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Post by Stanley » 23 Jul 2016, 03:29


(Evidence of John Howlett who was a member of a committee advising the Ministry of Aircraft Production)

Cripps was undoubtedly as aware as I was of what our little piece of paper would mean to those fifty people, and of the disruption in their living it would cause. And I think he was as sympathetic to them as I was, though he didn't have my close experience of the way men work when they enjoy it and their life is decent and their own. But he was placed, as I thank God I wasn't, close to the necessities of the men who were running the whole thing, and he had his duty to them to do. I admired him and I never had a battle with him, not a real battle, though I know one man who did and who won. It was Hives [Later Lord Hives of RR], and when he told me about it I saw that he had brought Cripps to take an engineer's decision on the point at issue, not by logical arguments about engineering, though those had helped, but by a sincere and passionate emotional appeal which Hives couldn't help and which Cripps couldn't ignore. And for that I admire them both.

The interview took place late in 1942, during the time when it was realised that our whole programme for the development of jet aircraft would have to be re-examined. Neither the Government nor private enterprise had recognised early enough the value of Air Commodore Whittle's invention, and during the time since he had first patented and published it in 1930 Germany and the firm of Ernst Heinkel had shot ahead of us. As it had become aware of the facts, the Air Ministry had tried to rectify the situation by helping Power Jets develop its Chairman's engine by ordering the Gloster Aircraft Company to produce a suitable aircraft, and then by investing one and a half million in the shadow factory at Barnoldswick where Rover's in collaboration with Power Jets were to build the W2B. As a further step, Dr Roxbee Cox's Gas Turbine Collaboration Committee had been formed to ensure that all the firms working on various projects pooled their information and maintained good relationships with one another. It had been running for over a year now, in the shape which Hives had suggested. and it had been running well. But the W2B showed no signs of coming into production and Hives, along with many others, was worried.

You must remember that Hives was an expert, that his reasons for worrying were informed with the experience he'd gained in working himself up from being a man with a cycle shop in Reading to being the Managing Director and Chairman of Rolls-Royce. It is also as well to bear in mind that at this time his anxiety had been sharpened by the loss of someone very dear to him, and he was convinced that that particular death in the skies over Germany would not have happened had our enemies not been our superior in the development of the jet

So the whole matter had become very urgent and personal to him. He wanted to work this death off, to put his energy into tackling the problem of finding a steel alloy that could take the heat. He knew that Rolls could do it and felt frustrated that it was not allowed to do so. He felt as well that if England with the skill and experience of his firm to call on, chose not to make that call then it was England who was culpable.

He said as much to Cripps. The Minister replied 'But we do ask for help from Rolls-Royce, we do appreciate your resources. Last June we asked you to adapt Dr Griffith's gas turbine as a jet propulsion unit and now that the flight tests of the F9/40 are going ahead we can safely say that you've made a most valuable contribution.'

'But we could contribute so much more, sir, if we only had the chance.'

'No doubt,' said Cripps. 'The matter is under revision.'

'May I say, sir, that it's been under revision a long time now. Nearly three years ago Frank Whittle himself said that we'd be good at the job and that our firms got on well together. Last April our name was suggested again.'

'It was not suggested to me,' Cripps said. 'I was not in office then.'

'No sir. But if the Director of Scientific Research considered us fit to undertake the research and production his opinion must surely carry some weight. Lord knows I'm not saying anything against Rover, sir, but they've not got the experience of Rolls. We're the ones who could cope with the W2B for you if we were in charge.'

'Mr Hives,' broke in Cripps, 'I have already told you that the matter is under review. I am therefore not at liberty to discuss it with you. But I will tell you this much; I want a certain number of engines from your firm every week and I won't disturb the work of one man who is making them. I can't permit your basic production to be interfered with.'

'Well, I'm sorry, Sir Stafford, but you're wrong,' said Hives. 'It wouldn't make any difference to our production of those engines, our output would stay the same.' 'I can't accept that,' said Cripps, 'I've been here now long enough to see that kind of assertion proved false too often.'

'Then it's not been made by Rolls-Royce. You know the firm, sir. You've got to admit we could do it. No one could do it better or quicker than we could. No one but us should be in charge at Barnoldswick.'

Sir Stafford Cripps seemed to go very formal and distant at that point-as well he might I should think-and Hives realised that the interview was at an end. It had taken a lot out of him, saying what he'd had to say and he knew he'd done it badly and with none of his usual finesse. For a minute, as he pulled himself to his feet and reached for his hat he was a tired, ageing man with too much bulk for his bones to carry and cigarette ash on his waistcoat. But then it came back to him, the reason why it mattered, and he could feel the anger in his fingers on the door, and because he was angry he was strong again and desperate. 'But people are dying needlessly!' he said. 'It's wrong, I tell you. It's stupid and it's wrong, and I won't let it go on like this. There should be questions in Parliament about it, headlines in the papers. The world should know that this country is making a mistake, and I shall see to it that the world does know, I shall see to it myself! We've got to have jets or more people will be killed. And they're young.'

He blundered out of the door, but Cripps said, 'Come back, Hives. 1 don't think we can afford to fall out, you and I' He shuffled his papers about while Hives got hold of himself and then looked up and said, quite casually,

'What can I do?'

'Everything,' said Hives.

On 1 January, 1943, Rolls-Royce engineers were at Barnoldswick, and three months later the company took over the facilities and organisation there and the responsibility for producing the W2B and W2/500 engines. Hives' interview with Cripps may have played no part in bringing this about. Cripps may have been already planning to ease the burden from Rover who had probably already indicated that they were ready for it to go. Those in favour of Rolls-Royce taking over included Cripps' Chief Executive, Air Marshal Sir Wilfred Freeman, and his Controller of Research and Development, and doubtless their opinions counted most with Cripps. But I like to believe that Hives' final appeal may have helped Cripps to see the issue in terms of the young men who flew the planes and that he remembered these things when he came to take his decision. And I like to think that he did it to save lives. For that must always be our common ground. Politicians may not understand an engineer talking of engineering, they may not permit him to talk of politics or to try to understand the expediencies of their craft, but when it comes down to a question of deaths that can be prevented, the politician and engineer alike must speak the same language.

And it stands to reason that, where deaths can be attributed directly to a flaw in a particular aircraft engine, no engineer worth his salt can keep silence. Put yourself in the place of a man convinced that he knows why that flaw occurs and how it could be rectified, a man who had no son to lose but who was involved in the bereavements of his friends, and judge whether or not I was speaking out of turn when I taxed the Minister with my knowledge.

I was certain of my facts; my chief engineer had paid several visits to Napier's factory and had been surprised to see them punching holes in the cast iron sleeve. To the foreman he'd made the comment that Bristol, who had developed the sleeve valve engine, always machined the holes very carefully; it took longer, of course, but the finish was a better job altogether.

'Oh, we'll show Bristol a thing or two before we've finished!' was the reply. Now that sort of attitude, in a firm which hasn't the experience, is rather worrying, and it didn't seem to be confined to that foreman. Bristol were mature enough to know that competition doesn't apply in wartime, and to offer any help that they could give; but the offer wasn't taken up, perhaps because Napiers, after all the troubles of getting the Sabre engine into production, felt they had to prove something.

The Air Ministry took delivery after a fifteen-hour test, eighty-five hours less than was given to a Bristol or a Rolls; and what was in fact proven, by the engine seizing up and failing again and again once it had done fifteen hours flying time, was that the Sabre was unreliable. It had to be stripped down and re-serviced every fifteen hours if it was going to do the job that it was put in the air to do. This was sheer wastage and in so far as it was a wastage of pilots' lives, it could not be countenanced. The youngsters themselves were fed up about it, and who wouldn't be, when the hurry of war might make it impossible for a servicing to be done before your next trip, and you knowing that the trip would take you beyond that critical point of fifteen hours?

So I made it my business to see that I had a talk with the Minister of Production at a time when he was in a position to see for himself both the production method and the attitude of pilots towards the Sabre engine. He was due to visit my area to tour the Napier factory and watch a display, the plane in action. The day before the visit he was to be in Oxford with a man whose name, I think, was Sir John Henry Wood and someone else, doing business for Churchill at Magdelen College, so I suggested that the three of them should come to Abingdon when they left Oxford and spend the night at Fyfield Manor.

After dinner I put my case to Oliver Lyttelton and the others, as plainly and as forcefully as I could: the sleeves were punched; they seized fifteen hours or so after a service; the Sabre engine was killing people. For all that it was so powerful -more powerful than Rolls' engines at that time -and for all the desperate shortage of new planes it was not wise to fit this engine. Sir John Henry Wood was interested, he questioned me closely, he took up the implications of my answers, he tried to see things from the point of view of an engineer.

The next morning we were at Napiers, being shown round by Sir James Spriggs. During the tour of inspection I became just one of the Minister's retinue-I couldn't very well jog his arm and say, 'Look what they are doing on this machine,' but out on the aerodrome I stepped forward. The pilot who was to put the plane through its paces was brought up to say his piece and I was determined that his attitude towards the engine should at least have a hearing. And so, when Spriggs had asked the pilot what he thought of the plane and the pilot had said that it went like a bird, I pulled Lyttelton's arm and said, 'And the engine, sir?'

He said to the pilot, 'The engine? Are you satisfied with that?'

The pilot looked at Sir James Spriggs for a prompting, and Sir James Spriggs looked at the ground. I thought the question was going to get the treatment of all importunate questions that are never heard in polite society, but finally the pilot found his voice.

'Well, sir,' he said, 'If it's not done more than fifteen hours since it was serviced, I would say it was a good engine.'

'All right, Smith, the balloons are down,' said Spriggs. 'Show the Minister the plane.'

And the boy, having spoken out for himself and for all the other boys of his kind, walked smartly across the runway and climbed into the cockpit. He gave us a splendid show, and on the strength of it Lyttelton said to me as we were walking back,

'Well, Howlett, I thought last night that you were a pessimist. He spoke expansively, a man who was sure of his ground and sure, too, that the plane he had seen perform was a winner. I had to put him right, I couldn't help myself.

'I'm just an engineer, sir. And I'm sorry, but if you were my sort of engineer-not an industrialist, but a man who had worn dirty overalls-then you would take notice of what the pilot said.'

Now that, of course, was awkward, verging on the impertinent, and I could see my mistake in its effect on Lyttelton's expression. I didn't mind for myself, but I minded for the pilots, and I had to get this across to him if it cost me my job. 'May I put it to you this way, sir,' I said. 'If you bought a Rolls in London and drove it to Edinburgh or Glasgow, and found that it had to be serviced before you could drive it back again, you wouldn't think it was a good motor-car, would you?'

'I see what you mean,' he said.

'If it doesn't get that service the sleeve valve is very likely to seize up and the pilot's in trouble. They deserve engines they can rely on, and Bristol is the only firm that knows how to make a reliable sleeve valve engine. To learn how to make one that doesn't distort they spent months researching and perfecting their production method, and they are the firm who should be making sleeves for this Napier engine. Believe me, sir, it's only you or Churchill that could intervene and give the job to Bristol, and I'd pester Churchill to do it if I could get at him.'

'Yes, I believe you might,' said the Minister of Production.

It hadn't gone down very well with him, as I was told by a member of his staff later, and as I deduced from a visit that Norman Ripping paid me soon afterwards. 'The next time you send in your resignation, John, it'll be accepted,' he said. I'd resigned in a token sort of way over office accommodation before and been told that there was to be no nonsense and that I must carry on.

[From ‘The Guv’nor’ the privately published memoir of John Howlett who founded the Wellworthy Piston Ring Company. (pp. 283-289)]
Stanley Challenger Graham
Stanley's View
scg1936 at

"Beware of certitude" (Jimmy Reid)
The floggings will continue until morale improves!

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