As we celebrate the 80th Anniversary of one of the most iconic aircraft of World War II, the venerable Avro Lancaster, we should recognise that included in every great cast of performers, there are always certain supporting players who perhaps do not always have the big spotlight placed upon them very often.
Yes, most instantly think of Guy Gibson and his Avro Lancaster (ED932/AJ-G) but what of the other 7,376 aircraft that made the large bomber so respected around the world.
One of those is ED825, an Avro Lancaster Mk.III (Type 464).
ED825 was one of the 24 aircraft selected and prepared for Operation Chastise, the night-time attack on the German dams on 16 - 17th May 1943, now better known as the Dam Busters raid.
She was the final prototype of the Lancaster Type 464 (the designation given to those aircraft built specifically for Operation Chastise) and was built by A.V. Roe & Co at Newton Heath, Manchester who at the time were producing over 125 aircraft per month.
After final assembly at Woodford, and the conversion to what is known as ‘Provisioning’ at RAE Farnborough, the aircraft was delivered to 617 Squadron RAF A&A EE at Boscombe Down on 22nd April 1943. She was allocated to Flight Trials rather than weapons testing as all of the aircraft modifications needed to be checked during take off and landing, as well as the more dramatic power dives and stalls.
Ironically however, one of the trials undertaken by ED825 was a flight to RAF Manston where they were undertaking the development of the early highball bomb (the spherical design). Once fitted she would conduct various ‘handling characteristic trials’ on her flight back to Boscombe Down. During one particular dive-test, parts of the plywood roof of the bomb bay came off, thankfully without seriously damaging the airframe. Having discovered the weakness which could have been disastrous during a raid, the panels were replaced with much stronger Alclad.
With all the flight trials completed, on 16th May 1943 ED825 was transferred to RAF Scampton, home of 617 Squadron. The unit had been secretly formed and was made up of exceptional air crews from the Royal Air Forces of the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Their task was to attack three major dams that contributed water and power to the Ruhr industrial region in Germany: the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe.
ED825 was urgently needed as a spare aircraft, after the Squadron had already damaged a couple of airframes during training. Upon arrival she was immediately prepared for the mission later that day although there was little time to fit some the equipment, especially items such the VHF radio and spotlights, which would both need calibration.
Although initially slated as a ‘reserve aircraft’, ED825 (now allocated AJ-T ‘for Tommy’ was called into play when one of its sister aircraft (ED915/G AJ-Q) was found to be faulty as it was prepared for take-off. Pilot Flt Lt Joe McCarthy and his crew immediately switched to ED825 and departing at 22:01pm, they set off for an attack on the Sorpe Dam.
They were one of only 2 aircraft that were to actually reach the concrete and steel Dam at 00:15am, others either crashing or being shot down as they crossed the coastlines of northern Europe.
McCarthy, an experienced American aviator attached to the Royal Canadian Air Force, found that the approach was exceedingly difficult. On a hillside overlooking the target, there was a church with a very menacing steeple which left only seconds to pull-up after releasing the bomb.
It took 9 practice runs before bomb-aimer George ‘Johnnie’ Johnson let go the 4-ton Upkeep bomb. Because of the topography of the Sorpe River it was decided not to spin the bomb upon release, and this possibly resulted in only minimal damage to the crest of the Dam.
Despite planned follow up attacks by 3 further aircraft, ED825 was the only aircraft to breach the Dam.
Only one of the three made it to the target (ED918 G AJ-F) and they were faced with thick fog requiring incendiaries to see the Dam. Their Upkeep hit the main wall which although it cracked, remained watertight.
ED825 arrived back at Scampton at around 03:30am, one of only 11 returning aircraft from the 19 that departed the evening before.
Sadly, most of the surviving aircraft used in the Dams raid were scrapped at some point but after being used as a training aircraft, ED825 was allocated to A Flight and given the markings AJ-E. She spent a few months being flown by a variety of pilots on training sorties around the UK.
In October 1943, she was converted back to standard and allocated KC-E and it was with these markings that she undertook her second major sortie, a raid on the Antheor Railway Viaduct, in occupied Southern France on 11th November 1943.
The initial raid failed to be successful although ED825 carried and dropped her 12,000lb Blockbuster bomb. All the aircraft in the raid were directed to head south to Blida and then on to Rabat in North Africa. After re-arming, a second raid on the viaduct took place on 12th November but this time the heavy defences resulted in little or no damage to the railway connection.
Just under a month later (10th December 1943) F/O G Weeden was at the controls of ED825 as she took off from RAF Tempsford, bound for Doullens in the Somme area of Northern France.
She was outbound on what was considered to be an ‘easy trip’ for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), dropping supplies for the French Resistance. The area was largely undefended by fighters or anti-aircraft guns and it came as a horrendous surprise when they came under attack. A mobile flak gun hit the aircraft’s fuel tank resulting in an immediate fire. Weedon steered the aircraft away from the town only to find a large hillside looming up out of the dark. Within minutes ED825 had crashed into the hillside, just short of the summit and taking with her everyone onboard.
This was an inauspicious end to a brave career, and it is rumoured even today that she was the victim of a ‘double-agent’ who advised the Germans of her flight path and timetable – she was simply a target they could not resist.
The story of ED825 does not end there however, because as part of a Channel 5 documentary in 2008, a group of aviation archaeologist visited the site and dug up some parts including the underbelly gun platform which positively identified the plane. They took Johnnie Johnson out to the dig to look at the bits of wreckage they found. Many smaller parts of the Lancaster were discovered, including some of its cargo destined for the Resistance.
George ‘Johnnie’ Johnson celebrates his 100th birthday in 2021 (he was just 21 during Operation Chastise) and is the last surviving Dambuster.
And so, as we celebrate the 7,377 Avo Lancaster aircraft that were built, we recognise the individual aircraft and people involved.