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Avro Lancaster

The Iconic World War Two Bomber Still Gracing Our Skies

IF you ask anyone aged over 50 to name an aircraft that epitomised the Second World War, then it is likely that the Spitfire and Lancaster would occupy the top two places in any list of responses.

While the Spitfire evokes a certain amount of romance, if indeed you consider there to be anything remotely romantic about war, then the Lancaster could be ascribed the role of WW2 workhorse – night after night departing to foreign lands to launch bombing raids, many aircraft crew leaving British shores never to return. 

But for a plane that is so closely associated with the WW2, it was more than two-and-a-half years into hostilities before the first Lancaster Bomber left on a mine laying mission in the sea north of Bremen.

No. 44 Squadron had the honour of carrying out that initial sortie on the evening of March 3, 1942, and it was more than a month later that the ‘new’ aircraft became known to both the British and, more importantly, the German public. On April 17, twelve Lancasters from Nos. 44 and 97 Squadrons carried out one of the aircraft’s early bombing missions over the city of Augsburg, targeting an engine-manufacturing plant.

No. 44 Sqn Avro Lancaster B.I in flight, 29 September 1942

(No. 44 Sqn Avro Lancaster B.I in flight, 29 September 1942)

Despite the raid being lauded by Winston Churchill, it highlighted the dangers of both daytime and low-level operations, the bombers flying at the height of tree-tops – three shot down over France and two more downed by anti-aircraft fire over Augsburg.

Only five of the 12 made it back to England, and with only light defence armaments and a top speed below 300mph, in the daytime it was at the mercy of the Messerschmitt Me 109 interceptor aircraft; most missions following the Augsburg raid carried out after dark.

The plane itself was ideal for its bombing role, with a long unobstructed 33ft (10 metre) bomb bay allowing it to take a heavy payload of conventional weapons as well as the ability to carry the larger bombs being designed during the war. Around 70ft in length with a 102ft wing span, it was initially able to carry a bomb weight of 14,000lb (6,350kg) with a range of around 2.500 miles, with adaptions later allowing it to carry bigger devices being manufactured, notably the 22,000lb Grand Slam ‘earthquake’ bomb, a device that needed a turret removed from the aircraft to save weight.

The ability to adapt what the Lancaster could carry made it ideal for most bombing missions, most notably Operation Chastise, the mission to breach German dams that saw the Lancasters of 617 Squadron deliver Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs, successfully demolishing the Mohne and Eder dams, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr Valley. The bombs were dropped at very low altitudes, delivered so they span backwards, allowing them to skip across the water leading up to the dam walls.

Bouncing bomb used for dam busting bomb mounted under Lancaster B.III (Special)

(Bouncing bomb used for dam busting bomb mounted under Lancaster B.III (Special))

Designed and built by AV Roe, the Lancaster was an upgrade on the Avro Manchester, the twin-engined bomber that was considered underpowered before being removed from service in 1942. Designer Roy Chadwick was working on improving the Manchester design to incorporate four engines, the upgrade offering greater lifting capabilities and longer range, his work resulting in the Avro Type 683 Manchester II being renamed as the Lancaster. The prototype made its inaugural flight from Ringway – now Manchester Airport – in January 1941, proving immediately successful, a rarity in the aviation world

All the main sections of the aircraft were built separately, often at different locations, the majority of the 7,377 constructed during the war years at Avro’s Chadderton factory near Oldham. Final assembly and test flights took place from Woodford in Cheshire, with manufacturing also taking place at a number of Vickers factories up and down the UK, as well as the Austin Motor Company in Birmingham – Lancasters were also manufactured in Canada.

Lancasters on Avro's Woodford assembly line at Cheshire, 1943

(Lancasters on Avro's Woodford assembly line at Cheshire, 1943)

The crew were made up of pilot and flight engineer in the cockpit, the bomb-aimer lying prone in the compartment beneath them with the added job of operating the front machine gun. Behind the cockpit was the navigator with the wireless operator sitting nearby – he fired the dorsal guns when required – with ventral and rear gunners at the back of the plane completing a typical seven-man crew.   

In its three years of wartime service, there were 16 different models of the aircraft produced, the near 7,400 planes carrying out in excess of 156,000 sorties.

The human cost of the Lancaster endeavour, however, was great, with the RAF Benevolent Fund listing 55,573 men as having died serving with Bomber Command during the war, mostly British, but also from Commonwealth countries, and those who had escaped the Nazis when they invaded Poland, Czechoslovakia and France.

Over half the Lancasters built were shot down during the war, and after hostilities ended, they were used to ferry thousands of POWs back to Britain from across the globe.

Modifications saw the Canadian Government using Lancasters to provide a trans-Atlantic military passenger and postal delivery service, starting as early as 1943, the inaugural non-stop flight from Montreal to Prestwick taking 12 hours 26 mins. These ushered in the age of commercial air travel, and in 1947 the aircraft carried paying civilian passengers before being replaced by Douglas DC-4s.

While their bombing role had a shelf-life of just three years, Lancasters were used by a variety of countries for a number of duties, the French Aéronavale continuing to use Lancasters for maritime reconnaissance and search and rescue up until the mid-1960s.

The RAF’s Lancaster fleet was gradually replaced by the Avro Lincoln during the late 1940s, the last in service believed to have been retired in 1954.

Today, there are around 17 largely intact Lancaster bombers in existence, two deemed airworthy: one based at RAF Coningsby and operated by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the other, nicknamed Vera, operated by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, Hamilton, Ontario.

 

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