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The Loch Ness Wellington

21 May 2022

Perhaps the Vickers Wellington is not as well known on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, as it is on the eastern side, but it was the backbone of the RAF (Royal Air Force) during World War II (WW II). In fact more than 11,000 of them were built using three factories and this remarkable number made it the most produced aircraft type manufactured by Great Britain during the war. Not the Spitfire, Mosquito, Hurricane or Lancaster—but the twin engined, long ranged Wellington, or “Wimpy” as it was warmly called by those familiar with the aircraft. 

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). The bomb aimer’s position was prone and beneath the nose gunner’s station—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©20222

Wellingtons carried a lion’s share of the RAF’s bombing efforts to the Axis powers throughout the war but especially through 1943. They were a significant part of Britain’s failed early attempts at daylight bombing at the onset of the war in Europe, as well. In short order, at the cost of too many aircrews, the RAF learned the Wellington’s maximum speed of 235 mph, typical bombing altitude in the 15,000 foot range as well as their gun turrets (nose, tail and difficult to utilize ventral) were clearly insufficient against modern fighters such as the Bf 109. Wellingtons were all but indefensible in daytime hours but their aircrews distinguished themselves using the 3000 mile range and 4000 pound bomb load in the nights—back in the days before modern fighter-borne radar.  

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). Note the open bomb bay doors as well as crew entry ladder—Michael Dowman ©2022

There is more to the Wellington which made it somewhat novel as well as able to absorb tremendous amounts of battle damage yet return its aircrew home. That is the geodetic construction of the Wellington, of course, the well known construction design which is akin to a lattice structure. The chief engineer for Vickers at the time was Rex Pierson who was teamed with the famed Barnes Wallis, though, it was Wallis who was the structural half of the Wellington team. Both engineers had become familiar with geodetic design earlier when working on Great Britain’s R100 airship project. This type of construction uses fewer frames and bulkheads so it inherently favors maximizing available internal volume. Naturally, this is incredibly advantageous to an airship but also works well with bomber aircraft as the fuselage can be made comparably more compact, lessening the aircraft’s weight. The fuselage was fabric covered (Irish linen at 8 stitches per inch and 9 coatings of dope) with 8000 rivets overall so it is not a monocoque stressed skin affair.

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©2022

Ultimately, though and unforeseen, this engineering design would not easily allow for pressurization so higher altitude performance gains could not be realized. Twin .303 caliber machine gun turrets were in the nose and tail with another, which could be lowered from the underside, that proved less than useful— in successive variants it was replaced by two waist machine gun positions manned by a single gunner. Crew complement was six or seven and with the navigator also performing bombardier (bomb aimer in RAF vernacular) duties. Typical of the RAF’s preferences of the day there was a single pilot and the bomb bay was not accessible in flight. The roof of the bomb bay was wooden construction with the bomb bay design allowing for bombs to be loaded in-line for better aerodynamics, though not accessible while in flight. The bomb bay design required the pulling of each bomb’s safety pin prior to flight resulting in the crew relying solely on the petite fuze arming propeller for safety—as well as any citizens around a failed take off with a heavy bomb load—which was unlike most medium and heavy bombers designed by U.S. firms.     

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). Note the detail of the geodetic construction as well as many of the 8000 rivets in the Wellington—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©2022

A common observation about geodetic design is that it does not lend itself to mass production. History doesn’t appear to support this argument since about 300 Vickers Wellingtons could be produced monthly by the previously mentioned three factories. Interestingly, there was an attempt to build one from scratch in less than 30 hours—that team built their Wellington and flew it away in just under 25 hours!

Forward section of the Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK) tail turret and rear section—Michael Dowman ©2022

With all this being described, it is a wonder that only two Vickers Wellingtons now exist. Two out of more than 11,000 manufactured—and what a great shame that is. One, a Mk X B, is undergoing restoration by the staff and volunteers of the Michael Beetham Conservation Centre (MBCC) at the RAF Museum Cosford. The other, an earlier version of the Wellington, a Mk I A, is wonderfully displayed, sans fabric covering at the Brooklands Museum. This aircraft has the nickname “The Loch Ness Wellington” as that is the water body it was recovered from after it landed and sank there. Curiously, it was found to be in good shape considering the crew bailed out of it in December 1940 while on a training mission—engine trouble was the inspiration to bail out during a blizzard. The crew survived with the exception of the tail gunner since his parachute unfortunately failed to deploy. The cold waters of the loch kept corrosion rates to a minimum and thanks to the myth of the “Loch Ness Monster” it was found during a cryptozoic survey to find the beast in 1976. What is life if not serendipitous?

This Wellington was actually manufactured in Brooklands during 1939 and was powered by a pair of Bristol Pegasus Mk XVIII radial (9-cylinder single row) engines of 900+ hp each (the same engine as on the remarkable Fairey Swordfish). And this Wellington touched history by flying on the infamous Heligoland Bight Raid a year earlier in December 1939. This bombing raid was a hard lesson for the RAF as it was bitterly learned just how astonishingly incorrect that “the bomber will always get through” as was the thinking of strategic bombing leading into WW II. Another such lesson was that bombers would not require fighter escort. More than half the bombing force was lost, and to no positive effect, but the Loch Ness Wellington returned from that mission with her crew. Good experience comes from bad decisions.

One of the Bristol Pegasus radial engines of the Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). Observe the pitting corrosion from its time on the bottom of Loch Ness for over 30 years—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). Back in the day the slang term for the engine and cowling assembly was “egg”—Michael Dowman ©2022

The fruits of 100,000 volunteer restoration hours are there in the Brooklands Museum to be seen. Marvel at the geodetic design clearly seen with none of the fabric covering which normally would be in place. Various internal aspects of the aircraft can instead be seen including the crew positions which usually go unseen in most aircraft displays.

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK), closer viewing of the tail turret—Michael Dowman ©2022

Thanks to Michael Dowman for these images as well as the Brooklands Museum for its work on The Loch Ness Wellington.

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