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Tuesday 21 June 2011

Cold War collaboration

 The MiG-15 was the first really successful jet fighter, responsible for the shooting-down of more than a thousand United Nations aircraft during the Korean War. Built in huge numbers during the late 1940s and early 1950s, MiG-15s were flown not only by the Soviet Union, but by all its allies (the example pictured above, at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, is shown in North Korean colours). In the English-speaking world, the word "MiG" became synonymous with "enemy aircraft"... and remained so for the duration of the Cold War.

The success of the MiG-15 was due to the combination of a first-class airframe, designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Bureau of Moscow, with a first-class engine, designed by the Rolls-Royce company of Derby, England. "Hold on a second!" you cry -- "The MiG-15 had an engine designed in England? Did those pesky Russians steal a British engine and reverse engineer it in Moscow? Or did some Guardian-reading pinko Oxbridge spy sell them the secret plans?" Well, neither, actually. The British government gave the Soviet Union a copy of a Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet, complete with permission to produce it under licence, as a good-will gesture in 1946.

At that time the Russians were lagging a long way behind the West in jet technology, so the Soviet leader, who was called Stalin, asked the British Prime Minister, who was called Clement Attlee, if they could borrow one of ours. Stalin was just trying it on -- he never seriously expected to be given an engine just like that, but Attlee was so overawed he let him have one anyway. Which probably explains why you've heard of Stalin but you've never heard of Attlee.

But maybe Attlee wasn't such a fool after all... maybe he knew exactly what he was doing. In 1974, still in the midst of the Cold War, John Brunner wrote a short story called "The Protocols of the Elders of Britain" in which a computer engineer succeeds in decrypting an archive of Top Secret messages sent between the British government and its counterparts all over the world -- not just friendly countries, but so-called "enemies" as well. It turns out they are all conspiring together to make the world a volatile and unstable place... something that Clement Attlee certainly did when he gave Stalin the secrets of the jet engine!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating Andrew. I had no idea! What monumental folly.