A war winning aircraft isn’t just created out of the blue. There are experimental aircraft and even a few lemons first and Avro’s legendary Lancaster was no exception. It seems hard to believe it now given the place in history that the aircraft has secured for itself but the Lanc’s roots can be traced back to a twin-engined loser of an aircraft – the Avro Manchester. A brief glance at the Manchester and one can see that the Manchester and Lancaster are directly related bar of course the obvious exception of two engines in the older aircraft as opposed to four in the Lancaster.
The story of the Manchester (and therefore in a pseudo kind of way the Lancaster) actually begins with Rolls-Royce who in the mid-1930s were developing their Vulture engine. This was an interesting powerplant in that it had twenty four cylinders arranged in an X-formation as opposed to the traditional V. It was essentially two V12 engines mounted together around a single propshaft that drove the propeller. The advantage to such a configuration was obvious; it could deliver twice the power of a single engine but only using a single nacelle to mount it on an aircraft’s wing. The Vulture, on paper at least, offered performance in excess of the bomber engines then available and so in 1936 with a major rearmament program getting under way the Air Ministry issued Specification P13/36 calling for a twin-engined medium bomber powered by Rolls-Royce’s new engine.
Both Avro and Handley-Page fought for the contract. Handley-Page produced the H.P.56 while Avro churned out the Type 679, a mid-wing design with twin vertical stabilisers mounted on the tail. In 1937 Handley-Page dropped out of the running due to disappointing results with their design leaving the Avro 679 to meet the specification without competition. To that end the RAF decided to order 200 Avro 679s straight off the drawing board and this was later increased to 400.
The prototype first flew on the 25th July 1939 and was given the name “Manchester” by the RAF continuing the trend within Bomber Command to name their bombers after Commonwealth cities. The Avro 679 was actually the second Avro aircraft to receive the name with an earlier aircraft the Avro 533 Manchester being a First World War bomber design that never went beyond the prototype stage due to engine troubles – something that would prove a rather ominous tale for the new Avro 679 Manchester.
Testing of the first prototype revealed a number of startling stability problems particularly in the lateral plane. Test pilots also complained that the heavy controls of the aircraft made flying the Manchester a laborious affair often leaving them exhausted by the end of the flight. Furthermore the aircraft had an exceptionally long take-off run when fully loaded and what worried Avro the most was that the prototype lacked its gun turrets meaning the production aircraft would probably have an even longer run. It was not all bad news however. The test crews praised the spacious and logically arranged crew compartment especially when compared to aircraft like the flying suitcase – the Handley Page Hampden.
The second prototype was modified on the assembly line in an effort to cure these problems. They included more powerful controls to ease the burden on the pilot and a wingtip extension to increase lift and therefore shorten the take-off distance. Stability problems persisted however especially when operating at low speeds such as during the crucial landing phase and eventually it became such a concern that Avro took the second prototype back to the factory for the fitting of a third vertical fin which did much to cure the problem only to have it resurface when the turrets were fitted. The nose turret had a nasty habit of inducing an uncontrolled yaw when it was traversed on to a target as a result of the disruption to the aircraft’s slipstream. The rear turret too had unfortunate effects on the slipstream which actually caused vibration in the tail. These problems would be ironed out thanks to aerodynamic modifications and these were then incorporated in to aircraft that were now being assembled by Avro for Bomber Command.
Rolls-Royce too were having to work hard to get their engine up to specification. They had promised Avro and Bomber Command an engine that could produce in excess of over 2,000hp but trials with the first prototype showed that it was actually rated around 1,750hp which went some way to account for the long take-off. The trouble was that the X-arrangement induced excessive wear and tear on the single propshaft. There was simply too many parts working together and in order for it to function properly a complex lubrication system was required. This lubrication system proved extremely problematic and resulted in a number of engines breaking down or overheating.
Nevertheless the RAF was committed to both aircraft and engine and plans were amended for a projected requirement of 1200 aircraft. The first production Manchesters began to reach the RAF in late-1940 and were assigned to No.207 squadron at RAF Waddington. Due to the complexity of the aircraft, experienced Bristol Blenheim, Vickers Wellington and Handley Hampden crews were selected for the aircraft. After around four months working up to operational status the squadron was released for short range operations over France.
The Avro Manchester was to cut its teeth on a relatively important target with regards to the overall war effort; an attack on the German cruiser Admiral Hipper in the French harbour of Brest. Six aircraft were released for the mission and they took off from Waddington on the night of the 24th February 1941 with a bombload of twelve 500lb armour-piercing bombs. Perhaps not expecting an attack the formation approached Brest almost unmolested except for sporadic flak around the target. The six planes released their bombs over the target zone but they failed to strike the Admiral Hipper. In fairness no aircraft in the RAF inventory could have done a better job as the technology necessary for such precision during night time bombing missions was still in its infancy.
No.207 squadron continued to pioneer operations with the Manchester and in doing so continued to suffer from its shortcomings. The Rolls-Royce Vulture engines plagued the aircraft leaving large numbers of aircraft unserviceable. An even more worrying problem was encountered on operations when it was found that the already troublesome lubrication system was vulnerable to enemy fire and the Manchester was extremely difficult to keep airborne on a single engine. The first combat loss actually occurred over the UK when on the 13th March a roaming German fighter stumbled across a Manchester from No.207 squadron just after it had taken off from Waddington. The Vultures also began inflicting casualties when less than a week later the first crash due to engine failure occurred.
By the 13th April 1941 the RAF was so concerned that it grounded the entire Manchester force leaving valuable aircrew on the ground without an aircraft. The grounding was seen as an opportunity to introduce an improved version designated as the Manchester IA. This saw a redesigned tail section with the deletion of the central fin and the extension of the original vertical stabilisers and rudders. The engines were also replaced with Rolls-Royce Vulture IIs which although delivered around a 100hp more (still 150hp off the minimum of what the engine was claimed to be capable of) were still proving unreliable.
A total of seven RAF and two Royal Canadian Air Force frontline squadrons were equipped with the Manchester IA but plans for the production of 1200 aircraft were savagely and understandably cut and in the end just 209 machines were built including the prototypes. By 1941 Bomber Command had decided that their future laid firmly in four engine designs and this spelled the death knell for the Manchester. Avro proposed a four engine version of the Manchester designated Manchester III but this was dropped because it retained the Vulture II engines. Avro then put forward a four engine version powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin and gave it a new in-house designation in order to separate it from the legacy of the Manchester – this was the first design for what would become the Lancaster.
The last squadron to equip with the Manchester was No.49 squadron at RAF Scampton who flew their first mission over occupied Europe on the night of May 2nd 1942. Within two months the squadron relinquished its Manchesters for Lancasters and the aircraft flew its last sortie against Bremen on the 25th June 1941. In frontline service the Manchester flew a total of 1,269 sorties while it suffered the loss of 123 aircraft – over half the total number built. Of those losses around a third were non-combat attributed mostly to the Vulture engines.
In hindsight it is relatively easy to label the Manchester a failure. This ignores two key facts however. The Manchester’s main problem was that it was built around an underperforming engine. It was designed to have a pair of engines that each produced more than 2,000hp and when the engines couldn’t deliver that power it meant that the aircraft would always be an underperformer. Once the stability problems were ironed out the airframe was sound and quite advanced compared to most other medium bombers which showed its potential. Avro and the RAF knew that the engine was the main drawback of the aircraft and tried to re-engine them with Napier Sabre and Bristol Centaurus engines but the reputation of the Manchester stuck and the effort came to nothing.
With the move to four engine bombers equipped with Rolls-Royce Merlin and Bristol Hercules engines the Manchester was doomed to oblivion. Yet without its contribution there would likely be no Lancaster bomber at least not in the way it became. Additionally, another interesting off-shoot of the Rolls-Royce Vulture fiasco was that Handley-Page’s H.P.56, the Manchester’s main rival in the original 1936 requirement, was reworked and became the Handley-Page Halifax which along with the Lancaster waged a successful nocturnal war against Nazi Germany.
- Role:Medium Night Bomber
- Maximum speed: 265 mph at 17,000 ft
- Range:1,200 miles
- Powerplant:2 × Rolls-Royce X24 piston engines. 1,850hp each.
- Service ceiling:19,200 ft
- Length:70 ft 0 in
- Wingspan:90 ft 1 in
- Height:19 ft 6 in
- Max Weight:56,000 lbs
- Defensive Armament:2× .303 in (7.7 mm) in nose and dorsal turrets. 4x .303 (7.7mm) guns in tail turret.
- Offensive Armament:10,350 lbs of bombs