The exploits of the Avro Lancaster and its crews during World War Two has given the bomber legendary status. The Lancaster took part in some of the most noteworthy events of the war, such as being flown by 617 Sqn against the German dams, delivering the fatal blow to the ‘Tirpitz’ battleship and the opening strikes of D-Day.
The bomber first flew in January 1941 and carried out almost 138,000 attacks on enemy targets. In total, 7,377 Lancasters were built and after the war the RAF retained it as a bomber and for maritime patrol. The type served a handful of other air arms after the conflict in a variety of roles and played a significant part in re-establishing passenger services in its civilianised form called the Lancastrian.
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In the early stages of World War Two, Britain’s bomber force largely consisted of twin-engined medium-capacity aircraft types such as the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, Handley Page Hampden and Vickers Wellington.
As the air battles in the night skies over Europe intensified and the operational limitations of these aircraft became apparent, the British Air Ministry sought a new generation of bombers that could fly further, higher and faster, and with a bigger bomb load than their predecessors. It invited companies to put forward designs for a twin-engined medium bomber capable of carrying a bomb load in excess of 8,000lbs (3,628kg); an impressive amount for the day. In reality, if such an aircraft could be produced, it would certainly warrant a ‘heavy’ designation.
Avro’s Chief Designer, Roy Chadwick, already had a similar design project under way and responded by proposing the Avro 679 Manchester. With its vast bomb bay being capable of carrying a wide range of armaments, the Manchester showed some early promise. Its ‘Achilles’ heel’ however was its engines. Though powerful, its Rolls-Royce Vultures were plagued with problems – to the extent that, in RAF service, there was a stage where more aircraft were being lost to engine failures than combat damage. But, even before that stage was reached, it was obvious that a rethink was needed.
Birth of the Lancaster
Legend has it that, standing on the factory production line with some of his design team, Chadwick pointed up to a Manchester’s wing and said: ‘I want you to cut it [the wing] here and here, and stick four [Rolls-Royce] Merlins on it”. This revised layout, with a longer wingspan, was originally named the Manchester B.III, but in essence it was really the first Lancaster. The aircraft, carrying serial number BT308, was officially given the new name after its first flight in January 1941.
The finished design had a flat-sided fuselage with a heavily-framed canopy sitting on top of, rather than partially enclosed within, the forward fuselage, like its Handley Page Halifax rival. Defensive gun turrets were mounted in its nose, tail and upper rear-fuselage, while the main undercarriage legs and wheels were housed inside the cowlings of the two inner engines. The Lancaster’s standard Bomber Command crew comprised seven members. The bomb aimer would normally be seated in the nose gun turret, except when guiding the pilot to their target, when he would need to lie down behind the Perspex dome beneath his turret. Behind and slightly above the bomb aimer, and sitting almost side-by-side, were the pilot (there was no co-pilot) and flight engineer, the latter sitting on a fold-down seat. The navigator’s table, facing to the port (left) side was immediately behind them and, just a few feet further back, the wireless operator sat on the left-hand side of the fuselage facing forward. The loneliest positions were those of the mid-upper and rear gunners who were both separated from their crewmates back along the fuselage.
The Lancaster B.I was a very successful design; so much so that very few airframe refinements were felt necessary, though its Merlin engines became progressively more powerful. Because the Merlin was so successful, in order to keep up with demand, the engine was licence-built built in the USA. These versions were known as Packard Merlins and were used in the construction of over 3,000 Lancasters designated as B.IIIs – though the airframe itself was essentially identical to a B.I. A limited production run of 300 aircraft equipped with Bristol Hercules powerplants, due to a temporary shortage of Merlins, were called the B.II.
British-built Lancasters were manufactured at several UK locations by Avro at Chadderton and Yeadon; Metropolitan-Vickers at Trafford Park; Armstrong Whitworth at Coventry; the Austin Motor Company at the Longbridge car-manufacturing plant in Birmingham; and Vickers-Armstrong factories at Chester and Castle Bromwich. Among those built by Austin Motors were a number of B.VII machines which were recognisable by mid-upper turrets with a revised layout. This was known as a Martin turret, and positioned slightly further forward on the fuselage than the normal Frazer-Nash version, it was electrically-driven and equipped with two 0.5in machine-guns instead of two 0.303s.
In Canada, Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ontario built the B.X – essentially a B.I airframe with Packard Merlin engines and North American-style instrumentation and electrics. However, later examples of the Victory-built aircraft also had Martin mid-upper turrets.
No.44 (Rhodesia) Squadron introduced the Lancaster into RAF service, taking delivery of its first aircraft on Christmas Eve 1941. No.97 Squadron followed suit soon afterwards.
By the early spring of 1942, 44 Squadron was ready for combat duties and the first bombing raid involving Lancasters was against the German city of Essen on the night of March 10/11, 1942. The Lancaster’s debut came just a month after Bomber Command took on a new Commander-in-Chief, Air Marshal (later MRAF and knighted) Arthur Harris, whose appointment led to its complete transformation. He immediately set about lobbying the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to increase the size of his bomber force and was ultimately successful.
In 1942, with the Allied forces then deemed too weak to mount an invasion of continental Europe, the only way to really carry the fight to Germany was with the bombers. Before Harris’ arrival, Bomber Command was trying – and failing – to make a significant contribution towards Britain’s war effort by striking specific industrial targets such as factories.
However, despite the bravery of the bombers’ crews, the primitive navigational aids of the day were unable to make up for the fact that small targets, such as individual factories, are effectively invisible in the dark. So Harris turned away from precision targets and adopted a policy of ‘area bombing’. The number of aircraft, squadrons and airfields available to Bomber Command increased rapidly and, over the next three years, it was transformed into a very powerful and effective fighting force capable of devastating German cities.
The timing of Harris’ new start was perfect for Avro and, as its new machine began to win friends among RAF crews, the company was effectively in the right place at the right time to step up production. Soon, the Lancaster – then the only aircraft capable of carrying the new 4,000lb (1,814kg) high-capacity bomb – was to become the dominant type of the growing force.
Its capabilities meant that, by January 1945, Lancasters equipped 57 different frontline squadrons. The type was adapted to carry out many different tasks during the war including mine laying and anti-submarine operations. However, in its role as Bomber Command’s primary weapon of choice for Main Force operations in the last three years of the war, the Lancaster routinely carried a mix of high-explosive (blast) and incendiary bombs. The fact that the Lancaster had a higher service ceiling than its Stirling and Halifax rivals is often credited as being one of the reasons it had a lower percentage loss rate than the other two types.
Away from its usual area bombing role, Lancasters were used for two unique raids that will probably always be held up as outstanding examples of precision bombing and ‘derring do’. The first, which took place little more than a month after the Lancaster was declared operational, was the daylight raid against the MAN Diesel factory in Augsburg, Germany. The company manufactured engines for Germany’s U-boat fleet and Harris, who had dubbed the Lancaster his ‘Shining Sword’, wanted to see if the new aircraft was capable of striking precision targets deep inside enemy territory. Attacking the MAN factory would require a round trip in excess of 1,000 miles (1,600km) which, at that time, made it the longest daylight deep penetration raid yet attempted.
On the afternoon of April 17, 1942, 12 Lancasters, six from each of 44 and 97 Squadrons, took off from their Lincolnshire bases for the daring low-level attack – flying almost due south before crossing the English coast at Selsey Bill and descending to just 50ft across the English Channel before thundering over numerous farmers’ fields en route to Augsburg. The two formations of aircraft were hit hard by enemy ground and air defences and only eight Lancasters succeeded in reaching their target. The factory was hit and significant damage was caused, but only four of the original 12 aircraft made it home.
The officer leading the raid, Sqn Ldr John Nettleton from 44 Squadron, was the only pilot from his unit to return. For the courage and determination he displayed that day, he became the first of ten Lancaster airmen to win the Victoria Cross.
The other attack which the Lancaster will always be associated with is the ‘Dambusters’ raid of May 16/17, 1943. That night, a force of 19 low-flying Lancasters from 617 Squadron succeeded in breaching two of the huge dams of Germany’s Ruhr region by ‘skipping’ externally-carried rotating mines, often referred to as ‘bouncing bombs’, across the water behind the dams. Flying straight and level in the dark, holding steady at approximately 60ft (18m) and 230mph (370km/h) over the water held back by the Möhne dam while being shot at by defending 20mm cannons (there were no guns defending the Eder) and then breaching the targets, arguably ranks among the greatest feats of airmanship ever.
In the latter half of the war some Lancasters were converted to carry ‘outsized’ deep penetration bombs. The Lancaster had already been used to carry 4,000 (1,814kg), 8,000 (3,628kg); and even a few 12,000lb (5,443kg) blast bombs. Now, with their nose and mid-upper turrets removed and most of their defensive armour plating stripped away to save weight, a few Lancasters were converted to carry a single 12,000lb ‘Tallboy’ or 22,000lb (9,979kg) ‘Grand Slam’ bomb. Though only used on a handful of operations, they did grab the headlines. Nos.IX and 617 Squadrons’ combined efforts using Tallboys sank the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian Fjord in November 1944, and Tallboys and Grand Slams were used with great effect against high-value targets such as V-weapon sites and railway viaducts.
In the last few months before the conflict ended, as the Allied armies began to liberate most of Western Europe, Bomber Command largely reverted to daylight operations.
By the end of the war, Lancasters are recorded as having taken part in almost 138,000 attacks against enemy targets, of which just over 35,000 were made in daylight. In October 1945 the RAF informed manufacturer Avro that Lancasters were recorded as having dropped well over 600,000 tons of bombs on primary targets, based on over 150,000 sorties being flown. At least 35 Lancasters are known to have completed 100 operational sorties, an incredible achievement considering Bomber Command’s overall loss-rate.
When the war in Europe ended in May 1945 it was envisaged that many Lancasters would continue to serve in a bombing role against Japan as part of the ‘Tiger Force’, which was being prepared for Pacific operations, when the atomic bomb suddenly ended the conflict.
In all, 7,377 Lancasters were built. After the war the RAF retained a number of them as bombers and maritime patrol aircraft until they were replaced by their Avro Lincoln and Shackleton derivatives. A huge number of war-surplus Lancasters were offered for sale and the air arms of Argentina, Australia, Canada, Egypt and France all operated them until replaced by more modern types.
Another significant part of the type’s history is that, as Avro Lancastrians, Lancasters converted to carry passengers played a significant part in opening up the world’s post-war long-haul air routes. In 1946, a Lancastrian operated by British South American Airways flew the first scheduled flight from the then-new London Airport, known today as Heathrow.
With its contribution to the Allied effort in World War Two and use in the Dambusters raid, the Lancaster has secured its place in history.