Avro Lancaster

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Air & Sea transport; World War II

An Avro Lancaster flying in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
Type Heavy bomber
Manufacturer Avro
Designed by Roy Chadwick
Maiden flight 9 January 1941
Introduced 1942
Retired 1963 (Canada)
Primary user Royal Air Force
Number built 7,377
Unit cost £45-50,000 when introduced
≈£1.3-1.5 million in 2005 currency
Developed from Avro Manchester
Variants Avro Lancastrian
Avro Lincoln
Avro York

The Avro Lancaster was a British four-engine Second World War bomber aircraft made initially by Avro for the British Royal Air Force (RAF). First used in 1942, together with the Handley-Page Halifax it was the main heavy bomber of the RAF, the Royal Canadian Air Force and squadrons from other Commonwealth and European countries serving with RAF Bomber Command. Although the Lancaster was primarily a night bomber, it excelled in many other roles including daylight precision bombing.

Design and development

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster at RIAT 2005
Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster at RIAT 2005

The origins of the Lancaster design was in a twin-engined heavy bomber powered by Rolls-Royce Vulture engines submitted to Specification P.13/36 which was for a new generation of twin-engined medium bombers. The resulting aircraft was the Avro Manchester, which, although a capable aircraft, was troubled by the unreliability of the Vulture. It was withdrawn from service in 1942 by which point 200 aircraft had been built.

Avro's chief designer, Roy Chadwick, was already working on an improved Manchester design using four of the more reliable but less powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engines on a larger wing. The aircraft was initially designated Avro Type 683 Manchester III; it was later named the Lancaster. The new aircraft made its first test flight from Manchester's Ringway Airport on 9 January 1941 and proved to be a great improvement on its predecessor. Some of the later orders for Manchesters were changed in favour of Lancasters; the designs were very similar, and both featured the distinctive greenhouse cockpit, turret nose, and twin tail although the Lancaster discarded the stubby central third tail fin of the Manchester by using a wider span tailplane and larger elliptical twin fins.

The majority of Lancasters built during the war years were manufactured by Avro, Metropolitan-Vickers and Armstrong Whitworth. The plane was also produced at the Austin Motor Company works in Longbridge, Birmingham later in the Second World War and postwar at Chester by Vickers Armstrong. Only 300 of the Lancaster Mk II with Bristol Hercules engines were made. The Lancaster Mk III had newer Merlin engines but was otherwise identical to earlier versions; 3,030 Mk IIIs were built, almost all at A.V. Roe's Newton Heath factory. Of later versions, only the Canadian-built Lancaster Mk X was produced in any numbers, built by Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ontario; 430 of this type were built. They differed little from earlier versions, except for using Packard-built Merlin engines and American-style instrumentation; late-series models also replaced the Frasier-Nash mid-upper turret with a differently configured Martin turret mounted in a slightly different location. 7,377 Lancasters of all marks were built over the war; a 1943 Lancaster cost £45-50,000 (approximately equivalent to £1.3-1.5 million in 2005 currency).

Lancasters from Bomber Command were to have formed the main strength of Tiger Force, the Commonwealth bomber contingent scheduled to take part in Operation Downfall, the codename for the planned invasion of Japan in late 1945, from bases on Okinawa.

Operational history

In 1942-45, Lancasters flew 156,000 operations and dropped 608,612 tons of bombs. 3,249 Lancasters were lost in action. Only 35 Lancasters completed more than 100 successful operations. The greatest survivor completed 139 operations and survived the war, only to be scrapped in 1947.

The Lancaster I NG128 dropping its load over Duisburg on Oct 14, 1944.  The aircraft is carrying Airborne Cigar (ABC) radio jamming equipment, as shown by the two vertical aerials on the fuselage.
The Lancaster I NG128 dropping its load over Duisburg on Oct 14, 1944. The aircraft is carrying Airborne Cigar (ABC) radio jamming equipment, as shown by the two vertical aerials on the fuselage.

An important feature of the Lancaster was its extensive bomb bay, at 33 feet (10.05 m) long. Initially the heaviest bombs carried were 4,000 lb (1,818 kg) "Cookies." Towards the end of the war, attacking special and hardened targets, the B1 Specials could carry the 21 foot (6.4 m) long 12,000 lb (5,448 kg) ' Tallboy' or 25.5 foot (7.77 m) long 22,000 lb (9,979 kg) " Grand Slam" "earthquake" bombs. This required modification of the bomb-bay doors.

While eight .303 in machine guns were the most common Lancaster armament, twin .50 turrets were later available in both the tail and dorsal positions. A Preston-Green mount was available for a .50 cal mounted in a ventral blister, but this was mostly used in RCAF service. Some unofficial mounts for .50 cal or even 20 mm guns were made, firing through ventral holes of various designs.

The Lancaster had a very advanced communications system for its time; the famous 1155 receiver and 1154 transmitter. These provided radio direction-finding, as well as voice and Morse capabilities. Later Lancasters carried:

  • H2S - Ground looking navigation radar system - though it could be homed on by German night fighters' NAXOS receiver and had to be used with discretion.
  • Monica - a rearward looking radar to warn of night fighter approaches - a notable disaster, transmitting constant warnings of bombers in the same formation it was ignored by crews and instead inadvertently served as a homing beacon for suitably equipped German night fighters, who would then use Schräge Musik to attack the bombers.
  • Fishpond - an add-on to H2S that provided additional (aerial) coverage of the underside of the aircraft to display attacking fighters on the main H2S screen.
  • GEE - A receiver for a navigation system of synchronized pulses transmitted from the UK - aircraft calculated their position from the phase shift between pulses. The range of GEE was 3-400 miles.
  • Oboe - a very accurate navigation system consisting of a receiver/transponder for two radar stations transmitting from the UK - one determining range and the other the bearing on the range. As the system could only handle one aircraft at a time it was only fitted to Pathfinder aircraft which marked the target for the main force. Later supplemented by GEE-H, similar to Oboe but with the transponder on the ground allowing more aircraft to use the system simultaneously. GEE-H aircraft were usually marked with two horizontal yellow stripes on the fins.
  • Village Inn - A radar-aimed gun turret fitted to some Lancasters in 1944.

The most famous use of the Lancaster was probably the 1943 mission, codenamed Operation Chastise, to destroy the dams of the Ruhr Valley using special drum shaped bouncing bombs designed by Barnes Wallis, and carried by modified Mk IIIs. The story of the mission was later made into a film, The Dam Busters. Another famous action was a series of attacks, including one from a temporary base at Yagodnik in the Soviet Union, against the German battleship Tirpitz with Tallboy bombs, ended with the sinking of the Tirpitz.

A development of the Lancaster was the Avro Lincoln bomber, initially known as the Lancaster IV and Lancaster V. These two marks became the Lincoln B1 and B2 respectively. There was also a civilian airliner based on the Lancaster, the Lancastrian. Other developments were the York, a square-bodied transport and, via the Lincoln, the Shackleton which continued in airborne early warning service up to 1992.

In 1946, four Lancasters were converted by Avro at Bracebridge Heath, Lincolnshire as freighters for use by British South American Airways, they proved to be uneconomical and were withdrawn after a year in service.

Four Lancaster IIIs were converted by Flight Refuelling Limited as two pairs of tanker and receiver aircraft for development of in-flight refuelling. One aircraft was flown non-stop 3,355 miles in 1947 from London to Bermuda. Later the two tanker aircraft were joined by another converted Lancaster and were used in the Berlin Airlift, they achieved 757 tanker sorties.

Argentinian models were used several times during its service in several military coups.



The original Lancasters were produced with Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engines. Minor details were changed throughout the production series - for example the pitot head design was changed from being on a long mast at the front of the nose to a short fairing mounted on the side of the fuselage under the cockpit. Later production Lancasters had Merlin 22s and later Merlin 24s. No designation change was made to denote this change.

B I Special

Adapted to take first the super-heavy Tallboy and then Grand Slam bombs. Upgraded engines with broad bladed propellers gave more power; the removal of gun turrets reduced weight and gave smoother lines. For the Tallboy, the bomb bay doors were bulged — for the Grand Slam, they were removed completely and the area faired over.

PR 1

B.I modified for photgraphic reconnaisance, operated by 82 Squadron, RAF.


Bristol Hercules powered variant. 300 produced. These aircraft used Hercules VI or XVI engines. One difference between the two engine versions was the VI had manual mixture, leading to an extra lever on the throttle pedestal to control mixture. These aircraft were almost invariably fitted with an FN.64 under turret and bomb bay bulge.


These aircraft were fitted with Packard built Merlin engines, and produced in parallel to the B.I. The two marks are indistinguishable externally. The minor differences between the two variants were related to the engine installation, and included the installation of slow running cut off switches in the cockpit, due to the SU Carburettors on the Packard Merlin engines.

B III Special

Variant built to take the "Upkeep" ( bouncing) bomb for the Dambusting raids. The struts and mechanism to take the cylindrical bomb were fitted below the bomb bay and search lights fitted for the simple height measurement system. The mid upper turret was removed to save weight - the gunner was moved to the front turret to allow the bomb aimer to assist with map reading.


B III modified for air-sea rescue, carrying a lifeboat in the bomb-bay.

GR 3/MR 3

B III modified for maritime reconnaissance.


Increased wingspan and lengthened fuselage. Two-stage Merlin 85s - later renamed Lincoln B 1


Increased wingspan and lengthened fuselage. Two-stage Merlin 85s - later renamed Lincoln B 2


Nine aircraft converted from B IIIs. Fitted with Merlin 85s which had two stage superchargers, for improved high altitude performance. These aircraft were only used by Pathfinder units, often as "Master Bomber."


The B VII was the final production version of the Lancaster. Martin 250CE mid-upper turret re-positioned slightly further forward than previous Marks. Frazer-Nash FN.82 tail turret with twin Browning 0.5 in machine guns replacing four-gun 0.303 in FN.20.


The B X was a Canadian-built B III, differing in having Canadian/US made instrumentation and electrics. Also on later batches, the Martin 250CE was substituted for the Frazer Nash FN.50 mid upper turret. The greater weight of this turret necessitated moving the turret forward for balance reasons. Canada was a long-term user of the Lancaster, utilising modified aircraft in postwar Maritime Patrol, Search and Rescue and Photo Reconnaisance roles until 1963.

Surviving Aircraft

Tail turret of an RCAF Lancaster.
Tail turret of an RCAF Lancaster.
Side Profile of a Lancaster front turret.
Side Profile of a Lancaster front turret.

There are 17 known Avro Lancasters remaining in the world, two of which remain in airworthy condition, although limited flying hours remain on their airframes and actual flying is carefully rationed. One is PA474 of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the other is FM213 of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

Among the non-flying survivors are:

  • B I R5868 "S-Sugar" is the oldest surviving Lancaster. Previously "Q-Queenie," this aircraft flew 135 operations, first as "Q-Queenie" with No. 83 Squadron RAF from RAF Scampton and then as 'S-Sugar' with No. 463 and No. 467 RAAF Squadrons from RAF Waddington. This aircraft was the first RAF heavy bomber aircraft to complete 100 operations, and is now on display at the RAF Museum, Hendon.
  • B I W4783 "G-George" was operated by No. 460 Squadron RAAF and completed 90 sorties. It was flown to Australia in the war for fundraising purposes, and was assigned the Australian serial A66-2. The aircraft was later placed on display at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and underwent a thorough restoration between 1999 and 2003.
  • B VII NX611 "Just Jane," served with the Aeronavale until the 1960s, when it was flown back to Britain. At one stage, the aircraft was kept at Blackpool and following the removal of R5868, served as gate guardian at RAF Scampton. NX611 now resides at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at the former RAF East Kirkby, and is frequently taxied on a length of the old perimeter track.
  • B VII NX622 served with the Aeronavale until 1962, when it was donated to the RAAF Association. It is now beautifully restored, and displayed at the RAAF Association museum in Bullcreek, Western Australia
  • B VII NX665 with H2S radar is preserved at Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology. This aircraft served with the Aeronavale until the 1960s, when it was presented to the museum. The airframe originally lacked the mid-upper turret, having been built with the mountings for a Martin 250CE. An earlier FN50 was retrofitted in the late '80s. This required modifications to the aircraft's structure as the turret mounts had to be moved rearwards.
  • B X FM104 was donated to the City of Toronto in 1964 and placed on a pedestal on Lakeshore Drive. After sitting outside for 36 years, the aircraft was removed from the pedestal and placed on loan to the Toronto Aerospace Museum in Toronto, Canada. The aircraft is now under long term restoration to static display condition. With spare parts from the remainder of FM118, it is slated to be complete as a museum quality piece in 2015.
  • B XFM159 arrived in Europe after the fighting ended and thus never saw combat. After returning to Canada and being placed in storage, it served from 1953 to 1955 with the No. 103 Search and Rescue Unit in Greenwood, Nova Scotia before being transferred to Comox, British Columbia to serve as a maritime and ice patrol aircraft. It was withdrawn from RCAF service in 1958 and purchased in 1960 by a trio of men from Nanton, Alberta with a view to building a war museum in their town. The aircraft is currently on display at the Nanton Lancaster Society Air Museum and is the only surviving Lancaster to offer guided tours of its interior.
  • Mk 10P FM212 was withdrawn from RCAF service in 1962 and placed in storage. The city of Windsor, Ontario purchased the aircraft for a memorial; it was mounted on a pedestal in Jackson park in 1965. Unfortunately, weather and poor maintenance had taken their toll on the aircraft and it was removed on 26 May 2005. In its place are mounted a Spitfire and a Hurricane replica.
  • B X KB 944 now in the Canada Aviation Museum, it was built in Canada in 1945 by Victory Aircraft. After serving overseas briefly, before entering long-term storage in Canada later in the same year, it went on to spend most of the following years in stored reserve, except for a brief period with 404 Maritime Patrol Squadron at Greenwood, Nova Scotia in 1952. In 1964, the RCAF refurbished this aircraft and placed it in the Force’s historical aircraft collection.

See the link under External links for details of the known survivors.

Military Operators

  • Argentina
    • Argentine Air Force
  • Australia
    • Royal Australian Air Force
      • No. 460 Squadron RAAF
      • No. 463 Squadron RAAF
      • No. 467 Squadron RAAF
  • Canada
    • Royal Canadian Air Force
      • No. 404 Squadron RCAF
  • Egypt
    • Royal Egyptian Air Force
  • France
    • French Navy, Aeronavale
  • New Zealand
    • Royal New Zealand Air Force
      • No. 75 Squadron RNZAF
  • Poland
    • (Polish Government and Army were in exile, during the duration of World War Two).
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom

Civil Operators

  • Canada
    • Spartan Air Services
    • World Wide Airways
  • United Kingdom
    • British European Airways
    • British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC)
    • British South American Airways
    • Flight Refuelling Limited
    • Skyways Limited

Specifications (Lancaster)

General characteristics

  • Crew: 7: pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator, mid-upper and rear gunners
  • Length: 69 ft 5 in (21.18 m)
  • Wingspan: 102 ft (31.09 m)
  • Height: 19 ft 7 in (5.97 m)
  • Wing area: 1,300 ft² (120 m²)
  • Empty weight: 36 828 lb (16,705 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 63,000 lb (29,000 kg)
  • Powerplant: Rolls-Royce Merlin XX V12 engines, 1,280 hp (954 kW) each


  • Maximum speed: 240 knots (280 mph, 450 km/h) at 15,000 ft (5,600 m)
  • Range: 2,300 nm (2,700 mi, 4,300 km) with minimal bomb load
  • Service ceiling: 23,500 ft (8,160 m)
  • Wing loading: 48 lb/ft² (240 kg/m²)
  • Power/mass: 0.081 hp/lb (130 W/kg)


  • Guns: 8× 0.303 in (7.70 mm) Browning machine guns in three turrets
  • Bombs:
    • Maximum: 22,000 lb (10,000 kg)
    • Typical: 14,000 lb (6,400 kg)
    • For Comparison see: Maximum Reported B-17 & B-24 Bomb Loads

Related content

Related development

  • Avro Manchester
  • Avro York
  • Avro Lancastrian
  • Avro Lincoln

Comparable aircraft

  • Handley-Page Halifax
  • Vickers Windsor
  • Short Stirling

Designation sequence

  • 652A - 679 - 683 - 685 - 688 - 689 - 691

Related lists

  • List of aircraft of the RAF


RAF strategic bombing in World War II
Overview Documents
RAF Bomber Command | Bomber Command | Strategic bombing | Aerial bombing of cities
Prominent People
Sir Archibald Sinclair | Sir Charles Portal | Norman Bottomley
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Augsburg | "Dam Busters" | Berlin | Cologne | Braunschweig
Dresden | Hamburg | Kassel | Pforzheim | Würzburg
Aircraft, Technology and Tactics
Blenheim | Halifax | Hampden | Lancaster | Mosquito | Stirling | Wellesley | Wellington | Whitley
Window | H2S | GEE | Oboe | G-H | Monica
Blockbuster bomb | Tallboy bomb | Grand Slam bomb
Bomber stream | Pathfinders
Aerial Defence of the United Kingdom | USAAF | Luftwaffe
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