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Air Vice Marshall Wilfred Oulton (1911-1997)Wilfrid Ewart Oulton

Wilfred Ewart Oulton was born on July 27th 1911. It is unclear whether he was actually born in Abertillery and is probable that he wasn't since his father, Llewellyn Oulton had served in the Royal Flying Corps and apparently had been a member of Sir Ernest Rutherford's team of physicists that worked on the splitting of the atom. However, Oulton senior became a master at Abertillery County School, and incidentally the conductor of the school's choir, and it was there that the young Wilfred received his education. The family lived in the Blaenau Gwent area of the town.

Wilfred won an open scholarship at Abertillery County School to University College, Cardiff from where he passed into the RAF College at Cranwell as a prize cadet with exceptional marks. He became a commissioned pilot officer two years later joining a flying boat squadron at Southampton. In 1935, he went to the School of Air Navigation at Manston where he was recognised as an outstanding navigator and instructor.

Oulton married Sarah Davies in 1935 but since he was only 24, he did not qualify for a marriage allowance. Consequently, he studied languages in his early career in attempt to obtain additional income. Without a private income, however, he was comparatively hard up and was renowned for being able to carve meat so thinly such that a roast for two could serve ten!

In September 1939, Oulton was posted to a squadron on shipping and anti-submarine patrols over the English Channel and then in 1943, he was given the command of 58 Squadron, a Halifax bomber squadron specially converted for maritime operations. On May 7th that year the German U-boat, U-663 was on its way back to Germany when it surfaced in the rough seas of the Bay of Biscay. Oulton attacked the submarine using depth charges with great precision causing it to sink with no survivors. He later recalled that before the U-boat sank, its bow lifted out of the water such that it looked like 'Cleopatra's Needle'.

Eight days later, Oulton and his crew spotted U-463, a submarine converted into a tanker, and attacked, sending his Halifax into a shallow dive from 6,000 feet to 2,500 feet. At a hundred feet above the boat, Oulton released six depth charges that lifted U-463 out of the water such that it sank causing Oulton to ditch a further attack. At the end of the same month, Oulton attacked and crippled U-563, a submarine that had itself had sunk 10 allied ships including the destroyer HMS Cossack. The stricken U-boat was finally dispatched by follow-up aircraft.

During the second World war, Oulton was also sent to Washington to advise on training for British and Commonwealth air crew at U.S. flying schools. Winston Churchill made a visit to see President Roosevelt at this time and Oulton was chosen to act as a temporary aide. In the early hours of the morning, Oulton was sat in a corridor at the White House. He was spotted by the President's wife Eleanor Roosevelt who felt sorry for the young officer and Oulton spent the rest of the evening sat on her bed drinking coffee and talking till dawn. 

Later, Oulton set up and commanded a base in the Azores and when there he was visited by U. S. General, later President, Eisenhower. In return for his hospitality Eisenhower asked Oulton how could repay his hospitality to which Oulton suggested some fruit for his men. A short time later, a whole plane load of ranges arrived!

He was awarded the DFC and the DSO in 1943 and was mentioned in dispatches three times in his war service.

After the war, he was appointed as deputy director of the fledgling Air Traffic Control and helped establish early systems at Heathrow before acting as the Air attaché covering most of the southern part of the South American continent. At that later posting, Oulton was told he was "to go out and drop a bomb somewhere in the central Pacific Ocean and take a picture of it with a brownie camera". When the surprised Oulton enquired, "What kind of bomb?", he was told a thermonuclear one and muttered "Good God". 


He set up a team from scratch which became a force of 4000 men and as Joint Task Force Commander of Operation Grapple at Christmas Island from 1956 to 1958, he devised, organised and carried out nuclear tests that had to be finished before a ban on atmospheric testing came into place. To Oulton much of this seemed almost pre-destined as his father had discussed the possibility of atomic power with him as a youngster.

In 1960, Oulton decided to retire from military service and joined EMI Electronics. He travelled to the Middle East and south east Asia with his business commitments, but also published two books, Christmas Island Cracker (1987) and Technocrat (1995).


    Christmas Island test 1956

He was elected as fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation and the Institute of Electronic and Radio Engineering. he was also a member of the Institute of Directors having been Chairman of Medsales Executive since 1982. The University of Wales also bestowed an honorary fellowship on him.

Oulton had been the RAF squash champion in his younger days and continued to play into his eighties, often beating younger men. He also enjoyed Scottish dancing and would be the last one to stop on New Year's Eve! He had three boys with his wife Sarah, two of whom served in the RAF, the other in the RCAF. Sarah died in 1990 and a year later Oulton married Leticia Sara Malcolm.

In October 1997, Oulton passed away aged 86.

This was adapted from the obituary of Oulton published in the Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 5th November 1997.

For more information on the Christmas Island tests, click here



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