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Avro Lancaster

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Roy Chadwick's four-engined heavy bomber provided Royal Air Force's Bomber Command with the aircraft it needed to wage its strategic bombing campaign. 'The Lanc', as it was also known, is perhaps best known for taking part in 'Operation Chastise', better known as the Dambusters raid, during the Second World War. It would spend a quarter of a century in service fulfilling a number of different roles before its retirement.

Quick Facts
First flight
9th January 1941
Entered service
24th December 1941
Total built

Front view
Lancaster front view photo
Side view
Lancaster side view photo
Rear view
Lancaster rear view photo

The roots of the Lancaster can be found in another Avro plane, the twin-engined Manchester, which was removed from service during the middle of 1942 due to its Rolls-Royce Vulture engines proving far from reliable and was replaced by the Lancaster. However an Avro Manchester was used to provide the base for the prototype of the Lancaster with a couple of changes. The first was an increase from two to four engines and a change to the 1,145-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin X, which lead to the second change, the increase of the wing span and the prototype also kept the Manchester's third central fin. Flying for the first time on the 9th January 1941 with H.A. 'Bill' Thorn at the controls the aircraft was a big improvement. And later on in January 1941 the Lancaster was sent to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) based at Boscombe Down, where it would undergo intensive trials. No 44 Squadron at Waddington would receive the prototype during September 1941 to undergo evaluation and for crew training. The second Lancaster prototype flew on the 13th May 1941 and was powered by Merlin XX engines and featured a twin-finned tail layout with the third central fin now removed and it was this prototype that production models would derive from. The second prototype was also sent to the A&AEE where during a dive the Lancaster reached 360 mph.

Proving an instant success, an initial contract for 1,070 Lancasters was placed with more orders following. Due to the increased speed of development, as a result of wartime urgency, the first production version flew on the 31st October 1941 and Avro Manchesters still in production were converted to Lancaster Mk Is although from 1942 they were re-designated Lancaster Mk B.I. The Production Lancaster Mk B.Is were fitted with 1,620-hp Merlin XXIV engines and three Frazer-Nash turrets which totalled eight 0.303-in machine-guns, four in the tail and two each for the nose and mid upper dorsal. However due to the influx of orders other companies took on production of the new aircraft to take the pressure of the company's Cheadderton and Yeadon factorys as they couldn't keep up with the demand for the Lancaster. After receiving the prototype Lancaster No. 44 Squadron was the first to be equipped with the new aircraft on the 24th December 1941. They also used the Avro Lancaster for its first operational mission when they laid mines in the Heligoland Bight on the 3rd March 1942.

It was not until five month later that the general public were informed of this new plane when on the 17th August twelve Lancasters from Nos. 44 and 97 Squadron attacked a u-boat diesel factory in Augsburg. The raid itself was to confirm that sending heavy bombers on unescorted daylight raids was unfeasible as of the twelve Lancasters sent on the raid only five returned. However Squadron Leaders Nettleton and Sherwood both received the Victoria Cross, although Squadron Leader Sherwood received his posthumously.

With the Avro Lancaster rolling of the production line in sufficient numbers they soon began to replace the Manchester, however as with a number of other planes, such as the Supermarine Spitfire, the Lancaster relied on Merlin engines and as a result the Merlin engine was in danger of becoming in short supply. So to counteract this a Lancaster Mk B.II prototype was proposed and this used four 1,735-hp Bristol Hercules VI or XVI radial engines and the prototype flew for the first time on the 26th November 1941.

During September 1942 three Mk B.IIs from the first production batch of these newly powered planes were sent to the A&AEE, and nine were sent to equip No. 61 Squadron based at Syerston, Nottingham. This squadron was to perform service trials and had previous experience with the Lancaster after formally being a Lancaster Mk B.I squadron. Minor problems with the Mk B.II were experienced during the early part of its operational use and during its six months with No. 61 Squadron they did not lose any of the planes assigned to them, so the aircraft would then be sent to No. 115 Squadron at East Wretham during February 1943, who at that time were using Vickers Wellingtons.

Despite the Avro Lancaster Mk B.II equipping other squadrons it did have a couple of downfalls compared to its Merlin counterpart. Firstly its bomb load was 4,000lb less and it was not able to fly as high and had a slower top speed and after 301 had been produced, production was ended. The Mk II flew its last mission on the 23rd September 1944 with No. 514 Squadron, and although a few remained in service, even into the post-war era, they were mainly used as test-beds and the last Mk B.II was scrapped in 1950.

The next Lancaster Mk was the B.III powered by Packard built Merlin engines it also featured minor changes to the equipment and the bomb aimer's 'bubble' was enlarged and this would be produced alongside the Merlin engined Lancaster B.I. It was to be the Mk B.III, which was modified to carry the Barnes-Wallis designed 'Bouncing Bomb', which was used for the 'Dambusters' raid, officially known as 'Operation Chastise', when on the 16th/17th May 1943 Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, and having to drop their bombs from just 60ft, attacked the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams breaching the first two and causing minor damage to the third, this came at a heavy price as of the nineteen aircraft sent out eight failed to return with 3 aircrew taken prisoner and 53 killed.

The Mk B.VI was next, the two Lancaster Mk's before this the Mk B.IV and B.V had been redesigned so much they were renamed the Avro Lincoln B.1 and B.2 respectively, and it was suggested to use either of the Merlin 85 or 87 engines. As a result Rolls-Royce received nine airframes for comparative tests. Several of these airframes were used by No. 635 Squadron operationally as Pathfinders with a improved H2S radar bombing aid and early electronic countermeasures equipment and both nose and dorsal turrets removed. But despite showing much improved performance over early Lancasters none were produced and was removed from service in November 1944, with the aircraft used for a number of different tests and experiments.

The Canadian built Lancaster Mk B.X was next powered by Packard built Merlin engines it was similar to the Mk B.III with instrumentation and electronics which were Canadian and US built and the armament for this plane was fitted once the aircraft arrived in the UK. The final production Avro Lancaster was the Mk B.VIII this had the American Marin dorsal turret with its two 0.50-in machine-guns replacing the Frazer-Nash turret. The Marin turret was also placed further forward compared to previous Mks.

As the tide of the Second World War changed and the role of the Royal Air Force (RAF) changed from defence to offence, the development of bombs meant that the Lancaster development progressed alongside the bombs available at the time. This can be seen in the development of the Lancasters bomb-bay originally able to carry bomb-loads of 4,000lb then 8,000lb and 12,000lb or 'Tallboy' bombs and finally the 22,000lb 'Grand Slam' the latter two bombs were also designed by Barnes Wallis.

Another important task given to the Avro Lancaster was to sink the German battleship Tirpitz. The battleship had already come under attack from Royal Navy midet submarines and Fairey Barracudas of the Fleet Air Arm without success. Once again a Barnes Wallis designed bomb was used, this time the 12,000lb 'Tallboy', and the first attack by Lancasters took place on the 15th September 1944 and scored one hit on the bow of the battleship making it unseaworthy. The second attack in October saw no direct hits but a near-miss did bend the ships propeller shaft. The third attack saw three direct hits and on the 12th November 1944 the Tirpitz was sunk.

The Lancaster's last operational mission during World War 2 was on the 25th April 1945 when an oil refinery at Tonsberg, Norway was bombed meaning that the Lancaster had been on over 156,000 sorties and equipped at least 59 squadrons and alongside the Handley Page Halifax and Short Stirling was the mainstay of Bomber Command's strategic bombing campaign against Germany during 1942 - 1945 and also played a part in attacking vital targets in France in the run up to D-Day. It was also planned for twenty Lancaster squadrons to serve in the Pacific as part of the 'Tiger Force' in the run up to the invasion of Japan, 'Operation Downfall', but the war ended before this force was fully established.

Post-war use saw a number of Lancasters converted for civil use and re-named Lancastrian and four Mk B.IIIs were converted for the use of testing in-flight refuelling with two serving as tankers and two as the receiving aircraft. One of these flew non-stop from London to Bermuda, a total of 3,459 miles, and the two tankers also took part in the Berlin Airlift (1948 – 1949). The Lancaster was also to provide the base for its successor the Avro Lincoln and a number of aspects of the Lancaster were also used on the transport aircraft the Avro York.

The last Lancaster to roll of the production line was a Mk B.I, which from 1945 was re-designated B1, on the 2nd February 1946 it ended the production run of the type with 7,377 being built between 1941 - 1946. It would still be another 10 years before the type was withdrawn from Royal Air Force service, it also took part in the Berlin Airlift, when on the 15th October 1956 a Lancaster MR.3 from the School of Maritime Reconnaissance was retired, 25 years after the first prototype flight.


Click on the aeroplane image to view a larger version.

Max Speed Range Service Ceiling Armament
Lancaster Mk B.I 287 mph 2,530 miles 24,500 ft eight 0.303-in machine-guns
14,000lb of bombs
Lancaster Mk B.II 265 mph 2,370 miles 18,500 ft ten 0.303-in machine-guns
one 0.50-in machine-gun
14,000lb of bombs
Lancaster Mk B.III 287 mph 2,530 miles 24,700 ft eight 0.303-in machine-guns
22,000lb bombs
Lancaster Mk B.IV Became the Avro Lincoln Mk B.I.
Lancaster Mk B.V Became the Avro Lincoln Mk B.II.
Lancaster Mk B.VI Converted Mk B.IIIs fitted with Merlin 85/87 engines, nine in total.
Lancaster Mk B.VII 275 mph 3,300 miles 25,000 ft four 0.303-in machine guns
four 0.50-in machine-guns
7,000lb bombs
Lancaster Mk B.VIII Unused designation.
Lancaster Mk B.IX Unused designation.
Lancaster Mk B.X Canadian built Mk B.III


Click on a photo to view a larger version.

On Display

(C) = Cockpit only exhibit. (F) = Fuselage only exhibit. (R) = Remains of an aircraft.

Variant Location
Lancaster Mk B.X (F) AeroVenture - South Yorkshire Air Museum
Lancaster Mk B.I (C) Avro Heritage Museum
Lancaster Mk B.I Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Visitors Centre
Lancaster Mk B.X Imperial War Museum, Duxford
Lancaster Mk B.I (C) Imperial War Museum, London
Lancaster Mk B.VII Lincoln Aviation Heritage Centre
Lancaster Mk B.X (F)
Lancaster Mk B.III (R) RAF Waddington - Heritage Centre
Lancaster Mk B.I Royal Air Force Museum, London
Lancaster Mk ? (C) Thorpe Camp Visitor Centre

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