Lancaster

Everything about the Lancaster was big. True, it was no bigger than the Short Stirling and Handley Page Halifax which preceded it into service, yet the scale of effort to introduce it into widespread use, and to produce the tens of thousands of aircrew to fly and crew this truly classic aircraft was unprecedented anywhere in the world. Yet only fourteen months elapsed between the prototype’s first flight in January 1941 and the Lancaster’s first operational mission in March 1942.
The secret of the Lancaster’s success lay largely in its superb power plants, the reliable and well-tried Rolls-Royce Merlins, which were introduced into the airframe after failure of the Vulture in the similar but smaller Manchester bomber. Indeed it was the expedient of substituting four Merlins in place of two Vultures that not only bestowed the increased safety and survival factors, but permitted the carriage of hitherto unheard-of bomb loads. Of all bombs delivered by RAF Bomber Command during World War II, Lancasters dropped 63.8 per cent (over 600,000 tons). No wonder Sir Arthur Harris spoke of it as ‘the greatest single factor in winning the war’.The customary bomb-load of the Lancaster was around 12,000lb, usually including a single 4,000lb ‘Blockbuster’ and combinations of 1,000lb, 500lb or 250lb bombs, or 250lb Small Bomb Containers (carrying incendiary bombs). Other combinations included 14 1,000lb bombs (GP short-tail type), six 1,500 lb mines, six 2,000lb High Capacity bombs, or a single 8,000lb and six 250lb bombs. Lancasters with bulged bomb doors were able to accommodate the 12,000lb ‘Tallboy’ deep-penetration bomb, and – the ultimate in conventional bomber arsenals of the war – the 22,000lb ‘Grand Slam’ was lifted by specially modified Lancaster.

In its normal configuration the Lancaster was crewed by seven men (compared with ten in the American B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator), comprising the pilot (captain), navigator, flight engineer, radio operator, bomb-aimer/front gunner, mid-upper gunner and rear gunner. There were early variations to this crew, principally as a leftover from the days when wireless operators doubled as gunners, and also when the Lancaster was occasionally equipped with a central gun turret, or special jamming equipment. Unlike the crews of German bombers, who tended to be grouped together in a compartment in the nose, the British heavy bombers of World War II, including the Lancaster, featured dispersed crew stations, some crew members being physically isolated from their colleagues, except for the intercom, for eight or ten hours of cold, discomfort and danger. Being in an unpressurised aircraft, each man breathed oxygen throughout the flight, and failure of the supply of oxygen might well prove fatal unless a periodic crew check on the intercom brought no response, when the mid-upper gunner would be sent aft to discover the trouble.

Apart from the loneliness endured by the rear and mid-upper gunners, most of the crew had to contend with extreme cold, for the Lancaster was quite widely regarded as a draughty aircraft, the icy slipstream managing to penetrate numerous small cracks and apertures in the fuselage, particularly the front turret, cockpit canopy and bomb-bay; once again the unfortunate rear gunner suffered most. Irvin jackets, fleece-lined boots and electrically heated suits alleviated the discomforts, but occasional malfunctions in the heating circuits either caused burns and blisters through over-heating, or frostbite through total failure. While the rear gunner might be shivering, the radio operator, on the other hand, would probably be sweating, for his crew position was located above the two hot-air louvers from the wing centre section. The rear fuselage obtained none of this hot air as a bulkhead was designated to retain the heat, or at least most of it, in the forward half of the fuselage.

Before attempting to describe a typical Lancaster mission, it is necessary to set out the principal duties of the crew members to demonstrate that it was entirely the result of a tight knit team that such missions were possible. This teamwork and comradeship existed from the moment the crews assembled during their training until they were eventually disbanded or shot down. It permeated their whole lives on the ground and in the air. Prior to the introduction of the RAF’s four-engined heavy bombers, there had been no necessity for such mutual trust and dependence among so many men assembled in a single aircraft.

Unlike the American B-17 and B-24, the Lancaster came to feature only a single pilot, assisted on certain occasions by the flight engineer. Although the pilot was frequently an NCO with officer crewmembers, he was invariably the aircraft captain, responsible in the final resort for decisions regarding mission aborts, crew safety and overall defence against the enemy. (This was occasionally not the case in different Canadian units). His position, high in the nose of the aircraft, was the only one in the aircraft with armoured protection – a single sheet of armour behind his back. Apart from the obvious job of flying the aircraft, the pilot actively commanded his crew, calling crew checks on the intercom, and being responsible for the crew’s proficiency in emergency and dinghy drills. In the event of the crew being ordered to bale out, the pilot was the last to go – often holding the aircraft steady until the last moment.

The flight engineer, as his title indicates, was responsible to the pilot for the general functioning of the engines and systems, assisting the pilot during take-off, managing the distribution of fuel throughout the flight, carrying out running repairs – where possible – to components in the hydraulic, electrical and oxygen systems. His crew station, surrounded by fuel gauges and cocks, ammeters, system switches and warning lights, was immediately behind and to the right of the pilot, through a fold down seat on the right-hand side of the fuselage enabled him to operate the throttles and pitch controls during take-off.

The navigator, occupying a compartment behind the pilot, was fully engaged throughout the flight with frequent course checks, taking fixes, maintaining the flight log, passing checks and changes of course to the pilot and, being the only crew member whose station was illuminated, was curtained-off. So engrossed in his work was many a navigator that he was – and undoubtedly preferred to be – oblivious to the noises and hazards of battle that raged about the aircraft.
With radio silence almost invariably imposed on bombing operations, it might be thought that the radio operator, in his crew station opposite the wing leading edge, would normally have little to do. Yet throughout the flight he had not only to keep a listening watch on his Group frequency in case of recall, but also detect enemy radio traffic between intercepting fighters and their controllers on the ground, and operate such jamming equipment that was carried in his aircraft. Later on in the war the radio operator also managed and employed the H2S radar equipment for navigation purposes, and the Monica tail warning radar, which gave indications of enemy fighters astern.

In the nose the bomb aimer had three principal duties – apart from notifying the pilot of approaching landmarks during the flight, for his field of vision was the best in the aircraft. (Although he was not supposed to take up his position in the nose until after take-off, it was extremely difficult to negotiate a way past the flight engineer in full parachute harness, and most bomb aimers did in fact install themselves in their crew station before take-off). On the outward flight he would most likely man his turret and keep a look-out for enemy fighters. It was however, his job to release the numerous bundles of Window at pre-briefed intervals (often as frequently as two or three times every minute) during the approach to the target, an unpopular chore owing to the large piles of these bundles that cluttered his already restricted compartment. On the actual bombing run he was of course responsible for fusing and selecting his bombs, guiding the pilot up to the point at which he assumed limited control through the automatic control system. After release of the bombs a photoflash would be discharged to synchronise with a photo taken by a camera under the cockpit, operated by the pilot, to show ground details of the point of impact of the aircraft’s bombs.

The duties of the two gunners were of course vital for the survival of the aircraft and its crew. Just prior to crossing into enemy airspace they would fire a short burst to test their guns, but thereafter they would be scanning the sky to watch for other aircraft – friendly aircraft that might inadvertently stray dangerously close, and enemy aircraft. Theirs was the responsibility to maintain a commentary of enemy tactics so that the pilot could take effective evasive action. The majority of Lancasters in RAF service were not armed with the ventral turret, indeed could not be so armed when equipped with H2S radar whose large radome occupied the position otherwise taken by the turret. This almost universal absence of ventral defence rendered the Lancaster terribly vulnerable, a fact the Luftwaffe eventually exploited with its introduction of the upward firing cannons in their night fighters.

The mid-upper gunner was provided with twin rifle-calibre Browning machine guns in a Frazer-Nash turret usually firing only ‘ball’ ammunition without tracer. His hydraulically operated turret possessed a 360-degree traverse with taboo track to prevent him firing at parts of his own aircraft in the heat of action. The rear gunner was located within an enclosed cylindrical turret with hinged doors at his back (to bail out he simply turned his turret sideways and pushed himself backwards through these doors). Almost throughout the war the tail Frazer-Nash turret was armed with four 0.303in Browning, although later on some aircraft were fitted with enlarged Rose turrets mounting two 0.5 Browning guns. The ammunition boxes for the rear turret were located approximately aft the mainplane trailing edge with long chutes passing down each side of the rear fuselage to a point under the centre of the turret mounting ring.
Click for larger viewSo much then for the duties of a Lancaster crew. Mere words can give no more than an impression of these duties in the reality of a dark night in a hostile sky. No amount of training could fully condition these young men to the sudden onset of unseen dangers, death and destruction and constant fear.

It was not uncommon for news of a raid to be received twelve hours before take-off, a period of daylight in which the aircrew could do little but try to rest and relax. Elsewhere however the bomber base would be seething with activity. Daylight hours were spent in the countless preparations for the raid, during which the base was sealed off from the outside world for security purposes. While a small army of engine and airframe fitters exhaustively checked and re-checked every part of the aircraft itself, armourers examined and tested turrets and guns. At the bomb dump the loads to be carried were assembled with the various pyrotechnics and the bombs fused and loaded onto the trolleys for delivery to each aircraft at its distant dispersal bay. At the various sections of the base specialist officers worked out signalling procedures, examining weather forecasts and target information. Others assembled all the latest information on enemy defences and tactics, on diversion airfields and on other Bomber Command activity, such as spoof raids designed to distract German fighters. Elsewhere equipment stores were checking parachutes and other emergency kits.

It was fairly common for an RAF Bomber Command base to accommodate two Lancaster squadrons, each of which might be required to dispatch twenty aircraft on a night raid. Thus an evening’s effort would involve some 280 aircrew members. The preparation of their aircraft demanded a carefully co-ordinated timetable of preparation in case an air test was required after an aircraft’s inspection.

Pre-raid briefing of all aircrew was undertaken by a number of specialists, introduced by the station commander, namely the armament officer, navigation officer, intelligence officer, signals officer and meteorological officer. The following raid was one of many launched during the war against Berlin – ‘the Big City’ – the Bombers’ track lying out across the North Sea before turning south-east across northern Germany towards the target. Window was to be dropped before crossing the enemy coast and for much of the remainder of the outward journey. Most of the bombers carried a single ‘Blockbuster’ and incendiary bombs for a typical ‘area bombing’ attack. The high explosive bomb was intended to smash the city’s water and electricity services and block streets with rubble, thereby preventing the civil defence forces from reaching the countless fires started by the tens of thousands of incendiaries. Diversionary raids were to be carried out by small forces of bombers against southern Norway and France in attempts to disperse the German fighter opposition.

The main briefing over, the various crewmembers dispersed to their own briefings and then to their messes for an evening meal. After donning their flying clothing in the locker rooms and collecting their personal safety equipment and flight snacks, they made their way to their dispersed aircraft – often well over a mile from the station buildings – to await the moment to embark. With the knowledge of a long, hazardous flight ahead, this waiting time strained the nerves to the utmost. Some crews played football with the ground personnel; others played cards, smoked a cigarette or even tried to snatch a few moments’ sleep.

About half an hour before take-off each crew assembled at the rear of the Lancaster to enter the aircraft through the door on the starboard side. A quick final check of their personal equipment and each man climbed the short ladder and made his way to his crew station. Those in the nose probably barked a shin on the great wing spar that constricted the midships passageway. As each man carried out his pre-flight checks, the pilot and flight engineer prepared to start the engines.
It was customary to start the two inboard engines first, followed by the outer. The ground starter battery was plugged in and the ground/flight switch set to ‘ground’, throttle set about half-an-inch open, propeller pitch set fine, slow-running switches off, supercharger in M-gear, air-intake control on cold, radiator shutters in automatic and the fuel tank selector cock on No 2 tank. As the groundcrew operated the priming pump, the ignition and booster coil was switched on and the starter button pressed. As the engine gave a few preliminary bangs, the groundcrew continued to pump away until the Merlin picked up on the carburettor and fired regularly. This process was repeated on the other engines.
As darkness gathered over the station, the air was full of noise as eighty, 1,200hp Merlins started and each pilot ran up against the chocks to 1,500rpm to check the eight magnetos and then to 3,000rpm to check boost. Further checks followed, prior to taxying. Flaps were selected down and up, bomb doors checked closed, booster pumps off, radiator shutters open, brake pressure at least 250lb/sq in, altimeter set to airfield height, vacuum pumps for instrument panel showing minus 4 ½ lb/sq in and navigation lights on.

Waving away the chocks, the pilot gunned the throttles to move his 25-ton aircraft out of dispersal to join the queue of other Lancasters taxying slowly towards the end of the runway. No weaving was necessary as his view over the front turret was sufficient to see the aircraft ahead. A check call was made on the intercom to ensure all crew members were ready for take-off and that their equipment, including oxygen supply, was functioning satisfactorily. As each Lancaster turned onto the runway, it was cleared for take-off by a green Aldis light from the control tower (no radion could yet be used). Take-off checks included auto-pilot clutch in, cock out, DR compass set, pitot head heater on, trim set (elevator slightly forward, rudder and aileron neutral), propeller pitch fine. Fuel was checked (contents OK, master cocks on, selector cocks on No 2 tanks, crossfeeds off, booster pumps in and 2 tanks on). Superchargers were set in M air intakes at cold, radiator shutters on auto and flaps selected at about 15 degrees down.

On receiving take-off clearance, the pilot released the brakes and advanced the throttles slowly, the flight engineer assisting and leading with the port levers to check a slight tendency to swing to port. With throttles wide open and held there by the flight engineer and the engines at puls-9 boost and 3,000rpm, the pilot eased forward on the control column, at the same time applying fairly coarse right rudder to hold the swing. At around 100mph indicated airspeed, he began a firm but gradual backward pressure on the column and the Lancaster became airborne. Applying the brakes momentarily to stop the wheels spinning, the undercarriage was retracted and, after gaining at least 500 feet, the flaps were raised. Safety speed was about 125 mph indicated and once this speed was reached, the throttles were pulled back to give plus-6 boost and 2,850rpm for the initial climb to operating height.

The Norfolk coast was crossed and the H2S radar gave a clear indication of Yarmouth, enabling the navigator to make a rough check on the briefed wind speed and direction. At this time it was not realised in Bomber Command that the operation of the H2S equipment would be detected by the Germans at very long range, thereby giving ample warning of the assembly and approach of a large raid. Later on in the war, orders were given that the H2S should only be switched on as the enemy coast was crossed.

Soon the first wind information at the head of the bomber stream was passed back to Britain by the ‘windfinders’. This was collated and broadcast to the bombers following. The radio operator received the information and passed it to the navigator, who made the necessary adjustment to his course and informed the pilot.
Arriving at 22,000 feet the pilot throttled back slightly to maintain a speed of just over 200mph indicated. After about three hours’ flying the navigator warned that the change of course towards the German coast must be made shortly and gave the anticipatory instructions to the pilot. One by one the gunners asked permission to fire a short burst from their guns to clear any icing and the clatter of gunfire would be heard over the background hum in the crew’s earphones.
The turn towards the enemy coast was followed almost immediately by the first discharge of Window bundles. The bomb aimer started to push the brown paper packages down the chute, to be caught and burst open by the Lancaster’s slipstream. Notwithstanding this effective means of confusing the enemy’s radar, the pilot now warned his gunners to be particularly alert for enemy fighters.

Conscious of the fact that theirs was only one of several hundred similar bombers, all flying an identical course in a great invisible corridor in the sky, the pilot and gunners strained to catch a glimpse of other aircraft. Suddenly out of the corner of his eye the pilot sighted a line of white specks some distance to port; at once the mid-upper gunner reported a bomber being attacked by a night fighter. Not waiting to watch the result of the attack, the pilot started to fly an erratic course, corkscrewing gently so as to provide a more fleeting target for any other fighter that may be stalking his Lancaster from astern. There was no further call from the gunner and the crew took comfort in the belief that perhaps the bomber managed to evade the German fighter.

Five minutes later the radio operator passed a further wind broadcast from home to the navigator, who told the pilot that the Lancaster was crossing the German coast, a fact confirmed on the H2S. Crossing in near Hamburg, the coastline easily recognised at this point, Berlin was still an hour’s flying time away. The German fighter assembly beacon nearby was passed, but another assembly point was not far distant to port of the bomber stream. At this stage there was little flak and no searchlights penetrated the cloud below.

Suddenly a great burst of light exploded ahead and above the Lancaster, casting a weird, flickering glow on the surrounding cloud tops and momentarily lighting the cockpit. Someone in the crew reported a ‘scarecrow’; a pyrotechnic thought to be fired from the ground to simulate an exploding bomber. It transpired that no such devices were ever fired by the Germans during the was and it was likely that these explosions were either bombers exploding, or large flares dropped above the bomber stream by German reconnaissance fighters.

The gunners now started calling in to report tracer being fired at aircraft on both sides of the Lancaster, which was still weaving gently from side to side. The mid-upper broke off suddenly in mid-sentence and then called urgently to warn of a single engine fighter sweeping in from the rear quarter. As the pilot banked sharply towards the attack, he was immediately aware of minute shafts of light passing close ahead. There was an angry clatter of gunfire from the mid-upper. Five seconds later the gunner reported that the fighter had disappeared. Pilot and flight engineer anxiously scanned their instruments to spot any telltale loss of power or pressure and there was a quick check of crewmembers on the intercom. Fortunately the fighter had overshot the Lancaster and disappeared.

Events now occurred in swift succession as the navigator warned the pilot that the target was only ten minutes away. The bomb aimer reported that he had completed his Window dropping and was taking his position at his bombsight. At this moment the rear gunner reported another aircraft closing in from astern, but the pilot, sensing rather than seeing cloud towering ahead, warned the gunners to hold their fire in the hope of evading the enemy fighter. There was a brief clattering sound from somewhere aft and then the Lancaster was swallowed up in the grey shroud. The pilot banked the aircraft sharply one-way and then the other. Moments later the Lancaster emerged from the towering cumulus and the bomb aimer reported that he could see the ground ahead. The crew was conscious of a vibration that passed right through the Lancaster, and the mid-upper called back to report sparks streaming back from the starboard outer engine. The flight engineer reported a loss of power on the engine and that its coolant temperature was climbing fast. A fire warning light flickered on. The vibration was getting worse and the pilot ordered the engine to be stopped. The flight engineer immediately switched off the Merlin’s master fuel cock, operated the fire extinguisher on that engine, feathered the propeller and switched off.

As the pilot re-trimmed the aircraft to counteract the drag from the stopped engine, he was aware that there had been no further word from the rear gunner and, receiving no reply to a check on the intercom, ordered the mid-upper gunner aft to find out what had happened. The Lancaster was approaching the target area, and with the flak intensifying there seemed less chance of being attacked by enemy fighters. The climax of the flight approached, as the bomb-aimer reported that he could see the first target indicators. All around the ground was a sea of flashing explosions, among the countless pinpoints of white twinkling incendiaries huge shimmering bowls of fire erupted as the huge blast bombs shattered the streets far below.

As he had to keep the Lancaster steady on a straight course, the pilot completed his final trimming as the great bomb doors were opened, causing a slight nose-up tendency. These were the most hated moments of the whole flight as the crew sensed that every German gunner on the ground was aiming at their own aircraft as it flew up to the point at which it released its deadly load of bombs. Making his own fine control corrections on the auto control, the comb aimer was oblivious to the noise and chaos about him as the Lancaster rocked from the explosions of nearby shell bursts. Suddenly the great bomber seemed to be lifted by some invisible hand. ‘Bombs gone’, came the call from the bomb aimer. Still the pilot had to maintain a steady course for some moments until the photoflash recorded the impact point of the bombs.
The all-important photograph taken, the navigator passed a new course to clear the target area. The mid-upper gunner reported to the pilot that the rear gunner had been slightly wounded in the arm, that the oxygen supply to the rear turret was no longer functioning and that the turret was partly jammed. He assisted the gunner forward into the fuselage and gave him a portable oxygen set. The pilot ordered the mid-upper to remain in his turret and told the radio operator to help the wounded gunner further forward and attend his wound.

Although the Lancaster was perfectly capable of maintaining altitude on three engines, the crew was painfully aware that it still had a long flight home. With the airspeed reduced to about 160mph indicated and a strong headwind, it would be covering enemy territory at only about 120mph. Experience on previous raids suggested that the German night fighters had concentrated their efforts upon the bomber’s approach to the target, and that only occasional attacks were made on the returning stream. Nevertheless, aware that his defences had been severely reduced, the Lancaster’s captain warned the mid-upper to keep a sharp lookout for other aircraft. The bomb-aimer volunteered to keep watch astern. The navigator passed a new course for base.

Time passed slowly. Soon the Lancaster was again flying over unbroken cloud. After eight hours in the air there was a perceptible lightening in the east as dawn approached over eastern Germany. The pilot ordered the bomb aimer forward to his position in the nose as the navigator reported that the H2S showed the aircraft to be crossing the Belgian coast. The radio operator called up to say that the wounded gunner had lost a lot of blood and, though conscious, was in some pain despite a morphia injection. Calling for a course to steer for Manston, the pilot decided to make for the nearest diversion airfield to get medical help for the gunner as quickly as possible.

Another ten minutes passed and the bomb aimer reported that the cloud was breaking up below. Easing back the throttles, the pilot started descending towards the Kent coastline. Still he dared not break radio silence in case there were enemy intruders over south-east England awaiting the bombers’ return.

At 4.30 it was already beginning to get light. At 5,000 feet the bomb aimer called up with a sighting of the coast. The pilot now called Manston for permission to land, stating that he had a wounded crewmember aboard. The airfield replied, giving landing instructions; the huge runway was quite adequate even for a Lancaster without brakes.

With the runway lights in sight, the pilot started a wide circuit to the left, thereby keeping the two good port engines on the inside of his turns. Lowering of the undercarriage caused a slight nose-down trim change, but this was corrected with selection of 20 degrees of flap. Keeping the speed at about 140 mph, the pilot turned onto the approach about two miles from the runway with plenty of power. Now he eased off throttle to reduce speed to about 125 mph, gradually winding off the course rudder trim and maintaining his heading by use of rudder. Once over the runway threshold at about 50 feet, he selected a bit more flap and firmly eased back on the control column. As the Lancaster touched down at about 90mph the flight engineer closed the throttles and the pilot started applying the brakes. The great bomber slowed rapidly and the engineer shut down the remaining outer engine for taxying on the inner Merlins.