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Vickers Wellington with Bomber Command
The Vickers Wellington was originally designed to serve as a medium bomber for Bomber Command. It was to serve in that role from 1939 until October 1943, far longer than either of its two peacetime stable mates at Bomber Command, the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and the Handley Page Hampden (the Whitley was phased out of Bomber Command by April 1942, the Hampden in September 1942).
The Wellington was the end product of a lengthy design process that had begun in 1932. The Wellington Mk I finally reached the RAF in October 1938, when No. 99 Squadron received the first aircraft. Over the next year, the number of Wellingtons in service increased rapidly, until in September 1939 the type equipped eight squadrons.
Bomber Command began the war by reducing the number of squadrons it operated from 55 to 23, partly to create a reserve of aircraft. The Wellington Mk I and the new Mk IA which was already replacing it equipped the six squadrons of No. 3 Group, based in East Anglia, as well as two reserve squadrons. The Wellington’s first raid was not a success. On 4 September fourteen aircraft from Nos. 9 and 149 Squadrons attacked the entrance to the Kiel Canal at Brunsbüttel, but achieved nothing, failing to do any significant damage to German ships and suffering two losses in the process.
Bomber Command was about to get a hard lesson in the reality of daylight bombing. It was firmly believed that the defensive firepower of a formation of Wellington bombers would be enough to ensure their safety. Experience quickly proved that assumption to be ridiculously optimistic.
It would only take two attempted raids on German warships at Wilhelmshaven to shatter that believe. On 14 December six out of twelve Wellingtons were lost, five over the target and one in a crash landing. Worse was to come. On 18 December a force of twenty four Wellingtons attacked the same target. The bombers reached their target, but were under orders to only attack German ships outside the harbour. Unfortunately the German ships were inside the harbour on 18 December and so the bombers turned for home.
At that moment the German fighters arrived. Bf 109s and Bf 110s launched a series of attacks on the bomber formation during their long return journey. The much vaunted firepower of the Wellington had a fatal flaw – none of the guns could be aimed at an attacker coming from above and to the side – the front and rear guns could not turn far enough and the ventral turret could only fire at targets below the bomber. In the running battle ten Wellingtons were shot down, two forced to ditch and three crash landed. Only two German fighters were shot down.
Bomber Command learned several lessons from the disaster on 18 December. The Wellington had proved vulnerable to fire because it lacked self-sealing fuel tanks. A pre-war belief that bombers would be almost impossible to attack from the side had proven to be false. Close formations were hard to maintain in the face of anti-aircraft fire and determined fighter attacks. Most important of all, Bomber Command decided to abandon day bombing raids, and switch to night attacks only.
For the next five months Bomber Command restricted itself to dropping leaflets over Germany. The Command was under great pressure not to cause civilian casualties, or provoke a German bombing campaign in response. Only after the start of the German blitzkrieg in the west was Bomber Command allowed to attack strategic targets inside Germany. The Wellington’s first night bombing raid took place on the night of 15-16 May 1940, when a mixed force of Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens attacked the Ruhr. Five years of strategic night bombing had begun.
The first two years of the bombing offensive were largely ineffective. Night navigation was imprecise. Independent reports later suggested that very few bombs were dropped within five miles of their target. The small bombs then used by Bomber Command did little damage when they did hit their targets. Some raids had more impact that the damage done – Wellingtons were amongst the aircraft that bombed Berlin on 25-26 August 1940.
The Wellington was involved in developing many of the new technologies and techniques that would transform the effectiveness of Bomber Command.
Early 1941 was the appearance of the Mk II Wellington and also of the 4000 lb “Blockbuster” bomb. The bomb bay of the Wellington had to be modified to carry the new bomb. Work was carried out on both Mk IIs and existing Mk ICs. The first raid using the new bomb was against Essen on 1 April 1941, when two Wellingtons dropped the first of countless “Blockbusters” on a German city.
1941 also saw the first navigational aid enter RAF service. This was Gee, a system that used three widely spaced transmitter stations to help a bomber fix its location. The new system was first tested in the field on a Wellington bomber taking part in a raid on München Gladbach in August 1941. Full scale use of the new system was held back until March 1942, when a sufficient number of Gee equipped aircraft were ready.
The Wellington remained the mainstay of Bomber Command into 1942. That year also saw “Bomber” Harris take over as Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command. At this point Bomber Command was under pressure. Its bombing raids were not producing enough damage to justify the effort involved. Other demands on bomber production were preventing the growth of the bomber force.
In order to prove the value of the bomber force, Harris promised to launch a raid with 1,000 bombers against a single German target. Given that this was almost twice the operational strength of Bomber Command at the time this was very ambitious plan. Only by stripping every aircraft from the reserves and from the Operational Training Units was Harris able to reach his target. On 30-31 May 1942, 599 Wellingtons provided the main strength of the force of 1,042 bombers that attacked Cologne. German air defences were overwhelmed, just as Harris had expected. 898 of the 1,042 bombers claimed to have attacked their target, and only forty were lost. The Cologne raid and the thousand bomber raids that followed proved Harris’s point. In the aftermath of the thousand bomber raids Harris was given the resources he wanted.
Although the Wellington was the most numerous aircraft during the Cologne raid, its time as a front line strategic bomber was clearly limited. Amongst the other types involved had been the Stirling, the Halifax, the Manchester, and most importantly the first sixty eight Lancaster bombers. The four engined heavies were starting to appear in the sort of numbers that would make the Wellington obsolete in Bomber Command. The Wellington Mk III flew its last Bomber Command mission on 8 October 1943. The final major bomber variant, the Mk X, entered service with Bomber Command in late 1942. At its peak in March 1943 the type equipped twelve squadrons. However, during the summer of 1943 even the Mk X was replaced by newer aircraft. The Mk X also flew its last Bomber Command mission on 8 October 1943.
For the first three years of the war the Wellington had been the most important aircraft available to Bomber Command. From limited beginnings in 1940 the night bombing campaign had become a fearsome instrument of war by the time the Wellington was finally retired from the front line. Whatever its impact on German war industry, the Wellington and its fellow bombers forced the Germans to divert an increasingly large number of men and guns to the defence of Germany at a time when they were desperately needed elsewhere.
Wellington Units of Bomber Command
The Vickers Wellington is the great unsung hero of World War II. One of only two aircraft types that served in the front line of the RAF throughout World War II and remained in production throughout the conflict (the other was the Supermarine Spitfire), the Vickers Wellington was the mainstay of Bomber Command for the first three years of the war and became the workhorse of Coastal Command service, played a vital role during the Middle East and Mediterranean campaigns and also contributed greatly to operations in the Far East theatre. While everyone has heard of the Wellington, few realise its incredible versatility or the vitally important part that it played in RAF operations in all of the theatres of war. I could have written about the Wellington in any of its many theatres or roles, but I decided to concentrate on the Wellington units within Bomber Command. Why? Because the Wellington holds a unique and fascinating place in Bomber Command history.
After entering service with 99 Squadron in the autumn of 1938, the Wellington was involved in a number of interesting pre-war trials and exercises, which helped to prepare the aircraft and its crews for the coming war. When war came on 3 September 1939, Wellingtons took part in operational missions on that first day of the conflict (and, incidentally, on the very last day too, although by that time they were equipping the front line of Coastal Command). For the next eight months the Wellington squadrons took part in daylight bomber operations against the German fleet, including the disastrous Wilhelmshaven raid of 18 December 1939 when half the attacking force was shot down. Throughout these difficult days, the Wellington crews showed remarkable courage and tenacity, although they had little to show for their efforts. The Wellington remained in the forefront when Bomber Command switched to night operations in April 1940. At first the night raids were penny-packets of aircraft operating against a number of targets each night, but gradually the tactics matured into massed raids against a single target.
Meanwhile, the expansion of Bomber Command which had started before the war continued apace. Thanks to its rugged design and room for growth, the Wellington was chosen to equip the new squadrons, while the Hampdens and Whitleys were gradually relegated to other duties. At the outbreak of World War II, there were just seven Wellington squadrons in Bomber Command, plus another three training units, but the number Wellington units slowly increased until by the end of 1941 the Wellington equipped 22 front-line bomber squadrons. Between 1941 and 1942, it was primarily the Wellington that gave Britain and its allies the ability to take the offensive into Germany itself. Wellington crews attacked the German industrial heartland in the Ruhr Valley as well as oil production and storage facilities and the naval infrastructure. In particular, much of the effort of the Wellington crews was directed at German capital ships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen while they lay in port in Brest during 1941 and early 1942. Interestingly, the Wellington always had an international flavour to its service: at the beginning of the war the aircraft and crews of the New Zealand Squadron were integrated into Bomber Command, and over the next few years the Wellington was also used to equip one Czechoslovakian, four Polish, three Australian and no less than 11 Canadian squadrons within Bomber Command. The only Victoria Cross won by a Wellington crew member was by New Zealander Sgt James Ward, who climbed out onto the wing of his aeroplane in mid-flight to extinguish an engine fire in July 1941.
The Wellington was gradually supplanted in the front line by the four-engined bombers, the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster, but even so Wellingtons made up more than half of the entire bomber force that attacked Köln (Cologne) in the first Thousand Bomber Raid in the summer of 1942. The fact that over one-third of the Wellingtons which participated in that raid were provided by the Operational Training Units (OTUs) reflects the importance of the Wellington as an operational training aircraft. As Bomber Command continued to expand through late 1942 and early 1943, many new units, and in particular the Canadian squadrons of 6 Group, were formed with the Wellington as a stopgap until sufficient four-engined 'heavies' became available. The last bomber operation carried out by front-line Wellington squadrons was in October 1943, although the aircraft continued in front-line service as an aerial minelayer with 300 (Polish) Squadron until March 1944.
One of the most interesting facets of the Wellington in Bomber Command service was its use in OTUs. The Wellington was blessed with benign handling characteristics by the standards of the day and its rugged structure proved to be able to withstand considerable damage. These two attributes made the aircraft ideal as an operational training machine, so it became the aircraft of choice at the Bomber Command OTUs. But in terms of aircraft numbers alone, each OTU was a large unit - the equivalent strength of four operational squadrons - which meant that staffing, and to a certain extent equipping, the OTUs represented a huge drain of resources from the front line. It even meant that new airfields had to be constructed to accommodate these new units. The OTU system, therefore, represented a massive commitment in personnel, logistics and equipment - and the Wellington was central to its success. By late 1944 there were 22 bomber OTUs equipped with the Wellington and the aircraft continued to be used for training of bomber crews right until the end of the war, enabling the bomber offensive to reach its climax.
My book tells the history of the Wellington aircraft and the units that operated it during its service within RAF Bomber Command, from its conception as an Air Staff specification in 1931 through to its final operational sortie in the spring 1944 and beyond as the mainstay of the OTUs - and it is a fascinating story!
Vickers Wellington Units Of Bomber Command
This illustrated study charts the development and combat history of the Vickers Wellington units, the mainstay of the RAF heavy bomber force during the first half of World War II.
The Vickers Wellington was one of very few aircraft types to have been in production and frontline service throughout World War II, and more than 10,000 Wellingtons were built in the period. They took part in the first RAF bombing mission of the conflict when, on September 4, 1939, 14 examples from Nos 9 and 149 Sqns undertook a daring daylight attack on the Kiel Canal. However, after suffering high losses on follow-up raids, Wellingtons were withdrawn from daytime missions and began to operate at night from May 1940. They subsequently took part in raids against the Italian port city of Genoa in July 1940, and against Berlin the following month, followed by key missions in the "Battle of the Barges" in September and October, as the RAF targeted Germany''s invasion fleet assembled in French Channel ports. When RAF''s strike force expanded the next year following the introduction of the improved Wellington II, the 21 squadrons equipped with the Vickers aircraft, which included Polish-, Canadian-, and Australian-manned units, formed the backbone of the Bomber Command night bombing force. Over the next two years Wellingtons participated in all the major operations by Bomber Command, including the daylight raid against German battleships in Brest harbor in July 1942 and the first three "Thousand Bomber" raids in the summer of 1942.
This illustrated study explores the design, development, and deployment of the Vickers-Wellington type, charting its role in World War II from its earliest missions to its use in training after its withdrawal from frontline bomber missions in 1943. The text is supported by stunning full-color artwork.
A Fascinating Look at the Men & Machines of RAF Bomber Command
Members of the Royal Air Force (RAF) formed the majority of the Allies’ Bomber Command during the Second World War. They played an important role in defeating the threat of the Luftwaffe. The original crews of the RAF were not enough to provide adequate defense of Britain, so as the Second World War progressed British aircrew numbers expanded to meet the rapidly increasing need.
Although based in and controlled from Britain, the RAF Bomber Command incorporated squadrons of other nationalities into their crews. These came from Europe and further abroad. Of the 126 units serving with Bomber Command, 32 were made up of non-British units. These included two Polish and two French squadrons.
The RAF Bomber Command also built up a first-rate fleet of aircraft, making use of the most up-to-date development in aircraft design. Training centers operated in Canada, Australia, and the USA to a lesser extent, to train these additional squadrons. In the course of WWII, the aircrews would make 364,514 operational flights with high casualty rates.
As the war progressed, 8,325 planes were lost and an estimated 57,205 airmen were killed in action. There were also 8,403 men injured as well as 9,838 taken prisoner. Flying as part of an aircrew was clearly an extremely risky undertaking.
RAF Bomber Command 1940 Vickers Wellington Mk IC bombers of No. 149 Squadron in flight, circa August 1940.
Bomber Command crew personnel were organized into trades. These changed in the course of the war, and new trades were introduced to adapt to changing needs. The key roles are as follows:
The Pilot was effectively the captain and responsible for making the main decisions. His authority was based not on rank but his training, qualifications, and experience. He was still in command even if there were higher-ranking officers in the crew. On larger aircraft, he would have a Second Pilot as an assistant. The Second Pilot was also fully qualified but generally less experienced.
Another key role was the Observer. Responsibilities involved map reading and using astral and wireless navigation. He would navigate the aircraft and also decide the right time to release the payload.
The Observer would often be assisted by the Wireless Operator who frequently doubled as an Air Gunner. As well as assisting the Observer with navigation, he had to be ready to use the machine gun to defend the plane.
Lancaster pilot at the controls, left, flight engineer at right
Navigator at work. F O Phil Ingleby of 619 Squadron, killed on his second tour in August 1944
A graphic line-up of all the personnel required to keep one Avro Lancaster of RAF Bomber Command flying on operations, taken at Scampton, Lincolnshire, 11 June 1942.
On larger aircraft, there might be a dedicated Air Gunner. These mostly held the rank of sergeant. They tended to be older than average and some crews had gunners who had previously fought in the First World War.
Mid Upper Gunner with twin .303 Brownings, February 1943
The bomb aimer on a Lancaster B Mark I at his position in the nose
As aircraft became more developed, particularly when four-engine aircraft were introduced, the crew could also include a Flight Engineer for maintenance. The number of crew members varied depending on the size and type of aircraft, as well as the requirements of the mission.
The air gunner of a Battle mans the aircraft’s defensive weapon, a single pintle-mounted rapid firing Vickers K machine gun, France, 1940
Some of the most well-known aircraft included the following:
The Fairey Battle was used to support ground operations during the day. This was a single-engine light bomber and normally would have a three-man crew consisting of the pilot, observer and wireless operator who would also take on the air gunner’s role if needed.
This type of aircraft was used in the Battle of France (May-June 1940) where the Allies’ aircraft fared badly against the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitts.
Ground crew unloading 250-lb GP bombs in front of a Battle, circa 1939-1940
The bomb aimer position in the Battle was in the aircraft’s floor. Note the CSBS Mk. VII equipment
RAF No. 218 Squadron Fairey Battles over France, circa 1940
Ground crew pushing a Battle on the ground
The Handley Page Hampden carried a crew of three or four men. It was a twin-engine plane used mostly in nighttime operations. These aircraft were in service right from the beginning of Great Britain’s entry into the war. Besides bombing attacks, it was also used to drop propaganda leaflets and lay sea mines.
Handley Page Hampden of No. 83 Squadron with crew, seated on a loaded bomb trolley at Scampton, October 1940
The Vickers Wellington was a larger sized twin-engine aircraft and carried a crew of five or six men. The crew usually included a gunner to operate the rear airgun mounted on a turret. What made the Vickers Wellington so useful was its strength and resilience. It would continue flying even after sustaining damage that would have destroyed other aircraft.
It was at its best when used in night operations and was used mostly for these after daytime operations in 1939 over northern Germany resulted in heavy losses.
A Wellington DWI Mark II HX682 of No. 1 General Reconnaissance Unit. Note the magnetic field generator to detonate naval mines at Ismailia, Egypt
Bomb bay of a Wellington bomber
A crew member inside a Wellington
The tail turret of a Wellington, 1942
Although the majority of the units were British, the Bomber Command expanded to include many different nationalities. There was a substantial contingent of both Polish and French airmen. The ranks were also supplemented by members from Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. Not only did individuals enlist from these countries, but whole squadrons from the Royal Australian, Royal New Zealand, and Royal Canadian Air Forces joined the RAF Bomber Command fleet.
There were also a small number of recruits from other Commonwealth countries who enlisted as individuals. One of the oldest casualties of the Bomber Command was a 48-year-old Sri Lankan wireless operator named Kadir Nagalingam who was killed in action October 1944.
Many Polish and French airmen were motivated to continue the fight against Germany after the occupation of their country. For ease of communication, men of the same nationality were kept together as a crew.
William Wedgwood Benn, 1st Viscount Stansgate
Most of the men who manned the aircraft were between 19-25 years old. However, there were many younger men and some who were a lot older. There were several who were 17 years old and the youngest casualty is believed to have been 16-year-old Canadian Edward James Wright, who must have lied about his age to enlist.
But it was not only the young men who concealed their ages. One of the oldest was William Wedgewood Benn who was still flying at the age of 67. He was forced to stop when officials discovered his age.
Bomber Command played a vital part in the Allies’ victory and was also an example of international effort and cooperation. However, with such a heavy casualty rate, the cost was high and was paid by young men from all across the world.
The Vickers Wellington was one of very few aircraft types to have been in production and frontline service throughout World War II, and more than 10,000 Wellingtons were built in the period. They took part in the first RAF bombing mission of the conflict when, on 4 September 1939, 14 examples from Nos 9 and 149 Sqns undertook a daring daylight attack on the Kiel Canal. However, after suffering high losses on follow-up raids, Wellingtons were withdrawn from daytime missions and began to operate at night from May 1940. They subsequently took part in raids against the Italian port city of Genoa in July 1940, and against Berlin the following month, followed by key missions in the ‘Battle of the Barges’ in September and October, as the RAF targeted the Germany’s invasion fleet being assembled in French Channel ports. When RAF’s strike force expanded the next year following the introduction of the improved Wellington II, the 21 squadrons equipped with the Vickers aircraft, which included Polish-, Canadian- and Australian-manned units, formed the backbone of the Bomber Command night bombing force. Over the next two years Wellingtons participated in all the major operations by Bomber Command, including the daylight raid against German battleships in Brest harbour in July 1942 and the first three ‘Thousand Bomber’ raids in the summer of 1942.
This illustrated study explores the design, development, and deployment of the Vickers-Wellington type, charting its role in World War II from its earliest missions to its use in training after its withdrawal from frontline bomber missions in 1943. The text is supported by stunning full-colour artwork.
 WELLINGTON HIGH-ALTITUDE BOMBERS & MARITIME PATROLLERS
* The "Wellington Mark V" was an experimental high-altitude bomber variant, with a pressurized forward compartment, a stretched wingspan, and turbocharged Hercules radials -- the precise engine variant fit is confusing, but in any case, the Hercules engines did not provide the desired altitude performance, and only three Mark Vs were built.
However, 63 "Mark VI" high-altitude bombers were built, with the same airframe but with Merlin 60 engines providing 1,195 kW (1,600 HP), as well as a remote-control tail turret. Orders for further production were canceled. The Mark VIs never saw combat, though two were flown by a service squadron for a short time, presumably as operational evaluation. Most of the Mark VI bombers were converted to "Wellington Mark VIG" trainers for the Gee radio precision bombing system.
* The "Wellington Mark VII" was a single prototype, fitted with Merlin XX engines it did not proceed to production. Following the Mark VII was the "Wellington General Reconnaissance (GR) Mark VIII", a maritime patrol aircraft based on the B.IC with Pegasus XVIII engines, and produced in three subvariants:
- 271 machines for daylight maritime patrol, featuring a torpedo rack under each wing, and longwave ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) Mark II maritime surveillance radar, characterized by a prominent row of "stickleback" aerials along the aircraft's spine. It was apparently used primarily for torpedo attacks on surface vessels, proving its worth in during the North Africa campaign in sinking German and Italian cargo vessels.
That gave a total of 394 GR.VIIIs, all built at Weybridge. The GR.VIII was followed by improved maritime patrol variants:
- The "Wellington General Reconnaissance Mark XI" was effectively a B.X, with Hercules VI or XVI engines, in a maritime patrol configuration similar to that of the day-attack GR.VIII, with ASV II radar and provision for a torpedo under each wing. 180 GR.XIs were built at Weybridge (105) and Blackpool (75).
Rampside Classic – 1937 Vickers Wellington – Bomber Command’s Only Ever-Present
We all know the Lancaster – the real heavyweight of the RAF’s campaign over Germany and the occupied nations of western Europe. As Britain celebrates the centenary of the world’s first independent air force, we should also remember the very different Vickers Wellington, which outnumbered even the Lancaster was produced before, during and after the war and bore the stamp of an individual genius like very few other aircraft have ever done.
There are few more venerable or significant names in the tortuous corporate history of British engineering business than Vickers and Armstrong. Vickers was founded in Sheffield in 1828, to cast high quality specialist steel. William Armstrong (1810-1900) founded his armaments, cranes and hydraulics business in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1847, and then merged with rival Joseph Whitworth (the inventor of the British Standard Whitworth screw thread) in 1897.
By 1927, when the two businesses merged as Vickers-Armstrongs, it produced armaments (the British Army’s standard was the Vickers machine gun the Royal Navy favoured Armstrong’s naval guns), and the tanks and ships to carry them – here, the battlecruiser Hatsuse, built for the Japanese Navy at Armstrong’s famous Elswick Works in Newcastle, passes through Armstrong’s iconic swing bridge over the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead, en route to the North Sea and the Far East in 1900.
But there was more – steam locomotives for Britain and abroad submarines from the Vickers yard at Barrow in Furness – now the only site in Britain capable of building the Navy’s subs and cars – Armstrong Whitworth produced cars under its own name, and Vickers owned the Wolseley company, where Herbert Austin began his engineering career, designing sheep shearing machines in Australia, before he turned to cars. Both car businesses were sold in 1928, to the aviation and motoring entrepreneur J D Siddeley and the then dominant William Morris respectively, who made Wolseley his premium brand, in modern speak.
And there were planes. Both Vickers and Armstrong had aviation businesses. The first plane to fly the Atlantic non-stop was a Vickers Vimy bomber, flown by RAF veterans John Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919. The Vickers aviation business was retained, as Vickers-Armstrongs by 1930, it also included the Supermarine company, of Spitfire fame. The Armstrong-Whitworth aviation business was sold to Siddeley, and became part of the Hawker group by 1936. So there were two competing aircraft companies, both inheriting the Armstrong name not surprisingly, they became better known as ‘Vickers’ and ‘Hawker Siddeley’. Confused? You will be!
In 1932, the RAF issued a specification to the British aircraft manufacturers, for a twin engine medium bomber capable of greater performance than the air force’s largely biplane existing fleet, such as the antiquated Handley Page Hyderabad. And both Vickers-Armstrong and Armstrong Whitworth were among those competing for the business.
Three designs made it in to production from this specification. The Handley Page Hampden used Bristol Pegasus radial engines, and featured an almost fighter like fuselage just 3 feet wide for speed and agility. Bombload was only 4,000lb, in an very inflexible bomb bay – a consequence of the cramped size. Over 1,400 were built, before it ended its Bomber Command career in 1942 as the Halifax began to stream out of Handley-Page’s factories.
The Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley was named after the factory near Coventry where it was built, which was later used by Rootes and is now (much developed and rebuilt) Jaguar’s headquarters and engineering centre. A semi-monocoque fuselage and Armstrong-Whitworth’s own Tiger engines allowed a bombload of up to 7,000lb, but performance was soon shown to be too slow. The Whitley has the distinction of being the first British bomber of the war to fly over Germany – dropping propaganda leaflets on 3 September 1939. In all, 1,800 were built, and many had a second career as glider tug and paratroop transport, after their frontline bombing role ended in 1942, but all had left RAF service by early 1944.
But one of these medium bomber designs did see out the war with Bomber Command – the Vickers-Armstrong Wellington. In fact, it was the only British bomber to serve right through the war, and to be produced before, during and after the conflict. And it was a ground-breaking design, from an engineer who loved breaking new ground – Barnes Wallis.
Sir Barnes Neville Wallis CBE FRS RDI FRAeS (1887-1979) worked for Vickers (and its nationalised successor, the British Aircraft Corporation) from 1913 to 1971. His early career focussed on the use of light alloys to replace wood in airframes, which led to an interest in airships in the 1920s. His R100 was designed to meet a specification from government under the Imperial Airships Scheme, calling for an airship capable of carrying 100 passengers for 3,000 miles (at 60mph!).
The R100 was built to Barnes Wallis’ own design, rather than existing airship principles. Instead of a heavy frame of stainless steel, he used Duralumin (an alloy of aluminium and copper) for lightness, with the strength derived from the geodetic structure he devised. The structure is essentially a lattice that gives great strength, but also simplicity of manufacture. The R100, which was 700 feet long, had just 11 pattern of component in its frame. Meccano for grown-ups, perhaps.
R100 succeeded in crossing the Atlantic to Canada in under six days in 1930, but the programme was curtailed when the rival R101 crashed in France en route to India, killing many of the engineers and political supporters of the airship programme. R100 never flew again, but Wallis was determined to use the geodetic concept again.
He persuaded Vickers-Armstrong that a geodetic frame would work for a bomber, and his design quickly demonstrated its strength, allowing the power and bombload of the design to steadily increase, with a very adaptable bomb bay. The skeleton was composed of 1,650 pieces, which fulfilled its promise to give the Wellington its famous and exceptional strength and ability to absorb punishment from anti-aircraft guns and nightfighters. The skin was traditional stretched and doped fabric – probably the last British bomber with this form of skin. This wartime cartoon overstates it in typical British style, but you get the idea.
The prototype Wellington first flew in June 1936 an RAF production order was 180 was placed in August the same year, such was the quality of the design and the urgency of the need, and the first production example was completed in November 1937. This was powered by the nine cylinder single row air cooled Bristol Pegasus radial engines, and production was quickly ramped up as the international situation deteriorated. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, the RAF had ten active Wellington squadrons.
The Wellington was 64 feet long, with a wingspan of 86 feet. It carried six machine guns, in pairs in nose and tail turrets, and in the waist of the fuselage. As with other British bombers, this level of defensive armament was quickly shown to be inadequate for daylight raids over Germany, pushing Bomber Command into night operations. The crew was six strong – pilot, navigator, wireless operator and three gunners – front (who doubled as bomb aimer), middle and rear.
Production was quickly ramped up as the Wellington showed its superiority over the other twin engined bombers by 1938, as well as Vickers, both Gloster Aircraft and, inevitably, Armstrong-Whitworth were producing Wellingtons for the RAF. Production peaked at 300 per month in 1942, with most production at Vickers’ sites at Weybridge (site of the Brooklands racetrack and aerodrome) and Broughton, near Chester (now the home of Airbus’s wing manufacturing). The last Wellington, of almost 11,500, was built in October 1945.
The Wellington holds the distinction of being the first British bomber of the war to attack Germany, with a raid on shipping at Brunsbuttel, where the Kiel Canal and the River Elbe meet the North Sea. But early wartime experience for Bomber Command was dispiriting. Daylight raids produced heavy losses, and night raids produced meagre results until the navigation and bomb aiming aids that made Bomber Command one of the most technically accomplished fighting forces yet seen began to appear from 1942 onwards. Symbolic of the new era was the first 1,000 bomber raid of the war, in May 1942, when 1,047 RAF bombers attacked Cologne (Koln) in one night – twenty tons of bombs a minute, according to the newsreels. 599 of the bombers were Wellingtons.
Like all Bomber Command flying crew, all Wellington crews were volunteers, from across the British Empire and the occupied countries of Europe. And remember that 70% of Bomber Command crew were killed, injured or captured – by far the highest rate for any of the Allied services. One episode from a Wellington sortie shows the risks these men faced, and the bravery they displayed. In July 1941, Flight Sergeant James Allen Ward, a New Zealander serving in a Wellington of 75 (NZ) Squadron, RAF, on a raid to Munster, climbed out on the wing of his plane, making handholds by tearing the wing fabric, to successfully extinguish a petrol fire caused by a German nightfighter in the starboard engine, and then safely made his way back inside the plane. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military decoration. And when he met Winston Churchill, he confessed to being awed by the Prime Minister’s presence. ‘Then you can imagine how humble I feel in yours’ replied Churchill.
In October 1943, workers at Vickers’ Broughton site (albeit the site was managed by the Ministry of Aircraft Production) assembled a Wellington in 23 hours 50 minutes, from ‘first bolt to take-off’, and all filmed as part of the propaganda effort by the Ministry of Information.
But by now, the Wellington was relegated from the frontline over occupied Europe, as the awesome but magnificent Lancaster and Halifax four engined ‘heavies’ poured out of the factories and onto the bomber bases of eastern England.
The Wellington found a new niche in Coastal Command, patrolling the sea-lanes of the eastern Atlantic and successfully attacking German U-Boats. Others equipped with a 48ft metal hoop below the aircraft were used to detect and explode enemy mines by magnetic field. It also starred in the North African campaign (many flown by the South African Air Force) and in the far east – it was the largest RAF bomber used outside Europe.
Unlike the Whitley, the Wellington was not suited to towing gliders – the longitudinal strain caused the geodetic structure to flex alarmingly. Gliders were left to the remaining Whitleys, and increasingly to the Douglas DC-3 Dakota, and the four engined but unsuccessful Short Stirling heavy bomber.RAF Service ended in 1953 one of the Wellington’s last duties was as in flight camera plane for the making of the ‘Dambusters’ film, plus a bit part recreating the dropping of the famous ‘bouncing bomb’ – which was also designed by Barnes Wallis, of course. Two Wellingtons remain in Britain. One is at the Brooklands Air Museum, on the site of the factory where it was built in 1939 it then spent almost half a century in Loch Ness after a training flight crash in 1940. It completed 14 raids over Germany. The other is fittingly at the RAF Museum at Cosford, north of Birmingham.
And why was the plane called the Wimpy by its crews? Wimpy Wellington from the Popeye cartoon, of course. Even with that 70% casualty rate, there was a funny side to one of the most significant aircraft in RAF history.
And at last a fitting memorial to the men of RAF Bomber Command has been completed. Lest we Forget.
RAF Hawker Hurricane
Flight Artworks depictions featuring the iconic WWII fighter aircraft. RAF Hurricane, Hawker Hurricane, Hurricane fighter, RAF Fighter Command, front line fighter, Battle of Britain fighter, RAF workhorse, iconic fighter aircraft,
Lancaster bomber aircraft
Images of Avro Lancasters, many in wartime WWII scenes. Avro Lancaster, Lancaster bomber, heavy bomber, RAF Bomber Command, Flight Artworks, four-engined bomber, WWII bomber, Bomber Harris,
Vickers Wellington bomber
A mainstay of RAF Bomber Command's offensive operations until bigger four-engined aircraft came along, and used throughout WWII in various roles. Wellington, Wellington Mk IC, Wellington Mk X, RAF bomber,
Photographs that evoke a remembrance of people's wartime sacrifices. Lest we forget, Remembrance, memorial, in memoriam, memorial flight, poppies, poppy fields, red poppies,
RAF remembrance poppies
Evocative Flight Artworks depictions "lest we forget" the sacrifices made by aircrew in wartime, and associated images. Remembrance, memorial, in memoriam, memorial flight, poppies, poppy fields, red poppies,
Landscape photography from around Scotland. Scottish coasts, seascapes, mountains, lochs, castles and scenery from the Highlands to the Borders.
Images featuring the iconic RAF Cold War jet. Avro Vulcan, XH558, Vulcan bomber, V-bomber, V-force, Cold War, white Vulcan, Vulcan B1, Vulcan B2,
RAF Mosquito aircraft
De Havilland Mosquito bombers and fighter bombers depicted in WWII roles. DH Mosquito, RAF Mosquito,
The long sea loch on the west coast of Scotland. Linnhe, Loch Linnhe, sea loch,
Images of the iconic WWII RAF fighter aircraft, many in combat scenes. Supermarine Spitfires served throughout the war in all theatres. Spitfire, RAF Spitfire, Spitfire fighter, Spiftire, elliptical wing, eight-gun fighter, cannon-armed Spitfire, Spitfire Ia, Spitfire IIa, Spitfire IIa, Spitfire IIb, Spitfire Vb, Spitfire IX, Spitfire VIII, Spitfire XIV, Spitfire XVI,
Battle of Britain
Images of aircraft and scenes from the dramatic WWII aerial conflict. Battle of Britain, finest hour, the Few, Spitfire, Spiftire, Hurricane, RAF Fighter Command, RAF fighter, Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire,
Yachts, smacks, barges and more racing on the water. Sail, sailing, sail racing, racing yachts, yacht race, sailboats, sailboat racing, watersports,
Thames sailing barges
The classic gaff-rigged transport vessels in all their glory. Thames barge, sailing barge, Thames sailing barge, gaff-rigged barge, gaff rigg, red sails, brown sails, canvas sails, tall sails,
Dambusters 617 Squadron
Featuring aircraft and scenes from the historic WWII operation against German dams. Dambusters, Dam Busters, 617 Squadron, Barnes Wallis, bouncing bomb, Guy Gibson, Ruhr dams, Johnny Johnson,
D-Day related aviation
Flight Artworks depictions of aerial combat scenes before, during and after the Normandy landings in 1944. D-Day, Day, Normandy landings, Normandy invasion, liberation of Europe, beachhead, D-Day stripes, D-Day aircraft,
The iconic RAF heavy bomber at the end of the day. Avro Lancaster, sunset, sundown, dusk, end of the day, at the going down of the sun, lest we forget, remembrance,
Photos featuring the beautiful Balearic island of Mallorca / Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea.
Two Lancasters in the UK
Pictures celebrating the time that two surviving Avro Lancaster bombers flew in formation in the UK, with the visit of the Canadian aircraft, VR-A.
Images depicting the ferocious RAF fighter/attack aircraft in action in WWII.
Santorini and Aegean Sea
Scenes from the beautiful Aegean island in Greece.
Glencoe, Glen Etive and Ranch Moor
Scenes from the Highlands of Scotland
Lancaster Type 464
Featuring specially adapted 'Dambusters' Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron.
New Zealand Aotearoa vistas
Images from North and South Islands of Aotearoa, the 'land of the long white cloud'.
Bomber Harris, not a happy man (3)
As I mentioned in my two previous blog posts, Roy Irons’ book “The Relentless Offensive: War and Bomber Command” is one of the most informative I have ever read about the RAF’s bombing offensive over Germany, and the man from Southern Rhodesia in charge of it, Arthur Harris:
In the early years of the conflict, of course, the biggest problem faced by the RAF was that most fundamental of questions, namely whether the somewhat second rate aircraft of Bomber Command were actually hitting their targets in Germany:
An early attempt to find out the answer to that rather basic question was the Butt report, which examined night bombing by the RAF in as much detail as possible, and produced its rather disappointing conclusion in early August 1941.
The Butt Report discovered, for example, that most bombs dropped at night did not fall within five miles of their target. At the same time, though, the huge losses of aircraft and aircrew during daylight raids in 1939-1940 meant that the RAF could not possibly switch to that approach as a method of bombing the enemy with any claim to accuracy.
The only solution, therefore, was to continue with bombing at night, but, instead of worrying about civilian casualties, to pursue the Luftwaffe’s own tactic of bombing a whole area, rather than a specific target. Churchill and his war cabinet immediately ordered this change in policy from specific targets such as a factory or a railway junction, to the general bombing of an entire part of a city or town.
Area bombing, of course, could be extremely effective. It flattened the factories of the Third Reich and it destroyed the homes of the workers who worked there:
A new leader was appointed at Bomber Command to implement Churchill’s policy and to develop the tactics and technology to carry out the task more effectively. That man was Sir Arthur Harris, commonly known as “Bomber” Harris by the press and often within the RAF as “Butcher”. Harris was the most forthright of men and he did not suffer fools gladly:
Harris’ brief was to kill Germans. Anybody or anything which impaired the RAF’s ability to do this, he would subject to a severe tongue lashing. Even his ordinary opinions were extremely forthright, although there is little to fault in his thoughts about the conflict and what we had to do:
“War. The only thing that matters is that you win. You bloody well win !”
Such directness was why Harris ended up so hated by so many of his upper class superiors. He was, though, adored by the men under him, the “Old Lags” as he called them. Harris committed the cardinal sin of telling a large number of people, particularly those who outranked him, just how useless they were.
We have already looked at the problem of dropping bombs by night on, for example, the Gelsenkirchen tank factory and destroying it completely, but causing no damage whatsoever to the Gelsenkirchen Tea and Coffee shop next door.
That dilly of a pickle was solved, eventually, not just by the introduction of area bombing, but by improvements in the RAF’s technology and by training navigators until they knew what they were doing:
At the same time, another major problem was that enormous numbers of bombers were being shot down, either by flak or by nightfighters. This in turn, deprived Bomber Command not only of an expensive aircraft, but of a trained pilot, a trained navigator, a trained bomb aimer and any number of trained gunners and so on:
Many of these problems came from the fact that all British bombers were defending themselves with 0·303 guns, that is to say, guns of exactly the same calibre as an ordinary soldier’s rifle. In the 1920s, a lecturer at the RAF Staff College showed perhaps just how confused thinking was on this subject. Try as I might, I can make no sense of what he said:
“The aircraft gun is not likely to be required to penetrate armour and a couple of 0·5 inch bullets in a pilot will incapacitate him as much as the fragment of a one and a half pound shell. On the other hand a 0·303 bullet has but little effect on any aeroplane.”
Strange arguments, but whatever point is being made here, it is clear that the enemy pilot was being viewed as the target of the bomber’s defensive fire rather than his aircraft. All that was needed to hurt him was a rifle bullet, so the 0·303 gun was chosen. Here are the three turrets of a Lancaster:
The official explanation for keeping the 0·303 guns was that eight 0·5 cannons, firing deadly explosive shells, were too heavy to be carried and would compromise the Lancaster’s bombload. Furthermore, the weight of the stored ammunition for the cannons would always affect the centre of gravity of the aircraft. That latter point is ridiculous, of course, because, in his design of any future bomber, the designer would automatically make due allowance for the weight of the ammunition, including any changes in that weight as the ammunition was used.
Not connected with this book by Roy Irons are the almost irresistible stories of aircrew using their initiative to protect themselves. Somewhere I have read of turrets being taken from the B-24 Liberator and used as rear turrets on Lancasters. Somewhere else I am reasonably sure that I have heard of unofficial swaps between the turrets from Lancasters and the turrets from Vickers Wellingtons.
Whatever the truth of this, The RAF did order 600 Rose turrets in June 1944. They were equipped with the two of the standard American defensive weapons used in the turrets of the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator:
The weapon in question was the American light-barrel Browning ·50-calibre AN/M2 heavy machine gun. Four hundred turrets were completed by the end of the war although only a mere one hundred and eighty were fitted. Typical of Harris’ remarks was his statement that:
“this turret was the only improvement made to the defensive armament of the RAF’s heavy bombers after 1942, and those responsible for turret design and production have displayed an extraordinary disregard for Bomber Command’s requirements”.
Not all Wellington crews had it their own way, however. Although numerous decorations for gallantry and skill were won by Wellington crews, there is no doubt that many similar exploits unfortunately went unrecorded. One which was, however, properly documented is recalled by the photographs on this page. Sergeant James Allen Ward won the only Victoria Cross awarded to a Wellington crew member. How he won it can only be a source of astonishment when the circumstances are considered. Ward, a New Zealander born in 1919, was a student teacher when, in July 1940, he enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. After training, he converted to Wellingtons at 20 OTU at Lossiemouth, Scotland and in June 1941 hejoined No 75 (NZ) Squadron, one of the 3 Group Wellington squadrons based at Feltwell, Norfolk and which in 1940 had been transferred to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF).
Sergeant Ward’s seventh operation-on the night of July 7, 1941-was as second pilot of Wellington IC L7818.
With 40 other 3 Group aircraft from East Anglian bases he took part in a raid on Munster in Westphalia, Northern Germany-just north of the great railway yards at Hamm which had been battered continually in attacks on the Rhur. Soon after setting course for return to base, the Wellington was attacked from below by a Messerschmitt 110 night fighter and was hit by cannon fire a bullet hitting the rear gunner in one foot. He delivered a burst of fire which sent the fighter on its way, smoking and it was not seen again. The Messerschmitt had, however, done its work and the crippled Wellington, bomb doors sagging open, and fuel leaking from a ruptured pipe in the starboard wing centre section, suddenly caught fire. Quickly throttling back to as slow a speed as he dared, the Canadian pilot, Sqn Ldr R. P. Widdowson, ordered his crew to prepare to abandon the aircraft, but first to try to put the fire out, as it threatened to engulf the whole fabric-covered wing. Fire extinguisher and coffee flask were used to no avail. Sgt Ward had a look at the fire from the astro-dome amidships and then decided to try to climb out onto the wing and put out the fire with a canvas engine cover which was in use as a cushion. At first, he proposed to abandon his parachute to reduce wind resistance, but was persuaded otherwise. Despite protests by Sgt Lawton, a fellow New Zealander and navigator, Ward lowered the astrodome into the fuselage and, with a line taken from a dinghy tied to his waist, gingerly raised himself into the 90mph gale whipping past him along the top of the fuselage.
With the greatest of difficulty, Ward managed to kick holes into the smooth and taut fabric covering of the fuselage and was able to give himself enough hand and footholds to cling precariously to the outside of the Wellington. Fortunately, the wing was only about three feet below him-but it was burning in the same forced draught that was dragging at him. He managed to hang on, face down on the wing surface, gripping the structure with one hand and holding the engine cover in the other-somehow managing to persuade the flapping mass of canvas over the flames and into the hole in the fabric.
Momentarily, the flames disappeared and for several seconds-Ward held his arms in position. Then, as soon as he moved his hand, his arm by now being drained of strength, the cover was whipped away by the Slipstream and the flames reappeared-but less intensely.
Unable to do more and near exhaustion, Sgt Ward crawled back the way he had come and, with help from the navigator, managed to regain the astro-hatch and comparative safety. As he recovered inside the Wellington, he saw the fire blaze up again briefly and then burn itself out. The captain set course for home and eventually a landing was made at Newmarket without brakes or flaps, the battered Wellington trundling to a stop against the boundary fence. It never flew again, the damage had been too great. But, due to the almost superhuman endurance of the young New Zealand co-pilot, it brought its crew home. Ward was awarded the VC and his captain the DFC. The rear gunner, who had scored a victory over the offending Messerschmitt despite his wound, was awarded the DFM.
Sadly, two months after this flight, Sergeant Ward’s aircraft, of which he had been made captain, was hit by flak while on a bombing raid over Hamburg. Wellington IC X3205 fell in flames and only two of the crew escaped. James Ward was not one of them and he was later buried in Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg. His memory has been perpetuated, however, in one of the Galleries (No 6) at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon which is dedicated to winners of the Victoria Cross and George Cross.