EMMETT SULLIVAN: And welcome back. Now, we’re talking about the RAF in the early Cold War period. And one of the clear and most obvious transformations of the RAF is the move away from piston engine technology to the Jet Age. And as we look forward, there’s a Meteor Mark 8 behind us; we’re standing in front of a de Havilland Vampire. In the far distance, the RAF’s first jet bomber, the Canberra. Now Ross, in terms of the development, the Meteor flew in the Second World War. How much of an innovation technically did it represent over its piston-engined compatriots?
ROSS MAHONEY: In terms of simple speed, by the time was introduced in 1944, it is not necessarily a huge jump. It’s got better performance. It’s got better acceleration– fly higher, fly faster. So there are improvements. But late Mark Spitfires, Tempest II that we stood in front before, the P-51 Mustang, for example, are high-performance piston-engine fighters. The difference is that they’re at the end of their technological limitation. The piston-engine fighters would not go much more than 450 towards 500 miles an hour. They can go faster in a dive, but they don’t very often do that. Whereas the jet engine illustrates the potential to go faster, further, higher. So the potentiality is greater.
So the introduction of the Meteor is that step forward. It comes into service in 1944, with Number 616 Squadron. It’s initially used in the campaign against V1s. And then the squadron is deployed out to Europe in the final stages of the war in Germany. At the same time, the Vampire that is behind us is introduced in 1945, 1946, is slightly different design. It’s a single-engine design compared to the Meteor, which is twin engine. The Vampires, being a very successful design, evolves into the Venom and is primarily used in RAF service as a fighter bomber, and is widely exported, as is the Meteor. But they represent a step forward in technology.
Of course, as we develop, we see the jet engine equip the Canberra as a bomber. Jet engines eventually equip transport aircraft and the the introduction of the jet is one of those– historians dislike the term– turning points in the technological history of the RAF.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now, I think one of the important things that I find interesting in these sort of developments is if we look in the milestones of flight or the prototype Meteor is juxtaposed, cheek by jowl, almost, with the Messerschmitt ME 262. And I’m just interested to think about the comparative development of those two aircraft during the Second World War. The Meteor is the starting point. But did the Messerschmitt embody any other technical innovations that the Meteor really didn’t?
ROSS MAHONEY: Well, one of things that’s probably the key difference– there’s some difference in terms of the engines. Though, of course, as much as the German engines were quite advanced, there were production difficulties with materials, which caused major problems for the development of the aircraft. The other thing is it essentially has a swept wing, in terms of the leading edge of the wing is swept at an angle, which means it can go faster. And when the Western Allies capture lots of German technology at the end of the war, one of the things that really interested them, especially aircraft designers, is this swept-wing designs, and how they’re used.
And eventually, aircrafts in America, such as the F-86 Sabre and the MiG-15 in the Soviet Union, and eventually in the 1950s, the Supermarine Swift and the Hawker Hunter all have swept-wing designs, because it means aircraft can go faster. The Meteor has essentially a straight wing, which means it creates more drag, which means it can’t go as fast. But the RAF at least were getting a jet engine. They were gaining experience with jet engines and jet-engined aircraft, which the Americans experiment– they have prototypes– but they don’t introduce into active service. Now RAF at least gains that experience. And of course, we could do an entire course on why the German jet and advanced weapons projects don’t work.
There is a very key reason. One is Hitler. And then there are the major problems of production, as I’ve mentioned earlier. There are several issues with the engine on the 262, which means it’s good engine, but there are production issues, which don’t necessarily affect the RAF per se.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: And flowing on from that, the Vampire behind us has a particular design feature. But it’s a single-engine jet. What was the logic of taking the Vampire forward as a second jet within the RAF?
ROSS MAHONEY: The RAF has a history of essentially commissioning two aircraft at a time. Think of the Spitfire and the Hurricane. They’re developed at the same time. Post Meteor and Vampire, we were seeing Supermarine Swift and Hawker Hunter. There are two aircraft. It is ensuring that you’ve got designs that work. And both designs work. Actually, it ends up being a very effective design. So both aircraft are widely exported, and are very successful, and equip a number of RAF squadrons, both in the UK and Germany.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: And just in terms of your comment about exporting, one of the things the British government was criticised for in 1945 was effectively giving the Americans the patents for the jet engine design at the time, given how indebted the country was. But that wasn’t the only export of engine technology that the British government was involved with.
ROSS MAHONEY: No, unfortunately, the Derwent 5, which powers the Meteor, is a downscaled version of the Rolls Royce developed an engine called the Nene. And the problem is that the Soviets reverse-engineer it. It goes on to power the MiG-15, which aircrafts such as the Sabre and Fleet AIr Arm Sea Furies will come up against in the Korean War, and is the basis for many Soviet jet engines quite early on, and helps the Soviets catch up quite significantly in jet engine technology. They’ve learned a lot from the Germans, but they also learned from us. And we look back at it now, and suggest that it’s a very stupid thing to have done.
But I suspect the belief was that this will help. The reality was that it didn’t.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Thank you, Ross. We’ll end this segment now on that particular aspect of technological transfer. But we will pick up this discussion about the Vampire, the Venom and the Canberra in the next segment.