Obituary: Air Vice-Marshal Wilfrid Oulton

Christopher Foxley-Norris
Friday 21 November 1997 00:02 GMT

Wilfrid Ewart Oulton, air force officer: born Monks Coppenhall, Cheshire 27 July 1911; DSO 1943; DFC 1943; Director, Joint Anti-Submarine School 1946-48; Director, Joint Services Staff College 1948-50; Air Attache, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Asuncion 1950-53; CBE 1953; Director of Operations, Air Ministry 1954-56; Commander, Joint Task Force "Grapple" 1956-58; Senior Air Staff Officer, RAF Coastal Command, HQ 1958-60; Chairman, Medsales Executive Ltd 1982-97; married 1935 Sarah Davies (died 1990; three sons), 1991 Leticia Malcolm; died Lymington, Hampshire 31 October 1997.

There is a natural tendency, when the contribution of the Royal Air Force to overall victory in the Second World War is considered, to pay attention to the part played by the two major operational commands, bomber and fighter; and the exploits of their most famous figures such as Leonard Cheshire and Willie Tait or Sailor Malan and Johnnie Johnston. But the really knowledgeable will concede, as did Churchill, that the most critical campaign of all was that fought against the throttling grip of the German U-boats fought and won by the Royal Navy and Coastal Command of the RAF. Of all the "close run" things, this was perhaps the closest, and among RAF pilots in that campaign none was more expert and eventually more successful than Wilfred Oulton.

Oulton's father had served as a scientist in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and he himself graduated with distinction from the RAF College at Cranwell; and thereafter he specialised in air navigation. Already he could be identified as a perfectionist, whatever role he undertook, mastering both the practical and theoretical by total application. He never accepted inferior performances from others or from himself. In the years before the Second World War he developed this characteristic to the full and became one of the few acknowledged masters of the theory and practice of anti-submarine warfare. At that time what was too often lacking to Coastal Command was aircraft of the required range and performance and in the necessary numbers. Only in the nick of time was sufficient priority given to the needs of the command and agreement grudgingly granted to the diversion and conversion of bomber aircraft to the maritime role.

Among these aircraft were the Halifaxes of No 56 Squadron, of which Oulton was given command in the spring of 1943, a period when the balance of success finally began to turn against the U-boat. Individually nobody played a greater part than Oulton himself, with a remarkable success rate of three U-boats confirmed destroyed (one shared in May 1943). His hours of intensive training of his own crews and those in his squadron at last paid dividends and were typical of his whole approach to joint operations, operations which he was promoted to direct throughout Northern Ireland. In 1946 he was appointed RAF director of the Joint Anti-Submarine School at Londonderry.

He was serving in the Air Ministry when he received his most demanding peacetime appointment, in 1956, to command Operation Grapple, the deployment of all the thousands of personnel and of logistic tonnage to exercise the first British hydrogen bomb in the remote Pacific, at Christmas Island. His meticulous preparations for this ensured eventual success and enhanced his reputation once again. It therefore came as a surprise when he voluntarily retired in 1960 from his next appointment as Senior Air Staff Officer of Coastal Command, although he continued to play an active part on the industrial side of the Command's activities.

In civilian life he remained as active as an adviser and as much in demand as before, especially in the fields of navigation and electronics, in which he remained in the forefront of all development. In himself he remained remarkably fit both mentally and physically and played squash right into his eighties. He was twice married and of the three sons by his first marriage, two joined the Royal Air Force and one the Royal Canadian Air Force.

- Christopher Foxley-Norris

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in