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During the 1930’s few would have foreseen that Britain would be as isolated and vulnerable as it became in 1940. Indeed, few people today understand how threatened the future of the entire free world was. The situation for the beleaguered island at this point in its history was bleak indeed.

Offshore was an enemy held continent, and that enemy was bent on conquering the British Isles. The British army had been defeated in France, supplies from North America were being cut off by the enemy’s fleet of submarines, and Britain was suffering heavy air attack. Furthermore, although Canada had declared war on Germany one week after the British declaration, the United States continued to remain neutral and showed little indication that it would become involved.

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Faced with this situation during the summer of 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill threw his support behind the defensive power of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command and the development of Bomber Command with the words: “The Navy can lose us the war, but only the Air Force can win it. Therefore our supreme effort must be to gain overwhelming mastery in the air. The Fighters are our salvation, but the Bombers alone provide the means of victory.” With this decision a massive effort was begun towards the production of heavy bombers and the training of aircrew to fly them.

The Avro Lancaster evolved from Britain’s concerns regarding the deteriorating international situation during the late 1930’s. The Handley-Page Halifax, Short Stirling, and the twin-engined Avro Manchester were all in the planning stages as the war began in 1939. The prototype twin-engined Manchester flew in 1939 but was plagued by instability and problems with its complex, 24 cylinder Rolls Royce Vulture engines. Of the 202 Manchesters built more were lost to engine failure than enemy action.

But even before the Manchester flew on operations, the aircraft’s designer, Roy Chadwick, realized that the aircraft would have serious shortcomings and made plans for its modification. He added twelve feet to the wingspan and replaced the two troublesome Vulture engines with four of the proven Rolls Royce Merlins V-12’s and the result was the Lancaster which made its maiden flight in January, 1941. A colleague later wrote that Chadwick, “showed himself to be a most resourceful and courageous designer, ultimately snatching success from failure in the most ingenious way with a superlatively successful operational aircraft.”

The new bomber was immediately regarded as a success and large production orders were placed. Avro’s production facilities were soon overwhelmed, and numerous other companies and contractors joined the effort to produce Lancasters. Consisting of 55,000 separate parts, it has been estimated that half a million different manufacturing operations were involved to produce just one aircraft. Peak production was achieved during August 1944 when 293 aircraft were produced.

Lancasters first flew operationally in March 1942 and were well received by their aircrew. It was regarded as “a pilot’s airplane” which inspired confidence. Evidence of this is the story of a Lanc flight engineer who, having feathered two engines and facing the prospect of flying over several hundred miles of cold, unfriendly ocean, turned to his pilot and said, “I suppose this means we shall be bloody late for breakfast!”

The proven Rolls Royce Merlin engines were much in demand for many types of aircraft. For this reason a version of the aircraft was produced which made use of Bristol Hercules radial engines.

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