The REAL monster from Loch Ness – Vickers Wellington ‘R for Robert’

The Vickers Wellington was a giant. Alright, it only had two engines and an 80 foot wingspan, but its deeds were the stuff of legend, and without this aircraft there would be no 1,000 bomber raids by Bomber Command, and it provided a strong backbone for the Royal Air Force throughout the war. Just like the Spitfire, it was on active service, and in production, from the first to the very last day of World War Two. Where do we start? Film star, degausser of magnetic mines, trainer of radar operators for nightfighters…yes, and we haven’t even mentioning bombing yet!

In 1936, the Royal Air Force was looking to expand its bomber force. Conventional theory in the 1930s, as laid down by General Guilio Douhet, dictated that the bomber would always get through. The best thing for any European nation was to build bombers – lots of them! Specification B.9/32 requested a twin engine bomber capable of carrying a 1,000lb bombload for 1,000 miles, and carrying a machinegun armament in turrets, not open gun positions, as had been the norm up until that point. Barnes Wallis, the Derbyshire-born engineering genius, had devised an infinitely variable type of lattice-like structural components known as geodetics. These could be connected together to form a light, strong airframe capable of sustaining an immense amount of damage. Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd. had a Chief Designer, in R.K. Pierson, who thought that the company had a good chance of getting the new bomber contract. Geodetics had been used successfully in the ultra-long range Wellesley bomber, and he now took two of the same reliable Bristol Pegasus radial engines (the Wellesley used one) and the geodetic structure to build the B.9/32. The structure was SO secret that when the prototype was exhibited at the Hendon Air Show, the front and rear gun turrets were covered over so the internal structure would not be seen.

Another prototype was built to a revised Specification B.29/36, powered by two 915 hp Pegasus X engines, and the RAF ordered 180 of these as the Wellington 1. When WW2 broke out, improved versions of the Wellington were in squadron service, and armed raids in groups of up to 25 were sent out to attack German naval targets in daylight. The result of the raid of 18th December, 1939 was a disaster, and 22 Wellingtons from Nos. 9, 37 and 149 Squadrons were attacked by Bf109s and Bf110s on a raid over the Heligoland Bight (a bay of the North Sea, on the German coast). A total of 15 aircraft were either shot down or written off. The early Wellington lacked self-sealing fuel tanks and armament which could cover the flanks of the aircraft, so the Luftwaffe fighters stood off and sent 20mm cannon fire into the formation.

This raid changed the course of the RAF’s bomber offensive; from now on, they would bomb at night, and singly. Soon, improved, armoured and upgraded Wellingtons were rolling off the assembly lines at no less than three factories – Vickers at Weybridge, and the new plants at Chester and Blackpool; these factories also contributed over 400 Mk II Wellingtons (Rolls-Royce Merlin) and 220 Mk IV (Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp). Self-sealing tanks, beam guns and new 1,500 hp Hercules XI radials gave the Wellington a 1,540 mile range, and a 4,500lb bomb load. With Czech, Polish, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian crews forming new squadrons, the bomber offensive began to pick up. Unfortunately, the Luftwaffe had devised a new defence system for its nightfighters, called ‘Helle Nachtjagd Verfahren’, or sometimes, in English, the Kammhuber Line (after General Josef Kammhuber, the Luftwaffe General). This dealt with bombers as they passed through assigned ‘boxes’, and the kill ratio climbed to unacceptable levels.

Bomber Command got a new, controversial commander, “Bomber” Harris (later, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur Harris). He organized concentrated ‘bomber streams’ which were designed to overwhelm a ‘box’ with targets, so that the German nightfighters didn’t know which way to turn first (rather like a barracuda when faced with a vast shoal of prey fish). The ultimate expression of this tactic were the so-called ‘Thousand Bomber Raids’. Harris realized that by stripping the training units, using instructors, and every available aircraft, he could JUST about field 1,000 bombers for one raid. This took weeks to organize, but Harris finally hit Cologne on the night of 30/31st May 1942 with 1,047 aircraft. No less than 602 of these bombers were Wellingtons, but the writing was on the wall for the Wellington as over 70 Lancasters took part, and other four-engined bombers would form the bulk of Bomber Command from now on.

The Wellington moved on to other theatres of war such as the Mediterranean and the Far East, where fighter opposition was less intense, and also performed the vital task of training the enormous numbers of Bomber Command aircrew now required by the ‘meat grinder’ in the night skies over the Ruhr and Berlin. RAF Coastal Command found that the Wellington could drop torpedoes, and also attack U-boats with depth charges and 3″ rockets. When the U-boats took to travelling across the Bay of Biscay at night, Wellingtons started to use AVS Mk 3 (a centrimetric radar) and a powerful searchlight, called a Leigh Light to continue the attack – a Wellington of No 172 Squadron sank the first U-boat in this fashion on the 6th July, 1942; eventually, the tally rose to 26. When the German magnetic mine was creating havoc in British coastal waters, Vickers fitted a 48 foot diameter aluminium ring, containing a large magnetic coil, around several Wellingtons (renamed DWI Mk I or Mk II), and the RAF flew them up and down coasts and harbours only a few feet above the sea. The induced magnetic field caused the sensitive fuse in the mines to explode.

The Wellington was also the ‘star’ of two Ministry of Information films. ‘Target for Tonight’ (1941) used a real RAF squadron to show a fictional raid by ‘F for Freddy’ on a German target. Real RAF aircrew were used, including (later) Wing Commander Percy Pickard, who lost his life leading the famous Amiens Raid; the film won an Honorary Oscar. The other short film was ‘Workers Week-end’ showed how one Wellington – serial ‘LN514’ – was built in the record time of 24 hours and 40 minutes (the group of volunteers was hoping to make it in under 30 hours). Many Wellingtons were built as unarmed transports (C Mk XV and XVI) navigation or crew trainers, and some modified as specialist trainers for night-fighter crews, with a large radome fitted in place of the front turret, and multiple radar stations for trainees in the fuselage.

Which brings us to Loch Ness…… of the surviving Wellingtons from that disastrous Heligoland Bight raid, N2980, of No. 149 Squadron, coded ‘R for Robert’, was transferred to No. 37 Squadron went on to complete another 14 missions. She was then assigned to No. 20 Operational Training Unit at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, where N2980 was to be used to train navigators. On New Year’s Eve, she took off with six trainee navigators on board. The aircraft was commanded by Squadron Leader L Marlwood-Elton who had Pilot Officer Slatter as second pilot, and Sgt Fensome as rear gunner. Whilst flying at 8,000ft over the Highlands, they encountered a vicious snow squall, and lost an engine. Marlwood-Elton and Slatter elected to stay with the aircraft but gave the crew the order to bail out; and they all made successful landings except Sgt. Fensome, the rear gunner, who lost his life when his parachute failed to open. The Wellington made a forced landing in the only place which offered a chance of survival in this mountainous region – Lock Ness. The two pilots inflated their dingy and paddled ashore, as the Wellington slipped into the depths.

There the story might have ended, apart from the never-ending attempts to find ‘Nessie’. ‘R for Robert’ was spotted on side-scanning sonar in 1981, in an excellent state of preservation for an aircraft that had made a crash landing. The aircraft was raised on the 21st of September, 1985, by the Loch Ness Wellington Association (with a large financial contribution from the National Heritage Fund) and transported to the very factory where it had been built, by British Aerospace. The site had become a major transport museum – Brooklands, on the outskirts of London – and a long, careful restoration began, As you can see from the photograph, new sections of the geodetic structure have been added, and some of the existing fabric is still in place. This is one of only two Wellingtons in existence out of a total of 11,461 built, and the ONLY one which actually took part in combat. Amazingly, when a car battery was connected to the fore and aft identification lights, they worked! (See photograph)

The Wellington might have not been able to carry much more than 4,500lbs of bombs, nor was it the fastest of bomber aircraft, but it was immensely strong and could survive a lot of damage. It was regarded with enormous affection by its crews, so much so that its RAF nickname ‘Wimpy’, from the Popeye character, J. Wellington Wimpy, stuck.

7 comments on “The REAL monster from Loch Ness – Vickers Wellington ‘R for Robert’”

  1. One needs to no longer find a book on the Wellington, not with this post! I do hope this Wellington remains uncovered so Barnes Wallis’s design can be seen — it does have to be seen to be believed and does make this aircraft remarkable. I read of an exceptionally brave Wellington crew who flew a nocturnal WW II mission into Germany alone and flying to and fro acting as bait to “capture” the newest German radar frequencies. That mission was successful though the aircraft was too battle damaged to complete her return to England but the crew successfully ditched in the Channel. Thanks too for illustrating the anti magnetic mine missions with the magnetic coil — I knew of the Blohm & Voss BV 138 using the same design and thought it was the only one to do so. Those missions must have been exciting to fly. Thanks as well for pointing out the Derbyshire connection 😉


    • Thanks you! I am sorry I have been out of the loop of late…my health has NOT been of the best. Kindest regards


  2. I figured as such and hope you are on an upswing, no worries, get better 🙂


  3. Hi I salvaged a fragment from a skip yard for The R for Robert Bomber, The very plane being discussed in this post. I am confused as what to do with it and if it actually is of any value. Any input would be greatly appreciated.


  4. R for Robert is such a great survival story and I really enjoyed my day at Brooklands learning more about it. A very interesting guy told me that a large part of a fuselage was located in a garden being used as a greenhouse! He kindly gave it over to help in the restoration and was compensated….with a new greenhouse! Is there any truth to that?


    • I had certainly not heard that story! I do know, however, that the largest surviving part of a a Short Stirling was found being used as a hen house!


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