The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley was the only heavy bomber available to the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War. Together with the Vickers Wellington and Handley Page Hamden medium bombers, the Whitley had the unenviable task of taking the war to Germany, at a time when navigation at night over such long distances was at best hit and miss. The Whitley was a very distinctive aircraft, with a sharp, angular appearance and very odd looking flight profile – the wings were angled slightly upwards, so in level flight the Whitley looked to be pointing downwards. Although it was slow, it was rugged and reliable, and when it was new it carried a heavy bomb load.
The Whitley was developed in response to a Air Ministry Specification (B.3/34) issued in July 1934. Armstrong Whitworth produced a two engined aircraft, with a stressed-skin construction, powered by the Armstrong Siddeley Tiger radial engine, driving three blade, variable pitch propellers. The first prototype flew on 17 March 1936. The Whitley was selected to be the standard RAF heavy bomber, and an order for eighty aircraft was placed. Production of the Whitley stopped in June 1943, after 1,814 of all versions had been produced.
Bomber command used the Whitley from March 1937, when No.10 Squadron converted to the new type, until April 1942 when it was officially retired from front line service. At first the RAF avoided bombing operations over Germany, so the Whitney Mk III saw most service dropping leaflets over Germany.
That changed with the German onslaught in May 1940. The Whitley was still the only heavy bomber available to the RAF (the first of the four engined heavies, the Short Stirling did not enter service until early 1941). It achieved several notable firsts – the first bombs dropped on Germany during a raid near München Gladbach on 11-12 May 1940, the first bombs dropped on Berlin on 25-26 August 1940 and the first raid over Italy on 11-12 June 1940. However this was the period where Bomber Command raids were inaccurate at best. The Whitley's low speed made it increasingly vulnerable, and it was officially retired from front line service with bomber command in April 1942, although a number did take place in the thousand bomber raid on Cologne on 30 May 1942, when every available aircraft was needed to reach the target number of bombers.
The Whitley was also used with paratroops and as a glider tug. Its most famous exploit was probably the raid on the German radar station at Bruneval on 27-28 February 1942, when Whitleys of No. 51 Squadron carried the paratroopers.
The Whitley also served with Coastal Command. In September 1939 No. 58 Squadron briefly served on coastal patrol duties, before returning to Bomber Command. The first Coastal Command squadron to receive the Whitley was No. 502, replacing its Avro Ansons in October 1940. The Mk VII was a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft, with greater range and air-to-surface radar. On 30 November 1941, a Mk VII of No. 502 Squadron achieved the Whitley’s first U-boat kill. The Whitley was phased out of Coastal Command early in 1944.
The Mk I used the 920 hp Armstron Siddeley Tiger IX radial engine. It entered service in March 1937, and was already being replaced by the outbreak of war in 1939. Thirty four Mk Is were built. The Mk I and Mk II were both armed with two .303 in Vickers machine-guns, one in each of the manually-operated nose and tail turrets.
The Mk II was similar to the Mk II apart from the use of the Tiger VIII engine, which had a two-speed supercharger. Forty six Mk IIs were built, completing the original order for 80 aircraft.
The Mk III saw the first attempt to improve the defensive firepower of the Whitley. The nose turret was replaced by a power-operated Nash and Thompson turret, still with one machine gun, while a retractable ventral turret with two .303in Browning machine guns was added. Eight Mk III were built. The Mk III saw most service dropping leaflets in the first months of the war.
The Mk IV was the first version to use the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The production version of the Mk IV first appeared in April 1939 and was powered by two Merlin IVs, providing 1,030 hp. The other main change was the inclusion of a power-operated Nash and Thompson tail turret, armed with four 0.303in Browning machine guns. Forty Mk IVs were built, the last seven as Mk IVAs, with 1,145 hp Merlin X engines.
The Mk V was by far the most common version of the Whitley. It used the same Merlin X engines as the Mk IVAs, had increased fuel capacity and a slightly longer fuselage, giving improved visibility for the tail gunner. 1,466 Mk Vs were produced. It was the Mk V that took part in the bombing campaign that began in earnest in May 1940.
The Mk VI would have used Pratt & Whitney engines. It would only have been built if there had been problems with the supply of Rolls Royce Merlin engines. In the event none were needed.
The last 146 Whitleys were produced as Mk VIIs. Theses were similar to the Mk V, but with auxiliary fuel tanks in the bomb bay which increased the maximum range to 2,300 miles. It was equipped with ASV Mk II air-to-surface radar and was used as a maritime patrol aircraft.
Statistics (Mk V)
Engines: two 1,145 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin X
Wingspan: 84 ft 0 in
Length: 70 ft 6 in
Range: 1,500 miles
Maximum Speed: 230 mph at 16,400 ft
Cruising Speed: 210 mph at 15,000 ft
Ceiling: 26,000 ft
Armament: four 0.303in machine guns in powered tail turret, one 0.303in machine gun in nose turret.