How George Dowty Supported the Few

‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’ 

Winston Churchill August 20th, 1940

HOW GEORGE DOWTY SUPPORTED THE FEW

In the past all battles were fought on land or sea and the aim was to destroy as many of the enemies’ men, tanks and artillery, or ships on the sea, until you became the dominant force. A number’s game from the first encounter with many factors playing into the mix. i.e., the training of and the experience of the men and the effectiveness of their weaponry etc.

The World War One saw the first use of aircraft that took the battle into a 3-dimensional battlefield, never-before dreamed about. The sky was now of vital importance to occupy and hold as it gave control of the ground beneath. However, the aeroplane brought with it several unique problems. Unlike the tank, which can be heavily armour plated, it is thin skinned and therefore vulnerable. It is a very complicated and expensive gun platform and so any damage inflicted on it can prevent it from remaining airborne resulting in the probable loss of machine and pilot. Another factor is having gained control of the air, unlike the ground, it cannot be physically occupied and defended with troops and armour, it must be constantly patrolled by aircraft.

Now let us consider the two sides squaring up to take and hold the sky over Southern England on 10 July 1940, a battle that lasted 3 months and 3 weeks until 31st October.

On day one, the Luftwaffe had 2,550 Messerschmitt Bf 109s and the RAF only 650 fighters. the RAF were outnumbered 4 to 1 However, the RAF were soon supplied with more planes by a highly efficient reorganised industry and quickly had 1,965 planes, made up of 375 Spitfires, 1,715 Hurricanes and a few Boulton Paul Defiants. Attrition of and by both forces now began. In the vital numbers game, it now became imperative that damaged aircraft must be returned to the fight as quickly as possible. This is where the prevention of further damage pays dividends and the safe landing of returning aircraft is the crux. 

By August the RAF had lost 426 planes 40%, so down to 1,061. It is safe to say, therefore, that there were many that returned damaged and needed to be returned into the air quickly to keep the numbers increasing not diminishing over those of those of the enemy. This is where the well-designed Dowty undercarriage proved effective in helping to save both pilots and aircraft and having a vital influence in increasing the RAFs numbers on its hazardous journey to gain air superiority.

 In order to find out what led Dowty undercarriages to be used on so many British aircraft like the Hurricane, the plane that accounted for 60% of enemy planes destroyed in the Battle of Britain, we need to go back almost 40 years.

From the time of the Wright Brother first flight, it was usual for the aircraft manufacturer to design and manufacture almost everything. However, engines tended to be purchased from other sources although Wilbur & Orville had built their own. Very few aircraft companies manufactured engines as well as the aircraft structure, DE Havilland was one of the few exceptions. Between the wars, Equipment Companies were set up to be specialists in certain parts of the aircraft – hydraulics, undercarriages and propellers to name a few. George Dowty was a draughtsman working on undercarriages at Gloster Aircraft Company, had ideas for improvements and decided to set up a business to specialise in the product. Thus, the Dowty company was conceived.

 However, some aircraft companies continued to design and manufacture undercarriages for aircraft they were building, maintaining it was an essential part of the aircraft. Supermarine was one of these and the undercarriage for the famous Spitfire was one such example.

 Cushioning the ride on wheeled vehicles was a problem from the time they were invented. What an improvement when pneumatic tyres replaced solid tyres – so we learn from history. The problem was amplified when the vehicle, called a flying machine, did a controlled descent from the sky. The early manufacturers tried a variety of alternatives to cushion the landing but in 1915 Vickers Armstrong invented the oleo strut to deal with gun recoil and realised it was equally applicable to aircraft undercarriages. By the time the Dowty Company was formed, the oleo strut had become an important feature of the undercarriage and had found its place in history. Basically, it comprises a cylinder filled with a compressed gas, usually nitrogen, which is further compressed by a piston when a load is applied e.g., the impact of landing. After the initial landing impact, the piston is pushed back by the compressed gas with same force that has just been applied (Newton) but is used to force oil through an orifice to dampen the otherwise oscillating motion.                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The Dowty company used the already invented concept of the oleo but studied the science of it to optimise the design for a particular aircraft. In parallel, the undercarriage was designed structurally to cope with all the forces that are likely to imposed on it during operation. It also had to be folded into a confined space to maintain the aerodynamic shape of the aircraft. This was where the Dowty design team were imaginative with a variety of ideas depending on the lay out of the aircraft. The undercarriage comprised not only the elements that supported the aircraft on the ground and cushioned the landing but all the items that made up the folding mechanism for retraction. Dowty expertise went into all of this. This is the first element of the process to produce a part for the war winning Hurricane. 

Whilst the design had to meet the requirements of the aircraft set out by Hawker, it also had to meet stringent requirements of airworthiness set out by the Ministry of Aviation. Basically, these specified that the equipment must not break or distort under the highest loads expected under the most severe expected operating conditions. It had to be tested to demonstrate that these requirements had been met. Only at this stage could production commence but then, each item and assembly had to be made to meet demanding tolerances and from approved materials. Interchangeability and reliability were and still are, of paramount importance.  This manufacture process was also overseen by a government body, the Aircraft Inspection Directorate (AID). Then it had to be produced in quantities to match the numbers of aircraft being produced by Hawker and of course the shadow factories.

Even then, still more had to be done. The RAF technicians needed instructions on how to service and maintain the equipment, so manuals had to be produced and the RAF technicians trained. When repairs are needed spare parts had to be available, sometimes a complete new undercarriage might be required. This is still the overall process that is needed to be a successful supplier to an aircraft manufacturer today be it military or civil. But in 1940 a war was waging, and time was of the essence, everything was required “Now, if not sooner” the saying goes.

The Dowty Company met all these challenges under the leadership of George H Dowty. So, what is special about the Dowty Undercarriage? The foregoing answers the question! 

The Battle of Britain was fought by gallant young pilots most in their late teens or early 20’s, Churchill’s Few many of whom paid the supreme sacrifice. As is said on Remembrance Sunday “they gave their today for our tomorrows”. These brave young men fought in wonderfully crafted gun platforms backed by skilled ground crew who kept the planes safe to fly and repaired those battle damaged and so enabled to return to the fight.

The team included Robert Watson Watt who developed Radar Ground to Air to detect approaching enemy planes. The radar operators could give about 15 minutes warning of the enemy approaching which enabled the RAF to get airborne and achieve the all-important advantage, height. 

The aircraft had many elements that gave them the edge over the enemy. The engine was supercharged to a greater extent than those of the enemy enabling the use of a very high-octane fuel, imported from the US but developed in part by an Englishman Rod Banks. Robert Watson Watt, the developer of Ground to Air Radar gave the UK the ability to detect approaching enemy aircraft. The Radar operators could give about 15 minutes warning enabling the RAF to get airborne and to use the high power available to achieve the all-important advantage, height. There were so many players in the team that enabled the battle to be won, both military and civilian

As is well known, when the Battle of Britain was over, the war went on, in fact for over 54 months in Europe but even longer in the Far East. Dowty was there to play its part the entire time but not only on the Hurricane, it designed and manufactured undercarriages for the Lancaster bomber and many others.

I believe the forgoing shows that George Dowty played a very important role in the Battle of Britain but his genius was felt in every battle in which aircraft played a part throughout and beyond WW2 into peace time passenger safety.

The pilots and crews of Lancaster Bombers gave the Dowty undercarriage their seal of approval by the phrase “You can trust Mr Dowty” so surely his name and his contributions ought to be recognised by his town, his county and his nation.

To conclude this is a quote from the Dowty Heritage Society found on www.dowtyheritage.org.uk

During World War II, nearly all British aircraft that were built, embodied Dowty products which included hydraulic systems, undercarriage units, tail wheels, electrical instruments and warning devices.

The list of aircraft names that Dowty supplied parts for included: Hawker Hurricane, Beaufighter, Typhoon, Whirlwind, Manchester, Lancaster, Halifax, Stirling, Blenheim, Hampden, Henley, Sunderland, Skua, Anson, Dominie, Master, Lysander, Rapide, and the allies’ first jet aircraft the Gloster Whittle E28/39, which first flew on the 15th of May 1941, also, the first jet fighter to see action, the Gloster Meteor.

This paper was authored by John Whitaker

John is the grandson of A. W, Martyn and author of the book “The Best” which is the definitive history of H. H. Martyn & Company and the Gloster Aircraft Company.

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