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The Race for Hitler's X-Planes
Britain's 1945 Mission to Capture Secret Luftwaffe Technology
By John Christopher
The History PressCopyright © 2013 John Christopher
All rights reserved.
A VERY BRITISH AFFAIR
IN JUNE 1945 London still wore its wartime scars like an old and shabby coat. The rubble-strewn bomb sites, where the walls of ruined buildings looked out like eyeless skulls, had become a familiar part of everyday life for its inhabitants. The euphoria of VE Day, a little over a month earlier on 8 May, had already faded and many just wanted to forget about the war and start rebuilding their lives instead. For most Londoners 12 June 1945 was just another day. They may have read in the newspapers that 'Ike', General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, was in town to be awarded the Order of Merit by the King and presented with the Freedom of the City at the Guildhall, but nobody cast a second glance at the cars taking Sir Roy Fedden and his newly assembled team of scientists and engineers on the short journey across London from the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) offices at Cooks House in Stratton Street, just off Piccadilly, to RAF Northholt.
Situated on the north-western edge of the city, within the Borough of Hillingdon, Northolt had played an important part in the defence of the capital. Before the war it had been the first RAF station to take delivery of Hawker Hurricanes, with No.111 Squadron receiving four in December 1937. During the Battle of Britain it had been a Sector Airfield of the No.11 Group consisting of several units, including the No.303 Polish Fighter Squadron. From 1944 the reconnaissance squadrons No.16 and No.140 operated both Spitfires and Mosquitoes from Northolt, with No.69 Squadron's Wellingtons joining them later on. It was also home to Winston Churchill's personal aircraft, a modified four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster, which was used to fly him to his meetings with the other Allied leaders. But now that the war was over and the fighter aircraft were no longer needed the future of the airfield was uncertain. The camouflage paint that had so effectively protected the various buildings from Luftwaffe attack by making them look like an extension of the houses and gardens that surrounded the airfield on two sides looked faded and was beginning to flake.
The team assembled in the Officers' Mess and Fedden briefed them on the purpose of their mission. Only a few weeks earlier Sir Stafford Cripps, the Minister of Aircraft Production, had called Fedden to his office and instructed him to lead this special mission to Germany. Unlike some of the more thoroughly prepared American teams already sifting their way through Germany, the Fedden Mission was to be a very British affair. Ostensibly its primary purpose was to visit universities, research departments and engineering works in Germany, and to earmark plant, equipment and documents that would be suitable for the new college of aeronautics which was to be established in England. Particular emphasis was to be placed on the developmental work and manufacture of the latest jet engines, as well as the wider subject of fuel injection and ignition for piston engines, and the development and manufacture of variable pitch propellers.
Fedden's team had been hastily but carefully put together from some of the finest experts in their particular fields: Dr W.J. Duncan, Professor of Aeronautics at the University College of Hull and currently seconded to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE); J.C. King of the Structural and Mechanical Engineering Department of the RAE; Flight Lieutenant A.B.P. Beeton of the Engine Department, RAE; and Bert Newport of Rotol Ltd. Organisational backup would be provided by W.J. Stern of the Control Commission for Germany – who would also act as a translator – and Wing Commander V. Cross, Liaison Officer to the Mission, who had been seconded from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in Frankfurt. The pilots flying the two RAF Dakota transport aircraft allocated to the Mission were Flight Lieutenant Reid of the RAF, and Flight Lieutenant Cheaney of the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR). And then, of course, there was Sir Roy Fedden himself.
SIR ROY FEDDEN
Alfred Hubert Roy Fedden was a formidable figure within the world of aeronautical engineering. Born on 6 June 1885, he was the third son of an eminent Bristol family that had done well for itself in the sugar business. He went to school at Clifton College in Bristol, and although he excelled at sporting activities, his academic performance failed to impress his tutors. For a while he contemplated a career in the military, the usual avenue for those labelled as underachievers, but in his heart he yearned for something more practical, something more 'useful'. Then in 1903 his father, Henry Fedden, purchased an 8.5hp two-cylinder Decauville motor car and hired a chauffeur to both drive and maintain it. The car was only the fourth to be registered in Bristol and only the fiftieth registered in the whole of the country. Typical of such early cars, it proved to be thoroughly unreliable and it struggled to cope with Bristol's notoriously steep hills. In fact it broke down so often that Fedden senior soon swapped it for another car obtained from the Bristol Motor Company. Tinkering with these vehicles proved to be the vital spark in young Roy Fedden's choice of career, and much against the expectations of his family he resolved that he would become an engineer. His father was supportive and paid for him to take a three-year apprenticeship with the Bristol Motor Company, and by night he studied automotive engineering at the technical college.
Drawing upon his experiences with the temperamental Decauville, Fedden decided to design a small-engined two-seater that could be driven and even maintained by its owner, and in 1907 he took his drawings for the Shamrock, as it was to be called, to S. Straker at the Brazil Straker car company which was based in Fishponds, Bristol. Liking what he saw, Straker agreed to build the Shamrock and he hired Fedden to head the engineering team. The Shamrock was very well received when unveiled at the London Motor Show later that year. In its production version the little 12 to 14hp four-cylinder car sold for £315, which was considerable less than most cars on offer at the time. It was soon followed by the 15hp Straker Squire with an entirely new 3-litre engine, and this proved to be a hugely successful model with around 1,300 cars sold before the outbreak of the First World War.
In June 1914 Fedden made his first trip over to Germany, primarily to obtain car components from the Bosch engineering company, but it was a chance encounter at Mercedes that was to set his engineering career on a new course. As he later recalled:
I remember visiting the German Mercedes factory on motor car business, and seeing, what to me at that date, were very large numbers – actually about fifty – of the 75hp six-cylinder in-line liquid cooled aero engines, all lined up in one shop.
So impressed was he by the sight that upon his return he persuaded the directors of Brazil Straker to take on repair work for various aircraft engines. Among them was the American-built OX-5, an early V-8 which powered the Curtiss aircraft being used by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) to train its new pilots. The OX-5 often proved unreliable and Fedden set about re-designing the engine with the assistance of draughtsman Leonard Butler. The company's role was soon expanded to include building Rolls-Royce aero engines; the water-cooled straight six-cylinder Hawk used to power the SSZ class of coastal patrol non-rigid airships, as well as the bigger V-12 version known as the Falcon for the Bristol Aircraft Company's F2 fighter biplane and the Falcon II and III for the twin-engined Blackburn Kangaroo reconnaissance and torpedo bomber.
Fedden and Butler also set about designing their own aircraft engine, the 300hp Mercury, which was based on an air-cooled radial configuration with the cylinders arranged like the spokes of a wheel in two staggered circles of seven. Air-cooling, it was argued, did away with the weight of the water-cooling systems which were also prone to freezing or overheating in extreme climates. With the radial design all of the connecting rods drove a single crankpin and as a result the crankshaft is shorter and stiffer than with an in-line arrangement. In general a radial air-cooled engine weighs less, has fewer components and so costs less, and performs better. The obvious disadvantage of the radial engine was an increased frontal area resulting in increased drag, but the advantages greatly outweighed this drawback. Following on from the Mercury, Fedden went on to develop the more powerful 450hp Jupiter which featured a single circle of nine cylinders. He also produced a smaller lightweight 100hp engine which was known as the Lucifer and had just three shortened Jupiter cylinders.
Early flight trials with the Mercury, and the Jupiter in particular, were very encouraging but the engines had come on the scene too late to enter wartime production, and the financially struggling Brazil Straker company was purchased by an Anglo-American financial group and re-branded as the Cosmos Engineering Company. With all war work drying up Cosmos went into liquidation and was sold to the Bristol Aeroplane Company (BAC) in July 1920 to form the basis of their new Engine Department at Filton airfield on the northern outskirts of Bristol. At BAC Fedden was given the opportunity and the financial backing to continue with the development of the Bristol Jupiter, as the Jupiter was renamed, to its full potential. But BAC had underestimated the engine's phenomenal commercial success when they agreed to pay him a commission on each and every one sold, and as a result Roy Fedden swiftly became the most famous and, in all likelihood, the highest-paid engineer in Britain.
For Fedden the reliability of the Jupiter was paramount. Through extensive testing on rigs as well as on aircraft, any flaws were ironed out. Failed engines would be dismantled and minutely scrutinised to discover the cause, and the failed parts added to Fedden's black museum for future reference. In one exercise six Jupiter engines were disassembled and the parts mixed up and reassembled to confirm the interchangeability of the components. Furthermore, a continuous programme of development and a succession of new models saw improvements both in terms of the Jupiter's reliability and its power output; increasing from 400hp on the early engines up to 500hp on later versions. The Jupiter was widely regarded as the best aero engine in the world for many years from the mid-1920s and well into the early 1930s. Over 7,000 Jupiter engines were built and they were fitted on so many different aircraft, 262 different types in total, that it is hard to single out any particular one. They powered seventeen of BAC's own aircraft, including the famous Bristol Bulldog fighter, plus a host of others produced by manufacturers such as de Havilland, Fairey, Gloster, Handley Page, Short, Supermarine, Vickers and Westland. Then there were the high-profile long-distance airliners, the Handley Page HP.42 and HP.45, eight of which were operated by Imperial Airways on its European services during the 1930s. The HP.42 was fitted with four Bristol Jupiter XIFs of 490hp each while the HP.45, intended for much longer distances, had the more powerful supercharged XFBM 555hp model.
The Fedden and Butler team also produced several successors to the Jupiter. The first of these was the Bristol Mercury, a revival of the old Cosmos Mercury name, followed by the Pegasus. Launched in 1932, both featured the familiar radial configuration, this time with nine cylinders each, and had superchargers to improve performance at altitude. The Bristol Mercury had shorter cylinders to reduce the frontal area and was intended primarily for the RAF's fighter aircraft, whereas the Pegasus was the same size as the Jupiter and was designed for bombers. Later variants of the Pegasus could produce 1,000hp and the long list of famous Pegasus-powered aircraft includes the twin-engined Bristol Blenheim light bomber, the Vickers Wellesley, early versions of the Vickers Wellington, as well as the Short Empire and Sunderland flying boats.
With a general increase in aircraft size and with it an ever-growing demand for more power, Fedden and Butler turned to the sleeve valve for their next engines. This mechanism consists of a thin tube, or 'sleeve', which sits between the cylinder and the cylinder wall and either rotates or slides so that holes in the sleeve align with the cylinder's inlet and outlet ports. In theory this promised an improvement over the conventional poppet valve system which was considered to have run its course. In practice, however, the sleeves had to be immensely strong and capable of resisting high temperatures, and needed to be made with enormous precision. The direct result of this move to sleeve valves was a whole family of new engines which emerged from Bristol. The Mercury became the Bristol Aquila and the Pegasus was reborn as the Perseus with power outputs in the 500hp to 900hp range. From these grew even more powerful engines with two-row cylinder configurations. The various Taurus models produced 985hp to 1,060hp, the Hercules managed 1,290hp to 1,735hp, while the Centaurus, which was developed from the Hercules, achieved a massive 2,520hp by the latter stages of the Second World War. (It was the Centaurus, or at least eight of them, that would power the huge post-war Bristol Brabazon into the air when it flew for the first time on 4 September 1949.)
The success of the Bristol aero engines, especially the Jupiter, was not confined to the home market. The Jupiter was also licence-built in seventeen other countries including the USA, Japan, the Soviet Union and, significantly, in Germany. In 1924 Ernst Heinkel won the first all-round Germany race, the Rundflug, with a Bristol-engined aircraft. Dornier had produced a number of flying boats powered by Jupiter engines, including the mammoth Do.X which was fitted with twelve Siemens-built Jupiter engines when it first flew in July 1929.
Naturally these overseas business interests enabled Fedden to establish very close working relationships with many of the leading figures within the German aviation community. During the 1920s this had mainly come about through the regular appearance of the German engineers at the Bristol Aircraft Company's Engine Department in Filton, including visitors from the Heinkel, Dornier and Junkers companies. In turn Fedden made several trips to the German companies in the years leading up to the Second World War. Later, in 1945, he wrote candidly about these pre-war relationships and how he came to be highly respected by his German counterparts, not only for his undoubted engineering prowess, but also because he was a man they had come to trust:
Herr Koch, chief engineer of the Rohrbach Company, came to Bristol on several occasions and stayed with me. Later he became a prominent Nazi, had a great deal to do with the training of German aircraft engineering personnel, and organised and built the great Heinkel bomber factory at Oranienburg. I believe I was the first Englishman to be taken over to this plant.
On the political front one of his most significant contacts was Erhard Milch. A squadron commander in the First World War, Milch had been a founding director of Deutsche Luft Hansa in 1926 (known as Deutsche Lufthansa from January 1931 onwards). 'He paid several visits to Bristol, stayed with me, and kept up a correspondence on certain of my papers afterwards,' recalled Fedden. In 1933 Milch became Under Secretary of State of the newly formed Reichsluftministerium (RLM), the German Aviation Ministry, answering directly to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. In 1939 Milch was also appointed as Inspector General of the new Luftwaffe and in 1942 became Head of Air Armament. Two years later, after failing to oust the increasingly maverick Göring, he re-emerged in a new role as deputy to Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister of Armaments and War Production.
Another distinguished signature in the Bristol visitors' book was Ernst Udet's. Germany's second-highest scoring ace of the First World War, Udet subsequently became the head of aeronautical research and development under the Nazi regime and was once described by Fedden as the mainspring of the Luftwaffe. (Udet committed suicide in November 1941, a fact unknown to Fedden at the time of his German Mission because Udet's sudden death had been explained by the German authorities as the result of an unfortunate accident during the testing of a new aircraft.)
Excerpted from The Race for Hitler's X-Planes by John Christopher. Copyright © 2013 John Christopher. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Spoils of War,
1. A Very British Affair,
2. The Reich in Ruins,
3. Wings of Change,
4. Entering the Jet Age,
5. Pistons and Props,
6. Dispersal of Production,
7. A Vision of Hell,
8. Hitler's Smart Bombs,
9. Ingenuity and Desperation,
11. Captured Aircraft,
12. Secrets by the Thousands,
Appendix 1: Itinerary of the Fedden Mission to Germany, 1945,
Appendix 2: Captured Jet and Rocket Aircraft Removed by the Allies,