Product Reviews

Published on December 2nd, 2018 | by Guy Warner


Book Review – The Merlin by Gordon AA Wilson

I was intrigued to learn of this book as I had never come across the biography of an engine before, not even of the Merlin, which must rank as one of the most famous engines in history.

By virtue of its design excellence in terms of size, power to weight ratio and reliability, the Merlin was fitted in many aircraft – fighters (day and night, single and twin engine), photo-reconnaissance types, bombers (light, medium and heavy), military transports, civil airliners and cargo carriers. The author sets the scene by succinctly telling the story of the Rolls-Royce from its inception in 1904, including potted biographies of Henry Royce and Charles Stewart Rolls. He also briefly digresses on the development of the machine since the 14th century, steam power in the 18th century and the aero engine from 1903.

The next chapter examines in more detail R-R aero engines from the Eagle of 1915 to the Goshawk in 1933. It is of interest to note that the first R-R engine to take to the air was one of a pair of Eagles fitted to a Handley Page O/100 on 18th December 1915 at Hendon. Some 20 years later the PV12 – which would soon become the Merlin – first flew in a Hawker Hart in April 1935. Mention is then made of some of those who would contribute to the Merlin’s success, some well-known, some much less so – Ernest Hives, Elsie MacGill, Sydney Camm, RJ Mitchell, Beverley Shenstone, Joseph Smith, to name but a few. There is no doubt that the author has done his homework an is deeply interested in his subject, he writes in a conversational, if occasionally florid, style and explains technical matters in layman’s language. I feel that the book would have benefited from a little more editing – cutting down on some of the digressions and removing some of the repetition of information.

We then look at some teething problems and how they were resolved before moving to the meat of the book, chapters on the principal aircraft which used the Merlin: Hurricane, Spitfire, Mosquito, Lancaster and Mustang. Their histories are competently recounted, though much of the material is familiar, the best, in my opinion, was the chapter on the Mustang. More digressions ensue on, for example, the development of radar and the Fighter Command control system. Fifteen other aircraft types are also briefly profiled.

I would like to have seen a more in-depth analysis of how R-R met the technical challenges in development and engineering of continually improving the Merlin to meet the needs of its many roles, under the stress of war. Stanley Hooker and the supercharger have but small walk-on parts and could have featured more strongly. The diversification and outsourcing of the production base is well-covered. I was surprised to learn that of 168,000 Merlins, only 32,000 were made by R-R in Derby. Pages 191 to 198 are recommended as a very handy summary of 64 different versions of the engine.

Preserved and restored Merlin-powered aircraft are covered in the concluding chapter. A useful appendix describes R-R aero engines succeeding the Merlin from the Peregrine to today’s Trent.

In summary I would describe this book as an interesting addition to the enthusiast’s bookshelf, even if slightly flawed, as discussed above.

The Merlin – the engine that won the Second World War by Gordon AA Wilson, 272 pages, 50 illustrations, £18.99, Amberley Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4456-56816

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