Weapons of War – the AVRO LANCASTER
Our series taking an in-depth look at armament used in combat by British forces focuses on the RAF’s best-known heavy bomber of World War Two – the Lancaster. Words by Nigel Price
The distant drone of four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines gradually gets louder, and every eye in the crowd turns skyward. The sound increases to a roar as the elegant shape of a Lancaster speeds over the runway in front of the spectators and pulls up smartly, banking over to reveal its open bomb bay. Applause greets the spectacle, and seems to drown out the departing bomber’s powerplants. This is a typical airshow scene in the UK and Canada, home nations to the world’s only two airworthy ‘Lancs’.
But as pleasing as the Lancaster’s aesthetics are, it’s truly a weapon of war, and its combat record in World War Two is second to none. It could carry an enormous payload – almost three times that of the American B-17 Flying Fortress; absorb tremendous battle damage and remain flying; had long range; and was relatively straightforward to produce in large numbers.
It was, of course, one of the dozen or so aircraft types used by Bomber Command in the Second World War, tasked with stopping Hitler’s tyranny. But it’s the Lancaster that’s come to symbolise the heroism and sacrifice of the RAF’s primary attack force.
Designed by Roy Chadwick, the Lancaster was a development of the Avro Manchester – a twin-engined bomber powered by two Rolls-Royce Vulture engines – which first flew on 25 July 1939 and entered RAF service some 16 months later. Only 202 were built. It clearly had potential but was woefully underpowered, and operational losses were high. In fact, around two-thirds of the RAF’s fleet were written-off in battle or in training accidents before the type was axed in 1943. There were plans to produce a Manchester II, using Bristol Centaurus or Napier Sabre engines, but the project was thought to be unworkable and was abandoned.
Chadwick – always a forward thinker – had a vision for a ‘super’ Manchester, and as soon as a plentiful supply of the highly capable Merlin engines began to become available he redesigned the bomber’s wings to accommodate four of them to replace the unreliable Vultures.
The Lancaster prototype, BT308 – originally designated the Manchester III – made its first flight on 9 January 1941 in the hands of test pilots Sam Brown and Bill Thorn. It was initially configured with a three-finned tail layout to aid directional stability, but this was reduced to the now familiar two on the second prototype, DG595.
Although it needed refining, the Lancaster went on to become the most numerous four-engined ‘heavy’ in Bomber Command’s inventory, with most of the 7,377 built during the war years being produced by Avro at its Chadderton plant in Oldham, Lancashire, and test-flown from Woodford in Cheshire. Lancasters were also constructed under licence in Canada.
More than 920 companies were involved in producing sub-components for the production lines and, at its height, some 1,100,000 men and women were employed making the parts or assembling the aircraft. More people were involved in building, maintaining or flying Lancasters than any other RAF aircraft, before or since.
See the February issue of Britain at War for the rest of this feature.