THE WAR HERO WHO
TESTED THE BRITISH H-BOMB
Air Vice Marshall
Wilfred Oulton (1911-1997)
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".
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.
was adapted from the obituary of Oulton published in the Daily Telegraph,
Wednesday 5th November 1997.
information on the Christmas Island tests, click here
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MAN WHO BOWLED W. G. GRACE FOR A DUCK - Abertillery cricket
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