The Avro Lancaster was unusual in that almost its entire wartime career was with Bomber Command. “Bomber” Harris fought any attempt to divert his four engined “heavies” to what he saw as distractions from their real jobs, and when he was forced to give in to the urgent demands of other branches of the RAF, such as Coastal Command, it would be the Stirling or the Halifax that he released.
As a result, the Avro Lancaster had become heavily associated with the bombing campaign against Germany. It dropped 608,612 tons of bombs, close to two thirds of Bomber Commands total of the entire war. Each Lancaster could carry more bombs that its clossest rival, the Halifax, and over their entire careers survived to carry out more missions.
No. 44 Squadron was the first to receive the Lancaster. It had been using the Manchester, and the aircraft were sufficiently similar for the changeover process to be impressively rapid. The squadron received the first prototype Lancaster on 9 September 1941, its first production Lancasters in December 1941, and mounted its first raid on 3 March 1942. This was a Gardening mission – mine laying off the German coast close to Heligoland, from which all four aircraft used returned.
The first attack on Germany came on 10 March, when two Lancasters joined a raid on Essen. By this time No. 97 Squadron had also received its Lancasters, making its first raid on 20 March.
The existence of the Lancaster was officially announced after a daylight raid deep into Germany. This was an attack on the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg Nürnburg, a manufacturer of U-boat diesel engines. Of the twelve machines dispatched to Augsburg on 4 April, only five returned. Squadron Leader Nettleton became the first Lancaster crewman to receive the Victoria Cross – cynics at the time noted the tendency of medals to be awarded more often when missions went wrong although it may be more accurate to suggest that failed missions gave many more chances to earn a medal.
The Lancaster did not become the most numerous type in Bomber Command until February 1943. Early in 1942 the most common aircraft was still the Vickers Wellington – during the first 1,000 bomber raid, against Cologne on 30 May 1942, over 600 Wellingtons took part, compared to only 75 Lancasters. Nevertheless, during 1942 the Lancaster was becoming increasingly important, and the story of the Lancaster begins to mirror that of Bomber Command.
Part of the story was the constant technological battle to improve accuracy. 1942 saw the formation of the Pathfinder Force. At the start it contained one squadron of each type of bomber in use, with No. 83 Squadron representing the Lancaster. The idea of the Pathfinders was that their experienced crews would find the target and mark it with flares, giving the rest of the bomber stream a better chance of hitting their target.
The Pathfinders would begin to really shine in 1943. Under “Bomber” Harris, Bomber Command was now ready to concentrate on the area bombing of Germany. The Pathfinders were the first to operate a series of navigation aids, starting with Oboe, first used on 5 March 1943 in the first raid of the Battle of the Ruhr, an attack on the Krupps works at Essen. Essen and the Ruhr would suffer six major attacks between then and 25 July. Duisburg would also suffer a series of major raids. By now the Lancaster equipped 18 Bomber Command squadrons, and was the command’s most numerous bomber.
The next target was Hamburg. The Pathfinders now had H2S, a downwards pointing radar set that could detect built-up areas and water – Hamburg was thus an idea target. The first raid on Hamburg, on 25 July, also saw the first use of “window”, a simple system for blocking radar using clouds of aluminium strips. In four raids over 8,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Hamburg, famous. The result was a fire storm which caused massive damage in this key German industrial city.
In the middle of these massive raids, public attention was drawn to the famous dambusters raid of 16/17 May 1943. This saw 617 Squadron, a newly formed elite formation, attack a series of dams in the Ruhr, destroying two and damaging a third. The economic impact of the raid was not as great as had been expected, but as an example of the application of air power it was very impressive.
The next major target was Berlin. Harris was convinced that a concerted attack on Berlin might cost 500 aircraft, but would win the war. Attacks in late August and early September saw the Halifax and Stirling withdrawn from the attack, after they suffered unusually high losses. This left the field to the Lancaster, but that aircraft would also soon be suffering heavily. The basic problem was that Berlin was too far into Germany and too heavily defended. Between October 1943 and March 1944 Bomber Command launched sixteen major raids on Berlin, losing 492 aircraft in the process. During the same period another 550 aircraft were lost in raids across Germany. The worst night came on 30/31 March 1943, when 96 out of 795 aircraft sent to Nuremberg were lost.
Despite all of these losses, Harris wanted to continue with the strategic offensive. Instead, he was ordered to take part in the preparations for D-Day. Bomber Command dropped over 42,000 tons of bombs on the French railway system in the months before D-Day, playing a crucial role in preventing the Germans from using the railways to reinforce their troops in Normandy in the aftermath of D-Day.
One of the reasons Harris was so keen on the Lancaster was its ability to take increasingly heavy bomb loads. The second half of 1944 saw the introduction of the 12,000lb Tallboy bomb, designed by Barnes Wallis. This was an aerodynamic bomb, designed to be dropped from a great height. The bomb was designed to penetrate deep into the ground, causing an earthquake effect. It was also discovered that the Tallboy could penetrate deeply into reinforced concrete. Several types of important targets were protected by thick layers of concrete, included many of the facilities being developed to produce the V-1 and V-2 weapons and U-boat pens. The Tallboy proved itself equal to the role of penetrating this concrete, and destroying these targets. 721 Tallboys were dropped between 8/9 June and the end of the war. It would be the Tallboy, in the hands of Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons, that finally sank the dreaded German battleship Tirpitz on 12 November 1944.
Finally, in 1945 the Lancaster was used to carry the largest conventional bomb yet developed, Barns Wallis’s Grand Slam. This was a 22,000 lb bomb similar to the Tall Boy. Wallis had originally had the idea more than three years earlier, intending it for the attack on the dams. It was finally ready in 1945.
The Grand Slam was first dropped on 14 March 1945 against the Bielefeld viaduct. Exactly as expected, one Grand Slam dropped 30 yards from the viaduct destroyed two of its arches – the earthquake effect worked just as Wallis had hoped. The Lancaster was the only Allied bomber used to drop the Gram Slam.
By the end of the war the Lancaster equipped 56 squadrons. Nos. 1, 3 and 5 Groups were all entirely Lancaster equipped, the Pathfinders used it as their only heavy bomber and No. 6 Group was converting from the Halifax. If the war had gone on longer, the Halifax would probably have been phased out entirely.
The last Lancaster operation in Germany came on 25 April. Fittingly, it was an attack on Hitler’s refuge at Berchtesgaden, which destroyed a nearby SS barracks.
In the immediate aftermath of war the Lancaster was used to drop food supplies to Holland. Most Bomber Command squadrons were then moved to Transport Command, and played an important role in transporting liberated prisoners of war back to Britain.
Somewhat ironically the last Lancaster in RAF service was actually used by Fighter Command as a photographic aircraft, retiring in late 1954. Bomber Command phased out the Lancaster between 1946 and 1950, in favour of the Avro Lincoln, which in an echo of the original development of the Lancaster had originally been developed asthe Lancaster Mk IV and V.
The bomber offensive was controversial at the time, and has become increasingly so as time has passed. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the campaign, there can be little doubt that the Avro Lancaster was crucial to the success of the entire campaign. It carried more bombs further into Germany than any other British bomber.