Westland Lysander

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The Westland Lysander was the first custom-designed army cooperation aircraft to be built for the RAF since the Armstrong Whitworth Atlas of the late 1920s. That had been replaced by a number of aircraft based on the Hawker Hart, amongst them the Hawker Hector.

The army cooperation aircraft was a rather unclear category. Its roles included artillery spotting, reconnaissance, message pickup (using a hock to scoop message bags off the ground) and some limited bombing. Specification A.39/34 called for an aircraft capable of performing all of these duties and with a short take off and landing capability.  

The Lysander was designed by W. E. W. Petter, and was only his second aircraft design. There was no clear idea of what the new aircraft needed to be able to do, and so in 1935 Petter spent some time with the army co-operation squadrons. Even there he found no consensus, but most pilots agreed that the new aircraft would need to be able to operate from small spaces, be able to fly at low speeds without stalling or losing control and that the pilot needed a clear forward view. 

Lysander II bomb rack
Lysander II bomb rack

The resulting aircraft was a two-seat high-wing monoplane. The wing itself was of a rather unusual shape, angled slightly forward so that the pilot’s cabin was in front of the leading edge of the centre of the wing. The wings were supported by V struts that linked to the undercarriage. The wheels were contained within streamlined spats, which also contained the forward firing guns. It was possible to fit stub winglets carrying small bombs to these spats.

The prototype made its first taxiing test on 10 June 1936 and its first flight five days later at Boscombe Down. On 11 December 1936 Westland received a first order for 169 Lysanders. The first production aircraft appeared in March 1938, and were delivered to No. 16 squadron, at Old Sarum. This base was also the home of the School of Army Cooperation, another early recipient of the aircraft. Early aircraft were also sent to No. 5 Squadron in India for tropical trials.

Westland Lysander Picture Gallery
Westland Lysander Picture Gallery

Service Career

The Lysander was a total failure in its primary role. The skies over France and Belgium in May and June 1940 were simply too dangerous for the large and slow army cooperation aircraft (the very similar Henschel Hs 126 would suffer in a very similar way). Four Lysander squadrons moved to France during the phoney war period (Nos. 2, 4, 13 and 26). When the Germans attacked in May 1940, their armies were supported by swarms of Bf 109s. Allied fighters were overwhelmed. While the Fairey Battle was the most famous victim of this period, the four Lysander squadrons suffered very nearly as badly. Of 174 Lysanders sent to France, 88 were lost in aerial combat and 30 were destroyed on the ground. 120 crewmen were lost. Only 50 aircraft survived to return to Britain.

Lysander II having punctured tire repaired
Lysander II having
punctured tire repaired

The concept of the army cooperation aircraft, capable of reconnaissance, artillery spotting and a bit of light bombing was quickly abandoned. Artillery spotting and tactical reconnaissance would later be performed by much smaller aircraft (mainly the British Taylorcraft Auster Series), while the ground attack role would be take over by high performance fighter aircraft (the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk soon reequipped army cooperation squadrons).

Even as it was being withdrawn from the front line in Britain, the Lysander was going into battle in Egypt. No. 208 Squadron had received its Lysanders in April 1939. The war did not come to Egypt until June 1940, when the Italians entered the war. During the first successful phase of the war in the desert, No. 208’s Lysanders operated successful in their original army cooperation role. The Italian air force in Africa did not pose the same threat as the Luftwaffe.

In April 1941 the squadron moved to Greece. There it came up against the Luftwaffe. Of nine Lysanders sent to Greece, three were destroyed in the brief campaign, before the squadron was evacuated. Its Lysanders were soon replaced by Tomahawks.

No. 6 squadron also used the Lysander in the desert. They had been based in Palestine before the Italian declaration of war. They were then moved to Egypt, taking part in the advance west. During the first retreat they were left at Tobruk, operating their Lysanders in support of the garrison during the first half of April 1941.  

The Lysander also saw service in Burma and India with Nos. 28 and 20 Squadrons. No. 28 squadron took part in the retreat from Burma, while No. 20 squadron was based in Assam, taking part in the siege of Imphal. No. 20 was the last front line squadron to be equipped with the aircraft, retaining its Lysanders until the summer of 1943.

The majority of Lysander squadrons were actually formed after the fall of France, performing vital air-sea rescue duties. Its low speed allowed it to drop dinghies and supplies close to downed aircrew. The Lysander was also used for radar calibration and as target tugs. Of the (probably) 1,670 aircraft built, some 964 were Mk III aircraft, which first appeared in August 1940.

The Lysander is most famous for its work with the Special Operations Executive. Two squadrons were formed to support the SOE, first No. 138 (Special Duties) squadron in August 1941 and then No. 161 (SD) squadron. These squadrons were given a mix of aircraft, including Hudsons, Whitleys and Halifaxes as well as the Lysander. The larger aircraft were used for parachute drops, either of agents or supplies. The Lysander, with its superb short takeoff and landing capacities, was used whenever someone needed to be extracted from occupied France. Between August 1941, when No. 138 squadron began Lysander operations, and the end of 1944 when the fighting had moved out of France, the Lysanders made at least 400 sorties. No. 161 squadron along took 293 people into France and retrieved 500.   

Mk I

The Mk I was essentially the same as the prototype. It was powered by the 890hp Bristol Mercury XII radial engine. It entered service in late 1938 with No. 16 squadron at Old Sarum, but had largely been replaced by the Mk II with home squadrons before the start of the war.

Mk II

The Lysander Mk II was powered by the 905hp Bristol Perseus XII sleeve-valve engine. This was considered to be a more robust engine than the Mercury, making it better suited to operate from the sort of small frontline airfields the Lysander was expected to use. The Mk II entered service in September 1939 and was the version of the aircraft in use in France in May 1940.

Mk III

The Lysander Mk.III saw another change of engine, this time to the Bristol Mercury XX and later the Mercury XXX. This was the lowest powered engine used in the Lysander, but performance only suffered very slightly at low levels (and improved very slightly at sea level). The first Mk IIIs entered service in August 1940.

Mk IIIA

The Mk IIIA was the final combat version of the Lysander. The most important change was the introduction of floor and side armour. A number of obsolete items of army cooperation equipment, amongst them a hook for picking up messages, were removed.

TT Mk.IIIA

The last 100 aircraft were custom built as TT Mk.IIIAs, with their rear guns removed and a winch and pulley system installed.  Perhaps as many 400 existing Lysanders had been converted to act as target tugs, making a total of over 500 aircraft in this role.

Mk III(SD)/ IIIA(SD)

The SD designation was given to aircraft converted for work with SOE. The rear cockpit guns were removed and extra fuel tanks were fitted, giving the aircraft the range it needed to reach deep into occupied Europe.

Production Figures

Prototypes

2

Mk I

187

Mk II – Westland

442

Mk II – Canada

75

Mk III – Westland

367

Mk III – Canada

150

Mk IIIA

347

TT Mk IIIA

100

Specification (Mk I)

Engine: Bristol Mercury XII radial
Horsepower: 890hp
Span: 50ft 0in
Length: 30ft 6in
Max Speed: 219mph at 10,000ft
Ceiling: 26,000ft
Climb to 10,000ft: 6.9 minutes
Armament: Two forward firing 7.7mm machine guns in wheel fairing, two 7.7mm machine guns in rear cockpit
Bomb load: Eight 20lb bombs on stub winglets (on undercarriage)

Specification (Mk III)

Engine: Bristol Mercury XX or XXX radial
Horsepower: 870hp
Span: 50ft 0in
Length: 30ft 6in
Max Speed: 212mph at 5,000ft
Ceiling: 21,500ft
Climb to 10,000ft: 8.0 minutes
Armament: Two forward firing 7.7mm machine guns in wheel fairing, two 7.7mm machine guns in rear cockpit
Bomb load: Eight 20lb bombs on stub winglets

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 November 2007), Westland Lysander, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_westland_lysander.html

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