Wing Cdr Oliver Wells: an extraordinary life

AN RAF pilot who survived being shot down during the war, a brewery chief, and community leader - Wing Commander Oliver Wells OBE led a full and remarkable life.

The former managing director of the family brewing company Charles Wells, who lived in Ickwell, has died aged 90.

His success in guiding the family brewery through tremendous change, and holding civic posts including High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, made him a significant public figure.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, it is his experiences during the Second World War that were truly exceptional.

A skilled pilot, he was teaching cadet pilots by the age of 19.

In 1943 he was posted as a Pathfinder but on a fateful mission over Germany his Lancaster was hit by a nightfighter. He managed to evacuate his crew but as he was attempting to get out a tremendous force of air blew him against the side of the hatch.

He offered a vivid description of his experiences in his book Pitch Black To Plane Fare, released in 2010: “I saw the position was hopeless, and that I would be killed... the last thing I can remember doing was releasing my parachute harness, to see if I could shake it free.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“My next impression was wondering what I was doing face downwards on the grass. I lay there for a moment thinking how good and firm it felt.”

Remarkably escaping serious injury, he was on the run in occupied territory for five months until he was captured in February 1944, being imprisoned in Stalag Luft III.

After being repatriated at the end of the war he went on to take part in the Berlin Airlift.

He resigned his commission in the 1950s to take over at the family brewery in Bedford, becoming managing director and later chairman.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

His son Paul Wells, the present company chairman, said: “I think his greatest achievement for the company was moving the brewery from quite a restricted site in Horne Lane to where it is today.

“In 1975 he moved the whole site and effectively built a new brewery, which was the only new brewery in the UK since the Second World War.”

At that time most breweries simply served their own pubs but Wing Cdr Wells was quick to spot the opportunity of selling products further afield and the growth of the off licence trade – for instance, a state of the art bottling plant was installed at the new Queen’s Park site.

Paul said: “He was a very quiet and unassuming man, but very encouraging to the people around him.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“He was very straight forward with people. He would decide ‘this is what I think we need to get done’, and help people get on with achieving it.”

His work in the community was extensive. Moving to Ickwell in the late 1950s he joined Northill Parish Council in 1958, later becoming chairman, and represented the Northill division on Biggleswade Rural District Council as a Conservative councillor from 1966 to 1972.

In 1970 he took the post of High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. He was chairman of the Chicksands Anglo-American Community Relations Committee and a president of the Biggleswade and District Licensed Victuallers’ Association.

He was awarded the OBE in the 1992 New Year’s Honours List for his services as a county councillor and to the community in Bedfordshire.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

His love of flying remained throughout his life and he was an aviation trustee at the Shuttleworth Collection in Old Warden. He had a share in a Tiger Moth and was still flying until the age of 72.

The son of Sir Richard Wells, MP for Bedford, he celebrated his 90th birthday with his twin sister Sarah in March this year.

He died on June 4 leaving wife Felicity, three children and six grandchildren.

A thanksgiving service is being held at St Mary Virgin Church in Northill on Sunday, July 1, at 3pm.

Related topics: