Avro Lancaster

The not-so-gentle giant

Avro Lancaster PA474, one of the last two flying Lancasters, accompanied by a Hawker Hurricane during a memorial flight
(Photo: U.K. Ministry of Defence)

World War II saw the creation of numerous iconic war machines on land, at sea, and in the air. When it comes to heavy bombers, no World War II design could beat the B-17 Flying Fortress in sheer recognizability. One that comes pretty close, however, is the Avro Lancaster, the B-17’s “British cousin.” Its baselines models could carry a heavier bomb load than almost any other World War II bomber (and the few exceptions were introduced late in the war), and a few special versions had the heaviest capacity barring none. Made famous by such high-profile missions as the Dambusters Raid (Read our earlier article) and the sinking of the Tirpitz, the Lancaster is still one of the greatest icons of the Allied war effort for the British.
A gunner in the Lancaster’s cramped rear turret
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

While an undoubtedly successful design, the Lancaster originally sprouted from a failure. Between the world wars, most major nations such as the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union designed heavy bombers flying on four engines. In contrast, British designers were keen to have bombers of a similar capacity fly on only two, more powerful engines, the logic being that the same number of engines could be used to build twice as many bombers.
 
By the mid-1930s, however, a problem was becoming evident: those high-power engines were not ready for prime time yet. One particular aircraft that suffered from unreliable and underpowered engines was the Avro Manchester, a heavy bomber that would have been decent had it not been let down by its two Rolls-Royce Vulture engines. With the prospect of a new European war on the horizon, British designers had to follow the rest of the world and scramble for four-engine bombers.

The Avro Manchester, the Lancaster’s unsuccessful predecessor
(Photo: Canadian Forces)

Roy Chadwick, chief engineer of the Avro Company, took the Manchester and reworked it to include longer, stronger wings that could support four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, the same engine that also powered the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. (Read our earlier article) The result was the Avro Lancaster, or “Lanc” as it was colloquially known, which quickly became the top British heavy bomber ahead of the Short Stirling and the Handley Page Halifax, Britain’s other two notable four-engine bombers.

Roy Chadwick, the Lancaster’s designer
(Photo: BAE Systems)

The greatest asset of the Lancaster was its 33 foot (10 m) long, cavernous bomb bay. Depending on the version, a Lancaster could carry up to 14,000 lb (6,400 kg) of bombs without special modifications, and could be modified to hold the 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) Grand Slam earthquake bomb. To put that in perspective, the maximum bomb load of the B-17 Flying Fortress was 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) for short-range missions.
 
The greatest feature of the bay was that it formed a single volume, without being divided in two by the structural elements of the plane. This allowed the Lancaster to carry a single very large bomb in the center of the bay, often surrounded by an assortment of other, smaller bombs. The largest bomb it could carry upon its introduction was the 4,000 lb (1,800 kg) HC “high capacity” bomb, also called the “Cookie.” This could be supplemented or replaced with “Small Bomb Containers” or SBCs each holding 260 incendiary bomblets, a variety of General Purpose High Explosive (GP/HE) bombs, armor-piercing bombs, depth charges and parachute-dropped mines. Different bomb loadouts had their own code names. For example, “Usual” was a Cookie and 12 SBCs; “Abnormal” was 14 GP/HEs, some of which had delay timers for up to 144 hours – this load was used against factories, dockyards and railway yards, and the delay fuses prevented the Germans from removing the rubble and beginning reconstruction quickly. “Gardening” meant six parachute mines to mine ports and waterways, “Arson” was, unsurprisingly, 14 SBCs filled with incendiaries, and other code names were given to other load combinations.

The ”Usual” bomb loadout
(Photo. Imperial War Museums)

The ability to carry a single huge bomb made the Lancaster also suitable for special missions. The most famous of these is Operation Chastise, also known as the Dambusters Raid, in which 19 bombers managed to breach two important German hydroelectric dams in the industrial region of the Ruhr Valley, putting a dent in German manufacturing capacity in May 1943. The 9,250 lb (4,200 kg) Upkeep bomb used for the mission, designed by Barnes Wallis, was a large drum span up by a motor, and dropped from a specific altitude and distance to make it skip along the surface of the water and over German torpedo nets. The mission also required some simple but ingenious adaptations beyond removing the bomb bay doors to make the bomb fit. Two spotlights were mounted on the bottom of the planes, whose light would be reflected by the water, the position of the reflections marking the correct altitude. A deceptively simple targeting device was also designed for the mission: a triangular wooden contraption that the bomb aimer had to place in front of his face: when two prongs on it covered the two towers on the target dam in the distance, the plane was at exactly the right distance to release the bomb. On a side note, some details of the Upkeep bomb were still classified in 1955, when the famous film The Dam Busters was made, forcing the filmmakers to create an alternative dummy bomb that didn’t look quite like the original. The film also used archive footage from the bomb’s testing, but the bomb itself had to be censored by placing a black spot over it.

An Upkeep bomb aboard a Lancaster
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

An even heavier special weapon for the Lancaster was the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tallboy bomb, also invented by Wallis and designed to penetrate the thick concrete roofs of bunkers and submarine pens. These bombs were also used against the German battleship Tirpitz, which had been threatening Arctic convoys headed for the Soviet Union for much of the war. A series of raids by No. 617 and 9 Squadrons (the former being the same outfit that also carried out Operation Chastise) managed to first cripple then sink the Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord in late 1944.

A Tallboy being loaded into a Lancaster
(Photo: thisdayinnavigation.com)

The massive Grand Slam, yet another Wallis design and the heaviest conventional bomb of the war, was also used against fortified targets. Beside dropping it directly on the target, it could also be aimed at the ground to create an artificial cave under a bridge, bunker of viaduct with its detonation, causing the target to collapse as it lost its solid foundations.

A modified Lancaster with its bomb bay doors removed carrying a Grand Slam
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)
In fact, the Lancaster was even considered for use during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The B-29 Superfortresses which were to fly on the missions had to undergo modifications codenamed Silverplate (Read our earlier article) to fit Little Boy and Fat Man in their bays. With some doubts as to whether the modifications could be finished in time, the Lancaster was kept as a backup solution for a while. Eventually, the political will to have the American atomic bombs be carried by American bombers gave Silverplate the push to succeed.
 
The Lancaster’s bomb capacity was truly impressive, but what about its other qualities? After all, you can’t bomb the target if you can’t hit it, or if you don’t even get there. The bomber used several types of bombsights over the war, the most common being the Mark XIV. Going by test results, the Mk. XIV was supposed to be less accurate than the famous American Norden bombsight; in practice, however, it was smaller, easier to use, better suited for the night bombing the Royal Air Force (RAF) usually carried out, and worked more quickly, only needing 10 seconds of straight flight before the drop. In practice, it proved roughly equal to the Norden.
A bomb aimer using the Mark XIV on a Lancaster
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect airplane, and the Lancaster had its share of weaknesses, most of which added up to low survivability for the crew. While its top speed of 282 mph (454 km/h) and cruising speed of 200 mph (320 km/h) was perfectly fine for a bomber carrying such a heavy load and comparable to (and for cruising, even higher than) the B-17’s, it had a relatively low flight ceiling of 21,400 ft (6,500 m) which forced it to stay within the effective range of German flak fire, and could be easily intercepted by fighters.
Firefighters trying to put out a burning Lancester after it was caught on the ground by a German air raid during the Battle of the Bulge
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Additionally, the Lancaster had a crew of seven, significantly lower than the Flying Fortress’ ten. The plane only carried a single pilot; if he was killed or incapacitated, there was no one left to fly the plane home. To be fair, the flight engineer, whose station was right next to the pilot’s, was given some rudimentary flight training, and could hopefully keep the plane in the air long enough for everyone to bail.

The pilot (left) and flight engineer (right) at their stations
(Photo: Australian War Memorial)

A second problem related to the low crew count was the relative lack of defensive armament onboard. A nose turret with two machine guns was operated by the bomb aimer, a dorsal (top) turret with another two by the mid-upper gunner, and a tail turret with four guns by the rear gunner. On most models of the Lancaster, all of these machine guns were .303 caliber Brownings, the British adaptation of the .30 caliber Browning (Read our earlier article) – this was far less firepower than what was carried by the Flying Fortress: 13 .50 caliber Brownings (Read our earlier article) in 9 positions. The dorsal and rear turrets were unheated, so the gunners had to wear electrically heated suits to avoid hypothermia.

The bomb aimer’s position in the nose, with the front turret and the nose hatch
(Photo: Per / Wikipedia)

To be fair, the Lancaster was originally designed with an additional ventral (underside) turret. Quite unlike the B-17’s ball turret, this had the gunner sit upright and control a pair of guns under his feet, aiming through a downward-pointed periscope. This idea proved completely useless: the periscope had a view range of 20°, which meant the gunner could not spot an enemy unless it was already right where the turret was pointed. Additionally, the gunner had no way of telling which way the guns were oriented relative to the plane. The turret was quickly scrapped. There were some attempts to simply point some guns out through the hole where the turret had been, but this could only be done on some planes, as others had their ground scanning radar blister installed in such a way that it got in the way. The lack of a ventral turret left the Lancaster with a large blind spot underneath it – this was especially a problem during the night missions British bombers usually went on, since German night fighters equipped with upward-pointing gun assemblies could attack the Lanc with impunity.

Schematic of the gun sight used in the poorly-conceived ventral turret
(Photo: Air Ministry)

A final problem was the actual difficulty in getting out of a plane that was hit and going down or burning up. Getting around inside the plane was difficult due to the cramped environment, and the escape hatches were a mere 22 × 26.5 inches (56 × 67 cm). Additionally, the nose hatch was the only reasonable exit for most of the crew, so getting out took some time even in the best of circumstances. The rear gunner was in an especially bad position. The rear turret was so small that most gunners had to leave their parachutes outside the turret, hanging from a hook inside the fuselage. In an emergency, the gunner had to point the turret directly to the rear so his exit lined up with the inside of the plane, climb out of the turret, don his parachute, and only then could he try to bail out. The difficulty of getting out of the plane was borne out by the statistics: while the crews of the Short Stirling and Handley Page Halifax bombers had a 25% chance of getting out once their plane was shot down, the number for Lancaster crews was an appalling 15%. It had been said that being on a Lancaster was more dangerous than being in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I. The Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command in general had the second worst survival rate of any service of any nation in World War II, only beaten by the German submarine force.

The crowded stations of the wireless operator (left) and the navigator (right)
(Photo: Australian War Memorial)

But the Lancaster became an icon despite the lethality of flying it, both because of the valiance and effectiveness of its crews, and because there were some missions simply no other plane could do. Besides the special missions mentioned earlier, two others stand out; not necessarily in terms of danger of effectiveness, but because of how unusual they were. On April 25, 1945, 359 Lancasters and 16 light bombers attacked the town of Obersalzberg, the mountainside retreat where Hitler’s Berghof residence stood. The mission was partially for propaganda purposes, but it also had a practical goal: the Allies were concerned that the German government might take refuge in a well-protected, sprawling bunker complex under Obersalzberg. While Germany did start constructing such a complex, it was never finished, rendering the air raid moot. The only senior Nazi present during the attack was Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, and he escaped unscathed.

Aerial photo of the attack on Obersalzberg
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

One of the last Allied air missions in Europe also featured the Lancaster as its main participant. Germany stopped food supplies to the occupied Netherlands after the failure of Operation Market Garden (Read our earlier article), precipitating a deadly famine. Starting on April 29, 1945, Operation Manna, named after the mysterious food that, according to the Bible, God gave to the Israelites during the Exodus, was an operation to drop 7,000 tons of food into the still German-occupied parts of the Netherlands with tacit agreement from the German forces there. 145 De Havilland Mosquitos and 3,156 Lancasters, close to half of the 7,377 ever built, participated in the operation, which was followed up by an American food drop of 4,000 tons, and eventually a ground-based operation.

A Lancaster dropping food over the Netherlands
(Photo: Beeldbank Rijswijk)

The Lancaster was also adapted to several other roles beside heavy bomber. It was used for long-range anti-submarine patrols, aerial mapping and photoreconnaissance, air-sea rescue (carrying a rubber raft that could be dropped for downed airmen in the water), and as tanker for aerial refueling. A modified version also went on to fly as a civilian passenger and mail transport aircraft under the “Lancastrian” name – in fact, a Lancastrian was the first plane to take off from the newly-built London Heathrow Airport as a scheduled flight in 1946.

A Lancastrian used as a testbed, equipped with both propeller and jet engines
(Photo: RuthAS / Wikipedia)

Once the war was over in Europe, a large force of Lancasters was to set to be transferred to the Pacific to form the core of Tiger Force, the British Commonwealth bomber contingent that was to participate in the invasion Japan. Lancasters intended for the Tiger Force were painted white on the topside to reflect the sunlight and decrease the temperature inside, black on the underside, and were given a version of the Royal Air Force roundel that completely lacked red, so as not to be confused with the Japanese hinomaru “meatball.” The Japanese surrender after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki preempted the use of this force.

The Lancaster went on to serve in the RAF until the mid-1950s, and also saw service with several other nations including Canada, France and Argentina. It was gradually replaced by the Avro Lincoln, which was so closely based on the Lancaster that its first two versions were originally called Lancaster IV and V. Only 17 Lancasters survive to this day, two of which are in flying condition.

An Avro Lincoln during a test flight, with both starboard propellers feathered
(Photo: public domain)

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American soldiers in a foxhole in January 1945
(Photo: U.S. Army, Tony Vaccaro)
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