Armstrong Whitworth A.W.38 Whitley Mk.V
British WWII Twin-engine night bomber

Archive Photos 1,2

WWII Wartime issue collector cards from Tydol’s Aeroplane Series 1 and Gallaher’s 1939 Aeroplanes 2 series via the Skytamer Archive (copyright © 2013 Skytamer Images)

Overview 2

The Armstrong Whitworth A.W.38 Whitley was one of three British Twin-engine, front line medium bomber types in service with the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of the Second World War (the others were the Vickers Wellington and the Handley Page Hampden). It took part in the first RAF bombing raid on German territory, and remained an integral part of the early British bomber offensive until the introduction of four-engined "heavies". Its front line service included maritime reconnaissance with Coastal Command, while also being employed in the second line roles of glider-tug, trainer and transport aircraft.

The aircraft was named after Whitley, a suburb of Coventry, home of one of Armstrong Whitworth’s plants.

Design and Development 3

The Whitley was designed by John Lloyd, the Chief Designer of Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft to meet Air Ministry Specification B.3/34 issued in 1934 for a heavy night bomber. The AW.38 design was a development of the Armstrong Whitworth AW.23 bomber-transport design that had lost to the Bristol Bombay for specification C.26/31 partly due to its Armstrong Siddeley Tiger engines. The Whitley carried a crew of five and was the first aircraft serving with the RAF to have a semi-monocoque fuselage, using a slab-sided structure which eased production. As Lloyd was unfamiliar with the use of flaps on a large heavy monoplane, they were initially omitted. To compensate, the mid-set wings were set at a high angle of incidence (8.5°) to confer good takeoff and landing performance. Although flaps were included late in the design stage, the wing remained unaltered. As a result, the Whitley flew with a pronounced nose-down attitude, resulting in considerable drag. This "nose down" attitude was also seen in the design of the Armstrong Whitworth Ensign pre-war airliner.

The first prototype A.W.38 Whitley Mk.I (K4586) flew from Baginton airfield on 17 March 1936, piloted by Armstrong Whitworth’s Chief Test Pilot Alan Campbell-Orde and was powered by two 795 hp (593 kW) Armstrong Siddeley Tiger IX radial engines. The second prototype was powered by more powerful Tiger XI engines.

Owing to the urgent need to replace biplane heavy bombers still in service with the RAF, an order for 80 aircraft had been placed in 1935, "off the drawing board", before the Whitley had flown. These had medium-supercharged engines and manually operated drum magazine single machine guns fore and aft. After the first 34 aircraft had been built, the engines were replaced with more reliable two-stage supercharged Tiger VIIIs, resulting in the A.W.38 Whitley Mk.II, that completed the initial order. One A.W.38 Whitley Mk.II (K7243), was used as a test bed for the 1,200 hp 21-cylinder radial Armstrong Siddeley Deerhound engine, first flying with the Deerhound on 6 January 1939. The replacement of the manually operated nose turret with a powered Nash & Thomson turret and a powered retractable two-gun ventral "dustbin" turret resulted in the A.W.38 Whitley Mk.III. The turret was hydraulically powered but it was hard to operate and added considerable drag.

While the Tiger VIIIs used in the A.W.38 Whitley Mk.II and Mk.IIIs were more reliable than those used in early aircraft, the Whitley was re-engined with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines in 1938 giving rise to the Whitley Mk.IV. These demonstrated greatly improved performance and the decision was made to introduce a series of other minor upgrades to produce the Whitley Mk.V. The modifications included modified fins, leading edge de-icing, manually operated tail and retractable ventral turrets replaced with a Nash & Thompson powered turret equipped with four .303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine guns, tail fuselage extended by 15 in (381 mm) to improve the field of fire. The A.W.38 Whitley Mk.V would be the most numerous version of the Whitley, with 1,466 built until production ended in June 1943.

Early marks of the Whitley had bomb bay doors - the eight bays were in fuselage compartments and wing cells - that were kept closed by bungee cords and opened by the weight of the released bombs falling on them. Even the tiny random delay in time that it took for the doors to open led to highly inaccurate bombing. The Whitley Mk.III introduced hydraulically actuated doors which greatly improved bombing accuracy. To aim bombs, the bomb aimer opened a hatch in the nose of the aircraft which extended the bombsight out of the fuselage but to everyone’s comfort, the Whitley Mk.IV replaced this hatch with a slightly extended transparency.

The bomb aimer position was in the nose with a gun turret above. The pilot and second pilot/navigator were sat by side by side in the pilot cockpit. The navigator rotated so they could use the chart table behind. Behind the pilots was the wireless operator. The fuselage aft of the wireless operator was divided horizontally by the bomb bay. Aft of the bomb bay was the main entrance and aft of that the rear turret.

Operational History

The Whitley first entered service with No. 10 Squadron in March 1937, replacing Handley Page Heyford biplanes. By the outbreak of the Second World War, seven squadrons were operational with the Whitley. The majority were flying Whitley Mk.IIIs or Mk.IVs as the Whitley Mk.V had only just been introduced.

With the Handley Page Hampden and the Vickers Wellington, Whitleys bore the brunt of the early fighting and saw action on the first night of the war when they dropped leaflets over Germany. Amongst the many aircrew who flew the Whitley in operations over Germany was Leonard Cheshire who spent most of his first three years at war flying Whitleys. Unlike the Hampden and Wellington - which met specification B.9/32 for a day bomber - the Whitley was always intended for night operations and so did not share the early heavy losses received in daylight raids on German shipping early in the war. With Hampdens, the Whitley made the first bombing raid on German soil on the night of 19/20 March 1940, attacking the Hornum seaplane base on the Island of Sylt. Whitleys also carried out the first RAF raid on Italy on 11/12 June 1940.

As the oldest of the three bombers, the Whitley was obsolete by the start of the war, yet over 1,000 more were produced before a suitable replacement was found. A particular problem with the Twin-engine aircraft was that it could not maintain altitude on one engine.

With Bomber Command, Whitleys flew 8,996 operations, dropped 9,845 tons (8,931 tonnes) of bombs with 269 aircraft lost in action. The Whitley was retired from front line service in late 1942 but it continued to operate as a transport for troops and freight, as well as for paratroop training and towing gliders. No.100 Group RAF used Whitleys to carry airborne radar and electronic counter-measures.

The British Overseas Airways Corporation operated 15 Whitley Mk.Vs converted into freighters in 1942. Running night supply flights from Gibraltar to Malta, they took seven hours to reach the island, often landing during air attacks. They used large quantities of fuel for a small payload and were replaced in August 1942 by the Lockheed Hudson, with the 14 survivors being returned to the Royal Air Force.

The long-range Coastal Command Mk.VII variants were among the last to see front line service, with the first kill attributed to them being the sinking of the German U-boat U-751, on 17 July 1942 in combination with a Lancaster heavy bomber. Having evaluated the Whitley in 1942, the Fleet Air Arm operated a number of modified ex-RAF Mk.VIIs from 1944-46 to train aircrew in Merlin engine management and fuel transfer procedures.

Variants 3

Following the two prototypes (K4586 and K4587), at the outbreak of the war the RAF had 207 Whitleys in service ranging from Mk.I to Mk.IV types, with improved versions following:

Operators 3

Military Operators

Civil Operators

Survivors 3

Of the 1,814 Whitleys produced, there are no surviving complete aircraft in existence; however, The Whitley Project are rebuilding an example from salvaged remains and a fuselage section is displayed at the Midland Air Museum (MAM) whose site is located adjacent to the airfield from where the Whitley’s maiden flight took place.

Specifications (Whitley Mk.V) 3

General Characteristics



References 2

  1. Airplane Trading Card images via The Skytamer Archive: Aeroplane Series, Tydol, UO1, USA, card 13 of 40)
  2. Airplane Trading Card images via The Skytamer Archive: Aeroplanes, Gallaher, 1939, UK, Card 25 of 48.
  3. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Armstrong Whitworth Whitley
  4. Shupek, John. Armstrong Whitworth A.W.38 Whitley Mk.V, The Skytamer Archive, Copyright © 2013 Skytamer Images. All Rights Reserved


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