Avro Lancaster

The Avro Lancaster was a British four-engine Second World War bomber aircraft made initially by Avro for the British Royal Air Force (RAF). It first saw active service in 1942 and it was one of the main heavy bombers of the RAF, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and squadrons from other Commonwealth and European countries serving within RAF Bomber Command. The Avro Lancaster became the most famous and most successful of the Second World War night bombers. Although the Lancaster was primarily a night bomber, it excelled in many other roles including daylight precision bombing, and gained worldwide renown as the Dam Buster used in the 1943 Operation Chastise raids on the Ruhr Valley dams in Nazi Germany. 

The first RAF squadron to convert to the Lancaster was No. 44 Squadron RAF in early 1942. Lancasters flew 156,000 sorties and dropped 608,612 tons of bombs between 1942 and 1945. Lancasters from Bomber Command were to have formed the main strength of Tiger Force, the Commonwealth bomber contingent scheduled to take part in Operation Downfall, the codename for the planned invasion of Japan in late 1945.

Avro Lancaster
Class Aircraft
Type Bomber
Manufacturer Avro
Production Period 1942 - 1963
Origin United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain)
Country Name Origin Year
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) 1941
Country Name Operational Year Retirement Year
Australia View
Canada 1941 1963 View
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) 1941 View
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
Avro 1942 1963 7377 View

The origins of the Lancaster stem from a twin-engined bomber design submitted to meet Air Ministry Specification P.13/36, which was for a new generation of twin-engined medium bombers for "worldwide use", the engine specified as the Rolls-Royce Vulture. The resulting aircraft was the Manchester, which, although a capable aircraft, was underpowered and troubled by the unreliability of the Vulture engine. Only 200 Manchesters were built, with the type withdrawn from service in 1942.

Avro's chief designer, Roy Chadwick, was already working on an improved Manchester design using four of the more reliable, but less powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, in the form of standardised Merlin "power eggs" developed for the Beaufighter II, installed on a larger wing. The aircraft was initially designated Avro Type 683 Manchester III, and later renamed the "Lancaster". The prototype aircraft BT308 was assembled by Avro's experimental flight department at Manchester's Ringway Airport. Test pilot H.A. "Bill" Thorn took the controls for its first flight at Ringway, on Thursday, 9 January 1941. The aircraft proved to be a great improvement on its predecessor, being "one of the few warplanes in history to be 'right' from the start." Its initial three-finned tail layout, a result of the design being adapted from the Manchester I, was quickly changed on the second prototype DG595 and subsequent production aircraft, to the familiar twin-finned specification also used on the later Manchesters.

Some of the later orders for Manchesters were changed in favour of Lancasters; the designs were very similar and both featured the same distinctive greenhouse cockpit, turret nose, and twin tail. The Lancaster discarded the stubby central third tail fin of the early Manchesters and used the wider span tailplane and larger elliptical twin fins from the later Manchester IA.

The majority of Lancasters built during the war years were manufactured by Avro at their factory at Chadderton near Oldham, Greater Manchester, and test flown from Woodford Aerodrome in Cheshire. Other Lancasters were built by Metropolitan-Vickers (1,080, also tested at Woodford), and Armstrong Whitworth. It was also produced at the Austin Motor Company works in Longbridge, Birmingham, later in the Second World War and postwar by Vickers-Armstrongs at Chester as well as at the Vickers Armstrong factory, Castle Bromwich, Birmingham. Only 300 of the Lancaster B II fitted with Bristol Hercules engines were constructed; this was a stopgap modification caused by a shortage of Merlin engines as fighter production was of higher priority. The Lancaster B III had Packard Merlin engines but was otherwise identical to contemporary B Is, with 3,030 B IIIs built, almost all at Avro's Newton Heath factory. The B I and B III were built concurrently, and minor modifications were made to both marks as new batches were ordered. Examples of these modifications were the relocation of the pitot head from the nose to the side of the cockpit, and the change from de Havilland "needle blade" propellers to Hamilton Standard or Nash Kelvinator made "paddle blade" propellers.

Of later variants, only the Canadian-built Lancaster B X, manufactured by Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ontario, was produced in significant numbers. A total of 430 of this type were built, earlier examples differing little from their British-built predecessors, except for using Packard-built Merlin engines and American-style instrumentation and electrics. The first Lancaster produced in Canada was named the "Ruhr Express".

The final production version was the Lancaster Mark VII and was made by the Austin motor company at their Longbridge factory. The main design difference with the Mark VII was the use of the American-built Martin dorsal gun turret in place of the English Nash & Thompson one; they had to be mounted slightly further forward on the fuselage for weight balance. All were produced too late for the war in Europe and were tropicalized and upgraded as the Mark VII (FE) for use in the Far East against Japan. A total of 7,377 Lancasters of all marks were built throughout the duration of the war, each at a 1943 cost of £45–50,000.

Second World War

Lancasters flew 156,000 sorties and dropped 608,612 long tons (618,378 tonnes) of bombs between 1942 and 1945. Just 35 Lancasters completed more than 100 successful operations each, and 3,249 were lost in action. The most successful survivor completed 139 operations, and was scrapped in 1947.

Lancasters took part in the devastating round-the-clock raids on Hamburg during Air Chief Marshal Harris's "Operation Gomorrah" in July 1943. A famous Lancaster bombing raid was the 1943 mission, codenamed Operation Chastise, to destroy the dams of the Ruhr Valley. The operation was carried out by 617 Squadron in modified Mk IIIs carrying special drum-shaped bouncing bombs designed by Barnes Wallis. The story of the operation was later made into a film, The Dam Busters. Also famous was a series of Lancaster attacks using Tallboy bombs against the German battleship Tirpitz, which first disabled and later sank the ship.

Adolf Galland (commander of the Luftwaffe fighters) considered the Lancaster to be "the best night bomber of the war", as did his adversary, Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who referred to it as the RAF Bomber Command's "shining sword".

Lancasters from Bomber Command were to have formed the main strength of Tiger Force, the Commonwealth bomber contingent scheduled to take part in Operation Downfall, the codename for the planned invasion of Japan in late 1945. Together with the new Avro Lincoln and Liberators they would have operated from bases on Okinawa; the invasion was made unnecessary by the Japanese surrender.

RAF Lancasters dropped food into the Holland region of the occupied Netherlands, with the acquiescence of the occupying German forces, to feed people who were in danger of starvation. The mission was named 'Operation Manna' after the food manna which is said to have miraculously appeared for the Israelites in the Book of Exodus. The aircraft involved were from 1, 3, and 8 Groups, and consisted of 145 Mosquitos and 3,156 Lancasters, flying between them a total of 3,298 sorties. The first of the two RAF Lancasters chosen for the test flight was nicknamed "Bad Penny" from the old expression: "a bad penny always turns up." This bomber, with a crew of seven men (five Canadians including pilot Robert Upcott of Windsor, Ontario), took off in bad weather on the morning of 29 April 1945 without a ceasefire agreement from the German forces, and successfully dropped its cargo. A development of the Lancaster was the Avro Lincoln bomber, initially known as the Lancaster IV and Lancaster V. These two marks became the Lincoln B1 and B2 respectively. A civilian airliner was based on the Lancaster, the Lancastrian. Other developments were the York, a square-bodied transport and, via the Lincoln, the Shackleton which continued in airborne early warning service up to 1992.

Postwar

In June 1947, the Argentine Air Force received 15 Lancasters. During its Argentine service, Lancasters saw limited use in military coups, owing to the small number there.

A total of 59 Lancaster B.Is and B.VIIs were overhauled by Avro at Woodford and Langar and delivered to the Aeronavale (France) during 1952/53. These were flown until the mid-1960s by four squadrons in France and New Caledonia in the maritime reconnaissance and search-and-rescue roles.

Beginning in 1946, Lancaster Mk Xs were modified for service with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Fourteen were modified for aerial and photo-reconnaissance work and performed much of the mapping of northern Canada until as late as 1962. Throughout the 1950s the RCAF operated seventy modified Lancasters, designated Lancaster 10MR/MPs, as Maritime Reconnaissance and Patrol aircraft in an anti-submarine role. Modifications involved the installation of radar and sonobuoy operators' positions, removal of the rear and mid-upper gun turrets, installation of a 400-gallon fuel tank in the bomb bay to increase the patrol range, upgraded electronics, radar, and instrumentation, and a cooking stove in the centre section. They served throughout the 1950s, when they were replaced by the Lockheed Neptune and Canadair Argus.

Civil conversions continued postwar. In 1946, four Lancasters were converted by Avro at Bracebridge Heath, Lincolnshire as freighters for use by British South American Airways, but proved to be uneconomical, and were withdrawn after a year in service. In addition, four Lancaster IIIs were converted by Flight Refuelling Limited as two pairs of tanker and receiver aircraft for development of in-flight refuelling. In 1947, one aircraft was flown non-stop 3,459 mi (5,567 km) from London to Bermuda. Later the two tanker aircraft were joined by another converted Lancaster and used in the Berlin Airlift, achieving 757 tanker sorties.

From 1943 to 1947 the Canadian Government Trans-Atlantic Air Service (CGTAS) provided a trans-Atlantic military passenger and postal delivery service using a modified long-distance transport version of the Lancaster Mark X. Nine of these aircraft were produced, referred to as Lancaster XPPs (for Lancaster Mk.X Passenger Planes), and each was equipped with rudimentary passenger facilities. The inaugural flight from Dorval (Montreal) to Prestwick, Scotland on 22 July 1943, was completed non-stop in a record 12:26 hours; the average crossing time was about 13:25 hours. By the end of the war, these aircraft had completed hundreds of trips across the Atlantic. CGTAS ushered in the era of commercial air travel across the North Atlantic, and in 1947 the service became part of Trans-Canada Air Lines, which carried paying civilian passengers in the Lancaster XPPs until they were replaced by Douglas DC-4s in 1947.

Role Heavy bomber
Manufacturer Avro
Designer Roy Chadwick
First flight 9 January 1941
Introduction February 1942
Retired 1963 (Canada)
Primary users Royal Air Force
Royal Canadian Air Force
Royal Australian Air Force
Number built 7377
Unit cost £45–50,000
Developed from Avro Manchester
Variants Avro Lancastrian
Developed into Avro York
Avro Lincoln


General characteristics

  • Crew: 7: pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator, mid-upper and rear gunners
  • Length: 69 ft 5 in (21.18 m)
  • Wingspan: 102 ft (31.09 m)
  • Height: 19 ft 7 in (5.97 m)
  • Wing area: 1,300 ft (120 m)
  • Empty weight: 36 828 lb (16,705 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 63,000 lb (29,000 kg)
  • Powerplant: 4 x Rolls-Royce Merlin XX V12 engines, 1,280 hp (954 kW) each

Performance

  • Maximum speed: 240 knots (280 mph, 450 km/h) at 15,000 ft (5,600 m)
  • Range: 2,700 NM (3,000 mi, 4,600 km) with minimal bomb load
  • Service ceiling 23,500 ft (8,160 m)
  • Wing loading: 48 lb/ft (240 kg/m)
  • Power/mass: 0.082 hp/lb (130 W/kg)

Armament

  • Guns: 8 x 0.303 in (7.70 mm) Browning machine guns in three turrets, with variations
  • Bombs:
    • Maximum: 22,000 lb (10,000 kg)
    • Typical: 14,000 lb (6,400 kg)

End notes