Out of disaster – triumph! Avro Lancaster, ‘S’ for Sugar


Over the last few years we have seen incredible feats of aircraft restoration and reconstruction; a few pieces from a Russian swamp here, a section of fuselage used as a hen house there, and aircraft which had been thought of as ‘extinct’ as a type are turning up as museum-quality exhibits – some are even being rebuilt to take the air, once again. As I write this, the Fleet Air Arm Museum is using advanced metal ‘softening’ and reforming techniques to take pieces of crushed Fairey Barracuda and begin the long process of producing what will be the ONLY example in the world of this significant British carrier-borne torpedo/dive bomber. There are, however, some WW2 aircraft which no-one in their right mind would rush to resurrect. Amongst those types would be the Brewster SB2A Buccaneer (‘Bermuda’ in UK service), described by the Pima Air Museum as “perhaps the least successful Allied aircraft of World War II”. I can assure you that another aircraft on that list would be the Avro Manchester.

Roy Chadwick, the Chief Designer of Avro Aircraft, put together a proposal for a new twin-engined medium bomber for the Royal Air Force in early 1936, during the period of pre-war expansion of the RAF; this was to be known as the Avro Type 679 Manchester. The first aircraft of this type, built to Air Ministry Specification P.13/36, reached Bomber Command in November, 1940. The Air Ministry had insisted that the brand-new Rolls-Royce Vulture engine be used. It has been said that this 24-cylinder was just two R/R Peregrine V-12 engines mated together on a new crankcase and turning an enlarged crankshaft. This is not so; whilst the cylinders and other components were common, these were spaced further apart to accommodate the longer crankshaft, with its bigger main bearings. This gave an ‘X’ shaped cylinder arrangement, which was supposed to produce around 1,760 hp. The forecast power rating was so promising that, just like with the A.B.C Dragonfly engine at the end of WW1, quite a number of other aircraft were designed to take the Vulture (including the Hawker Tornado fighter, ‘brother’ to the Typhoon). Unfortunately, the Vulture was a disaster. Engine failure (usually followed by fire) became so common that Rolls-Royce had to derate it to approximately 1,450 hp – which meant a lower operational ceiling for the Manchester, lower performance, and even worse crashes when the inevitable engine fires still happened. Only 202 Manchesters were built, but it is estimated that around 40% were lost on operations and another approximately 20% in training accidents. Something had to be done.

Avro were already working on the Manchester III, which used essentially the same fuselage, and an enlarged wing centre-section to carry two more engines, along with the Manchester’s outer wings. By great good fortune, the chosen replacement engines were the magnificent Rolls-Royce Merlin, giving the new aircraft a top speed of 282 mph. Thus was the Lancaster born. Designed to be the instrument of RAF Bomber Command that would lead the aerial campaign against the Third Reich, the Lancaster, with its crew of 7 could carry up to 14,000 lbs of bombs (everything from a 12,000 lb ‘blast bomb’ – three 4,000 lb ‘cookies’ joined together – to over 1,000 4lb incendiaries) and later, in special versions, became one of only two WW2 aircraft capable of carrying the awesome 22,000 lb ‘Grand Slam’ earthquake bomb, or a spinning mine, (the ‘Upkeep’ weapon, designed by Barnes Wallis) used to attack German dams. For defensive purposes, there were three power turrets, front, mid-upper and rear, and they normally carried two, two and four .303″ Brownings respectively, in the majority of aircraft, although some Lancasters also carried a single .5″ Browning in a ventral mount, or two of these guns in the rear turret.

Here we see one of the most famous individual bomber aircraft of WW2 – the Lancaster ‘S for Sugar’, as now displayed in the Bomber Hall at the RAF Museum. The history of this aircraft doesn’t just reflect that of the Allies bombing campaign of the second half of the war, but illustrates some of the most significant actions of the European conflict as a whole. It has been written about many times, but it is worth taking another look. I suppose you could say that R5868 started out lucky – it had been ordered as a Manchester, but was converted into a Lancaster B.1 on the production line at Metropolitan-Vickers in Manchester. Delivered to No 83 Squadron (Motto: ‘Strike to Defend’) at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire, it was taken on charge by ‘B’ Flight of that unit, and since the Squadron code letters were ‘OL’, it became ‘OL-Q’ or ‘Q for Queenie’. R5868 was flown by Squadron Leader Ray Hilton and his crew on its maiden operation on the night of of 8/9th July, 1942 to the German city of Wilhelmshaven, carrying an unusual all incendiary load – 1,260 x 4lb incendiaries. However, on this very first operation, a quirk showed up which would never be eradicated – the aircraft flew with the starboard wing a little bit low. Nothing the ground crew or the engineering section could do seemed to be able to clear up this fault – ever!

On 14/15th July, ‘Queenie’ went ‘gardening’; this was the code name for laying mines in coastal waters, close to German occupied territory. By many in RAF Bomber Command this was regarded as an ‘easy sortie’ to break in new crews, or sometimes lay mines in the reported path of a German coastal convoy. As far as 99% of the RAF were concerned that was what was happening. In fact, the real reason for dropping a couple of mines into a precise map square of enemy waters had almost NOTHING to do with the effect of the mines, and almost everything to do with the vital task of code-breaking. Bletchley Hall (Station X) was the centre of the Allied efforts to break the German code messages enciphered by the ‘Enigma’ machine, a vital link between U-boats and their High Command. Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic, and if more food, fuel and weapons didn’t reach the U.K. from the U.S.A and other countries, she would lose the war. There were several versions of the ‘Enigma’ machine in use by the German forces, including a simplified version used by dockyards and small warships, using only three internal code rotors, rather than the current four of the version used by the U-Boat fleet (which Bletchley Park had nicknamed ‘Shark’). This simpler code was used to notify dockyards, harbors and small coastal craft of mining operations by the RAF. Since exactly the SAME message was also sent to U-Boats using the four-rotor machine, solving the easier ‘Dockyard’ cypher would give valuable ‘cribs’ enabling a ‘break-in’ to the current settings of the vital code used by the U-Boats. So, accurate ‘gardening’ was immensely important work – and the RAF never knew why!

Duisberg was soon bombed by ‘Queenie’, with 1 x 4,000lb ‘cookie’, 6 x 500lb, and 2 x 250lb bombs. This was to be one of 16 targets in the Ruhr Valley, the industrial heart of Germany, visited by ‘R5868’, (it was called, ironically, by the RAF, ‘Happy Valley’, due to its fierce flak batteries and masses of nightfighters). Air Chief Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, RAF Bomber Command, held strong views about the war – the main one being that he was the man to win it, by a process of ‘area bombing’ at night. Harris had worked out that if a Lancaster crew successfully completed two bombing missions and were shot down on their third after having successfully bombed their target, they would have repaid the cost of their training and the cost of the Lancaster! The trouble was, Harris kept doing this, when the use of hundreds upon hundreds of Mosquito bombers would have been far more efficient.

In August, 1942, 83 Squadron was transferred to the nascent Pathfinder Force, and began a new role – leading and marking targets accurately, with Target Indicators (huge pyrotechnics) and ‘sky markers’. The mission numbers kept piling up, and the various crews who flew in her+ began to believe you hardly needed a navigator, as the ‘old girl’ could find her way back from any city in Europe. R5868 took part in one of the gigantic raids on Hamburg (24/25th July, 1943) which initiated the first ‘firestorm’ in a city, and was afterwards transferred to No. 467 Squadron at RAF Bottesford in Leicestershire. There she acquired the code letters, ‘PO-S’ – and kept piling up the missions. No. 467 was a Royal Australian Air Force unit, but had many British and Commonwealth personnel on strength. Fortunately, ‘S for Sugar’ was being overhauled in late March, 1944 and therefore missed the disastrous raid on Nuremberg (30th March, 1944) when the RAF lost 94 aircraft, and lost more aircrew in one night than in the whole of the Battle of Britain. Raids against transportation centres and against coastal targets in France preceded the Allied invasion and, due to the reduction in Luftwaffe strength, daylight raids on V-1 sites followed. When VE Day came, ‘S for Sugar’ was one of the hundreds of Lancasters used to repatriate Allied PoWs from Europe (‘Operation Exodus’) – 24 at a time. She had survived fighter attacks, and once a frightening mid-air collision with another Lancaster over a German target. Against all the odds, she had completed 137 missions, a total surpassed by only ‘ED888’ of No.103 Squadron, with 140 (unfortunately, this aircraft was scrapped).

It was decided to preserve ‘S for Sugar’, and for a number of years she stood as a ‘gate guardian’ at RAF Scampton, one of the RAF Stations the ‘Lanc’ had been assigned to. Fortunately, when the RAF Museum was constructed at Hendon, she found a place of honour in the Bomber Hall. Here you can see ‘S for Sugar’, a magnificent survivor and a tribute to the 47,268 Bomber Command aircrew who lost their lives in World War Two, a higher pro rata loss rate than any other Allied command.

The Avro Lancaster – one of the most significant aircraft of World War Two.

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4 comments on “Out of disaster – triumph! Avro Lancaster, ‘S’ for Sugar”

  1. What a wonderful history to read of — thanks. Your photo looks like a tough one to take but you got it — nice highlights as well as well as details in the shadows (inside the bomb bay).

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  2. My Uncle Flight Lieutenant John Alexander Colpus DFC who flew this aircraft and which I have seen on numerous visits to RAF Hendon including July 2015; passed away today, Saturday 10 October 2015, in Perth Western Australia,one month short of his 95th Birthday. The Citation read ” Skill and Fortitude in operations against the enemy.” Rest in Peace REG No : 415306 Written and sent by David Lees Brown

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    • Dear Mr Brown, I was saddened to hear of the passing of your Uncle, Flight Lieutenant John Alexander Colpus, DFC, RAAF the former pilot of ‘S for Sugar’. I am very glad that he lived to see the Bomber Command Memorial realized at last. My sincere condolences for your family’s loss. Ross Sharp

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