Against a background of a rock formation, a British bomber takes off on May 15, 1941, from somewhere in East Africa, leaving behind a trail of smoke and sand. The Vickers Wellesley was a British 1930s light bomber built by Vickers-Armstrongs at Brooklands near Weybridge, Surrey, for the Royal Air Force. While it was obsolete by the start of the Second World War, and unsuited to the European air war, the Wellesley was successfully used in the desert theatres of East Africa, Egypt and the Middle East.
The design originated from the Air Ministry Specification G.4/31 which called for a general purpose aircraft, capable of carrying out level bombing, army co-operation, dive bombing, reconnaissance, casualty evacuation and torpedo bombing. The biplane Vickers Type 253 design, which used a radical geodesic airframe construction that was derived from that used by Barnes Wallis in the airship R100, was ordered by the Ministry and tested against the specification along with the Fairey G.4/31, Westland PV-7, Handley Page HP.47, Armstrong Whitworth A.W.19, Blackburn B-7, Hawker P.V.4 and the Parnall G.4/31. The Type 253 was declared the winner, with 150 being ordered.
The Vickers Type 246 monoplane, which used the same geodetic design principles for both the fuselage and wings, was then built as a private venture, first flown at Brooklands by Vickers' Chief Test Pilot J "Mutt" Summers, on 19 June 1935 and offered to the RAF. This had superior performance, but did not attempt to meet the multi-role requirements of the specification, being designed as a bomber only. An initial order for 96 Type 246s was substituted for the Type 253 order. The RAF ultimately ordered a total of 176 with the service name "Wellesley", to a newly written specification 22/35, with a 14-month production run starting in March 1937.
The Wellesley was a single-engine monoplane with a very high aspect ratio wing, and a manually operated, retractable undercarriage. As it was not known how the geodetic structure could cope with being disrupted by a bomb bay, the Wellesley's bomb load was carried in two streamlined panniers under the wings. The Wellesley Mk I had two separate cockpits, but this was changed in the Wellesley Mk II to a single-piece cockpit canopy covering both the pilot and navigator positions.
The RAF received its first Wellesleys in April 1937, serving with No.76 Squadron at Finningley, and eventually equipped six RAF Bomber Command squadrons in the UK. Five aircraft with provisions for three crew members were modified for long-range work with the RAF Long-Range Development Flight. Additional modifications included the fitting of Pegasus XXII engines and extra fuel tanks. On 5 November 1938, three of them under command of S/L R. Kellett flew non-stop for two days from Ismailia, Egypt to Darwin, Australia (7,162 mi/11,525 km) setting a world distance record. All three aircraft succeeded in breaking the existing record, but No. 2 aircraft landed in West Timor, 500 mi (800 km) short of the final objective. The Wellesley's record remained unbroken until November 1945. To this day, though, this flight remains the longest by a single engined aircraft,
By the outbreak of the Second World War, the Wellesley had been phased out from home based squadrons, with only four examples remaining in Britain,but remained in service with three squadrons based in the Middle East. Following the Italian declaration of war on 10 June 1940, the remaining Wellesley squadrons became involved in the East African Campaign against Italian forces in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somaliland.
Sudan-based Wellesleys carried out their first bombing mission on 11 June 1940 against Asmara in Eritrea. Although obsolete, the Wellesley formed a major part of the British Commonwealth's available bomber forces, mainly carrying out raids against Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia.In the early part of the campaign, fighter escort was not available, and when caught by Fiat CR.42s, proved vulnerable to the Italian biplane fighter. Despite this, the Wellesley continued to be used for bombing raids, bombing Addis Ababa from Aden on 18 August. The Wellesley continued in use against the Italians over East Africa until November 1941, when Gondar, the last Italian-held town, fell to Commonwealth and Ethiopian forces. The final Wellesley equipped unit, 47 Squadron was then switched to carrying out maritime reconnaissance duties over the Red Sea, continuing in this role until September 1942.
While the Wellesley was not a significant combat aircraft, the design principles that were tested in its construction were put to good use with the Wellington medium bomber that became one of the main types of Bomber Command in the early years of the European war.
In February 1940, three Wellesleys (K7728, K7735 and K8531) were sold to Egypt to serve in the Royal Egyptian Air Force