RAF Ringway, Manchester, England January 9, 1941

On this date in 1941 a prototype four-engine heavy bomber took off from RAF Ring­way in the English county of Cheshire on its maiden flight. Designed by Avro—an ini­tial­ism of the com­pany’s founder Alliott Verdon-Roe—the best-known British bomber of World War II was named after the his­toric county of Lan­cas­ter. Avro’s Lan­cas­ters were pro­duced chiefly at Chad­der­ton north of the city of Man­chester in the indus­trial north­west of England and hauled in sec­tions south 20 miles to Wood­ford Aero­drome, where they were assembled and flight tested. But the iconic 29‑ton air­planes came close to never being built.

The first production model, the Lancaster B.I, had its origins in the smaller twin-engine bomber Avro Man­chester, which had been developed in the mid‑to‑late 1930s when medium bombers like the Hein­kel 111, the Junkers Ju 86, and the Dor­nier D 17 were entering ser­vice in Nazi Germany, the Fiat BR.20 Cicogna and Savoia-Mar­chetti SM.81 Pipis­trello in Fascist Italy, and the Tupo­lev SB‑2 in the Soviet Union. The Germans, Italians, and Soviets put their twin-engine bombers through blood­thirsty trials during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).

Entering service with the Royal Air Force in Novem­ber 1940, a little over a year after Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany and Italy, the Avro Man­chester (202 were built) came to be regarded as an oper­a­tional fail­ure due pri­marily to its under­powered and unre­li­able Rolls-Royce Vul­ture engines. Not only did Avro switch out Vul­ture engines in favor of Rolls-Royce Mer­lins, they rede­signed the Man­chester as a four-engine heavy bomber with lengthened wing­span and air­frame while keeping the sig­na­ture three-finned tail for direc­tional sta­bil­ity. (The middle fin was dropped in the second proto­type.) The new Lan­cas­ters—or “Lancs” as they were collo­quially called—were power­ful, bristled with 7.7mm Browning Mark II machine guns in the nose, mid-upper (dorsal), and rear tur­rets, and were capa­ble of carrying in their unob­structed, 33‑ft (10m)-long bomb bays an enor­mous bomb­load, partic­u­larly later in the war when increas­ingly large and spe­cial­ized bombs like the deep-pene­tra­tion “Tallboy” and then “Grand Slam” were made available.

The Lancaster B.I entered RAF service in Febru­ary 1942 and con­ducted its first oper­a­tional sortie on March 2, 1942, laying naval mines. Just over a week later a small num­ber of Lancs took part in a raid on the indus­trial city of Essen, Germany, and at the end of May 76 Lancs took part in the RAF’s first 1,000‑bomber raid on the near­by cathe­dral city of Cologne. More Lancs quickly rolled off the pro­duc­tion lines (Avro’s and 5 licens­ees’, one of them in Canada). RAF squad­rons flying problem-plagued Man­chesters and the RAF’s other, less-capa­ble twin-engine medium bombers, such as the Arm­strong Whit­worth Whit­ley, Handley Page Hamp­den, Vic­kers Wel­ling­ton, all entering ser­vice in 1936–1938, and even the four-engine heavy bomber Short Stirling, which entered ser­vice in 1941, saw their warbird pens backfilled with Lancs.

The Lancaster became the most numerous four-engine “heavy” in Britain’s Bomber Com­mand’s inven­tory, with nearly half the 7,377 Lancs manu­factured for the war effort built by Avro, the rest by licensees. More than 920 com­panies pro­duced sub­com­po­nents for the pro­duc­tion and assem­bly lines. At full employ­ment roughly 1.1 mil­lion men and women were engaged in making parts for or assem­bling the air­craft. More people were involved in building, main­taining, and flying Lan­cas­ter bombers than any other RAF aircraft, before or since. Indeed, the ini­tial ver­sion of the Lan­caster, the B.I, stayed in pro­duc­tion or was con­verted for other uses such as air-sea rescue and general and mari­time reconnaissance well after the war.

British and U.S. Heavy Bombers During World War II

Vintage Avro Lancaster wears camouflage paintBoeing B-17

Left: Flying above Lincolnshire, England, this vintage Avro Lan­caster wears camou­flage paint and markings of No. 460 Squad­ron Royal Aus­tra­lian Air Force. The Lan­cas­ter work­horse had an impres­sive com­bat record. It sortied approx­i­mately 156,000 mis­sions, including seve­ral that dropped the 22,000 lb (10,000kg) Grand Slam “Earth­quake” bomb after bulged bomb bay doors had been added to 30 per­cent of the Lan­caster fleet. Depending on the dis­tance of the mis­sion, a Lan­caster typ­i­cally carried between 8,000 lb and later 12,000 lb of high-explosive (HE), incen­di­ary, and semi-armor-piercing (SAP) bombs, the latter used against sub­marines up to 1942. Because the Lan­caster’s design and struc­ture were so sound, the air­craft was evolved into the Lin­coln bomber (oper­a­tional from August 1945 on) and later the Shack­le­ton (marine patrol air­craft using para­chute-deployed mag­netic or acous­tic mines), which remained in service into 1991. During the war 3,736 Lan­casters were lost in action (3,249) and ground accidents (437)—in other words 44 percent of all Lancasters produced.

Right: By the time the U.S. entered World War II in Decem­ber 1941 the Boeing B‑17 Flying For­tress was out­dated based as it was on 1920s-early 1930s tech­no­logy. Some 12,731 B‑17s were pro­duced between 1936 and 1945. First flown in com­bat by the Royal Air Force over Europe, the British found the B‑17’s per­for­mance dis­mal and pre­ferred flying the Con­sol­i­dated B‑24/LB‑30 Liber­ator. B‑17s flew with the U.S., British, and Soviet air forces. The German Luft­waffe even flew a dozen cap­tured ones. Flying For­tresses were armed with thir­teen .50 cali­ber (12.7mm) M2 Browning machine guns in eight posi­tions. Depending on the dis­tance of the mis­sion, a B‑17 could carry between 4,000 and 8,000 lb of bombs. (Loaded with a 6,000‑lb bomb­load, it had a range of 2,000 miles.) More bombs were dropped by B‑17s than by any other U.S. air­craft in World War II. Of the 1.5 mil­lion metric tons of bombs dropped on Nazi Germany and its occupied terri­tories by U.S. air­craft, 640,000 tons were dropped from B‑17s. During the war more than 5,000 B‑17s were shot down by German fighter planes or flak bat­teries—in other words, nearly 40 percent of all B‑17s produced.

RAF Avro Lancasters, September 29, 1942Halifax Mk II of RAF No. 35 Squadron

Left: Three RAF Avro Lancaster B.I Specials based at Wadding­ton, Lincoln­shire, fly above the clouds, Septem­ber 29, 1942. Intro­duced into ser­vice in Febru­ary 1942, Lan­casters became the main heavy bomber used by the RAF as well as the most famous and suc­cess­ful of the war’s night bombers in con­trast to the USAAF heavy bombers that were used mostly in day­light raids over occu­pied Europe. On the night May 16, 1943, a British squad­ron of 19 modi­fied Avro Lan­caster bombers (B.III Specials), each with a 9,250‑lb pay­load of one exter­nally mounted, specially designed “Upkeep” bounc­ing bomb (actu­ally a 5×4 ft [1.5×1.2m] drum-shaped depth charge rotating at 500 rpm), flew toward three dams on the Moehne and Eder rivers in the Germany’s Ruhr Valley in the state of North Rhine-West­phalia. In a spec­tac­ular feat of pre­ci­sion bombing under heavy ground fire, the “dam­busters” in Oper­a­tion Chas­tise argu­ably per­formed the most auda­cious bombing raid of the Euro­pean war, breaching two of three tar­geted dams as 12 sur­viving Lancs flew 60 ft (18m) above the reser­voirs’ sur­face at 220 mph (354 km/h). The Moehne dam alone spilled around 330 mil­lion tons of water into the west­ern Ruhr region, devas­tating fac­tories, muni­tion plants, power stations, rail­way and road bridges, homes, mines, and farm­land for miles around. Bodies of at least 1,579 vic­tims, many of them pri­soners in forced labor camps, were found along the Moehne and Ruhr rivers, 70 in the Eder Valley, with hun­dreds of people gone missing. The RAF lost 8 Lan­casters and 53 air­men (close to half of No. 617 Squad­ron’s cou­ra­geous crewmembers) in the Chastise raid.

Right: Squadron No. 35 was the first RAF squa­dron to use the Hand­ley Page Hali­fax pictured above. The Hali­fax entered military service in Novem­ber 1940. Squa­dron No. 35 carried out the first Hali­fax raid on March 10/11, 1941, over Le Havre, France. Both the Avro Lan­caster (left frame) and the Hali­fax emerged as capa­ble four-engine stra­te­gic bombers. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, since Febru­ary 1942 head of RAF Bomber Com­mand, depre­cated the Hali­fax for its smaller pay­load, sharing as it did the same speci­fi­ca­tion as the con­tem­po­rary twin-engine Avro Man­chester. Hali­fax’s stable mate Lan­caster had the dis­tinc­tion of carrying the 22,000 lb earth­quake bomb called Grand Slam used by Bomber Com­mand against hardened German targets towards the end of World War II. During their war­time service Hali­faxes flew a total of 82,773 oper­a­tions and dropped 224,207 tons of bombs, while 1,833 air­craft were lost. The Hali­fax was flown in large num­bers by other Allied and Com­mon­wealth air forces such as Canada’s, Australia’s, the Free French, and Poland’s.

Avro Lancaster Documentary Using Contemporary Film

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