Sixty Minutes in the Avro Lancaster

The Lancaster — the M for Mary — is ready, waiting. Under its 100-ft span, the riggers and fitters, sheltering from the east wind that blows from the sea, are having a smoke and a chat before the crew arrives. All the morning they have been repairing the "skin" of the bomber, torn by flak in last night's raid on the Ruhr. The fitters have overhauled the 1,280-hp Merlin engines, the armorer has cleaned the guns, restocked the ammunition, and tested the Nash & Thompson turrets. The fuel lorries have fed the Lancaster for tonight's flight. Tonight, the target is again the Ruhr, and the bomber will carry its full load of bombs. Already the armorers have hoisted the incendiaries, "mediums" and one 4,000-pounder into the bomb bays, and rolled away their empty trolleys. As dusk falls, the M for Mary stands ready on the edge of the airfield, awaiting its crew.

"Hullo, Fred," says a fitter to the electrician. "Here they come!" In the distance, from the direction of the sergeant's mess, a truck is approaching. The crew have arrived. With their flotation gear slung around their necks and their parachutes in their hands, they stumble out and stand around, while Mac the Captain, a Scottish sergeant — pilot, 20 years old, talks to the NCO fitter.

"OK, boys," he says, and watches them climb into the fuselage. He knows them all. He has made twelve raids with the same crew — Roland, the tail-gunner, an ex-clerk, 20 years old; Iain, the navigator, an ex-elementary school teacher, 20 years old; Jack, the mid-upper gunner, an ex-shop assistant, 28 years old; John, the wireless operator, who had a business of his own, 30 years old; Desmond, the air-bomber, an ex-driver, 22 years old; and Ron, the flight engineer, an ex-motor engineer, 24 years old. Inside the bomber, the Captain makes a quick inspection. Flares in position? Dinghy fixed? Pigeons? Bomb-fuse leads connected? He is ultimately responsible for everything. The crew have already had their "flying supper" — the meal that all crews have before a raid. He has been briefed and knows the target and what opposition he may expect. The navigator has had a separate briefing; he will vary his route to avoid night fighters.

Now follows a half-hour of intense checking and testing. It is the routine of every flight, and on it depends the life or death of the crew. The rear gunner climbs into his turret and rotates it. The mid-upper-gunner and the bomb-aimer in the front turret may simultaneously be doing the same, so that from the ground, the great Lancaster seems like a waking, bristling monster. The gunners raise and lower their Browning .303 guns, cock them, set them to "safe" and fire.

The Captain calls over the intercom., "Hello, rear-gunner, guns OK?" The gunner has checked his reflector, sights and fuses.

"Hello, Captain," he answers, "Guns OK" Then he looks for his spare bulbs, tests the electrical heating of his suit and sniffs his oxygen. The Captain goes through the items with him. "OK, rear-gunner?" "OK, Captain."

In the Lancaster's nose, Desmond, the air-bomber, is looking through the bomb-squint to make sure that his bombs are in position. He has tested the front turret, examined his oxygen and now he lies down to inspect his bombing equipment. He looks at the bomb-selector panel, turns on his switches, and sees that the distributor is in position. He lowers the bombsight and peers through it. He knows that within three hours, he will be peering down on a city flaming with flak and his incendiaries. It's a moment's thought; the job of checking his camera and laying out his maps leaves no time to brood. Over the intercom. the Captain says quietly, "Hello, air-bomber, Oxygen OK?" "OK, Captain, oxygen OK, turret OK, bombs OK" Nothing is left out.

Meanwhile, the navigator is setting his table behind the pilot. He makes sure that his compasses and astrograph are in order, tests his personal equipment — and makes a final examination of his course.

Behind him, the wireless operator is already listening. He has tuned in to base, but his own wireless-telegraph is silent, and will be silent till the M for Mary nears home again. Like all the rest of the crew, he has checked the intercom. and oxygen. "OK, Captain, wireless OK"

A signal from the Captain and they climb back into the plane. The pilot starts his motors, the chocks are taken by the ground staff from under the wheels and the Lancaster taxis off with an accumulating roar toward the marshaling point. Inside the plane, the crew are silent while they wait for the green flash, the takeoff signal. They wait, listening for the Captain's voice. Suddenly, he says, "Stand by for takeoff." Another silence. The green light flashes. "Full power!" the Captain shouts, and opens the throttle full. The flight engineer holds it open and the Lancaster rushes along the tarmac. "Climbing power," says the Captain. The engineer reduces the revs. Flaps and undercarriage up. In the villages below, they are saying, "They're out again tonight!" And in the Lancaster, through thickening clouds, seven young men are going to an unknown destiny.

This article was originally published in the October, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 3, pp 26-27, 56.
The original article includes 9 photos: 8 of the crew preparing for takeoff and an annotated photo of the bomber, with crew positions identified, shown above.
8 photos credited to European. The annotated photo shown is not credited.