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The strange birth of the Avro Lancaster

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.

66 comments to The strange birth of the Avro Lancaster

  • Eric Tavenner

    I have always been impressed by the DeHaviland Mosquito.

  • Regional

    The Stirling was selected because it could fit through the doors of the Hangers at that time and the Mosquito with a crew of two could carry a substantial bomb load to Berlin and back with few losses, it’s easy to be wise in hindsight.

  • john.s.allison

    I’ve been an airplane buff since I was old enough to understand that thing in the sky had people in it. That’d be back in 19mumblesomething and I’ve built the Airfix and Revell kits, too. I was aware of the Manchester and noted it’s similarity to the Lanc but I had a clarifying moment when you described sticking on bigger wings… That explains my sense that either the Lanc is too short, or the wings are too big. The answer is, yes.

    It doesn’t explain, however, why the Stirling’s wings were so short. Something to do with not wanting to pay to build bigger hangars, iirc. Martin’s B26 Marauder was accused of being a ‘flying prostitute’, having no visible means of support but I submit that Short did it first.

    I followed your links to the Spitfire and Boycott reviews and enjoyed them, as well. I taught myself to understand enough to follow cricket watching StarSports out of India while working in Kuwait ’95-’97. That would be the time Sri Lanka won the World Cup primarily it seemed due to several sides forfeiting by refusing to play in Sri Lanka because of the Tamil uprising. My attempts to get ESPN to carry the occasional match have been less than successful. They carry more Sumo than cricket. Even during World Cup we’ll be lucky to get 60 seconds to tell us who won. And the Ashes, or the Hong Kong Sixes? fugeddaboutit. I finally figured out who Tendulkar and Lara were and poof. Also have never seen the mini-series Bodyline over here. Was fascinated by it while living in Mahboula.

  • Sean

    Count me as another Airfix kid who mamaged to make most, if not all, their WWII aircraft models in the late ’60’s thru early ’70’s. I’ve not seen a Lancaster flying but often enjoyed the sound of the four Merlins running when they had “power-on” days at Auckland’s Transport Museum. As for the Mosquito, we just enjoyed watching the only one flying down here in New Zealand – magnificence squared it was! It was packed up and shipped back to it’s lucky owner in Virginia after that – so hopefully you’ll be able to catch it sometime.

    As for the standard “best heavy bomber of the war” statement/quote. I’m pretty sure that title belongs to the equally impressive Boeing B-29 (which was a generation ahead of the Lancaster technologically). The fact that the RAF actually loaned some B-29s from the USAF in the early ’50’s would suggest that they thought the same (the B-29 was better than the Lancaster) too – no?

  • john.s.allison

    While teaching my Kuwaitis I was occasionally asked ‘what is the best tank?’ I tried to explain that each design is done to answer a question posed of it’s designers. Comparing an M1A2 Abrams MBT to a T90 or Challenger or LeClerc is comparing apples to oranges and much depends on the training and experience of their crews. There are tradeoff’s regarding firepower, mobility and protection. The Lanc did what it needed to do in the environment in which it needed to do it. So did the B17, B24, B29, Wellington, Halifax, Mossie, etc…

    In 1945, I suppose you could consider the B29 to be ‘better’ than the Lanc in terms of it’s capabilities. In 1942, the Lanc was there and the Superfortress was still on the drawing board, so, not so much.

    Being an armor kinda guy I’d really like to see a Micklethwaitian takedown of the railroad’s demand that no English tanks exceed the width of the railroad’s flatcars prior to WWII. Thus limiting them to the 2pdr (40mm) main armament. If the tank can only be so wide, the turret ring can only be so wide. And if the turret ring can only be so wide, you can only stuff a gun of this size on board. A Matilda or a Crusader with a 75mm(+) main armament in ’41 so sends Rommel crying home to momma adolph.

  • Bruce

    Another interesting thing about the Avro design was that it was modular; well before such a concept was fashionable.

    All of the sub-assemblies were sized to fit standard British railway rolling stock. Thus, assembly of sub-contractor “modules” could be done in a big shed almost anywhere near a railway track.

    Sadly there is only one Lancaster in Australia; “G for George” lives in the Australian War Memorial. NONE of the Australian Lincolns (RR Griffon powered Lancs) survives. There are parts of them in various private collections and the scattered remains of one (A73-64) strewn across Mt Superbus in Queensland.

  • Rich Rostrom

    I once saw a Shackleton at an air show. Big bastard.

    As to Portal and Harris: I think it would have been a useful exercise for them to have to write out a detailed narrative of what would actually happen when bombing caused Germany to surrender. I think that there was a definite Underpants Gnomes element in their strategic doctrine.

  • backofanenvelope

    Writing as someone who has 75 hours in Lancasters and over 5000 in Shackletons; I recommend reading The Broken Wing by David Divine. As usual there is no situation that a government cannot make worse.

  • Mr Ed

    My Dad did not enjoy his trips around colonial Africa/Middle East in a Lincoln (Lancaster derivative) during his time in the RAF in the 1950s, tropical turbulence was not nice.

    The Short Stirling was (rather tall) redesigned with clipped wings as the RAF insisted that it would fit its hangers with the door width of 100 feet, so its wings were shortened and thickened, compromising altitude. This obliged it to fly through rather than over the Alps on the way to Italy from the UK. It could however, outmanoeuvre German night-fighters, one Stirling was engaged by 4, shot down 3 and survived the encounter. Its bomb bay was split, which meant it could only carry smaller bombs (not the 4,000 lb Cookies etc.). As if flew lower, it was also more vulnerable to flack, but at least no one had to widen any hangars, so government procurement’s glorious history rolled on.

    Sir Barnes Wallis (designer of the Wellington) introduced accurate bombing with his bouncing bombs – which were really mines – but his true bombs, Tallboy (12,000 lb) and Grand Slam (22,000 lbs) had sufficient inertia (and spin) in flight to be dropped accurately. They were used against railway tunnels and viaducts, battleships, U-boat pens, V-weapon launch sites and so on. Had they come in a year earlier, a great deal more accurate and effective bombing might well have ensued, but it was not to be. Remember that there were concerns that the Germans had an Atomic Bomb project, so the destruction of the German state and that which supported it in a war of annihilation was the nature of that war.

    Roy Chadwick also started the design of the Vulcan, a hugely impressive beast, one of which still howls away at airshows throughout Britain, hopefully through to 2015.

    You can buy a taxy ride in a Lancaster in Lincolnshire, run by a chap as a tribute to his brother who died in Bomber Command.

  • RogerC

    The Mosquito was an incredible aircraft (lowest loss rate of any allied aircraft, five times more cost effective than the Lancaster blah blah blah), but the establishment in Bomber Command seemed wedded to the idea of the four-engined heavy as a war winner.

    Two things have always struck me as supporting this hypothesis. Firstly, the outcry against and cessation of the Mosquito’s precision bombing efforts following the accidental bombing of a school smacks of rank hypocrisy when compared to the tens of thousands of civilians intentionally killed in saturation bombing raids. Secondly, the use of thousands of Merlin engines, then in desperately short supply, in the utterly disastrous Fairey Battle and Boulton Paul Defiant aircraft, which could have been put to better use (in almost anything else).

    I sometimes wonder what the late-war thousand bomber raids would have been like if they’d been conducted by Mosquitos attacking defined industrial targets at low level, especially if the escorting fighters had been Mosquitos also.

  • Mr Ed

    Roger: The Mosquito, ‘Wood, you believe it’ could carry up to a 4,000 lb Cookie or Blockbuster bomb. I think that what you refer to was a raid on Copenhagen very late in the War (April 45 I think) when instead of Gestapo HQ, a girls’ school was hit, caused in part I think by one Mossie crashing (hitting wires) and creating what was thought to be a marker fire which misled the later attackers. That sort of thing happens, which is why war is particularly horrible.

    The Fairey Battle (reportedly designed at a time with range for Paris should France have been the enemy) and the Defiant were really Pteradactyls by 1939 and by the time that the Mosquito came along, the Defiant was doing mainly air-sea rescue, target-tug and ECM jobs, having retired as a Nightfighter with its AI radar. Perhaps the engines should have been cannibalised but older Defiants had 1,030 bhp engines, not the higher powered ones.

    It all comes down to the bureaucratic method, where inflexible idiots suffer no consequence for letting others die and opportunities be missed, just look around you at the UK today, in any NHS Slaughterhouse, er.. hospital.

    Perhaps if for every 20 Service Personnel or civilians who die in an aggressive war, one member of the House of Commons supporting an aggressive war were shot, there might be a disincentive to bungling, unnecessary wars. Certainly in the Red Army, wasting material would lead to a Penal Battalion, (think ‘right up against the enemy in black uniforms in the snow’). No such encouragement has been the British way since Admiral Byng, and in reality, not a lot would change if it were.

  • bloke in spain

    This post on the Lancaster reminds me of my uncle who piloted one of the Lancs on the raid on the dams. And that the only things I know about it are what I’ve read. He steadfastly avoided ever talking about it.

    As for the effectiveness of bombing. It’s likely he was piloting one of the planes bombed the forest near my French home. Walking the dog there is difficult because the bomb craters are so abundant & close together the wood’s nearly impenetrable. How many craters? The Google aerial view captures the glints of the water now fills them & that’s in the thousands & is showing only the ones not now obscured by trees. Nevertheless the V1 site it conceals is almost completely intact, including the brick built launching ramp & the ski-shaped missile store. So it looks like actually hitting something of importance was as much luck as judgement. The effect on civilians? My mother was living close to the London Docks right through the blitz & for most of the war so she got the night bombing plus both flavours of rockets. Two of her closest friends disappeared in an explosion a couple of minutes after she’d parted from them, at the street corner. But she only ever spoken of it as an inconvenience. She hated the shelter & insisted on sleeping under the kitchen table. Always a subject of great family amusement.

  • Miv Tucker

    “… made me even more curious about this famous airplane.”

    Aeroplane, please, Brian.

  • cerebus

    This is quite interesting but can’t help seeing it as a facet of McKinstry’s Colonel Blimp persona which is quite off-putting, especially since his Express column seems the closest the MSM comes to white nationalism.

    Then again I read John Derbyshire for the maths so shouldn’t let it distract me. Sorry for the digression.

  • I have always been impressed by the DeHaviland Mosquito.

    That would be de Havilland Mosquito 😛

  • llamas

    Some observations.

    One reason that the Manchester-to-Lancaster transition was so smooth was that Roy Chadwick (not Chapman) and Avro had a semi-standardized set of sections that they used for constructing (especially) plane structures, so extending the wings was a relatively-minor redesign task.

    Mosquito vs Lancaster – there is a question of efficiency to be considered. In terms of pounds-per-engine, a Mosquito could take 2000# of bombs per engine to Berlin and back. The Lancaster could haul twice that. It’s the difference between a car and a train.

    One major negative of the Manchester/Lancaster/Merlin combination was a lack of redundancy and/or capacity in the accessory systems. Even though it had 4 engines, many systems (turrets, gyros, generators, etc) relied on only one engine. Losing an engine, for whatever reason, could mean losing the critical systems that relied on that engine. This was (in part) a result of the very-poor accessory-drive capabilities of the Merlin engine, because it was designed to be fitted into the streamlined nacelle of a high-speed airplane with few accessory systems. The US choice for large radial engines, each with a huge accessory drive assembly on the back of the crankshaft, allowed for a lot more redundancy as well as a much-more robust accessory power. Some of the Merlin accessory drives, cobbled onto the back of the camshaft drive train, were pretty bloody hokey.

    Hydraulic turrets in Lancasters were notorious for freezing up, due to undersized systems and limited system capacity. This is not a good thing in an unescorted bomber. And the pitiful electrical system capacity (Lancasters up to Mk VII had only 3kW of generating capacity, located on 2 of the 4 engines) meant that there was always a chronic shortage of electrical power. Lose a generator, and everything and everybody on board was going to be freezing for the entire trip. The smaller Boeing B17, by contrast, had 19 kW of generating capacity, with a generator on all 4 engines.

    Bomber Command was painfully-slow to recognize the poor ventral protection of the Lancaster – while originally designed with a ventral turret, many were removed as ‘unnecessary’ in a night bomber, with tragic results as the Germans learned how to exploit this fatal vulnerability.

    And, of course, as ever, the continued insistence on sticking with the pitiful rifle-caliber .303 machine gun for defence cost many lives for no really-good reason. Lancasters dropping some of the most advanced weapons developed to date and bristling with the latest in avionics, radar and guidance, were still defending themselves with Boer War-era weapons. Even the Yanks, who were still shooting at the enemy from open windows, at least gave their gunners something meaningful to shoot with.



  • Brian Micklethwait (London)


    Thanks for pointing out the Chadwick/Chapman error, now all corrected, I hope.

  • Mr Ed

    @ Llamas: I wonder if a Ram Air Turbine might have been a way to generate some heat and power for the Lanc? Just put a prop into the wind and use the power to heat. The Hurricane also lacked a heated cockpit (until it caught fire, in which case the boffins at Farnborough reckoned that at 15,000 ft it could go from cool room temperature to 3,000C in about 10 seconds.) Christ we live in luckier times.

    Another drawback of the Lancaster was that German night-fighters learned to home in on its H2S radar, a rather obvious possibility one might have thought, discovered by chance when a German night-fighter force-landed in England with its radar homing device intact. They might as well have been flying around with lights on.

    .303 ammunition was pitifully small if trying to knock out an attacking fighter. Even 0.50 would have been an improvement. Still, now defence procurement has reached new zeniths of wonder.

  • Another drawback of the Lancaster was that German night-fighters learned to home in on its H2S radar,

    Actually the Germans were not that good at homing in on centimetric radars such as ‘H2S’, and the German ‘Naxos’ homer was pretty unreliable. Given how centimetric radars like H2S work (more akin to a fairly narrow radio searchlight pointing downwards), it is inherently harder to home in on compared to a more widely scattered metre band radar. Also ‘H2S’ was a ground imaging radar and was often not even switched on until fairly close to the target area unless there was 10/10 cloud, particularly once the existence of ‘Naxos’ was suspected… the one they were rather more successful at homing in on was the ‘Monica’ (ARI 5664) tail warning radar as it was metre band, aft oriented pointed at the horizon and always on.

    And btw, the final version of H2S was used in a Vulcan bomber to attack Port Stanley airfield during the Falklands War… not a bad lifespan for a radar system!

    Recommend this book for a superb over view of WW2 night war electronics! It is more or less the definitive work on the German side and gives unparalleled insight into which RAF system actually did and did not really work.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    The ‘DC-3’ that achieved fame in WW2 was actually the ‘C-47’, which differed in having a cargo door and other adaptations for military use. Interestingly, DC-3 variants were manufactured under license throughout the war in both the Soviet Union (Lisunov Li-2) and Japan (Showa/Nakajima L2D).

    The bombing problem early in the war wasn’t hitting the target so much as finding it, air navigation in those days being fairly crude and European weather being usually undercast. Even later in the war, USAAF forces bombed Zurich and Basel several times under the impression they were striking targets 200 miles north of them in Germany. Difficult navigation and the lack of fighter escort both encouraged the early British use of night raids and area bombing, for purely tactical reasons.

    As far as ‘best bomber’ goes, the B-29 was undoubtedly far more sophisticated that the Lanc. But they were designed for different purposes as well: the B-29 was a Pacific Ocean bomber, carrying less payload over a longer range than the Lanc. Each was appropriate to its theater.

  • llamas

    Sure, a ram-air device would have worked quite well. The problem with a Merlin is the design of the wheelcase and the supercharger right on the back of the engine – there’s no through shaft to tap power off and precious little space to pack anything on the two places thet you can PTO from – the camshaft drives.

    There’s some excellent close-ups of a Lancaster engine here:


    Contrast the pitiful tiny spaces available on the rear ends of the camshafts, then look at the accessory drive housing of a US Wasp Major radial here


    Six huge PTO gears – on each engine. And as much space as you needed for the driven accessories. Lancaster hydraulic pumps are the size of a baked-bean tin. Hydraulic pumps for a P&W radial are the size of a 5-gallon bucket. The engine cowling of any airplane equipped with one of these engines has a virtual cavern right behind the engine, with plenty of room for plenty of big stuff.

    Rolls-Royce never put on their big-boy pants and made a mark of the Merlin engine where the cranskhaft continued on back through the supercharger and out the back to be tapped for power. They kept kidding themselves that their little tiny add-on afterthoughts were good enough. The Americans said (as Americans will) ‘screw it, we’re just going to plan for real PTO right from the start, even if we don’t use all of it right now’, and so all these big radials are designed for 100% PTO from the back – even if it’s never used.

    Yes, a little bit hyperbolic, I agree, but you take my point.



  • Stephen Fox

    Interesting stuff Brian. My dad, as a photoreconnaissance man flew 76 sorties in Mosquitos over Burma. Unarmed and very light, they never got caught in spite of having to scarper a few times being chased by Zeros.
    He certainly owed his life to that plane several times over.

  • Gingerdave

    The British had decided on .303 Brownings in the ’30s, as that was thought sufficient at the time. Of course by 40-41 this was shown to be wrong, but by then the manufacturing was set up for the .303, and the middle of a war is a bad time to change such a basic weapon!

    So Bomber Command was stuck with the lighter weapons for the duration.

    Assuming the RAF bought Browning .50’s from the US, they could have been fitted, but the .50 is twice the weight of a .303, and the ammunition is far heavier as well – this is one of the reasons the Lancaster could carry twice the bomb load of a B-17.

    The Mosquito was the most efficient RAF bomber, and this is one reason that the RAF haven’t required defensive armament on a bomber since then, and there were suggestions that the dorsal and tail turrets should be removed as the 50mph extra speed would be greater protection. However, it would be difficult to increase Mosquito production over what was actually done – there was a limit on the amount of wood and glue that could be produced, and production used furniture makers, again a limited resource.

  • chris strange

    I’m also a fan of the DeHaviland de Havilland Mosquito, and the way that it came to be. DeHaviland De Havilland had been given a spec that would have lead to something similar to the Bristol Beaufighter, but during the design process they realised that their aircraft was just getting heavier, and slower, and more compromised. So they threw out the government spec and went “Fuck it, lets just make this thing fast“. The result was to create an amazing multirole aircraft which was at times the fastest thing in the sky.

  • I’ve put up a few pictures of the Lancaster that Mr Ed mentioned. You’ll notice just how close they let people get to it even when it’s moving.

    Another interesting question about the air war over Germany is what might have happened if the Germans had devoted more resources to their SAM projects. They might have become the “wonder weapons” that Hitler so desperately sought.

  • Surellin

    Precision high-altitude bombing was damned near impossible, at least early in the war – the problem was that nobody really realized it yet. The accounts of trying to bomb Japanese Navy ships with B-17s early on are very frustrating.

    Speaking of Avro, I saw a Vulcan at an air show once, decades ago. BEAUTIFUL plane!

  • Mr Ed

    Thanks for the correction Perry. On the subject of navigation, the Vulcan in 1982 needed to borrow a half-decent navigation system, Carousel from a VC10, to get to the rough area of the Falklands. Rather odd that the UK’s nuclear bombers needed help to find their way to a target, but with an H-bomb, accuracy that would have made WW2 Bomber Command blush was not a problem.

    Anyone in the vicinity of Norwich might wish to consider visiting the RAF Radar Museum at Neatisham for an interesting, volunteer-led insight into radar in WW2 and the Cold War. It really has the ‘government buildings’ feel to it, and is very interesting.

  • Paul Marks

    Evil tools of Western imperialism, in their crony capitalist war of corporate profit seeking aggression against nice Mr Hitler.

  • Another interesting question about the air war over Germany is what might have happened if the Germans had devoted more resources to their SAM projects. They might have become the “wonder weapons” that Hitler so desperately sought.

    The problem Germany had by mid 1944 was that although in daylight they were blasted out of the air by sheer numbers by the USAAF, at night they had lost the ‘High Frequency War’ to the RAF pretty convincingly… so other than wire guided and IR projects, SAMs relying on radar and radio control were operating in an environment pretty much owned by the enemy. It is very unlikely they could have achieved series production of effective centrimetric band radars for SAM systems before late 1945 given the tiny number of the very decent FuG 240 ‘Berlin’ centimetric AI radars they actually produced, in spite of extreme motivation to churn such systems out like the Allies were. Indeed by late 1944 UK production alone of centimetric AI radars was more every couple weeks than the Germans ever produced in total.

  • Michael Cross

    Another Lancaster weakness was its escape hatch. The scandal, evocatively recalled by Freeman Dyson in ‘Disturbing the Universe’, was the Air Ministry’s inertia in the face of evidence about aircrew survival prospects – coupled no doubt with an old-school reluctance to make baling out too attractive a possibility.

    The first generation jet bomber the Canberra (manufactured in the US under licence as the B-57) was another amazing survivor, serving for more than 50 years in the RAF.

  • AKM

    “…Rather odd that the UK’s nuclear bombers needed help to find their way to a target…”

    Over land they would have used ground mapping radar to update their navigation fix. It’s not so easy to do that when you’re out over the ocean, which is why they needed Carousel.

  • bloke in spain

    Might be worth asking how effective the bombs they went to all that trouble to deliver, actually were.
    The craters in that French wood are all perfectly formed hemispheres with sharp rims & little sign of disturbance of the surrounding ground. So it’d be fair to say, if you drop a medium free fall bomb into soft Flanders soil, the energy of the blast goes straight up. And by & large, cities get built near rivers & stand on soft alluvial soils. Buildings themselves are actually quite resistant to vertical movement. It’s lateral accelerations cause structural collapse. You can see this in London, which suffered similar bombing although with bombs averaging somewhat smaller. They generally took out two or three houses from a street rather than cause widespread damage. So, all in all, it looks like a great deal of energy & lives were expended to make inconvenient holes in German lawns.
    The payloads that were effective were the incendiaries & the large capacity bombs where the explosive force was great enough to get out of their own craters & cause lateral pressure waves.
    It does beg the question, why more attention wasn’t given to developing parachute retarded munitions with contact detonators, to enable the blast to occur at ground level rather than below? Maybe the British military preferred neat round holes.

  • Mr Ed

    B-i-S. The development of the radio proximity fuse and altimeter allowed for accurate fusing of bombs so that they gave an air burst when required. The earthquake bombs of Barnes Wallis (Tallboy and Grand Slam) were the only truly effective ground blast bombs, designed to create a shock wave and camouflet (underground cavity) into which a structure would collapse. The Biellefeld Viaduct survived thousands of tons of smaller bombs falling around it unscathed, and then it was broken in one fell swoop.

    The Blockbuster 4,000 lb bomb was fused with a view to exploding around rooftop height, damaging roofs over a city block to make it easier for the smaller incendiary bombs falling behind it to enter buildings. All chilling stuff.

    I believe that there was one plan to set fire to the Black Forest as a means of ‘striking back’ at Germany, but a case for how burning gateau would have won the war was never quite made out.

  • bloke in spain

    To be accurate, the Grand Slam & Tallboy were penetrator weapons with hardened casings, designed to be traveling at near supersonic speeds when they impacted. The blast effect would have been minimal & undesired, the object being to transfer the maximum energy into the ground not the air.
    It’s not necessary to contrive a detonation at rooftop height to be effective. Just that the blast isn’t contained in its own crater. The explosion will produce a pressure wave followed by a negative pressure wave. The lateral forces are what brings building down. Why even small car bombs can cause structural damage over a wide area.

  • Steph Houghton

    Evil tools of Western imperialism, in their crony capitalist war of corporate profit seeking aggression against nice Mr Hitler.

    Paul, you joke, but think if the German army had gotten rid of Hitler, we would never hear the end off how that nice social reformer Adolph had been improving the lot of the workers until the evil reactionary army got rid of him.

  • Mr Ed

    @ B-i-S. The GS & T bombs ‘blast effect’ was to be contained within the soil, where the energy was transferred more effectively than via an air burst, soil being not so compressible. The rooftop explosion was designed to damage buildings for the rain of incendiary bombs.

    On one of the final Blackbuck raids in the Falklands, the bombs were wrongly fused for detonation after landing, meaning that instead of a damaging airbursts to damage material above ground, they did the work of a million moles in moving earth to little effect.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I really have to wonder about those Vulcans needing to borrow a sophisticated navigation system. Navigation by sextant is perfectly possible from an airplane and back in my B-52 days, it wasn’t unusual to finish a several-hour’s ‘celestial’ exercise within half-a-mile of the desired point and thirty seconds of the desired time. And that (circa 1968) was with the navigator flailing away with pencil, paper and reference books, and the electronic warfare officer shooting a sextant that had changed very little since WW2.

    In a word, I smell a rat. Either RAF navigators were woefully bad (unlikely), or the ‘borrowing’ is a cover story of some sort.

  • bloke in spain

    There’s a friend of mine whose family farm way out in the boonies of Brazil. He was out there, not long after the Falklands & came back with a curious tale. The family estates are in the same area as a Brazilian air force base. There was talk of aircraft in the skies, the like of which they’d never seen before. Very large, noisy, with an unusual wing-shape. He said it was described to him as “like a dart”.
    Your guess is as good as mine…

  • PersonFromPorlock

    @bis: Interesting, but since one of my other interests is UFO (or OVNI) reports, I’m aware that seeing odd things in the sky is something of a Brazilian pastime.

  • AKM

    It’s no great surprise that someone may have seen a large dart-shaped aircraft in the skies over Brazil during the Falklands conflict: Black Buck 6 was forced to divert to Rio de Janeiro when its in-flight refuelling probe broke while on the way back to Ascension Island. According to wikipedia it was interned at Galeao Air Force base for 9 days.


  • bloke in spain

    Except my friend’s family raise cattle in the Mato Grosso, not run a beach bar in Rio.

  • Mr Ed

    @AKM. The reports I have read say that the Vulcan came in to land at Rio without much by way of permission, and it didn’t have fuel to circle, it simply announced an emergency and turned up and landed (with a live Shrike missile still attached). It was then interned until release (it was apparently parked at the airport that the Pope was going to use for his visit, and the Brasilian Junta did not want an image of the Pope with a Vulcan as a backdrop to go round the world.

    I doubt if it did much flying over Brasil as it went back to the UK via Ascension after being released, and Rio airport is quite close to the coast. The Brasilian Junta was lending tracking aircraft (Bandeirantes) to Argentina during the Falklands War, and were not that friendly towards the UK (although I suspect that they were secretly glad that Argentina’s military got put back in its box, as their plans for war with Chile next would have made a mess of the whole southern continent).

    Vulcans certainly are very noisy, and shaped a bit like a paper aeroplane. Perhaps it did fly around a bit, but then again some aguardente might have played a part in sightings?

  • Ed Snack

    Llamas, some of the later Lancasters did have 0.5″ guns in the rear turret (model FN-82), along (in some cases) with interestingly enough some early radar aiming sets. Used apparently as decoys at the end of raids to fly amongst the stragglers to tempt night fighters to attack. But they were very late to the party. Lancasters also excelled in the sheer size of the bomb bay, which at 33′ long was as I understand it the only aircraft of the time capable of carrying the penetrator weapons.

    However the strategic bombing campaign was generally, IMHO of course, far less effective than believed at the time. By far the most effective campaign carried on by bombers in the war was the isolation of the Normandy area by the targeting of maintenance and repair facilities on the French railways. They actually realized that the key to restricting the use of railways was to target the running stock through accumulated damage plus the crippling of switching rather than attempting to hit the actual infrastructure like bridges and lines. The available accuracy was OK for the switch yards and repair facilities, but not much else.

    And I’d disagree about the criticism of the Fairey battle in a way, it wasn’t much good, but it was at the time the only army co-operation bomber that the British had, and it was there and available. It wasn’t notably worse in performance (more powerful and just as well armed, and it had retracting under-carriage) as the Ju-87, only the tactical doctrine of its use was deficient. If set up and used as a dive bomber it might have been more effective, later the allies typically only had converted fighters in this role, one that they often performed well at but possibly not as well as a dedicated machine would have done. But the error was the doctrine, no need was seen for close support aircraft, sadly.

    The Merlin, too, was an oddity in its own way. As Llamas points out it had poor ancillary equipment, and it stood out amongst other RR designs (at least relatively so) in that RR usually were quite good at the sort of details mentioned, like effective auxiliary drives. And the Merlin had a lot of external oil piping and the like, not sure why.

  • llamas

    @ Ed Snack – you are right, of course. I was referring to the great majority of Lancasters, and certainly all that were operational in the year of maximum effort against Germany, from spring of ’44 to spring of ’45.

    The Merlin was a wonderful engine for a single-seat high-speed aircraft. It stumbled when pressed into service for a multi-engine, multi-service aircraft, and the resulting aircraft were weaker for it. But it also typifies the British ‘make-do-and-mend’, ‘mustn’t grumble’ mentality when it comes to weaponry. When some porr air-gunner was watching the Ju88 come boring in and found himself helpless to respond, I’ll bet he wished that he had the same over-sized, over-capacity hydraulics that his B17 counterpart had – and not whatever half-assed undersized makeshift contraption Rolls-Royce was able to coble onto the back of their engine.

    Once the crews cottoned on to Schrage Musik, apparently some Lancasters were field-fitted with twin .50s in a hole cut in the floor where the ventral turret used to be. Apparently, those friendly Yanks at the B17 base down the road in Trumpington Parva would lend out twin .50s and ammunition to anyone that asked :-). It must have been a most uncomfortable working situation for the gunner.

    The Fairey Battle should have been reborn as a night fighter, equipped with forward firing weapons as well as Schrage Musik. The long crew bay made plenty of room for a radar set and operator as well a quad-50. And the Battle showed its potential for far higher speeds and ranges in the testing environment. Fitted with one of the later Merlins, it might have been a very good ‘loiter fighter’ indeed.



  • squawkbox

    I read somewhere that the RAF tested one Lancaster by removing all the gun turrets, and found that this gave an extra 50mph speed. Wonder if such a faster but defenceless machine would have had a higher or lower casualty rate over Germany?

  • PersonFromPorlock

    For those not conversant with the term, here’s Wikipedia on “Schrage Musik.”

  • Ed Snack

    Llamas, I understand that regardless of how they equipped them, ventral guns on a Lancaster were damn near useless as they were not provided with any adequate means for aiming them. The original turret wasn’t removed because it wasn’t seen as defensively useful (to have ventral guns), but the actual turret installed was restricted to something like a 20 degree aiming arc and had almost no vision over much of that arc. That is something that the B17 designers obviously solved a hell of a lot better than the Avro engineers.

    And I certainly agree about the hydraulics etc on a Merlin, not really much good finally giving the Lancaster heavier armament in the tail if the gunner has to sit helplessly unable to get the turret to revolve half the time. One puzzle though, as you point out only one or two of the engines had hydraulic or generators at all, surely one at least partial solution would have been to equipped all four engines with electrical generators at least, though I suppose it would have added weight. Would have been easy to do and add 100 hp per engine through changing versions.

    I also read as an unrelated matter, that the Merlins used in the Hornet (1946 in production) produced 2,640 hp each, that would have given a Spit IX some oomph if the airframe could have taken it. That’s more than the Griffon engined XIV and in a rather smaller and lighter engine.

  • John K

    One thing which always puzzled me about the Bomber Command campaign was the way that daylight bombing was abandoned so easily. Before 1939 the doctrine had been that daylight bombing would be possible, because bombers such as the Wellington, with front and rear turrets, would be able to defend themselves against fighters. This was soon proved to be false, but the RAF never seem to have considered developing a long range escort fighter, they just moved straight over to night bombing.

    The Mustang was powered by a Merlin, I would have thought that it would not have been beyond the wit of British designers to have come up with a long range fighter. Instead, the RAF persisted with finding ways of bombing better by night, but even so, by 1945 they were very good at destroying cities, but still very poor at destroying identifiable targets.

  • Mr Ed

    @ John K: The Spitfire didn’t have the range for escort duties, and when it did, it lacked performance due to drag. Was there really the scope for diverting resources from Fighter and Coastal Commands (or the Fleet Air Arm) to work on an elusive long-range fighter? Was there the will, if night flying was an option, with the navigational aids coming on stream?

    The way to hit an identifiable target was to use Barnes Wallis’s bombs, the Tallboy and Grand Slam, as well as the Bouncing Bomb. Daylight raids with air superiority in the main, or surprise. The Mosquito could have been a day escort fighter over Germany, as well as a night escort (also pathfinder and intruder), but the USAAF were doing the day raids by then.

  • Kirk Parker


    The Vulcan which flew at at Abbotsford in summer 1980 is definitely the best thing I’ve ever seen at an airshow. (Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to watching Thunderball.)

  • Mr Ed

    Kirk, if you wish to see the last flying Vulcan, here is the current season (which might not be the last) tour list.


    I first saw a display at Clacton last August (23rd) (Also the feast day Vulcanalia), it was absolutely stunning, the howl of the air intakes and the noise of the engines was simply Earth-shattering.

  • Kirk Parker

    Mr Ed,

    Thanks! Alas, I’m on the wrong side of the Atlantic for that. The show at Abbotsford was phenomenal. Not only because it took off and landed (no mere flyby) but the low-level pass w/gear down and bomb bay open was definitely one of the loudest things I’ve ever experienced.

  • John K

    Mr Ed:

    I think the industrial capacity was there to have developed a long range escort fighter, if the will had been there. Bomber Command alone consumed over 25% of the entire war economy, and with night area bombing, much of this effort was simply wasted.

    Before the war, RAF doctrine had not envisaged night area bombing of entire cities (assuming they could be found, which was hard before 1942), and only adopted it because unescorted daylight raids were disasters. I am just surprised that they threw the baby out with the bathwater, and went over to night bombing, without trying to find a way to have daylight raids with fighter escort. When the USAAF finally managed that in 1944, they smashed Germany’s synthetic oil plants, and virtually put the Luftwaffe out of the war. RAF Bomber Command, by contrast, under Harris, eschewed such ‘panaceas’, and devoted itself to the destruction of German cities and civilians, at huge cost to itself, but with far less cost to the German war economy.

  • Mr Ed

    @ John: Some alive at the time might have asked why the Luftwaffe didn’t target Dutch oil plants before attacking Rotterdam in May 1940, but the Luftwaffe didn’t stop to take the scenic route to victory in the Netherlands. No one ever won a war by p*ssing about and giving the enemy a fair chance. The dead don’t look back in hindsight at what might have been. Having said that, I would have thought that the targeting of oil plants, and the Romanian oil fields was obviously a way to grind the German war state to a halt, but easier said than done, and the USAAF suffered horrific losses in daylight raids, and with a great deal of German air defences devoted to combatting the night threat.

    Precision strategic bombing wasn’t possible in WW2 except with Barnes Wallis’s weapons or low-level Mosquito-style attacks, it still was barely possible in the Falklands War, LGBs were relatively new for the RAF in 1982. Area Bombing was British government policy, Harris implemented it (with gusto) but he didn’t have the final say. Harris was probably far too inflexible in his approach to use his forces to maximum effect, but in the context of WW2, there were some appalling decisions which make Harris’s blunders seem relatively benign.

    The RAF did have a long-range fighter in WW2, it was the Mosquito, which was also a bomber and a ship destroyer, like the Tsetse Mosquito.

    If you were an RAF pilot in 1942, would you have volunteered to go on daylight raids? A rhetorical question, not fair, but what would you have gained by raiding in daylight?

  • John K

    Mr Ed:

    Before 1942, RAF night bombing achieved nothing. More often than not, they could not even find a city at night. Huge efforts went into navigation systems such as Oboe, Gee and H2S, just so that bombers could find a city, set fire to it, kill lots of civilians, and have a minimal impact on German war production. This is no way to win a war, and no way to spend 25% of your war economy. A fraction of that effort could have had a long range escort fighter by 1942, it was hardly difficult to marry the Merlin engine to the Mustang airframe. The Mosquito may have had fighter and bomber variants, but it was not used as an escort fighter for daylight raids.

    As I said, the RAF adopted night bombing faute de mieux, when they had planned before the war to raid industrial targets in daylight. Why they never seemed to give any consideration to developing an escort fighter which might have allowed Bomber Command to bomb in daylight is a strange one to me.

  • Mr Ed

    John: they did try to develop an escort fighter, but the British candidates were not viable. If they could have developed an escort fighter, but failed, why didn’t you tell them how to do it? If the answer is that you weren’t born or were too young and/or were not an aerospace engineer, well that’s history and that is what they had to work with. What, might I ask, do you know that they did not, and when did you learn it? I note that you did not address my last, rhetorical, question.

    The whole war effort was a bureaucratic shambles, as is inevitable with government, with competing claims for aircraft and tasks such as support for the Army in the event of D-day, the U-boat war etc. RAF Mustangs were used as fighter-bombers in support of the Army. The choice of night bombing was by force of circumstances, go by night and try to navigate and aim as best they could, and the effectiveness and scale of Bomber Command grew as the Lancaster came on stream, along with the Mosquito and navigational aids. Unescorted bombers in daylight were massacred until late in the War, when the German air defences had been devastated, not just by lack of oil but also Mustangs.

    And this was with the efforts of a government that produced, in large numbers, (1,046) and continnued to do so when the concept was obviuosly flawed, turkeys such as the Boulton Paul Defiant.

    I don’t suppose that you are suggesting that one might criticise the RAF for not asking the Germans if they would mind not attacking them on daylight precision raids, in return for which, night raids would be discontinued?

  • TomJ

    For those that are interested, there’s a programme about the Mossie onm C4 this weekend (Sun 9pm) – http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-plane-that-saved-britain/episode-guide

    I remember during training (a lecture on radar IIRC) the Shackelbomber being described as 20,000 rivets flying in loose formation, a view not disparaged by my first boss who started his career as an apprentice on the type.

  • John K

    Mr Ed:

    You have a rather snippy tone if you don’t mind me saying so, but anyway,,,

    I would be very interested to hear about RAF attempts to develop a long range escort fighter Can you enlighten me? The definitive such fighter was the Merlin engine Mustang, and that plane could have been available much earlier if it had been a priority. Instead, it seems to me, that when unescorted daylight bombing proved to be impossible, the RAF moved over to night time area bombing, without having made much effort to see if an escort fighter could be developed. There was nothing particularly revolutionary about the Mustang or the Merlin, it just took the good sense to put them together.

    I take your point about bureaucratic inertia. Once Bomber Command’s policy became one of killing as many German civilians as possible by night (or “dehousing” them as the euphemism went), they stuck to it rigidly. Bomber Harris abhorred “panaceas” such as attacking synthetic oil plants, as he had become fixated on destroying as many cities as possible. This policy did indeed kill many people, including his own aircrew, but it would never have won the war.

  • Mr Ed

    John, apologies for any snippy tone, but it was a snippy time for civilisation. The Mustang was designed to a British spec but with an Allison engine, which was not a good fit. The RAF had to go to the Ministry of Aircraft Production with the likes of Beaverbrook and later Cripps for aircraft.

    There was an escort Spitfire, but the Spitfire was also used for PR work, and presumably the judgment at the time was that it was not feasible to remain on daylight bombing with the resources available.

    I would agree that Harris’s disregard for bombing oil plants looks like lunacy, pure and simple. And the policy was government policy, the politicians wanted it, Harris implemented it. He was scapegoated when it suited politicians, but those who sup with the Devil…

  • John K

    Mr Ed:

    Thank you for your comments.

    I wasn’t aware of efforts to produce an escort Spitfire, though I doubt there was much will to make it work. Bomber Command was committed to night bombing, and never seemed to give much thought to escort fighters. Maybe this was because fighters belonged to Fighter Command, who were no doubt seen as a rival for all those lovely Merlins. Maybe they had a point, when you think that Hurricanes stayed in production until 1944, long after the design was obsolete, even as Mustangs were having to make do with Allison engines, it does make you think.

    My overall point is that the night bombing campaign was ineffective until 1942 at least, and after 1942, it only became more “effective” in terms of destroying German cities and the civilians in them, rather than degrading the German war effort, which peaked in 1944. A different doctrine could have had RAF heavy bombers flying by day, and thus able to hit actual industrial targets, escorted by Merlin Mustangs, from 1942 on. Then Bomber Command might have made a real contribution towards victory. As it stands, when you look at the resources which went into Bomber Command, against the damage it did to the German war effort, I fear that Bomber Command may have done more damage to Britain than Germany.

  • Mr Ed

    John: There is certainly a question to be asked as to whether, with the Ruhr being in western Germany, it might have been possible to have had the Spitfire doing escort work on daylight raids over the Ruhr. Simply from the point of view of the Allies’ own interest, dropping fewer bombs to more effect would surely have been the ideal strategy, but was it achievable? Accuracy did improve from 1942 onwards, and the scale of raids increased. The Mosquito did precision raids, and was the Pathfinder for the heavy bombers. The USAAF bombed unescorted by day when they started in Europe as they could not fly by night.

    I would like to find out if there was a decision in the RAF or Air Ministry to say ‘escorting bombers is not feasible, night is the way’, and when that was taken, and if it was ever reviewed.

    If you read Leo McKinstry’s book Hurricane, he suggests that Fighter Command had more than enough fighters in 1942, but held on to them in the UK, not even letting Malta have enough. There were Hurricanes on night intruder raids into France, mainly harrying German aircraft around their bases and striking opportune targets. The Hurricane was, however, not up to escort work, it was almost obsolete by 1942, it was too slow, and was used more in ground-attack than in interceptor/fighter work, in areas where air superiority was achieved, particularly in Asia and Africa, Hurricane production stopped as the Typhoon and Tempest came on.

    I would disagree that Bomber Command did not make a contribution towards victory, the destruction of cities certainly shook the German war effort, destroyed and diverted resources, men, fighters, AA-guns from the East. The German 88mm AA-gun was also a fearsome tank-buster, more of them on the Eastern Front might have altered the balance of power.

    As a question of economics, the fact that German production peaked in 1944 might be due to factors including Germany forsaking future investment to consume capital to make production rise, regardless of the future consequences. Without Allied Bombing, production might have been higher still, and the Allies were concerned about a German nuclear bomb, so it was likely to have been a race to destroy Germany lest they be destroyed.

    Perhaps Sir Sidney Camm’s comment on the TSR2 applied equally to an ‘escort Spitfire’. “All modern aircraft have four dimensions: Span, Length, Height and Politics. TSR2 simply got the first three right”.

  • John K

    Mr Ed:

    I quite agree about the possibility of an escort Spitfire enabling daylight raids on the Ruhr, and I too would like to know if it was ever contemplated. My own belief is that when unescorted daylight raids proved to be impossible, Bomber Command doctrine simply switched to night bombing, and never seemed to have contemplated daylight raids with a fighter escort. When the USAAF finally got this right in 1944 it was a phenomenal tactic.

    You are also right that Fighter Command had a surfeit of aircraft, they notoriously hoarded Spitfires in Britain, and would not let them go to more active war zones, such as Malta, and left Malaya to be defended by Brewster Buffaloes. The waste of Spitfires on pointless “Rhubarb” sweeps over Northern France in 1941/2 is yet another scandal of waste and poor command decisions.

    I don’t doubt that Bomber Command contributed towards victory. Even Goebbels wrote that if they could have repeated the firestorm which destroyed Hamburg on another six cities, the war would have been lost. But of course, Bomber Command could not do this. My point is that Bomber Command consumed over 25% of the entire war economy, and when you put so much resource into a weapon, it had better do more damage to the enemy than you spend on it, and I do not think Bomber Command passes that test.

  • Mr Ed

    John: I shall research and see what I can find. Here is the Bomber Command diary for 20/21 July 1942:
    ’20/21 July 1942

    1 Stirling on a leaflet flight to Belgium returned safely.’

    Not sure if the leaflet was in Flemish, French or both.

  • John K

    Mr Ed:

    I would think that a long range Spitfire would have been used to escort daylight raids by medium bombers over France and the Low Countries. I doubt that Bomber Command ever seriously doubted their doctrine of night area bombing, once it had been forced upon it.