Meet Ron Watts – Part 1

1931 was when it all started; my parents Victor and Ivy took me to their home where I met my two-year-old sister. Home was three rooms on the top floor of a four storey Victorian house in Brixton. The poorly lit landing served as the kitchen in as much as there was a gas cooker standing alongside a two-foot square cupboard that also provided the working surface. There was no sink because there was no water; water had to be brought from the floor below, dirty water had to be returned there. There was no electricity only gas lights; heating was by open fire, coals were kept on the ground floor. The kitchen arrangements must have made it very hard for my mother who was slight, beautiful, kind and tolerant. Dad drove a London bus, it had solid tyres, no windscreen and an open staircase. We were poor but, unlike some in those times, we had shoes, reasonable clothes and enough food. When I was three, a brother appeared, this worsened the living arrangements somewhat; things did change a little, my father became a London taxi-driver, which meant we were a little better off, and we got electricity.
I started school at a local church school but soon fell ill, it was diagnosed as rheumatic fever, (perhaps it was}, I was ill for quite a long time. A year later I went to Santley Street School, the local Elementary School, my sister was already there, but I continued to be bugged by health problems, including measles; however, it seems I was quite bright and was taught to read, write, spell and do sums by my mother and her sister.
Opposite our house there was a Ford Main dealer and, with all this time off school, I would watch the goings and comings for hours from our elevated position, and that was the start of a lifelong interest in cars. With time on my hands I did read quite a lot also.
Then came the excitement of collecting our gas masks and soon after that we three children were evacuated to Brighton, but that is another story. We went home for Christmas and stayed. All the local schools were closed.
We watched and waved at the troops returning from Dunkirk on the trains passing through Brixton, they were remarkably cheerful. We watched the men of the house installing an Anderson shelter; we watched some of the dog fights in the Battle of Britain, they were at fairly high altitude and it was impossible to see who was who, but we did see the Ju88s and He111s that managed to dodge the fighters. Then we were in the blitz. We were as near to the Thames as Stoke Ferry is to Crimplesham and had a lot of bombs and incendiary bombs nearby. One night the place next door was set on fire, the fire was close to our Anderson and it became so hot that we had to evacuate to a public shelter some distance along the road. This was quite scary as we were surrounded by fires and bombs. Two weeks later our house was destroyed by an HE-bomb that landed in the road outside. We moved two miles or so up the hill to between Streatham and West Norwood. I started school at Gipsy Road School but within a couple of weeks I was ill; we had just moved, things were chaotic and I was ignored for a time. I had peritonitis and was rushed to hospital and joined the bombing casualties. I was operated on almost immediately, but there were no anti-biotics, my parents were warned that survival was very unlikely, needless to say I did survive. I was in hospital for four months during the height of the blitz. On a number of occasions the nurses would put out the lights and draw the curtains so that we could see the light from the fires in the docks and the City. The hospital was rocked several times by near misses and sustained some damage but not my ward. When I left I was told I had to go back for a further operation, I did not go to school that year. When I did go to school in September, it was to Dunraven School in Streatham; by this stage I had had just two years at school since the age of six (I think it ridiculous that we should be told a child cannot afford to miss two weeks of school). The following spring I took an exam for a Junior County Scholarship (sort of 11 plus). I was awarded a scholarship and accepted a place offered at Alleyn’s School, an independent school in Dulwich (evacuated at the time but returned in 44). I joined their emergency school in Dulwich in September 42. The bombing went on but with reduced intensity. I did well at school, took many prizes and was favoured for a State Scholarship, a prestigious award that gave kudos to the school and more or less guaranteed acceptance by Oxbridge. I joined the sixth form but my father was not keen to support me further; with my sister and brother both working from the age of 14 I felt that I too should be working. My first job was with a sterilised milk company, I worked in the office but I did not like it; I asked if they had a different job, I then worked in the plant, removing bottles from a conveyor system and putting them into crates. I liked that even less. I then got a job as a driver’s mate and then as a driver with a 5ton Bedford (at the age of 17, having passed my test 7 months before I thought this was a great job).
I obtained, through open competition, a five-year engineering apprenticeship with the Ministry of Supply (fore-runner to the Min. of Defence). It was a fairly thorough training and included release for college. I was subsequently sponsored by the Ministry for a university course (rare in those days), and then I was awarded an open-ended post graduate scholarship by the Ministry. I used the scholarship to study gas turbines, they were the big new thing. We were fortunate at Imperial College with some very good people on the staff including a couple of the bright people from Power Jets. I was drawn to study gas turbines because there was much talk of their use in cars and that was where my interest lay, but it soon became clear to me that gas turbines were not for cars
When I was looking for a job it was the aero-engine companies that were keen to employ me. I joined the Rocket Division of the deHavilland engine company based in Edgware, joining the Performance Section in the development office, The main project was a new controllable turbo-pump rocket engine, the Spectre, for use in a manned interceptor fighter, the SR53. The engine used kerosene as the fuel and High-Test Hydrogen Peroxide (HTP) as the oxidant. HTP is very concentrated around 90%, it decomposes readily in the presence of a catalyst into super-heated steam and oxygen with a considerable release of energy (about half that of TNT), under certain conditions the decomposition can occur spontaneously resulting in an explosion, it therefore needs care in handling. The company had never built a rocket engine, when I joined the basic design had been completed and several prototypes manufactured. Engine testing was to be carried out on the airfield at Hatfield. We had purpose built test beds housed in a high brick built building with single brick walls and a light roof, the idea being that any explosion would result in the building collapsing, releasing the power of the explosion, adjacent to the test bed was the control cabin, a reinforced concrete box stood on a sheet of builder’s paper on a solid concrete base, the idea here was that, in the event of an explosion in the test bed, the control cabin could move but would remain intact.
There were many houses on the perimeter of the airfield and it was necessary to try to keep the noise down. The rocket engine exhausted into a detuner, a long tube of about 5ft diameter and 50ft long, with water sprayed radially in stages along the tube to cool the hot exhaust and thereby reduce the speed; the end of the tube was turned through a right-angle sending the gases skywards. For all that it remained very noisy.
Initial testing revealed that the turbine was not delivering enough power, I blamed the design of the stator blades and was given the task of redesigning them. Initial testing with the revised stator showed significant improvement and I received some plaudits, but the power then fell off. Dismantling revealed that many turbine blades had broken off due to fatigue; I had made the elementary mistake of not ensuring that my stator would not excite the natural frequency of the turbine blades. Easily rectified but it took a little of the shine off. In a relatively short space of time I became head of performance. Initial development of the engine was difficult, the lack of design experience had resulted in many unforeseen problems and there was considerable pressure to get the engine into a reliable state whilst delivering the design performance. I was then given responsibility for component development, thus turbine, pumps, gearbox, seals (a critical aspect for safety reasons), catalysts, control system, etc became my domain in addition to performance. All these components were tested on purpose-built test rigs, also on the airfield. This combination of responsibilities effectively gave me a large amount of control over the Spectre development and the title of Assistant Chief Development Engineer in the Division. It was an interesting, challenging and all-consuming job, but, in many respects the best job in the world. (It should be remembered that, in those days, all analytical problems were tackled using pure maths, we had no computers or electronic calculators, and most numerical calculations were performed using slide rules).
In the control cabin the noise when the engine was running was appalling, in order to communicate between those controlling the engine and those observing the tests it was necessary to use headphones and throat microphones, even then the microphones picked up much of the noise. I drove many many miles up and down the A1 between Edgware and Hatfield.
Over a period of time we eventually produced a reliable capable engine. The problems encountered along the way might make interesting reading, but would take many more words. Because it was for a manned aircraft we then had to put the engine through a Type Test. There had never been a type test of a rocket engine. The man from the Ministry (Assistant Director Engine Research and Development 6) responsible for overseeing all rocket engine research supported by government contact, and I, had to write the test schedule. ADEngRD6 was Eric Carter, one of the most intelligent and likeable men I ever met, he was very sharp and ensured that the test was appropriate for the envisaged use of the engine. One test that was written into the schedule was the sudden loss of HTP when running at full thrust. It was difficult to predict exactly what would happen and it was necessary to attempt this test before starting on the type test. When we did do the test the result was a massive explosion, the test bed house was blown apart, as designed, whilst the control cabin remained intact and the personnel unharmed apart from being temporarily deaf. The engine had been blown to smithereens. Fortunately we had recently managed to install some electronic instruments (early days for this) with remote recording so that it was possible to deduce exactly what had happened. There was another panic to modify the engine so that it could not happen, (I might point out that the engine system already contained so many safety aspects that they came close to preventing the engine running at all). We were able to overcome this problem and went on to satisfactorily complete the type test schedule. Now it was time to start flight testing .

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