The Avro Lancaster is the most famous and successful RAF heavy bomber of World War Two. It is a legend that lives on today and the contribution made by the aircraft and its crews to the freedom of our nation will, hopefully, never be forgotten. The prototype Lancaster took to the air for its first flight from Woodford, Manchester, on 9th January 1941; the first production Lancaster flew later that year on 31st October.
The first RAF unit to receive the new aircraft for operations (on Christmas Eve 1941) was No 44 Squadron at Waddington, quickly followed by 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa. The performance of the Lancaster was simply outstanding. It could carry a maximum bomb load of 22,000 lb, its maximum level speed with a full load at 15,000 feet was 275 mph and it could cruise routinely at altitudes above 20,000ft at a range speed of 200 mph. With a full bomb load the aircraft had a range in excess of 1,500 miles. The Lancaster’s performance, its ruggedness, reliability and to many its sheer charisma, endeared it to its crews who were proud to fly this famous thoroughbred.
An impressive total of 7,377 Lancasters were built between 1941 and early 1946. Of these, some 3,500 were lost on operations and another 200 or so were destroyed or written off in crashes. The vast majority of those Lancasters that did survive the war were simply scrapped when their services were no longer required, as the reverence in which the aircraft is now held had yet to develop to the point where their preservation seemed important.
The Lancaster did not carry the weight of the night bombing offensive against Nazi Germany on its own but was supported by other earlier twin-engine bombers such as the Wellington and the other four-engine RAF heavy bombers – the Stirling and the Halifax – as well as medium bomber versions of the twin-engine De Havilland Mosquito. In total some 125,000 aircrew served in Bomber Command during World War Two; over 73,700 of them became casualties, either killed, wounded or shot down and made PoWs.
In a letter to the head of Avro after the war, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, the Commander in Chief of Bomber Command, 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.”