January 9, 1941: The Avro Lancaster, the “Greatest Bomber” of World War II Makes its First Flight

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A Brief History

On January 9, 1941, the premier British bomber of World War II, the Avro Lancaster, made its maiden flight.  “The Lanc,” as it was known, was the main British bomber that carried the war to Germany.

Digging Deeper

With its enormous bomb bay, the Lancaster was capable of carrying the biggest bomb load and the largest single bomb.  It was the only airplane of the war that could haul “blockbuster” giant bombs of 8,000, 12,000, and 22,000 pounds, while also carrying all the conventional bombs as well as anti-ship mines, incendiaries (fire bombs), and the “dam buster” specialty bomb for attacking dams.  The versatile 4-engine heavy bomber was powered by the famous Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that also powered the Mustang and Spitfire fighters.  

A Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster B Mark I (Special) (PB996 ‘YZ-C’) of No. 617 Squadron RAF, flown by Flying Officer P. Martin and crew, releasing a 22,000-lb (10,000 kg) MC deep-penetration bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword ‘Grand Slam’) over the viaduct at Arnsberg, Germany.  The viaduct was attacked on 15 March with one bomb in poor weather, with no hits. It was destroyed four days later, using 6 “Grand Slam” and 13 “Tallboy” bombs.

The Lancaster was defended by 4 electric-powered turrets containing 2 Browning .303 machine guns each, except for the tail turret that had 4 machine guns.  The bomber had originally been designed with a “belly” turret, but when that proved impractical, it was quickly removed.  Its normal armament of 8 x .303 caliber machine guns was far lighter, however, than the 12 or more .50 caliber guns that defended the American B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers.  All 3 of those planes had similar speed and performance though.

Later, when the Germans exploited the lack of defensive firepower under the bombers, the resourceful British airmen often jury rigged a .50 caliber or 20mm machine gun to fire at fighters who attacked from below.

Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster B I PA474 of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.  Photograph by Kogo.

Although used mostly as a night bomber, the Lancaster was sometimes used for precision daylight targets as well, especially when it carried the Tall Boy and Grand Slam “earthquake” bombs.  Over 7,300 of these rugged airplanes were built at a cost of around £ 50,000 each.  The last Lancaster was retired from service by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1963.

British veterans claim the Lancaster was the greatest bomber of World War II, or even of all time, while American fans of B-17s and B-24s point out the heavier defensive firepower and greater numbers of the U.S. bombers.  Either way, the Lancaster is certainly the greatest British bomber, and you can decide for yourself if it eclipsed the Flying Fortress and LiberatorQuestion for students (and subscribers): Please let us know what you think in the comments section below this article.

B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 398th Bombardment Group flying a bombing mission to Neumünster, Germany, on 13 April 1945.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see...

Holmes, Harry.  Avro Lancaster (Combat Legends).  The Crowood Press, 2005.

The featured image in this article, three 44 Squadron Avro Lancaster B.Is in 1942, is photograph TR 197 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.   Left to right: W4125,`KM-W’, being flown by Sergeant Colin Watt, Royal Australian Air Force; W4162,`KM-Y’, flown by Pilot Officer T.G. Hackney (later killed while serving with No. 83 Squadron); and W4187,`KM-S’, flown by Pilot Officer J.D.V.S. Stephens DFM, who was killed with his crew two nights later during a raid on Wismar.  This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain, because it is one of the following:

  1. It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
  2. It was published prior to 1969; or
  3. It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1969.

HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide (ref: HMSO Email Reply).  More information.

See also Copyright and Crown copyright artistic works.

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.