raf world war 2
Aviation History

The Avro Lancaster In All Its Glory: Stats And Facts

An icon of WW2, learn about the specifications of the Lancaster bomber, and how it got its name.

raf world war 2

The Avro Lancaster bomber first came into service in March 1942 and, as the main RAF heavy bomber, soon became as iconic a part of the British air war as the Supermarine Spitfire.

What Were The Dimensions Of The Lancaster?

The aircraft was 69 feet 4 inches long (21.11 metres), 102 ft wide (31.09 m) and 20 ft 6 in height (6.25 m).

How Fast Was The Lancaster?

According to BAE System's heritage page on the Lancaster bomber, entitled 'Avro 683 Lancaster', it could reach speeds of up to 282 mph (454 km/h) at at a weight of 63,000 lb on its four Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 engines. (Although this varied by altitude, and these figures are for the Lancaster I - weights varied with later models).

How Many Models Or Variants Of The Lancaster Were There?

BAE lists 15 other variants besides the 683 base model. These were the B.1, B.1 Special, the PR.1B1 for photographic reconnaissance, the B.1 (FE), modified for the tropics, B.II, B.III, B.III Special, the air-sea rescue variants ASR.III and ASR.3N.III, the maritime recon models GR.3 and MR.3, and the models B.IV, B.VII and B.X, the latter of which was built in Canada, as was the B.XV, of which, only one was produced).

What Was The Maximum Weight Of The Bombs The Lancaster Bomber Could Carry?

The aircraft had an impressive lifting capacity. Weighing 36,900 lb empty (or 16,738 kg), it was able to haul an additional 33,100 lb (or 15,014 kg) in fuel and bombs. The Lancaster had a long, unobstructed bomb bay that allowed it to carry the RAF's largest bombs, up to and including the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) blockbusters, one of which could destroy an entire street or large building.

The impressive bomb hauling capacity meant that Lancasters could be modified to carry the bouncing bombs used in Operation Chastise (the 'Dambusters' raid) against the Ruhr Valley dams. In fact, later on, the Lancaster was able to haul the 22,000-lb Grand Slam Earthquake bomb.

Illustration of the Dambusters raid (image from 'Dambusters: Operation Chastise 1943' by Doug Dildy © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

How Many Lancaster Bombers Were Made?

Air Marshal Arthur 'Bomber' Harris may have stepped up the bombing campaign against Germany with his first "1,000 bomber raid" against Cologne in May, 1942, but he couldn't sustain assaults on this scale.

Britain was only able to produce 7,377 Lancasters during the war, at a cost of £45,000 to £50,000 each (around £2 million today.)

How Did The Lancaster Bomber Get Its Name?

The Lancaster design was an improvement upon the twin-engined Avro Manchester bomber. The two Vulture engines in the Manchester were switched out for four Merlin ones, and production, for the most part, done in Lancashire before final assembly in Cheshire. Lancaster is the county town for Lancashire and the name of the aircraft derives from here.

The mass bomber raid on Cologne (image: The National Archives UK)

How Many Lancasters Were Shot Down?

According to Bomber Command Museum, over half of the Lancasters produced, 3,932 of them, were shot down during the war, at a total cost of £186,770,000 (or £7,397,375,152 when adjusted for inflation).

What About Aircrews?

Infinitely worse than the material cost was the scale of human loss. The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund lists 55,573 men as having died serving with Bomber Command during the war.

Many were from Britain, but men - mostly in their late teens - also came from Commonwealth countries and included those who'd escaped from Nazi occupation in Poland, France, and Czechoslovakia.

This is more people than all the personnel who serve in the whole of the RAF today. 

Aircrew and ground crew for a Lancaster with the Royal Canadian Air Force

What Was The Plane Used In The Dambusters Raid?

The most famous Lancaster bomber mission was undertaken by 617 Squadron against the Ruhr Valley in Germany and was officially dubbed 'Operation Chastise'. According to Channel 4's 'The Dambusters', as crews then did without modern computerised equipment and had to calculate using maps, compasses, pencils and rulers, flying in a World War 2 sortie was akin to taking "a seven-hour maths exam in the dark while being shot at".

These difficulties were intrinsic to all bombing missions, though, for the pilots of Operation Chastise, the Dambusters raid had the additional challenge of having to be flown a mere 100 feet off the ground to avoid radar. 

The Mohne Dam of the Ruhr Valley blown open after Operation Chastise

Besides Bombs, What Other Weapons Was The Lancaster Armed With?

Unlike its American counterpart, the B-17G, which bristled with an impressive 13 .50-caliber machine guns, the Lancaster only had 10 such guns, in three sets of twin-gun turrets located on the belly (ventral guns), on top (dorsal guns), and in the nose, and a set of four guns in the tail. These were M1919 Browning machine guns with 1000 rounds each, or enough for roughly two minutes of continuous firing. 

The tail gun on a restored Lancaster (image by Per from Thunder Bay, Canada)

How Many Aircrew Flew In A Lancaster Bomber?

Lancasters were also crewed by fewer men than the 10-man B-17s. A pilot and flight engineer would be in the cockpit, with the bomb-aimer on his stomach in the compartment underneath them, aiming and releasing bombs as well as the front machine-gun. Tucked behind the pilot and flight engineer was the navigator, and near him was the wireless operator, who also fired the dorsal guns when necessary. Rounding out the 7-man crew were the ventral and rear gunners at the back of the plane.

Conditions were tough. The impressive haulage capacity meant a trade off in armour plating, so crews were vulnerable to enemy fire, and the cold.

At 20,000 feet, temperatures inside the cramped aircraft could plummet to minus 40, potentially leading to frostbite. 

How Many Lancaster Bombers Are There Left In The World Today?

Today there are only 17 surviving Lancaster bombers in the world, but only two of them are able to fly. Second World War enthusiast Martin Willoughby spent seven years and £250,000 constructing a replica Lancaster for last year's Armed Forces Day.

To learn more about Operation Chastise, read Osprey's 'Raid 16 Dambusters Operation Chastise 1943' by Doug Dildy. Cover image from the book, illustrated by Howard Gerrard and Mariusz Kozik.