One of the most famous aircraft to take part in the Second World War, the Lancaster was designed and built by AV Row & Company (Avro) for use as a heavy bomber by the Royal Air Force and entered service in 1942. It soon became one of the main heavy bombers to be used extensively for the remainder of the war and took part in what would become some of the war’s most famous bombing operations.
The Lancaster originated from a smaller aircraft, the twin-engine Avro Manchester which completed her maiden flight in July 1939. The new aircraft had been designed in response to a specification issued by the British Air Ministry between 1936 and 1937.
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The specification called for the creation of a heavy bomber that would be suitable for worldwide use and could also be capable of carrying a substantial payload with a minimum cruising speed of around 275 mph.
Although the Manchester was initially deemed an effective aircraft at the start of its RAF service, it was later found to be underpowered by its twin Rolls-Royce Vulture engines which caused performance and reliability issues in the air. In 1941, the Manchester was suspended from service due to technical problems with its engine bearings.
As a result, the RAF cancelled many orders in favour of the Handley Page Halifax and the Manchester was withdrawn from combat use in 1942. It initially remained as a training aircraft with the RAF before disappearing entirely from service in 1943.
Undeterred, Avro went back to the drawing board and tasked its chief designer Roy Chadwick with creating an updated version of the Manchester. At the time, the British government and aircraft manufacturers had started to note that American and Russian larger aircraft designs featured four smaller engine units on the wings which resulted in better performance.
Chadwick decided to alter the Manchester’s design by fitting four less powerful but more reliable and modern Rolls-Royce Merlin engines to a wider wingspan. The new design was initially named the Manchester Mk III but after more modifications, Avro renamed it the Lancaster.
An initial Lancaster prototype known as BT308 was produced at Avro’s experimental facility at what is now Manchester Ringway Airport under Chadwick’s direction. It completed its maiden flight at Ringway in January 1941.
Already, the new Lancaster was seen as an immediate improvement over its predecessor. The first prototype was completed with three rear tailfins at the back of the plane, however, this was changed to two fins for the second prototype and kept for the subsequent production models.
The Lancaster’s components were manufactured and put together at different locations before the final assembly process. Most of the Lancaster’s body was built at Avro’s facility in Oldham, Lancashire before the airframe was taken to Woodford Aerodrome in Cheshire for final assembly and testing.
As the war progressed, the manufacturing of Lancaster models continued to be contracted out to other companies including Vickers-Armstrong, Victory Aircraft and the Austin Motor Company.
The Lancaster first saw action in March 1942 when it took part in a mission laying naval mines on the Heligoland Bight off the coast of Germany in what became one of many attempts to sink the German battleship, Tirpitz. That same year the Lancaster was also used in its first bombing mission over the German city of Essen.
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The Lancaster’s design featured a long bomb bay designed to carry significant payloads or larger individual bombs, such as the 12,000 lb “Blockbuster” bomb.
Aircrews noted that the Lancaster demonstrated impressive agility and reliability for a bomber of its size. It could complete a return journey back to England with only two engines running, and in some cases cover a reasonable distance on just one functioning engine.
Some Lancaster pilots reported being able to outmanoeuvre and evade pursuing Luftwaffe fighters thanks to the smooth and responsive nature of its controls.
During bombing campaigns over Germany and occupied Europe, the Lancaster was primarily used as a night bomber due to the higher risk of losing aircrews and aircraft to enemy defences during daylight hours.
It later assumed a wider role as a day bomber once the Allies were able to secure air superiority over Europe. The Lancaster was also famously used in precision-focused bombing missions which involved important or difficult targets and were able to carry more experimental bombs such as the 12,000 lb “Tallboy” for use on strategic targets.
In addition, the Lancaster also performed mapping and photo-reconnaissance roles.
A total of 7,337 Lancaster bombers were built throughout the remainder of the war with six different and updated variants being rolled off the production line.
Perhaps the most famous use of the Lancaster bomber in a special military operation occurred in May 1943 with Operation Chastise, an event which would go on to be immortalized as the “Dambusters Raid.”
The intended targets of Operation Chastise were the dams that provided electricity and water for steel production in the heavily industrial Ruhr Valley.
For the raid, British engineer Barnes Wallis had conceived the idea of the “Bouncing Bomb,” a drum-shaped bomb designed to bounce across the surface of the water towards its intended target before sinking to the bottom and exploding.
The Lancaster was deemed the most suitable plane to transport the bouncing bomb due to its sizeable bomb container and No. 617 Squadron (a unit formed less than two months before the operation began) was selected to carry it out.
617 Squadron were supplied with specially modified Lancaster bomber Mk IIIs for the raid and practised over various reservoirs across England before a live bombing practice was undertaken using the Lancaster over the Elan Valley Reservoirs.
The raid then took place between 16-17 of May 1943. Nineteen Lancaster bombers took part in the raid with RAF Wing Commander Guy Gibson leading the operation.
Eight Lancaster bombers were lost during the operation, but the remaining crews successfully destroyed two of the intended dams; the Möhne and the Edersee, while the Sorpe Dam received damage but survived the raid.
The overall tactical success of the raid has been the subject of historical debate.
British Commander-In-Chief of Bomber Command Arthur Harris and Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer both questioned its success, with Harris believing it to be a waste of time and resources while Speer argued in his writing after the war that a more substantial raid would have completely halted German industrial production.
Wallis himself also expressed frustration that a follow-up campaign on the damaged Sorpe Dam was not conducted.
Nevertheless, the raid has also been commemorated as one of the most audacious operations of the war and a triumph of engineering with the bouncing bomb proved to work effectively when it was successfully deployed.
Subsequent RAF reconnaissance missions found that the breached dams had caused significant damage and disruption by flooding the Ruhr. Public opinion research even in Germany at the time viewed it as a strategic success for the British.
The raid also helped to cement the Lancaster’s reputation as a bomber aircraft capable of carrying out complex or risky campaigns and as a significant icon of the Second World War.
617 Squadron was maintained by the RAF after the war and continues to fly today.
On the 17th of April 1942, under the codename Operation Margin, the Royal Air Force (RAF) executed a momentous daylight bombing raid known as the Augsburg Raid. This audacious mission aimed to strike the MAN U-boat engine plant in Augsburg, Germany.
Tasked with this critical operation were two squadrons, namely No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron and No. 97 Squadron, both equipped with the advanced Avro Lancaster bombers.
The Avro Lancaster, renowned for its remarkable speed and impressive bomb-carrying capacity, instilled a sense of optimism among the RAF commanders.
With its capabilities, the Lancaster held the promise of a successful raid on Augsburg. This significant assault marked the initial foray into targeting German industrial facilities in the city, setting the stage for subsequent operations.
Bomber Command had been attacking German industry at night for two years, and had little to show for it. Losses had been significant. The strain upon his command was high, and morale among his crews brittle. The costs of the bombing offensive both in terms of manpower and of scarce war materiel was great.
A good deal of pressure was upon Harris to release aircraft to help the Royal Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic against German U-boats, but he was not prepared to dissipate his strength, preferring to assist in the U-boat war by attacking the U-boats at their bases.
The Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN) U-boat engine plant in Augsburg presented a different type of opportunity to address the U-boat problem. Harris believed striking this target would show his command was capable, and demonstrate his commitment to the anti-U-boat campaign.
The MAN plant held a crucial role in U-boat production, being responsible for manufacturing half of all U-boat engines. Eliminating this plant would deal a severe blow to U-boat capabilities.
However, Bomber Command faced several challenges in targeting the factory. Previous night raids had shown limited accuracy, and the factory’s small size made it unsuitable for area bombing through large formation attacks. Precision was essential to cause significant damage.
Complicating matters further, the MAN plant was situated on the outskirts of a Bavarian city in southern Germany, meaning the mission would require flying approximately 600 miles over enemy-occupied territory.
Despite these obstacles, No. 44 Squadron had been intimately familiar with the Lancaster prototype since its arrival in September. In March, they had even deployed the aircraft to lay sea mines, gaining valuable operational experience.
The Lancaster remained unknown to the Germans, making this upcoming raid its first major test. It would serve as an experimental operation, capitalizing on the Lancaster’s remarkable speed, extended range, and substantial bomb-carrying capacity.
Huge Loss of Life
The outcome of the raid proved to be disastrous. Within the 44 Squadron group, four Lancasters were shot down over northern France, while another aircraft was lost above the target area. Augsburg’s formidable flak defenses claimed the lives of two additional aircraft from 97 Squadron.
Out of the entire raiding force, only five Lancasters managed to return, resulting in a staggering 58% loss rate. The surviving aircraft bore the scars of battle, with one being rendered irreparable and deemed a write-off, while the others sustained significant damage.
The crews who managed to make it back felt a profound sense of numbness and sorrow over the devastating losses. Recognizing the need for emotional recovery, they were granted three days of leave to regroup and regain their composure.
In an effort to enhance future operations and counter potential fighter interceptions, Nettleton and his crew visited the Air Fighting Development Unit at Duxford. Their objective was to collaborate and devise evasive tactics that could be employed during future missions, aiming to increase the chances of survival in the face of enemy fighters.
Historian Robert Owen
The Augsburg mission stood as a remarkable feat, holding the distinction of being the longest low-level penetration raid conducted during the Second World War. Nevertheless, the unsustainable loss rate of 58% became glaringly evident.
The outcome underscored that daylight attacks against defended targets were as impractical in 1942 as they had been in 1940.
The failure of the Augsburg raid served as a catalyst for Bomber Command to intensify its efforts in establishing the Target Finding Force proposed by the Air Ministry. This initiative aimed to enhance accuracy and effectiveness in locating and striking high-value targets.
Concurrently, Bomber Command continued occasional daylight raids against small yet significant objectives.
Renowned aviation historian Robert Owen has hailed the Augsburg Raid as one of the most audacious and noteworthy operations ever undertaken. He lauds the exemplary airmanship, courage, determination, and skill demonstrated by Bomber Command during the raid, considering it among the finest examples of their capabilities.
How long did it take to build a Lancaster Bomber
The Lancaster Bomber was a complex aircraft that was designed and built during World War II. Its manufacturing process involved many different stages and depended on various factors such as availability of resources, production capabilities, and workforce.
The time it took to build one varied depending on the specific model and production facility. However, it generally took between 12 to 18 weeks to manufacture one unit during World War II.
This timeline could be affected by a variety of factors, such as availability of resources, production capabilities, and workforce. At peak production, the Avro factory in Manchester was producing one Lancaster Bomber per hour.
It is worth noting that building a Lancaster Bomber was a highly skilled and labor-intensive process that required a large number of workers with specialized skills. The complexity of the aircraft and the demands of wartime production meant that manufacturing times could vary significantly.
Where were Lancaster Bombers built
The majority of Lancaster Bombers were built by the British aircraft manufacturer, Avro, at their factory in Chadderton near Manchester, England. However, due to the high demand for the aircraft during World War II, production of Lancaster Bombers was also distributed across several other factories in the United Kingdom.
Other manufacturers that produced Lancaster Bombers included Armstrong Whitworth, A.V. Roe and Fairey Aviation. These factories were located in various cities in the UK, such as Coventry, Yeadon, and Stockport.
In addition to manufacturing Lancaster Bombers, some factories were also responsible for producing various components and parts of the aircraft. For example, the Bristol Aeroplane Company produced the Hercules engines that were used in the Lancaster Bomber.
Overall, the Lancaster Bomber was a product of the collective effort of many factories and thousands of workers across the United Kingdom.
The exact number of bombing raids carried out by the Lancaster Bomber is difficult to determine, but it is estimated that they flew over 156,000 sorties and dropped around 608,612 tonnes of bombs on enemy targets.
The bomber was also used for other missions such as supply drops, reconnaissance, and transport.
It’s worth noting that the Lancaster Bomber was not the only aircraft used for bombing raids during World War II, and other planes such as the Halifax, Stirling, and Wellington bombers were also used by the RAF. However, it is often considered one of the most iconic and effective bombers of the war.
The Lancaster bomber Post-war
The end of the war reduced the need for the high quantity production of military aircraft and rendered some bombers obsolete. The Lancaster itself was replaced as a frontline bomber by the Avro Lincoln in August 1945, with the Lincoln borrowing much of its design from the Lancaster.
However, the Lancaster remained in RAF service performing both maritime patrol and non-combat roles. It was also retained for a period after the war as a search and rescue and an anti-submarine warfare aircraft before being replaced in both roles by the Avro Shackleton.
The Lancaster also operated several repatriation flights in 1945, ferrying German and Italian prisoners of war back to their countries.
It also played an important role in the British development of air-to-air refuelling technology. Two surviving Lancaster aircraft were converted into prototype refuelling and fuel transportation aircraft.
The tanker Lancaster variants would go on to provide refuelling support to other aircraft during the Berlin Airlift in 1948.
Like other wartime aircraft, some Lancaster models were converted for freight and civilian passenger use.
It was adapted to passenger service by British South American Airways (BSAA) and later British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).
In its commercial and civilian service, the Lancaster bomber also set two significant records: in March 1946, a Lancaster tanker variant performed a non-stop flight from London to Bermuda and BSAA Lancaster bomber airliners performed the first scheduled flights from the newly opened London Heathrow Airport in March 1946.
Due to the Lancaster’s smaller size, BOAC generally used it for mail carrying, VIP flights and long-distance services to locations as far as Australia and South America. The Lancaster remained in service with BOAC until 1949.
The final RAF military service Lancaster was recorded as having been retired in 1954 after serving as an aerial reconnaissance plane.
Internationally, Lancaster models have also served with the French naval air arm and the French, Canadian and Argentinian air forces. France was one of the final countries to withdraw them from military service in the mid-1960s.
Out of all the Lancaster aircraft to be built, seventeen are now recorded as being in intact condition and two of these remain airworthy.
The Lancaster has arguably remained one of the most well-known and iconic aircraft to have served during the Second World War with its cultural legacy strongly tied to its role in the Dambusters Raid.
Specifications of the Lancaster bomber
- Crew: 7: pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer/nose gunner, wireless operator, mid-upper and rear gunners
- Length: 69 ft 4 in (21.13 m)
- Wingspan: 102 ft 0 in (31.09 m)
- Height: 20 ft 6 in (6.25 m)
- Empty weight: 36,900 lb (16,738 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 68,000 lb (30,844 kg)
- Powerplant: 4 × Rolls-Royce Merlin XX V-12 liquid-cooled piston engines, 1,280 hp (950 kW) each
- Maximum speed: 282 mph (454 km/h, 245 kn) at 63,000 lb (28,576 kg) and 13,000 ft (3,962 m) altitude
- Range: 2,530 mi (4,070 km, 2,200 nmi)
- Service ceiling: 21,400 ft (6,500 m) at 63,000 lb (29,000 kg)
- Rate of climb: 720 ft/min (3.7 m/s) at 63,000 lb (29,000 kg)