In both countries jet engine started in mostly academic theoretical studies in the 1920s, but individual scientists, working completely independent of each other, performed the practical development in the 1930s. There were two key figures in this story. In England the pioneer was Frank Whittle, a military pilot and an engineer; in Germany it was Hans von Ohain, a young physics student. Both came up with the same design: the centrifugal-flow jet turbine. In this engine a compressor fan compressed air into several combustion cans arranged around it. There the air was mixed with fuel spray, ignited and the hot gases blown to the rear created the engine’s thrust. These gases also propelled a turbine that was connected to the compressor. This design was relatively simple to implement with the technological know-how of the mid 30s, especially because similar design was already used in superchargers that improved the performance of piston engines.
Whittle and his company Power Jets made good progress with the engine, but his work suffered from lack of official or corporate support. In simple modern words, he found no investor for his startup project and on the day WWII broke out, he had only 10 people on his company’s payroll. He continued his work while desperately seeking financing and state support. The stress caused by uncertainty regarding the future of his work took a heavy toll from his health at that time.
Heinkel and Ohain made it first easily to the finish line. On August 27, 1939 the first jet propelled aircraft in history – the He 178 – took to the air for the first time.
Once again, German designers fared better. The Reich’s Ministry of Aviation fully realized the potential of jet propulsion after the demonstration of the He 178 and ordered massive R&D of jet engines, focusing on the axial-flow design. Due to different reasons, jet engine development moved from Heinkel to BMW and Jumo, who started working on their respective axial-flow designs.
At this point the British were legging behind in technology, but were ahead in production. They continued developing the more reliable centrifugal-flow design. While Rolls Royce experienced problems with the original W.2 engine – now called Welland – it succeeded in improving it and turning it into its own reliable Derwent. By sticking to proven technology the British were able to start series production of jet engines at about the same time as the Germans. In fact, the first operational jet aircraft squadron in history was the Royal Air Force’s 616 Squadron with Welland powered Gloster Meteor I fighters. It was declared operational on July 12, 1944. The Meteor I was replaced in early 1945 by the Derwent powered Meteor III. The Derwent design was so successful that it remained in service for many years after the end of WWII.
About the author: Dr. Daniel Uziel researches different aspects of modern German history, military history, and war and media. In recent years he is researching the history of the German aviation industry. He conducted part of this research as a fellow at the US National Air & Space Museum.