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Gloster Meteor

The pioneering British jet – 80 years and counting since the Meteor first streaked across the skies 

WHILE the aerial abilities of the Spitfire and Hurricane were rightly trumpeted during the Second World War, a new age of aircraft took to the skies towards the end of the conflict that, if not literally, did somehow manage to fly under the radar.

It was July 1944 that No. 616 Squadron took delivery of the Gloster Meteor, the only Allied jet aircraft to see combat during WW2. However, what was seen as a feat of engineering excellence, promoted as much fear as pride amongst Allied military chiefs, with initially a limited role earmarked for the state-of-the-art aircraft that could reach speeds in excess of 450mph.

Gloster Meteor F.1 of 616 Squadron

(Gloster Meteor F.1 of No. 616 Squadron)

The Meteor’s first job, albeit crucial during the latter stages of the war, was to take out German V1 rockets, the high-explosive missiles that terrorised London and the south east. The Meteor did this in two ways – using its cannons to destroy the rocket or when its armoury failed, as happened all too regularly, physically catching up with a V1 and using the air pressure of the jet to knock the missile off course, the tip and run tactic.

It was successful on numerous occasions, but there was a reticence amongst military chiefs to fully utilise the Meteor: an initial fear of it failing against its faster German counterpart, the Messerschmitt 262, and a concern that the Nazis would be able steal the technology if they downed a Meteor and retrieved the damaged plane.

Both sides launched their jets around the same time, the Allies’ version coming 18 years after a Coventry-born RAF apprentice, Frank Whittle, had developed his theory of using gas turbines to power aircraft at speeds and altitudes impossible for those reliant on piston-driven engines. Whittle patented his theory of a centrifugal compressor-driven turbojet engine in 1930, his work not going un-noticed in Germany, where a Dr Hans von Ohain was working on his own model of the jet engine.

Ohain had the backing of Dr Ernst Heinkel, a German aircraft designer who was crucial in the Luftwaffe’s growing strength in the 1930s, while the Air Ministry showed little interest in Whittle’s work until 1939. At the start of WW2, Whittle’s Power Jet company was struggling to pay lighting bills at the firm’s HQ, and by the time military officials realised the importance of his work, they were already playing catch up to aircraft engineers in Germany.

The first E.28/39 prototype W4041/G

(The first E.28/39 prototype W4041/G)

But in 1939, the Gloster Air Company, founded in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in 1917, were contracted to manufacture a prototype jet powered by Whittle’s new turbojet engine. It was May 1941 before the first test flight of a single-engine Gloster E28/39 – the prototype can be viewed today in the Science Museum in London – was made, piloted by Ft Lt Philip ‘Gerry’ Sayer. Taking off from RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire, Sayer flew for 18 minutes at speeds in excess of 500mph.

Work on a twin-engine version was already underway, the original name of the jet, Thunderbolt, changed to avoid confusion with an American aircraft, the Gloster Meteor title only coming in 1944. With espionage a constant concern, the project was codenamed Rampage, with test locations and other details known only to a limited number of military officials and employees.

The first twin-engine version flew in March 1943, with no difficulties encountered with the turbojet propulsion, and the first Meteor F1 was airborne in January 1944, fitted with nose-mounted cannons, 616 Squadron the first to receive a batch of 14 jets on July 27 of that year. A week later the squadron claimed a first success flying the plane, taking out a V1 rocket, or Doodlebug, over Kent. Operating in pairs due to problems encountered with the cannons jamming, Pilot Officer ‘Dixie’ Dean spotted a V1 heading towards Tunbridge Wells, and put his Meteor into a shallow dive.

Lining up the rocket, he found that all four cannons jammed, quickly manoeuvring his jet alongside the V1, as closely as possible to the tip of the Doodlebug; Dean banked sharply knowing the airflow disruption – tip and run – would affect the trajectory of the missile, the V1 careering out of control and crashing to the ground away from residential areas. A few minutes later a second V1 was downed by another pilot successfully using his cannons 

The tip and run tactic became an integral part of the campaign to destroy the much-feared flying bombs, No. 616 Squadron claiming 14 V1s. In December 1944, No. 616 exchanged its F1s for F3s, the updated Meteor deemed ready for combat on European soil.

Ground crew servicing a Meteor of 616 Squadron at Melsbroek, Belgium, 1945.

(Ground crew servicing a Meteor of 616 Squadron at Melsbroek, Belgium, 1945)

In January 1945, four Meteor F3s of 616 Squadron were moved to Belgium, attached to the Second Tactical Air Force; part of the plan was to provoke the Luftwaffe to send Me 262s to engage with their British counterparts. Pilots were still, however, told not to fly over German-occupied territory with fears a downed plane could fall into either German or Russian hands. 

The F3s mainly flew reconnaissance missions, transferring to the Netherlands, with their only losses prior to hostilities ending when two collided in poor visibility.

Post-war, an updated version equipped with Rolls-Royce Derwent engines was operated by 16 squadrons, the speed capabilities of the jet upped towards 600mph by 1946. The jet’s notoriety and its capabilities stretched across the globe, with Argentina the first overseas operator, closely followed by Australia and Egypt. In total, 16 countries purchased Gloster Meteors including Biafra, the country that now forms part of Nigeria making a clandestine purchase of two aircraft through a cover company: the first crashed while being ferried from Madeira to Cape Verde, the second abandoned before it could be used by the country’s air force.

615 Sqn Meteor F.8

(615 Sqn Meteor F.8)

The Meteor remained in service with the RAF until the 1960s, No. 2 Air Navigation School at Thorney Island utilising the aircraft until around 1965, the Gloster Javelin replacing many during the late 1950s. One of the last operating airworthy aircraft left Coventry Airport in 2019, bound for Liverpool, before shipment to a museum in Detroit.  

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1 comment

  • Just a short point of note, as two Meteors, one single seater (the famous Winston) and one two seater, we’re used to tow targets and were in use at RAF Brawdy in the 1970s, both drill used when I left in 1980.

    Rod Dewar

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