Avro Lancaster Bomber – The Dam Busting Bomber
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As a result, the RAF cancelled many orders in favour of the Handley Page Halifax and the Manchester was withdrawn from combat use in 1942.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, 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 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.
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617 Squadron were supplied with specially modified Lancaster 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.
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.
The Lancaster 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.
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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 also set two significant records: in March 1946, a Lancaster tanker variant performed a non-stop flight from London to Bermuda and BSAA Lancaster 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 the Lancaster 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.
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- 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)