When the subject of RAF bombers in World War Two comes up in discussion, it generally revolves about one aircraft. You know the one I mean. Of course, you might find reference to some of the other big hitters, the Halifax and Short Stirling, or perhaps that old stalwart the Handley Page Hampden.
Don’t worry, I’ll get around to them all one day.
But the subject today is one that is often overlooked. And that isn’t entirely fair, because it played a critical part in the campaigns it fought in.
The Vickers Wellesley.
And the origin of this aircraft actually goes back to balloons! (Actually, airships).
In 1930 the British government cancelled further development work on airships after the loss of the R101. This little remembered incident was worse in terms of casualties than the infamous Hindenburg incident of 1937.
You know, airships really were a bad idea.
Anyway, the end of Britain’s airships meant one talented designer was at something of a loose end.
His name was Barnes Neville Wallis.
You have likely heard of him, but if you haven’t, he developed the bouncing bombs used in the famous Dambusters raid. And the 12,000lb “Tall Boy” bomb that sank the German battleship Tirpitz. And the 22,000lb “Grand Slam”, which was the biggest bomb created during the war.
Oh, and did a lot of critical work on variable geometry wings planforms, much of which was used in designing the F-111.
Plus some other stuff.
Anyway, Wallis had been involved in airship design, but with that finished he moved to Vickers-Armstrong and began work on aircraft. He was not impressed by how aircraft structures were fundamentally built.
In his own words:
“At that time their structure consisted of a rectangular skeletal framework, the outer skin being doped fabric supported on a complicated and otherwise useless wooden framework shaped to produce a streamlined form, but with the disadvantage of adding considerably to the weight of the basic structure.”
Wallis applied his knowledge of airship design and developed the geodesic airframe. With this the aircraft uses a lattice framework of light alloy to create the structure, removing the need for internal beams as the outer basketweave provides the aircraft with its rigidity.
Not only does this lighten the structure and free up a huge amount of internal space, it also provides it with great strength and rigidity, as well being tremendously resilient to damage.
In fact, Wallis was not the first person to develop the geodesic airframe for an aircraft, but he was the first to do it on mass produced aircraft.
Wallis set about applying his new geodetic – as he called it – design to a couple of projects that Vickers wanted him to work on. The first was to develop a monoplane aircraft to trial Barnes’ novel new design scheme, the Type 246.
The second was for a biplane, designated the Type 253, that was aimed at winning a 1931 Royal Air Force competition to replace the Westland Wapiti in British colonial service.
In fact, Vickers seem to have been pulling a bit of a fast one with this. Because the earlier and more advanced design, the Type 246, was a private venture, Vickers were looking at funding the development of their new geodetic design completely out of their own pockets. But by getting government funding for the Type 253, also a geodetic design, this effectively subsidized the development of this new method of construction.
The British government did order 150 of the Type 253s in early 1935, but then Vickers gave them a demonstration of the Model 246 in June of that year. So superior was the aircraft that the order for the 253 was cancelled and a whole new specification drawn up expressly for the new Vickers aircraft.
The RAF wanted some changes, and Vickers built improved aircraft to conform to these, first the Model 281 and then the Model 287, which became the Wellesley.
This fitted an improved Bristol Pegasus XX radial engine, producing 925hp, and bubble canopies for the pilot and rear observer, which in the day was an extremely advanced feature.
These developments took about a year-and-a-half and the first production Wellesley flew in January 1937. Full production began in March of that year, and a 176 were ultimately ordered and delivered by mid-1938.
By the standards of the bombers that were to replace the Wellesley very shortly afterwards, that figure seems pretty small. But for the mid-1930s, that was a large aircraft order, especially for one that was essentially cutting edge.
However, the Wellesley was one of those intermediate aircraft that was very rapidly bypassed by developing aero technology. And that can best be seen in its unusual layout.
The new geodetic design, which relied on its integrated structure for its strength, didn’t seem to offer the possibility of fitting an integral bomb bay. After all, cutting a massive section out of the woven structure would completely undermine its purpose. So instead, the Wellesley carried its bombload in two external panniers that were carried under the wings.
These could each carry a maximum of two 500-lb bombs, giving a maximum bombload of 2,000lbs (910kg). Additional armament was composed of a single fixed .303 machine gun in the left wing for use by the pilot and a either a .303 Lewis or Vickers “K” gun on a retractable mount in the rear observer’s position.
Initially intended to operate with a two-man crew, this was soon increased to add a third member who could act as navigator, bomb aimer and as a relief pilot.
Because of the comparatively large amount of open space provided by the geodetic structure and the Wellesley’s huge wingspan of 74’ 4” (22.66m), there was plenty of room for fuel tanks. The standard bomber aircraft had a combat radius with a 1,000-lb bombload of 1,300 miles (2100 km).
This was exploited to the full when the RAF’s Long-Range Development Unit (LRDU) flew some specially modified Wellesley’s on their record-breaking distance flights.
The first of these saw four Wellesley take off from RAF Cranwell in England on July 7th, 1938. Their route took them over Ismailia in Egypt, then on to Basra in Iraq, then over Kuwait and down the Persian Gulf before turning back to land at Ismailia. They covered 4,370 miles (7,032 km) in 32 hours 32 minutes.
This was followed by an even more dramatic demonstration, which in November 1938 saw two Wellesley’s fly from Ismailia to Darwin in Australia. They flew the 7,175 miles (11,547 km) distance in 48 hours and 5 minutes, causing something of a sensation and setting the world range record.
Of course, with its single engine the Wellesley only had a top speed of 228mph, and this meant it was very much marked as an aircraft with a limited shelf life. Even as Wellesley’s were demonstrating their amazing range their replacement on the Vickers production line, the Wellington, was being produced, entering service in late 1938.
This was just one of a range of aircraft coming online with RAF bomber squadrons at the time, all twin engine and faster than the now rather sedate Wellesley. Deemed obsolete for European warfare, which was becoming increasingly likely, the Wellesley’s were sent to Egypt to replace the ancient biplanes the RAF was operating there with something more modern and capable.
This proved fortunate because on the 10th of June, 1940, Italy declared war on both France and Britain.
Now, the Italians get quite a bit of stick for their performance in World War Two. But that tends to obscure just how important their entry into the war was on British planning.
Egypt was absolutely critical to the British.
The Suez Canal provided the most important shipping route in the world at the time by allowing Britain to stay connected with its Empire, which was supplying vast amounts of material and manpower to the war effort.
Italy’s colonial possessions in Libya and East Africa straddled this chokepoint, representing a threat of huge proportions, potentially existential, to the British Empire. Additionally, Italy’s position on the Red Sea offered the possibility of them choking off Britain’s oil supplies coming from the Gulf Arab states and Iran.
And their forces in that area were substantial. By August 1940 the Italians had over 370,000 soldiers available for operations in East Africa. These were supported by nearly sixty tanks and tankettes, over 120 armoured cars and 824 artillery pieces. They also had an air force of 323 aircraft with 23 bomber squadrons and 4 fighter squadrons.
Perhaps more concerning was their naval strength, which was composed of nine destroyers, eight submarines and a squadron of torpedo boats.
Against this the British could muster 9,000 men in Sudan, another 9,000 in Kenya and 4,500 in British Somaliland. They had few tanks and artillery and most of their aircraft were ancient colonial policing biplanes. With Britain fighting for its very survival at the time in the Battle of Britain, and real fears of a German invasion imminent, there was going to be no reinforcements for several months.
So British forces in East Africa were in a bit of a tight spot. More to the point, Britain’s oil supply was at considerable risk of being cut off. And this is where the Wellesley made a contribution that is practically forgotten but may in fact have been of crucial importance to the war.
Because in Sudan were three RAF squadrons equipped with the type.
On the 11th of June, one day after Italy went to war, Wellesley’s struck a blow that would severely impede Italian forces in the theatre. Nine aircraft of No. 14 Squadron raided the Italian naval base at Massawa.
The attack was meticulously planned. The bombers came in at sunset at only 500 feet (c.150m) and, ignoring the ships at anchor, struck the fuel storage depot at the port.
The raid destroyed a huge amount of Italy’s fuel reserves in the region, with as much 11,000 tons going up in smoke. Needless to say this severely impeded Italy’s military operations in East Africa, especially their naval operations in the Red Sea.
When the Italians invaded Sudan on the 4th of July, their attack gradually ground to a halt due to lack of fuel and they had to resort to a defensive posture. This bought several months for the Commonwealth forces, and by September Indian Army division were deploying in the region that ultimately drove the Italians back.
The war in East Africa then went on, almost overlooked now, until November 1941. All this time Wellesley’s’ were raiding Italian airbases and positions, sometimes reaching into Libya to interdict Italian air force flights trying to reinforce their East African forces. They also bombed Italian navy ships trying to attack British convoys in the Red Sea.
All this action also saw the Wellesley’s often going up against the Fiat CR.42 biplane fighter, and these took a serious toll on the bombers. Looking to redress this, units equipped with Wellesley’s began to up arm their aircraft. The gunner’s position was often modified to accept two guns, and machine guns were set up to fire downward through a hatch in the floor.
No.14 Squadron went one further and rigged their aircraft to have additional guns mounted in the side windows.
With these fitted the Wellesley often flew with a four-man crew, pilot, bomb-aimer, “beam ” gunner and top gunner, with the extra gunner often being a volunteer from the squadrons non-combatant personnel.
But this measure also showed that ideally, the Wellesley should be replaced. The last bombing raid by Wellesley’s was carried out by six aircraft of No.47 Squadron on the 27th of November, 1941, on Gondar in Ethiopia – fittingly the last day of the East African Campaign with the Italians surrender there.
But even then, the Wellesley was going to perform one small, but important duty. Between April 1942 and February 1943, Wellesley of no.47 Squadron were assigned to perform anti-submarine duties in the Red Sea. Here they made several attacks on enemy submarines, but perhaps the most important one occurred on 30th August 1942.
On this day, responding to a report of a U-Boat in the area, a patrolling Wellesley spotted a periscope. It then proceeded to attack with depth charges, which missed, but marked the location with a smoke float that allowed nearby Royal Navy ships to close in and locate the submarine. After sixteen hours of hunting and attacks they drove the U-Boat to the surface.
The U-Boat was the U-559, and in the short period that British sailors were able to board her before she sank, they managed to recover the submarines Enigma key setting sheets. These would play a critical role in allowing the British to break German codes, again arguably one of the most important events of the entire war.
And that is the story of the Vickers Wellesley, an aircraft that really does tend to get overlooked, but which was as important, despite its limited numbers and performance, as many other aircraft that fought during the war.
Once again, I owe a massive thank you to John Dell of the Dinger Aviation website. He gave a huge amount of help with this video, and he has written a massive article on the Wellesley, which lists all its combat action, the various derivations of the type and basically all the minutiae I haven’t been able to cover here.