The plane that broke the Reich

Seventy years after the start of the Second World War, we remember one of the RAF’s most potent weapons, the Lancaster Bomber. Interview by Rob Attar

The Avro Lancaster four-engined bomber aircraft first saw service in 1942. It became one of the stand-out planes of the Second World War, an integral part of Britain's bombing offensive against Germany. Close to 7,500 Lancasters were built and between them they managed over 150,000 sorties. Leo McKinstry has just written a book about the Lancaster and he spoke to us about this iconic aircraft.

Q: Leo, what inspired you to write about the Lancaster bomber?

A: I’ve always been interested in aviation and the history of the RAF. Previously, I did a book on the Spitfire and when I was doing research on that occasional bits of information popped up about the Lancaster.

It was also the obvious next plane to do given that in a way the Spitfire was the plane that saved Britain and the Lancaster was the one that played a key role in defeating the Nazi war machine.

Q: How did the Lancaster contribute to Britain’s victory in the Second World War?

A: There is no doubt that the Lancaster severely reduced the ability of the German war machine to function. Britain’s Strategic Bombing Offensive, which was mounted with increasing intensity from 1942, meant that the Reich had to put huge resources into defending the homeland. These were resources that could have been used on say the Western Front against D-Day, or even more strongly on the Eastern Front against Russia.

The Germans had to concentrate so much on the homeland that it forced them to have weaker armies, artillery and Luftwaffe forces on the two fronts. They had to focus on defence when the whole Reich war machine was meant to be based on attack.

Bomber raids also did tremendous damage to the German economy. This was particularly true in the last year and a half of the war when there was endless smashing of German war industry.

Q: What attributes did the Lancaster have that made it such an effective weapon?

A: It was a phenomenal plane. Firstly it had an amazing carrying capacity. It could carry up to 10 tonnes, which was far more than any other Allied bomber in the European theatre. The Grand Slam bomb used at the end of the conflict and carried by the Lancaster weighed 22,000lb. It was the heaviest conventional weapon of the war.

There’s a lovely quote from an American who was intrigued to see this famous plane land on a US air base. The bomb door opened and when he looked up he said, “Goddamn it. It’s a flying bomb-bay!” That’s basically what it was.

The second attribute that made the Lancaster great was its fantastic manoeuvrability for something that could carry so many bombs. It could turn so easily, do barrel rolls and was very fast. Pilots often talked about it being almost like a Spitfire.

Finally there was its resilience. Partly because of its four Rolls-Royce engines and partly because it was so well designed it could take tremendous punishment. There are so many stories of a Lancaster coming back in with just one engine and still being able to land. Pilots and crews loved it for that.

Q: Was this the most effective British bomber of the Second World War?

A: Yes, by a long way. There were two other four-engine British bombers in the war, the Halifax and the Stirling. The Halifax couldn’t carry anything like the loads of the Lancaster and was not nearly as manoeuvrable. The Stirling was a hopeless failure, partly because its wingspan was too short which meant it couldn’t achieve the height of the Lancaster and was far more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. By the middle of the war it had to be withdrawn from frontline duties.

‘Bomber’ Harris who led RAF Bomber Command was tremendously in favour of the Lancaster. One of the things I bring out very strongly in my book is that Harris argued passionately for many years that Halifax production should be ended and everything should be switched to the Lancaster.

The Government kept refusing. Its argument was that although the Lancaster was much better, it would take two years to switch production over to the Lancaster and over that time there would be a severe lack of heavy bombers. This argument raged for three years in the Air Ministry and ‘Bomber’ Harris lost. They continued producing the Halifax much to his anger.

Q: Did the Lancaster have any major defects?

A: There were a number of failings. One of the main problems was that the escape hatches on the Lancaster were too narrow. By comparison, the Halifax was roomier, had more space for its crews and was much easier to escape from because the escape doors were wider.

If a plane was shot down you would rather be in a Halifax than a Lancaster, as survival rates for Lancaster crews were lower than Halifax crews. That is only after a plane had been shot down however. Because the Lancaster was faster it was less vulnerable to fighters and anti-aircraft guns.

A second defect that all British bombers had was that it was incredibly cold. There was a bit of heat taken from a duct from one of the engines but the distribution of heat was terribly inconsistent. The wireless operator who sat just below this duct got a permanent blast of hot air and had to sit in shirtsleeves, even when flying at 25,000 feet on a December night.

Everyone else was freezing. The rear gunner had to sit in a huge, almost science fiction, protection suit to try to get warm.

The third crucial failing was that the armament was so feeble. ‘Bomber’ Harris was always arguing that the Lancaster needed to have much more powerful cannons that could shoot down German fighters. But through lethargy and the length of time needed to get cannon turrets onto the plane, the Lancaster never had proper or effective weaponry during the war.

Having said that. there were occasions when Lancaster crews did still manage to shoot down German fighters. One thing that struck me during my research was how well trained Lancaster crews were. They had really long, intensive training and were very well prepared for battle.

Q: Why do you think the Lancaster is so fondly remembered in Britain nowadays?

A: I suppose it’s a bit like the Spitfire in that it’s a symbol of Britain’s defiance and ultimately its victory. I also think that, again like the Spitfire, it was a very beautiful plane. A lot of Lancaster pilots talk about its wonderful aesthetics. It looked so right and moved so well in the air.

Then there were the great incidents and famous raids that the Lancaster took part in, most notably the Dam Busters raid of May 1943. Plus there was the heroism of Lancaster crews. They won more Victoria Crosses than any other group in the RAF. The sheer bravery of these men putting their lives on the line night after night for the Allied cause captured the public’s imagination.

There was a famous poem written by Noel Coward entitled Lie in the Dark and Listen. It was about people in Britain lying in the dark and hearing the Lancasters flying overhead to maintain the war over Germany. Really until D-Day the Lancaster was the only weapon the Allies had that was systematically pounding the German heartland. It built up an affection in which it is still held.

Lancaster: The Second World War’s Greatest Bomber is out now, published by John Murray. You can buy it from the BBC History Bookstore for £14 (RRP £20).

PLUS: We'd love to know your thoughts and memories about the Lancaster. Join the discussion on our forum.

 

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