Westland Lysander – The Spy Carrier

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.

A Lysander Mk 3 being flown in Canada.
The Lysander was loved by its crew. Photo credit – Hpulley4 CC BY-SA 3.0.



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 Hector was completely outclassed by the time the Second World War broke out.
A Hawker Hector. Photo credit – Fog76 CC BY 2.5.

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.

A Lysander taking off at the Shuttleworth Collection.
The aircraft needed to have the shortest take-off run possible, this was done by making the Lysander lightweight. Photo credit – Airwolfhound CC BY-SA 2.0.

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.

Similarites can be seen between the Westland Lysander, a British reconnassiance aircraft and the Ar 198.
The Lysander utilised a powerful engine considering the size and weight of the aircraft. Photo credit – Paul Maritz CC BY-SA 3.0.

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.

Lysander s flying over Madagascar.
Lysanders flying over Madagascar.

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.

Entering Service

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.

A RCAF Lysander II of no. 418.
A RCAF Lysander II of no. 418.

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.

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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.

Carrying Spies

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.

Technical drawing.
A technical drawing of the Mk. 1 and Mk. 3. Photo credit – Emoscopes CC BY 3.0.

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.

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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.

A Lysander in flight.
It would have been a squeeze with 3 people in the Lysander. Photo credit – Nigel Ish CC BY-SA 3.0.

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.

A Lysander target tug in 1944.
A Lysander target tug in 1944.

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.

Westland Wendover

The aircraft excelled in secret missions, notably transporting operatives into Nazi-occupied France during World War II. However, it fell short of expectations in its primary role as the Royal Air Force’s main army cooperation aircraft. Designed for artillery observation and delivering supplies and communications to ground forces, the Lysander faced substantial losses during the Battle of France due to Luftwaffe fighter opposition.

The aircraft was a development of the Westland Lysander to aid in survivability of an otherwise easy target for German fighters.
The aircraft was a development of the Westland Lysander to aid in survivability of an otherwise easy target for German fighters.

Its slow speed made it an easy target. During May and June 1940 alone, 118 of the 175 Lysanders deployed were shot down over France or Belgium. The Westland Wendover, appearing as an unusual hybrid reminiscent of both a Lysander and a Lancaster bomber, stands out as one of the more peculiar British aeronautical designs from World War II.

The Westland P.12 Wendover was a prototype aircraft developed by the British during World War II
The Westland P.12 Wendover was a prototype aircraft developed by the British during World War II

Constructed only as a prototype, the Wendover was an offshoot of the Westland Lysander, showing prowess in clandestine missions but underperforming in the roles for which it was initially intended.
Despite the innovative design combining the front half of a Lysander with a wide twin-tail configuration featuring a power-operated Nash & Thompson turret armed with four .303 Browning machine guns, no orders were placed for the aircraft.

Penrose, reported that the aircraft handled well, with similar characteristics to the standard Lysander. The rudders were less effective at low speed, however it was easy to fly, steady and dives were described as remarkably smooth.
The P.12 Wendover first flew on July 27, 1941.
The P.12 Wendover first flew on July 27, 1941.

First flown in July 1941, the aircraft demonstrated good handling and performance comparable to the standard Lysander. However, the RAF prioritized achieving air superiority, viewing it as a more strategic allocation of limited resources rather than investing in an aircraft that remained vulnerable. Furthermore, there was a growing disinterest in the turret fighter concept among the British, relegating the Wendover to merely a peculiar footnote in aviation history.