The four-engined Lancaster bomber is one of the most iconic British aircraft of the Second World War and is still flying, seventy years on. The aircraft made its first operational bombing mission on 17 April 1942 and by the height of the war 42 Bomber Command squadrons operated Lancasters.
The Lancaster first entered service with RAF 44 Squadron at Waddington, Lincolnshire, in February 1942 and then with 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa the following month. The aircraft’s first operational sortie took place on 3 March 1942, when four Lancasters laid mines in the Heligoland Bight. However, the Lancaster’s first major bombing mission took place on 17 April 1942, when twelve aircraft flew more than 1,000 miles across France and Germany, in broad daylight, to attack the MAN (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg) U-boat diesel-engine factory at Ausburg, Bavaria.
Of the twelve Lancasters that set out only five returned home and forty-nine of the eighty-five aircrew were missing. Nettleton’s Lancaster, R5508, was the last to return and landed at Squire’s Gate near Blackpool in the early hours of the following morning. Ten days later on 28 April 1942 the London Gazette reported that Nettleton had been awarded the Victoria Cross and the other surviving aircrew had been awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC), Distinguished Flying Medals (DFM) and a Distinguished Service Order (DSO).The first Lancasters into the air were six aircraft led by Squadron Leader John Nettleton from 44 Squadron that took-off at 3.12 pm and were joined by a further six aircraft from 97 Squadron. The Lancasters faced unprecedented anti-aircraft fire and were soon pounced upon by German fighters, including the fighter ace Major Walter Oesau, who had 100 victories to his name and who had been forbidden to fly again by the Luftwaffe.
The Lancaster was designed by Avro’s chief designer Roy Chadwick, who had joined the company in 1911. Tragically he died in 1947 when his Avro Tutor crashed when he was attempting to take-off. Chadwick was responsible for numerous noted aircraft including the Lincoln, which superseded the Lancaster. He laid down the initial designs for the revolutionary Vulcan bomber, which in 1982 bombed the runway at Port Stanley in an astounding mission that flew from the Ascension Islands to the Falklands.
Avro was established by Alliott Verdon-Roe in Manchester in 1910. Roe is regarded as the first person to fly an all-British designed and built powered-aircraft when he flew his Roe I Triplane at Walthamstow Marshes in July 1909. The Avro Lancaster that bore his company’s name entered service fourteen years after Roe had sold the company to Armstrong-Siddeley in 1928 and he had formed the noted flying boat manufacturer Saunders-Roe. The Avro mark changed hands again in 1934 when Armstrong-Siddeley was sold to Hawker Aviation and the infamous Hawker Siddeley aircraft manufacturer was established.
The four-engined Lancaster was evolved by Roy Chadwick from the twin-engined Manchester, which was generally felt to be underpowered. A Manchester Mk III was fitted with four Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engines and had an increased wingspan. The aircraft became known as the first prototype Lancaster and made its maiden flight on 9 January 1941.
Today there are only two flying Lancasters left in the world. Lancaster BI PA474 City of Lincoln is operated by the Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and can be seen at numerous air displays around the UK each year. The second is BX FM213, an ex-RCAF aircraft, which underwent a ten-year restoration programme and is operated by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at Hamilton International Airport, Ontario.In all, the Lancaster took part in 156,192 missions and dropped 608,612 tons of bombs before the end of the Second World War. Of the 7,374 aircraft produced a total of 3,431 were lost in action and 246 were destroyed in operational accidents. Only 35 managed to complete 100 operations; the most successful managed an astonishing 139 missions.
The development of the Avro Lancaster and some of the daring missions that the aircraft took part in are just some of the many British aviation achievements that are chronicled in a new book by Sussex based authors Richard Edwards and Peter Edwards. Heroes and Landmarks of British Aviation tells the dramatic story of Britain’s aviation industry in the last century. The heroes are Britain’s innovative aviation pioneers and their aircraft, those who persevered to be the first into the air, to fly the fastest, the highest and the furthest, from innovative airship designs to the world’s only supersonic jet-airliner.