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"Why Did the British Not Develop a Radial Engined Fighter?" Topic

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troopwo Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 7:38 a.m. PST

I keep lookig at why the RAF and RN never developped a radial engine fighter during early the part and mid war.

I know that both Bristol and Gloster made models of eight gun fighters before the war that were radial and considderred inferior to the Merlin engined fighterss.

Was it a problem in engine development or availability?

The prototypes used the Bristol Mercury which topped out at what 800hp? They were hoping to get the 1,000hp Perseus. Was the Perseus not suitable or needed for other aircraft?

The Taurus engine as around 950-1,000hp.
They seemed to be used in Skuas and Swordfish.

How big was the Hercules?
Could it have been used or are we now approaching Thuinderbolt size?

I am leaving out the Napier Sabre and the Centaurus as I want to concentrate more on the early to mid war stuff.

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 7:40 a.m. PST

Please don't bring up the Gadiator, Skua or Roc,,,.
Museum pieces and freak shows.

advocate09 Mar 2021 8:31 a.m. PST

Because they had the Merlin?

Dave Jackson Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 8:59 a.m. PST

Can bring up anything he wants. Why do you say what you say? Or were you being sarcastic?

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 9:32 a.m. PST

I am thinking of durability, reliablility, simplicity.
Didn't the Dutch adopt the Fokker XXI specifically for operations in the dutch east indies?

I would imagine the RN would have pushed for radials over in-lines for reliability and ability to take damage as well.
Did the FAA frown on air fighters?
Rely strictly on the guns of the fleet for defense?

I really wonder if they ever thought of putting the Hercules into a fighter?

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 9:34 a.m. PST

I keep thinking of the American experience with the Allison.

ecaminis Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 10:39 a.m. PST

But they did develop a rdial engined fighter. The Tempest II was powered by the Centaorus V engine. It was just getting into service in the CBI.

Personal logo 20thmaine Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 11:11 a.m. PST

Seems a bit harsh about the Gladiator – pretty decent fighter when it came into service.

enfant perdus09 Mar 2021 11:13 a.m. PST

Did the FAA frown on air fighters?
Rely strictly on the guns of the fleet for defense?

This one's easy to answer. The RN's most likely European foes were Germany and Italy, neither of whom had carriers. There was also the theoretical threat of the USSR, who also lacked carriers. What these nations did have were seaplanes, flying boats, and maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The Italians in particular had an aerial torpedo capability that caused concern. However, none of these threats required a Hurricane or Spitfire equivalent to deal with. We laugh at the idea of the Skua being a dual purpose fighter/dive bomber, but Skuas did score the second British aerial kill of the War shooting down a Do 18.

But what about enemy fighters? Again, in the years preceding the War, these potential foes lacked a fighter with sufficient range to pose a threat. The Japanese carrier based fighters were the only pursuit or "air superiority" aircraft the RN was likely to encounter and remember their first "modern" fighter (the Claude" didn't arrive until 1937. Had the Zero not come along, the Fulmar would have been an adequate match for the Claude.

And speaking of the Fulmar, it's another plane that gets an undeserved bad rap. Unlike the USN, who employed Scout Bombers, the RN opted for a fleet defence fighter to double in that role, hence the second crewman and the greenhouse canopy. Fulmar also had an impressive range, modern armament, and a very generous amount of ammo. It excelled at what it was meant to, splashing enemy bombers and seaplanes and doing scouting and observation, and it was equal to its expected foes, primarily the CR42 and the Claude.

rmaker09 Mar 2021 11:46 a.m. PST

On the FAA, remember that it did not revert to RN control until just before the war. Prior to that, it had been part of the RAF, and a poor stepchild a that.

And aircraft development was the perquisite of the Air Ministry, who, even after the transfer, didn't give much weight to RN requirements and desires.

Midlander6509 Mar 2021 12:36 p.m. PST

What an interesting question.I'm no expert in this area but, if I let that stop me commenting, I'd never write anything online.

It seems to me that a) there is a big (relative to the length of WW2) time lag in developing engines and b) advocate hit the nail on the head with "Because they had the Merlin?"

Few of us would say that a strength of UK in WW2 was sensible standardisation but maybe they got it right with the Merlin-Griffin line providing a low drag design that developed from 1000 to 2400 hp and powered single, twin and four engined aircraft with production from a seamless development of an industry base.

Sure the Sabre and Centaurus achieved slightly higher power levels but at the cost of more drag so I guess (I'd genuinely be interested at replies that weren't just guesses) the advantages didn't outweigh the disadvantages soon enough.

For the FAA, by the time they got independence, I'd suggest they would have been better advised to go with USN types rather than trying to adapt RAF fighters – until the Sea Fury which is obviously the ultimate propellor powered fighter ever. :-)

Personal logo Mister Tibbles Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 1:19 p.m. PST

+1 20thmaine! I thought the same thing.

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 1:24 p.m. PST

The Merlin started at what 1,00-1,200 HP?
Then they pushed that to max out near 1,600HP or so.
So it really must have been hitting its' limits of what they could get out of it.

I never really looked at the Griffin much.
All I know ids that if they could fit a Merlin to it, then they would try a Griffin. Spitfire, Barracudea, Firefly.

The Napier Sabre seemed a bit less problematic than the Vulture. They only seemed to reach a steady serviceability in the middle of 1944.

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 1:33 p.m. PST

Seems the RN didn't rely on fighters more by doctrine and not expecting daylight fights. Doctrine was use their biplanes at night or only if unopposed.

Toaster09 Mar 2021 1:58 p.m. PST

With regard in particular to the Hawker Typhoon but applying to British Radial engined fighters in general there are these 2 quotes from the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aircraft.

"Hindsight was to show the best would turn out to be the Bristol Centaurus sleeve-valve radial, but experience with the Schneider Trophy had blinded many officials and designers to the fact that air cooled radials could result in fast fighters."


"What killed the Centaurus Tornado was the implacable opposition of Air Marshal Wilfrid Freeman, czar of procurement, who intensely disliked Bristol radial engines."


Wolfhag Supporting Member of TMP09 Mar 2021 2:29 p.m. PST

The British had great inline water cooled engine development from the Supermarine seaplane Schneider Trophy races post-WWI.

This gives a good explanation:

By 1918 the potential advantages of air-cooled radials over the water-cooled inline engine and air-cooled rotary engine that had powered World War I aircraft were appreciated but were unrealized. British designers had produced the ABC Dragonfly radial in 1917, but were unable to resolve the cooling problems, and it was not until the 1920s that Bristol and Armstrong Siddeley produced reliable air-cooled radials such as the Bristol Jupiter[7] and the Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar.[citation needed]

In the United States the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) noted in 1920 that air-cooled radials could offer an increase in power-to-weight ratio and reliability; by 1921 the U.S. Navy had announced it would only order aircraft fitted with air-cooled radials and other naval air arms followed suit. Charles Lawrance's J-1 engine was developed in 1922 with Navy funding, and using aluminum cylinders with steel liners ran for an unprecedented 300 hours, at a time when 50 hours endurance was normal. At the urging of the Army and Navy the Wright Aeronautical Corporation bought Lawrance's company, and subsequent engines were built under the Wright name. The radial engines gave confidence to Navy pilots performing long-range overwater flights.[8]

Wright's 225 hp (168 kW) J-5 Whirlwind radial engine of 1925 was widely claimed as "the first truly reliable aircraft engine".[9] Wright employed Giuseppe Mario Bellanca to design an aircraft to showcase it, and the result was the Wright-Bellanca WB-1, which first flew later that year. The J-5 was used on many advanced aircraft of the day, including Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, in which he made the first solo trans-Atlantic flight.[10]

In 1925 the American Pratt & Whitney company was founded, competing with Wright's radial engines. Pratt & Whitney's initial offering, the R-1340 Wasp, was test run later that year, beginning a line of engines over the next 25 years that included the 14-cylinder, twin-row Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp. More Twin Wasps were produced than any other aviation piston engine in the history of aviation; nearly 175,000 were built.[11]

In Britain, Bristol produced both sleeve valved and conventional poppet valved radials: of the sleeve valved designs, more than 57,400 Hercules engines powered the Vickers Wellington, Short Stirling, Handley Page Halifax, and some versions of the Avro Lancaster, over 8,000 of the pioneering sleeve-valved Bristol Perseus were used in various types, and more than 2,500 of the largest-displacement production British radial from the Bristol firm to use sleeve valving, the Bristol Centaurus were used to power the Hawker Tempest II and Sea Fury. The same firm's poppet-valved radials included: around 32,000 of Bristol Pegasus used in the Short Sunderland, Handley Page Hampden, and Fairey Swordfish and over 20,000 examples of the firm's 1925-origin nine-cylinder Mercury were used to power the Westland Lysander, Bristol Blenheim, and Blackburn Skua.

The Americans also had much greater resources for R&D and testing.


HMS Exeter09 Mar 2021 6:19 p.m. PST

The Gloster F5/34 was considered and passed over. There's a pretty good YouTube on it. I couldn't figure out how to import a link.

Martin Rapier10 Mar 2021 1:49 a.m. PST

Who needs radial engines if you have Merlins and jets?

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP10 Mar 2021 8:18 a.m. PST

I have seen enough photos of either a Spitfire or even a Mustang with one bullet hole streaming out glycol while the pilot determines how far he is over the wrong territory.

Thresher0110 Mar 2021 8:26 a.m. PST

They developed they Typhoon, which IIRC had a radial engine.

Personal logo Yellow Admiral Supporting Member of TMP10 Mar 2021 8:48 a.m. PST

Not the Typhoon, the Tempest II. That and Sea Fury are the most prominent aircraft that had the Centaurus engine mentioned several times above.

The Centaurus is notable for claiming the highest horsepower rating of any piston aircraft engine in history – clearly indicating that the UK could develop reliable, compact, high-power aircraft radials, and posing the mystery outlined in the OP.

- Ix

khanscom10 Mar 2021 10:22 a.m. PST

Note also that the FAA was supplied with Grumman Wildcats and Hellcats, Brewster Buffalos, and Vought Corsairs.

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP10 Mar 2021 4:41 p.m. PST

Wisely, the US never abandoned the radial.
Given the Allison, a wise move.

Personal logo Yellow Admiral Supporting Member of TMP11 Mar 2021 4:02 a.m. PST

Regarding the Fulmar, enfant perdus said:

It excelled at what it was meant to, splashing enemy bombers and seaplanes and doing scouting and observation, and it was equal to its expected foes, primarily the CR42 and the Claude.
I totally agree it was adequate in 1940-1941 for its intended role, but how was it equal to the CR.42 and Claude? The Fulmar was slower, less maneuverable, and had less than 1/2 the climb rate, and I'll bet money it couldn't roll as well either. Heaven help anything that got in front of the Fulmar's many guns, but Heaven help the Fulmar pilot trying to line up a shot on a dogfighter like a Nate, Claude, CR.42, G.50, C.200, Bf-109, or even a Bf-110, all of which were based on land near targets a British carrier might try to raid.

- Ix

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP11 Mar 2021 7:35 a.m. PST

Funny you mention the Claude and the Nate.
One of the design requirements of the Oscar was manouvreability equivalent to the Nate. No one is going to dispute that an Oscar couldn't roll and move with the best of them.

I keep wondering about if the Fulmar was actually adequate for '40 or '41 though. By then the RAF/RN had samples of the Curtiss Hawk/Mohawk, Brewtser Buffalo and Grumman wildcat. Even the Curtis P40 and Bell P39 on the way.

I suspect the Fulmar was just trying to make a purse out of a pigs ear and keep the production line relevant.

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP11 Mar 2021 7:40 a.m. PST

The Mohawks, Buffalos and those supercharger-less p39s (P400's) all wound up throughout India, Malaya and New Guinea. I think the RAAF foisted the P400s back at the USAAC when they came to New Guinea.

The only things that made the Fulmar look respectable was the Gladiator and Skua.

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP11 Mar 2021 7:42 a.m. PST

Anyone compared the Bloch 151 with the radial Gnome Rhone 14?
I wonder how it faired for 1940?

I know the Romanians used the engine for their IAR80/81's and they turned out good enough to be ppretty succesful on the eastern front as well as over Ploesti.

I think the Gnome Rhone 14 only topped out around 1,000-1,100HP.

Personal logo Yellow Admiral Supporting Member of TMP11 Mar 2021 12:45 p.m. PST

Maybe the Fulmar would have had better performance with a radial engine. laugh

British carrier doctrine was different than Japan or US, and the Fulmar did fill an important role. It had good range, long loiter time, a strong armament, and an extra crewman, making it useful for finding and intercepting bombers and scouts endangering the fleet. It was never expected to escort bombers on raids against shore targets, where it would have been outclassed by nearly any land-based interceptor. As a scout and naval-only CAP, it worked fine in European waters, it's intended theater.

A bit of an aside: the Fulmar is actually a good illustration that there was nothing magical about the Merlin engine. It was a great engine, powerful and reliable and with a lot of development potential, but it did not miraculously convert an aircraft into a killer angel. The performance characteristics of an aircraft are determined by a huge number of variables, and the engine sets only a few of those.

- Ix

ancientsgamer Supporting Member of TMP11 Mar 2021 3:07 p.m. PST

Just look at that beast the P-47. A huge plane for a fighter and it showed why radial engine design has reached its peak.

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP11 Mar 2021 4:17 p.m. PST

Never thought the FW190D, Bearcat or Frank were necessarily oversized.

I think the Armee de la Hair found the same thing with the inline Hispano Suiza 12Y inline when comparing the D520 to the MS406.

Blutarski27 Mar 2021 5:43 p.m. PST

P47 – a REALLY interesting and important fighter design.

Check out "Greg's Automobile and Airplanes" channel on YouTube. He has a set of eight videos on the P47 that, taken together, probably run about five hours – highly technical, highly entertaining, highly recommended.

Greg covers a number of other classic WW2 fighters as well in similar fashion.


Wolfhag Supporting Member of TMP28 Mar 2021 2:05 p.m. PST

The P-47 was built around a massive turbocharger making it much bigger, The Bearcat was small and compact with a two-stage supercharger with water injection which did not take up as much room.

The FW-190D and TA-152 have an inline engine, look at the exhaust stacks on the side. The round cowling houses an annular radiator.

That Kurt Tank was a tricky guy.


Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP19 Apr 2021 10:04 a.m. PST

Whale oil beef …….etc etc….I always thought the FW 190 was radial engined. Pure chance I happened on this board. Serendipity they call that.


Toaster21 Apr 2021 3:56 p.m. PST

@ Deadhead, The FW190 was radial engined until the D model.


Wolfhag Supporting Member of TMP21 Apr 2021 6:49 p.m. PST

The He-219 and Do-335 engines cowlings are round but the engine is an inline too. Look for the exhaust stacks.


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