First I read Leo McKinstry’s Boycott book, and loved it. Then I read his Spitfire book, and liked that a lot also. But while reading Spitfire, I thought to myself that what I would also like to read – would really like to read – would be a book by Leo McKinstry about the Avro Lancaster, the big four-engined bomber that inflicted most of the British bomber damage on the cities of Germany during the latter half of World War 2. The Lancaster was one of my favourites during my Airfix years. Seeing a real live Lancaster flying at Farnborough in the summer of 2010 made me even more curious about this famous airplane. The more I thought about it, the more I realised how ignorant of the Lancaster’s history I was. So when McKinstry obliged with Lancaster, I did not hesitate. I bought it, and devoured it.
Ever since doing that, I have been meaning to write about this book here, but I never got around to finishing what I started. So instead of trying to say everything I might want to say about this excellent book, I will instead now focus mostly on the most interesting thing among many interesting things that I learned from reading Lancaster. I will focus on what a very strange birth the Avro Lancaster had.
In the late 1930s, believing that bombers would always get through and that they therefore had to have lots of bombers or lose the war, British Air Officialdom had two ideas about how to build a bomber. They accordingly announced two specifications, which different potential bomber-makers were invited to meet with their designs. They wanted a two engined bomber, like those that the Germans bombed Britain with in 1940 but better, or like the Wellington but better. And they wanted a much bigger four engined bomber, such as the Germans never got around to building, and like … well, like the Avro Lancaster.
So, the Lancaster was Avro’s answer to the second requirement? Actually, no. Or, not at first. Britain ended up with three four-engine heavy bombers, the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax, and the Lancaster. But strangely, by far the worst of these three, the Short Stirling, was the only one of the three that was all along intended to be a four-engine bomber. Both the Halifax and the Lancaster started out as answers to the two-engine specification rather than the four-engine one.
This strangeness was caused by Rolls Royce then being engaged in producing two engines, the Merlin and the Vulture. The Merlin was proving itself to be very good (arguably it became the greatest single piece of mechanical kit of the entire war), but the Vulture was only revealing itself to be terrible. The idea was that the Vulture would power the two-engined bombers. But, with the Vulture already looking so bad, Handley Page quickly got permission to change their Vulture-powered two-engine bomber into a Merlin powered four-engine bomber. They switched specifications, in other words.
Avro persisted with their two-engine design, the Manchester, and Air Officialdom, in addition to ordering lots of Halifaxes, also ordered two hundred Manchesters to be made, long before they could be sure that it was a good airplane. Soon, they upped the order to over a thousand. Despite the Manchester being, to put it mildly, unproven, Avro started manufacturing them.
But the Manchester was a clunker. It was slow. It couldn’t carry many bombs. It handled abominably. It was a death trap. The pilots hated it. Avro did everything they could to make the Manchester work, but it never did, not least because Rolls Royce were never able to make much of their Vulture. As the Merlin began to prove itself to be the Merlin, Rolls Royce understandably concentrated on that.
At which point, in 1940, Avro proposed the Halifax solution to the Manchester problem. Turn the Manchester from a Vulture-driven two-engine bomber into a Merlin-driven four-engine bomber. Avro dramatically illustrated this idea when they showed a model of a Manchester to a visiting party of Air Officialdom. Right in front of their little audience of grandees, they took off the Manchester’s wings and shoved on different and bigger wings with two more engines attached to them. That, said Avro, is what we should be building.
Opinion was sharply divided about the wisdom of this proposal. The Halifax was by then looking okay, and it was pretty much assumed all round, by everyone except Avro’s design supremo Roy Chadwick and his Avro collaborators, that the “Lancaster”, as it ended up being called, would at best be no better than that. Merlin engines were still scarce, because needed for Hurricanes and Spitfires, which caused Officialdom to forbid the use of any Merlins in what was for a while only a semi-official Lancaster prototype. But Rolls Royce obliged with four Merlins on the quiet, perhaps feeling bad about the difficulties that their Vulture engine had made for Avro.
The clinching argument in favour of the Lancaster was all that investment that had gone into, not just the designing of, but most especially the manufacturing of the Manchester. The decision to press ahead with building hundreds of Manchesters, the product of Air Officialdom’s desperation to launch some kind of bombing offensive as soon as war began, was, on the face of it, most unwise. Yet it was this decision that gave birth to the Lancaster. Had there been no Manchester assembly line, with all its associated paraphernalia of advanced orders and parts and skills and tools and procedures, there would have been no problem that the Lancaster, in the eyes of Air Officialdom, would have solved. Had it not been for the Manchester manufacturing process, into which so much had already been invested, Avro might well have spent the whole of the war making Halifaxes. As it was, the choice was between Lancasters now and more Halifaxes later. In war, now trumps later. What, we build another four-engine heavy bomber? Yes:
All they had to do was stretch the wings of the Manchester, attach a somewhat bigger and much better tail, tweak the design to deal with the airplane being heavier, and they had themselves a half-decent bomber. And, crucially, they had it, in airplane development time, right now, in the form of a prototype by early 1941 and actual bombers that could bomb in early 1942. It wasn’t at all what had originally been specified, but it was a bomber. Without that Manchester momentum – the cost of having created it and the further cost of abandoning it and switching to an entirely different process of Halifax-making – the Lancaster would have been an answer looking for a problem that Air Officialdom would not have had.
As soon as Avro had finished the Lancaster’s design and started building it in numbers, it became clear that it was going to be an outstandingly effective bomber. Everything that Roy Chadwick had been saying about how the Lancaster was potentially the best heavy bomber of the war turned out to be true. All that work that Avro had done trying to make a success of the Manchester suddenly did make a success of the Lancaster, which quickly proved itself to be everything that the Manchester was not and better even than the Halifax. It handled beautifully. It was fast. It could carry lots of bombs. The pilots loved it. (It was still a death trap, because any bomber, however great and however many bombs it drops, gets shot down eventually, and when mortally wounded the Lancaster was rather tricky to get out of. But that’s war.)
In particular, all the work that Avro had done improving, as they had hoped, the fuselage of the Manchester, which had done nothing to improve the Manchester, suddenly came into its own in the new configuration. Ever since I built my Airfix Lancaster as a child, I have wondered about the oddity of that Lancaster fuselage. Simply, this fuselage seemed too small for the airplane as whole. And the wings seemed too big. Not ugly exactly, in fact not ugly at all, but nevertheless a bit like the arms of one of those misshapen body builders with excessive biceps. My Lancaster photo (above) even shows how the wings between the fuselage and the inner two engines go straight out rather than tapering, as if these wings were only widened late on in the design process. Now, all that makes sense. The Lancaster’s fuselage began life as the fuselage of a smaller airplane. No wonder it looked to me too small. It was too small. The Lancaster’s wings look stretched because they were stretched. It is only now, after half a century and more of gazing at the Lancaster, that one looks at the Manchester, and sees its fuselage as too big and its wings as too small.
The birth of the Lancaster illustrates a general point about making airplanes, which explains why successful airplanes often fly on for so long. Consider the airborne WW2 mega-hit, the DC-3 (aka the Dakota), and then later the big Boeings, the B-52 and the 747. The Lancaster didn’t last as long as those hardy perennials, because propeller driven heavy bombers were soon replaced by jet bombers (like the B-52) and by intercontinental ballistic missiles. But even the Lancaster flew on for many decades, in the only slightly altered form of its close cousin, the Avro Shackleton, which only went out of service in 1991!
Why do some airplane designs last for so long? It is because a successful replacement for a truly successful airplane is so very hard to contrive. Many airplanes are built. Many fly. Very few succeed remotely as well as just a few of them do. So, once you have your hands on one of these mega-hits, you tend to hang onto it tight. Many new and improved designs are proposed, which will supposedly do even better than your mega-hit airplane, but supposedly is most definitely not definitely, and it is best to stick with the angelic machine you know than bet everything on a replacement that will as likely as not fall diabolically short of its mark.
The people who designed the ugly little duckling, the Manchester, were the exact same people who later turned it into the swan that was the Lancaster. But this was not because a pack of incompetent airplane makers suddenly turned over a new leaf and became brilliant airplane makers. They were brilliant airplane makers all along, this being a big part of the reason why Air Officialdom went ahead with the Manchester. Air Officialdom was, if not confident, then at least entitled to hope that the Manchester’s early problems would in due course be sorted, by the brilliant people at Avro. The Manchester failed for the simplest of all reasons, which is that almost all airplanes do fail, compared to the few which do not, no matter how brilliant are the people designing and building them. And then, when the Manchester did succeed, by being turned into the Lancaster, Air Officialdom was vindicated. Those teething problems were sorted. Very dramatically indeed, and with a design so different and so radical that it involved a name change, but they were sorted.
In this respect, airplane making is a bit like movie making. Outstandingly successful producers can start out with a script by a writer of proven brilliance, pick just the right director, assemble all the right stars and all the best technicians and cameramen and art directors and editors, then make all the right moves in the exact right order, and still have only an expensive flop on their hands. By the same token, a bunch of good film-makers can make only enough good moves with enough good people, in a decidedly wrong order, and end up with a runaway hit.
So it is with airplanes. With airplanes, unlike with most movies, you often struggle for many years to make your airplane a hit, doing the equivalent of recasting, rewriting, reshooting and re-editing. But even if they let you do all that, cancellation can still descend upon you at any moment, and even if it doesn’t descend for a decade, success is still not assured. Making successful airplanes is very, very difficult. Which means, as I say, that once you contrive one, you are likely to stick with it for a long time, provided only that the job it does continues to need doing. A great airplane often flies on for many decades, by the end of its working life often becoming crammed with gadgets scarcely dreamt of when it started out, and flown by pilots who had not even been born when the airplane was.
Early bombing efforts, by the older contemporaries of the Lancaster, like the Stirling, the Halifax and by the few Manchesters that were built, were almost comically inaccurate. This gave rise to two utterly contrary opinions about what to do next. One view was that bombing needed, as soon as this could be contrived, to get more accurate. But the majority view was that if enough bombs were dropped on Germany, accuracy wouldn’t matter that much, so long as they landed in the right “area”. Germany would be ruined and depopulated and would surrender to bombing alone, even if half the bombs landed in open fields. For this, heavy bombers with big loads were needed, bombers like the Lancaster.
Before recounting the subsequent exploits of the Lancaster, McKinstry introduces a note of deep “what if?” melancholy into this tale, by suggesting that the bombing offensive could and maybe should have been handled entirely differently, with different airplanes. Rather than busting cities and slaughtering random civilians and random farm animals, bombing attacks should have been more precisely targetted, and carried out by airplanes of the sort that the Manchester had tried and failed to be: two-engined, fast (faster by far even than the Lancaster), nimble, in and out. Such a bombing policy would have been less punitive, but it might well have shortened the war, saving many lives, and maybe also, as it turned out, saving several eastern European nations from the clutches of Stalin.
But Air Officialdom, in the person of Air Staff Chief Sir Charles Portal, and soon also in the fearsome shape of Bomber Harris, chose quantity of bombing over quality. This is not surprising. In the short run, it was the only choice available. Lots of bombing now, or better bombing but only later. Now trumps later in war, see above.
Besides which, policy has its own momentum. In the 1930s, the idea was widely believed that lots of bombers filling the sky, showering death and destruction down upon a defenceless country, could quickly make it surrender. Killing random German civilians was, for most, a feature rather than a bug. Using bombers more in the manner of industrial saboteurs, and later to support a land offensive that many at first considered superfluous, was probably never likely to be the dominant policy, not least because an actual land offensive in Germany only happened right at the end of the war. Only big bombers like the Lancaster could hit the Hun hard, soon. Accuracy could come later. Load, bomb, take aim.
Churchill himself had, and expressed to Portal, severe doubts about the wisdom of the bombing policy that actually was followed, but, confronted by an utterly determined Portal, did not press his point. By the end of the war, Portal himself was arguing for greater accuracy and cleverer targetting, against Harris, but momentum won again. Harris was by then unstoppable. On those rare occasions when Harris was made to deliver more accurate, less “area” bombing operations (such as the famous Dam Busters raid), he simply used the success of such escapades (which were never going to be written up in the newspapers as anything other than heroic successes) to drum up support for the actual bombing offensive that he mostly presided over. Even the support demanded of Bomber Command for the Normandy landings was but a grudging interlude.
Yet, as McKinstry explains, there was an airplane available, even very early in the war, which could have implemented an alternative, accuracy-first bombing policy, and quite a few people in the know did, at the time, argue for its greater use as a bomber, and for the emphasis on the Lancaster and its heavy bombing brethren to be reduced.
The next McKinstry book I want to read will be entitled Mosquito.