Avro Lancaster – Introduction and Prototypes

The Avro Lancaster was the most important British heavy bomber of the Second World War. It was the third of the four engined “heavies” to enter service, after the Short Stirling and Handley Page Halifax, and soon came to overshadow both of the earlier aircraft.

The Lancaster was developed as a result of the failure of the Rolls Royce Vulture engine. This engine was produced by pairing two V 12 Kestrel engines, producing a 24 cylinder engine. Rolls Royce hoped this would result in a light but powerful engine. In the event it produced a light, but underperforming engine, with serious unreliability problems.

Although 200 Manchesters were produced, it had become obvious early on that the failure of the Vulture engine would also end development of the Manchester. The first prototype flew on 25 July 1939, the second on 26 May 1940. Tests revealed that the Vulture was not living up to expectation, and by June 1940 Rolls Royce was ready to abandon further work on the Vulture in favour of the much more important Merlin engine. The Manchester finally entered service in February 1941, but its low service ceiling of 10,000 feet led to heavy losses, while reliability was poor.

Avro responded with two alternatives – either the Manchester Mk II, which would have used two radial engines, or the Mk III, with four Merlin engines. It was decided to proceed with the Manchester Mk III.

Side plan of Avro Lancaster I
Avro Lancaster I
: Side Plan

The first prototype for the aircraft that would become the Lancaster was complete by the start of 1941, and first flew on 9 January, before the Manchester’s first operational sortie! The aircraft was still officially designated the Manchester Mk III, although the Lancaster name had begun to be used at Avro, and was soon officially adopted. The Lancaster would inherit several good features from the Manchester, including the large single bomb bay, which would allow the Lancaster to carry ever larger bombs, the good bomb aimers position in the nose, and a good pilot position, with great visibility.

Front view of Lancaster
Avro Lancaster I
: Front view

This first prototype, BT308, shared three quarters of its components with the Manchester, including the three-finned tail plane. Only the wings were significantly different, having been extended from 90ft 1in to 100 feet in span to carry the four Merlin X engines.

Avro Lancaster under Construction
Avro Lancaster under Construction

Tests with the prototype revealed much improved performance over the Manchester. The new aircraft had a ceiling of over 20,000 feet, a potential bomb load of 14,000 lbs (which would late increase to 18,000 lbs under normal conditions) and a range of over 2,000 miles. Orders were immediately placed for the new aircraft. On the Avro production line incomplete Manchesters were converted to the new standard.

The second prototype, DG595, saw three main changes. The triple-finned tail of the Manchester was replaced by the familiar twin-finned Lancaster tail. The engines were changed to the Merlin XX. Finally, four gun turrets were fitted – nose, tail, dorsal and ventral. The ventral turret position never seems to have been standard on the Lancaster, although many would have some sort of downward firing gun.

The first production aircraft flew on 31 October 1941. Squadron deliveries began on 24 December 1941, when No. 44 Squadron received the Lancaster. 7,377 Lancasters would be produced by Avro, Armstrong Whitworth, Vickers-Armstrong, Metropolitan-Vickers, Austin Motors and in Canada.

The Avro Lancaster, Manchester and Lincoln, Richard A. Franks. Although this is described as a modellers guide to the Lancaster, Manchester and Lincoln, it is also a very good history of the aircraft, with a fantastic amount of infomation, covering the technical details of the aircraft, its squadron service and production figures. A very valuable guide to one of the best known Second World War aircraft. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 May 2007), Avro Lancaster Introduction and Prototypes, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_lancaster_development.html

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