The Wellington bomber plane built in a day

In the midst of World War II, workers at a Welsh aircraft factory gave up their weekend off to build a Wellington bomber from scratch in just 24 hours. Why? To set a new world record.

The workers in action - and what Wellingtons did in the war

With the country under attack and the war effort in full swing, worrying about world records might have seemed like a strange thing to do.

But after months of nightly bombing raids by the Luftwaffe, the Ministry of War was keen to show the world - friend and foe - that Britain could dish it out as well as take it.

Find out more

  • Wellington Bomber is on BBC Four on Tuesday 14 Sept at 2000 BST, part of the BBC's Battle of Britain season
  • And James Holland's Battle of Britain - The Real Story is on BBC Two, Wednesday 22 Sept at 2000 BST

And so, in collaboration with the RAF, the ministry issued a challenge to one of the factories churning out planes for Bomber Command - to build an operational Wellington bomber in record-breaking time, faster than the existing record of 48 hours set in California.

"It might seem odd, but the whole point of wartime aircraft production is speed," says historian James Holland.

"It's sticking two fingers up at Nazi Germany and at the rest of the world. Our image of Germany is that they were all Teutonic efficiency and we were a bit amateurish, but it was the opposite.

"If you're breaking records in the middle of a war, it shows confidence, and it gives the workers involved a boost."

Defeat Hitler - at any cost

In Churchill's first speech to the House of Commons after he was prime minister, he defined his policy as victory at all costs.

He meant victory even if the British Empire were to perish, victory even if we were to be an impoverished country.

Another quote [from Churchill]: "I have only one aim in life - that is to defeat Hitler, and that makes things very simple for me."

Whatever sacrifices were needed, he was ready to make [them] and he recognised that Great Britain should make them.

From his 1976 BBC series The War Lords

It was wartime propaganda, to bolster spirits at home and put the wind up the enemy. Such a stunt demonstrated the efficiency of Britain's factories and the unbowed spirit of its people.

And it was a muscular demonstration of Winston Churchill's one policy - to defeat Germany, whatever the cost. In September 1940, he wrote "the bombers alone will provide the means for victory". At his order, vast resources poured into Bomber Command.

Although the exact date of the stunt is lost, National Archives records suggest it was staged in early summer 1943 - about the time British bombers flattened Hamburg in attacks that dwarfed the Blitz - and filmed for a Ministry of Information newsreel.

"Everybody had someone in the forces, so it was worth fighting for to see them home again," recalls Eileen Lindfield, who took part in the stunt at Broughton factory in north Wales.

At its peak the factory, run by Vickers Armstrong for the Ministry of Aircraft Production, was churning out 28 Wellington bombers a week. Today, it makes the giant wings of the Airbus A380.

Start Quote

Betty Weaver

I didn't know one end of a screwdriver from another ”

End Quote Betty Weaver on her first days at Broughton

That the Americans held the existing record was also significant. Britain was keen to impress its ally, but to beat their time would be one in the eye for coming late to the fight against Hitler. The narrator chosen for the newsreel was an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force - a deliberate choice of North American accent.

The easily assembled Wellington was perfect for the stunt. Its aluminium frame slotted together like Meccano, with a skin of varnished Irish linen.

It was a mainstay of RAF Bomber Command and Coastal Command during WWII, used to protect retreating troops at Dunkirk and involved in bombing Berlin on 25 August 1940 - the raid which so enraged Hitler, he ordered the Blitz.

And so, one Saturday morning in 1943, Broughton's workers gave up their weekend to assemble Wellington bomber LN514 from scratch and against the clock. Many were women, or men too young, too old or too infirm to join the armed forces.

(Article continues below graphic)

Top, one of two surviving Wellington bombers; bottom left, dimensions of the plane; bottom right, archive photo of bombers under construction A restored Wellington bomber, showing its geodetic skeleton, and below, under construction in WWII

Of the 6,000 people working 12-hour shifts on Broughton's wartime production lines, more than half were women, drafted in to fill places vacated by men sent to the front lines.

Wellington bomber at Broughton factory At work on a Wellington at Broughton

Some had been dressmakers. Others nurses, maids, photographic technicians. They stitched its linen carapace, drove the roof cranes that shifted wings and tail fins into position, and installed its electrics.

"Women were absolutely vital - first of all to the war effort as a whole, and to aircraft production," says historian Sir Max Hastings, author of the book Bomber Command. "They were very good at what they did. Britain mobilised women more efficiently than any other wartime nation, except perhaps the Russians."

Betty Weaver was conscripted from the local co-operative store. "I didn't know one end of a screwdriver from another but I got there. I do now. For the first three weeks I didn't sleep, then it all slotted into place."

She, too, worked on Wellington LN514 that weekend. The aim was to complete it in 30 hours, with a pilot on hand to take it up Sunday afternoon.

Wellington bombers

Loading a Wellington bomber circa 1943
  • Brainchild of Barnes Wallis, designer of bouncing bombs which made Dambusters famous
  • Used throughout WWII, but by 1943 mainly for anti-shipping duties as superseded by Halifax and Lancaster four-engine bombers
  • Wellingtons involved in bombing Berlin in August 1940, prompting Hitler to switch from attacking fighter planes to British cities - the Blitz
  • Today only two remain - one, at Brooklands Museum, recovered from Loch Ness

Throughout the day, workers swarmed to slot together its body, to assemble the engine, to tightly sew its fabric shell - eight stitches to the inch, or the wind could get it and rip the seams open.

By 8.23pm, soon after the night shift arrived, it was time to fit the propellers to the wings. The plane was coming together so fast, workers began laying bets on whether they'd beat their target.

Two hours later, the landing wheels were installed, each one four and a half feet high and weighing 300lbs.

By 3.20am, the plane left the production line, and began a round of inspections and engine tests. At 6.15am - 21 hours and 15 minutes since work started - the engines fired up for final tests, and finishing touches were made to the stitching. And at 8.50am, 10 minutes short of the 24-hour mark, it was ready for take-off.

Work had progressed so fast the pilot had to be awoken from his slumber for its maiden flight. "I hope to God they haven't missed anything," he muttered.

"The record? Yes, they broke it, those workers," remarked the newsreel's narrator. "They said they'd build a bomber in their spare time in 30 hours. Its wheels lifted from the ground in exactly 24 hours and 48 minutes."

That evening, Wellington LN514 was flown to its operational base, ready for duty. And Broughton's workers set to work making another, and another, and another...

Below is a selection of your comments

My auntie worked on LN514. I remember "interviewing" her 25 years ago for a school project I was working on, the details and story she told had me so enthralled I barely jotted any notes down. The people who fought for our freedom, either on the front line or back at home, have my total and utter respect.

Pete Evans, Wrexham, North Wales

My mother who is 82 and very much alive, watched the crew of the Wellington which is now at Brooklands and pictured in your article, bail out as it passed overhead when she was a young girl. As she watched, the plane, which was clearly in trouble, headed for Loch Ness, where it eventually crash landed, killing the pilot who had bravely stayed aboard to give his crew a chance. Thanks to his courage and sacrifice he was the only fatality. My mother to this day can describe the shock and excitement of seeing men parachuting down to the fields around her.

Ian, Muir of Ord

According to my father's log book, the L series of Wellingtons appeared around September 1943, not "early summer" as given in your article. He was still flying the H series in May/June. It was probably more like late July or early August.

Patricia Duncan, Tenerife, Spain

A wonderful morale booster, and all credit to those who achieved the task. No doubt they chose the easiest model to build, but so what? Although I do wonder how long it would have taken to build a Lancaster or a Halifax against, say, an American B17.

Brian Stephenson, Gateshead

LN514 went on to serve with 19 Operational Training Unit, survived the war and was struck off command on 11 March 1948.

Lauren, London

The true feat was the manufacturing of Spitfires and Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain, production outstripped the number of aircraft being shot down by the Luftwaffe and more than kept pace with German aircraft production. The workers in the factories producing these airplanes should be remembered and congratulated by everyone in the country. A fact, not propaganda.

G Tanner, Pinner

Stirring stuff. But I can't help wondering whether if Churchill hadn't insisted on retaliation for an accident, people in Wales might still be going to work in factories.

Bob Laurie, Lanarkshire, Scotland

Good grief - how frightening must it be to be sitting in an normal bomber behind a metal skin, never mind sitting behind Irish linen. Bravery beyond compare when the bullets come flying.

Brian Buick, Belfast

The metal skin of a normal bomber was no more protection against bullets than a coke can would be, so linen wasn't a noticeable step down in protection. Going up in any of them would have taken great courage.

ShaunOTD,

Another amazing example of what a group of people can achieve focused on one common goal and with shear determination under challenging and unusual circumstances. We should use this to remind ourselves of what are capable of in this country even in tough times, a lesson that can be used today.

Craig Tonge, Brighton, UK

An amazing achievement. The Americans cornered the maritime equivalent when they launched a 14,000 ton Liberty Ship (Robert E Peary) after four days and 15.5 hours.

Patrick Keefe, Brussels, Belgium

I'm not entirely sure that you can trust this source - it's blatantly propaganda. You have to remember to be critical, even if you wouldn't like to be - otherwise this just becomes boorish self-congratulation.

A Shand-Davies, Bristol, UK

Blatant propaganda it may be, however the source is more than just the archive newsreel. It's also the memories still living workers who took part in the record breaking attempt that help bolster the evidence.

Justin Keenan, Leeds

It might well have been propaganda, but it was an achievement and some thing people were, and still are proud off. Will we look back in 70 years from now and be proud of achievements from 2010? Probably not.

Will, North-West

An amazing feat! Does anybody know what became of LN514?

Jim Chadwick, Manchester

Got me thinking about those brave boys of Bomber Command who didn't make it. We should have a war grave day when we can honour the boys of Bomber Command by laying flowers at their graves, with not a single war grave in the land not having flowers on it. The War Graves Commission could have a search on their site to find a grave near you.

Tony H, Taunton UK

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.