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Westland Lysander

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Designed as an Army Co-operation aircraft the Lysander would serve in France and Belgium during the early months of the Second World War. After suffering heavy losses during the Battle of France the type was phased out of frontline service. Thanks to its short take-off and landing performance the Westland Lysander would serve with the Special Operations Executive and is best remembered in this role.

Quick Facts
Westland Lysander side profile image
First flight
15th June 1936
Entered service
June 1938
Total built

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

The Air Ministry were looking to replace the aircraft used for co-operation and liaison, so in 1934 issued specification A.39/34. This required an aircraft which had short take-off and landing requirements and could be used for a variety of roles including reconnaissance and bombing.

Westland submitted their design during June 1935 and a contract for two prototypes, designated P.8 by Westland, was awarded with the prototype undergoing taxying trials on the 10th June 1936 before its maiden flight on the 15th June 1936. This was followed by an appearance, before the month was out, at the Society of British Aerospace Companies Display at Hatfield. The new aircraft was then sent to Martlesham Heath and the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment, which was based there, for handling evaluation on the 24th July 1936. The second Lysander prototype made its maiden flight on the 11th December 1936, two months after one hundred and forty four production aircraft had been ordered, and like the first this was sent to the A&AEE at Martlesham Heath. During 1938 the second prototype was to undergo tropical trials and was dispatched to No. 5 Squadron.

It was to be No. 16 Squadron, RAF Old Sarum, who were the first to take delivery of the new aircraft, having their Hawker Audux replaced during June 1938. The Lysander Mk I, which was powered by the 890-hp Bristol Mercury XII engine, had a top speed of 219 mph, range of 600 miles with a service ceiling of 26,000 ft. Armament was four 0.303-in machine-guns and 500lb bombs. When war broke out in September 1939 a total of seven Westland Lysander squadrons were in service and that month also saw the introduction of the Lysander Mk II. With the entry into service of the Mk II a number of the Mk Is were sent overseas as the home-based squadrons started to receive the upgraded aircraft which had a top speed of 230 mph thanks to its new 905-hp Bristol Perseus XII engines, although the range, service ceiling and bomb load was the same as the Mk I. Whilst armament was either three or four 0.303-in machine-guns.

During October 1939 four Lysander squadrons were sent to France but as the 'Phoney War' ended and the German attack began one of the squadrons was dispatched to Belgium, however between the 10th May 1940 and 23rd May 1940 eleven were lost both in the air and on the ground. Although there was limited success for the type including a No. 2 Squadron Lysander scoring victories over both a Henschel Hs 126 and Junkers Ju 87 on the 22nd May 1940. With the Allied forces retreating to Dunkirk, France the Lysander was sent back to the United Kingdom but made a few sorties to target German positions and drop supplies, however on one such mission only two aircraft out of a total of sixteen Lysanders and Hawker Hectors sent returned and in the eight months from the outbreak of war until May 1940 one hundred and eighteen of the type were lost along with one hundred and twenty crew members. These heavy losses showed that without air superiority the type of operations that the Lysander was designed for could not be carried out. As a result other aircraft started to replace the type.

It looked like the Lysander would suffer the fate of numerous other aircraft and fade out of service in the target tug or air-sea rescue role despite the introduction during August 1940 of the Mk III. Powered by either the 870-hp Bristol Mercury XX or XXX engine this would be the slowest Lysander variant with a top speed of 212 mph. It had a range of 600 miles, service ceiling of 21,500 ft and armament of four 0.303-in machine-guns and 500lb bombs. However the Lysander found a new lease of life performing special duties. It was on the 17th August 1940 that a Lysander took off on a sortie to insert an agent into occupied Europe, in this case Belgium, for the first time by the Royal Air Force. The operation ended in tragedy as both the pilot, Flying Officer John Coghlan, and Belgian agent Henri Leenaerts were killed. Despite this setback it would play a vital role with the Special Operations Executive performing clandestine operations in occupied Europe, including inserting and picking up agents behind enemy lines, undertaking its first agent pick up for SOE on the 6th September 1941.

To serve in its new role with the Special Operations Executive the aircraft would undergo a number of modifications including being painted black, as it would now be operating at night, a ladder fixed to the rear cockpit for quicker loading and unloading of passengers, an external fuel tank and rear armament removed. Later on the colours of the Lysander changed to a green and grey camouflage on the top of the aircraft whilst the bottom remained black. Lysanders operating with SOE were designated Mk III (SD) or Mk IIIA (SD).

Mainly used in the reconnaissance role overseas the Lysander also found itself used in the ground attack role by No. 28 Squadron whilst they were based in Burma, but in March 1942 they were moved back to India and before the year was out were replaced by the Hawker Hurricane as the squadron became a fighter one. The types last action in frontline service was in Burma with No. 20 Squadron in late 1943.

The Fleet Air Arm would also use the Lysander, albeit in small numbers, receiving their first of 67 from the Royal Air Force, a Mk IIIA, on the 26th December 1940. In total four Fleet Air Arm squadrons would operate either the Mk III or Mk III TT. During 1944 a number of these had been given back to the RAF.

One of the most unusual Lysanders was the P.12 Wendover which had a Frazer-Nash rear turret installed and a twin tailed tandem wing which was to be used in the event of invasion of the UK, however this never went past the prototype stage.

In total 1,652 aircraft were produced and as well as the Royal Air Force, where it remained in service until 1946, a number of other countries including Canada, France and Portugal used the aircraft.

Technical Details

Click on the aircraft image to view a larger version.

Top Speed Range Service Ceiling Armament
Lysander Mk I 219 mph 600 miles 26,000 ft four 0.303-in machine-guns
500lb bombs
Lysander Mk II 230 mph 600 miles 26,000 ft three or four 0.303-in machine-guns
500lb bombs
Lysander Mk III 212 mph 600 miles 21,500 ft four 0.303-in machine-guns
500lb bombs
Lysander Mk III SCW side profile image
P.12 Wendover Experimental aircraft.


Click on a photo to view a larger version.
Lysander Mk III Lysander Mk III (SD)
Lysander Mk IIIA

See This Aircraft

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

Lysander Mk IIIA x 2 Imperial War Museum, Duxford
Lysander Mk III (SD) Royal Air Force Museum, London
Lysander Mk III (SD) Shuttleworth
Lysander Mk III (SD) Tangmere Military Aviation Museum

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