Lancaster Bomber - .PDF file.
To celebrate our 160th anniversary here at Engineer Towers we’re looking to showcase the magazine’s archive, exploring its depths in greater detail than ever before. We’ll be looking to unearth some obscure gems, as well as pay tribute to iconic engineering achievements. And they don’t come any more iconic than our first subject – the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber.
Like The Engineer, the Lancaster is celebrating a landmark year, with this month marking the 75th anniversary of the aircraft’s maiden flight in January 1941. The bomber would not enter active service until the following year, but by August 1942 when The Engineer was invited to see it in action, the Lancaster had already started to make a name for itself.
“But a few months after its completion, the ‘Lancaster’ has left its mark on the German landscape and its people,” wrote our predecessors. “It has helped powerfully by night to batter Cologne and Essen, with bombs of the heaviest calibre. By day it carried out the epic raid led by squadron Leader J.D. Nettleton, V.C. on Augsburg, and the raids on Danzig and Flensburg.”
“From the initial flights and the report of the Ministry of Aircraft Production testing staff, it was soon obvious that the Allied cause had now what has since been aptly styled by many pilots as a ‘war winner’.”
Of course, the Lancaster’s most famous hour was to come in May 1943 later with Operation Chastise, better known as the Dam Busters mission. Armed with Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb, 19 of the aircraft (slightly modified) were involved in the attack on the Möhne, Edersee and Sorpe Dams in Germany’s Ruhr valley. The Möhne and Edersee dams were destroyed, but eight of the aircraft would not return, with 53 aircrew killed during the mission and another three taken prisoner.
While the story of the Dam Busters certainly added to the Lancaster’s legend, its iconic design also won it a place in the public consciousness. Despite being “designed and built in record time” in what this magazine referred to as “a triumph of aeronautical engineering”, the bomber was also noted for its “particularly graceful lines and a pleasing appearance, perhaps rarely seen in large military aircraft.”
A more technical description comes later in the article: “In design it may be described as a mid-wing four-engined all-metal cantilever monoplane, with a retractable undercarriage. In general, it is powered by four Rolls-Royce ‘Merlin XX’ liquid-cooled engines, which have given such a good account of themselves in other bombers and fighter aircraft.”
“Other engines, notably the Bristol ‘Hercules,’ are also being fitted to the ‘Lancaster’. An outstanding feature which was demonstrated on the occasion of our visit is its great ease of control, and this, coupled with its high speed, is of great defensive value.”
It is testament to the Lancaster’s quality that variants of the aircraft were still in operation as late as 1963, with two surviving planes still airworthy to this day. Central to this longevity was the modular design, which in 1942 was described by The Engineer as enabling “ease of production, easy transport, and easy maintenance and repair.”
“The design, the makers claim, lends itself to rapid and relatively cheap production,” our predecessors wrote, “as the entire machine is built up of numbers of components which are manufactured largely as separate and self-contained units, and are easy to transport and to assemble.”
“Full 100 per cent interchangeability has been aimed at and achieved, and this, coupled with ease of construction, has contributed largely to the ease of maintenance and repair.”
This flexibility, along with the aircraft’s operational excellence, would prompt Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris to refer to the Lancaster as the RAF Bomber Command’s “shining sword”. It became the mainstay of British heavy bombers following its introduction, flying 156,000 sorties between 1942 and 1945. During this period, Lancasters would drop over 600,000 tonnes of bombs, and 3,249 planes would be lost in action.
Manufactured primarily at Avro’s factory at Chadderton near Oldham, Lancasters were also built in one of Canada’s largest aircraft factories and flown by the Royal Canadian Air Force, as well as the Royal Australian Air Force. A true giant of the skies, the Lancaster is among the most fondly remembered of all British military aircraft, and one that undoubtedly played a vital role in turning the tide in favour of the Allies. 75 years on from its maiden flight, The Engineer salutes this incredible aircraft.