World War II: Avro Lancaster

Avro Lancaster. Public Domain

The Avro Lancaster was a heavy bomber flown by the Royal Air Force during World War II. An evolution of the earlier and smaller Avro Manchester, the Lancaster became one of the backbone's the RAF's nighttime bombing offensive against Germany. Possessing a large bomb bay, the aircraft proved capable of carrying a variety of exceptionally heavy weapons including Grand Slam and Tallboy bombs. The Lancaster was also adapted for special missions such as the "Dambuster Raid" (Operation Chastise) in 1943. During the course of the war, over 7,000 Lancaster were built with approximately 44%lost to enemy action.

Design and Development

The Lancaster originated with the design of the earlier Avro Manchester. Responding to Air Ministry Specification P.13/36 which called for a medium bomber capable of being used in all environments, Avro created the twin-engine Manchester in the late 1930s. Similar in appearance to its later cousin, the Manchester utilized the new Roll-Royce Vulture engine. First flying in July 1939, the type showed promise, but the Vulture engines proved highly unreliable. As a result only 200 Manchesters were built and these were withdrawn from service by 1942.

As the Manchester program was struggling, Avro's chief designer, Roy Chadwick, began work on an improved, four-engine version of the aircraft. Dubbed the Avro Type 683 Manchester III, Chadwick's new design utilized the more reliable Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and a larger wing. Renamed "Lancaster," development progressed quickly as the Royal Air Force was engaged in World War II. The Lancaster was similar to its predecessor in that it was a mid-wing cantilever monoplane, featured a greenhouse-style canopy, turret nose, and a twin tail configuration.

Built of all-metal construction, the Lancaster required a crew of seven: pilot, flight engineer, bombardier, radio operator, navigator, and two gunners. For protection, the Lancaster carried eight.30 cal. machine guns mounted in three turrets (nose, dorsal, and tail). Early models also featured a ventral turret but these were removed as they were difficult to site. Featuring a massive 33 ft.-long bomb bay, the Lancaster was capable carrying a load of up to 14,000 lbs. As work progressed, the prototype was assembled at Manchester's Ringway Airport.


On January 9, 1941, it first took to the air with test pilot H.A. "Bill" Thorn at the controls. From the start it proved to be a well-designed aircraft and few changes were needed before moving into production. Accepted by the RAF, remaining Manchester orders were switched to the new Lancaster. A total of 7,377 Lancasters of all types were built during its production run. While the majority was built at Avro's Chadderton plant, Lancasters were also built under contract by Metropolitan-Vickers, Armstrong-Whitworth, Austin Motor Company, and Vickers-Armstrong. The type was also built in Canada by Victory Aircraft.

Avro Lancaster


  • Length: 69 ft. 5 in.
  • Wingspan: 102 ft.
  • Height: 19 ft. 7 in.
  • Wing Area: 1,300 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 36,828 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 63,000 lbs.
  • Crew: 7


  • Engines: 4 × Rolls-Royce Merlin XX V12 engines, 1,280 hp each
  • Range: 3,000 miles
  • Max Speed: 280 mph
  • Ceiling: 23,500 ft.


  • Guns: 8 × .30 in (7.7 mm) machine guns
  • Bombs: 14,000 lbs. depending on range, 1 x 22,000-lb. Grand Slam bomb

Operational History

First seeing service with No. 44 Squadron RAF in early 1942, the Lancaster quickly became one of Bomber Command's principal heavy bombers. Along with the Handley Page Halifax, the Lancaster carried the load of the British nighttime bomber offensive against Germany. Through the course of the war, Lancasters flew 156,000 sorties and dropped 681,638 tons of bombs. These missions were a hazardous duty and 3,249 Lancasters were lost in action (44% of all built). As the conflict progressed, the Lancaster was modified several times to accommodate new types of bombs.

Avro Lancaster
Avro Lancaster B.Is of 44 Squadron. Public Domain

Initially capable of carrying 4,000-lb. blockbuster or "cookie" bombs, the addition of bulged doors to the bomb bay allowed the Lancaster to drop 8,000- and later 12,000-lb. blockbusters. Additional modifications to the aircraft allowed them to carry the 12,000-lb. "Tallboy" and 22,000-lb. "Grand Slam" earthquake bombs which were used against hardened targets. Directed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, Lancasters played a key role in Operation Gomorrah which destroyed large parts of Hamburg in 1943. The aircraft was also widely used in Harris' area bombing campaign which flattened many German cities.

Special Missions

During the course of its career, the Lancaster also achieved fame for conducting special, daring missions over hostile territory. One such mission, Operation Chastise a.k.a. the Dambuster Raids, saw specially modified Lancasters use Barnes Wallis' bouncing Upkeep bombs to destroy key dams in the Ruhr Valley. Flown in May 1943, the mission was a success and provided a boost to British morale. In the fall of 1944, Lancasters conducted multiple strikes against the German battleship Tirpitz, first damaging and then sinking it. The destruction of the ship removed a key threat to Allied shipping.

Upkeep bomb mounted on a Avro Lancaster. Public Domain

Later Service

In the final days of the war, the Lancaster conducted humanitarian missions over the Netherlands as part of Operation Manna. These flights saw the aircraft drop food and supplies to that nation's starving population. With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, many Lancasters were slated for transfer to the Pacific for operations against Japan. Intended to operate from bases in Okinawa, the Lancasters proved unnecessary following Japan's surrender in September.

Retained by the RAF after the war, Lancasters were also transferred to France and Argentina. Other Lancasters were converted into civilian aircraft. Lancasters remained in use by the French, largely in maritime search/rescue roles, until the mid-1960s. The Lancaster also spawned several derivatives including the Avro Lincoln. An enlarged Lancaster, the Lincoln arrived too late to see service during World War II. Other types to come from the Lancaster included the Avro York transport and the Avro Shackleton maritime patrol/airborne early warning aircraft.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Avro Lancaster." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 29). World War II: Avro Lancaster. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Avro Lancaster." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).