Article by Rich Thistle ©

The Long Road Home by Rich Thistle © On the night of Dec. 2/3, 1943, 458 bomber aircraft took off from their bases in fog-shrouded England heading for Berlin. Although most of Canadian 6 Group's bomber force was grounded that night by the fog, thirty-five of these were Canadian bombers. A baptism of fire had followed the formation of 6 Group in October of 1942 and the young, inexperienced Canadians had paid a terrible cost for what seemed like a very long time. But by now, over a year later, they were a cohesive, well-oiled machine, on their way to fulfilling "Bomber" Harris' later tribute to the force as "among the very best".

Of the thirty-five Canadian bombers which took off on that December evening, eight (6 percent) tuned back, almost half as many Canadian craft than the ten percent of the whole force which would not fly to the target that night. Among the Canadian aircraft approaching Berlin in the now-thinning cloud, was "P" Peter DS707, a Lancaster B Mk. II of 426 "Thunderbird" Squadron, out of Dishforth, Yorkshire, commanded by the "Berlin" Kid, Roger Coulombe.

As they approached the target, the sky ahead was filled with hundreds of probing, sabers of light as the searchlights of Berlin, like the appendages of some mythic deep-water monster, filtered the dark sky for their prey. To be surrounded by these searching shafts was unnerving at the best of times, but to be captured in their grip was a fate devoutly to be avoided, as pilot Coulombe was soon to discover for himself. Suddenly his Lancaster was caught in the white hot-grip of sixty or seventy searchlights. For what seemed like an eternity the crew held its collective breath as the pilot threw the big plane violently around the sky. Coulombe called on everything he knew -and some things he didn't-about flying. But "P" Peter was a magnet, coned in the hot spot.

Desperate to evade the lights, Coulombe put the big Lancaster into a steep dive, soon exceeding the 350-mph dive-limit speed at 450 mph. At the last moment, feet on the instrument panel, he muscled the shuddering bomber out of its death-defying dive and slipped anonymously into the comforting darkness, away from the insidious searchlights.

Several further incidents, including various attacks by Ju 88 and Me 109 night fighters would leave the crew breathless and the aircraft in deep trouble, with damage to the port-inner engine, radio, port tire, port outer fuel tank and the hydraulic system. On the way home, the starboard outer engine quit, and the prop was feathered. Then, over the cold North Sea, the starboard inner began to lose power. It didn't look good as the crippled ship lost altitude. Thoughts of ditching crossed everyone's mind.

A Mayday was called as they approached the friendly shores of home, and almost immediately a welcome sight greeted the exhausted crew. Bright lights illuminated the runway of an American B-17 base. It was just within reach. Coulombe set her down as gently as possible on one wheel, and all aboard walked away. Although seriously damaged, "P" Peter had brought them back, safely. They discovered the next morning her main spar had been smashed through by cannon fire. Their story was repeated hundreds of times through the war.

Coulombe's aircraft was, in the Lancaster tradition, a supreme bomb truck, the only aircraft in the world at that time which were able to carry the legendary 12,000 lb. Tallboy and even the 20,000 lb. Grand Slam. Carrying a crew of seven, and armed with eight 0.303 in. machine guns in three power-operated turrets, the graceful Avro Lancaster carved out a place in history and the hearts of almost all who flew and flew in her.

For a design which originated in 1936, the Lancaster's abilities proved truly amazing. Tough and able to absorb heavy battle damage, she was simple to construct, easy to repair, and uncomplicated enough to build in quantity. In fact, over 7000 were built, equipping 67% of Bomber Command in 1945. Many remained in front line service well after the war. The RCAF flew Lancaster Xs on maritime patrol until 1965, and a direct descendant of the Lancaster, the Shackleton, remained in service in the RAF until 1982.

The Lancaster developed from a fine airframe which had unfortunately been mated with promising but under-developed engines. First flown in July of 1939, the twin-engined Avro 679 Manchester was doomed from the start by its new but entirely unproven, and, as it turned out, unreliable Roll-Royce 24-cylinder, X-form Vulture engines. Fortunately, the decision was made not to scrap the whole project but to redesign the center wing sections to receive four new Rolls-Royce Merlins, engines which are known to have saved more than one aircraft from mediocrity. The result was an aircraft with a twelve-foot increase in wing span married to virtually the same Manchester fuselage. It was to prove a very capable bomber of outstanding performance and was placed immediately into large-scale production. Squadrons began receiving the new bomber in early 1942, and first deployment sent some Lancasters on a rather foolhardy daylight raid on April 17 of that year.

Over the course of the war, the Lancaster proved its worth, going on to achieve its enviable record as a major force in the final outcome. It was so good that few major modifications were required. Most alterations which were recognized in new marks, reflected changes in engine. For example, a batch of 300 was built as Mk. IIs with powerful Bristol Hercules radial engines.

Some airframe modifications allowed the Lanc to carry unique ordinance on special missions. These included the spinning skip-bombs used by No.617 Squadron RAF Lancasters, deployed on the famous "Dambuster" raid and the massive 22,000 lb. earthquake bombs carried internally in a bulging bomb bay against submarine pens and underground installations. Used as the standard Allied night bomber, along with the Handley Page Halifax, the Lancaster carried out 156,000 sorties delivering more than 600,000 tons of bombs during World War II.

The Avro Lancaster heavy bomber was undoubtedly Great Britain's most consequential bomber of World War II. Unknown to many however, what were considered the best of the breed were produced in Canada at Victory Aircraft, Malton Ontario. The Canadian-built Mk.X represented, at the time, a significant achievement for Canada's domestic aviation industry, and remains today as a high point in its aviation history.

In December, 1941, a contract was awarded to a Canadian firm to build Lancasters. The Canadian version, designated Mk.X, was a modified British Mk. III using American-built Packard Merlins. Small but significant modifications were made over the length of the contract which eventually saw 422 Canadian Lancs constructed. Early production models, received enthusiastically by the British Ministry of Aircraft production as notably well finished and equipped, were held up to domestic British manufacturers as a model of good aircraft construction. The British were impressed - even somewhat surprised - at the quality of the Canadian Lancaster Xs which quickly acquired the reputation as the best Lanc of the War.

Had the Lancaster not successfully sprung phoenix-like from the ashes of the failed Manchester, it could be argued that the course of the war might have been very different. Bombing policy might have been far less easily defended without the success of this great aircraft. Representing the dividing line between the old view of the bomber as the slow, heavily armed battleship, brazenly making its raids in broad daylight, the Lancaster pointed the way to the new view of the stealthy, if vulnerable, intruder. However, even the Lancaster proved the early hopes of bomber advocates to be wildly exaggerated. It also confirmed that with modified expectations and tactics, in concert with new advances in electronics and weaponry, like the spinning bombs, the heavy bomber was to play an important role during the war and well into the future.

The superlative Canadian-built Lancaster Xs served with various squadrons of RCAF 6 Group participating in the Battle of Berlin, the Battle of Normandy, (before and after D-Day), and in mine-laying operations. The most famous Mk X was KB726 (VRA) of No.419 RCAF Squadron in which P/O Andrew Mynarski won the Victoria Cross after dying in the attempt to save a trapped tail-gunner as his Lancaster burned in the air. Another Canadian-made Mk X , FM213, long-time gate sentinel at the former British Commonwealth Air Training Base at present-day Goderich Airport in Ontario, has since been reborn in the collection of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at Hamilton Ontario, as one of only two flying Lancasters left in the world.

The museum has painted this aircraft in the markings of VRA as a memorial to Mynarski. When featured at air shows, she regularly brings tears to the eyes of those lucky enough to see her fly, and especially to the older eyes of those who flew this legend of an aircraft in that bygone but not forgotten time. My painting THE LONG ROAD HOME pays tribute to a great aircraft, the Canadian-built Lancaster Mk X, and all those who served in and maintained them.

NOTE: The Roger Coulombe anecdote is from Spencer Dunmore and William Carter's REAP THE WHIRLWIND; The Untold Story of 6 Group, Canada's Bomber Force of World War II... McClelland & Stewart 1991

  • original painting available