The Comet Affair
Why the cold war forced the British government to choose between keeping a friend and arming an enemy.
- By Jeffrey A. Engel
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
Rolls Royce (SI Neg. #90-9560)
(Page 2 of 6)
“How Mad We Are!”
Pressed with mounting debts at the end of World War II, Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s government had offered to sell any Royal Air Force airplane to any nation with the cash.
The British Air Ministry had reassured Attlee that it “did not worry about selling its best warplanes abroad.” The technical prowess of British manufacturers was so great that RAF warplanes would surely always outpace Soviet Bloc designs, and indeed, Rolls-Royce was already working on engines far more powerful than the Nene and Derwent. According to the British Air Ministry, “Rolls-Royce are confident that they will be able to keep several steps ahead of any country” to whom they sold an engine. From both military and commercial perspectives, Britain felt secure.
Then the Soviets came calling.
It was a proposition no one expected. In the spring of 1946, without even so much as an informal inquiry beforehand, Moscow sent an order for 20 Nene and Derwent engines. The order came accompanied by a threat: Failure to sell could further harm deteriorating East-West relations, and dash any hope of the British purchasing much-needed Soviet timber. Furthermore, the Russians had a long memory for slights.
Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, warned Attlee that the Soviets might be producing copies of the British engines in as little as three to five years; at one meeting he burst out: “How mad we are!” for even considering the sale.
He had a point: The Soviets had already proved themselves skilled and swift reverse-engineers. In 1944, the Soviets had taken three U.S. B-29s that had been “interned” in Siberia after the pilots had made emergency landings there in World War II’s final months (see “Made in the U.S.S.R.,” Feb./Mar. 2001); in three years the Soviets had broken the bombers apart piece by piece and produced copies of them, right down to the extra ashtrays and chewing gum containers U.S. pilots had rigged up in the cockpit.
Despite all the misgivings, Attlee felt he had to approve the Nene sales. By the summer of 1947, more than 50 engines had arrived in Soviet ports.
U.S. news media were quick to spread the startling news. “An outrage,” one Washington newspaper exclaimed, while another editorialized that “few stories are of greater importance to the American public” than Britain’s role in the deaths of American pilots. The news reports sent “all hell bucking loose on Capitol Hill,” observed Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett. Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington brooded: “The British government has placed economic factors ahead of any present or future military implications which might be involved,” a decision that “might have rather grave implications respecting the security of the United States.” Lovett agreed. Selling advanced engines to the Soviets “was not only unwise but unnecessary,” he roared at Lord Iverchapel, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, but “also showed a surprising lack of cooperation” in the fight against global Communism. Any similar sale in the future “might have very far-reaching results in other matters affecting the relationship of our two governments.” In other words: If Britain ever made such a move again, it might soon find itself dangerously alone.