The end of the war thrust Britain, the Allies and the Soviets straight into an arms race to develop the fastest jet fighter. Flying at supersonic speed, breaking the sound barrier, was the ultimate objective. It was as important to all three nations as the space race was to prove ten years later.Read More
Before the story starts in Close to the Enemy Callum (played by Jim Sturgess) has worked with Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine. As a very young man, Callum had seen how Whittle was frustrated in developing his invention by the indifference shown by the Air Ministry. Callum therefore knows at first hand the devastating price Britain paid for this extraordinary missed chance.
In 1929, Frank Whittle, a commissioned officer of 22, felt reasonably confident of making a convincing case for a concept of his own, a potential revolution in aviation technology that could put Britain years ahead of its likely enemies. He was a jet engine pioneer who developed the initial idea of the jet engine using a gas turbine to produce a propelling jet. The Air Ministry rejected Whittle’s design as totally impractical and carried on ordering traditional planes with basic propellers. Whittle was bitterly disappointed at this rejection. However, despite having the door slammed in his face, he was urged by RAF colleagues to apply for a patent which he filed on January 16, 1930.
In October 1932, when the patent was granted, full specifications were published around the world and German diplomats in London wasted no time in ordering copies of the patent. Whittle’s patent expired in 1935 because the Air Ministry refused to pay for its renewal, and he couldn’t afford to do so at £5.
In 1936 in Germany, Herbert Wagner and Hans von Ohain independently and in secret began development of their own turbojet proposals. The British Air Ministry only realised as late as 1939 that Whittle’s design was feasible, at which point the German Air Force had been developing designs and testing for three years.
The first British jet engine propelled plane few into combat as late as 1944.
The continuing stress caused by all the obstacles Whittle had encountered caused him to have a nervous breakdown in the same year.
In the end, the jet engine played no significant role in the war. By the time jets were in operational use it was too little, too late. Hans von Ohain later said, “If the British experts had had the vision to back Whittle, World War II would probably never have happened. Hitler would have doubted the Luftwaffe’s ability to win.”
Stephen Poliakoff has long been obsessed with the secret history of Britain in the 20th century. His latest work, Close to the Enemy, looks at the clandestine work of the secret service after the end of the Second World War.
Historian and broadcaster David Reynolds talks to Poliakoff about the inspiration behind Close to the Enemy, as well as the always tricky relationship between history and fiction.Read More