The Avro Lancaster is an aircraft that has earned itself a glorious place in the annals of aviation history. It was a superb night bomber in its basic form and in its many modified forms it was able to undertake a wide variety of specialist missions including carrying the 22,000lb Grand Slam bomb; the largest conventional weapon dropped from an aircraft in World War II. Given the scale of this legacy it is not surprising therefore that the immediate replacement for the Lancaster has gone largely forgotten.
Work on a heavily upgraded Lancaster actually began in 1943 but the changes became so numerous that it warranted its own in-house designation by Avro as the Type 964 and this was followed by the Royal Air Force who named the aircraft the Lincoln (continuing the tradition of naming bombers after British and Commonwealth cities). The new bomber featured a redesigned wing with increased span and aspect ratio balanced out by a lengthened fuselage. Power came from four of the proven Rolls-Royce Merlin engines in their Merlin 85 guise that produced 1,750hp each. The new airframe coupled with these engines allowed the aircraft to fly faster, higher and further than the Lancaster B.I that was still the mainstay of the RAF bomber force.
Perhaps the most significant improvement over the Lancaster came in the form of defensive armament. Gone were the .303 machine guns that proved too short in range and lacking in punch especially when facing the heavily armed Junkers Ju88 and Messerschmitt Bf110 night fighters with their long ranged cannon armament. The Lincoln was instead given four 50.cal heavy machine guns mounted in pairs in the nose and tail turrets while the dorsal turret was given a pair of 20mm cannons. The tail position had the capability to utilize a primitive air-intercept radar to aid with targeting during night combat; a system that was first used quite successfully on the Lancaster. Offensive armament came in the form of a maximum 14,000lb bombload although it was not beyond the realm of possibility to modify the airframe for some of the Lancaster’s special roles such as the 22,000lbs ‘Grand Slam’ bomb. The Lincoln had an improved Mark IV H2S blind bombing radar that was fitted to some later Lancasters.
Delays in the aircraft’s development as a result of technical and material difficulties meant that the aircraft’s expected in-service date kept getting put back. The first prototype made its maiden flight in June 1944 with a second prototype complete with defensive armament flying in November 1944. Production was initiated on the first of a predicted 2,254 airframes shortly after but by then there were those in the Air Ministry questioning the wisdom of such a large order. The war in Europe was now strongly in favour of the Allies and the RAF’s Lancasters and Halifaxes were striking with increased impunity (and increasingly in daylight hours for greater accuracy following the achievement of Allied air superiority). Therefore the advantages offered by the new Lincoln were no longer such a high priority so plans were made for the aircraft to be made available for the Tiger Force; the RAF’s detachment expected to transfer to the Pacific theatre to join the fight against Japan. More delays both with the aircraft and Tiger Force itself meant that again the Lincoln missed its baptism of fire in World War II when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945.
Despite the original plan for the 2,354 airframes, only 537 were completed with production split between Avro and several sub-contractors which was common with wartime aircraft production. Not being able to make its mark on World War II the aircraft was relegated to an almost transitionary role in that it provided the RAF with a link in performance between World War II-era propeller driven bombers and the new Canberra jet bombers. There were two variants that served in the RAF these being the B.I and the B.II. These were essentially the same aircraft but differed in their powerplants with the B.II being fitted with American-built Packard Merlins to ease the pressure on Rolls-Royce production. Performance was identical and the designation change was for bureaucratic purposes only.
The Lincoln would eventually see combat with the RAF firstly bombing rebel Yemeni tribesmen from bases in Aden in 1947. In Malaysia the aircraft flew against Communist insurgents beginning in March 1950. The Lincolns lacked the technology necessary to carry out precision attacks deep in the jungle and with the aircraft’s impending obsolescence the RAF was unwilling to upgrade them. Instead traditional visual bombing techniques were used with mixed success. With very little anti-aircraft weapons available to the insurgents the Lincolns were free to fly as low as 5,000ft when carrying out attacks where they achieved quite accurate results when armed with just a single 4,000lb bomb. The aircraft also carried out strafing attacks against terrorist camps often with the support of single engined aircraft.
The Lincoln is perhaps best known for its role in Kenya where the aircraft fought against the Mau Mau tribesmen where its design heritage resulted in a case of mistaken identity by British journalists who wrongly reported that they were Lancasters not Lincolns. The Lincolns were used to bomb Mau Mau positions in a somewhat confused operational plan. The RAF were trying to destroy the insurgents as per their mission in Kenya but the British government insisted that all bombing missions be preceded by leaflet drops warning of the impending attack in order to limit civilian casualties. The nomadic Mau Mau tribesmen often simply moved their tribe and their weapons away from the target which meant the Lincoln’s primary contribution to the campaign was to blow very large holes in the Kenyan countryside. However when actual strongholds or bases were located a single engined type would fly in and mark the target for a pair of Lincolns that would then carpet bomb the area. Despite the operational difficulties encountered such as ill-prepared base facilities and the problem with dust in the engines (eventually necessitating new dust filters to be fitted) the Lincoln was a powerful weapon available to the British.
The only ever combat loss of a Lincoln occurred on the 12th March 1953 when Avro Lincoln RF531 was shot down by a Russian MiG-15 over East Germany. The aircraft was exercising the RAF’s right to fly through the air corridors to Berlin when it was intercepted and fired upon. The entire crew were killed in the resulting crash and it sparked the practice of further flights by RAF and USAF aircraft to Berlin and back carrying live rounds in their defensive armament thus increasing the chances of further incidents in what was already a very tense situation.
The last Lincolns were withdrawn from RAF service in 1963, the aircraft forever lived in the shadow of its Lancaster forebear and the new futuristic jet bombers such as the Canberra and Vickers Valiant. It did serve a useful purpose however in that it meant that the leaner post-war RAF had a new-build aircraft that incorporated all the lessons of that conflict even if those lessons were now somewhat irrelevant in the conflicts the RAF found itself. Perhaps the biggest contribution the Lincoln had to the RAF was to provide a design basis for the far more successful Avro Shackleton series of maritime patrol and airborne early warning aircraft the latter of which remained in RAF service until 1991.
- Role: Strategic Bomber
- Crew: 7 (pilot, flight engineer/co-pilot, navigator, wireless operator, front gunner/bomb aimer, dorsal and rear gunners)
- Powerplant: 4 × Rolls-Royce Merlin 85 V piston engine, 1,750 hp each
- Maximum speed: 319 mph at 18,800ft
- Cruise speed: 215 mph at 20,000 ft
- Range: 2,930 miles empty. 1,470 miles with full bombload.
- Service ceiling: 30,500 ft (9,296 m)
- Rate of climb: 800 ft/min (245 m/min)
- Length: 78 ft 3½ in (23.86 m)
- Wingspan: 120 ft (36.58 m)
- Height: 17 ft 3½ in (5.27 m)
- Wing area: 1,421 ft² (132.01 m²)
- Empty weight: 43,400 lb (19,686 kg)
- Loaded weight: 75,000 lb (34,020 kg)
- Maximum take-off weight: 82,000 lb