Tying Up Some Loose Ends

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may have noticed I leave a lot of notes such as “I may write on this in future” or “more on this in future”. However, if you are an observant reader, you may also have noticed that at no point have I actually written up any of the things I  promised to. Today I hope to remedy the situation.

The first item on the list comes from the second article I wrote, concerning what I believe to be the Golden Era of British Railways. I promised to write of the great hopes of investment the various railways had before WW2, which were dashed by that terrible clash.

One big campaign during the late 1930s was for a “fair deal” for the railways. You see, during this period, they were considered Common Carriers – that is, they had to carry anything they were asked to, by law. This meant that all kinds of awkward loads, however expensive or difficult to transport, would have to be transported, as long as they could somehow be fitted into the loading gauge. Suffice to say, road hauliers were under no such obligations, and the war meant that the military needed to transport all kinds of things anyways.

So if freight was unlikely to make more money, what of passengers? Well, the main hope was new technology. All four of the big railways at the time used steam engines almost exclusively, despite new diesel and electric technology being available. Steam engines were (and are) expensive, labour intensive and dirty. Various railways had various ideas for how to solve this problem.

The London & North Eastern saw the future in electric traction (and indeed after the war one main line was done) and their Chief Mechanical Engineer (one Sir Nigel Gresley) designed electric locomotives before he died. The London, Midland & Scottish went another way and experimented extensively with diesels, particularly diesel electrics (where a diesel generator generates electricity to power motors which drive the wheels). The Southern already had an established programme of third-rail electrification, and this system still survives across wide areas of the south of England, as well as experimenting with diesel electrification. The Great Western decided (inevitably) to be different and ordered gas turbine locomotives from Switzerland, which, to cut a long story short, turned out to be rubbish when they arrived after the war.

The very next article, about 1950s British aviation (and its incredibly ambitious nature), I mentioned that flying below the radar might be a good way of combatting Soviet surface-to-air missiles and that it was indeed tried. Ultimately, this aircraft (unlike many designs of the era) did actually fly, and it was billed not just as a V Bomber replacement but also as a replacement for another bomber, the English Electric Canberra, a much earlier jet bomber. It was called the Tactical Strike & Reconnaissance 2, or TSR 2 for short. This was also the only aircraft to be recommended for development after the 1957 Defence White Paper.

This aircraft had a troubled development history, as it was designed by the fledgling British Aircraft Corporation, or BAC (they did love their acronyms). BAC was formed by the merging of several smaller aircraft firms, the idea being to make the British aviation industry more efficient. Unfortunately this meant that rather than having a small team of expert designers there were now huge unmanageable committees who all thought they were important. English Electric’s aircraft division, the only British company to have yet built a supersonic aircraft (the famous Lightning), had their former staff given senior positions, much to everyone else’s annoyance.

Despite the difficulty, the resulting aircraft was a world beater. First flying in 1964, it had an on board computer, autopilot, a head-up display and terrain following radar. Attention to detail was obsessive; the canopy glass was coated in gold alloy to reflect the light from a nuclear blast. It would have been easily capable of Mach 2, had it ever been tested up to that speed, but sadly the project was cancelled in April 1965 by a Labour government keen to reduce costs. It was thought that Britain could purchase American F-111s instead, but these failed to materialise.

In my defence of Dr. Beeching, I mentioned, but failed to elaborate on, the modernisation plan of 1955. To cut a very long story short, the plan was to replace steam completely on Britain’s railways with diesel and electric traction. It was incredibly expensive, and, while there were some notable successes (including electrifying a good chunk of the West Coast Main Line and introducing the mighty 3000 hp Deltics on the East Coast) large parts of the plan were mismanaged, and many lines, even with cheaper diesels, were never going to make money anyways.

I did mention the Fairey Delta 2 in an article about Concorde. Alas, this one will have to be further postponed until I do some more research. The basic facts of the matter were already in the article and I see no real need to repeat them here, but you might be interested to know that it utilised a Rolls Royce Avon engine, which the English Electric Lightning also used (although the Lightning had 2).

In an article concerning new bi-mode trains, I did mention the nationalisation debate. This too will have to be postponed for a better thought out and researched post, but suffice to say that I:

a) Think the debate has been framed poorly, due to the various actors in the railways at the moment and

b) Am not in favour

An article on Luftwaffe logistics brought up the Messerschmitt Me262 and Me 163. We’ll start with the 163, the rocket-propelled one. As previously mentioned, the fuel was hypergolic, but, as not previously mentioned, the fuels reacted extremely quickly. So quickly, in fact, that the engine only lasted about 6 minutes in service, perhaps 8 on a good day. The fastest fighter of World War 2 would then have to glide very slowly back to base where it was very vulnerable to attack by Allied fighters (insert curb your meme music here). Not that the speed helped. Only 9 aircraft fell victim of the Me 163 Komet, in its war career of nearly a year.

The Me 262 was an incredibly advanced aircraft for the time. It had swept wings (though not really swept enough to make a practical difference), axial flow jet engines (the kind we still use today, not the centrifugal flow ones the British used at the time). Messerschmitt’s finest also came with a pair of leading edge slats, that would automatically deploy (this was just clever aerodynamics, there were no computers here) below a certain speed, to make landing easier. While this was very clever, it was also a huge disadvantage when the Allies got wind of the slow speeds when coming into land. They sent piston engine fighters after them (notably the new British Hawker Tempest) which could tear the German jets to shreds, which in turn meant the Germans ringed their airfields with a quite ludicrous number of anti-aircraft guns. German piston-engine fighters were also brought in to deal with this new threat. I think you can probably tell that all this was an enormous waste of resources and further worsened the war situation for the Nazis, despite the revolutionary new technology (another possible curb your meme).

All this brings me, and consequently you, up to date. I can only assume that if you’re reading this you are either looking for an insomnia cure, or you’ve been on the edge of your seat waiting for all these posts I’ve promised, and are now disappointed that it’s all come out as a kind of horrid, tasteless mismatch. Ah well, you’ve read it now, you’re never getting those minutes back.




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