Wing Commander Oliver Wells O.B.E.
Wing Commander Oliver Wells O.B.E.
Born: March 10th 1922, Felmersham near Bedford Died: June 4th 2012 Age 90.
On the night of August 30th 1943, Wells took off to bomb Monchengladbach. Approaching the target, a night fighter attacked his bomber and set it on fire. Wells held the aircraft steady as the crew bailed out, but when he attempted to leave the aircraft he found himself pinned against the fuselage. His parachute caught fire and there was an explosion. Wells’s next recollection was of lying unharmed in a field close to his burning Lancaster.
Over the next few days, he travelled by night to The Netherlands before getting assistance. He walked into Belgium, where he was helped by members of the Comet escape line who sheltered him in safe houses in Liege for the next four months. On January 3rd 1944, after being taken to Brussels, he was starting his journey to the Pyrenees when his false papers failed an inspection on the train and he was captured.
Held in a verminous jail at Loos, he was frequently interrogated by the Gestapo. It took him several weeks to persuade them that he was an R.A.F. officer. He was sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, from where he was able to send a Red Cross card to his parents who had feared that they had lost a fourth son.
His practical mother used her one permitted Red Cross parcel to send Wells his thick R.A.F. greatcoat – not much appreciated initially, but he was very glad of it when, in January 1945, their captors force-marched the PoWs westward in grim conditions ahead of the advancing Red Army.
The survivors ended up in a squalid camp south of Berlin, with minimal rations and no medical care. In April their German guards vanished and Russian tanks mowed down the wire to liberate the PoWs. A few weeks later Wells arrived back in England.
The seventh and youngest son of Sir Richard Wells, Bt, MP for Bedford from 1922 to 1945, Oliver Wells was born at Felmersham near Bedford on March 10th 1922 into the Charles Wells brewing family. He was educated at Uppingham, leaving in late 1940 to join the R.A.F. He trained as a pilot at Cranwell.
The early years of the war brought tragedy to the Wells family. His eldest brother Jimmy, a squadron leader, was killed over The Netherlands in 1940 leading a suicidal mission in which five of six Blenheims were shot down. Of his other brothers, Kit, a lieutenant-commander, was gunnery officer of the carrier Glorious and went down with her off Norway in June 1940; and Tom, a major in the Beds and Herts, was killed defending Singapore in 1942. Another brother, David, was awarded an M.C. in Burma.
Wells was only 19 on completing his flying training but was assessed as “above average” and made a flying instructor on Tiger Moths. After two years he converted to bombers, and in July 1943 joined No 7 Squadron, part of the Pathfinder Force. Initially he flew the Stirling bomber before the squadron re-equipped with the Lancaster. On August 17th he attacked the German experimental rocket facility at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast.
Wells remained in the R.A.F. after the war. In 1947 he revisited his Belgian Comet Line friends, and was delighted to find that all had survived.
He was serving with No 203 Squadron, equipped with the Sunderland flying boat, when, in July 1948, it was sent to assist with the Berlin Airlift. Operating from Finkewerder on the River Elbe near Hamburg, the Sunderlands landed on the Havel Lake in West Berlin, providing a much-needed boost to the morale of the Berliners.
By the time ice floes on the Havel brought an end to their operations, Wells and his colleagues had carried 4,500 tons of food and brought out 1,100 refugees. He was not the only pilot to take pride in the great humanitarian airlift to a city they had been risking their lives to bomb just a few years previously.
Wells was working in the Air Ministry when he resigned, with much regret, when the family brewery in Bedford summoned him in 1956.
His brother David was already a director, and they worked as joint managing directors and successive chairmen. They sold the cramped town centre brewery site for development in the early 1970s property boom and built a new 20-acre brewery with ample capacity on the edge of Bedford.
Their fierce determination to maintain the company’s independence was successful — Oliver Wells’s younger son is now chief executive . Wells also chaired the board of Muntons, the family controlled malting company. He finally retired in 1992.
He served as High Sheriff of Bedford in 1970 and was a Deputy Lieutenant and county councillor. He was appointed O.B.E. for services to Bedfordshire.
Wells enjoyed gardening and sailing. He kept his pilot’s licence until he was 70 and owned shares in a Tiger Moth and then a Chipmunk.
He married, in 1949, Felicity, daughter of Brigadier Maurice Mascall, D.S.O . She survives him with their two sons and a daughter.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.