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Thirty-five years ago today……… 21st September 1985

21 September 2020

Thirty-five years ago today (September 21), there was frantic activity on the banks of Loch Ness as a ‘monster’ was hoisted from its depths.

This ‘monster’ was Wellington Bomber N2980, nicknamed ‘R for Robert.’

1939

During a training exercise with 20 Operation Training Unit, based at RAF Lossiemouth, on December 31, 1939, this bomber was forced to ditch into Loch Ness due to engine failure where it remained, hidden and almost forgotten, for 46 years.

In 1985, the year the plane was recovered, Squadron Leader NWD Marwood-Elton, the pilot, recalled the night the plane went down.

“It was New Year’s Eve, and snowing slightly, but not too bad because the sun came out between the showers, and we took off from Lossiemouth (in Moray, Scotland) and headed out towards the west coast of Scotland, and whilst we were over the mountains the starboard engine spluttered and came to a stop.

“That in itself meant the aircraft could not fly back to Lossiemouth. It didn’t mean we had to bail out or force-land immediately because we were at 8,000ft and had quite an amount of time, but we had to do something, and the first thing we did was to look round for somewhere to land and all we could we see was tops of mountains through the snowstorms, and not seeing anywhere where the plane would have come down without crashing, I gave the order for them to bail out.

He added: ”I looked around again to see if there was any chance of a landing and, as luck would have it, Loch Ness came into sight. So I cancelled the order for bailing out and said we would land.”

One of the crew members, Sgt JS Fensome, 20, who did not hear the second order, bailed out and was killed. He is buried at the Holy Trinity Churchyard, in Biscot, Bedfordshire.

Marwood-Elton continued: “Landing on Loch Ness was a very easy thing because Loch Ness stretched out like a runway. The only difference was it was water, and of course, below those waters was the monster and we weren’t quite certain what he would think about it.”

“We came on down and kept our undercarriage up, opened our escape hatch above us, and landed quite gently. A certain amount of spray came up automatically and it came in through our escape hatch so we got a nice dose of cold water over us. And the dinghy came out on the wing tip. So, we got out, walked along, got into the dinghy and the aircraft sank. And there it’s been all those years.”

The Discovery

Although the plane was recovered in 1985, the story of its discovery began in 1970 when Dr Robert H Rines, a wealthy patent lawyer from Boston, Massachusetts, Martin Klein, a pioneering American sonar expert, and Tim Dinsdale, embarked on an expedition to Loch Ness. The trio used a Klein side scan sonar to search the waters in a quest to find Nessie.

Further expeditions followed, including a trip in 1976 which led to the discovery of the Wellington.

Martin Klein recently recalled the course of events: “In 1976, me and Charles Finkelstein of Klein Associates, New Hampshire, USA, used a Klein side scan sonar for a scientific survey of Loch Ness, in collaboration with the Academy of Applied Science.

“When Charlie and I got back home we noticed the twin-engine aircraft image while reviewing the sonar paper traces.

“In 1978, I returned with colleagues, Garry Kozak and Tom Cummings. We made an improved image, and Cummings noted that ‘It looks like a Wellington bomber’.”

Subsequent surveys in 1980 and 1981 by Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, revealed that the old aircraft had been seriously damaged since it was first viewed in 1978. A large fishing net from a trawler was draped around the front gun turret and the fuselage aft of the wings had been torn apart.

The Recovery

To save the aircraft and recover it before the damage became too great, in 1984 Robin Holmes, a senior lecturer at the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Heriot-Watt University, set up a charity called Loch Ness Wellington Association Ltd. Thanks to donations from the public and a National Heritage Memorial Fund grant, a recovery operation was mounted in 1985.

Robin said: “The first attempt proved to be a total disaster when the lifting frame collapsed. Another lifting frame was hurriedly designed ‘on the back of an envelope’ and sent off to be built at an engineering company located on the Moray Firth. This time, the recovery was successful and old ‘R for Robert’ was craned out of the water at Bona Lighthouse, up at the north end of Loch Ness, on September 21, 1985.”

Following its recovery, the salvaged material was donated to the Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, Surrey, a suitable home as ‘R for Robert’ was first assembled at the Vickers Armstrongs factory in Weybridge in October 1939.

In the intervening years, over 100,000 volunteer hours have been spent restoring the aircraft. Fully restored, the Loch Ness Wellington today takes pride of place in the museum.

Now, 35 years after the aircraft was recovered, a team is attempting to crowdfund £50,000 to restore various commemorative plaques associated with the event, archive related material, and commission a feature film to present this saga on screen. The team includes Tim Harris, whose father, Paul, piloted Wellington N2980 during the Battle of Heligoland Bight.

Tim said: “With the benefit of the ‘Harris Luck,’ father survived the war and was present at the lifting of his ‘old warbird’ from the limpid depths of Loch Ness in 1985, just two months before his death.”

Find out more about the project here or donate to the project here

Squadron Leader NWD Marwood-Elton and Sgt JS Fensome, 1940

Robert H Rines, Martin Klein and Tim Dinsdale, 1970

1978 Sonar Trace of the Loch Ness Wellington

'R for Robert' is lifted from Loch Ness 21.09.85