The Whitley was developed by Armstrong Whitworth’s Chief Designer, John Lloyd, in response to Air Ministry Specification B3/34 which called for a heavy night bomber to meet the requirement to replace the RAF’s biplane bomber force. Such was the urgency, that an order for 80 machines was placed in 1935, some considerable time before Chief Test pilot Alan Campbell-Orde took the prototype Whitley into the air for the first time on 17th March 1936. Two Armstrong Whitworth Tiger radial engines were used to power early marks but these were replaced in 1938 by Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled V12 engines of 1,145 hp giving rise to the Whitley Mk IV and, following further airframe and equipment modifications, the Mk V which proved to be the definitive version.
With a crew of five, the Whitley was armed with a single .303 in Vickers machine gun in the nose and 4 x .303 in Brownings in the tail turret and was capable of carrying an internal bomb load of up to 7,000 lb. It entered RAF service with No 10 Squadron at Dishforth in 1937 and six squadrons were equipped with the aircraft on the outbreak of hostilities on 3rd September 1939; indeed, it saw action on the first night of the war delivering leaflets over Germany. Hampdens and Whitleys made the first bombing raid on Germany on 19th March 1940 whilst Whitleys carried out the first raid on Italy, visiting Genoa and Turin on the night of 11th June. Although obsolete as a bomber from the outset of war, production continued and the aircraft was not withdrawn from Bomber Command’s Main Force until April 1942. Thereafter, it continued in a variety of secondary roles including troop and freight transport, paratroop training and glider towing. A few aircraft were used by Special Duties squadrons until 1943 and it also played an important role in Coastal Command as a maritime patrol aircraft – a Whitley sank U-206 in November 1941 and a further 5 U-boats were despatched before the end of 1943.
No fewer than 24 squadrons and several other units operated the Whitley at one time or another. Of the 1,814 aircraft built there are no survivors – all that remains is a fuselage section on display at the Midlands Aircraft Museum, Baginton.