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Feature Extract: Lancaster: World War Two’s Finest Bomber?

 

Was the Lancaster truly superior to all of its contemporaries? Felix Rowe compares the Avro to the other main attack aircraft types from World War Two to find out.

The Avro Lancaster is often singled out as the best all-round attack of its generation. With its considerable range, ability to carry the heaviest bomb loads, high performance and longevity, it’s easy to see why the big Avro is so highly regarded. But is that reputation justified? And what of its RAF siblings? Let’s take a look at the contenders.

Bomber Command’s war can be divided into two distinct categories: the twin-engined types that dominated early on and the larger, four-engined bombers that rose to prominence in the second half of the conflict. Initially, the British concentrated on twins, informed by the need to both manage production output and minimise potential maintenance. However, the advantages of four-engined bombers developed by both the US and the Soviet Union spurred a rethink. A configuration of four smaller engines was proving more reliable and efficient than two larger ones. In addition, the threat of powerplant failure or stoppage due to battle damage was less pronounced compared with a twin.

The ‘Big Three’

The first of the ‘big three’ four-engined bombers out of the blocks was the Short Stirling, which made its combat début in February 1941, serving up to the mid-war years, but its head start was perhaps its downfall. It was designed to Specification B.12/36, issued in July 1936, and soon became outmoded, ultimately surpassed by the younger, smaller upstarts, the Lanc and the Halifax. In the Stirling’s defence, certain restrictions had been placed on its design, such as maximum wingspan, which weren’t demanded on the later types.

The Stirling was by far the longest of the three. Although it was generally popular with its crews and surprisingly agile in the air given its size, it sat high on its undercarriage when on the ground and was tricky to manoeuvre to and from the runway. Lack of power and low service ceiling resulted in many losses and meant that its time in frontline service was short. The Lancaster was undoubtedly far superior.

 Perhaps the Lancaster’s most obvious comparison is its stablemate, the Handley Page Halifax

Perhaps the Lancaster’s most obvious comparison is its stablemate, the Handley Page Halifax. The two bombers were similar in many ways; the general shape, number of crew and role. The Halifax was (depending on variant and payload carried) slightly faster than the Lanc and had roughly the same altitude service ceiling. But the Avro had longer range and could carry an incredibly large war load – 22,000lb (10,000kg), almost double the HP bomber’s capacity.

Air Marshal Arthur Harris was extremely critical of the Halifax’s inferior load capabilities. Crucially, the Halifax couldn’t be adapted to fit the ‘cookie’ or even larger ‘Grand Slam’ weapons, which increasingly became key components of the wide-area bombing strategy to knock the enemy into submission. Some reports suggest the Halifax only remained in production because the demand gave little other choice. Notably, any new manufacturing was dedicated to the Lanc.

The smallest of the big three, a fraction shorter than the Halifax, the Lancaster was said to be particularly strong and resilient with a smooth, quick flying experience for its size. Often known to outmanoeuvre the Luftwaffe’s response, its range was a notable benefit, but its biggest strength as far as Harris was concerned was that it could be adapted to fit the big payloads. In this regard, no other bomber could compare.

Meet the twins

So what of the twin-engined bombers deployed in the early years? Despite the incredible valour of their crews, the Hampden, Manchester (the Lanc’s forerunner), Whitley, Blenheim, Hendon and Heyford all struggled to get through the strong German defences or were withdrawn from the front line before they could take the fight to the Nazis.

However, two RAF twins do have a fair shout at the title. Firstly, the de Havilland Mosquito had several benefits. While derided by some for its archaic wooden frame, it was particularly fast and versatile. It could carry a 4,000lb cookie, and was also used as a Pathfinder, supporting raids with the ‘Oboe’ blind bombing device. Additionally, it could be used in the low-level precision strike role, demonstrating this well on the famous attack on Amiens Prison in February 1944.

But the most likely contender is the Vickers Wellington, an excellent all-rounder that could take a lot of punishment. The Wellington has the considerable honour of being the only bomber – of any country and any air force – to have been in continuous production and deployment throughout the conflict’s duration, a momentous feat in itself. It was the RAF’s most-produced bomber by a considerable margin, totalling 11,462.

But the most likely contender is the Vickers Wellington, an excellent all-rounder that could take a lot of punishment

Wellingtons were deployed in Bomber Command’s very first operation on September 3, 1939, a fruitless attempt to locate German shipping. The following day, they found their target, but three were shot down – the command’s first casualties.

The Vickers twin battled on while its twin-engined contemporaries were phased out in favour of the Lancaster. Certainly, the big Avro would eclipse the Wellington on several counts, but let’s not forget that as the Lancaster was setting off on its first operational mission at the beginning of March 1942, the Wellington had already been slogging it out across the Nazi heartland for two and half years.

The Wellington production line. (Key Publishing Collection)

The ‘Wimpey’, as it was affectionately called by its crews, was noted for its ‘geodetic’ metal lattice frame, covered in strengthened canvas, pioneered by Barnes Wallis (of bouncing bomb fame). Although this design complicated the build, it made the frame particularly strong and able to withstand a severe battering from enemy flak. Wellingtons were known to return home with the rear turret missing. Furthermore, unlike most other twins, Wellingtons could, according to Sqn Ldr Gordon Willis of 524 Squadron, return home on one engine… just.

To read the rest of this feature, so the August issue – in the shops now.

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