The longest-serving of the trio of medium bombers with which Bomber Command at the outset of World War II, the Wellington, affectionately known as the 'Wimpey' by its crews, flew on many of the defining operations until its last bombing mission over the Reich in October 1943, although a few soldiered on with specialist units within the Command until January 1945.
The Wellington can trace its origins back to 1932 when, in answer to Air Ministry Specification B9/32, Vickers proposed a twin-engined 'heavy' bomber with an empty weight of 6,500lbs. (These limits were imposed by the Ministry in light of the on-going Geneva Conference on disarmament which was seeking to eliminate 'heavy' bombers in toto.) Utilising geodetic construction, a method of 'weaving' the individual struts of the fuselage structure to provide an incredibly resilient airframe, able to absorb tremendous damage, combined with a low weight penalty.
The first aircraft took to the air some four years later in June 1936 and was, for a short time, known as the Vickers Crecy (and appeared at the 1932 Hendon Air Display as such) before the name Wellington was adopted. The prototype differed from production aircraft in carrying no defensive armament, smaller tail (from the Stranraer flying boat), was slightly smaller and more streamlined.
The first true Wellington took to the air just before Christmas 1937, less than two years after a revised Specification, B29/35, had been drawn up around the Vickers design, and the first order for 180 aircraft placed for the RAF. The aircraft now featured nose and tail turrets designed by Vickers as well as a retractable 'dustbin' under the belly of the aircraft. These were quickly deleted and the nose and tail positions refitted with turrets from Fraser Nash.
The Wellington was almost a quantum leap ahead for Bomber Command both in terms of construction, payload (some three times greater than Heyford then in service) and armament. The first squadron to receive the Wellington was No 99 based at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, in October 1938 and by September 1939 a further seven squadrons (Nos 9, 37, 38, 115, 149, 214 and 215), and all in No 3 Group, had traded their Heyfords and Hendons for Wellingtons.
The type was principally involved in day operations, and the very first full day of conflict, 4 September 1939, saw 14 Wellingtons from Nos 9 and 149 Squadrons involved in action against the German fleet at Brunsbüttel. This and subsequent daylight raids were flown against steadily increasing fighter opposition and the losses mounted. Bomber Command's thinking of that time, namely that a concentrated formation of a bombers could defend itself against enemy opposition, was shown to be folly by two raids flown in December 1939.
As a precursor to this, 24 aircraft from Nos 38, 115 and 149 Squadrons were ordered to attack German warships in the Heligoland Bight on the 3rd of the month. Cloud over the target area meant that no attacks could be carried out and no defending aircraft were encountered. Staff back at Bomber Command Headquarters believed that this meant that Wellingtons were able to successfully penetrate German defenders in daylight and ordered 12 aircraft from No 99 Squadron to attack German ships in the Schillig Roads on the 14th. Half of the aircraft involved were lost (three to flak and fighters, two collided and one crashed on landing). Then, four days later, 24 aircraft from Nos 9, 37 and 149 Squadrons were again ordered to the Schillig Roads. This time, fore-warned by radar stations, the fighters were able to intercept the formation en-route. Nine Wellingtons were shot down, three ditched into the sea and a further three were forced to seek other landing strips as they were too badly damaged to return.
Despite these losses, the Wellington was proving to be a sturdy aircraft, by far the most capable of the medium bombers in service at the time, and this was reflected in the numbers of aircraft being ordered. The Wellington's capacious bomb bay also meant that it could carry the 2,000- and subsequent 4,000lb bombs.
By October 1940, the next version of the Wellington, the Mark II, was entering service. This aircraft had two of the famous Merlin engines instead of the earlier Tiger radials, but proved less popular and it wasn't long before the Mark III, powered by Hercules radials, was introduced. The Mark IV, of which only 220 were built, followed in mid-1941 and served for about 18 months, primarily with the Polish squadrons.
Two interesting versions were then developed, the Marks V and VI. Both were intended for high-altitude operations and had a completely redesigned forward fuselage with a pressurised compartment for the crew and small bubble canopy for the pilot. Both versions had engines fitted with superchargers (Hercules' and Merlins) to provide the additional performance required to achieve the higher altitudes, but neither was flown operationally, although a pair of Wellington VIs did join No 109 Squadron for a short time.
The final Wellington version to see service with Bomber Command was the Mark X which was introduced in late 1942. Of the 3,803 built, many saw active service in the Middle and Far East as well as at home with Coastal Command.
The peak of the Wellington's service probably came in 1942, when just over half of the forces of the three 1,000-bomber raids flown in May and June was made up of Wellingtons.
But with the arrival of the four-engined heavy bombers, the Wellington's days were numbered, but the type long out-lived the other twin-engined bombers with which Britain had taken the war to Germany in the first years of World War II (Hampdens and Whitleys), and is perhaps not given the recognition it deserves as the Lancaster and Mosquito claimed the limelight in the second half of Bomber Command's war.
Over 11,000 Wellingtons were built in total, many surviving past the end of the war mainly in second-line duties with the RAF into the 1950s. Others became test aircraft for a variety of engines and armament installations with Service and civilian companies.
Vickers Wellington Specifications
Details for Wellington III
|Length:||60ft 10in (18.54m)|
|Wingspan:||86ft 2in (26.25m)|
|Height:||17ft 5in (5.31m)|
|Maximum Speed:||255mph (411kmh)|
|Cruising Speed:||180mph (290kmh)|
|Range:||1,540 miles (2,484km) with 4,500lb (2,043kg) bombload|
|Powerplant:||Two Bristol Hercules XI of 1,500hp each|
|Defensive Armament:||2 x .303 Browning machine guns in nose turret, 2 x .303 machine guns in beam positions and 4 x .303 Browning machine guns in tail turret.|
|Recognition:||Very deep, stubby fuselage, tapering slightly towards rear of aircraft.Single tail mounted above rear of aircraft. Nose and tail powered gun turrets with cut-outs in the side fuselage for beam gun positions. Metal framework outlined against fabric covered structure.|