Famed for its prowess, and entrenched in popular culture by The Dam Busters film of 1955, the Lancaster bomber played a crucial role in securing an Allied victory during the Second World War.
Arguably the most famous heavy bomber of World War II, the Avro-built Lancaster bomber undertook some of the most dangerous and complex missions yet encountered by the RAF. Primarily a night bomber but frequently used during the day too, the Lancasters under Bomber Command flew some 156,000 sorties during the Second World War, dropping 609,000 tons of bombs. Among these bombs was the famous ‘bouncing bomb’ designed by British inventor Barnes Wallis, a payload that would lead the Lancaster to remain famed long after 1945. We takes a look inside an Avro Lancaster to see made it so successful.
Lancaster bomber parts
Crew – Due to its large size, hefty armament and technical complexity, the Lancaster bomber had a crew of seven. This included: a pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator, mid-upper and rear gunners. Many crew members from Lancasters were awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroic actions in battle, a notable example being the two awarded after a daring daytime raid on Augsburg, Germany.
Bomb bay – The bomb bay could carry a great payload. Indeed, the bay was so spacious that with a little modification it could house the massive Grand Slam earthquake bomb, a 10,000kg giant that when released would reach near sonic speeds before penetrating deep into the Earth and exploding.
Turrets – As standard the Lancaster bomber was fitted with three twin 7.7mm turrets in the nose, rear and upper-middle fuselage. In some later variants of the Lancaster the twin 7.7mm machine guns were replaced with 12.7mm models, which delivered more power. The rear and upper-middle turrets were staffed permanently by dedicated gunners, while the nose turret was staffed periodically by the bomb aimer when caught up in a dogfight.
Fuselage – The Lancaster was designed out of the earlier Avro Type 683 Manchester III bomber, which sported a three-finned tail layout and was similar in construction. While the overall build remained similar the tri-fin was removed in favour of a twin-finned set up instead. This is famously one of only a small number of design alterations made to the bomber, which was deemed to be just right after its test flights.
Powerplant – The Lancaster bomber was powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 engines. These were chosen by the Lancaster’s chief designer Roy Chadwick due to their reliability, as the incumbent bomber – the Avro Manchester – had adopted the Rolls-Royce Vulture and had been troubled by engine failure consistently when in service.
The bouncing bomb
One of the most famous parts of the Lancaster’s heritage is its role in carrying and releasing the ‘bouncing bomb’ payload, as glamorized in the 1955 film The Dam Busters. The bomb was designed by Barnes Wallis -who was also the creator of the Grand Slam and Tallboy bombs – and was special in its ability to bounce along the top of a surface of water, much akin to skimming a stone. It was designed to counteract and evade German defences below and above the waterline, allowing Allied forces to target German hydroelectric dams and floating vessels.
In May 1943 the bouncing bombs were utilised in Operation Chastise, an allied mission to destroy German dams in the Ruhr Valley. The aircraft used were modified Avro Lancaster Mk IIIs, which had much of their armour and central turret removed in order to accommodate the payload. Despite eight of the Lancasters being lost during the operation, as well as the lives of 53 crew, a small number of bouncing bombs were released and they caused two dams to be breached, one to be heavily damaged and 1,296 civilians to be killed.
High calibre – While 7.7mm machine guns were standard on Lancaster bombers, selective later variants were fitted with twin 12.7mm turrets in both tail and dorsal positions.
Slam-dunk – Lancaster bombers often had their already-large bomb bays modified in order to carry the monumental 10,000 kilogram Grand Slam earthquake bombs.
Busted – A selection of bombers became famous after Operation Chastise, a mission to destroy dams in the Ruhr Valley, which inspired The Dam Busters.
Collateral – Between 1942 and 1945 Lancaster bombers flew 156,000 sorties and dropped approximately 609,000 tons of bombs on military and civilian targets.
Black label – The lager company Carling used footage of Lancaster bombers to create a parody of The Dam Busters in which a German soldier catches the bouncing bombs.