The Vickers Warwick; Life Saver

February 1, 2024

In my previous article on the Bristol Buckingham I mentioned that before even the start of World War Two, the British had recognised that the aircraft they had in service were going to be outdated in short order. Nothing special there, it was (and pretty much still is) recognised that as soon as you prototype a new aircraft you need to start thinking about upgrades and its future replacement.

This was especially true in the 1930’s, when aircraft and powerplant development was haring along at breakneck speed. In fact, things moved so fast that even the most optimistic projections of the aircraft manufacturers and procurement agencies were left trailing behind reality. And because cutting edge technological advances often hit significant snags, well, you get plenty of failures along the way.

This in many ways is typified by today’s aircraft; the Vickers Warwick.

But despite the issues it faced, it actually went on to play some very important roles, though now it is practically forgotten.

The origins of the Warwick essentially start with a British Air Ministry specification issued all the way back in 1932. This requested a new twin engine bomber that would have carry a substantial bombload further and faster than anything else flying.

The giant Vickers concern rose to the challenge and, with the combined genius of their lead aircraft designer, Rex Pierson and chief structural designer Barnes Wallis, they created what would become the Wellington, an aircraft that proved a stalwart throughout the Second World War and which was the most produced British bomber of the conflict.

But even before the Wellington first flew, the Air Ministry were seeing the rapid pace of aeronautic development, especially in engine designs, and decided that they needed to jump the gun to stay ahead of the opposition. Policy was now to build a substantial bomber force as quickly as possible for strategic use and so in 1935 the Ministry went to Vickers and said: “Can we have a bigger version of this, please?”

Now this would seem to be eminently logical. As essentially an expanded Wellington, the Warwick shared several components with its smaller sibling and the design work on both was able to run in parallel. Additionally, when the Warwick went into production the Vicker’s workers would be intimately familiar with building its complex geodetic structure from working on the Wellington and so this would help transition the production lines to the new and more formidable heavy bomber.

Indeed, the creation of the Warwick, it was thought, should be comparatively straight forward. All that was needed was a reliable and powerful engine to hoist the new heavy bomber and its bombload into the skies.

And the British had just the thing; the new Rolls Royce Vulture.

Regular readers will likely recognise that name because several of the Forgotten Aircraft I have featured owe their demise to the failure of that particular engine. But credit where credit was due, the British authorities and Vickers recognised that they were putting all their eggs in one basket with the Vulture, which was already expected to be heavily committed to the new Avro Manchester bomber, so a second prototype was ordered in 1937 with an alternative powerplant; the Napier Sabre.

Again, regular readers of Forgotten Aircraft might recognise that name as well, if not check out my article on the Martin Baker Mk.3 fighter.

Because the Sabre, which would ultimately develop into reasonably successful engine, also experienced a very troubled development cycle. And this soon became apparent and led to another change, this time for the second prototype to get instead the Bristol Centaurus, a new and powerful British radial that would provide the oomph the Warwick needed if the Vulture failed to deliver.

As it was the third time wasn’t the charm, certainly initially, because the Centaurus would have its own share of issues in development.

By now it was 1939 and the supposedly simple expansion of the Wellington that was the Warwick was in serious trouble. It was much heavier than had been projected and basically didn’t really have an engine.

Serious thought was given to cancelling the aircraft, but ultimately the British at the time didn’t have a new heavy bomber design available, with the big four-engine heavies like the Lancaster and Halifax still at the proposal and preliminary idea stages, while the Manchester had serious issues. Plus, the British were still keen on the idea of using twin engine bombers because they would represent a considerable saving in production time and costs.

So, the Warwick was reprieved and in August 1939 the Vulture engined prototype flew for the first time.

And in the best tradition of the Vulture, this lasted just a few minutes before an engine fault made it necessary to put the aircraft down in short order. Once repaired and flights resumed it became apparent that with the Vulture, the Warwick just wasn’t any good.

Thought was given to developing a four-engine variant, but this was quickly shelved, and attention switched to the second prototype with its Centaurus engines. In April 1940 this first flew and showed to have much better handling and performance.

The problem was, as said, that the Centaurus wasn’t in production, and it would in fact be several years before quantities for Warwick production would be available.

Then somewhat ironically, the Fall of France provided the Warwick with its salvation. France had ordered large numbers of combat aircraft from the United States, which were swiftly transferred to the British after France’s capitulation, as well as large numbers of supplementary engines.

And amongst these were orders for the new Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp radial. These weren’t as powerful as the Centaurus, but they were available and could be used on the Warwick, giving it an expected performance at least comparable to the then mainstay Wellingtons but with greater payloads.

So in January 1941 an order was placed for 250 Warwick bombers, composed of 150 Mk.Is equipped with 1,850 hp Double Wasps and 100 Mk.IIs with 2,500hp Centaurus’.

But again, things were slow – somewhat understandably the USA had their own increasing requirement for Double Wasp’s – and the first Mk.1 wouldn’t get delivered until May 1942.

This was far too late, and the RAF were already using four-engine Short Stirlings, Avro Lancasters and Handley Page Halifax’s on bombing missions; aircraft that had far better capabilities than the Warwick. The order for the bomber Warwick’s was cut, with only sixteen of the aircraft built and both the RAF and Vickers were now faced with an aircraft on the production lines that was no longer needed.

Ironically this would lead to the Warwick being both extremely useful and being built in several configurations, though despite this it is thoroughly underappreciated by history.

The first step was to quickly convert thirteen of the Mk.Is into C.Mk.I transports for use by the BOAC airline.

These had their gun turrets removed and fared over and flew routes across the Middle East where the Warwick’s long range was a definite asset. Indeed, despite some reliability issues with the Double Wasps, the Warwick’s proved successful enough as a long-range transport that another one hundred would be built for use by the RAF as long-range cargo and passenger planes.

These, the Warwick C.Mk.III’s, were fitted with a cargo pannier under the fuselage and could carry 3,044 kg (6,710 lb) of cargo, 24 men and their equipment or else up to ten personnel in a VIP configuration.

But though these were useful, they were just a fraction of the service the Warwick would provide.

The remaining Mk.I’s, which actually would end up having the numbers ordered boosted, would serve as specially converted Air-Sea Rescue aircraft.

This particular service had been largely ignored before and in the early years of the war, with the rescue of aircrews downed in the waters around the UK initially being the responsibility of high-speed launches operated by the RAF. This was rapidly found to be utterly inadequate, but with aircraft needs for other roles so desperate the initial air rescue teams got saddled with things like Boulton Paul Defiant turret fighters that were bodged up with inflatable air-droppable dinghy’s under their wings.

These were perhaps marginally more successful in this role than they had been as fighters, which really isn’t saying much, and the RAF employed a range of aircraft in the job before, in 1943, deciding the Warwick was just about ideal. It’s long range and large carrying capacity meant that it could carry several sets of life saving gear, composed of either a number of Lindholm Gear sets, an entire air droppable dingy or else a mix of both.

The Lindholm Gear was a rather ingenious set up that was made up of five canisters joined together with a rope, which composed of a self-inflating dingy in the centre container and the others holding food, dry clothing and survival gear. The rescue aircraft would drop the gear upwind of the ditched crew which would then, if it worked out correctly, drift close enough for them to grab a rope, pull themselves onto the dingy, drag in the emergency supplies and await rescue.

And I say “was”, but modern versions of this equipment are still in service today.

The other item that many Warwick ASR’s carried was a Fox’s airborne self-righting lifeboat.

These were wooden boats that housed two engines, mast, sails, radio, survival rations and drysuits, as well as an instruction manual on how to sail, and in the later versions could carry ten men. Dropped from a Warwick at 700 feet (210m), the Fox boat would drift down on six parachutes and when it hit the water would shoot out lifelines on rockets for the downed crew to grab onto and board the boat to await rescue, or else make their own way back to shore.

All told 275 of the Warwick ASR Mk.Is were built, which were followed by another order for Warwick Mk.VI’s that featured an improved Double Wasp engine, and of which 94 were built. Between them the ASR Warwick’s equipped fourteen RAF rescue squadrons and played a substantial part in rescuing the more than 13,000 persons plucked from the seas around by UK during the war.

But the story is not quite finished there. Remember how I said that the hope had been to fit the Warwick’s with Bristol Centaurus engines?

Well, once they became available in numbers, that is just what happened. And while the Double Wasp equipped aircraft were suitable for non-combat roles, with the Centaurus performance went up enough for the Warwick to be thought suitable for combat once again.

The GR Mk.II was intended for reconnaissance, anti-submarine and torpedo attack, being equipped with a surface search radar and capable of carrying either two 21-inch or three 18-inch aerial torpedoes or else bombs and mines up to a rather impressive maximum of 12,250lb (5,557kg), though I am pretty sure that was never carried operationally.

However, the extra horsepower caused stability issues with the aircraft, and remedial design and construction work had to be carried out before they could get into service fully.

The 188 GR Mk.II’s built were followed by another 210 GR Mk.V’s mainly for patrol and anti-submarine work, which reduced the payload but added a Leigh Light under the aircraft for illumination.

Most of these aircraft would ultimately go into storage as surplus to requirement as the war in Europe drew down, and the fabric skin of the Warwick wasn’t considered suitable for their deployment to the Pacific. But a number did serve with Coastal Command through 1944 and ‘45, patrolling European waters on long, boring anti-submarine missions that may not have had much glamour or often prove very exciting, but which were important in the context of the bigger strategic picture.

And that pretty much sums up the career of the Warwick. It wasn’t flash or glamorous. It didn’t level cities or fight epic battles in the sky over enemy territory. It bimbled around, doing its job, normally one that doesn’t get a lot of ink spilt over it, but which was critically important.

And here at Military Matter’s, we love planes like that. Because while much of history has forgotten the Warwick, for any aircrew bobbing forlornly in the ocean praying for rescue, the Warwick was the most significant and beautiful aircraft they would ever see.

 

Sources/Related:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air-sea_rescue#Britain_2

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vickers_Warwick

https://www.baesystems.com/en-uk/heritage/vickers-warwick

https://uboat.net/allies/aircraft/warwick.htm

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