The Lancaster – Remembering Britain’s Mightiest Bomber of WW2 (and the Men Who Flew Them)

Lancasters of RAF No. 44 Squadron. Avro manufactured more than 7,300 of the four-engine heavy bombers during the war years. Today, only two remain airworthy. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The Lancaster’s performance, reliability and sheer charisma won high praise.”

By Vic Jay

TWO DAYS BEFORE Christmas Day, 1944, Bob Jay, a newly qualified flight engineer with the RAF, climbed into an aircraft for his first ever flight. At the controls of the Avro Lancaster was Squadron Leader Alban Chipling, a veteran of No. 429 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. With more than 40 missions over Germany under his belt, Alban was ‘tour expired,’ and now helped to train rookie aircrew in the U.K. Bob Jay was my dad so, three years before I was born, my family’s association with the Lancaster began, an association that has lasted for over 70 years, and is as strong now as it has ever been.

The Avro Lancaster entered service with the RAF in late 1941. By war’s end, “Lancs” had flown more than 150,000 missions and dropped more than 600,000 tons of bombs.  (Image source: WikiCommons)

Designed and built by Avro, formerly known as A. V. Roe and Company of Manchester, the Lancaster is probably the best known British heavy bomber of World War Two, an icon that attracts more attention world-wide than any other, despite there being only two that are still flying.

The prototype took to the air for its first flight from Woodford, Manchester, on Jan. 9, 1941. The first production Lancaster flew later that year on Oct. 31.

The first RAF unit to receive the new aircraft for operations, on Christmas Eve 1941, was No. 44 Squadron at Waddington, in Lincolnshire. Pilots and engineers were immediately impressed by its capabilities. With its four powerful Rolls Royce V-12 Merlin engines, the same make that powered the Spitfire, the Hurricane and the Mosquito, it could carry a bomb load of 22,000 lbs. Its maximum speed with a full load at 15,000 feet was 275 m.p.h., and it could cruise routinely at altitudes above 20,000 feet at a speed of 200 m.p.h. With a full bomb load, the aircraft had a range in excess of 1,500 miles.

The Lancaster’s performance, reliability and sheer charisma won high praise from Sir Arthur Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command.

“I would say this to those who placed that shining sword in our hands: ‘Without your genius and efforts we could not have prevailed,” he would in write in a letter to the head of Avro following Germany’s surrender. “For I believe that the Lancaster was the greatest single factor in winning the war.”

An exaggeration? Maybe. But it is an honest portrayal of the high esteem in which the Lancaster was held by all those associated with the war in the air.

A total of 7,377 Lancasters were built between 1941 and early 1946. Of these, some 3,500 were lost on operations, and another 200 or so were destroyed or written off in crashes.

Night terror — The RAF Lancaster became the most visible instrument of Britain’s controversial area bombing campaign of World War Two. The strategy killed tens of thousands of German civilians, yet historians maintain that the destruction failed to break the enemy morale. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The controversy in the U.K over the policy of ‘area bombing,’ and the role played by Bomber Command, led to the importance of the Lancaster being all but forgotten for decades. The realization that it was something worth preserving came too late. The vast majority of those that did survive the war were scrapped when their services were no longer required.

There are several excellent examples preserved in aviation museums across the world, but the only two that are airworthy are at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and at RAF Coningsby, in Lincolnshire, in the U.K. Work is currently underway to get NX611, “Just Jane,” at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, also in ‘Bomber County,’ up in the air again after more than 50 years.

The Lancaster did not carry the weight of the bombing offensive against Nazi Germany on its own, of course. We must not overlook the massive part played by the aircraft of the United States, not to mention the other British and Commonwealth bombers: the Wellington, the Stirling and the Halifax, as well as the twin-engine De Havilland Mosquito.

According to the Bomber Command Museum of Nanton, Alberta, of every 100 British and Commonwealth airmen assigned to fly bomber missions in World War Two, 45 were killed, six suffered serious injuries and eight became prisoners of war. Just 41 survived, and many of those were traumatized by their experiences. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In August 2014, nearly seventy years after my dad climbed into a Lancaster for the first time, I was able to follow in his footsteps and board the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, during its landmark visit to the U.K. The 30-minute flight over the derelict WW2 airfields of my home county of Lincolnshire, was the most moving trip of my life.

I am wary of being over-sentimental about what is, after all, just a piece of machinery, despite its association with my dad over several vital months of his life. Although he died in 1974, at the age of just 55, I can still hear him reminding me to think first and foremost of more than 55,000 of his Bomber Command comrades who were killed, as well as all the other casualties of the war.

As a child growing up in the 1950s, I never tired of asking my dad about his role as a Lancaster flight engineer. I wanted to know what flak was like, if he could have landed the aircraft, I even wanted to know how aircraft were able to fly. I pored over photographs and diagrams of the Lancaster, and spent hours building an Airfix model. My interest gradually waned and, after my dad’s premature death, I thought I had lost any chance of discovering more about this period of his life.

One of the last two remaining Lancasters in flight. (Image source: WikiCommons)

However, such has been my fascination with the Lancaster that I have spent the last five years belatedly researching his experiences and those of his crew. What I have discovered is a series of tragedies that I found difficult to believe. They had all survived the war, but their lives were changed forever. My research led, earlier this year, to the publication of the book, The Mallon Crew, which describes the devastating impact of the war on the men and their families.

And what, you may ask, became of Alban Chipling, the Canadian squadron leader? Four months after he taught my dad how to manage three-engine landings, he was killed in a flying accident, just two weeks before the end of the war in Europe. He was 31, and left a widow, Kathleen.

Vic Jay is the author of The Mallon Crew, a heart-breaking account of the devastating impact of the war on one Lancaster crew. A retired teacher and author of several short stories, Vic is currently working on his second book, The Boy With the Barbed Wire Legs. He lives in the U.K.

1 comment for “The Lancaster – Remembering Britain’s Mightiest Bomber of WW2 (and the Men Who Flew Them)

  1. Michael Raymond
    24 September, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    I forget where it is in the UK, but when google mapped the UK for their satellite image database, they accidentally caught a Lancaster flying over the countryside. Just thought it would amuse the author.

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