UK Air Museums

NOV 18 2011
Air Museums: Wellington Restoration at RAF Museum Cosford

“The Wellington was great. I go to sleep every night and think of it and I wake up every morning and think of it – it was one of the Allies’ most important and versatile aircraft in World War 2 and it saved my bacon!”

Who am I to argue with Ronald Cooper? As just one of a number of VIP guests to the RAF Museum’s Michael Beetham Conservation Centre this week, Ronald, now 90, was one I really wanted to talk to. Thirty minutes in an office with him was ample confirmation that I’d made the right decision and, if I’m completely honest, I could probably still be talking to him now; such was his memory, humour and passion for talking about his beloved Vickers Wellington.

The Wellington probably remains an unsung hero in many ways, eclipsed by the likes of the Lancaster and Mosquito, but take a look at the history and you’ll see just how important the aircraft really was to the Allies’ war effort. A twin-engined bomber, the ‘Wimpey’ as it was affectionately nicknamed, was the longest-serving of the three medium bombers operated by Bomber Command at the beginning of World War 2 (Hampden and Whitley being the other two), with the Wellington flying on many hugely significant operations until its last bombing mission over the Reich took place in October 1943.

What eventually became the Wellington as we know it took to the air for the first time in June 1936 and was known then as the Vickers Crecy, even appearing at the Hendon Air Display under that title, before the name Wellington was finally adopted.

The first true Wellington flew for the first time just prior to Christmas 1937, and an initial order, for 180 aircraft, was placed by the RAF. The production aircraft, unlike the prototypes that preceded it, featured nose and tail turrets and was in essence a quantum leap ahead for Bomber Command in terms of construction, payload (three times greater than the Handley Page Heyford for example) and armament. The first unit to receive the Wellington was 99 Squadron based at RAF Mildenhall in October 1938, and by September 1939 a further seven squadrons (9, 37, 38, 115, 149, 214 and 215) were operating the bomber.

Nearly 11,500 examples were built in total with the aircraft operating initially as a day bomber, the peak of its operational service coming in 1942 when more than half of the aircraft participating in the three ‘1000 bomber’ raids flown in May and June were Wellingtons. The aircraft would go on to serve with great distinction with Coastal Command, and in the Far East and the Middle East, with many surviving beyond the end of the War on second line RAF duties as well as with the Fleet Air Arm, Royal Canadian Air Force and Polish Air Force, among others.

Sadly, just two complete Vickers Wellingtons now exist, both of which are in the UK. The first of these is Wellington mark 1A N2980 which is on display at the Brooklands Museum and the other is Mark T.X MF628 which is the aircraft now undergoing restoration at RAF Cosford.

MF628 first flew on May 9th 1944 and in 1948 was converted from bomber to navigation trainer and received her T.X designation with the removal of the nose gun turret being the most obvious of many modifications. During 1954 the aircraft took part in the filming of The Dambusters both as a camera-ship and with a brief appearance in the film, before being sold to Vickers in 1955 and then presented to the Royal Aeronautical Society in mid-1956. Delivered to the RAF Museum in 1971, the nose-turret was re-installed, and she was then displayed in the Bomber Command Hall at RAF Museum London until July 2010. It was then dismantled and transported to the Museum’s Michael Beetham Conservation Centre for long-term refurbishment.

The refurbishment will probably take something like four to five years in total and the scale of the job is readily apparent when viewed at first-hand. The aircraft will eventually be completely re-covered and re-painted and, having had its original fabric carefully removed, small sections of this can now be purchased from the RAF Museum Shop, complete with certificate of authenticity – a nice touch I think.

She’s certainly a large and impressive sight, and it was fascinating to be given the chance to examine the Wellington’s complicated and sturdy ‘skeleton’, with access to view the cockpit also made available. I should also add at this point that it was extremely busy with visitors and, while Ronald’s visit was clearly a draw, it was undeniably heartening to see so many people taking an interest in a piece of work that really does represent a hugely important element of UK aviation heritage. She’s going to look stunning when she’s complete, of that there is little doubt at all

Having taken a good look at the aircraft I awaited my opportunity to speak to Ronald and, as he had conducted a number of interviews already, we retired to the peace, and comfy seats, of an adjoining office. What followed was not just a hugely pleasurable and entertaining half an hour but also a great honour.

Ronald flew the Wellington as a young Sergeant Pilot during the early 1940s and found himself posted to the Middle East, Italy, Germany and then, in July 1944, to Palestine, where he worked as an instructor teaching pupils to fly the aircraft. Having conducted some of his elementary flying training in the USA, his first Wellington experience came at 76 OTU (Operational Training Unit) at RAF Harwell, a few miles west of Didcot, now in Oxfordshire but, prior to boundary changes, in Berkshire.

“We did a month of familiarisation with the aircraft and its equipment and I was also able to use the Link Trainer (an early flight simulator which replicated instrument flying training) for about an hour a week. We didn’t have many of them. In America they had rooms full of them and you could go in a few times a week, with a bottle of Coca Cola of course, and simulate a whole cross-country flight!

“My instructor, Flt Lt Thorne, was very good for me. After 40 hours of day flying we started doing nights, which scared the life out of me; it was like flying in a totally different world! He decided that I was ready to go solo at night but I asked him if I could do one more dual trip to make sure I was ready and he said ‘of course, no problem’.

“So, we belted down the runway that night and one of the engines gave way in spectacular fashion and he knew exactly what to do, so that reminded me of a lesson my dad had taught me – if you’re not ready or not sure about something – always ask! Thank goodness he was there as I wouldn’t have known what to do.”

Ronald’s first night solo was also an eventful trip, as he went on to explain:

“We were flying from RAF Hampstead Norris, just south of Harwell, an airfield with a 300’ drop at the end of the runway and then a forest. I opened the taps but nothing was really happening, the controls felt very sloppy and we weren’t really climbing or going anywhere.

“Well, we ploughed through a gap in the hedge at the end of the runway and then I realised the flaps were fully down. That 300’ drop saved us that night, it took us 10 miles to reach 400’ altitude and when I looked out of the window the engines were glowing red hot!

“We finally reached 1000’ and headed back to the circuit when the controller came up, saying ‘J-G, you’ve been a long time, has something happened?’ I replied, ‘No, we were just taking a look around the local area’ – I never told them what had really happened!”

This wasn’t Ronald and his crew’s only excursion off an airfield either. One night, having committed to a landing, and you really were committed as the aircraft wasn’t powerful enough to go-around, his Wellington safely touched down but refused to slow to a halt, despite frantic braking.

“We were still doing 70 mph as we reached the end of the runway and next thing we knew we were dragging all three sections of the barbed wire from the perimeter fence along with us, which rapidly wrapped itself around the engines, and ended up in a turnip field.

“I told everyone to get out quickly as there was another aircraft coming in to land, and Dick, the rear gunner, disappeared out of the hatch, his ear-pieces flying out en route, and we all ran about 100 yards away from the aircraft. The Wellington behind us landed short and still only managed to stop just before the edge of the airfield - we’d already removed the fence remember - and swerved to a stop.

“Anyway, we were picked up and taken to sick quarters where, eventually, a WAAF, wearing her pyjamas, answered the door! She sorted out my wounds from the barbed wire with iodine but I refused to drop my trousers and told her I was fine, despite the cuts on my legs!

“We got called in to see the Station Commander the next morning and he was going to endorse my log book, but he let me off as it turned out the chaps looking after the glidepath had been too busy playing cards to notice that the wind had changed direction. We’d landed downwind!”

Having won a Bull’s Eye competition which consisted of a night time cross country flight where each crew had to try and reach a number of pre-determined targets at specified times, Ronald and his crew could even have found themselves selected by Guy Gibson for a conversion to the Lancaster and participation in the Dambusters raid of 1943. It is something that Ronald now describes as a ‘claim to fame’.

“He was looking for crews and we could have been chosen having won that competition, but he didn’t really want us. We were still quite green in terms of operations and he had the pick of whoever he wanted from all the Bomber Command squadrons. Perhaps it was for the best, I might not have been here now if we had been selected.”

Ronald finally finished his Wellington ops on the Mark X which featured the Hercules radial engines. Prior to that the aircraft, with its Tiger and, for a time, Merlin engines, was seriously underpowered, but, in Ronald’s words, the Hercules powered aircraft was like a Spitfire by comparison! That power proved useful when, because of their excellent navigator, Ronald and his crew were entrusted with the job of delivering a Wellington to Cairo as an attrition replacement.

It was a long haul for the bomber, with its journey via the likes of Gibraltar and then Libya where the aircraft needed to refuel. Meeting their Flight Commander on the ground in Sirte, Ronald and his crew were told that if they went on to Cairo they would almost certainly be killed so they stayed where they were and flew ops from Libya instead!

Sadly, Ronald’s navigator passed away two years ago. The two had stayed in touch since the war and Ronald was, quite obviously, extremely fond of the man he had flown with throughout the War and who did his job so brilliantly.

“Our navigator was the king and I was just the bus driver - that’s all - a bus driver. He was an educated man, far better educated than me, and always knew where we were; you could trust him completely. When he died, part of me died too and I hope he’s saving a space for me up there.”

I couldn’t finish without asking him about MF628’s restoration of course and how seeing the aircraft makes him feel.

“It’s great and it makes me feel like I’m 20 again. The Wellington was a simple aircraft and it worked very well. As I said, it saved my bacon and I will always be grateful for that.”

I’m not sure this restoration project needs any more backing than that.

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