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World War Two: The Lancaster Bomber

Updated on August 25, 2011


The Lancaster was the most famous and most successful bomber of World War 2. This account reveals the pride and terror of the Allied aircrews involved in the campaign to bomb Germany into submission and bring an end to the second world war.

Building the Right Aircraft

By 1941 the Nazis were dominating most of continental Europe. It is of the upmost importance to destroy the ever growing power of the German dictatorship and the industrial strength that is sustaining it.

The Allies desperately required an aircraft that was capable of flying beyond enemy lines in order to destroy the German supply lines. One aircraft that had been developed would come to represent the courage and determination of all who had come to fight in a deadly and intensive aerial battle.

The Lancaster, considered ahead of it's time, was an extremely powerful and aggressive machine whose capabilities would play a major part in the eventual destruction and defeat of Nazi Germany. It's specific missions would be forever remembered in aviation history.

On countless occasions aircrew of Bomber Command gathered for their mission breifings for the details of their targets for the night ahead. The aircrewmen all paid a heavy price for freedom, many whole squadrons were wiped out during World War 2. With growing losses of aircraft and their crew, it would take a great deal of courage to climb aboard an aircraft fully aware of the likelyhood of never returning home alive from a mission.

This said however, night after night, airmen, every one of them a volunteer, would make the long perilous journey through hostile skies in order to reach their targets in an attempt to destroy the Nazi war industry.

In the response to Nazi aggression, the Avro Lancaster would become the chief support for Britain's Bomber Command. They would fly the greatest amount of missions and deliver the largest weight of bombs than any other aircraft in the entire war.

Back in 1940, Bomber Command began the war with twin-engined aircraft that were insufficient against the enemy aircraft they were facing. Hitler's forces, aided by the Luftwaffe, swept across the low countries and into France.

The Bristol Blenheim
The Bristol Blenheim

A Bad Start

The men and aircraft of Bomber Command joined the fight to halt the German advance, but it soon became a losing battle. Their aircraft, including the Bristol Blenheim, lost entire squadrons in the air battles over France against the more mobile German fighter planes. Faced with modern warfare's demands, these aircraft lacked basic equipment and had limited range, so were effectively inadequate for the task at hand. Hard lessons are being learnt at great cost.

At Dunkirk, Brtish forces are evacuated in a humiliating retreat from France, and Britain and her commonwealth now stand alone. Only Bomber Command can now carry the fight back to the Nazi homeland. However, lacking adequate equipment capable of navigation and precision targeting, only one in three aircraft is managing to get within five miles of it's target. Nearly fifty percent of bombs are falling in harmless open countryside.

A total of 169 aircraft are on a mission to raid Berlin, less than half fall on their target and very few bombs even fall on the German capital, 120 crewmen lose their lives on the mission.

Britain itself is under a severe aerial attack. London, Coventry, Manchester, Plymouth and many other cities are now being systematically targeted by the Luftwaffe. Over 43,000 civilians are killed in a ruthless campaign of bombing by the Nazis which generates a loathing of Hitler and the German war machine.

And so there became an urgent need to developed an aircraft capable of navigating through the dangerous skies of Europe and able to strike hard at the Third Reich. The four-engined heavy bombers were produced, among these were the Stirling, Halifax and the Avro Lancaster.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris
Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris

Minimal Early Success

By late 1941, the Lancaster Bomber goes into operational service and Bomber Command has a new commander in Air Chief Marshall Arthur Harris. In the aerial battle to defeat the Nazis, the fight is about to intensify. On the 3rd March 1942, the Lancaster makes it's first operational sortie. Four Lancasters from 44 Squadron take to the skies in a night-time operation dropping anti-shipping mines off the German coast.

The very first bombing mission for the Lancaster comes exactly a week later. On the 10th March 1942, two Lancasters join a force of 124 other aircraft on a night raid on the German city of Essen. The city is home to many munitions factories and considered a prime taget, but the mission is a total failure as all the aircraft are lost and damage to the city is minimal.

Increasing squadrons of Lancasters are now joining Bomber Command with their pilots trained in many different types of aircraft, quickly appreciating the Lancasters' unique qualities. Another mission, this time deep into Germany, with 12 Lancasters at the helm in a daring daylight raid. The need for accurate navigation and bombing are critical, it is a round trip of 1250 miles to the Bavarian city of Aalgsberg.

The aircraft is flying at a fairly low level and so must navigate through heavy flak from the German anti-aircraft guns and enemy aircraft fire Their target is a factory that is producing engines for the German U-boat fleet. Despite losing four Lancasters on the raid, the planes manage to get through to successfully bomb their target, however, they lose another three Lancasters during the flight home, 49 aircrew are missing.

Production at the engine plant in Aalsberg is merely stalled and is back in operation within a few weeks. The losses suffered by the Lancaster crews for such a small success is considered unacceptable. Bomber Command now realise that if it is to have any meaningful effect in the war, then it must raid only at night.

Steady Inroads

In Germany's industrial Ruhr region, 80 percent of the countrys' coal supply is produced, along with 75 percent of it's steel. This network of war industries are located in and around Germany's major cities and therefore are heavily defended with anti-aircraft guns and radar equipped fighter patrols.

On the 30th May 1942, a force of 73 Lancasters, the largest number of the war to date, embark on a mission, along with almost 1,000 other aircraft, to bomb Cologne. Forty one aircraft are lost, thirty six factories in the city are forced to halt production and a further seventy others have their rate of production cut by half. Despit this, within one month, production is back to normal.

But, by 1942, Hitler's dream of total victory has not come to fruition, so he demands a massive rise in output from the war industries. Bomber Command aircrew are only too aware of their critical role in destroying the German war effort and the expectant high loss of life in achieving it.

The Lancaster carries a crew of seven men whose average age at the time was just 22. The crew consists of the Pilot, Flight Engineer, Navigator, Radio Operator, Rear Gunner, Mid Upper Gunner and the Bomb Aimer.

There is almost 150,000 anti-aircraft guns protecting Germany, with almost a million men serving in Germany's air defence network. Almost a million and a half more are involved with air raid precautions and damage repair. New tactics for bomber crews have had to be introduced. All formations of bombers make the same route to their tagets instead of the separate ways of before. There could be up to 700 to 800 bombers all heading for the same place together, reducing the chances of missing their targets.

The Nazis surprised by this new strategy, re-organise their defences and their night fighters are ordered to wait above the expected targets and wait for the Allied bombers to come to them. Lancasters, which fly straight and level make for easy targets. During the first three years of the war, 11,300 aircrewmen have been killed, more than 12,000 will die in the fourth year alone.

Turning The Tide

By 1943, Bomber Commands' squadron commanders have been tasked with the destruction of the German military, industrial and economic system. The Allied aircraft has now been equipped with a variety of electronic devices designed to baffle and confuse the enemy defences. One simple idea was to release thousands of metal strips from the aircraft which would act as a metallic cloud that reflacts radar and swamps the air defence screens. Initially this proved very affective, but it became less so as the more it was used the wiser the Germans became to it.

As each new development is counteracted by the Germans, the pilots and crews still face the prospect of flying through those same perilous skies as before. As the Lancasters approach their goals, evasion from the search lights and anti-aircraft guns become virtually impossible as the aircraft must fly straight and level in order to accurately find their targets.

Fitted with new guidance equipment and trained intensively in precision bombing, a pathfinder force will fly over the targets marking their exact co-ordinates and aiming points. Then the bombing force can come along behind and bomb the marker points to achieve the required success.

Dave Harris Art

  • World War 2 pictures
    Three new World War 2 pictures by Dave Harris available as limited edition giclee prints. El Alamein "Rats Against the Fox", RAF Dambusters mission in May 1943 and Band of Brothers night before D-Day.

Operation Chastise

The Dambusters Raid
The Dambusters Raid

On the 17th May 1943, 19 modified Lancasters of 617 Squadron carry out 'Operation Chastise', the famous raid on the dams of Germany's Ruhr valley. On board the planes is the revolutionary 'bouncing bombs' developed by Barnes Wallace. Huge 9,250 pound mines packed with high explosives, designed to rotate, skip along the water in front of the dams and settle against the dam's wall before exploding. The leader of the mission Guy Gibson, is in radio contact with all the planes, guiding them to their targets. It is a new guidance technique which will be used from then on by new target finding and fixing forces.

On 6th June 1944, D-Day arrives and the Allies land on the Normandy beaches. The bomber's missions are now to eliminate the main German defences facing the advancing Allies. Lancasters are the only aircraft capable of carrying the huge 21 foot long 12,000 pound 'Tallboy' bomb and the even larger 'Grandslam' bomb, which is a 22, 000 pound bomb, both of which were created by Barnes Wallace.

Submarine pens, rocket launch sites, viaducts and railway lines are destroyed by the bombs carried by the Lancasters. They bomb with very accurate precision.

The Bombing Of Dresden
The Bombing Of Dresden

Nearing The End

On the 18th February 1945, 'Operation Thunderclap' is carried out using 796 Lancasters as the main strike force targeting the German city of Dresden. As far as Bomber Command are concerned, Dresden is a major rail and communications centre. The mission caused a major controversy which still endures today.

The intensity of the bombing created a firestorm on the ground and this focused attention on the civilian casualties caused by the the Allied bombing. Many people questioned the strategic importance of Dresden as a military target, but the reasons for this partcular raid are varied and are still widely argued over today.

With 55 squadrons of Lancasters now in operation, it has become the leading aircraft of Bomber Command. They continue to repeatedly hit targets inside Germany, as the Allies advance their way through the Third Reich.A couple of weeks before the end of the war the Lancaster was used in Operation Manner, a humanitarian mission to Western Holland. There, 31 Lancaster squadrons flew over 3,000 sorties in nine days to drop food and medicine parcels to the starving Dutch people below.

On the way back home from the final drop, while flying back across the English Channel, the voice of Winston Churchill comes over the planes wireless, informing the nation of the Allied victory and the end of the war in Europe.

The Lancaster Bomber went on to assist in the homecoming of Allied prisoners of war during 'Operation Exodus', a repatriation mission. In a total of 7,377 Lancasters that were ever built, 3,500 were lost in operations. It was an aircraft forever remembered with the men of Bomber Command. Of the 125,000 aircrew who served in Bomber Command during World War 2, 73,000 were casualties, 55,573 of these were killed in duty. It turned out to be the highest cost of life in any of the British Armed Forces in the second world war.


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    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      8 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      New hub coming soon titled Bomber Boys: The story of the Lancaster heroes.

    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      8 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thankyou Vanessa, total respect to your father and all those brave bomber crews, amazing to think he only suffered a broken toe.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      i loved reading your made me quite tearful as my dear departed dad,Jack was a rear gunner in the lancasters in the war too. he did 42 missions,with only a broken toe (!) as his injuries. i wonder if anyone out there remembered him? jack oliver and he was from

    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      8 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thankyou verduijn, glad you enjoyed it!

    • verduijn profile image


      8 years ago from The Netherlands

      I like your hub, my Lancaster colleague!


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