Avro Lancaster: The Best Heavy Bombarder of WW2

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The Avro Lancaster Four-Engine Bomber

During WW2, the British were blessed with a rare trifecta of legendary warbird aircraft. Each designed to carry out specific mission and do it well. The superb Spitfire plane, arguably the best fighter of the war. The De Havilland Mosquito, better known as the “wooden wonder” and the four-engine heavy bomber, the Avro Lancaster

Although the Lancaster would not appear in strength until 1942, it would go on to become one of the finest heavy bombers of the war. The brainchild of AV engineer, Roy Chadwick, the Lancaster first took shape in a 1939 twin-engine bomber, the Manchester. However, the Manchester proved to be under-powered by two Rolls Royce Vulture engines and proved to be no match for the mighty German Luftwaffe. The failure of the Manchester did not deter Chadwick and his team. Like the great designers/engineers of their day they went to work updating Manchester.

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Roy Chadwick, AV Engineer

The Birth Of The Lancaster

The first critical decision was the move from two to four engines. To accomplish this an additional four feet six inches were added to each wing, this modification immediately improved the take off capability. As we would see later, with the addition of the Merlin engine that transformed the P-51 Mustang into a war winner, the same magic occurred with the Lancaster. At the outbreak of war, the Avro Lancaster was not the only four-engine bomber option available to the British. The Short Brothers Sterling bomber, and the Handley Page Halifax were in the fight. However, it was abundantly clear that Avro Lancaster was the “queen of the county” so to speak.

With the fall of France, the Germans had a decided advantage against the British. For the Germans it was a short hop across the English Channel to attack the British, flying from newly won bases along the French coast. During their blitzkrieg, the Germans felt little need for four-engine bombers since most of their missions were considered short hops as they rolled over the low-countries and France. In their prewar calculations the British assumed that war with Germany, there would be a need to launch bombing mission against Germany from Britain. This assumption proved to be right with the fall of France, and the British without air bases on the continent.

The Avro Lancaster On The Attack

At the beginning of the Battle of Britain in 1940, the German Air Force ruthlessly attacked British ports and bases. After substantial loses in their bomber forces in day light raids, the Germans switched to nighttime bombing. After a mishap, one crew bombed the city of London, which until then had been off limits. This type of warfare garnered an instant response from legendary Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill to now begin attacking the German capital city Berlin, the heart of Germany. The same night of the London bombing, Churchill ordered a group 81 Vickers Wellingtons and Handley Page Hampdens to attack Berlin. Only about half of them reached the capital, which was obscured by heavy clouds. Little damage was done, but one bomb killed the only elephant in the Berlin Zoo. This would be a foreshadowing of what was to come.

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Handley Page Halifax Four-Engine Bomber

At the close of 1941 the fortunes of war were slowly changing in the favor of the Allies. The British had successfully weathered the Battle of Britain, The Americans and their military might were now in the fight, and the Germans had foolishly attacked the Russians, opening a second front in the east. The Avro Lancaster was now ready for war, and simultaneously, Bomber Command had a new leader who would lead the group to new heights. Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris was just the leader the British needed. Harris wasted little time in letting the Germans know what they could soon expect when he said, “… they sowed the wind and now they are to reap the whirlwind.” In other words, we are going to bomb the hell out of you.

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Sir Arthur Harris

The new Avro Lancaster had a crew of seven and was armed with 10 Browning machine guns. The first serious Avro Lancaster raid occurred in early 1942 when 12 Lancaster’s attacked munitions plants in Augsburg, Germany, in a daring daylight raid. The squadron battled way through German WW2 fighters, and withering flak. Of the twelve aircraft in the attack, only 5 survived the mission. Forty-nine aircrew were lost. Squadron Leader John Nettleton was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in the raid. The main target of the Augsburg raid was the Diesel engine plant that supplied engines for German U-boats. Production was temporarily halted but resumed production several weeks later. It was obvious that the cost in British lives was not worth the effort. This should have been relevant after the Battle of Britain when the Germans learned the same bitter lesson. From here on out, the British would switch to night raids. This is the same lessons the Americans would learn when they persisted with daylight bombing with appalling loses.

The Avro Lancaster Night Attacks

Beginning in 1943 the Germans were caught in a deadly vice as the Americans attacked by day and the British by night. Air Marshall Harris began to assemble an astonishing thousand plane raids. One in particular, the raid on the German city Cologne that nearly wiped it off the map. The damage was so severe that production was halted at 36 plants, and another 70 temporarily shut down. What made the Avro Lancaster great was its ability to carry an extremely large bomb load. The venerable B-17 could carry 5,000 lbs. loads. The Avro Lancaster could nearly triple that. The spacious bomb bay gave the Avro Lancaster the ability to carry a variety of bombs – from 1,000, 2,000 to the 4,000 lbs “cookie” to the 12,000 lbs “tall boy “and if you can imagine it, the 22,000 lbs “grand slam”. This is amazing, considering that the German V-2 rocket weighed 26,700 lbs. The battle in the savage night skies took on a greater meaning.

Although the cover of darkness provided some semblance of protection, the skies of occupied Europe were nonetheless still quite dangerous. Germany committed over one million men to its air defense system, another million to air precautions. And over 150,000 anti-aircraft guns jealously guarded German cities. Initially, the British employed a strategy where raids were done by individual bombers would singularly attack targets. But as they grew in strength, large formations arrived in force with the intentions of plastering an entire city. These raids were led by “path finding” De Havilland Mosquitos Who flew ahead of the formations to light up the targets.

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Barnes Wallis

Each side was forced to develop countermeasures in the conflict. The Germans were heavily dependent on radar to detect the incoming British attacks. They would then vector their night fighter’s attack. To thwart this defense, the British developed the simple, but ingenious, tactic known as window. Small strips of aluminum foil were dropped. This created a “metallic cloud” that essentially blinded German radar screens. Despite these measures, the Avro Lancaster’s were hampered by the fact that they needed to fly straight and level on the final approach to the target, and when caught in the powerful searchlights there was nowhere to hide and considering the fact the Lancaster’s were carrying 15, 000lbs and 3,000 gallons of fuel.

Send In The Lancaster’s

The sheer beauty of the Avro Lancaster was its ability to perform specialized and dangerous missions. None more famous than the Dam busting raid, code named “Operation Chastise ''. In May 1943, 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson led the specially trained squadron on a low-level mission to attack 3 dams in the Ruhr Valley, the heart of German war production. This raid required specially modified Lancaster’s with upgraded electronics, and most important, a new type of weapon, the “Bouncing Bomb” developed by munitions engineer, Barnes Wallis. The bouncing bomb, a round cylinder packed with 10,000 lbs of destructive material was designed to skip across the water, strike the dam structure, sink to a certain depth, and explode. Like all strategic German targets the dams were well protected. The low-level approach required extensive practice and skill. Gibson’s group successfully bombed the Möhne dam shortly after midnight, the Eder fell just prior to 2:00 am. The Sorpe was the only dam to survive. The raid wrecked production in the Ruhr Valley, however, the raid cost the lives of 53 brave men of 617 squadron.

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Lancaster Dropping Bouncing Bomb

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British Grand Slam Bomb

Another famous mission was the November 1944 mission sinking the last German battleship the Tirpitz. British Intelligence discovered Tirpitz hiding in a Norwegian Fjord in Tromso, Norway, 190 miles inside the Arctic Circle. This was not the first attempt to bomb the Tirpitz, 17 previous attempts prove to unsuccessful. However, today would be their day as the squadrons arrived undetected until the last minute. Twenty-nine “Tall Boy” bombs rained down on and around the Tirpitz. There were two direct hits, and a possible third. Several near misses disrupted the seabed that led to the Tirpitz capsizing, reminiscent of the sinking at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Proving once the might of the “Flying Lady”

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