(first posted September 13, 2014) For many people in Nazi dominated Europe, the distinctive silhouette of an Avro Lancaster against a moonlit sky (or in the beam of searchlights) in 1943 or 1944 was confirmation that they had not been forgotten by the free world; that there was hope of release from tyranny, and that freedom would come.
A number of CC readers will know the Lancaster, its history and significance, and probably also the huge Canadian contribution to its operation and manufacture. A special Canadian visitor to Britain this summer gives a good excuse to highlight one of Britain’s engineering greats, and one of freedom’s greatest and most recognisable symbols. For the first time in fifty years, Lancasters were flying in formation over England. Other than the individuals involved, there can be few more emotive images of Europe’s recent history.
The 1930s, at least in Europe, looks in hindsight like an unhappy decade–a slow and difficult recovery from the Great Depression, the rise of fascist totalitarianism in Italy, Germany and Spain, and unstable and ineffective governments in France and the UK. After the horrors of the Great War, there was a very clear and frightening prospect of more conflict getting closer as Hitler’s Germany sought to expand into the neighbouring states it viewed as lesser mortals, against feeble opposition and appeasement from the democracies. Whenever discussion turned to the ‘next war’, mass bombing of civilian populations was always highlighted as a certain and fearful prospect. There was much talk in the vein of the famous saying that ‘the bomber will always get through’ and of the futility of defensive preparations.
The German blitzkrieg did show the power of bombing, notably in Warsaw and Rotterdam–but that was against almost non-existent defences. When the Luftwaffe turned on Britain in autumn 1940, after the British Royal Air Force’s (the RAF) success in the Battle of Britain had ended German invasion plans, the results were mixed. A lot of people were killed and houses destroyed, but the dislocation of industry and demoralisation of the population didn’t happen in the way the doomsayers had predicted–the famous British ‘blitz spirit’ emerged instead–a determination not to be beaten but to resist and then fight back.
However, that was easier said than done. RAF bombers were the only means of attacking the Nazi empire after the land forces had been driven out of France at Dunkirk in May 1940, but with the exception of the newest of the fleet, the Vickers Wellington, the aircraft proved to be lamentably ineffective. Aircraft such as the Handley-Page Hampden and Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley proved to be too slow and vulnerable to pose a serious threat to German defenses (especially in daylight), and the navigation equipment and techniques were incapable of getting anything approaching an acceptable proportion of the small bombloads anywhere close to the target.
The RAF had anticipated that light and medium bombers such as these would not be enough as early as 1936, when British rearmament really began in earnest, and had sought proposals for heavy bombers. Avro (a contraction of A. V. Roe Ltd, later part of Hawker Siddeley, then of British Aerospace, and now BAE Systems) offered the Manchester–a two engine aircraft, capable of carrying 8,000lbs of bombs or 18 torpedoes in a superbly designed fuselage and bomb bay, which eventually entered service in early 1941. But it was woefully underpowered and unreliable–production was much slower than planned (only 200 out of 1,200 originally ordered were built), the Rolls-Royce Vulture engines were complex and the plane was unpopular with crews.
In response to the Manchester’s problems, Avro, led by Chief Engineer Roy Chadwick, began development of a four-engine version, based around the Manchester fuselage but with a greater wingspan, and powered by four of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines used by the Spitfire, Hurricane and Mosquito. The first prototype Lancaster flew in January 1941, the first production version in October, and the first squadron was operational by January 1942.
The Lancaster is a mid-wing cantilever monoplane with an oval all-metal fuselage. The wing was constructed in five main sections, the fuselage in five sections. All wing and fuselage sections were built separately and fitted with all the required equipment before final assembly. The tail unit had twin elliptical fins and rudders. The main landing gear was retractable and the tailwheel fixed, with the hydraulically-operated main landing gear raising rearwards into the inner engine nacelles.
The engine was always the Rolls-Royce Merlin–a 27 litre, V12 engine fitted with a two-speed supercharger and capable of around 1500hp–or the license-built American derivative Packard-Merlin, built by Packard, driving 13 ft diameter de Havilland Hydromatic three-bladed airscrews. Production of the Lancaster utilised more Merlins (surely the greatest piston engine ever?) than any other aircraft.
Eventually, across factories in Britain and Canada, 7,377 Lancasters were built, including many at the Longbridge works of Austin and at what is now the Jaguar plant at Castle Bromwich, both in Birmingham. This factory was originally run by the Nuffield Organization, until Lord Nuffield fell out with the UK’s Ministry of Supply. For UK production, the engines came from Rolls-Royce in Derby and Glasgow, or from Ford in Manchester.
By 1943, the Lancaster was the first choice bomber of RAF Bomber Command, and of the crews. Bomb capacity grew to 22,000lbs, with speed of up to 275mph and a range of over 1,500 miles. It was a powerful, rugged and reliable aircraft, easy to fly and capable of withstanding significant damage from anti-aircraft defences, and thus popular with its crews.
The Lancaster needed a crew of seven. Regardless of rank, the pilot was captain of the aircraft, supported by a flight engineer to manage the Merlins and a navigator and a radio operator. There were gunners in hydraulically operated gun turrets in the front blister, above the middle of the fuselage and the lonely ‘Tail End Charlie.” The front gunner doubled as bomb aimer, responsible for directing the pilot to the aiming point and releasing the bombload. Defensive armament was a total of eight Browning machine guns.
The popular image of RAF Bomber Command is of massed streams of bombers leaving eastern England at dusk, heading across the North Sea and bringing death and destruction to German cities before returning one by one in the dawn light. Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne, Berlin and many others were all bombed intensively by Lancasters flying from England. RAF Bomber Command’s Air Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris spoke of ‘Germany having sowed the seed at Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and Coventry; now they will reap the whirlwind’, which sounds callous now, but resonated in wartime Britain.
Key to the success of these raids was a massive improvement in bomb aiming techniques, and the development of navigational aids based around radar, and the sheer volume of aircraft used–Harris was fond of arranging 1,000 bomber raids, and Hamburg was bombed intensively, and practically destroyed, over a week in July 1943, by several hundred aircraft each night. Albert Speer is reported to have said that if this had been repeated on five more German cities, then Germany would have collapsed. By 1944-45, Germany’s defence against the Allied bombing offensive diverted over 1 million troops from the land war.
Perhaps the key to the Lancaster gaining the place it has in public awareness and memory was its role in many of the most famous and daring bombing raids of the war, where the premium was on precision and accuracy, rather than volume, creating the modern science of precision bombing, including the famous Dambusters raid of May 1943; the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord in November 1944; and the precision bombing of railway viaducts and V-bomber sites across France and Germany in 1944-45.
In these precision bombing actions, the Lancaster will always be associated with the innovative British aeronautical engineer Sir Barnes Wallis. Wallis came up with the famous “bouncing bomb”–essentially a barrel of high explosive spinning backwards on a transverse axis under the aircraft, which was dropped on to the surface of the dams from sixty feet at a speed of 240mph, at a precisely prescribed distance from the dam. The bomb then bounced on the water, like a skimming stone, and sank down against the dam wall, where a depth charge triggered the explosive and cracked the dam wall open.
To achieve this, nineteen aircraft left RAF Scampton, near Lincoln in eastern England, and flew at altitudes of less than 100ft to the Mohne, Eder, Sorpe and Ennerpe dams in Germany’s industrial Ruhr region, at night. The Mohne and Eder dams were breached, and significant industrial capacity destroyed or damaged. Eight Lancasters and their crews were lost.
The recovery work diverted previous German resources from the eastern front and the Atlantic coast defensive wall, and brought a stronger focus on Germany defending rather than attacking. By 1943, 1000 Luftwaffe aircraft, 30000 artillery pieces and a third of German munitions production were dedicated to defensive tasks against the bombers, and one million men were kept back from the eastern front to defend against and rebuild after bombing.
To sink the Tirpitz, Wallis designed the “Tallboy,” a 12,000lb bomb, which was designed to create a destructive wave through the ground rather than explode on or above the ground. A group of 32 Lancasters from RAF Lossiemouth in northern Scotland, staging through northern Russia, dropped 29 tallboys on the Tirpitz, causing the ship to capsize and subsequently explode.
The Tallboy, and the later 22,000lb ‘Grand Slam’ bomb, was also used for the raids on the V2 flying bomb launch sites across northern Europe, including Peenemunde on the Baltic coast; on U-boat pens and dockyards on the Atlantic coast; canals in France, Germany and Holland; railway viaducts and tunnels across occupied Europe; and ultimately on Hitler’s Berchtesgaden, in April 1945.
Lancasters were heavily used in Operation Overlord (D-Day) in 1944, including being used to mimic an invasion fleet off the northern French coast, east of the landing beaches, as a diversionary tactic.
In April 1945, over 3,000 Lancasters were utilised in Operation Manna, in which food was dropped to the starving people of Holland, with the acquiescence of the occupying German forces. A total of over 6,500 tons of food was dropped in a period of about a week, and Lancasters also participated in the Berlin Airlift.
Lancasters were also allocated to key roles in the expected invasion of Japan, known as Operation Downfall, with plans to operate them from Okinawa.
Worldwide, only two Lancasters remain in airworthy condition. The RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) flagship, serial PA474, was built in May 1945, in Chester, England at the factory that now produces the wings for all the Airbus aircraft including the A380, and was preserved at the end of her service in 1964. She is a regular performer at airshows and state occasions across Britain and frequently, Holland, Belgium and France, always drawing a crowd.
Several years ago, PA474 displayed at RAF Leuchars near St Andrews in Scotland, followed immediately by the next great Avro bomber, the nuclear capable delta jet Vulcan XH558, taking off. You could call it the sound of freedom, and who cares if ears were ringing for minutes afterwards.. The crowd was awed by the shape of the Vulcan, but the Lancaster was the one everybody had come to see.
The other flying Lancaster is FM213, a Canadian-built Mark X now in the safe hands of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. She was built by Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ontario, near today’s Toronto Pearson International Airport in July 1945, and served with the RCAF until 1963. In August and September, she made what will be probably be her last ever trip to Britain to perform at displays across the country with PA474, drawing larger crowds than anyone expected.
She landed at RAF Coningsby, the Lincolnshire home of the BBMF, on 8 August amidst some of the worst summer rain in England for many years. Remnants of Hurricane Bertha swept across the country, sadly forcing the cancellation of a tandem landing with PA474 and a welcome to Britain flypast by the Red Arrows (the RAF’s aerobatic display team; not surprisingly, the best one in the world).
The sight and sound of two Lancasters flying in formation, for the first time in over fifty years, is quite something and not something that will leave many British people unmoved. But perhaps the highlight of the tour was the sight of both aircraft, with XH558 (now the only flying Avro Vulcan) passing over the historic City of Lincoln and its 14th century cathedral. That city that was at the centre of ‘Bomber County’ – there were 27 RAF bomber bases in Lincolnshire, which is no bigger than Delaware! PA474 now flies with the coat of arms of the City of Lincoln in recognition of this historic link.
As this is being written the tour is still ongoing, dates stretch through to the end of September, covering Prestwick in the west of Scotland, to Lincolnshire in eastern England and the Channel Islands. The show dates are here. You can track her flights here www.lancasterbomberale.co.uk/tracker, while enjoying a nice glass of Lancaster bomber ale. Yes, in Britain, we really have a popular real ale that appears to celebrate bombing, and the Lancaster even gets a namecheck on the side of one of our fastest trains. This may seem odd, surprising, even tasteless or offensive.
But genuinely, the beer, the naming of trains, the appearances at state occasions and the clear public affection for the Lancaster (and the Spitfire and Hurricane) isn’t about glorifying war or hating Germans–it’s about the recognition of the bravery, dedication and all too often the sacrifice of those who defeated Fascism, and made possible the peaceful Europe we know today.
We must remember and recognise the sacrifice made by so many in Europe, the UK, and from outside Europe as well, for the freedom of future generations–hence the BBMF slogan ‘Lest We Forget’. That is why Rolls-Royce have this stained glass window in the jet engine factory in Derby.
Lincoln Cathedral was an easily recognisable landmark for crews returning from raids and as such took on much importance to the crews. The station badge of nearby RAF Waddington, one of the larger stations, depicts Lincoln Cathedral rising through the clouds, which returning bomber crews used to help find their way back to Waddington’s runways.
People living in Lincoln during the war still recall very clearly the noise as aircraft gathered into formations around the city as dusk fell, as they returned in the early hours and of the occasional loud explosions from the nearby bases, as bombloads exploded prematurely or in takeoff and landing accidents. Appropriately, the Cathedral until recently had the only memorial in the United Kingdom dedicated to the members of Bomber Command lost and killed in action.
And the three Avro bombers’ flight on 21 August marked not just the Canadian visit, but also a ceremony to start construction work on Lincolnshire’s own monument to the men of Bomber Command, which will provide a lasting memorial and also a museum, funded by public donations. The shape of the building–to be called the Chadwick Centre–is based on a Lancaster’s profile, and the memorial spire will be 102 feet high (the wingspan of the Lancaster) and 16 feet wide at the base (the cord of aircraft’s wing) while the names of all of the airmen who left Lincolnshire bomber bases and did not return will be engraved on steel walls (details here).
The men who served in Bomber Command are also remembered by a memorial in Hyde Park, London, formally opened last year, funded entirely by public donations. A bit late maybe, but truly heartfelt by so many. All RAF Bomber crews in WW2 were volunteers–over 125,000 served, not just from Britain but from Canada (thirty percent of those serving were Canadian), Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, of course, the occupied countries of Europe–men from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, the Low Countries and France all formed dedicated squadrons.
Over 55,000 were killed (25,611 of whom had flown from Lincolnshire, which had a population of perhaps 500,000 in 1944) and another 20,000 injured or captured – a percentage loss (44 percent and over percent, including those injured) far greater than any other Allied force. We owe them a lot, and they certainly have all my respect, and I hope they have yours, too.
‘Bomber’ Harris, Commander of the UK’s RAF Bomber Command from February 1942 and who masterminded the RAF’s bombing strategy, may have been overstating it when he wrote, to chief designer Roy Chadwick at Avro, “I would say this to those who placed that shining sword in our hands: Without your genius and efforts we could not have prevailed, for I believe that the Lancaster was the greatest single factor in winning the war.” But the Lancaster was the most significant aircraft of the war, by a long margin.
And don’t they look great at 70, especially if you consider the aircraft was designed for an average operational life of 19 flights?