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Why Was The Avro Lancaster Bomber So Successful?

The British Avro Lancaster bomber will go down in history as one of the European Theater’s most crucial aircraft during World War Two. Powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engines and with a 102 wingspan, the Lancaster was the Royal Air Force (RAF) go-to heavy bomber. The RAF used the Lancaster to bomb German military installations and factories that supported the Nazi war effort.

Based on the twin-engine Avro Manchester medium bomber developed in the 1930s, the Air Ministry wanted a heavy bomber for its planned strategic bombing offensive over Europe. Avro designer Roy Chadwick took what he had learned from the Manchester and developed a four-engine aircraft fitted with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.

The RAF was desperate for as many Lancaster bombers as it could get

The Air Ministry liked what they saw and placed an order with Avro for 1,070 planes. Now at war with Germany, the RAF was desperate for as many examples as possible. To aid with the supply, the government enlisted the help of Vickers, Armstrong, and Short Brothers.

An Avro Lancaster parked with its bomb bay open.
Photo:  Alexandar Iotzov via Shutterstock

In 1942, a Lancaster was sent to Canada so that Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ontario, could help supply aircraft for the war effort. At the height of its production, thousands of men and women worked around the clock to build these aircraft. In total, 7,377 Avro Lancaster’s were built in Britain and Canada during wartime.

The RAF lost one Lancaster every 21 missions

Pilots spoke of the plane’s handling and ease of flying, and it had a seven-man crew. The Air Ministry calculated that they would lose one aircraft after it had flown 21 missions. During WWII, RAF Bomber Command suffered the highest casualty rate of any service in the British military.

An RAF Avro Lancaster being maintained at an airfield.
Photo: RAF via Wikipedia Commons.

Because the Avro Lancaster could carry a 4,800-pound bomb in its 33-foot-long bomb bay, the plane was selected for a special mission in the Ruhr Valley. Wing Commander Guy P. Gibson, a pilot awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross when he was 24 years old, was in charge of the raid. Headquartered at an airfield near Lincoln in England, Gibson helped select the 700 pilots, navigators, and bombardiers needed for the mission.

The Dam Busters

They trained with a new type of bomb developed secretly by British engineer Barnes Wallis. What made the bomb unique was that it was designed to skip over water and detonate like a depth charge when it arrived at its target.

To test the bomb and prepare for the mission, Lancaster crews ran practice raids of the Derwent Reservoir ten miles from Sheffield in the Peak District. Fearing that if the Germans caught wind of what they were doing, all surprise would be lost. Because of this, even the bomber crews were not told of their targets until hours before the mission. The British believed that if they could find a way to blow up the dams on the Ruhr River, it would help to shorten the war.

On Sunday, May 16, 1943, 18 Avro Lancaster bombers took off from Scampton Airfield and flew low over the North Sea until crossing the Dutch coast. After crossing the beach, two planes were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and two had to return to Scampton for mechanical reasons. The remaining aircraft continued the mission. In the end, the RAF only managed to destroy two of the four Ruhr River dams, but it is today remembered as one of the most critical missions of the war.

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