For many people the sight and sound of the legendary RAF Avro Lancaster bomber of World War Two can provoke an emotional reaction, and will not soon be forgotten. Between the dates of 1941 and early 1946 an impressive 7,377 Lancasters were built for the Allied forces, of which some 3,500 were lost on operations and another 200 or so were written off in crashes; the majority of those that survived the war were simply scrapped at the end of service. Today, of the surviving 17 intact Avro Lancasters known to exist, just two are airworthy. One, B.I PA474, is in Canada and is operated by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, the other, VR-A FM213, is based in Caningsby in England and is operated by the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. There is however a third semi-operable Lancaster, known as ‘Just Jane’, based in East Kirkby at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, which is able to taxi but is not airworthy.
The aircraft, which was initially designated Avro Type 683 Manchester III but was later renamed the Lancaster, took to the air for its first flight from Woodford, Manchester on 9th January, 1941, just six weeks after the Air Ministry gave Avro the okay to proceed with development of the aircraft. The first prototype, Manchester MK.III BT308, initially had good reports, with the only negative comment being that the aircraft lacked directional stability. 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 and Armstrong Whitworth. The aeroplane was also produced at the Austin Motor Company works in Longbridge, Birmingham, later in the Second World War, and post-war by Vickers-Armstrong at Chester and the Vickers Armstrong factory, Castle Bromwich, Birmingham. The first production Lancasters flew on 31st October 1941, while No 44 Squadron at Waddington had the honour of launching the first offensive sorties, against Essen on the night of 10th- 11th March 1942, quickly followed by No 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa.
The Lancaster was an evolution of the earlier Avro Manchester, designed by Avro’s Chief Designer Roy Chadwick. When Chadwick’s daughter, who watched the flight alongside her father, suggested he should be very pleased, he merely replied, ‘Yes I am, but in this business one cannot rest on one’s laurels. There is always another and another aircraft.’
The Lancaster bomber was powered by the fabulous-sounding Rolls-Royce V12 Merlin 1,280hp engines, which gave the Lancaster a top speed of 282mph, a range of 2,530 miles and the ability to cruise routinely at altitudes over 20,000ft. Each aeroplane carried a crew of seven, including a pilot, bomb aimer, flight engineer, navigator, wireless operator, mid gunner and rear gunner, with each role necessitating a very particular set of skills.
Bombing, by nature, is a dangerous game. It entails flying into enemy territory and setting a course straight for critical and therefore heavily defended targets, all the while running a gauntlet of search lights, Flak anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. The Lancaster bomber was primarily a night bomber, but it excelled in many other roles, including daylight precision bombing. Most famously, the aircraft played a major role within the ‘Dambusters Raid’ of No 617 squadron, in which 19 modified Lancasters flew very low and dropped bouncing bombs that skimmed the water to destroy the German dams. It was also used in Operation Hydra, in 1943, to bomb the home of the Nazi secret missile program which was developing deadly V1 and V2 rockets. An epic 596 planes, of which 324 were Lancasters, dropped 1,800 tons of bombs in this attack.
In total, Lancaster Squadrons carried out 156,308 operational sorties, dropping 604,612 tons of bombs and 51,513,105 incendiaries, and laid 12,000 sea mines besides.
‘One minute you were leading an ordinary life. Then we were off to drop bombs on Berlin or the Ruhr valley in the middle of the night, and knowing we might never come back…
‘…That was what it meant to fight in Bomber Command in the World War II. Very much alive one minute, in the prime of life; very dead the next, shot down, wiped out, obliterated. The courage needed was breath-taking.
‘You came back from a raid and seven beds in your hut were empty. Seven friends gone – an entire crew – men you had been laughing and joking with a few hours earlier.
'The unfinished game of Monopoly still lay on the table, but half the players had not returned.’
Bob Pierson, a tail-gunner in a Lancaster
‘The Bomber Command War Diaries’ by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt puts the tally of aircraft lost or destroyed at 9,000 and the number of airmen killed at 55,573. This was a high proportion of roughly 125,000 men who served with Bomber Command, with over 40% failing to return from battle. Just 30% made it to the end of the Second World War without being killed, injured or taken prisoner. Meanwhile, Fighter Command lost just 4,790 aircraft and 3,690 men. Those killed were of course not just pilots, as all the crew risked their lives.
Despite such losses the head of Bomber Command, Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, along with the Americans, continued with the policy of attacking German cities. This climaxed with an attack in February 1945 where 722 Lancasters and 527 aircraft of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) took part in a joint mission to bomb the eastern German city of Dresden. The bombers faced little resistance, and over 20,000 civilians were killed. Six Lancasters were destroyed.
The attacks on German cities and the casualties resulting from these attacks have been the source of much controversy, and Winston Churchill failed to even mention Bomber Command in his victory speech on VE Day. Additionally, no campaign medal was ever issued to the unit. Only in recent years have bombers been awarded the ‘Bomber Command Clap’ (worn on the 1939-45 Star), which recognises those who between 3 September 1939 and 8 May 1945 (VE Day) served as aircrew with a Bomber Command operational unit.
In a letter to the head of Avro after the war, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris said of the Lancaster:
“I would say this to those who placed that shining sword in our hands: without your genius and efforts we could not have prevailed, for I believe that the Lancaster was the greatest single factor in winning the war.”
Were any of your relatives in Bomber Command, and did they fly Lancasters during the Second World War? Find out more about their service by delving into Forces War Records’ collections and Historic Documents Library.