The Spitfire fighter is the symbol of the 1940 Battle of Britain – the image of fearless fighter aces flashing about the sky in a last ditch effort to keep the enemy out of England will endure, but the key frontline weapon in the war in Europe was a much more ponderous craft – the Lancaster bomber. Between 1942 and the end of the war, formations of Lancasters, laden with thousands of pounds of bombs, took part in night bombing offensives against Germany’s major cities. The aim of operations was to make the major German cities uninhabitable, and to destroy the morale of the enemy civilian population, especially the industrial workers.
The Lancaster’s finest hour (at least, in popular imagination), the famous “Dambusters” raid by 617 Squadron to destroy hydroelectric dams in the industrial heart of Germany in 1943, using a specially-designed bouncing bomb released at low altitude, showed the world that the British had the will and means to fight on.
The Lancaster was the backbone of RAF Bomber Command. It could fly further and higher, carried a greater bomb load, flew more sorties and inflicted greater damage than any other RAF bomber. The Lancaster was the brainchild of design genius Roy Chadwick. In 1941, aircraft manufacturer Avro in Manchester employed 40,000 people – mostly women – to build Lancasters. The conditions of work for women back then were very different from today.
Nothing prepares you for the reality. Noise, light, bangs, whoomps, thumps.”
– Flight Engineer Harry Cammish
Nearly 8000 Lancasters were produced. The bomber was powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. The Merlin was one of the world’s most reliable aircraft engines. Flight Lieutenant Jack t’Hart’s new Lancaster flew faultlessly through 22 ops and always got the crew home. It had a ton of power, which kept them out of trouble, said Jack, even on the notorious Nuremburg raid in 1944, when 95 of the 779 Lancasters were shot down, and 745 airmen were killed, captured, or injured.
The Lancaster had three machine-gun turrets and a crew of seven, and could carry a bomb load of up to 18,000lbs. Toward the end of the war, a common payload was the terrifying 12,000lb Tallboy bomb. The most famous Tallboy ‘kill’ – involving New Zealander Arthur Joplin and his crew from 617 Squadron – was the German battleship Tirpitz, sunk in a Norwegian fjord by Lancasters in 1944.
Lancasters carried out 156,000 missions during the war, dropping more than 600,000 tons of bombs. However, there was a high price – during four years of active service, 3249 Lancasters were lost in action, and 487 were destroyed or damaged while on the ground. A mere 24 aircraft completed 100 missions.
Conditions for the crew were challenging. It was cramped, noisy, unpressurised and very cold. Flight Engineer Harry Cammish said of his first op in a Lancaster: “Nothing prepares you for the reality. Noise, light, bangs, whoomps, thumps. I felt it best to keep busy filling in the log sheet calculating petrol consumption, and not looking out.”
Mid-upper gunner Harry Furner gives an idea what it was like to come under fighter attack, with nothing but a perspex dome for protection: “Most of the perspex in my turret was shattered, hydraulic pipes punctured, and I was blinded in both eyes by the perspex. I also received various shrapnel wounds to my arms and legs – in all, a bit of a mess.”
The four-engined bomber was a big target, not very agile, and easy to hit. The German fighters had powerful cannon and a radar screen on which they could see their target on the darkest night. The only defence a bomber had when attacked from astern was the four machine guns in the rear turret. Lancaster rear gunners, including New Zealand veteran Tom Whyte (101 Squadron), had one of the loneliest jobs in the War. Their casualty rates were always high.
Kiwis flew in the Lancaster bomber
Following the formation of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) in 1937, Kiwis who wanted to be airmen underwent Initial Training, then to Elementary Flying Schools to train in the Tiger Moth aircraft. The “graduates” of the first New Zealand training schemes saw action in the Battle of Britain and the first bombing raids over Germany. New Zealanders who served in Lancasters were trained at the Lancaster Finishing School in England, and were then posted to combat units, including 75 Squadron – an RNZAF outfit “donated” to RAF Bomber Command for the war.
Of the more than 6000 Kiwi aircrew who served with Bomber Command during the Second World War – many in Lancasters – around one third were killed, injured or taken prisoner. This was a similar casualty rate to that in the trenches during World War I. Despite the high attrition rate, New Zealand aircrews rarely spoke out about dangerous or terrifying operations. There was a feeling that they were somehow better off than other Kiwis fighting on the ground in the deserts of North Africa or in Italy.
Two tours (60 ops in a Lancaster) were considered enough for survivors to be posted to HQ or Training Commands. Many veterans say that their time in Bomber Command, with fellows sharing a common goal and united by the sense of adventure and danger, were the best days of their lives.
Airmen suffering from shell shock or who just “lost the plot”, and who weren’t picked up by the station doctor and pulled off flying duties, weren’t so fortunate, and faced the horrific charge of Lack of Moral Fibre. They were not discharged, rather, stripped of rank, they were forced into menial service, still with their battle ribbons on as these were conferred by the King.
Remaining Lancaster bomber aircraft
There are only two airworthy craft left in the world – one in Canada and one in Britain. They flew together for the last time in September 2014 in the UK as part of RAF commemorations.
Of the other 15 remaining complete Lancasters, one is in New Zealand. It is on permanent display at the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland. The aircraft was built in 1945, and the RAF sold it to France in 1952. In 1962 it was transferred to New Caledonia and caught the eye of Kiwi veterans when it visited Whenuapai. In 1964, the French donated the aircraft to New Zealand. It was dismantled, moved to the new MOTAT site and re-assembled for display. A group formed by ex-101 Squadron navigator John Barton maintained the aircraft for over 40 years.
In 1986, the NZ Bomber Command Association was formed, and, with president Bill Simpson at the controls, the “Save the Lancaster” project resulted in a specially-built hangar and pad at the MOTAT 2 site, and the aircraft was under cover by 1988.
After two decades of work and many thousands of hours by volunteers and veterans, the aircraft is fully restored and complete, in correct 1944 camouflage and markings.
More information on the Lancaster bomber in New Zealand
The book Kiwis do Fly (2010), by Peter Wheeler, administrator of the NZ Bomber Command Association is an excellent history of New Zealanders in RAF Bomber Command during World War II, with numerous photographs.
The Air Force Museum of New Zealand at Wigram in Christchurch is an award-winning museum holding the premier collection of New Zealand military aircraft and around one million related artefacts, archives and support equipment. The aircraft in the museum’s collection range from the iconic Spitfire to the unique Vildebeest, and workhorses such as the Dakota. The museum has recently launched a big upgrade. The flight simulators and behind-the-scenes tours to see restoration projects in action are recommended.
The Museum of Transport and Technology, Auckland needs little introduction. MOTAT is New Zealand’s largest transport, technology and social history museum. Spread across 40 acres, MOTAT offers interactive journeys to explore and discover the achievements that have helped shape New Zealand, from the 1800s to today.
Article reproduced with permission of NZME. Educational Media