What Was the Vickers Wellington Bomber?

One of Britain’s first “heavies,” the Vickers Wellington bomber, first flew in 1936. A twin-engined aircraft, the Wellington is considered a “classic” British plane, though not as famous as the Avro Lancaster or Spitfire.

Jun 13, 2024By Matt Whittaker, BA History & Asian Studies

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The mid-1930s marked the year Great Britain upped its re-armament game. Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe no longer remained a secret with sleek bombers and fighters. The “bomber always gets through” concept dominated all theories that fleets of bombers could wreak destruction at long distances. The Wellington Bomber’s existence resulted from that. Designed by Barnes Wallis, Vickers built two prototypes, the second with modifications learned from the first.


A Unique Construction

Geodetic construction Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Wellington had a secret that only a few in Britain’s Air Ministry or Vickers knew: geodetic construction. Designed by Sir Barnes Wallis, the parts of this basket-weave structure each carried part of the weight. If one part got damaged, the remaining pieces spread the weight around, retaining the frame’s integrity. Most aircraft were built of different pieces, so much damage is not good. The Wellington’s aluminum and steel frame’s ability to absorb damage yet keep flying became legendary. 


One of Three

Handley Page HP-52 Hampden TB Mk.


Not one to put their eggs in one basket, the Air Ministry ordered three “heavy” bombers into production in the late 1930s. The other two are Handley Page Hamden and Armstrong Whitworth Whitley. Each’s role differed slightly – the Hampden being the fast bomber, the Whitely the heavyweight with a 4-ton bomb load, and the Wellington’s 2,800-mile range in the middle. The fabric-covered Wellington carried a 2 ½ ton bombload, six machine guns, and a crew of six. 


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Only the Wellington would remain in service past 1945. The others long obsolescent were gone by 1943. Vickers manufactured 11,400 Wellingtons, more than any British bomber. Their RAF service ended in 1953, seventeen years after its first test flight. 


A Theory Disproven

Wellington designer Sir Barnes Wallis Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum


1940 debunked the 1930s theory that “the bomber will always get through” when flying in formation. The RAF, or Royal Air Force, had several costly lessons that proved different. On December 18, 1939, three Wellington squadrons attacked German shipping off Wilhelmshaven, twenty-four planes in total. About forty Luftwaffe fighters intercepted the British bombers, shooting down twelve. Three more crashed on the return home for a fifty percent loss. 


The RAF turned to night raids after several such raids in 1940. German interceptors overwhelmed unescorted bombers despite any plane defenses or formations. The Luftwaffe’s education would come later in 1940 during another epic battle. The Wellington was nicknamed Wimpy because it resembled the Popeye cartoon character J. Wellington Wimpy was kept on through 1941 and 1942 as the RAF’s primary bomber. The first 1,000-plane raid against Cologne in 1942 flew with 700 Wellingtons. Not bad for a plane from the mid-1930s that soon would be phased out. The more famous Avro Lancaster took on this big role.


Versatility Was the Key

Wellington Versions Source: Emoscopes


The Wellington’s hard-won bomber reputation cannot be denied, but in war, nothing stays constant. By late 1942, hitting back against Nazi Germany required bigger bombers like the four-engine Lancaster, Stirlings and Halifaxes. The Wellington’s last night raid in Europe occurred in 1943.


But, the Wimpy’s versatility could not be denied. Continual armament and engine upgrades made the Wellington more reliable. Replaced as a bomber, the Wellington slid easily into other roles. Britain’s RAF Coastal Command used Wellingtons to hunt German U-boats with depth charges, searchlights, and flares. The stiff radar masts atop the Wellington’s back easily distinguished the anti-submarine models.


Other unsung roles the Wellington took were transport and mine detection. In the latter role, the Wimpy carried a car engine powering an aluminum magnetic ring around the plane. The magnetic waves would detonate the mines at a safe distance from Wellington. Vickers specifically built trainer version Wellingtons besides bombers. These planes trained Lancaster and Halifax crews.


The most unusual and groundbreaking Wellington role came in early warning detection. Late in 1944, the Luftwaffe used HE-111s to launch V1 flying bombs at Britain. Luftwaffe bombers would climb from sea level to launch. Detected by the airborne radar carrying Wellingtons, operators would vector in fighters to shoot down the bombers and buzz bombs. Like many classic war planes, the Wimpy came in no less than sixteen versions, including two trainer-specific ones post-war.


Long Live the Wimpy

Vickers Wellingtons of 9 Squadron in flight during 1938


Whether at the cold high altitude in Europe, Malta, or tropical India, the Wellington served. The Wellington, considered high-tech in 1938, displayed its vulnerability quickly. As a night bomber, it did well until more capable planes arrived. But, it served. Perhaps the Wellington’s strength lay in doing many jobs with little fanfare.

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By Matt WhittakerBA History & Asian StudiesMatt Whittaker is an avid history reader, fascinated by the why, how and when. With a B.A. in History and Asian Studies from University of Massachusetts, he does deep dives into medieval, Asian and military history. Matt’s other passion besides family is the long-distance Zen-like runs.