(On 9th January 1941 the prototype of the Avro Lancaster flew it’s maiden flight. To mark the 80th anniversary here is a piece I wrote for the producers of ‘The Lancaster: Britain’s Flying Past’, when they were in the process of devising the programme, trying to describe what the Lancaster represents.)
The Lancaster Bomber
The Avro Lancaster is a weapon, of war, designed and developed to deliver explosive to a designated target. That is its prime purpose. During the Second World War thousands of young men perished in the wreckage of fallen Lancasters. Tens of thousands died as a result of its prime function.
But it has come to represent so much more.
The comfort, indeed the safety, of the crew was secondary. So why does the Lancaster, when it is on display at air shows, at museums, on television, evoke such fond memories and sentiment in veterans – a sentiment that has been adopted by the general British public.
The Lancaster represents the circumstance in which lifelong friendships were made – the crew bond – forged through interdependency on each others skills in the face of extreme danger. And by the very nature of the fact that they are veterans, the Lancaster, which had taken them to war, also brought them home from war.
The Lancaster is a symbol of defiance, against an evil regime that threatened to engulf the world in a second dark age. Merged with this defiance, it represented hope. The hope to be free again. In the territories occupied by the Nazi’s, the oppressed population could hear by night, and, in the latter stages of the war, see during the day, that someone was confronting, and taking the war back to, the aggressor. It is a symbol of liberation – the delivery of food to a starving Dutch population, and the bringing home, to their families, the prisoners of war.
The story of those who flew the Lancaster is one of extraordinary airmanship and bravery, confronting and overcoming, or succumbing, to fear. It is the backdrop to the memory of lost friendships and past romance. It is certainly a tale of design ingenuity and manufacturing efficiency, but the Lancaster becomes iconic because it represents the context in which the human spirit was tested against a maelstrom of conflict and brutality.
(The photograph features the 7 Squadron Avro Lancaster crew of pilot Alan Grant, whose story I told in the book ‘D-Day Bombers’.)