Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary
Born out of the failure that was the Manchester, the Lancaster has become the one bomber most associated with the RAF night offensive over Germany.
When it became clear to Avro's Chief Designer, Roy Chadwick, in 1938 that the new Rolls Royce Vulture engines intended for the Manchester were suffering from a lack of development, the company set about revising the design to include an additional pair of engines, preferably the well-proven Merlin. As a matter of fact, so dire was the Manchester situation that the Ministry of Aircraft production seriously considered scrapping the production line at the Avro factory at Newton Heath in Manchester after its contract for 200 Manchesters had been completed, and switch to the rival Handley Page design, the Halifax. Fortunately, the plan never came to fruition and Avro was allowed to continue development of the Manchester III (the name Lancaster had not yet been chosen).
In September 1940, a contract was signed with Avro for two prototype aircraft, the first of which was to fly within four months. To do this, Avro was to use as many existing Manchester components as possible to reduce cost and the timescale. Within a month, Avro had had prepared the requisite technical drawings for the Lancaster and things progressed smoothly with the first flight being made on 9 January 1941. The first aircraft was very much a hybrid design, and a more representative aircraft followed in May 1941. The second prototype had larger tail fins, a new undercarriage and improved Merlin engines and the true potential of the aircraft could now be tested. Test flying continued throughout the summer and the first production Lancaster I was flown on the last day of October 1941.
The first Lancaster squadron was No 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, based at Waddington and commanded by Wing Commander RAB Learoyd VC and deliveries commenced on Christmas Eve 1941. Shortly after, No 97 Squadron traded in its Hampdens for Lancasters and both units commenced their operational work-up. By May 1942, No 44 Squadron was ready for operations and during the night of 10th/11th March 1942, a number of its aircraft took part in a raid on Essen.
Barely a month later, Lancasters from both Nos 44 and 97 Squadrons, had carried out a daring, low-level daylight attack on the MAN diesel engine factory at Augsburg, deep in Germany. A number of diversionary raids in northern France partially failed to draw enemy fighters away from the Lancaster's route further south and as result four aircraft from the twelve involved were shot down before reaching the target. The remaining aircraft successfully attacked, with a number of direct hits being achieved, but three further aircraft failed to return. Only one aircraft of the six despatched from No 44 Squadron survived - that of Squadron Leader JD Nettleton, the squadron commander. For his leadership, Nettleton was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Throughout the remainder of 1942, the transition to Lancasters in Bomber Command was relatively slow, but the increase in the total tonnage of bombs in operations was increasing rapidly because of the ability of the Lancaster to carry bombs greater than the 4,000lb High Capacity (the only aircraft that could do so).
One of the new Lancaster squadrons, No 106, was frequently chosen to carry out a number of high-risk attacks. It's leader was Guy Penrose Gibson and early in 1943, Gibson was chosen to recruit the best Bomber Command pilots available to form a new, elite squadron in No 5 Group to perform one very daring attack. Gibson chose as many pilots as possible from his old squadron and made up the rest with many he had previously flown with who had since joined other squadrons.
The new recruits were told to report to Scampton but given no clue as to why they had been picked and what lay ahead for them. In the weeks that followed, the crews were ordered to carry out as much low flying as possible and an identity for the new squadron chosen - No 617. Finally, in May 1943 the reason for the enormous amount of low-level flying was revealed to the crews - three dams in the heart of the Ruhr that would, it was believed, bring the industrial reason to a halt if they could be breached. More information will appear elsewhere in the site about No 617 Squadron's daring raid on the dams in May 1943, but suffice to say that no similar raid has ever been attempted since, and the success of the operation, despite the great bravery of the crews involved, failed to live up to expectations of the 'boffins' who had dreamt the plan up.
No 617 Squadron was not disbanded, and remained as part of No 5 Group for the remainder of the war for highly-specialised attacks, culminating in the use of the incredible 12,000lb 'Tallboy' and 22,000lb 'Grand Slam' attacks on the ever-elusive Tirpitz (which was finally sunk in late-1944) and the destruction of a number of important bridges in Germany during the final months of World War II.
Elsewhere in Bomber Command, the Lancaster continued on more mundane duties (including minelaying). The Battles of the Hamburg, theRuhr and Berlin in 1943 and early 1944, the famous attack on the V1 establishment at Peenemünde in August 1943 were some of the high points of the Lancaster's service. At the other end of the scale, ovr 60 Lancasters alone were lost during the raid on Nuremberg in March 1944. Almost half of all Lancasters delivered during the war (3,345 out of 7,373) were lost on operations with the loss of over 21,000 crew members.
The basic Lancaster, the B.I was such an excellent airframe, that few changes were made to improve it. The B.II was a Bristol Hercules-powered variant built to counter possible supply problems with the Merlins; the B.III was powered by improved Merlins and, along with the B.I, the standard mount of many Lancaster squadrons. The final version built in significant numbers was the Mark X which was built under licence in Canada.
Of those 7,000+ aircraft built, only two airworthy examples exist as a tribute to the many thousands who lost their lives in Bomber Command; one with the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the second based in Canada.
Date Last Updated : Wednesday, April 6, 2005 2:40 AM
© Crown Copyright 2004 and © Deltaweb International Ltd 2004