The Avro Lancaster
"I believe the Lancaster was the greatest single factor in winning the war." - Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris.
"The Lancaster surpassed all other types of heavy bomber. Not only could it take heavier bomb loads, not only was it easier to handle, not only were there fewer accidents with this than any other type throughout the war, the casualty rate was also considerably below other types."
The Lancaster bomber was the most effective British bomber of World War 2. It carried out 156,192 sorties, which was 40% of the total Bomber Command sorties for the period from 3 March 1942 to 3 May 1945 and dropped approximately 650,000 tons of bombs, which equates to 68% of all bomb tonnage dropped during the entire war.
Of the 7,377 Lancasters built in England and Canada, 4,254 were lost on operations or training, 58% of the total built, this being the highest losses by any single type of aircraft throughout the war.
Lancaster production during the war was increasingly efficient, it was overseen by the Lancaster Group and its chairman Sir Roy Dobson. The Group operated a series of sub-committees which included materials, bought out parts, spares and sub-contractors. The number of man-hours to build an entire aircraft was estimated in March 1945 to be approximately 20,000, this was almost a quarter of the time that it took in 1942. This reduction in manhours had of course an impact on the cost of production, which on average was approximately £32,000 per aircraft. This figure does not include the price of Government-supplied items such as engines, radios, guns and radars. A generally accepted figure for each Lancaster is in the region of £50,000.
The Lancaster was a great favourite with its crews, as testified by Flight Lieutenant Harry Cave, an RCAF pilot of 419 squadron: “The Lancaster was the finest aircraft I have ever flown. It was like flying a Tiger Moth, really, except that it had 4 engines. It just floated like a bird! It didn’t want to land! It was as if it just loved to fly! It was responsive to the controls—just a little touch of the controls, the rudder or the control column, to bank or climb or dive, just a slight movement and it performed beautifully and smoothly. The pilot had fantastic visibility. You could see everything; it was like being in a greenhouse. I could look around, if I arranged my seat to its highest and shortened the rudder pedals to the fullest extent, I could see right around through 360 degrees and it was wonderful to see like that. I could see right into the astro hatch and if Jonesy (Wireless OP) was there, I could see him and also look right at Nick Horychka in the Mid-Upper Turret. The aeroplane was absolutely beautiful. Now we had never flown this plane before so I went out with an American who was on the squadron by the name of Lt Joe Hartshorn. He was an awfully fine man. He did one circuit and landing and he then stepped out of the airplane and I took it from there.” Printed with the permission of Jim Cave, Harry's son.
State of the Art equipment
There was continuous development of the Lancaster throughout the war years designed to make it a deadlier and more effective weapon. I am indebted to Peter Hoare, who was a navigator with 106 squadron, completing 24 operations and then 83 squadron Path Finder Force, for his explanation below of some of the equipment which made accurate navigation increasingly possible.
Distant Reading Compass: the DRC system consisted of a gyro magnetic master unit situated at the rear of the aircraft well away from magnetic disturbances. Repeater indicators were fitted for the navigator and pilot. Additionally, courses were fed to the Air and Ground Position Indicators (GPI), the H2S and Mk XIV bombsight. We used true courses, a Variation Setting Control (VSC) providing the necessary conversion. The DRC was a reliable, accurate and stable instrument. Available to the pilot, however, in case of a rare unserviceability, and a cross-check for the DRC was the P12 magnetic compass.
Air Position Indicator: the API was a mechanical aid fed with inputs from the Air Mileage Unit (AMU) and the DRC. It indicated the air position in latitude and longitude on veeder counters and was an invaluable device that avoided the inaccuracies and time consumption of a manual air plot. Deviations from the required speeds, courses and height such as banking searches and the infamous 5 Group corkscrew that were virtually impossible to cope with by manual air plot were happily accepted by the API. As well as lat. and long., the API indicated the aircraft's true course, the nearby VSC having been set with the local magnetic variation. Again, a reliable instrument but it required monitoring by a cross-check with the occasional manual air plot.
Ground Position Indicator: the GPI was a mechanical device that applied a set wind velocity to the air position to measure the aircraft's ground position. The instrument was installed on the astrograph mounting above the navigator's table. The ground position was indicated by a lighted arrow projected on a chart. It was used by PFF for blind marking and flare dropping in conjunction with the H2S. It was also useful for local navigation, especially practice bombing in poor visibility.
Gee Mk 2: Gee was a relatively short range hyperbolic time difference measuring fixing aid that used a cathode ray tube indicator. It was highly accurate at short range and a fine bombing aid - it could place an aircraft well inside an airfield boundary and must have kept many hundreds of aircraft out of trouble in bad weather. A fix could be obtained and plotted on a chart quickly - the readings for the two position lines were obtained simultaneously. Flying eastwards accuracy decreased, the angle of cut of the position lines became smaller, the signal weaker, and enemy jamming more intense.
H2S was a map painting radar used as a fixing and blind bombing aid. Unfortunately its use for fixing was severely limited when it became evident that transmissions provided the perfect homing beacon for enemy fighters (carrying Naxos equipment). It was also possible for long-range devices to detect H2S in use over the UK and to receive forewarning of an operation. For this reason, any Lancasters supplied to 467 and 463 squadrons in the late stages of the war had the H2S sets removed and replaced with Loran (LOng RAnge Navigation) which worked on the same principle as Gee but relied on reflection of the pulse signal from the upper layers of the earth's atmosphere. As its name implies, its range was greater than Gee, it could not be detected by German radar and was therefore safe to use at all times, but generally it was more difficult for navigators to detect the correct pulses, particularly because the reflected rays fluctuated and tended to lose themselves in the extraneous "noise". (I am grateful to Lyle Patison, navigator on Merv Bache's crew for informing me about the removal of H2S from the squadrons' aircraft, and to Peter Barlow, navigator on Bernard Martin's crew, for the explanation of Loran.)
Avro Lancaster Mk III, ME453 was part of Contract No. 2019 for 200 aircraft; it was built at the A.V.Roe factory at Yeadon near Leeds and was delivered to RAF Waddington on 3rd February 1945, (one day before F/O R T Ward’s crew arrived).
Mk IIIs were fitted with Merlin 28 or 224 engines built under licence by the Packard Motor Corporation in the USA: they were slightly more powerful than the Rolls Royce Merlins and featured different carburettors (Bendix-Stromberg pressure-injection) and magnetos. The propellers were Nash Kelvinator/Hamilton A5/138 “paddle type” and were variable pitch.
As a new aircraft, ME453 was allocated to F/O John Boyd Clark from Williamstown, Victoria and his crew.
Its first mission was on 13 February, the target Dresden. Take off was 17.45, return 03.38. Airborne for 9 hours 53 minutes. The next day F/O Clark took ME453 to bomb Rositz though the sortie was not completed because the rear guns wouldn’t fire properly (only when engine revs were at 2400 and this would have used too much fuel). Take off was 17.02, return to base 19.47. Airborne for 2 hours 45 minutes.
On 19 February ME453 was on a sortie to attack Bohlen. Take off was 23.53, return to base 07.50. Airborne for 7 hours 57 minutes.
On 21 February, ME453 was flown to attack the Mittelland Canal at Gravenhorst, take off was 17.09, return 23.32. Airborne for 6 hours 21 minutes.
On 24 February ME453 went to the Dortmund-Ems canal. Take off 14.00 (arrived at target 16.36), return 18.38. Airborne 4 hours 38 minutes.
The next operation was 3 March with F/O Ward as the pilot, the date ME453 was shot down. Assuming a time to target of approx 3 hours, the Lancaster’s active flying time (excluding air tests, fighter affiliation exercises, bombing practices etc) with 467 squadron totalled about 34¼ hours.
Crew positions in a Lancaster.