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.