Avro Lancaster B. Mk VII – soon there will be three!

Sometimes out of failure, comes triumph. Sometimes out of loss comes a wonderful remembrance. That’s how it is with Avro Lancaster B. VII, NX611,’Just Jane’. There are currently just two Lancasters in flying condition throughout the world, out of a total of 7,377 Lancasters which were built in Canada and the U.K. during WW2. One is the lovely Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s B. Mk I, and the other is the Canadian Warplane Heritage B. Mk X (10MR). Sometime soon, the fabulous ‘Just Jane’ will taxi onto an extended runway at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, and rather than carry some passengers on a taxy ride along the runway, she will accelerate, and take off!! Then there will be three…..

How we got to this stage is a story of tragedy and triumph, and always, but always, of amazingly hard work. Roy Chadwick, the Chief Engineer of A.V.Roe and Company, had not produced the war-winning bomber he hoped when he designed the Avro Manchester. However, the aircraft itself was fine, it was just that the Rolls-Royce Vulture engines were terribly unreliable in a bomber application, and caught fire at the drop of a hat. Rushing through a modified wing, removing the center fin of the triple tail and fitting four of the magnificent Merlin engines from Rolls-Royce produced an instant winner. The first Avro Lancaster flew in January, 1941 and by 1942, production aircraft were with No. 44 Squadron at RAF Waddington, just south of Lincoln, and then with No. 97 Squadron at Coningsby. Their first operation was a relatively easy one of ‘gardening’ as the RAF put it; the laying of mines in enemy coastal waters. Soon, however, they were making a name for themselves, with such actions as a daring, low-level daylight raid by 12 Lancasters on the M.A.N. works at Augsberg, producing diesel engines for U-boats, and the utterly incredible attack on the Ruhr Dams by the specially formed 617 Squadron under Wing Commander Guy Gibson, using Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bomb (actually, a mine). Gibson won the Victoria Cross, and 33 other decorations were awarded; of the 133 aircrew who took part, no less than 53 were killed.

The Lancaster shared the bombing effort against Germany with the other four-engine bombers, the Handley Page Halifax and Short Stirling, but it soon became clear that the Lancaster could be built faster than Halifax, and the Stirling had severe operational flaws (due to a faulty specification being issued to the manufacturers). The Avro Lancaster, along with the Halifax and de Havilland Mosquito, began to attempt to pound the German Reich into submission.

Throughout the war, technical improvements were always being made to aircraft in service, due to changing tactical and strategic goals. As the European conflict drew to a close, Avro began to prepare a Lancaster variant to take part in the attacks against Japanese held territory. Despite the Avro Lincoln (originally called the Lancaster IV) having flown, it might not be available in time to participate in the RAF’s ‘Tiger Force’, which was due to fly out to the Far East as soon as possible, so a variant known as the B. Mk VII was evolved. This dealt with the major short-coming of the Lancaster – defensive armament. The FN mid-upper turret (2 x .303 Brownings) was substituted for a Martin low-drag turret, containing 2 x .5″ Brownings, and the turret located further forward to restore the center of gravity. The rear turret was as fitted to some late-war Lancasters, an FN82 (2 x .5″ Brownings) with Automatic Gun Laying Turret radar equipment (codenamed ‘Village Inn’).

The first 150 of these B. Mk VII began to flow from the production lines at the Longbridge plant of the sub-contractor Austin Motors in mid-1945. Just as ‘Tiger Force’ was being assembled, the atomic weapons were dropped on Japan – and the war was over. NX611 was built, therefore, just in time to go straight into store at RAF Llandow in Wales, and there she stayed until 1952, when she was purchased by the French Aéronavale, refurbished as a maritime reconnaissance aircraft and used by the French to patrol the Atlantic and the Mediterranean from bases in Britanny and Morocco. Later issued to Escadrille de Servitude 9S in Nouméa, North Caledonia, she was used to range across the wide expanses of the Pacific, on air/sea rescue flights. It was from here that she actually saw action for the only time, bombing land targets during the French war in what was then Indo-China.

About to be scrapped, she was donated by the French authorities to the U.K’s Historic Aircraft Preservation Society, and recovered to the U.K. However, the high running costs forced the Society to dispose of NX611, and she was eventually sold to Lord Lilford to be displayed on the ‘gate’ at RAF Scampton as a memorial to all the Lancaster aircrew. Meanwhile two very determined brothers, Fred and Harold Panton, who had lost their elder brother, a flight engineer, Pilot Officer Christopher Panton in a Halifax during the RAF’s disastrous Nuremberg raid of 30/31 March, 1944, were trying to buy an RAF bomber as a memorial (no less than 108 four-engine bombers were shot down, in bright moonlight, on a night when heavy contrails formed at an abnormally low altitude making the bomber stream easy to find). At first they tried to buy a Halifax, but were over-ridden by their father. Finally they managed to come to an arrangement with Lord Lilford. NX611 would stay on the gate at Scampton for 10 years, then be sold to the brothers.

Here we see NX611 in all her glory. It has taken since 1983 and thousands upon thousands of man hours to reach this stage. She is the centerpiece of The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, located on the wartime Lancaster base of East Kirkby, Lincolnshire, which the Panton’s purchased specifically to house NX611. Fully capable of a ‘fast taxy’ with the tail off the ground, she offers ‘rides’ to a select few enthusiasts during the season, and is the star of the annual air show held at the museum here. The Panton family had a vision, to restore ‘Just Jane’ to flight status in honour of their brother, and the other 55,000 Bomber Command aircrew who lost their lives in WW2 (you only had a 1 in 4 chance of reaching the end of your first tour of 30 operations). Last summer, along with a colleague of mine, I had the great good fortune to visit the LAHC and meet with Fred and his nephew Andrew. They showed us the magnificent flight-worthy Merlin engines and other spares which they were assembling ready to make the final push towards flight status for NX611. I was incredibly impressed by their drive and deep passion to see the project through.

Sadly, late last month, Fred passed away. He kept working right up until the end. The cause of aircraft preservation has lost a true champion, ever ready to encourage others, and to offer help and assistance. Fred Panton was a true gentleman, and was one of the kindest people I have ever known. I think everyone who met him, liked him – it was impossible not to. My hope is that the LAHC will swiftly continue with their work – estimated to take approximately 18 months – so that we can all see ‘Just Jane’ back where she belongs – in the air.

Oh, and as an aside, when she flies -and I am certain she will – all three flying Lancasters will be different Marks. The Canadian is a B. Mk X, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s PA474 is a B. Mk 1, and ‘Just Jane’ is a B. Mk VII. Let it be soon!




5 comments on “Avro Lancaster B. Mk VII – soon there will be three!”

  1. Fantastic story Shortfinals. A very enjoyable and fascinating read.


    • Thank you very much! Just so you know, I am in the midst of planning an e-book on rare and/or unusual aircraft! I’ll be announcing details on the blog. I’ll be using my own photographs, of course


  2. Yes. I agree with Austerpilot — a fantastic story well reseached and well written 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: