The Westland Lysander was a British-built aircraft that played a crucial role in spotting and intelligence work during the Second World War, often taking part in daring operations in occupied France.
The Lysander was first developed by the Westland Aircraft Company in the early 1930s in response to a specification from the British Air Ministry before entering service in 1938.
But, the aircraft was found to be obsolete in combat roles following the outbreak of the war, with a staggering number being lost to enemy fire following the German invasion of France. However, after France fell to occupying Nazi forces, the Lysander was able to rehabilitate its use and image.
Its unique landing and takeoff abilities enabled the Lysander to play a significant role in ferrying Special Operation Executive spies and their equipment into France in tandem with rescuing downed Allied pilots. The aircraft was commended by pilots for its handling and ruggedness.
The Lysander’s development began following a specification issued by the British Air Ministry in 1934. The specification sought for a replacement for the Royal Air Force’s Hawker Hector biplane. The Hector had served as an unarmed liaison aircraft designed to carry messages and military personnel. The Air Ministry sought an aircraft that was updated but could essentially perform the same tasks.
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The specification called for a new observational and photo reconnaissance plane that could fly behind enemy lines to observe enemy ground movements and artillery positions. The new aircraft must also have the capability of flying at least 14,000 kilometres behind enemy lines before returning to base.
Initially, aircraft manufacturers Hawker, Avro and Bristol were invited to submit designs before the specification was opened to Westland as well.
Westland’s designers Arthur Davenport and Teddy Petter took a more grassroots approach when designing the new aircraft. Petter had only designed one aircraft before, but he directly asked RAF pilots what they would like to see in the new design and how it could be improved over existing spotter planes.
Their research found that pilots named good visibility, strong handling and performance at low speeds, and short takeoff and landing performance as the key elements that the new plane should feature.
Using their findings, Davenport and Petter took to designing their response to the specification.
Davenport and Petter focused strongly on Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) capabilities when designing their new plane.
The design process resulted in a new prototype that was highly unique in its construction. The plane featured a fabric-covered metal tube fuselage, with the forward section built from lightweight duralumin, and a wooden wing structure.
The designers hoped this would give the aircraft the ability to operate from short, unprepared landing strips, making it an ideal choice for army cooperation duties.
The aircraft would also be powered by an air-cooled Bristol Mercury radial engine, which gave it a maximum speed of 212 miles per hour and a range of around 600 miles. The engine would drive a large three-bladed propeller.
Although the wings had the appearance of a gull design, they were in fact straight and fitted to the aircraft in a reverse taper and set high above the fuselage. The wheels were also fitted in a fixed position and mounted on a U-shaped frame attached to the wings. The wings featured streamlined slats to allow for a Browning machine gun to be fitted as a defensive measure.
The finished prototype had a wingspan of around 50 feet.
The new design was named the Lysander in keeping with naming RAF observational and co-operation planes with ancient heroes. The designers chose Lysander after the Spartan king who had successfully won battles against the Athens fleet during the Peloponnesian War.
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The Lysander completed its maiden flight on the 15th of June 1936. It was initially considered an odd-looking plane when it was first unveiled, but test pilots soon found it to be very advanced for its time and it was one of the first aircraft to be fitted with automatic wing slots and slotted flaps, reducing the pilot’s workload during takeoff and landing.
The Lysander was also commended for its low stalling speed at 65 miles per hour and ability to land on rough terrain or improvised runways.
Once proving was complete, the Mk 1 version of the Lysander entered service with the RAF in 1938 as an observational and liaison aircraft.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Mk2 edition of the Lysander was released and sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force as part of four RAF Squadrons.
Although an effective spotter when performing observational missions, the plane was found to be horribly vulnerable to Luftwaffe fighter planes when flying sorties over France and Belgium due to its slower speed and bulky shape.
Of the 175 sent to France at the start of the war, 88 were shot down in the air while another 30 were destroyed by Luftwaffe dive bombers on the ground. During the Dunkirk evacuation, the Lysander and the Hawker Hector were used to drop supplies to British troops waiting for boats on the beaches, but out of the sixteen Lysander and Hectors sent on the mission, fourteen were shot down.
The future of the Lysander initially looked bleak and following the fall of France to the Germans, the Lysander was effectively withdrawn from frontline RAF service and relegated to light transport, search and rescue and target towing duties.
However, from 1941 onwards the unique features and performance of the Lysander would give it a new and important lease of life with the RAF.
In July 1940, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was founded with the blessing of Winston Churchill and commanded by Hugh Dalton to carry out secret missions of sabotage, disruption and intelligence gathering inside occupied Europe.
The agents who were recruited for SOE operations were often parachuted or transported by plane into occupied France and the RAF No. 138 Squadron for special operations was founded to facilitate this.
The Lysander was deemed ideal for the task due to its durability and exceptional STOL capability which could enable it to land on smaller or improvised runways in fields.
The Mk 3 was released by Westland and adapted for the role of ferrying spies and rescuing downed Allied airmen in Nazi-occupied territory. The No. 138 Squadron Lysanders were painted black for nighttime flights, fitted with an extra fuel drop tank to increase the range and had a ladder on the port side of the fuselage for the SOE operative to make a quick exit or entrance.
The Browning machine gun mount was removed from the Mk 3 and the plane relied on stealth to carry out its missions. The flights were often carried out close to a full moon to allow the pilot more natural light to aid their navigation.
The SOE missions were one of the riskiest operations during the war, with a large number of SOE operatives (many of them women) being captured by the Gestapo or given up by locals collaborating with the German forces. Notable SOE agents including Violet Szabo were transported to France using the Lysander before her capture.
It is estimated that 118 of the 418 SOE agents deployed on their missions were killed. The flight over in the Lysander was often described as uncomfortable with up to three passengers squeezing into the plane’s cockpit.
Nevertheless, the Lysander proved to be extremely effective in dropping SOE agents, ammunition, and radio equipment supplies and retrieving Allied air crews who had been shot down, the latter often being exchanged for a spy who was being dropped off at the same time.
Although the Lysander had established a reputation of being vulnerable to enemy aircraft at the start of the war, only one Lysander was lost during an SOE operation in France due to enemy fire. From 1942 onwards, the Lysander successfully carried over 101 SOE agents into German-occupied France and recovered 128 agents without incident.
The Nazi military command was both mystified and curious about this new stealth-like plane that could drop an agent before seeming to vanish into the night. Orders were given to capture one for study and Nazi forces almost succeeded in March 1942.
German troops found an almost intact crashed Lysander and captured it before the RAF pilot had an opportunity to set fire to the airframe. However, their luck was short-lived after a train crashed into the truck carrying the Lysander away from the crash scene and destroyed it.
Lysander operations with the SOE continued up until 1944 when France was liberated from Nazi occupation.
Aftermath and Legacy
Outside of Europe, the RAF also deployed the Lysander in Burma from 1944 onwards where it served as part of No. 357 Squadron dropping agents and supplies to local Burmese and British forces fighting against Japan.
Lysander units were also exported to the Free French forces operating abroad and to the Finnish and Canadian Air Forces and 225 Lysander airframes were built under license in Canada.
The Lysander was withdrawn from RAF service in 1946 with a total of 1,786 units being built. Some Lysanders ended up in limited civilian service, with the British Overseas Airways Corporation using some for pilot training.
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A number of Lysander units have been preserved in museums. A working example can be found at the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire, England.
Although the Lysander started out its service with a reputation of being dangerous due to its vulnerability, it played a significant role in helping Allied agents in operations against occupying German forces thanks to its dependability and design.
- Crew: 2 (1 pilot, 1 pass.)
- Length: 30 ft 6 in (9.30 m)
- Wingspan: 50 ft 0 in (15.24 m)
- Height: 14 ft 6 in (4.42 m)
- Empty weight: 4,365 lb (1,980 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 6,330 lb (2,871 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × Bristol Mercury XX 9-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine, 870 hp (650 kW)
- Maximum speed: 212 mph (341 km/h, 184 kn) at 5,000 ft (1,524 m)
- Range: 600 mi (970 km, 520 nmi)
- Service ceiling: 21,500 ft (6,600 m)