One of the more dramatic mornings of my childhood in Northern Ireland was going some time in the mid-1950s to see the Shackleton that my father had crash-landed at RAF Ballykelly. My main memory is of the scorch marks underneath the fuselage and the propellers bent way back. What I didn’t know at the time, but know now after finishing Leo McKinstry’s book Lancaster: The Second World War’s Greatest Bomber today, is that the Shackleton, once described as “a thousand rivets flying in close formation”, was a direct descendant of the Lancaster.
Nor had I realised the sheer scale of the human and industrial effort that went into the Lancaster’s manufacture. Astoundingly, at the peak, it was estimated that 1.15 million people were involved in making the bombers. Each aircraft consisted of 55,000 different parts–leaving aside the nuts, bolts and rivets. To produce a single aircraft involved some 500,000 manufacturing operations, taking up to 70,000 man-hours – compared to 15,200 hours to build a Spitfire. “Nearly ten tons of light aluminium alloy were consumed in building each plane,” we are told, “the equivalent of 11 million saucepans.” That last figure, on page 317, strikes me as inconceivable, but there it is.
Given the at times almost insane courage of the men who flew these aircraft, it seems some sort of a crime that their efforts were recognised neither in Churchill’s final speech of the war nor in the sort of campaign medal that other arms of the services were awarded. No doubt much of that had to do with what is not recognised as overkill in the bombing of Dresden, but that was hardly the fault of the aircrew ordered out on such missions.
It took me a while to get through the book, and at times I persevered out of respect for the airmen, with no less than 44 percent of Bomber Command’s aircrew being killed during WWII. In the end, though, this is a magnificent tribute to a magnificent machine, and to to those who took it into battle. And one of the key lessons of this book, summed up in the challenges overcome by people like Lancaster designer Roy Chadwick and ‘bouncing bomb’ designer Barnes Wallis, was how critical perseverance was. Just as the early Spitfire was described as a bit of “dog’s dinner”, so the Lancaster evolved rapidly in the face of everything that nature, accident and its enemies threw at it.