Nearly a Meteor, almost a Thunderbolt, this is a jet on the Rampage!
It was August, 1940, and what was to become known as the Battle of Britain – one of the most pivotal battles in the history of warfare – had been raging across the southern half of the country (with occasional forays into the north) for more than 3 months. The Royal Air Force had its back to the wall, facing the might of the Luftwaffe, outnumbered, outgunned, with no possible re-inforcements available. At the very moment when the country needed every single aircraft in the shape of Spitfires and Hurricanes, the Chief Designer of the Gloster Aircraft Company, Mr George Carter, approached the Air Ministry in London – who could have been forgiven for being rather preoccupied thanks to bombs falling all over the capital – and offered the Royal Air Force a design for a new interceptor fighter, to be powered by two of the revolutionary new jet engines.
Doubtless the fact that Glosters were heavily involved in the production of the Hawker Hurricane under license was brought up. Carter, who had schemed with the then Squadron Leader Frank Whittle. the great engineer who had developed the first British turbojet, the Whittle W.1, to build Britain’s first jet aircraft the Gloster E.28/39 was a natural to design the next stage – a viable jet fighter. The E.28/39 (first flight, 15th May, 1941) had been designed with the capability of carrying four machineguns, but no armed version was ever built. The Air Ministry was cautious, however, and insisted on a series of experimental prototypes before proceeding to a full-blown operational fighter. Consequently, a contract was drawn up for a series of 12 ‘Gloster-Whittle Inceptors’, to be built to Specification F.9/40, and issued on 7th February, 1941. Please note that this was three months BEFORE the experimental Gloster E.28/39 had even taken to the air!
Carter worked on the prototype fighters, which were intended to fly with many different types of jet engine so as to build up jet experience; in the end only 8 were built out of the 12 aircraft ordered due to the progress made. A short, broad-chord wing was chosen to carry the two turbojets, as the power being produced was only about 1,000 lb of thrust from each engine (by comparison, the Rolls-Royce Merlin in a early Spitfire produced the equivalent of 700 lb of thrust at the propeller).The wing design meant that the aircraft (named Meteor by the Ministry of Aircraft Production in February, 1942) should be quite maneuverable, but would suffer in terms of range, not a good idea with the early jets which were VERY thirsty!
Here we see the very first of the F.9/40 series, DG202/G. It is shown at the RAF Museum, Cosford, but is now exhibited in the ‘Milestones of Flight’ Gallery at the RAF Museum, Hendon. It is painted in a typical 1942 colour scheme for prototype or ‘second line’ aircraft, namely Dark Green and Dark Earth over Roundel Yellow. You can see the ports for the intended armament of four 20mm Hispano cannon, an armament fit which would become standard on RAF fighters until the advent of the Hawker Hunter with its 30mm ADEN cannon. The suffix letter ‘G’ on the serial indicates that this was a very secret aircraft, and when on the ground was to remain under armed guard at ALL TIMES.
The engines initially fitted were W.2B/23 units built under sub-contract by the automotive firm, Rover, and had been derated from 1,500 lb static thrust each to only 1,000 lb due to unreliability caused by poor quality turbine blades. As such they were ‘ground-rated’ only, allowing DG202 to undertake ground handling, taxying and systems tests. The test pilot, Flight Lieutenant ‘Gerry’ Sayer, could not resist the temptation, however, and during a series of fast runs on the 10th July, 1942, managed to keep the aircraft about six feet off the ground for a few hundred yards on several occasions! At the end of the tests, the aircraft had its engines removed and it was stored to await flight-worthy engines. During this period, the fifth F.9/40 to be built became the first to ‘officially’ fly on 5th March, 1943, on the power of two H.1 Halford turbojets of 1,500 lbs each – the Halford was one of the alternative engines being considered for the production standard aircraft. It was very fitting that this first flight took place at RAF Cranwell, the home of the Royal Air Force College.
DG202 was moved to RAF Barford St John, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, where it sadly became a ‘hangar queen’ being constantly robbed for parts to keep the others flying, a common situation with prototypes that were virtually hand-made. Finally fitted with two Rolls-Royce-built W.2B/23, a reliable unit that was eventually developed into the Rolls-Royce Welland – the start of a Rolls-Royce tradition of naming their jet engines after British rivers, a tradition that continues to this day – DG202 took to the air on the 24th July, 1943. By this time its appearance had changed. It had been repainted in late-war Dark Green and Ocean Grey (the same as on Spitfires of the period) over the customary Yellow, with a band of the RAF colour known as Sky around the fuselage to indicate that this was a fighter, along with the prototype circled ‘P’ in Yellow, and had received an improved cockpit canopy.
It is interesting to note that most F.9/40 test flights were undertaken in cloudy conditions to maintain secrecy – which must have made for interesting flying in a new jet aircraft! A long test life ensued, with some excitement; for example, on the 13th December, 1944 the port engine ‘exploded during take-off’ (such calm notes from the test pilot!). Extensive damage to the port wing and centre section was incurred, and the aircraft did not become serviceable again until 14th May, 1945 – just one week after the war in Europe ended.
There was, however, one more series of tests for DG202 to perform, and a highly unusual one for an RAF aircraft. She was flown to Abottsinch in Scotland, dismantled and reassembled onboard an escort carrier (CVE) HMS Pretoria Castle, lying in the Firth of Clyde, in order to carry out a series of trials covering deck handling, and engine running, to check if jet aircraft were suitable for carriers. These trials were satisfactorily concluded on 24 August, and it was decided that the Royal Navy could order these new-fangled devices known as jets!
There then followed a long period of storage and use as a ground instructional airframe, and a ‘gate guardian’ until someone recognized the importance of this rather ancient jet. It was restored, and placed in this very early scheme to show just what the first British jetfighters would have looked like.
What of the production standard Meteor I, you say. The first examples were issued to No. 616 (County of South Yorkshire) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Despite its name, this was a crack unit, and they quickly made the Meteor earn its keep in the campaign against the V-1 flying bomb which was creating havoc in London and the south of England during the immediate post-D-Day period. The Meteor I had a top speed of 414 mph, which meant it could overtake the flying bomb, along with late model Spitfires, Mustangs, Thunderbolts, Tempests and Mosquitos. Flight Lieutenant ‘Dixie’ Dean made the very first Allied jet kill against a V-1 on the 27th August, 1944 over Kent, when he tipped ‘his’ V-1 over using his wingtip, as his guns had jammed.
I must declare an interest at this point. When I was at RAF Finningley, I was made an Honorary Member of No 616 Squadron Association, and enjoyed many a social event in the Officers Mess with a group of VERY energetic and interesting 70 and 80 year olds! Needless to say, I used to own a print of the ‘First Kill’, signed by ‘Dixie’ Dean. 616 went on to fly armed reconnaissance missions from a Belgian base in the closing weeks of the European campaign, but, perhaps fortunately for them, did not meet any of the superb Me 262 jets of the Luftwaffe, even though they were flying the much improved Meteor III.
Oh, and the title of this diary? Meteor was the official name, finally assigned to the aircraft by the Ministry of Aircraft Production, BUT at one stage, the MAP preferred another name – Thunderbolt. They were told that this would cause some confusion, as the USAAF rather liked that name for their P-47. As to the other name, the manufacturers, Glosters, selected that as a ‘working title’ before the first flight. So, you see, the first operational Allied jet nearly went on the Rampage!