THE IRASCIBLE ENGINEER: THURSDAY 1ST OCTOBER 1942

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Above left: Roy Fedden. Above centre: George Bulman. Above right: Wilfred Freeman

8:31 a.m.

 

George Bulman walks into his office at the Ministry of Aircraft Supply in Whitehall, hangs his hat and coat on the stand and sits down at his desk. He is a busy man, yet as soon as he sees his colleague Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfred Freeman, appear around the door of his office, he puts down his pencil and devotes his full attention to him. Bulman always feels a little overawed by Freeman’s rank, honours and decorations, but they have come to trust each others judgment implicitly. Today his face is that of a deeply troubled man.

             “Sir Wilfred, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost!” Bulman says with a smile that he hopes will seem soothing, but Freeman’s frown only deepens and he purses his lips as if weighing carefully what he must say next.

            “Hullo Bulman, I’ve just got off the telephone with Fedden, he called me with some surprising news.”

           “Fedden? How is he? Working his staff to death as usual I trust?” From Freeman’s worried face Bulman quickly deduces that Roy Fedden, head of the engine department at the Bristol Aeroplane Company, has upset someone again.

            “Who has he annoyed now, how troubled are the waters and how much oil are we going to need to pour on them?”

          “I’m afraid the situation has gone rather beyond that. It seems that Sir Stanley White, the Managing Director of Bristol, has sacked him.” Bulman freezes for an instant, he sits bolt upright in his chair and looks at Freeman with a mixture of horror and disbelief.

            “Sacked him? They can’t.”

           “I’m very much afraid that they have. It seems that the board of Bristol were unanimous, there has been a clique looking to get rid of Fedden from that company for some time now.”

             Bulman slumps in his chair, then abruptly sits up again, when he speaks, he does not try to keep the annoyance from his voice; “I know he can be difficult, but they simply cannot sack him at this juncture, the continued development of the Hercules and Centaurus engines are too important to suffer any upset, not to mention the new Orion and Gemini engines...” His aggrieved voice trails off.

               Freeman looks sympathetic. “I quite agree, it puts us in a very difficult position, but the Board of Bristol have a right to make their own decisions regarding their staff.”

            “Not when it’s a matter of immediate national security they don’t. Who have they replaced him with?”

            “Norman Rowbotham.”

          “Rowbotham! He’s a good man certainly, a very good man, but he’s no Fedden, he wouldn’t be welcomed on to the shop floor and into the drawing offices of every aero engine manufacturer on the planet the way Fedden is; why the German engineers practically eat out of Fedden’s hand.”

            “I know, though he is very cool with them...”

         “Yes, but they are only too eager to show off to him, and his willingness to share whatever knowledge he has with the rest of our industry is invaluable. Napier would have had far more difficulty in solving their sleeve valve problems with the Sabre had Fedden not assisted them. Even Rolls-Royce would never have got nearly twenty-eight hundred horse power from the Griffon if Fedden hadn’t shown Hives how Junkers solved the piston speed problem with piston rods of that length. Fedden is simply irreplaceable. The work he is currently engaged in is too important to suffer this sort of interruption. The new Vickers bomber, the new naval fighter from Hawker, the torpedo bomber from Fairey, they are all dependent on Bristol engines; it’s a matter of national imperatives.” Bulman hesitates a moment, his eyes unfocused then abruptly he comes to a decision. “They must take him back, it’s as simple as that, Bristol’s board cannot be permitted to act in a manner that puts the country in danger, it’s reckless and unacceptable. We’ll nationalise them if we have to, the minister will agree with me…”

            Freeman winces, “It’s important to proceed cautiously. Meddling in who a privately owned company chooses to employ or to dismiss would be seen as overstepping our bounds. It would be a drastic step, and it would send a very disturbing message to the other engine companies and there’s the other problem of course.”

               Bulman slumps back into his chair as if beneath a fresh blow. “Another problem?”

              “Yes, Fedden is a proud man, persuading Bristol they have to take him back is one thing, getting him to actually go is another. No, he will want to start a new company, he has the energy, he will have no difficulty getting the backing, but of course I hardly need state that another engine company is the last thing we need. God knows, we’ve only just persuaded Dick Fairey to allow Rolls-Royce to take over his engine business.”

               Freeman glances at his watch. “It is still quite early. Apparently Sir Stanley, gave Fedden the news late last night, you know Fedden works till all hours, I doubt if it has got out yet, why don’t you leave this matter with me until the end of the day?”

            Bulman frowns. “Sir Wilfred, if we are going to act, we should act quickly,” he hesitates a moment, “we’ll have to make a decision by lunchtime.”

             Freeman nods. “Yes, I agree.” As he returns to his office he asks his secretary;

            “Would you get me the Minister of Labour and National Service on the telephone please.” he sits at his desk and holds the receiver against his ear. “Mister Bevin, Wilfred Freeman here, I need you to do me a favour…”

 

9:14 a.m.

 

Sir William Verdon Smith, Chairman of the Board of the Bristol Aeroplane Company stirs his morning coffee, strokes his whiskers and regards the smug countenance of Sir Stanley White, the Managing Director of Bristol, with satisfaction.

             “Well we’re rid of him at last and I must say not a minute before time.”

           Sir Stanley leans back in his chair. “Quite so Sir William; his departure is overdue. Fedden is a good engineer, certainly, but he has become quite impossible, his ego is intolerable and his arrogance without limit, I do believe the man regarded the firm as his own private fiefdom. I must confess though, I am a little worried about giving the job to Rowbotham.”

            “Nonsense Stanley, Rowbotham is quite up to it, he lacks Fedden’s charisma of course but he also lacks his arrogance, we can work with Rowbotham, the man will do as he is told - unlike Fedden.”

            Sir Stanley nods. “Getting rid of Fedden was the right decision in any case, a company such as this cannot be strapped over a barrel by one of its employees.”

            “Precisely, the matter is regrettable, but there is no help for it.”

            “No indeed Sir William, no indeed.”

          There is a knock at the door, it is Sir Stanley’s secretary, Mrs Biles. She looks at the two men disapprovingly as she always does and says, “There’s a telephone call for you Mr White, Air Chief Marshal Freeman from the air Ministry.”

             The two men look at one another, Verdon Smith is the first to speak; “No prizes for guessing what he’s calling about.”

              Sir Stanley nods, “I dare say you’re right Sir William, thank you Mrs Biles I’ll take it.” He lifts the receiver and places it to his ear. “Good morning Air Chief Marshal what can I do for you?”

            “Sir Stanley, I trust you are well?”

            “Very well thank you Sir Wilfred, very well indeed, and yourself?”

            “Yes, yes, I’m quite well thank you.” Sir Stanley sees no point in prevarication; “I expect that you are calling about Fedden.”

            “Yes, as a matter of fact I am, I was quite surprised to learn that he had left you...”

            “Well he didn’t exactly...”

          “A great surprise! I know he was a pillar of your company and I’m sure you had a marvellous working relationship.”

            “Well actually the fact of the matter is...”

            “I’m sure his talent and energy will be greatly missed - who do you plan to replace him with by the way?”

            “Rowbotham, but look, Sir Wilfred, I really must tell you...”

            “Rowbotham eh? Excellent, excellent I’m glad to say that Fedden’s departure from your company may be most fortuitous, a genuine serendipity.”

              Sir Stanley’s face becomes suddenly guarded. “Fortuitous? How?”

            “Sir Stanley can I rely on your absolute discretion? This is a matter of great urgency and I need you to assure me that you won’t breathe a word of it to anyone, if it were found out in the wrong quarters it could prove a great embarrassment to us, a great embarrassment.”

              “Well Sir Wilfred you know I’m the very soul of prudence, whatever is the matter?”

             Freeman pauses for a moment. “There is a chance, I emphasise a chance, that the post of Director of Engine Development at The Ministry will be free soon.”

            “Is Bulman retiring? Is he unwell?”

            “Forgive me Sir Stanley, I’m really not at liberty to discuss it, but I just wanted to confirm with you that Fedden was in fact free to take on other employment.” There is a pause. “Sir Stanley? Sir Stanley are you there?”

            Verdon Smith frowns as he sees the blood drain from Sir Stanley’s face. He leans forward and says in a hoarse whisper; “White, are you alright? What the Devil’s the matter?”

           But Sir Stanley turns his head and speaks into the telephone. “Yes, er, yes yes, I’m here, the Minister isn’t considering Fedden for the job is he?”

            “As I say Sir Stanley, I have to be able to rely on your absolute discretion, I have already said too much but I know that I can count on you to keep this conversation under your hat.”

            “Why yes, yes of course, I shan’t breathe a word of it...”

         “Excellent, thank you so much, please give my regards to Sir William and the other board members. Right, well, I really must be going, good day to you Sir Stanley...”

            “Wait Sir Wilfred, er, forgive me could you wait just a moment.”

            “Well, I’m quite busy you know.”

            “I don’t doubt it Sir Wilfred, but please just a moment.”

            “Very well.” White presses his hand to the mouthpiece and looks across the table at Sir William. “Well, that’s torn it.”

 

9:51 a.m.

 

Although Roy Fedden is watering the plants in the conservatory of ‘Widegates,’ his home in the Cotswolds, his mind is already running over his plans for the future. His dismissal by Bristol’s sycophantic managing director is irritating, but Fedden has no time to dwell on the past, instead he concentrates on the possibilities that his sudden sacking has opened up. As is his habit, he mutters softly under his breath. “Fedden Aircraft Engines has a certain panache to it…” but before he can finish the sentence the telephone rings. He puts down the watering can and walks to the telephone table in the hall. “Good morning Roy, Freeman here, congratulations.” Fedden frowns, he is not on good terms with Sir Wilfred Freeman and he is surprised that he has the audacity to address him by his given name.

When he speaks his tone is icy. “Hullo Freeman, congratulations on what…”

            “Your promotion Roy, what else? And of course, what it means. There can’t be many people who can boast a promotion from Pilot Officer to Air Commodore in their first week in the Royal Air Force!”

Fedden’s frown deepens. “Promotion? What the devil are you talking about? Promotion? I’m not in the Royal Air Force.”

             There is a sudden silence at the other end of the line. “Didn’t you get the telegram?”

            Fedden is annoyed now. “Freeman, I have absolutely no idea what you are referring to, telegram? Promotion? What are you trying to say to me?”

           “Well, I’m absolutely shocked, I thought you would have received it by now, I was speaking to Ernie Bevin over at the Ministry of Labour, Industrial Relations and National Service and he told me that he sent it last week. You must have heard of his scheme?”

            “Scheme? What scheme?”

            “The one whereby key men in industry are being given commissions. Of course it’s only for those whose efforts are absolutely vital to national security and our export potential, men such as yourself; it’s really quite a compliment.”

            “A compliment!”

           “Well, yes; yes indeed. Look, don’t worry, they’re not going to put you through basic training or make you do any square bashing or anything like that, but you will have to pay for your own uniform, which is a good thing quite honestly, the regulation ones are rather scratchy, but Geives and  Hawkes do a very nice blue worsted…”

            “Freeman, this is absolutely absurd, they can’t draft me I’m too old.”

            “Nonsense, you have the constitution of an ox and besides under the current emergency powers the government can draft anyone they want…”

            “What emergency powers?”

           “The ones that were passed in 1939 and 1940 – most of them were never repealed you know, at least not the ones concerned with National Service – but don’t worry it’s an honorary thing really, nothing about your life or work will change. You’ll just have to don the uniform now and again, on formal occasions and suchlike, and of course you’ll have to take orders from me…”

           Freeman’s voice trails off in a good-humoured laugh but Fedden is not amused. “Take orders. From you?”

            “Well there’s no change there really, is there Roy? Essentially, you have to take orders from me anyway! Besides, you’re missing the most important thing here, it solves your problem with Bristol handily.”

            “What do you mean?”

           “Well, when you were drafted, you ceased to be their employee and you became an employee of the Royal Air Force. So they can’t sack you, couldn’t sack you I should say.”

            “No, I’m sorry but I can’t accept this, I’m not going back to Bristol on any terms, my treatment there has been lamentable.”

            “I know it has Roy, I know it has, but the point is that you have won, I was talking to Stanley White just now and they are not only going to reinstate you they’ve agreed to pay your bonuses and give you a pay rise, it’s the most humiliating climbdown for them really, but I think they understand that they were in the wrong. Oh, by the way, you’ll get your Air Force pay in addition to your salary from Bristol, though quite honestly it’s not much compared to what you chaps in industry earn…”

            “Look Freeman, you aren’t understanding me. I simply won’t go back. I cannot permit them to treat me as they have. It’s been shameful …”

            “It has, I know, and I understand, believe me I do, but as I say you have won, the Bristol board have folded their position and consented to everything you asked for, if there is any humble pie to be eaten it is they who will be eating it and besides, we have to consider the good of the country, a man in your position, with your aptitude, is a national asset. Look Roy, we need you at Bristol, the projects on which you are working are too important to be entrusted to someone of lesser ability, that is why you were drafted, that is why you’ve been promoted and that’s why that, regretfully, if you say to me that you won’t go back to Bristol willingly, then I must order you to do it.”

         There is a long silence on the line as Fedden realises the extent to which he has been outmanoeuvred. Freeman lets it pass, holding his breath, wondering what the reaction will be - to his relief he hears Fedden begin to laugh. “You’re a crafty dog Freeman, you know I tried to join the army before the Great War, but they wouldn’t have me…”

            “Why was that?”

            “Flat feet…”  Fedden is still laughing as he continues. “…but I’m afraid that you are going to have to court-martial me. I say again I am not going back to Bristol on any terms. Good day.”

           Freeman hears the click as the receiver is replaced at the other end of the line. He places the handset back in its cradle and shakes his head. “What the hell are we going to do now?”

 

11:07 a.m.

 

Freeman is just finishing his morning coffee when Bulman steps lightly into his office. “How goes it with the Fedden problem Sir Wilfred?”

              Freeman places the cup back on the saucer and frowns. “Very badly I’m afraid - he won’t go back to Bristol and that’s final, he’s a proud, stubborn man and, I’ll be honest, I can’t say that I blame him, but I’m not sure quite how to proceed, we can’t squander a talent like that.”

            Bulman is conciliatory. “Yes I know, he is very difficult and you have had some personal spats with him, but don’t worry, you’ll think of something.”

              Freeman looks up. “And what about you George? Which of our many brick walls are you beating your head against today?”

              Bulman’s face takes on an air of blank resignation, when he speaks, he spits out the single word angrily.

              “Napier.”

            “Be good to Napier George, I have high hopes of Napier, their Sabre engine is a triumph of the engineer’s art, it holds more development promise than any of the projects the other manufacturers are pursuing.”

            “Oh they are superb engineers, no one would deny it, the Sabre got us back the world speed record which was a nice present to shove up the Germans noses but the management are hopeless, absolutely hopeless. For the Sabre to be some use to us it has to be mass produced and the finished product must be of an acceptable standard of quality. Napier’s expansion has been muddle and confusion from the word go. I’d hand the whole lot over to Hives at Rolls-Royce if I could, but there would be riots at both companies.”

            “Yes, there’s a lot of bad blood between Napier and Rolls; it’s hardly surprising, Rolls have identified Napier is their most dangerous competition and they want to eliminate them. It makes commercial sense, the Sabre is potentially a better engine than anything else in the world…”

“I can’t fully agree there, the Roll’s engines are all coming along nicely…”

            “Really, last time I was there Hives was showing me a thing called the Eagle 22 It’s a scaled up attempt to copy the Sabre but it’s overweight and underpowered. Look George can I be honest with you?”

            “Of course.”

           “Can I say that I’m beginning to come to the view that we in this office are far too enamoured of Rolls. I’m not saying that they aren’t a well managed company and superb engineers but I think sometimes we have a bit of difficulty seeing the potential in other firms products.”

           “I don’t think that that is entirely fair. I don’t care how good Napier are as engineers, they are useless to us if they can only produce their engines in tiny quantities and their management are simply incapable of performing the task of expanding production while maintaining quality in the same way that Rolls and Bristol have managed…” he pauses, Freeman is sitting bolt upright and staring intently into the middle distance. “What is it, Sir Wilfred, you look as if you’ve seen a vision…”

             But Freeman seems not to hear, instead he lifts the receiver on his telephone and barks through the open door to his secretary. “Get me Fedden again!”

              Bulman is confused. “What are you doing Wilfred?”

           Freeman looks briefly at him. “I’m solving both our problems…” Bulman frowns as Freeman’s eyes shift away “…Fedden? Freeman here, I’ve new orders for you, you’re coming to work for me…”

 

2:32 p.m.

 

Sir William Verdon Smith addresses the crowded board room of the Bristol Aeroplane Company. His rounded, patrician voice rises above the hubub of angry conversation;

            “Gentlemen, gentlemen please! I must ask you to take your seats, I am calling this extraordinary meeting of the board to order, while not all our members were able to attend at such short notice I believe that we have a quorum. I understand that you have many questions and Sir Stanley and I will endeavour to answer them for you. I’m sure we can skip the formalities...” his eyes scan the angry faces in the room, they are baying at him like a pack of wild dogs maddened by hunger. He selects the first person to pose a question with great care, insuring it is the most weak minded of the board members and therefore in all probability the most easily appeased. “The chair recognises Mr Brian Hodges.”

             Hodges shambles to his feet, his dull insipid face set in a grimace of annoyance. It is only as he begins to speak that Sir William remembers his irritating lisp. “Mr Chairman I’m thure I thpeak for many members of the board when I thay that I feel that the weempwoyment of Woy Fedden, after your pwomith at the meeting yethterday that he would be dithmithed, ith hiwy iweguwar and indeed quite bitharre. You yourthelf made a forthful cathe for the termination of his empwoyment and now you bwithewy announth that he ith to be reinthtated, that he ith to get a pay rithe too and the bonuthes we’ve been twying to avoid paying him. Thith ith outwageouth Mr Chairman! Quite outwageouth! What do you mean by it thir?” A murmur of agreement runs around the room and several voices are heard saying ‘Here, here!’ and ‘Well said Hodges.’

               The face of Verdon Smith remains impassive. “The chair recognises Sir Stanley White.”

               The Managing Director rises to his feet and pauses, looking out of the window onto the scattered hangers and workshops of the Filton aerodrome that is the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s home.

               He waits until the noise has died down before he speaks. “Gentlemen, what I’m going to tell you now must not leave this room. It is quite imperative that our discussion here today does not become public knowledge.” Again, he pauses but this time in an absolute silence. “This morning at about a quarter past nine, I received a telephone call from Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfred Freeman at the Air Ministry. Sir Wilfred gave me to understand that George Bulman is considering stepping down and that his post will become vacant. The reason that he called me with this news is that it seems that the Minister is considering giving the appointment to Fedden. There is a sudden intake of breath in the room, a brief dissatisfied murmur, Hodges ambles to its feet again as White sits down.

            “The chair recognises Mr Brian Hodges.”

            “Mr Chairman I’m thorry I don’t underthtand, are we wid of Fedden or not?”

            “The chair recognises Sir Stanley White.”

            “I’m sorry to inform you Mr Hodges that the answer is most assuredly not. It would seem that if we dismiss Fedden from his post as our servant, he may very rapidly become our master, I am sure we can all agree that this would be a most distressing state of affairs and the only remedy that I can see is to retain his services and thus ensure that he does not obtain the whip hand over us.” He pauses for a moment, his glance takes in the confused and disappointed faces of the board members. “Unless anyone has a better idea?” But his question elicits no response.

            “There is one other thing…” he pauses, the curious men stare at him malevolently. “We have today deposited cheques in Fedden’s bank account for all of the bonuses and back pay that he is claiming from us…” An angry groan goes round the room…

 

4:36 p.m.

 

Brian Worthington, the postmaster at the Gloucester sorting office, does not like irregularities. Still, he is as patriotic as the next man and when an RAF Squadron leader Hamill had arrived asking to speak with him privately on a ‘matter of national urgency’ he had lead him to a private room and listened intently to what he had to say.

            Forging the date and time on a telegram is easy enough, simply a matter of resetting the tape printing machine, but it is illegal and goes against the grain. Still, national security is national security and these are troubling times. He decides to take the burden on his shoulders alone however and requisitions a van for the drive into the Cotswolds to deliver it. Actually, it is three telegrams, all for the same recipient; one, a promotion notice, dated quite truthfully for that day, the second, also correctly dated contains military orders. Something about taking up a post as Director of Production Expansion with some company in Acton. The last, the troubling one, is a notice of enlistment, dated quite untruthfully for the previous week.

            He finds the house easily enough and hands the telegrams in person to their recipient. The man smiles a wry smile and chuckles beneath his breath when he sees them, then he says; “I just become an Air Commodore you know.” and gives Worthington a shilling for his trouble.

 

5:49 p.m.

 

Bulman takes his hat from the stand in the hallway and puts on his coat. Before he leaves the building he pokes his head round the door of Air Chief Marshal Freeman’s office. “So, you’re quite sure that Fedden is going to take on the Napier job?”

           Sir Wilfred allows himself an inscrutable smile. “As far as the world knows he was never dismissed from Bristol and his new appointment is entirely voluntary and quite agreeable to all parties concerned, that is between you, me, Fedden and the board members of the Bristol Aeroplane Company.”

               “How are Napier taking it?”

          “Very well. I think the management are happy to be relieved of the bother of expanding production so they can get on with what they do best, which is developing engines. That’s how I presented it to them and they jumped at the chance. They have worked with Fedden before when they couldn’t get their sleeve valves right and he is well respected by them. He will report directly to me and I’ve every confidence that he’ll get the best out of them and their shadow firms have no fear!”

             “What about Rowbotham at Bristol?”

            “We’re going to get Fedden to consult for him. They’re going to meet once a week at the Temple Meads Station Hotel. The Bristol Board won’t have to pay him consultants fees because he works for us now and Rowbotham will get the guidance he needs to bring their engines to maturity.”

              “And all of them are alright with this.”

            “Mostly, yes. Fedden took the most persuading actually, but I presented it as a way to greet new challenges while ensuring that his ‘babies’ at Bristol grow up right.”

              “You’re an extraordinarily persuasive man Sir Wilfred.”

Freeman inclines his head modestly. “I like to think I can make a compelling case.”

             “Several members of Bristol’s board telephoned me earlier this afternoon asking after my health. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?” Sir Wilfred’s eyes flick suddenly over the papers on his desk and he grows intently interested in the Silver stopper of his inkwell.

             “Also, I've just had an earful from Stanley White, who is in a towering rage over the fact that he paid Fedden all his bonuses then called him up and begged him to return only to have Fedden tell him where he could shove his job!”

               Freeman again avoids Bulman’s eyes but does not look in the least sympathetic. Finally he says, “Oh dear…”

            “And since when has Ernie Bevin been drafting middle aged engineers?”

             Freeman arranges his face into a look of tranquil sagacity. “I really couldn’t say Director…”