80 years ago this ‘killing machine’ took the war back to Germany. This is its story.

The Lancaster roared into the skies in 1942, breaking down Nazi defences and morale with devastating bombing raids. Here, those that flew it remember an idiosyncratic aircraft that became an icon.

Bruised and battered by more than 70 operations since 1942, Avro Lancaster R5729/KM-A, of 44 Squadron runs up its engines in Lincolnshire before setting out on a night raid on Berlin, January 1944. It was shot down with the loss of its entire crew a week after this picture was taken during a raid on the German city of Brunswick.

Photograph by Ministry of Defence
By Alec Marsh
Published 31 May 2022, 14:12 BST

WHEN THE Battle of Britain Memorial Flight sweeps along the Mall on Royal or national days of celebration, there is at least one aircraft among the contingent of Second World War-era planes that – in name at least – has no business being there.

The Avro Lancaster, after all, went into service precisely 80 years ago, in 1942 – more than a year after the Battle of Britain was fought and won in the summer of 1940, over the skies of London and the South East of England. Yet there the Lancaster is – its four Merlin engines roaring as it soars overhead, flanked by a Spitfire and Hurricane.

It’s there, of course, because this now legendary aircraft proved vitally important to the war effort that followed. The Lancaster bomber, as it's ubiquitously known, arguably contributed more than any other plane in taking the war to Germany during the long years of Nazi occupation of Europe – between the fall of France in 1940 and VE Day in May 1945.

A colour photograph from 1942, a Lancaster bomber is loaded with ammunition before a bombing raid. 

Photograph by Lordprice Collection / Alamy

The cockpit of a Lancaster bomber. Note the lack of a co-pilot's seat: instead there is a hatch to the front gunner's seat and, beneath that, the 'bomb-aimer's' cupola, where a view to the target could be best seen, even at night. There was also a gun turret in the middle of the aircraft to ward off intercepting enemy planes, and another at the rear – the so-called 'tail-end Charlie' – several metres away from the rest of the crew, in the most exposed and dangerous position on the aircraft.  

Photograph by Bob Masters / Alamy

A huge 10-metre linear bomb bay meant the aircraft could carry some of the heaviest weaponry of the time – and more bombs than any other aircraft to a payload of 6,350kg. The aircraft had a range of 1,660 miles.

Photograph by Nick Mason PICPROS / Alamy

‘In the 1940s the Lancaster was the very cutting edge of warfare,’ says Dr Dan Ellin, from the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincolnshire. ‘It was a payload delivery system built around a 33ft long bomb bay which could hold 14,000 lb of bombs as an average load. It was built to do the job... not a nice job. It was built to be a killing machine.’

The Lancaster was designed by Roy Chadwick, an aviation veteran at plane-maker Avro. He would later design the Vulcan bomber, which carried Britain’s nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. Chadwick’s daughter remarked that his career took him from ‘stick and string to swept-back wing’.

The forerunner of the Lancaster was the Avro Manchester, a very similar-looking heavy bomber which entered service in 1940. It was powered by two Rolls-Royce Vulture engines that proved unreliable. By swapping the two Vultures for four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines – tried and tested in the Spitfire – and extending the wings by six feet each, the Manchester became the prototype Lancaster.

A Lancaster during a rare daylight attack on the oil refinery and storage depot of the Deutsche Vacuum AG, Bremen, 21 March 1945. 133 Lancasters and six De Havilland Mosquitos carried out the raid. Just over a month later, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker.

Photograph by Shawshots / Alamy

Inside a Lancaster, with a radio operator in the foreground and navigator beyond. Created in 1942, during World War Two Bomber Command made up some 125,000 servicepeople. Over 55,573 were killed in action during the course of the war.

Photograph by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

Silhouetted by an explosion, a Lancaster speeds away from the bombing of a German tank depot in France, May 1944. This operation saw 42 Allied aircraft shot down by Luftwaffe night fighters. 

Photograph by Ministry of Defence

That first prototype flew for the first time on 9 January 1941. This early version was fast – with a top speed in excess of 300mph. A second prototype flew in May, and Manchester production was forthwith switched to Lancasters.

According to aviation historians Brian Goulding and Mike Garbett the first production-built Lancaster was fitted with Merlin XX engines capable of delivering 1,280 horsepower and flew in October 1941. With an order for 1,000 aircraft – and more orders to come – Stockport-headquartered A. V. Roe & Co (Avro) formed an alliance of companies to work together on the plane.

The RAF’s new bomber had a 102ft wingspan that was over-engineered for strength, thanks in the main to an aluminium central spar that ran across the wings and was attached to the roof of the bomb bay. Intended for night bombing it was lightly armoured – allowing more weight for the bombs themselves – and had a distinctive twin tail fin with rudders, giving the dorsal top turret a clear firing line to the rear. It’s power to weight ratio gave the Lancaster a higher payload capability than any of the RAF’s other four-engined bombers. Moreover, with a top speed on the level of 287mph it could reach 360mph in a dive and was praised for its manoeuvrability, durability and ability to take whatever was thrown at it.

(Concorde: 50 years of the plane that pushed the limits - then pushed them too far.)

One of the young men who found themselves at the controls of a Lancaster was Russell ‘Rusty’ Waughman, now 98, who completed 30 missions as a Lancaster pilot from November 1943 until June 1944.

‘It was delightful to fly – it really was,’ Waughman tells National Geographic (UK). He grew up in County Durham and learned to fly in Boeing-Stearman and Tigermoth biplanes in Canada before bomber training on Wellingtons. ‘It wasn’t a difficult aircraft to fly, and it took tremendous punishment.’

Certainly Waughman’s first Lancaster did: it was involved in a mid-air collision over Belgium with, as it turned out, another Lancaster. ‘It chopped the wheel off and broke the back end of the aircraft and we lost our tail. Because our engines were slightly ahead of his we managed to keep flying.’

“It was built to do the job... It was built to be a killing machine.”

Dr Dan Ellin

The young pilot then crash-landed the plane back on one wheel back at the airbase, skidding across the runway and narrowly missing the control tower – but all without serious injury to his crew. On another mission, just leaving a target, an aircraft flew right underneath his plane, turning them upside-down. So Waughman barrel-rolled the Lancaster – not that he knew it could be done.

(See photos from the Battle of Britain.)

‘This is where the training came in – to try and pull it back out of that you could easily get a high-speed stall, so I just let it roll all the way round and came out at 1,000 feet. We lost about 10,000 feet doing it but we survived.’ Years later that he learned the Lancaster had been barrel rolled during testing. ‘The all-up speed of the Lancaster was 360 knots – we were doing over 400 when we came out of it at the bottom. The aircraft was fine. When we got back, the skin was a bit scorched. I got a bollocking from the ground crew for doing it.’

‘To say you weren’t scared… you’re telling porkies. You were. You were very apprehensive all the time.’ Flt Sgt Russell ‘Rusty’ Waughman, DFC, AFC, Lancaster pilot, 101 Squadron 'Special Duties' Bomber Command, photographed by Glyn Dewis in 2020 for his 3945 portraits project – an ark of memory of World War 2 service people. 

Photograph by Glyn Dewis 3945 Portraits Project

When returning from a raid on Munich – which took some 10 hours to complete – his Lancaster lost its gyroscopic instrumentation. ‘We managed to crawl back,’ says Waughman. ‘Fortunately it was a bit of a moonlit night so we did have a bit of a horizon and just flew back on the seat of our pants keeping the horizon in the right place.’

In another raid, having dropped their payload over Szczecin, now in Poland, they lost both port-side engines. ‘As we started to come back the inner starboard engine started to wobble a bit but we managed to keep it going. I had a problem then because of my short legs to keep the rudder over to one side, to keep it straight,’ he adds.

A Lancaster from 103 squadron waits at the runway at RAF Elsham Wolds, Lincolnshire, before taking off on a night bombing raid on Duisburg during the Battle of the Ruhr, 26 March 1943. Three searchlights around the runway align to a point to indicate the level of the cloud base around the misty airfield. 

Photograph by Shawshots / Alamy

A Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) armourer belts up ammunition for a Lancaster, February 1944. At its peak strength in 1943, WAAF recruits numbered over 180,000, with over 2,000 enlisting per week.

Photograph by Ministry of Defence

Nosecone art on the Battle of Britain's Lancaster bearing tribute markings of 550 Squadron's infamous 'Phantom of the Ruhr' BQ-B aircraft, which completed 121 operations and survived the war. Nosecone art, first introduced in World War One, was designed to soften the trauma of war and spur morale. The markings below the cockpit indicate missions: yellow bombs were operational sorties, red bombs raids on big cities, white bombs daylight raids, and ice creams strikes on Italian targets.  

Photograph by Avpics / Alamy

After the war, when undergoing a medical to stay on during the peacetime RAF, it emerged that according to military regulations his legs were a quarter of an inch too short to fly.

With missions lasting upwards of five to six hours – when crew couldn’t leave their seats (‘you just had to do your best’) – the work of piloting the Lancaster was physically demanding. Then there was evasive action. ‘If you were attacked by a fighter the gunner would say, “Dive, starboard go!”,’ recalls Waughman. ‘You’re doing about 180-200 knots, you dived down, turned off 30 degrees and dived down and then you pulled back turning back onto course again.’ Waughman remembers a raid on Berlin where they were buzzed by five German fighters in a row. ‘We were flying in corkscrews for nearly half an hour… and at the end of that, knackered you were.’

“We saw some wonderful phenomena. You had ice forming on the propellers. Bits would fly off and rattle on the sides of the aircraft like shrapnel. St Elmo’s fire on the windscreen; beautiful things to see.”

Rusty Waughman

Being shot at on a daily basis became a fact of life for crews on operations – and nothing quite prepared you for it. ‘Nearly everybody had shrapnel holes, and bits and pieces came through the aircraft. I had a bit of shrapnel came through the aircraft just behind my head. I must have been leaning forward because it broke the canopy and rattled on the floor. This sort of thing went on all the time.’ Just days before Waughman joined 101 Squadron a friend of his there had been killed. Later his former instructor was killed on his first mission. Survival, says Waughman, was ‘99 per cent pure luck’. ‘To say you weren’t scared… you’re telling porkies, you were – you were very apprehensive all the time,’ he says.

One aspect of the Lancaster that stays with him is the distinctive smell inside. ‘It was quite characteristic,’ he says, ‘with the engines and airflow coming through; with not being able to use a toilet you had body odour. If you were flying through what they called a box barrage you got holes in the aircraft and you could smell the cordite from the shells bursting outside.’

A 1943 sketch depicts the most famous deployment of Lancaster bombers, 'Operation Chastise' – a May 1943 raid on the Mohne and Edersee dams in Germany's industrial Ruhr valleys. Using special strategic bombs, the subsequent flooding knocked out mines and factories, damaging the German war machine and causing significant casualties. RAF Bomber Command 617 Squadron was thereafter given the nickname 'Dambusters.' 

Photograph by The National Archives

Here, a Lancaster is seen deploying Barnes Wallis's infamous 'bouncing bomb' in a training run off the Kent coast. Manufactured by Vickers-Armstrong, the bomb was designed to rebound off the surface of water allowing its detonation to be calculated and  typical water defences avoided during strategic bombing runs. 

Photograph by Shawshots / Alamy

King George VI meets the ‘Dambusters’ crew of 617 Squadron at their base, RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, 1943. 

Photograph by CNP Collection / Alamy

And as well as the enemy to contend with and the perils of accidents by flying in the dark, at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet there was also the weather and elements. ‘If you were struck by lightning, the lightning goes round the outside of the aircraft. It just leaves a hot metal smell inside,’ he recalls. Then there was the cold. ‘When we lost bits of the aircraft… we lost the windscreen one time – it was bloody cold. The coldest temperature we flew in was minus 47,’ laughs Waughman. ‘We saw some wonderful phenomena. Flying in the right cold weather… you had ice forming on the propellers – bits would fly off and rattle on the sides of the aircraft like shrapnel. You had St Elmo’s fire on the windscreen; beautiful things to see.

Throughout all this, he says, the crews maintained a faith in the aircraft. ‘It was a very pleasant aircraft to fly. You didn’t think that aircraft wasn’t going to do it. You had perfect reliability and trust in the aircraft.’

(Why Germany surrendered twice in World War Two.)

Like all the four-engined bombers of its day, which had rear a jockey wheel at the tail, there was one aspect to flying the Lancaster that could be problematic: landing. Moreover, Lancasters struggled with crosswinds on landing. ‘You just learned to do it. You came in crabbing sideways, and when you touched down you just turned straight onto the runway direction. It’s only in retrospect that you think what you did – what you had to do.’

‘Incredible sound’

An RAF pilot with rather more recent experience of flying the Lancaster – he’ll be in the Lancaster flying over Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, in fact – is Flight Lieutenant Neil Farrant, whose day job is driving the RAF’s submarine-hunting Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft. However since 2014 he’s been part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which has one of last two flying ‘Lancs’ in the world – the other being in Ontario at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. Having been in the driving seat of this priceless aircraft on some 200 hours, what’s it like?

‘Incredible sound,’ says Farrant. ‘Lots of power – although she is derated [reduced in power] from back in the day. It’s lovely to fly – it’s beautifully balanced when it’s in the air, really light, really gentle once it’s airborne. However it’s an animal when you try to land it.’

That’s because like other aircraft of the era, the Lancaster doesn’t like crosswinds. ‘They’ve got very low crosswind limits,’ says Farrant. ‘And also at low speeds when you’re trying to land it you’re putting in big inputs in roll in particular to try and keep it straight.’ Even without the crosswinds it can be tricky, he notes: ‘With those big wheels it’s very easy to bounce it.’

As a ‘tail-dragger’ it’s also very awkward to taxi. ‘It’s like a shopping trolley,’ he adds, ‘you’re forever putting in little squeezes of brake on the left and the right just to keep her straight.’

Now in his ninth season, Farrant says the privilege of flying this priceless piece of aviation history is balanced with the knowledge of the sacrifice of those who flew it and Britain’s other bombers during the war.

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, based in Lincolnshire, features a Lancaster – PA474, pictured here with a Hurricane – despite the bomber not being involved in the battle. Brought into service in 1942, it instead intensified the Allied bombardment of German soil, with bombing raids over major cities and infrastructure critical to the Nazi war effort. The ever-changing nose art, rotated in tribute to the various squadrons of Bomber Command –here displays a kangaroo playing bagpipes and wearing Wellingtons – and was commissioned to reflect the Australian, Welsh and Scottish nationality of the crew of 460 Royal Australian Air Force Squadron Lancaster W5005. 

Photograph by Ministry of Defence

A Lancaster bomber drops poppies over the Mall during the VJ Day 50th Anniversary celebrations in 1995. This year, a Lancaster will once again be part of the official flypast celebrations for Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee. 

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

‘The 50,000 souls of Bomber Command are on your shoulder every time you go flying. It is very emotive,’ he says. ‘And it’s also not lost on any of us that this is the last one flying that we’ll see in this country – the last one the RAF has.’

During the war more than 7,000 Lancasters were built, the lion’s share by Avro at its factory at Chadderton in Oldham, but 430 were constructed under licence in Canada. Others were powered by Merlin engines made under licence in the US by the Packard Motor Company. They became known as the Mark IIIs.

Of the 7,000 more than 3,000 were lost in action during the war – along with the lives of their 22,450 aircrew. Dr Ellin of the International Bomber Command Centre notes that in one Lancaster raid on Nuremburg alone, ‘more bomber aircrew lost their lives in one night than pilots were killed in the entire Battle of Britain – over 500.’

The Lancasters of the famous 617 Squadron took part in the daring Dambusters raid of May 1943 attacking three dams in the Ruhr Valley – flying over the targets at 60ft at 230mph in the pitch black: eight of 19 planes were lost and 53 crew died.

Specially adapted Lancaster bombers fitted with a 12,000 lb ‘tallboy’ bombs hit the German battleship Tirpitz and caused it to capsize in November 1944 – and then in April 1945, Lancasters also destroyed Hitler’s Bavarian ‘Eagle’s nest’ holiday retreat at Berchtesgaden.

There were other notable actions, of course. The nightly rumble of the Merlin engines over the Channel and northern Europe was near-constant. From early 1942 until the war’s end the Lancaster flew more than 150,000 sorties and dropped more than 600,000 tonnes of bombs. All in all it was an astonishing effort of humans, machine and industry.

The aviation historian and Lancaster bomber expert Steve Darlow is clear that the Lancaster played a crucial role in taking the air war to Germany and ultimately made a significant contribution to the defeat of Nazism. ‘To those in the United Kingdom the Lancaster was, and still is, a symbol of fighting back,’ says Darlow.

An RAF photographer takes a picture of PA474, the 'City of Lincoln Lancaster' of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight base in Coningsby, Lincolnshire. Though thousands were produced, thousands were shot down – and today, only two Lancaster bombers remain flying. This one, commissioned right at the end of the war, never saw active service. 

Photograph by Andy Benson, Ministry of Defence

‘To those in the Nazi occupied territories, that could see the Lancasters taking the war direct to the enemy, it was a symbol that the war was not lost, that there was hope of liberation and freedom. Today,’ he adds, ‘it has become a window into the story of Bomber Command and an opportunity for former colleagues, family, relatives and friends, to focus their memories and commemorations. It truly is an iconic aircraft.’

For veteran pilots like Rusty Waughman, one of the last of the ‘other’ Few, after all these decades, he still praises the Lancaster and the courage of the aircrews. ‘It was a magnificent aeroplane,’ he says. ‘At the time we were just doing our job. It wasn’t until many years after that you started to think about it that you realised what had happened.’

Alec Marsh is a freelance journalist and the author of the Drabble and Harris books. Follow him on Twitter.

Read More

You might also like

History and Civilisation
Lest We Forget: The Way Britain Chose to Remember its War Dead, and Why
History and Civilisation
How the Poppy Flowered Into a Symbol of Remembrance
History and Civilisation
5 things to learn from epic new documentary Vikings: The Rise and Fall
History and Civilisation
These are some of the world’s most spectacular Viking artefacts
History and Civilisation
“War shatters everything. Every aspect of life.” A poignant reflection on hope and beauty found – and lost – in Ukraine

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us

Subscribe

  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved