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Avro Lancaster Bomber

The Lancaster bomber was a British-made heavy bomber widely used by the British and its allied nations in World War II. Designed and built by Avro, it came into service in 1942 in the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, and played a crucial role in bombing campaigns against German industry and infrastructure.

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Avro Lancaster Bomber in World War II

The Avro Lancaster Bomber was known as the "Lanc," the most successful of the RAF's WW II bombers, particularly known for night operations. The bomber gained fame as the "Dam Buster" in 1943 during attacks on Ruhr Valley dams in Germany (Operation Chastise). Approximately 7,300 aircraft were built during the war by Avro (originally A.V. Roe and Company) and others. The Lancaster was in operational service only in the European theater.

The Lancaster was the solution to problems that beset the Manchester, a twin-engine medium bomber designed to meet Specification P.13/36. A team led by Avro's chief designer, Roy Chadwick, was already working on the twin-engine Manchester, but had problems with the Rolls-Royce Vulture engine. Even with an additional two engines, the Manchester still underperformed. Ultimately, a new design specification, designated Type 683, led to a prototype that survived initial trials after delivery to the Aircraft & Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down. Upgrades and improvements to the armament, and the use of a three-blade de Havilland metal propeller on each of the four Merlin XX engines resulted in a plane that satisfied the Air Ministry. Manchester production was halted, and the Lancaster was born.

The Lancaster operated primarily at night due to its lower service ceiling. It was vulnerable to attack by German fighters and antiaircraft installations, which limited its effectiveness during the day except in permissive environments. Even at night, the dorsal turret was limited as a defense against Luftwaffe attacks. Further, the Luftwaffe installed upward firing cannons in its night fighters to increase effectiveness against bombers such as the Lancaster. But despite these limitations, the Lancaster dropped 107 tons of bombs for every aircraft lost.

A crew of seven manned the Lancaster. A pilot and copilot worked the enclosed flight deck, along with a navigator/observer. A bombardier who also worked as a gunner, a radio operator, and two gunners for the turrets worked in the fuselage. The aircraft had standard navigation and communications equipment for its day, along with an optical bombsight and gun sights. A H2S nav/attack radar system added in August 1943, and F.24 camera rounded out the Lancaster's equipment in upgrades to the Mk I.

Avro Lancaster Variants

The Lancaster Mk I underwent three major revisions during WWII. The first involved alterations because squadrons found that the ventral turret saw little action. Second, the dorsal turret was reshaped to improve airflow. Finally, the weapons bay was improved, and the Merlin XX engine was replaced with the Merlin 22 and later the Merlin 24 to increase maximum takeoff weight. The Mk I was a major success, and remained in production throughout the war, with a total of 3,434 built.

The Mk II started as a prototype with the Bristol Hercules radial piston engine chosen to replace the Merlin engine because of supply concerns about the Merlin. In addition, the weapons bay and ventral turret were lengthened. Otherwise, the Mk II closely matched the Mk I, improved with a slightly higher service ceiling. Armstrong Whitworth built some 300 aircraft starting in September 1942, and later included some of the changes in the Mk I. But production remained low because Merlin engine production was ultimately able to meet the demand for the Mk I.

The Mk III was also differed little from the Mk I, but was built under license in the United States by Packard. The Mk III carried the "bouncing bomb" designed by Dr. Barnes Wallis for attacks in May 1943 against German dams. A total of 3,030 Mk IIIs were produced, including some that were delivered to the Far East in 1945 to support British operations against Japan. Except for tropicalization features and the addition of a saddle tank to increase its range, the Mk III followed the existing Lancaster standards. Like the Mk I and Mk II, the Mk III saw no operational service against Japan because of its late arrival.

Avro Lancaster Bomber Characteristics

ArmamentTen .303-inch Browning trainable forward-firing machine guns (2 in nose, 2 ventral, and 2 dorsal turrets; 4 in tail turret)
Normal bomb load12,000 lbs.; up to 14,000 lbs. on some missions
EnginesFour Packard (Rolls-Royce) Merlin Vee piston engines of 1,460 hp each
Maximum speed275 mph at 15,000 ft.
Cruising speed227 mph
Range2,530 miles with 7,000 lb. bombload
Ceiling24,500 ft.
Wing Span102 ft.
Length69 ft. 6 in.
Height19 ft. 7 in. (with tail down)
Weight36,900 lbs. empty; 41,000 equipped; 68,000 lbs. loaded and fueled

Note: Characteristics vary slightly with the Lancaster Mark variant, manufacturing site, and date.

Avro Lancaster Bomber, Mark I.  Illustration by John Batchelot, London.  From Time-Life Books
Avro Lancaster Bomber, Mark I. Illustration by John Batchelot, London. From Time-Life Books.

Recommended Books about the Avro Lancaster Bomber

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