'R' for Robert - Loch Ness Wellington
Wellington N2980 is now the only remaining 'intact' aircraft of her type that saw action against the enemy in WW2. The remaining 11,460 which were produced have all been destroyed either in battle, training or recycled for other purposes. Parts of other Wellington's however do survive in various collections around the UK, including a much later MkX model at RAF Cosford which never saw WW2 action.
Wellington Mk 1A, N2980 was produced at Brookland's Aircraft Factory in Weybridge, Surrey (where it can be seen in the museum today) and was first flown by Vickers' Chief Test Pilot 'Mutt' Summers on 16th November 1939, just over a month before the Battle of Heligoland Bight took place. It was issued to 149 Squadron at RAF Mildenhall and was allocated the squadron code letter 'R' for Robert, a name that the aircraft it is now
often referred to as.
(photo courtesy of Andy Dicks 2019)
On the 18th December 1939, the night of the Heligoland battle, her crew were:
S/Leader Paul Harris - Captain
P/O Herome A. (Sandy) Innes - 2nd Pilot
Sgt. Francis H. P. (Bunny) Austin - Observer/Navigator/Ventral Turret Gunner
AC2 George (Jock) Watson - Wireless Operator
AC1 James (Jimmy) Mullineaux - Rear Gunner
AC1 John Doxsey - Front Gunner
N2980 was the leading aircraft of one of four formations of six aircraft that made up the 'Big Diamond' flying formation at the beginning of the action that night. They departed RAF Mildenhall at 09.27 hrs.The squadron's operations record book for that night reveals that the crew of N2980 thought they may have shot down three enemy Messerschmidt 110 aircraft, although a caveat states that one was possible and two were doubtful. On the return journey they had witnessed N2961 being forced down into the sea and they tried to drop a rescue dinghy after sending a message by wireless telegraphy. The dinghy however became caught on the tail unit of N2980 and the aircraft was forced to fly on with difficulty before making a forced but safe landing at RAF Coltishall to the North of the city of Norwich in Norfolk at 16.00hrs. The following day it returned to RAF Mildenhall having refueled at RAF Horsham St Faith, Norfolk. On inspection the aircraft had incurred damage to the tail plane from the entangled dinghy and was also found to have bullet holes through the elevator, front turret, two geodetic members in the fuselage and a graze on the longeron. The only crew member to come close to injury was AC1 Mullineaux who had a bullet enter the sole of his boot and was somewhat shocked. Unfortunately, despite a search and rescue operation, the crew of N2961 did not survive although two bodies were later recovered and were given land burials.
Wellington N2980 took part in fourteen operational missions to Germany in total which was more than twice the average survival rate of a Wellington at that time. The aircraft remained part of 149 Squadron until 30 May 1940 when she was taken on charge of 37 Squadron at RAF Feltwell. Following her final operational mission on 26/27 August 1940 she transferred on 6 October that same year to Number 20 Operational Training Unit at RAF Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth in Scotland.
It was whilst part of 20 OTU that the Loch Ness incident occurred on 31 December 1940. In the afternoon on that fateful day, Wellington N2980 took off for a training flight. The pilot was S/Ldr David Marwood-Elton who was accompanied by:
P/O J.F.Slatter - Co-pilot
Sgt. W.Wright - Wireless operator/ Air Gunner
Sgt. J.S. Fensome - Rear Gunner
P/O T.G.Lupton, Sgt. C.H.Chandler, Sgt. R.E.Little, Sgt. E.J.Ford - four trainee navigators
The flight path took them past Fort Augustus, situated at the south west end of Loch Ness. En route they passed over the Monadhliath Mountains where at 8,000 feet they encountered heavy snow squalls and the starboard engine failed. The aircraft began to lose height and the order was given for the six trainees to bail out. Five landed safely but Sgt Fensome pulled his ripcord prematurely causing the parachute to strike the aircraft on deployment. The damage caused resulted in the parachute failing to open with fatal consequences.
As the aircraft continued to lose height the pilot saw the long stretch of water which was Loch Ness through a break in the cloud and decided to ditch. The port propeller caused a great spray of water to rise as the aircraft hit the water but the two pilots were able to get out of the aircraft onto the starboard wing, deploy the dinghy and make it to shore. They watched Wellington N2980 sink into the Loch.
Two years later in April 1942 one of the trainees, T.G. Lupton, gave a personal account of the incident. By this time he had been promoted to Flying Officer and was living in America where he worked at the University of Miami as a navigation instructor training RAF Cadets. A local newspaper gave the following account of a speech given by Lupton to the nearby Redland District Lions Club:
'... Lupton, a native Londoner and former accountant, told of the recruiting posters on the bases of the lions in Trafalgar Square which impelled him to enlist in 1938. After preliminary training in western England, he went into the Royal Air Force and was sent to Scotland for advance training. It was there on New Year's Eve in 1940 that he made his first parachute jump when his plane developed motor trouble over Loch Ness, where sea monsters were reported a few years ago. For some reason his parachute failed to open properly and when it finally did function, he was below the four men who jumped before him. The thing which made the greatest impression on him as he descended was the absolute quiet, he said. After landing he had difficulty in identifying himself to an old Scotch farmer. Finally convinced Lupton was not an enemy, the farmer took him to headquarters of the Fifth Camerons where a New Year's celebration was in progress. During the meal he ate the traditional haggis for which he declares he still has a great deal of repugnance ... '
Squadron Leader Marwood-Elton and Sgt. Wright are known to have survived the war, but Slatter, Chandler, Little and Ford were all later killed in action. It appears that T.G. Lupton married in America in 1943, survived the war and resigned his commission in December 1945. Records suggest that he farmed in Greenwood, Virginia and died there in 1989.
Discovery And Restoration of N2980
The discovery of Wellington N2980 came about primarily due to the efforts of enthusiasts investigating various sightings of a large unexplained creature in the loch.
In 1968 Professor Gordon Tucker from Birmingham University, together with his team, used digital sonar equipment to search and reported finding large moving objects below the surface of the loch in Urquhart Bay.
Over the following eight years further research teams, using different types of sonar also searched the loch including Robert Rines, an American lawyer and inventor who visited the loch in 1972 and reported a sighting of the creature. He invented sophisticated camera and sonar equipment and continued to search for thirty five years.
In 1976 Martin Klein and Charles Finkelstein of Klein Associates Inc. of Salem, Massachusetts arrived with side-scan sonar equipment that Martin had developed. Using this innovative technology many more intriguing targets were found in the depths of the loch, including what was thought to be the sunken wreckage of a Catalina aircraft that went down in WW2.
Finkelstein & Klein examining sonar images.
(courtesy of Martin Klein)
Sonar image of Wellington N2980
(courtesy of Martin Klein)
In 1978 Martin Klein and associates Gary Kozak and Tom Cummings returned to obtain improved sonar images and Cummings noted that the image looked to be that of a Wellington. Robin Holmes and Robin Dunbar from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering department from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh decided to test the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) called PK1 they had developed, by sending it into the loch to take photographs of the wreck. The images they obtained showed that the structure of the plane was of geodesic design and was therefore more likely to be a Wellington aircraft rather than a Catalina has had previously been thought. Following communication with the Ministry of Defence regarding their find it was thought that the aircraft may have been a Wellington Mk 1A that had ditched on New Year's Eve in 1940.
Research of the wreck was to continue and in 1979 a Royal Navy Diving Team from HMS Vernon based at Portsmouth arrived at the loch. Fortuitously after having lain submerged in the loch for thirty-nine years, part of the fabric covering of the fuselage had survived and the aircraft's serial number of N2980 could be clearly seen. This confirmed it was indeed the Wellington that had ditched whilst on a training flight.
The aircraft remained submerged and further surveys of it were carried out in 1980 and 1981 by Heriot Watt's ROV. In the few years since it had been found it could be seen that it had incurred serious damage, including having a large net from a fishing trawler draped around the front gun turret. The fuselage aft of the wings had also been torn apart. The position of the Wellington was by then well known and it was thought souvenir hunters may have already attempted to remove parts and may continue to do so.
Robin Holmes decided to set up a charity called the Loch Ness Wellington Association Ltd. in 1984 with the intention of saving the aircraft from further damage and recovering it from the loch. With donations from the general public and The National Heritage Memorial Fund a recovery operation began in September 1985. The first attempt at lifting the wreck was unsuccessful but on a second attempt the aircraft was eventually raised out of the loch at the north end of Loch Ness near the Bona Lighthouse.
(photo courtesy of Brooklands Museum)
The story of it’s lifting is well described in Robin Holmes book 'One of our Aircraft - The Story of 'R' for Robert - The Loch Ness Wellington' and is merely summarised here. Despite nearly forty-five years underwater the aircraft was remarkably well preserved. The tail light still worked when connected to a modern battery and poignantly many of the crew’s personal effects remained in the fuselage.
In 1985 the BBC made an excellent short film presentation of the story of the Loch Ness Wellington and its recovery entitled 'One of our Bombers is no longer missing' . It is available to view via YouTube here: The story of the Loch Ness Wellington
The Wellington was delivered to Brooklands Museum by British Aerospace in September 1985 and the long restoration began. Andrew Lambert who worked at Brooklands made various films of it’s restoration which may be viewed via YouTube here:
A collection of videos regarding the legacy of R for Robert and the significance of the Wellington bomber to the war effort in WW2 can be found here courtesy of Brookland's Museum: Wellingtons.
The Loch Ness Wellington 2020 Project
December 31st 2020 was the 80th Anniversary of the 1940 ditching of N2980, R for Robert Wellington into Loch Ness. It was also thirty-five years since the wreckage of the Wellington was recovered for the bottom of Loch Ness, and began it’s remarkable renovation at Brooklands Museum.
The Loch Ness Wellington 2020 Project was set up to commemorate this anniversary by involving anyone connected with those past events, including the families of the RAF airmen who flew in Wellington N2980 and the people of the Inverness area which by fate became the host venue for its lifting and embraced the whole activity with such enthusiasm. The project also intended to raise funds for the restoration of several commemorative plaques that had been placed in the vicinity of the loch soon after the raising of the wreck.
The project grew out of the enormous success of the Heligoland39 Project in researching the RAF crewmen and reuniting families from the early Wellington bombing raids of Heligoland and Wilhelmshaven including those families connected to Wellington N2980.
The core team overseeing the project are:
Jack Waterfall - team leader and project leader of the H39 Project
Tim Harris - The son of Paul Harris who flew R for Robert during the first named battle of the war, the Battle of the Heligoland Bight
Rachel Kellett - Niece of Richard Kellett who was Squadron Leader on the Heligoland raids.
Others connected and contributing to the project as it evolved are:
Robin Holmes and Martin Klein - as previously mentioned.
Morag Barton - Was the co-ordinator of the new Brooklands Museum, who accepted R for Robert to come back home. She became part of the Loch Ness Wellington Association.
Drumsmittal Primary School - The school became involved with the salvage project back in 1988. The Association gave Rhiannon Naismith, Naomi Leech, Robert Macfarlane and Robert Duncan the honour of unveiling a commemorative cairn and plaque at the edge of Loch Ness. Ian Benzie was the headmaster at the time and networked with master stone mason Hamish Gatt for the cairn and Elgin Rifle Club for the bronze work.)
RAF Kinloss Sub Aqua club – 7 divers from here retrieved the cockpit section of N2980, including the co-pilots seat. The team was led by Flt Lt Grizz Fairhurst.
Morayvia Museum - where the Loch Ness Wellington Exhibition will move to on February 28th 2021 to after Inverness
80th Anniversary Commemoration Events
2020 - 2021
20 October 2020 - A Typhoon flypast over Loch Ness took place to mark the spot where N2980 ditched and can be viewed here: Flypast
11 November 2020 - A Remembrance Day tribute was held to commemorate Sgt John Stanley Fensome who was the only crew member of N2980 who lost his life in the incident.
Sgt. John Stanley Fensome
Adrian Shine with commemorative marker
(courtesy of Maralyn Shine www.lochnessproject.org)
17 December 2020 - A video interview for Brookland's Radio with members of the Loch Ness Wellington Project 2020 team: Jack Waterfall, Vic Atwood and Rachel Kellett can be viewed here: The Loch Ness Wellington 2020 Project
31st December 2020 - Due to the Covid-19 pandemic it was decided not to arrange an all singing and dancing celebratory event, so a modest service was organised in Inverness Cathedral to mark the event. The remembrance service was conducted by a member of the RAF Lossiemouth Chaplaincy A video recording of the event can be viewed here: Inverness Cathedral