Sunday, 11 April 2010

Icons of the Air............

The Avro Lancaster

The Lancaster is one of the icons of British aviation. Along with the Spitfire and possibly the Hurricane, it's known to every boy of my generation and the one before at the very least. It's burned into the consciousness of the nation as one of the key aircraft of the second world war.  Like the Spitfire, with whom it shares it's power supply, just the sound of it's Rolls-Royce Merlin engines even now, sixty five years after the end of the war, can bring tears of nostalgia and evoke sentimental lumps in the throats of grown men.

Don't believe me?

Then go to any airshow where the Battle Of Britain Memorial flight makes an appearance and take a look at the reaction of the crowds. Their status is burned in the national psyche and the history of WWII, their names synonymous with courage and fighting spirit in the air.

And it's not just old airmen who react that way.  It's a  {certainly now declining}  number of people who remember those times when dozens, hundreds even of those aircraft laden with brave men and terrible cargo lumbered into the air, engines straining, to carry the war to Hitler and Nazi Germany night after night, day after day, week after week and month after month. Perhaps they were too young to fight, but  looked up at the sound from school desk, farm yard or city street. Perhaps they heard the sound as they fell asleep at night or as they woke in the morning to start their daily routine. Some perhaps remember  childhood stories told by older relatives, tales of wartime Britain in those dark old days of long ago.

If the sound of one old aeroplane can make people feel like that all these years later, how must have swarms of hundreds of them sounded?  For those on the flight paths across the country as these flying beasts gathered, did ears pound, chests vibrate?  Did walls shake and windows rattle as they heaved themselves higher in the skies and faded in the distance.  Reassurance to country folk?  Comfort to Londoners in return for what was done to them?  Relief to soldiers and those living in occupied countries, to those in POW  and concentration camps perhaps?  A very real sign that the fight was definitely not over?

It's amazing with the wisdom of hindsight to think that for all it's iconic status now, the Avro Lancaster  was very nearly  consigned to the bin of aviation history as an unworkable design, an impractical solution and an irredeemable project. That it survived and prospered was down to one man; its designer Roy Chadwick. That it's potential was recognised and devastatingly fulfilled was down to another; air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur {Bomber} Harris. Neither are well known to the general public these days, although one is much more likely to be reviled, if recognised at all, as the architect of the bombing of German towns and cities and the destroyer of Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden, among many more, along with large parts of their civilian populations. Both shared singular vision and dogged self belief which allowed them to overcome or ignore any criticisms. 
Roy Chadwick.

Roy Chadwick was chief designer for A.V. Roe, one of the best known aircraft manufacturers of the time. The company was responsible for the design and production of aircraft such as the Avro Anson which was widely used by RAf - 26 sqns at start of WWII - and especially for training bomber crews on two engine machines before moving on to 4 engines. Ultimately what he created in the Lancaster was the perfect design for the technology of the day. For all its size, the Lancaster was surprisingly maneuverable, and was even compared to the Spitfire by those who flew it.

Michael Maltin, pilot with 550 Sqn said,

"You used to treat that aircraft like a Spitfire. You couldn't break that aircraft. The more you threw it about and made the crew sick, the more they liked it. The Lancaster was magnificent."

Pilots likened the feel and handling to a nimble fighter plane and the crews responded by their feelings of confidence in the Lancaster's ability to withstand combat damage and to be pushed beyond recognised limits with impunity when the situation demanded it. It was an incredibly sturdy aircraft, able to withstand enormous stresses when put into evasive maneuvers and yet was powerful enough and responsive enough to be flown in a victory roll as proven by the chief test pilot for Avro who would do this as his party trick. It must have been quite something to see.

Another similarity with the Spitfire is that it developed from something less than perfect; the first  design of Reginald J. Mitchells world beating fighter was described as 'a dogs breakfast',  but like the lancaster, from something less than mediocre came something incredible. In the case of the Lancaster, even more so as it would not have been built at all if not for Chadwick. Unusual even for those days, the design for the Lancaster was Chadwicks alone, it's first incarnation, known as the 'Avro Manchester' with it's two unreliable and poorly performing engines was seen by the air ministry as a disaster. They were keen to have Avro switch production to the established Handley Page Halifax, and yet Chadwick was able to convince the managing director of Avro so completely that the same design with bigger wings, carrying 4 better engines would be something incredible, that Avro resisted that pressure and began production of the Lancaster without a contract and without the support of the Air Ministry who gave them no instruction to develop the ill fated Manchester further. It was to all intents and purposes a private venture, putting the future of the company at risk. And yet, Chadwick and Dobson, the company MD, were not only able to continue in the face of lack of support, if not open hostility from the Air Ministry, but to overcome their resistance with the sheer brilliance of his design and to quickly win the support of those who flew it and saw it in demonstrations and trials. Changing the opinion of an entrenched Government view was no easier then than today, and to do so in a wartime situation must have taken energy and self belief of incredible proportions.

Chadwick, who also designed one of the post war icons of British aviation, the 'Vulcan' bomber, was tragically killed in 1947,  on take off on a test flight for another of his designs. Thrown from the aircraft 60 yards through the air he hit a tree and sustained fatal  injuries, ironically the same fate of many wartime aircrew who flew in Lancasters. He was just 54.

Who knows what other incredible aviation designs might have come from his pen.

One other man who saw the potential of the Lancaster design very quickly and who's support was instrumental in the future development of the aircraft was Arthur {bomber} Harris, who identified and shared Chadwick's conviction of the potential of this new and improved 'Manchester', ensuring that effectively, all other bombers would become obsolete and production of the Lancaster would become the most important activity in British aircraft manufacture once the battle of Britain had been won.

Harris was named the commander-in-chief of Bomber Command in February 1942. In this role, he executed Prime Minister Winston Churchill's directives to bomb German cities unrestrained. Developing new tactics, Harris' Bomber Command launched massive raids which, without the kind of technology that prevents such things in modern warfare, destroyed large portions of German urban areas and killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as damaged the Nazi war machine. A controversial figure after the war due to the severity of Bomber Command's final raids and his absolute belief that it was right and necessary to destroy civilian as well as military targets, Harris was beloved by his men - even though they called him 'Butch' in recognition of his stubborn determination, self belief, and in recognition of his preparedness to sustain horrific casualty rates within his men to achieve his aims.

Harris, given the instruction to carry the war to Germany 'without restriction' by Winston Churchill, resisted any and all attempts to move away from 'area bombing' - the complete destruction of wide sections of towns and cities. In any event, in  the early part of the war, the ability to attack with pinpoint accuracy did not exist, even in daylight, and the vulnerability of the bombers to attack had forced the RAF to move to mainly night time attacks, making accuracy even more difficult. Although implacable in pushing the attacks he also was acutely aware of the losses and vulnerability of his crews and, for example, frustrated by the Air Ministries lack of understanding and willingness to improve the rear gun turret to make it a better defensive weapon, personally instructed, and partially designed, an improved two gun turret variant which gave the rear gunners much more fire power and a better field of vision, even providing the manufacturer with funds to complete the task. All because he believed he was right. He was seen by many in RAF high Command as a law unto himself.

At the end of the war he was devastated when in his victory speech, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, carefully praised every section of the armed forces and RAF except Bomber command, who were never once mentioned. This was political maneuvering by Churchill to distance himself from the furore about the mass destruction of Dresden in particular where public sentiment had been whipped up by the reporting of statistics provided by Goebbles which later proved to be fantastically exaggerated. The destruction of Dresden, horrific though it was, was felt by Harris as simply part of the pursuing of 'total war' on an enemy who had shown little mercy in bombing cities across Europe in several years of aggression. He had, in any case, been instructed by Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff to have the city placed on the list of approved targets after the Yalta conference when Stalin had requested this in support of the Red Army offensive from the East.

When it became clear that, in a further snub, Bomber Command were not going to have a specific campaign medal struck to honour the extremely high losses and the critical part played in speeding the wars end, Harris wrote an extremely angry letter to Portal - chief of the Airforce - in which he stated that if his men's service and honourable sacrifice were not good enough to be recognised it would be his intention to refuse any offer of a  peerage as it would be unseemly for him to be honoured when aircrews were not. He said " it was an insult never to be forgotten,even if it is forgiven"

Promoted to Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1946, he retired that September to write his memoirs. For the remainder of his life he defended Bomber Command's actions during the war stating that they were in line with the "total war" initiated by the Germans.

Despite protests from Germany as well as some in Britain,  the Bomber Harris Trust   (an RAF veterans' organisation formed to defend the good name of their commander)   erected a statue of him outside the RAF Church of St. Clement Danes, London in 1992.  It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother who looked surprised when she was jeered by protesters. The line on the statue reads "The Nation owes them all an immense debt." The statue had to be kept under 24 hour guard for a period of months as it was often vandalised by protesters angry at a statue commemorating someone they believed was a war criminal.

During WWII 7,377 Lancasters were produced. After the end of WWII it would never be used offensively by the RAF again. The last true lancaster flew its final mission in 1955.

Post war, the Lancaster was modified and used as a highly effective coastal command aircraft in the guise of the 'Shackleton' and as such its iconic profile would continue to be seen for many years around the coasts of Great Britain and became familiar to me as a child. After 39 years service, the noisy but impressive Shackleton held the distinction of being the aircraft with the longest period of active RAF service, until overtaken by the English Electric Canberra in 1998..........

1 comment:

coastkid said...

i was born in 1971 and i feel a watery eye at the sight of the memorial planes and the noise of those merlins...
a great tribute to brave men who flew amazing machines designed by genuis designers...

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