It’s not every day you get the chance to write about a British Legend, but I am proud to do so today. On the 9th January 1941 Avro test pilot H. A. “Bill” Thorn took the controls of a brand new aircraft, developed to allow the Royal Air Force to take the fight to Germany at a time when all hope seemed lost. The Luftwaffe was demolishing London, the German Army had rampaged across Europe and Rommel’s Afrika Korps was threatening to overrun Egypt.
Thorn, flying the new 4-engine heavy bomber, remarked that it was "one of the few warplanes in history to be 'right' from the start." It was an amazing improvement on its predecessor, the Avro Manchester, and according to Roy Nesbit in ‘An illustrated history of the RAF’, “it proved easy to fly, highly reliable and capable of absorbing considerable punishment.” Nothing else in the RAF inventory could match it, and neither could the Luftwaffe’s best bomber, The Heinkel HE-111. I’m sure many of you have guessed by now that I am referring to the Avro Lancaster!
The brain-child of Avro Design Chief Roy Chadwick, the Lancaster was faster than any other British Heavy in service, and could both carry a greater bomb load and get further into Germany and back. It was a near perfect combination that was only really challenged by the American B-17, which could fly slightly higher and slightly faster with a smaller bomb load but packed a far more formidable defensive armament.
Chadwick had worked on Avro’s previous British bomber, the Manchester, which thanks to a rather poor engine which looked good on paper but fell short in reality was an unmitigated disaster being unreliable, slow and not fit for purpose. Thus Chadwick and Avro adapted the design to incorporate a more reliable engine from Rolls Royce; the Merlin XX, famously used in the RAF’s frontline fighters, the Spitfire and Hurricane. In addition to the new engines, Chadwick designed a larger wing but kept the overall design close to the Manchester. This meant production sites building the Manchester could be very quickly re-tooled to produce the Lancaster, and indeed many Manchester orders were converted to Lancaster orders.
The design proved remarkably adaptable and went through many changes over its years of service, from new engines to re-configured defensive armament. However the most significant came in the form of bomb bay adaptations that allowed the Lancaster to accept the Tallboy and Grandslam bombs. The standard bomb load for a Lancaster was normally around 14,000lbs and a mixture of 1 ‘Cookie’ bomb (4000lbs) and incendiaries or General Purpose High Explosive (500lbs). One Tallboy however weighed in at 12,000lbs alone and was specifically designed to destroy hardened and reinforced concrete structures such as bunkers and U-Boat pens. Amazingly, that was not the largest bomb utilised by the RAF; the Grandslam bomb weighed in at a massive 22,000lbs and was essentially a scaled up Tallboy. In order to carry such massive ordnance, the bomb bay doors had to be bulged for a Tallboy or removed completely for the Grandslam. In addition, all of the defensive guns were removed to save weight and new uprated engines with paddled bladed propellers gave more power. Only 32 aircraft were adapted with these changes.
Over the course of the war, 7,377 Lancaster bombers were manufactured in the UK and Canada. They flew 156,000 sorties, an average of 21 per aircraft, and dropped over 600 tonnes of bombs, striking targets such as Berlin, Hamburg and Dresden. They were selected for special operations such as Operation Chastise, led by Guy Gibson to bomb the Ruhr Dams using ‘Bouncing Bombs’ designed by Barnes Wallis. Only 35 Aircraft completed more than 100 sorties, the most successful of which completed 139.
Currently there are only two surviving airworthy examples, one of which belongs to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and can be seen at many UK airshows. The other operates in Canada, the only other country to produce the design. Most recently both aircraft came together for a summer of air shows in Britain, the first and only time since the 1950s that more than one Lancaster has been seen in the sky at any time. Many organisations are hopeful, however, that one of 15 other surviving airframes can be restored to flight worthiness in the future.