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5 Great British Bombers from WWII
As tensions grew across Europe during the Second World War, it became clear that the United Kingdom would need a greater defence structure, not just on land and sea, but also in the air.
Although the Battle of Britain only lasted three months and three weeks, the ferocity and relentless waves of aerial attacks by the German Luftwaffe highlighted the growing need for more aggressive defence in the form of medium and heavy bombers, not just fighter planes like the Spitfire and the Hurricane.
In September 1940, during the height of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill addressed the cabinet in a memo, and stated, ‘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.’
What followed was a considerable investment into bombers to join the ranks of the RAF fighter squadrons. Reactive and adaptive aviation design championed the ingenuity of British engineering and ensured that British bombers continued to dominate the skies throughout the Second World War.
Here are five of those groundbreaking bombers that helped to win the war.
First flight: January 1941
Removed from service: October 1956
Perhaps the most famous of all the British heavy bombers, the Avro Lancaster was created by British aviation architect Roy Chadwick. Having completed the design of the Avro Manchester, a twin-engined heavy bomber, Chadwick realised that the plane would fall short of what was needed to defend Britain before the plane had even flown any operations. As it turned out, Chadwick was right. Instability and inferior engines meant that most Avro Manchesters that undertook missions were lost to engine failure, not enemy fire.
Increasing the wingspan, updating and adding two extra engines, and learning from the failures of the Manchester, Chadwick’s Lancaster bomber flew its maiden voyage in January 1941. An immediate success, mass orders for Lancasters were placed, with over 7,370 aircraft built throughout the war.
The most successful bomber of the Second World War, the Lancaster had room for a crew of seven men, boasted no less than eight Browning machine guns, and could carry an impressive payload of 15,000kg in fuel and bombs. With a top speed of 454km per hour and a range of 4,000km, it was a swift craft whose larger payload capacity meant more opportunities for successful missions.
As the war progressed, Lancasters were easily modified to carry the infamous ‘Grand Slam’ bombs weighing 10,000kg a piece. Lancasters flew over 156,000 raids and dropped 608,000 tonnes of explosive bombs and over 50 million incendiary bombs. They weren’t just used for bombing raids, but also took on missions such as Operation Manna and Operation Chowhound to drop humanitarian aid and food packages into the occupied Netherlands.
First flight: June 1936
Removed from service: March 1953
The only British-made bomber that stayed in production throughout World War II, the Vickers Wellington was the most mass-produced. With a top speed of 408km per hour and a range of approximately 1,150km, the Wellington was a twin-engine bomber equipped with a two-gun nose turret, two-gun rear turret, and two waist guns. With its crew of up to five men, there was a payload capacity of 2,000kg.
Once surpassed in bombing raids by the bigger heavy bombers like the Lancaster, the Wellington bomber wasn’t restricted to the bombing raids run by Bomber Command. Wellingtons fitted with the Leigh Light (a powerful searchlight) could spot surface vessels and submarines in the dark, while DWI Wellingtons fitted with large magnetic rings acted as minesweepers.
On 30th May 1940, the first 1,000 bomber raid on Germany took to the skies. Of the 1,000 aircraft used that day, 602 Wellingtons flew alongside the eight other types.
In total, Over 11,460 Vickers Wellingtons were manufactured, with one produced in just 23 hours and 50 minutes for newsreel propaganda.
First flight: April 1935
Removed from service: 1944
The Bristol Blenheim was one of the first British-manufactured aircraft that was made of an all-metal stressed skin. The only British bomber to have featured in all theatres of the Second World War, the light bomber proved to be a multi-use aircraft.
As well as bombing raids, the Blenheim was used by the first night-fighting squadron in the world, no. 25 Squadron, and also boasted the first confirmed aerial kill whilst carrying radar. As the more capable heavy bombers were incorporated into Bomber Command, the light bomber continued to prove useful, albeit in a different way.
Decoy ‘Rhubarb’ and ‘Circus’ operations feinted a large bombing raid to draw enemy aircraft away from occupied Europe, allowing smaller but more effective heavy bomber raids to slip past unnoticed. This allowed missions deep into enemy territory a greater chance of success as fighter planes could only escort the bigger bombers for the first 200 miles of a mission, leaving them exposed before they reached their targets.
Starting to be phased out of Bomber Command in 1942, the Bristol Blenheim was the ideal aircraft for drawing attention.
First flight: May 1939
Removed from service: 1946
The Short Stirling received a mixed reception as the first British four-engined heavy bomber to be produced. Typically flown by a crew of seven, the Short Stirling had an impressive range of around 3,750km when stocked with a 4,500kg payload and could reach a top speed of around 450km per hour.
Praised for its handling and ability to outmanoeuvre enemy night fighters, the Stirling Short was popular among its crews. However, it had a design flaw that saw it quickly relegated to second-line duties. Despite its capacity and range allowing it to travel deeper into enemy airspace, its thicker wings meant that it had a limited aerial ceiling, which wasn’t suitable for bombing raids over mountainous areas of occupied Europe - mainly Italy.
Quickly surpassed by the likes of the Lancaster, the Short Stirling remained in use and was instrumental as a supply craft in the D-Day landings. It was also used as a glider tug and for laying mines in German ports.
Due to its altitude limitations, the RAF removed the Short Stirling from service shortly after the end of the war. In total, only 2,371 were ever built, none of which remain intact today.
De Havilland Mosquito
First flight: November 1940
Removed from service: 1963
Known as the ‘Wooden Wonder’, the de Havilland Mosquito was a light bomber that was incredibly unique in its design. Built primarily of balsa wood and plywood that was held together with glue and screws, the Mosquito was an unarmoured aircraft.
Powered by two Rolls Royce Merlin engines, the Mosquito had a top speed of close to 650km per hour and, due to its lightweight wooden frame, was often able to outmanoeuvre any antagonising aircraft. Long-range versions of the light bomber included an additional 155 gallons of fuel in the bomb bay, allowing it a maximum range of 415 km with a payload of 1,816kg.
Despite its light construction and lack of armour, the Mosquito had the best sortie-to-loss ratio of all of Bomber Command, with less than one aircraft lost per 200 sorties or raids. This was unheard of with previous bombers, as the death rate in Bomber Command throughout the Second World War was a staggering 44%. It’s believed that the Mosquito’s ability to outpace any attacking aircraft was the reason for its higher success rates.
Like many of the light bombers built during the Second World War, the Mosquito was later adapted as a night fighter craft, a high-altitude fighter, and a reconnaissance plane.