for the Third Reich, where the jet engine was a substitute for expensive piston engines. This startling argument radically changes our understanding of the nature and power of early German jets: they were produced not because they were better than alternatives, but because they were easier to build. Their manufacture was well suited to and dependent on slave labor, as this chapter will show for the first time. Germany produced jet engines not despite the country's limitations, as most accounts make out, but as a response to them. Production concerns were at the heart of the German decision to deploy jet engines during 1944, and the engines moved to the very center of the National Socialist production system.

Germany did not owe its high production output to an early decision to produce jet engines. It was not the first country to decide to produce jet engines, but the last. Britain was first, and its government did so in 1940, with the intention of producing jet aircraft for their country's defense. The government's choice fell on a new engine design, the W.2, that, however promising its possible future performance according to aerodynamic theory, was not yet ready for production. The prototype on which the British production engine's design was based, the W.1 engine, took to the air only in 1941. In late 1942, the production design was almost abandoned because of problems in development, but it was retained and Britain's first production (scale production, not hand crafted) jet engines were deployed in mid-1944. During the war, in Britain as in Germany, alternative jet engines with superior performance were turned down for production, while less powerful engines better suited to production were accelerated.

In the event, Britain found that its air force did not need jet fighters to win the air war, and it instead devoted massive resources to developing jet engines for postwar use. Its interests came ultimately to rest on developing highly reliable and powerful jet engines, and the country ended the war with a range of advanced jet engine designs that dominated world jet production after 1945. Despite this change in goal, the early decision for production nevertheless shaped the British development program by leading it to support the development of centrifugal jet engines, although its focus shifted more toward axial jet engines over the course of the war. All of Germany's first service jet engines and most jet engines today are axial.

Centrifugal jet engines are distinguished by their radial or centrifugal compressors. They compress air by spinning and accelerating it from the engine's central axis to its outer edge. This added velocity is then converted to increased pressure. In the interwar period, the centrifugal compressors used in centrifugal jet engines were close to existing designs of turbo air compressors and could therefore be developed more quickly than unfamiliar axial compressors, although they were limited in performance by their radius. Nevertheless, compression ratios in early jet engines did not exceeded what a large radial compressor could achieve. Axial compressors compress air by forcing it along a straight path into a smaller and smaller space with each row or stage of compressor blades. While axial compressors promised theoretically to compress air to higher pressures than centrifugal compressors were able, the more complex axial compressor was almost entirely unknown to engineers in the interwar period (schematics of both types can be found in figure 1.1).

The decision to produce a British designed centrifugal jet engine in the United States was made in the hopes that the British engine offered a faster route to producing turbojet engines than an indigenous American one. It also led that country to invest resources in developing centrifugal jet engines. Yet the desire for production remained secondary to the establishment of a basis for building commercially competitive American jet engines, and the United States subsequently moved away from its early gamble on manufacturing to keep its eye on long-term development. For both the British and American programs, limited output actually reflected the strength of their war efforts: neither was forced to deploy jet aircraft out of military need. It was the weakness of the German position that demanded that country's existential focus on production.

Although the extent of jet engine production in each country was thus not a measure of technical success, decisions to produce (and not to produce) engines during the war nevertheless had a huge influence on the quality and nature of the world's jet engines in the short and medium term. By considering production first, I hope to clear away some important misconceptions about the jet engine and set the scene for a new, richer account of its development and invention in the subsequent chapters.

Britain's Turbojet Engines

Britain was the first country to decide to produce turbojet aero-engines. By the end of the war, three types of centrifugal turbojet engine had been produced in Britain: the Welland and the Derwent, both made by Rolls-Royce and the two engines deployed during the war, and the Goblin, made by de Havilland. Britain hoped to have jet aircraft in service in 1942, but during the war, the strength of Britain's war effort allowed it to deemphasize production when development problems arose. The Royal Air Force's first production engines arrived in 1943 and its first jet fighter flew in mid-1944.

From the start, the British government expected its war effort to be a technological one in which machines would compensate for the nation's small army. This tactical orientation and the creative spirit of Winston Churchill, Britain's prime minister from 1940, set the tone. Wartime Britain was, in the words of David Edgerton, a "cult of invention and inventor presided over by the Prime Minister." In a reversal of much literature on Britain, Edgerton argues that while quirky British devices are frequently cited as "evidence of a peculiar technical resourcefulness in the face of material austerity, they were in fact compelling evidence of extravagant commitment to technical solutions, and of massive material and technical capacity." The British pursuit of jet engines was one based on strength: both military and material.

Britain could afford to pursue jet engines during the war in part because the British Air Ministry's efforts at expanding aero-engine production during the years before the war were so successful. Between 1936 and 1945, the British government spent more than £100 million on expanding the nation's aircraft production capability. Investment went to creating so-called shadow factories for the production of powerful Bristol Hercules piston engines and to building new factories for the production of Rolls-Royce piston aero-engines, including the important Merlin. The shadow factories were put under the management of Britain's motorcar industry, and they successfully produced engines according to Bristol's designs. Rolls-Royce, in contrast, preferred to manage its factories itself, including the new factories the government built for it in Crewe and Glasgow, which began production in 1940. The only shadow factory constructed to build Rolls-Royce engines was a factory run by Ford located in Trafford Park, near Manchester, which came online in late 1941. During the war, 101,000 Bristol piston engines of six types and 112,000 Rolls-Royce piston engines of five types were delivered.

It was in February 1940, with the war against Germany just a few months old and the Battle of Britain just months away, that the British Air Ministry decided to pursue the production of turbojet engines. At a meeting on February 26, 1940, the Air Ministry's director general of research and development, Air Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder, announced that he wanted to proceed with "development manufacture" of a jet engine designed by the small British firm Power Jets Ltd., which had designed Britain's first experimental jet engine that ran in 1937. Tedder reasoned that if the engine were developed from the start with the requirements of production in mind, it would reach production earlier. Thus production was decided on even before Britain's first jet engine had flown. In fact, quite the reverse of what one might expect with production being decided on, the Air Ministry had placed a contract with Power Jets for its and Britain's first flight turbojet engine, the W.1 (which was never built in series), only months before, on July 12, 1939. An experimental airframe to carry the engine, the Gloster E.28/39 (the twenty-eighth experimental airframe of 1939), was ordered on August 30, 1939, from the Gloster Aircraft Company. Neither Power Jets nor Gloster was otherwise engaged on crucial war work, so the decision did not divert essential resources from the war effort. The jet project was immediately put under strict secrecy. The E.28/39 flew for the first time under power of the W.1 engine almost two years later, on May 15, 1941. Despite the desire of some British officials in 1939 to skip building an experimental aircraft altogether, the E.28 became an important and reliable test aircraft.

Power Jets was contracted to design but not to build the country's first service jet engine, the firm's next design, the W.2. Although the British government has been blamed for taking the engine away from Power Jets, the company had neither the facilities nor skill to manufacture complete engines (see chapter 3). Instead, in February 1940, the government decided to enlist a respected engineering company, the Rover Car Company, to manage the large-scale production of the engine in the nation's first jet engine factory. Rover was not, as it has been pictured, entirely lacking in relevant experience. In fact, it had participated in the Air Ministry's shadow production scheme and had repaired other piston aero-engines. On good terms with Rover's management, Power Jets' leaders had recommended the firm as a potential collaborator, albeit with Power Jets as the senior partner. This wish was not however respected (Power Jets being the younger of the two firms), and by November 1940, Rover was working under direct government contract to build an experimental engine to Power Jets' plans.

Committed to the project, Rover deployed some of its best resources to work on the fledgling jet engine program. It chose to establish turbojet production in one of the factories that had been assigned to it under the shadow production scheme: Bankfield Shed. The disused weaving mill in Barnoldswick was the most recent addition to the six shadow factories where the car firm was already carrying out piston-aero-engine production and repair work in 1940, and the firm's staff had already begun repairing Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah piston engines there. The mill was about twice as large as a normal weaving shed, having approximately 165,000 square feet of space. Mr. Poppe, Rover's expert on quantity manufacture, was put in charge of the factory. Rover decided to subcontract the engine's fuel and combustion systems to Joseph Lucas Ltd., a company that manufactured automotive components, including fuel pumps and injectors. Lucas went on to make fuel and combustion equipment for almost all of Britain's early jet engines. Rover chose a second shadow site, Waterloo Mill in Clitheroe, as the center of its turbojet design and testing work.

That Rover's jet engine factories were also called "shadow factories" is misleading. Rover's work on jet engines included development and was thus crucially different from its previous participation in the government's shadow scheme, in which Rover had been charged with the production of already proven aero-engine designs. It was unusual, for example, that Waterloo Mill was staffed by a number of Rover's permanent staff. In the case of the jet engine, Rover was hired to make development units, and in recognition of its design work, the firm received a slightly higher than usual management fee for its turbojet factories of £16,000 per annum. The confusing use of the term "shadow factory" to denote something quite different from earlier shadow manufacture mirrored a deeper confusion over Rover's role in the jet engine program (especially with respect to Power Jets), which ultimately led to Rover's withdrawal from the aero-engine field.

In February 1941, the government confirmed that Rover's Barnoldswick factory should be equipped to produce Power Jets engines at a rate of twenty per week. While this was not an overly high target as compared with piston engine production (thousands per week) or later German and American plans (hundreds per week), it nevertheless represented an enthusiastic and early investment in the new machine. At the same time, further demonstrating official eagerness, plans were also approved to provide for the production of an additional thirty engines per week using as much subcontracting as possible. The production total could be brought to about two hundred engines per month if needed.

Which engine would be produced in the Barnoldswick factory was decided, however, only on March 5, 1941. It was decided that it would produce the Power Jets–designed W.2B (which replaced the original W.2 design). Fifty "development engines" were initially ordered from Rover. The W.2B engine was a scaled-up version of the W.1, which still had not flown. It was to fly for the first time in the E.28 on May 15, 1941. Whereas the W.1 was designed to produce 1,240 pounds of thrust (but it achieved only 850), the W.2B was to reach the 1,600 pounds of thrust expected to be necessary for a useful fighter as outlined by Sir Henry Tizard, an early supporter of the jet engine, advisor to the British government, and chairman of Britain's Aeronautical Research Committee. (Producing a given amount of thrust for a specified length of time became a key criterion for the acceptance of new jet engines.) In early 1941, the government demonstrated that it was serious about the new engines by placing contracts for an airframe to carry the W.2B engine. On February 14, 1941, it ordered a mock-up and twelve prototypes of a new twin-engined turbojet fighter airframe from Gloster, the F.9/40 (the ninth fighter airframe of 1940), which was actually already under design.

Production of a British jet engine had thus already been decided on when British aircraft production underwent a dramatic organizational change. In May 1940 (just before the start of the Battle of Britain), Churchill established the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) to streamline aircraft production in Britain. Press baron Max Beaverbrook, who was appointed the first minister of aircraft production, immediately ordered that all development work be stopped. For fear that he would cancel the jet program and scatter its resources, jet engine development was initially concealed from the new minister. When it was revealed to him some weeks later, however, Beaverbrook did not decide to abandon the jet. As he made clear, his interest did not represent a blind devotion to novelty. The jet was seen as an important part of the ministry's serious and constant pursuit of and support for improvements in military aviation, a commitment that dovetailed with the government's dedication to new machines as part of its military planning. On April 18, 1941, a year later and still before the first flight of a British jet engine, Britain's Air Staff (the body of senior officers that ran the Royal Air Force) noted its desire to deploy turbojet aero-engines.

Enthusiasm for the jet spread throughout the British government. In July 1941, Churchill and his scientific advisor, the recently ennobled Lord Cherwell, began to discuss the possible deployment of British turbojet aircraft in the summer of 1942. The two speculated about the possibility of putting the Gloster F.9/40 and the W.2B engine into full production even before they had been tested. By avoiding delays caused by what he called the "titivation" of "perfectionist" technicians, Churchill hoped to be able to deploy jet aircraft six months earlier than otherwise. This interval could be crucial, since he feared that Britain might come under imminent threat from high-altitude German bombers — turbojets work efficiently at high altitudes where even supercharged piston engines begin to lose power because of the decrease in atmospheric oxygen, which is required for combustion. Yet a jet fighter would be deployed in addition to maintaining the deployment of existing, piston-engined aircraft. The prime minister was confident that the production of jet aircraft could be pursued without adversely affecting the country's air defenses; he had been assured that about one thousand of the new jet aircraft could be produced without sacrificing the crucial production of piston-engined aircraft. The interest from Downing Street further increased the pressure on jet engine development. Whittle recalled feeling "like a hunted man." By the end of October 1941, Rover had already been given a contract for 550 production W.2B engines, and investment in production capacity for eighty F.9/40 airframes a month had been authorized by the government at Gloster.


Excerpted from Making Jet Engines in World War II by Hermione Giffard. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
IntroductionChapter 1. Turbojet Production during World War II
Britain’s Turbojet Engines
Competition in Britain
Abandoning the W.2B
United States (American Turbojet Engines)
Production and Improvement in the United States
Prospects for the H.1
Turbojet Engine Production in Germany
Production Underground
The Remarkable Production of Ersatz Aero-Engines
ConclusionChapter 2. The Aero-Engine Industry and Turbojet Development
Rolls-Royce and the Turbojet
Rolls-Royce’s First Internal Combustion Turbine
The Whittle-Rolls-Royce Engine
Rolls-Royce at Barnoldswick
Back at Derby
The British Aero-Engine Industry
De Havilland’s New Engine
Armstrong Siddeley Motors Changes Course
Bristol Aircraft Company Is of Two Minds
D. Napier and Son
The German Aero-Engine Industry
Junkers Motorenwerke
Bramo and BMW: A Good Team
Daimler-Benz Makes Time for Turbojets
Development in the United States
The NACA Starts Work
The Air Force Pushes Development
General Electric
ConclusionChapter 3. Inventive Institutions
Power Jets
Small Beginnings
The Contradiction of Power Jets
Rapid Growth
A National Resource
The Royal Aircraft Establishment
The End: Government Company and Back Again
The Ernst Heinkel Flugzeug Werke
The Beginning of EHFW’s Turbojet Work
The Inexorable Expansion of EHFW’s Turbojet Program
New Prospects for von Ohain
ConclusionChapter 4. The Construction of a Hero
The Jet Story Enters the Public Domain
Publicity after the First Press Release
Relations between the British Government and Its Inventor-Hero
New Medium, Old Story
The First Academic Histories
Historiographical Success
The German Challenge
Birth of the Dual-Inventor Narrative in the United States
The Jet and the Rebirth of the History of German Aviation
Professionals Borrow the Tale
ConclusionConclusion. The Jet Engine and Innovation
Appendix A. Power Jets Ltd., Schedule of Shareholders, November 1, 1943
Appendix B. Air Ministry Jet Publicity (1944–45)
First press release, January 6, 1944
Second press release, September 27, 1944
Third press release, February 28, 1945Appendix C. Engine Comparison Table
Archives Consulted

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