Bill Hillman's Monthly Military TributeNo one would dispute the statement that the Avro 683 Lancaster was the finest British heavy bomber of World War II. A few would even argue that it was the finest heavy bomber serving on any side during the conflict, and it is therefore strange to recall that it had its genesis in the unsuccessful twin-engined Avro 679 Manchester.
AS YOU WERE . . .
WAR YEARS ECLECTICA :: OCTOBER 2021
However, it is not entirely true to say that the Lancaster was virtually a four-engined Manchester; a four-engined installation in the basic airframe had been proposed before Manchester deliveries to the RAF began. But the prototype Lancaster was, in fact, a converted Manchester airframe with an enlarged wing centre section and four 1,145 hp (854 kW) Rolls-Royce Merlin Xs. This prototype initially retained the Manchester’s triple tail assembly but was later modified to the twin fin and rudder assembly which became standard on production Lancasters.
The BT308 prototype flew on 9 January 1941 and later that month went to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment, Boscombe Down, to begin intensive flying trials. The second prototype DG595, with some modifications and Merlin XX engines rated at 1,280 hp (955 kW) for take-off , flew on 13 May 1941. In September of the same year the first prototype and several Manchester pilots were transferred to No.44 (Rhodesia) Squadron at Waddington for crew training and evaluation. The first three production aircraft were not delivered to the unit until Christmas Eve with another four aircraft arriving on December 28. No. 97 Squadron was the next unit to get the Lancaster in January 1942 followed by No. 207 Squadron in March 1942. The new bomber was an immediate success, and large production orders were placed. Such was the speed of development in wartime that the first production Lancaster was flown in October 1941, a number of partially completed Manchester airframes being converted on the line to emerge as Lancaster Is (from 1942 redesignated Lancaster B.Mk Is).
Avro’s first contract was for 1,070 Lancasters, but others soon followed, and when it became obvious that the parent company’s Chadderton and Yeadon production facilities would be unable to cope with the demand, other companies took on the task of building complete aircraft. They included Armstrong Whitworth at Coventry, Austin Motors at Birmingham, Metropolitan Vickers at Manchester and Vickers Armstrong at Chester and Castle Bromwich. Additionally, a large number of sub-contractors were involved in various parts of the country.
Lancasters soon began to replace Manchesters, and such was the impetus of production that a shortage of Merlin engines was threatened. This was countered by licence-production by Packard in the USA of the Merlin engine not only for Lancasters but also for other types.
An additional insurance was effected in another way, by the use of Bristol Hercules VI or XVI 14-cylinder sleeve-valve radial engines driving Rotal airscrews which in contrast to the Merlin airscrews, rotated counter-clockwise. Both engines were rated at 1,615 hp (1205 kW) for take-off. In this form, known as the Lancaster B.Mk II, prototype BT310 was flown on 26 November 1941 and results were sufficiently encouraging to warrant this version going into production by Armstrong Whitworth at Coventry. Delays were caused by the Ministry of Aircraft Production’s insistence on maintaining construction of Whitley bombers, but in May 1942 the changeover to Lancaster B.II production began, only to be halted for four months as a result of air-raid damage.
The first two Hercules-powered Lancasters were completed in September 1942 and went to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment, where they were later joined by the third. Other Mk lIs from this first production batch were delivered to No. 61 Squadron at Syerston, Nottingham, the service trials unit for this version and a former Lancaster B.Mk I squadron. Early use of the Lancaster B.Mk II by No. 61 Squadron was plagued with minor problems, but during its six months of operations the squadron did not lose a single B.Mk II aircraft and in February 1943 was able to hand over the full complement of nine aircraft to No. 115 Squadron at East Wretham, a Wellington unit in No.3 Group.
Gradually Lancaster B.Mk IIs began to re-equip other squadrons, but the B.Mk II was never to achieve the success of the Merlin-engined Lancasters. It could not attain so high an altitude, was slightly slower, and had a bomb load 4,000 lbs (1814 kg) less than the other marks. Production ceased after 301 had been built, and the Armstrong Whitworth factory changed over to Lancaster B.Mk ls. It has been said that the phasing out of the Lancaster B.Mk II was in order to effect standardization, for the Handley Page Halifax B.III with Hercules engines was able to offer equal if not better possibilities, and with Lancaster B.Mk Is, Short Stirling’s and Halifax’s all in service, variations in spares requirements needed to be cut as much as possible.
The final Lancaster B.Mk II operation was flown by No. 514 Squadron on 23 September 1944, but a few continued in service for a short while into the postwar era, mainly as test-beds, until the last survivor was scrapped in 1950. Although overshadowed by its Merlin-engined contemporaries, the Lancaster B.Mk II did not disgrace itself and achieved on average more than 150 flying hours per aircraft.
Meanwhile, the Merlin Lancasters were going from strength to strength. The prototype’s engines gave way to 1,280 hp (954 kW) Merlin XXs and XXlIs, or 1,620 hp (1209 kW) for take-off Merlin XXIVs in production aircraft. Early thoughts of fitting a ventral turret were soon discarded, and the Lancaster B.Mk I had three Frazer-Nash hydraulically operated turrets with eight 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine-guns: two each in the nose and mid-upper dorsal positions and four in the tail turret. The bomb-bay, designed originally to carry 4,000 lbs (1814 kg) of bombs, was enlarged progressively to carry bigger and bigger bombs: up to 8,000 and 12,000 lbs (3629 and 5443 kg) and eventually to the enormous 22,000 lbs (9979 kg) ‘Grand Slam’, the heaviest bomb carried by any aircraft in World War II.
Production of the Lancaster was a comparatively simple affair considering its size. It had been designed for ease of construction and this undoubtedly contributed to the high rate of production. Lancasters were built to the total of 7,377 all marks. As mentioned earlier, No. 44 Squadron was the first to receive a Lancaster when the prototype arrived for trials and this squadron was also the first to be fully equipped with Lancasters, notching up another ‘first’ when it used the type operationally on 3 March 1942 to lay mines in “Operation Gardening” against Heligoland Bight on the German coast.
The Lancaster’s existence was not revealed to the public until 17 April of that year, when 12 aircraft from Nos. 44 and 97 Squadrons carried out an unescorted daylight raid on Augsburg, near Munich. Flown at low level, the raid inflicted considerable damage on the MAN factory producing U-boat diesel engines, but the cost was high, seven aircraft being lost. Squadron Leaders Nettleton and Sherwood each received the Victoria Cross, the latter posthumously, for leading the operation which perhaps confirmed to the Air Staff that unescorted daylight raids by heavy bombers were not a practicable proposition and it was to be more than two years before the US Army Air Force was to resume such attacks.
As Packard-built Merlins became available, so the Lancaster B.Mk III appeared with these engines, although the B.Mk I remained in production alongside the Packard-engined B.Mk III. Externally the B.Mk III was distinguishable by an enlarged bomb aimer’s ‘bubble’ in the nose but there were few other differences other than in minor equipment changes.
To swell the UK production lines, Victory Aircraft in Canada was chosen in 1942 to build Lancasters, and these were known as B.Mk Xs. Powered by Packard-built Merlins, the Canadian Lancasters were delivered by air across the Atlantic and had their armament fitted on arrival in the UK. The first B.Mk X was handed over on 6 August 1943, and 430 were built before production was completed.
Mention must be made of the Lancaster B.Mk VI, production of which was proposed using Merlin 85 or 87 engines, of 1,635 hp (1219 kW). Nine airframes were converted by Rolls Royce for comparative tests. No. 635 Squadron used several operationally on pathfinder work with nose and dorsal turrets removed. and fitted with improved H2S radar bombing aid and early electronic countermeasure equipment, but although performance was superior to the earlier marks no production aircraft were built.
It would be true to say that development of the Lancaster went hand-in-hand with development of bombs. The early Lancasters carried their bomb loads in normal flush-fitting bomb bays, but as bombs got larger it became necessary, in order to be able to close the bomb doors, to make the bays deeper so that they protruded slightly below the fuselage line. Eventually, with other developments, the bomb doors were omitted altogether for certain specialist types of bomb.
In this connection the most drastic changes suffered by the Lancaster were made to enable Dr Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bombs’ to be carried to the Ruhr by No. 617 Squadron in its attacks on the Mohne, Ederand Sorpe dams, probably the best known raid made by either side in the European theatre during World War II. For this operation, the Lancaster B.Mk IIIs had their bomb doors and front turrets removed and spotlights fitted beneath the wings arranged in such a way that the beams merged at exactly 60 feet (18.3 m) below the aircraft, the altitude from which the bombs had to be dropped if they were to be effective. Nineteen Lancasters took part in the attack on the night of 17 May 1943, the attackers breaching the Mohne and Eder dams for the loss of eight aircraft.
The German battleship Tirpitz was attacked on several occasions by Lancasters until, on 12 November 1944, a combined force from Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons found the battleship in Tromso Fjord, Norway, and sank her with the 12,000 lbs (5443 kg) ‘Tallboy’ bombs, also designed by Barnes Wallis. The ultimate in conventional high explosive bombs was reached with the 22,000 lbs (9979 kg) ‘Grand Slam’, a weapon designed to penetrate concrete and explode some distance beneath the surface, so creating an earthquake effect. No. 617 Squadron first used the ‘Grand Slam’ operationally against the Bielefeld Viaduct on 14 March 1945, causing considerable destruction amongst its spans.
Final production version of the Lancaster was the B.Mk VII, which had an American Martin dorsal turret with two 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine-guns in place of the normal Frazer-Nash turret. The new turret was also located further forward.
In spite of the other variants built from time to time, the Lancaster B.Mk I (B.Mk 1 from 1945) remained in production throughout the war, and the last was delivered by Armstrong Whitworth on 2 February 1946. Production had encompassed two Mk I prototypes, 3,425 Mk Is, 301 Mk lIs, 3,039 Mk Ills, 180 Mk VIIs and 430 Mk Xs, a total of 7,377 aircraft. These were built by Avro (3,673), Armstrong Whitworth (1,329), Austin Motors (330), Metropolitan Vickers (1,080), Vickers Armstrong (535) and Victory Aircraft (430). Some conversions between different mark numbers took place.
Statistics show that at least 59 Bomber Command squadrons operated Lancasters, which flew more than 156,000 sorties and dropped, in addition to 608,612 tons (618380 tonnes) of high explosive bombs, more than 51 million incendiaries. As the war in Europe was drawing to its close, plans were being made to modify Lancasters for operation in the Far East as part of Bomber Command’s contribution to ‘Tiger Force’, but Japan surrendered before this could take place. A number of Lancasters were used to bring home prisoners of war from Europe, and various aircraft were modified for test flying in the UK and other European countries. Some were supplied to the French navy and others were converted for temporary use as civil transports, with faired in nose and tail areas, under the name Lancastrian. The Avro York transport used Lancaster wings and engines, plus a central fin in addition to the twin endplate fins.
A few Lancasters still survive, notably one airworthy example with the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and another used by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Canada.
BIRTH OF A WARHORSE
Thomas Murray was born in Dorset at the end of May 1918, four months after the RAF was created from the army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Thomas’s father, a former Royal Marines officer, had been involved at its inception, setting up the RAF’s secretarial branch, and rising to the rank of Group Captain. Charles Murray, however, wanted his son to go into his old service – the navy – and although young Thomas grew up in an RAF family, he hadn’t initially felt any great interest in flying himself. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t make model aircraft or read books about the heroics of the early aviators. But in 1929, when his father was stationed at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire, all that changed.
‘I remember the moment I knew I was going to be a pilot. I was lying in a field near my school, right next to the airfield. The sun was out and I was watching a Hawker biplane. He performed a spin right over my head! I was totally captivated – as he spiralled down, he was pointing straight at me. I knew, at that moment, I would go into the Air Force. My first flight was at the age of eleven at RAF Halton. The pilot told me what a wonderful privilege it was to be up in the air, at one with the birds. To show this, he found a heron flying along a stream, which he formatted on!’
Thomas underwent a full medical examination at his father’s RAF station and had several hours’ experience under his belt by the time he went up to the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire. On 5 February 1937 he first went solo – ‘Fifteen glorious minutes of freedom! – Aerobatics and spinning, with some low flying thrown in for good measure!’ He also learned that ‘just flying the aircraft, performing aerobatics well, and formation flying, were not the only skills to be mastered for the new era of RAF pilot. The importance of being able to fly on instruments [flying ‘blind’ in cloud or at night] was becoming a higher priority.’
Thomas joined the RAF at a time when it was expanding and changing. Bomber Command was formed in July 1936, and during the second half of the decade a number of twin-engined bombers were belatedly developed – Blenheims, Hampdens, Whitleys and Wellingtons. But there was a need for heavier, longer-range aircraft that were also capable of carrying a bigger bombload.
The first of these four-engined bombers to enter service was the Short Stirling – notoriously difficult to handle on take-off and landing – in 1940. The Handley Page Halifax followed in November that year. It wasn’t the answer either. Crews quickly nicknamed it the ‘Halibag’. It could carry a 14,500lb payload, but not high enough to avoid enemy interceptors. More powerful engines were installed, but the capacity of its bomb bay couldn’t be increased. The Stirling was withdrawn from Bomber Command service about halfway through the war. The Halifax flew on operations until the end. But something better was needed.
The Avro Lancaster was something better. It came into existence almost by accident, and as a result of private determination rather than official encouragement, born of its forerunner, the ‘Manchester’.
A. V. Roe & Company was founded in 1910 in Manchester by Alliott Verdon Roe and his brother Humphrey. In 1911, Alliott hired the volatile but gifted eighteen-year-old Roy Chadwick as his personal assistant. By 1918, Chadwick, a talented draughtsman, had become a designer in his own right. Avro ran into financial difficulties owing to a lack of post-First World War orders, and by 1935, both founding brothers having left the company, it had become a subsidiary of Hawker Siddeley. Chadwick stayed on as designer-in-chief, and paired up with a new managing director, the energetic and equally fiery Roy Dobson, who’d joined in 1914 at the age of twenty-three. By mid-1940, they were working on a new, improved version of their twin-engined bomber, which they’d named after the city of their birth.
At the time of the Manchester’s introduction in November 1940, Thomas Murray was an experienced and seasoned pilot on Hampdens. Thomas flew his first sortie as a second pilot/navigator on 21 December 1939 against the pocket battleship Deutschland, holed up in a Norwegian fjord. ‘We never found it as we had no radio transmitters then, and had to send each other coded letters via a signal lamp, which made things even more complicated. I remember seeing something which looked like a pocket battleship, so we all roared towards it with open bomb doors. It turned out to be a lighthouse on a low-lying island! We must have scared the lighthouse-keeper somewhat.’
Mine-laying and ‘nickelling’ sorties (dropping propaganda leaflets over German cities) followed. At this early stage of the war, ops were usually limited to small numbers of aircraft. The crews were trailblazing for Bomber Command – six-hour night flights, with no autopilot, navigating by compass and stopwatch – and the lessons learned would be invaluable later.
When the first Manchesters were delivered to Thomas’s squadron at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, they were seen as a big improvement on the twin-engined aircraft already in service with Bomber Command. With a crew of seven, it was ultimately powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Vulture IIs, comprising four cylinder blocks from the earlier Peregrine engine, joined by a common crankshaft and mounted on a single crankcase. They delivered around 1,500 horsepower, about 250 less than anticipated, and once in operational service, from early 1941, it quickly became apparent that they weren’t capable of climbing above German anti-aircraft fire. Worse still, the engines were prone to sudden failure, and if one Vulture failed, the remaining engine couldn’t bridge the gap. Improvements were attempted, but with little effect.
Thomas Murray took a Manchester up for the first time on 1 May 1941, and then flew them for a week or so to ‘really get to grips with its handling’, prior to his unit’s conversion from Hampdens. ‘My first impression was that it was a very big aircraft compared with the Hampden. Although it was pleasant to fly, light on the controls, it was colossally underpowered. Our training was on the squadron and not all that methodical – we learned as we went along. These were desperate times, so the aircraft was rushed into service long before it was operationally fit, and while it still had many teething problems. It was light on the ailerons, but unfortunately not at all reliable.’
The authorities had indeed been frantic to get a new, improved bomber into the skies, and turned a blind eye to the Manchester’s failings. Always a man of measured judgement, Thomas Murray became increasingly sceptical. ‘When you were taxiing out with a full bombload, the centre of gravity was slightly wrong, so that the tailwheel would shimmy and be damaged. It meant changing that wheel before you took off. That delay killed a friend of mine. He was at the end of the runway waiting to have his tailwheel changed. As he took off and climbed away, a [marauding German] fighter took him out.’
He had further concerns: ‘The engines themselves were totally unreliable. There were spots where the coolant couldn’t reach so the engines would overheat and start engine fires after a few hours’ running. The hydraulics system, on which the operation of the flaps, undercarriage, bomb doors and turrets depended, was subject to leaking and consequently failure.’
Thomas felt that flying a Manchester demanded the advanced skills of a test pilot, rather than those of a ‘regular’ bomber pilot. Unnervingly, the aircraft were grounded again and again during May 1941 due to recurring engine problems, and when they did fly, ‘I remember my first full bombload take-off. I got the thing airborne and that’s all I could do. It flew along the runway but it looked as if I’d hit the hedge at the end. So I banged the aircraft back down on the ground and fortunately it bounced back into the air, staggering over the hedge. RAF Waddington is on a ridge, and as I went over the edge I managed to get the aircraft’s nose down and increase the speed sufficiently to climb away. We had to fly straight ahead, carrying on for about 5 miles before we dared turn. If you had an engine go on take-off you were a goner.’
A desperate plan was concocted to fly a Manchester continuously around the country until an engine failed, in the hope that the aircraft would nevertheless be able to land safely, the faulty component be identified and sent to Rolls-Royce for examination. On one such flight, Thomas Murray’s own squadron commander headed for Land’s End before turning north towards the Isle of Man. Hardly had he done so than the starboard engine caught fire. He immediately lost height, and ordered the crew to jettison the guns and the dummy bombload to lose weight. He changed course again – for a fighter base near Perranporth in Cornwall, where the strip was too short to land the giant bomber so they had to retract the undercarriage. Skidding along the runway they smashed through two hedges and across a road before a parked lorry finally brought them to a standstill. ‘So Rolls-Royce got their engine and I had to fly down and pick up the crew the following day.’
Thomas Murray flew his last raid in a Manchester over the Krupp’s plant in Essen, in the Ruhr industrial area – ‘Happy Valley’ as the bomber crews called it – with a new navigation system on several of the aircraft. Known as GEE (Ground Electronic Equipment), it received two synchronised pulses transmitted from Britain and determined its position – accurate to within a few hundred yards and effective at up to 350 miles – from the time delay between them. But there were teething troubles. During Thomas’s Krupp’s raid, the GEE-equipped aircraft marking the target with flares were followed by bombers with incendiaries, which obscured the view of the target, causing the next wave to drop their high explosives to little effect.
‘It was one of the worst trips I had to the Ruhr,’ Thomas recalled.
This failure added to the increasing despondency of Manchester pilots. Pip Beck, a nineteen-year-old WAAF radio operator at Waddington, summed up the situation: ‘Anyone who could survive a tour on a Manchester could fly, and was also lucky!’
Further development of Vulture engines was cancelled at the end of 1941 – ‘much to the relief of Rolls-Royce’, as Thomas said – and the Manchesters were withdrawn in mid-1942, after nearly two years’ service, during which they managed 1,269 sorties and dropped 1,826 tons of bombs. Only 209 were built, a disastrous 40 per cent were lost on operations, and a further 25 per cent crashed.
The Ministry of Aircraft Production requested that the Avro plant now be turned over to production of the Halifax, but Avro’s Chadwick and Dobson believed that within their failed twin-engined bomber lay the seeds of a much better, four-engined aircraft. And many of the machine tools used in the production of the Manchester could continue to be used in its production, thus avoiding huge extra costs. So it was that Roy Chadwick persisted in the teeth of initial indifference and even obstruction in official circles, and he and Roy Dobson finally won through. Their partnership – overseeing design and production respectively – was, fortunately for Britain, a brilliant one.
After a series of successful test flights at Ringway (now the site of Manchester International Airport) by test pilot Harry Albert ‘Sam’ Brown, the first four-engined Manchester III BT308 was delivered in late January 1941 to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire for evaluation. As well as a distinctive twin-finned tailplane, it boasted an extra fin at the rear of the fuselage. A second prototype, fitted with four improved Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engines, took to the skies in mid-May, minus the middle fin. This prototype, DG595, was to be the model for future production, which continued with little variation, except for adaptation for specific tasks and to carry specific bomb-loads, throughout the war.
BIRTH OF A WARHORSE II
The new engine, deriving from a Merlin type that had been in development for eight years and was powering the increasingly successful Spitfire fighter, arrived with perfect timing. The twelve-cylinder, 60-degree, upright V-shape engine delivered 1,280 horsepower and was to become its standard plant, propelling the aircraft and providing the hydraulic power for the gun turrets and other onboard functions.3 The Merlins drove four three-bladed propellers with a diameter of 13ft, and could get the crew home even if only two were functioning. One engine was enough to keep the bomber airborne, often for long enough to make the difference between capture and safety, death or survival.
There was to be no co-pilot, unlike in the Manchester; a flight engineer would take overall responsibility for the aircraft’s mechanical smooth-running, and act as support pilot should the need arise. The Manchester, for all its faults, had paved the way for a revolutionary new aircraft, the most advanced bomber the world had yet seen.
After the Boscombe Down tests, the design was approved and officially adopted, and its new name formally accepted. On 28 February 1941, a new British legend, the mighty Lancaster bomber, was born. Its fuselage was just over 69ft long, and its wingspan 102ft. It stood a little over 20 feet high, and was powerful enough to take off at an overall maximum weight, depending on variant, of 68,000lb. In the air, it could achieve speeds of up to 282mph and could climb to a height of 21,400ft, at a rate of 720ft per minute, carrying a normal bombload of 14,000lb. Protected by two 0.303-inch Browning Mark II machine guns in the nose and mid-upper turret, and four in the rear turret, the aircraft was designed to carry the largest possible number of bombs the greatest possible distance. It was an airborne bomb carrier, built to the highest specifications, and its business was destruction.
With sleek yet businesslike lines, massive and reassuring to its friends, menacing and deadly to its foes, it was like nothing that had come before. Its fuel capacity of over 2,000 gallons and range of 2,530 miles meant it could take the battle to the very heart of Nazi Germany, and, alongside the young men training to fly her, the Lancaster would have a profound effect on the course of the war.
Thomas Murray had his first crack at flying a Lancaster prototype early in October 1941 and was an immediate and enthusiastic convert. ‘It took off like a startled stallion.’ It was as light as a feather and handled beautifully, almost dancing in the air. Amazingly manoeuvrable, Thomas found it ‘a tonic after the lumbering Manchester’. Very soon, the bomber had acquired its affectionate nickname – the ‘Lanc’. And, as promised, ‘It flew happily on one of its four engines!’
The early-production Lancaster, the B1, took its maiden flight on 31 October 1941. Almost two months later, 44 Squadron, based at Waddington, took delivery of the operational aircraft.
Pip Beck remembered their arrival.
‘On Christmas Eve 1941, 44’s first Lancasters arrived – a magnificent Christmas present for the squadron. It was with intense interest that everyone in Flying Control watched their approach and landing. As the first of the three taxied round the perimeter to the Watch Office, I stared in astonishment at this formidable and beautiful aircraft, cockpit as high as the balcony on which I stood and great spread of wings with four enormous engines. Its lines were sleek and graceful, and yet there was an awesome feeling of power about it. It looked so right after the clumsiness of the Manchester. Their arrival meant a new programme of training for the air and ground crews and there were no operations until the crews had thoroughly familiarised themselves with the Lancasters. There were one or two minor accidents – changing from a twin-engined aircraft to a heavier one with four engines must have presented some difficulties, but the crews took to them rapidly. I heard nothing but praise for the Lancs.’4
There was a special feeling of bonhomie on Christmas Day 1941, as the officers, in time-honoured tradition, donned aprons and served the ‘other ranks’ their Christmas dinner. That winter was a particularly bitter one, but somehow hope had now dared to raise its head. One of Pip Beck’s special friends was a Rhodesian named Cecil, after his country’s founder, Cecil Rhodes. Cecil had come to Britain to work as an RAF aircraft fitter while waiting for a place on a pilots’ course.
‘Cecil had a food parcel from home containing all sorts of good things, including a gorgeous rich fruitcake. He decided to have a party, since discipline was somewhat relaxed for Christmas Day. We fell on the contents of the food parcel with great enjoyment and appreciation, demolishing the rich tinned soup, tinned ham, and sweetcorn served on toast – and, of course, the fruitcake and some chocolate. It was all delicious. The only thing not available was alcohol, but I don’t think we noticed; our spirits were high enough anyway.’
Hope was in the air. Perhaps Christmas 1941 might be the last Christmas at war?
Roy Chadwick’s aim had been to keep the design as simple as possible. The Lancaster would be built in a series of sections, each fully finished, so that they could be transported – by road and rail – from any given factory to a different assembly site, close to an airfield. Each Lancaster cost around £50,000 to produce – more than four times as much as a Spitfire5 – but its simplicity made for shorter man-hours, and as 1941 and the first half of 1942 saw the Germans still in the ascendant, the need for a speedy production line was vital.6
‘Keeping it simple’ may have been Roy Chadwick’s watchword, but a great deal went into achieving that, involving thousands of male and female workers, huge factories, vast drawing offices and an efficient, smooth-running timetable. The process wasn’t always perfect, and simple though its essential design was, each Lancaster was made up of around 55,000 separate parts, if you included the rivets and nuts and bolts that held it together. To assemble a Lancaster took 500,000 different manufacturing processes, occupying over 70,000 man-hours. Nevertheless, 7,377 rolled off the production lines during the five years of its manufacture.
Ted Watson visited a factory and was enormously impressed.
‘We could watch the Lancasters being assembled – here were some of the machines I would go to war in. We were even allowed to help on the production line. The process was impressive and it gave confidence that everything was being done correctly! We had a tour round a brand-new Lanc and it looked so smart and pristine, everything was in order, it was clean and calm, and as we looked over each crew position it looked like an impressive workshop – a nice place to work. Of course, I had no idea how that sense of calmness would change when we were working in the Lanc in its proper role!’7
The oval fuselage, aluminium sheets riveted onto a light-alloy skeleton, was designed to be produced in five sections, which not only made transport easier, but meant that if one were damaged, it could be easily replaced. The wings comprised fourteen segments. The central sections were attached by massive spar booms which crossed the fuselage at thigh height. Lancasters were built to dispense bombs, not for comfort. The main spar was just aft of the radio operator’s seat; the rear one about 8ft further back, near a stowage area for parachutes. This crucial assembly, checked and checked again before release from the factory, was vital to the Lancaster’s safety. Tailplanes were also divided into units: the 12ft fins and the 33ft span.
The final touch was the paint; greens and browns on the upper surfaces, matt black underneath. The RAF roundels and the identification numbers and letters were the only bright spots on the entire aircraft. Painting was not an easy job, however. Protective face masks were not yet used, and conditions for workers weren’t easy overall. Machinist Lilian Grundy8 recalled working ten-hour days making bolts for the Lancaster. The conditions were dreadful: ‘It was like going into a dungeon and the noise was horrendous. They had you at the machines all the time.’ At the height of production, shifts were twelve hours long, and the factories worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Chadderton, Avro’s massive factory near Oldham, complete with an impressive art-deco façade, was responsible for producing over 3,000 Lancasters. It was built in 1938 with the help of a government grant of £1 million. With a floor area of around 750,000 square feet, it was by far the largest aircraft factory of the time, twice the size of any other, and by 1939 it had become Avro’s headquarters. Initially used to build Blenheims, it was given over to Lancaster production from autumn 1941. At night the factory was cavernously dark – the only lights were those used to illuminate the workbenches and the work areas – and the noise was perpetually deafening. Panel-beaters, working without ear shields, had one of the worst jobs. Geoff Bentley, aged fourteen when he started at Chadderton, described it as ‘a hell of a factory’.
‘You could see the Lancasters for miles, fifty of them lined up at a time. Chadderton was a lovely building at the front, with a beautiful big reception and staircase, a bit like a film set. But the factory was so noisy. The riveters would be going all day. I worked for a while in the machine shop, and when those massive presses dropped down, the whole place shuddered.’9
The hard work at the factories soon began to pay off. Thomas Murray’s squadron was stood down to convert to the Lancaster shortly after their last disastrous raid on Essen in a Manchester.
‘At last we had a reliable aircraft with an excellent bombload, rate of climb, and operational ceiling,’ Thomas said. Everyone was more than ready to welcome the new arrival, with new hope and vigour in their hearts. And it wouldn’t be very long before the new aircraft would be getting its first taste of action. Early in 1942, Lancasters were being delivered to Bomber Command squadrons for operational use, replacing outmoded models faster and faster as production increased. Thomas could almost hear the aircrews’ sigh of relief. The effect on morale was palpable.
George VI and Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to the largest factory at Yeadon, Yorkshire, in March 1942. Two recently completed Lancasters were named in their honour. The Times later reported that the King and Queen had both displayed extensive technical knowledge of aviation in their conversations with Chadwick and Dobson – the ‘two Roys’ as they’d become known.
Triumphantly reported by Pathé Gazette, another visit to the Avro factories a month or so later by Squadron Leader John Nettleton and his much-decorated crew from 44 Squadron had an even greater significance for the panel-beaters, pop-riveters, electricians, hydraulic engineers, draughtsmen and everyone else who contributed to the creation of the new bomber. They had recently returned from the Lancaster’s first significant venture, during which Nettleton had been awarded the Victoria Cross, the nation’s highest award for valour, in recognition of his ‘unflinching determination and leadership’.
Kay Mitchell had a newspaper picture of John Nettleton pinned to her workbench instead of the portraits of film stars favoured by the other factory workers. She was overjoyed when the Squadron Leader, looking every bit as pleased and shy as she did, was invited to sign it.
When a train filled with a large transport of Jewish prisoners arrived at one of the Nazi killing centers, many Polish gentiles came out to watch the latest group as they were taken away. As the disoriented Jews were gathering their possessions to take with them into the camp, a Nazi officer in charge called out to the villagers standing nearby, "Anything these Jews leave behind you may take for yourselves, because for sure they will not be coming back to collect them!"
HEROES OF FAITH
Two Polish women who were standing nearby saw a woman towards the back of the group, wearing a large, heavy, expensive coat. Not waiting for someone else to take the coat before them, they ran to the Jewish woman and knocked her to the ground, grabbed her coat and scurried away.
Moving out of sight of the others, they quickly laid the coat down on the ground to divide the spoils of what was hiding inside. Rummaging through the pockets, they giddily discovered gold jewelry, silver candlesticks and other heirlooms. They were thrilled with their find, but as they lifted the coat again, it still seemed heavier than it should. Upon further inspection, they found a secret pocket, and hidden inside the coat was .... a tiny baby girl!
Shocked at their discovery, one woman took pity and insisted to the other, "I don't have any children, and I'm too old to give birth now. You take the gold and silver and let me have the baby." The Polish woman took her new "daughter" home to her delighted husband. They raised the Jewish girl as their own, treating her very well, but never telling her anything about her history. The girl excelled in her studies and even became a doctor, working as a pediatrician in a hospital in Poland.
When her "mother" passed away many years later, a visitor came to pay her respects. An old woman invited herself in and said to the daughter, "I want you to know that the woman that passed away last week was not your real mother ..." and she proceeded to tell her the whole story. She did not believe her at first, but the old woman insisted.
"When we found you, you were wearing a beautiful gold pendant with strange writing on it, which must be Hebrew.
I am sure that your mother kept the necklace. Go and see for yourself." Indeed, the woman went into her deceased mother's jewelry box and found the necklace just as the elderly lady had described. She was shocked. It was hard to fathom that she had been of Jewish descent, but the proof was right there in her hand. As this was her only link to a previous life, she cherished the necklace. She had it enlarged to fit her neck and wore it every day, although she thought nothing more of her Jewish roots.
Some time later, she went on holiday abroad and came across two Jewish boys standing on a main street, trying to interest Jewish passersby to wrap Tefillin on their arms (for males) or accept Shabbos candles to light on Friday afternoon (for females). Seizing the opportunity, she told them her entire story and showed them the necklace. The boys confirmed that a Jewish name was inscribed on the necklace but did not know about her status. They recommended that she write a letter to their mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, explaining everything. If anyone would know what to do, it would be him.
She took their advice and sent off a letter that very same day. She received a speedy reply saying that it is clear from the facts that she is a Jewish girl and perhaps she would consider using her medical skills in Israel where talented pediatricians were needed. Her curiosity was piqued and she traveled to Israel where she consulted a Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) who declared her Jewish. Soon she was accepted into a hospital to work, and eventually met her husband and raised a family.
In August 2001, a terrorist blew up the Sbarro cafe in the center of Jerusalem. The injured were rushed to the hospital where this woman worked. One patient was brought in, an elderly man in a state of shock. He was searching everywhere for his granddaughter who had become separated from him.
Asking how she could recognize her, the frantic grandfather gave a description of a gold necklace that she was wearing.
Eventually, they finally found her among the injured patients.
At the sight of this necklace, the pediatrician froze. She turned to the old man and said, "Where did you buy this necklace?"
"You can't buy such a necklace," he responded, "I am a goldsmith and I made this necklace. Actually I made two identical pieces for each of my daughters. This is my granddaughter from one of them, and my other daughter did not survive the war."
And this is the story of how a Jewish girl, brutally torn away from her mother on a Nazi camp platform almost sixty years ago, was reunited with her father .....Adapted from the book "Heroes of Faith"
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