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Before attempting to describe a typical Lancaster mission, it is necessary to set out the principal duties of the crew members to demonstrate that it was entirely the result of a tight knit team that such missions were possible. This teamwork and comradeship existed from the moment the crews assembled during their training until they were eventually disbanded or shot down. It permeated their whole lives on the ground and in the air. Prior to the introduction of the RAF’s four-engined heavy bombers, there had been no necessity for such mutual trust and dependence among so many men assembled in a single aircraft.

Unlike the American B-17 and B-24, the Lancaster came to feature only a single pilot, assisted on certain occasions by the flight engineer. Although the pilot was frequently an NCO with officer crewmembers, he was invariably the aircraft captain, responsible in the final resort for decisions regarding mission aborts, crew safety and overall defence against the enemy. (This was occasionally not the case in different Canadian units). His position, high in the nose of the aircraft, was the only one in the aircraft with armoured protection – a single sheet of armour behind his back. Apart from the obvious job of flying the aircraft, the pilot actively commanded his crew, calling crew checks on the intercom, and being responsible for the crew’s proficiency in emergency and dinghy drills. In the event of the crew being ordered to bale out, the pilot was the last to go – often holding the aircraft steady until the last moment.

The flight engineer, as his title indicates, was responsible to the pilot for the general functioning of the engines and systems, assisting the pilot during take-off, managing the distribution of fuel throughout the flight, carrying out running repairs – where possible – to components in the hydraulic, electrical and oxygen systems. His crew station, surrounded by fuel gauges and cocks, ammeters, system switches and warning lights, was immediately behind and to the right of the pilot, through a fold down seat on the right-hand side of the fuselage enabled him to operate the throttles and pitch controls during take-off.


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The navigator, occupying a compartment behind the pilot, was fully engaged throughout the flight with frequent course checks, taking fixes, maintaining the flight log, passing checks and changes of course to the pilot and, being the only crew member whose station was illuminated, was curtained-off. So engrossed in his work was many a navigator that he was – and undoubtedly preferred to be – oblivious to the noises and hazards of battle that raged about the aircraft.
With radio silence almost invariably imposed on bombing operations, it might be thought that the radio operator, in his crew station opposite the wing leading edge, would normally have little to do. Yet throughout the flight he had not only to keep a listening watch on his Group frequency in case of recall, but also detect enemy radio traffic between intercepting fighters and their controllers on the ground, and operate such jamming equipment that was carried in his aircraft. Later on in the war the radio operator also managed and employed the H2S radar equipment for navigation purposes, and the Monica tail warning radar, which gave indications of enemy fighters astern.

In the nose the bomb aimer had three principal duties – apart from notifying the pilot of approaching landmarks during the flight, for his field of vision was the best in the aircraft. (Although he was not supposed to take up his position in the nose until after take-off, it was extremely difficult to negotiate a way past the flight engineer in full parachute harness, and most bomb aimers did in fact install themselves in their crew station before take-off). On the outward flight he would most likely man his turret and keep a look-out for enemy fighters. It was however, his job to release the numerous bundles of Window at pre-briefed intervals (often as frequently as two or three times every minute) during the approach to the target, an unpopular chore owing to the large piles of these bundles that cluttered his already restricted compartment. On the actual bombing run he was of course responsible for fusing and selecting his bombs, guiding the pilot up to the point at which he assumed limited control through the automatic control system. After release of the bombs a photoflash would be discharged to synchronise with a photo taken by a camera under the cockpit, operated by the pilot, to show ground details of the point of impact of the aircraft’s bombs.


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The duties of the two gunners were of course vital for the survival of the aircraft and its crew. Just prior to crossing into enemy airspace they would fire a short burst to test their guns, but thereafter they would be scanning the sky to watch for other aircraft – friendly aircraft that might inadvertently stray dangerously close, and enemy aircraft. Theirs was the responsibility to maintain a commentary of enemy tactics so that the pilot could take effective evasive action. The majority of Lancasters in RAF service were not armed with the ventral turret, indeed could not be so armed when equipped with H2S radar whose large radome occupied the position otherwise taken by the turret. This almost universal absence of ventral defence rendered the Lancaster terribly vulnerable, a fact the Luftwaffe eventually exploited with its introduction of the upward firing cannons in their night fighters.

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