"Each time I found myself on the battle order, the ordeal of waiting — an ordeal punctuated by the ritual of air test, briefing, and flying meal — seemed intensified, the muscles of the abdomen hardening until they felt like the extended ribs of a miniature umbrella. The tension would ease briefly as we finally got started and raced down the runway on takeoff, then it returned with redoubled force as we approached hostile territory, to reign supreme and worsen progressively as the trip wore on. Time moved with the glacial slowness that overtaxed nerves can occasion, making operational flying an exacting test of nerve and self control." — Murray Peden, RCAF Lancaster pilot
My first encounter with the venerable Lancaster was a wet Saturday afternoon when I was about seven or eight. Frustrated by the weather, I moped about the house until my mother, no doubt frustrated with having me under her feet, plonked me down in front of the telly saying that there was a film about to start that I might find fun to watch. That film, of course, was Michael Anderson's 'The Dam Busters'. At first I thought it rather boring but matters soon improved when things started blowing up (what small boy doesn't like explosions).
Then about half an hour in, we had the first shots of the Lancaster — I was hooked! To my eyes it looked impossibly huge: how could something like that fly? Being raised in London, I was well used to seeing aircraft overhead as they made their way to Heathrow but I wasn't really conscious of their real size. As the film progressed, I became more and more engrossed — real Boys Own stuff — and thrilled to the exploits of 617 Squadron. At the end I was as happy as a clam and professed to my mother what I thought of the marvellous story. When she told it wasn't a story but in fact true, I was shocked. As soon as I could, I rushed down to our local library and ordered Paul Brickhill's book, which wasn't in stock and had to be ordered in from a different library. I devoured the book from cover to cover and discovering that the story of 617 and the Lancaster went much deeper than that one raid was an exciting journey. I also remember that the local library got so fed up of me reordering the book that they ended up getting their own copy just to keep me happy and out of their hair. Of course, like most boys of my era, I was an avid collector of Airfix kits: I must have build at least three Lancasters which I hung from the ceiling of my bedroom.
As I got older, the sensation of Biggles-like derring-do gave way to the sobering realisation of the actual cost to the people who served in all the armed forces and in particular, the RAF and the other Commonwealth air forces. I came to appreciate the enormous sacrifice these people made on our behalf but I also became fascinated by the people who created the means to wage war in the air. Reginald J Mitchell: creator of the Spitfire, that most iconic of aircraft; Sidney Camm: the Hurricane, tough workhorse and superb all-rounder; Geoffrey de Havilland: the Mosquito a.k.a The Wooden Wonder, nimble and astonishingly fast for its day; Barnes Wallis: the Wellington, whose innovative geodesic construction could absorb huge amounts of battle damage and still bring her crew home and, of course, Roy Chadwick, father of the Lancaster. The skill and ingenuity of these men never ceased to amaze me and their tenacity in the face of a sometimes blinkered attitude of the Air Ministry to innovation was also a source of fascination.
And then I met VeRA…
When I first heard that VeRA was coming to the UK on tour I was excited: here was an opportunity to get up close and personal with the only other airworthy Lancaster in existence. I had seen PA474, a.k.a. City of Lincoln, fly several times before (and who hasn't been excited by the glorious sound of her four Merlins) but this was a unique chance to meet a beautiful lady of the skies and to see her in action. To my chagrin, I discovered that all the tickets for the event at Durham Tees Valley Airport, the former Middleton St George airfield, were sold out. To say I was disappointed would not be an exercise in hyperbole, but I managed to console myself with the fact that there would not doubt be a metric ton of YouTube videos and loads of photos and news reports available on the internet, so I could experience the event vicariously.
So there I was in my office working away on the day of her arrival at the airport when the phone rang. It was my friend Edsel Amlin telling me he'd managed to bag me a VIP ticket to the event and to get my backside down to the airport post haste for her arrival. Once I had managed to prise myself off the ceiling and my heart rate had returned to somewhat normal levels, I grabbed my camera rig and shot off to the airport.
Upon arrival Edsel briefed me as to what to expect: VeRA was coming in about 5:00pm and would then be parked up in Hanger No. 1 for a private viewing. Come the appointed time we all went off to the viewing area by the apron to await VeRA. Sure enough, at the appointed time she came out of the east, made a left hand circuit of the airfield and touched down right in front of us. I had a lump in my throat and I noticed that many of other people present were similarly affected. Since it was going to take a while before VeRA's ground crew could get her in the hanger, we repaired back to the hotel: I was in dire need of a pint by this time and I was delighted to see that Thwaites, one of VeRA's sponsors, had laid on a beer especially brewed for the occasion — Lancaster Bomber.
Then shortly before 7:00pm, we all went back to the airfield and waited until VeRA was ready. Since we were all going airside, there was some debate as to whether we'd all need to provide identification to the airport's security team, however, Geoff Hill — Chairman of the Middleton St George Memorial Association and a real gent if ever I met one — personally vouched for us all and so we made our way into Hanger No. 1. I can remember as I walked in through the side door of the hanger that I was acutely aware of what was coming up: the "reveal".
And there she was: 70 feet long, 102 feet across and squatting down on her landing gear looking every inch an angry weapon of war. Instantly my mind went back to all the stories and articles I had read about her exploits. The lump in my throat took on epic proportions but I forced it back down as I walked up to her. As I laid my hand on her fuselage, it was all I could do to hold back the tears: I am an athiest by conviction but I said a prayer to the universe thanking all those souls from all nations who made the ultimate sacrifice.
As I waited to get to see inside VeRA, I got in conversation with an elderly veteran Lancaster pilot of some 90 years who told me of an incident when his own Lancaster was in the shop and he'd had to borrow one for a mission from a crew who were then on leave. The plane was returned riddled with bullet holes, whereupon the original crew, incenced at the damage to their beloved aircraft, engaged in fisticuffs in the officer's mess with his crew. When it came to his turn to get inside VeRA, he gingerly climbed the access ladder into the starboard crew hatch and half way up, glanced to his left and said, "Where's the bloody Elsan?", a comment that evoked much hilarity from the rest of us.
He spent a good fifteen minutes inside VeRA, as befits a man of his stature, came out grinning like a thief and looking like forty years had dropped off his face. If he could have fired up the Merlins and gunned VeRA down the runway, he would have done so. I bitterly regret not making myself aware of his name but he is featured in the gallery — sir, I salute you.
Then it was my turn. Heart beating, I climbed into VeRA and took my first look inside a Lancaster. There were still people up front so I had to queue up to get to the cockpit. First impression was that you couldn't swing a cockroach, let alone a cat, inside: it's incredibly claustrophobic! I negotiated my way over the infamous main wing spar; difficult enough when dressed in civvies and with the plane on the ground but must have been murder in full flying gear at 20,000ft over enemy territory. Finally I got to the cockpit and was once again amazed at the cramped conditions. I then decided to take a trip into the bomb aimer's position, which requires the right-hand seat, normally occupied by the flight engineer, to be folded back against the side of the plane to allow access to the forward gunner and bomb aimer's positions. Compared to the rest of the aircraft, this area is comparatively roomy. Unfortunately, unlike an experienced crew, I did not realise the correct way of descending into this space and managed to bark my left shin on the bulkhead which lead to a rather large contusion — a small price to pay for the privilege. I even imagined myself lying on my front with the "penny bombsight" used by 617 over the dams and marvelled at how those lads ever achieved the success they did.
With the evening drawing to a close, I retired home to offload my camera and prepare for the next day.
The following morning I awoke early (not an easy prospect for a natural night owl) and made my way back to MSG. The first order of business, apart from finding a source of caffeine (successful) and locating a bacon sandwich (abject failure), was to identify the program for the day. This started with a memorial service for all the servicemen and women who served at MSG during the war. As a photographer I have learned to distance myself from the emotion of such events and yet I found that, despite my best intentions, I had an emotional investment in the proceedings. Two things in particular stick out in my mind: first, a recording of a speech given by a Canadian chaplain in 1985: one of the most moving tributes to The Fallen I have ever heard. The other was the tribute paid by Phil Etheridge — one of VeRA's restoration crew from Chartright Air Group and whose father Norm was lead engineer — to his mother who died a few weeks previously. She was a tireless supporter of the project and Phil's beautiful eulogy to his mother, whose ashes were laid to rest in the small memorial flowerbed next to Mynarski's statue, was heartbreaking. The moment when the RCAF's standard was gently laid over the flowerbed in tribute had me choking up.
Finally we get to the grand event: 3000+ people assembled on the apron to watch VeRA start up. One by one, her Merlins sprung to life and cleared their collective throats: truly there is no more wonderful sound than the Merlin (although a Griffon comes mighty close). A few minutes was spent completeing the pre-flight checks and then she trundled off to the other side of the apron for clearance. She then rolled out onto the active, turned into the wind, and then throttled up and started her takeoff roll. She got about halfway down and then she was off. Unlike most aircraft, which pitch nose up on takeoff, VeRA just rises into the air almost parallel to the ground much like the Boeing B52, and only starts to pitch up a few hundred feet off the ground, On the ground, the Lancaster is somewhat ungainly: in the air, she is clearly in her element. For a heavy bomber, she displays a remarkable grace and agility, something her pilot Don Schofield from the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum was anxious to demonstrate.
Her first run over the airfield took her right over Andrew Mynarski's statue where she dipped her wings in tribute, a fact that escaped most of the people present. She continued to turn and twist over the airfield, delighting the assembled crowd with her performance, one that belied her advanced years. Her final pass over the airfield came out of the north east: with all four Merlins at full throttle, VeRA rolled into a 40° starboard wingover (an absolute crowd pleaser move) before turning to port for her final circuit for landing. Rolling back onto the apron, she faced the audience and shut down her engines, whereupon the entire crowd broke into sustained and tumultuous applause. If there was a dry eye on the airfield, I didn't see one — mine certainly weren't!
The rest of the day was spent looking at the other exhibits on the airfield. There was a static display of a running Roll-Royce Griffon (38 litres of V12 snarling fury) and a partly restored Mark IX Spitfire which, for a donation of £1 towards her restoration (I gave £5 — hey, it's a Spitfire!), you could sit in the cockpit and wonder how on earth pilots managed see enough over the engine to get the ruddy thing off the ground without giving themselves neck ache.
Finally, it was time to go. I said my goodbyes to the friends I had made over the two days and with legs aching from all the tramping about I had done, and ears still ringing from the sound of the Merlin, I climbed into a taxi to begin my journey home.
My visit to see VeRA would not have been possible without the wonderful generosity of Edsel Amlin — Standard Bearer for the Royal Candian Air Force, and Joanne Agar —manager of the St George Hotel. I would also like to thank Phil Etheridge for the story behind her restoration, Betty Amlin for her personel observations of the period, Bruce Dickson for insight into the life of a Lancaster pilot, Geoff Hill for some of the background to Middleton St George, and to Mark Chandler, RAF historian and reenactor, for giving me a glimpse into the life of a typical RAF aircrew of the period. To those others I spoke with, but neglected to discover names, I thank you too.
The Lancaster was Britain's pre-eminent heavy bomber of WWII. Designed by Roy Chadwick at Avro, she grew out of the disastrous Manchester, a twin-engined bomber developed earlier. The Manchester's main fault lay in her engines, the Rolls-Royce Vulture. Underpowered for its size and with a hideously unreliable engine, the Manchester became the bête noir of the crews that flew her. Some 25% of the 202 Manchesters built were lost to incidents on take-off or landing and a further 40% were lost operationally.
Chadwick had never been happy about the Vulture engine and so went about redesigning her to accommodate four Merlins. Despite Merlin production being entirely devoted to supplying Hurricanes and Spitfires at that time, Chadwick nonetheless managed to acquire four Merlins and he and his team set about building the Manchester's replacement.
By lengthening the wing's centre section by twelve feet and retaining the Manchester 1A's twin tail fins, the Lancaster was born. The improvement was immediately apparent and the plane was reckoned to be, like the Spitfire, one of the very few aircraft that was 'right' from the start. Despite her size the Lancaster was a remarkably easy aircraft to fly, so much so that, despite having dual controls, only a single pilot was required. In an emergency, she could be flown by the flight engineer or radio operator.
The most important feature of the Lancaster was her unobstructed bomb bay. Unlike her contemporaries, the Short Stirling and the Handley Page Halifax, the 33 foot-long single bay could accommodate a wide variety of loads. This versatility is perhaps best epitomised by Upkeep — the infamous 'bouncing bomb' — and the Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs, the latter being the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used operationally in WWII. Her enormous strength enabled her to loft almost her own weight in ordinance and fuel, an achievement unmatched by any other aircraft, and her ability to soak up considerable amounts of battle damage meant that crews survived that otherwise would have been lost in lesser planes. On the return from a raid, and after having to feather two of the engines, one flight engineer remarked , "I suppose this means we shall be bloody late for breakfast!"
Of the 7,377 Lancasters built, 3,932 were lost to enemy action or around 53%. She flew 153,306 operational sorties and delivered 64% of the total tonnage dropped by Bomber Command during WWII, around 608,612 tons. She also served many non-operational duties towards the end of the war and beyond, most importantly ferrying food to the Dutch in May 1945 and repatriating some 74,000 Allied POWs after the end of hostilities. She continued to serve with the RAF, mostly performing photographic and maritime reconnaisance duties, until her retirement from active service in October 1956. The Royal Canadian Air Force continued to use her in similar roles until April 1964.
In peacetime, the Lancaster has also had a number of film roles: PA474 has been in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Operation Crossbow (1965), but perhaps the Lancaster's most famous appearance was in The Dam Busters (1955). Those same three aircraft — NX673, NX679 and NX782 — were also used in the earlier Appointment in London (1953). Just Jane — NX611 — has also made numerous appearances in TV documentaries .
The Lancaster also occupies a rather curious footnote in the history of the Manhattan Project. Norman Ramsey, leader of the Delivery group which had been tasked with the design of the bombs' casings and delivery systems, observed that the proposed size of Thin Man—the gun-type weapon that was to use plutonium rather than U-235—was going to be at least 17 feet long. The only bomber currently in service anywhere with a large enough bomb bay was the Lancaster (the B29 was still in development and thus not available to conduct the necessary drop-tests on dummy bombs). Ramsey's request to the U.S. Air Force for a Lancaster was turned down flat: they were not about to let a British aircraft introduce this new weapon to the world, despite that fact that British physicists and engineers were major contributors to the Manhattan Project.
As it turned out, Thin Man proved to be completely impractical from the physics perspective, so attention turned to Fat Man. Ramsey still wanted to use the Lancaster to conduct full-scale drop-tests on Fat Man's casing but again his request was rejected, even though the B29s then coming off the production line still required extensive modification to accomodate the bomb. In a final ironic twist, the bomb release mechanism in the modified B29s proved to be inadequate with several full-scale models falling off the mountings in flight, so the engineers were forced to use the bomb release gear… from a Lancaster!
Without this remarkable aircraft, and the extraordinary bravery and skill of the crews who flew and serviced her, the outcome of the war would have been very different.
The average cost of a Lancaster in 1943 was £42,000 (the similar-sized B17 Flying Fortress cost around £59,000). She required 5,000 tons of aluminium during manufacture and carried enough radio and radar equipment to manufacture 1,000,000 domestic radios of the period. Each aircrew cost around £10,000 to train and the costs to fuel, arm and service a single Lancaster for an operational sortie added £13,000. Therefore, some calculations show that the approximate total cost of the Lancasters, crew training and loading out for each operational sortie amounted to some £2.38 billion, or about £97.5 billion today. It is estimated that the total cost of WWII to the British economy was about £30 trillion (some £1.23 quadrillion today). Globally, the entire conflict cost about £322 trillion, or around £13.2 quadrillion in today's prices.
VeRA is a Mark X Lancaster built in Canada by Victory Aircraft Ltd — one of 430 built by the company — and powered by four Packard-built Merlin 224s. Originally badged as FM213, she now carries the number KB726 and the squadron mark VR-A in honour of Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski VC. After suffering a heavy landing in 1952, her centre section was replaced with parts from KB895. She is owned and operated by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Mount Hope, Ontario.