Despite the fact that the VVS received a plethora of lend-lease aircraft from the US and the UK during World War Two, the Western allies were hesitant to give the Soviets one weapon of which the Red Army had an acute shortage: The coveted four-engine bomber. The USAAF and Washington had placed particular emphasis on designing, developing, and mass producing four-engine bombers such as the B-17 and B-24. Indeed, by the end of the war, the US had produced an astounding 18,482 B-24 Liberators, making it the most produced US aircraft of the war. A further 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortresses were built, and British produced 7,377 Avro Lancasters. With several exceptions, none of which were intentional on the part of the Western allies, no four-engine bombers ended up in the hands of the VVS.
Aside from the domestically-built Petlyakov Pe-8 four-engine heavy bomber, of which only 93 were produced, Soviet Long Range Aviation, or Aviatsiya dalnego deystviya (ADD), used primarily twin-engine Soviet Ilyushin Il-4s and lend-lease B-25 Mitchells. While VVS forces focused primarily on providing close air support for Red Army troops, the Soviet leadership undoubtedly sought to obtain long-range, four-engine bombers, and repeatedly requested that the Western allies provide such aircraft. The US and the UK simply did not want to provide the Soviet Union with their top weapons. The top-secret Norden Bombsights, for example, were stripped from the B-25s that were sent to the Eastern Front.
One of the most sought-after aircraft was the elegant, yet powerful, British Avro Lancaster. Powered by four 1,280 horse power Rolls Royce Merlin V-12 engines, the Lancaster could carry 6,350 kg of bombs more than 4,000 km. With a crew of seven, including a pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer/nose gunner, wireless operator, mid-upper and rear gunners, the aircraft were defended by 8 Browning .303 Mark II machine guns. By the end of the war, Lancasters had performed 156,000 sorties, dropping a total of 608,000 tons of bombs.
Despite the refusal of the Western allies to send four-engine bombers to aid the Red Army on the Eastern Front, Soviet pilots did obtain several such aircraft, including two Avro Lancasters. In September of 1944, Soviet and British commanders launched Operation Paravane in an attempt to destroy the German battleship Tirpitz which was stationed in Norway’s far north. The German ship posed a serious threat to convoys sending supplies to the Soviet Union, and Allied military strategists developed a plan to deploy Lancasters from their base in Lincolnshire to the Yagodnik airfield in Arkhangelsk, where it would refuel and attack the Tirpitz.
On September 11, 38 Lancasters embarked on the 11-hour flight to Yagodnik, only to find the airfield enveloped in fog and rain, leading 10 aircraft to make forced landings in the Taiga. Seven bombers were damaged, though British and Soviet ground crews were able to repair one. The remaining Lancasters took off from Arkhangelsk on September 15 to attack the Tirpitz, which was sheltered by the Altafjord mountains and a highly effective smoke screen system. Consequently, only one bomber scored a hit on the battleship, causing severe damage, but not complete destruction.
After dropping their bombs, the British Lancasters returned to their home base in Lincolnshire, leaving the six aircraft that had been damaged while making forced landings at Yagodnik several days earlier. Upon inspecting the bombers, Soviet mechanics determined that two were salvageable, and they were transferred to the workshops of the White Sea Fleet under direction of Chief Engineer Kiryanova. Mechanics were eventually able to rehabilitate the two Lancasters, though they would ultimately not be able to serve as long-range bombers
One aircraft, marked with the number 1, was transferred to the 16th Transport Detachment at the end of January 1945. Piloted by one Commander Evdokimov, the Lancaster was used not only as a cargo plane, but also as a convoy escort and reconnaissance aircraft. Given the Lancaster’s exceptional range, aircraft no. 1 explored remote areas in the White Sea and surrounding areas in search of German submarines. Unlike the seven-man British bomber crew, this particular Lancaster carried five servicemen: two pilots, two mechanics, and one navigator. In August of 1945, following the victory over Germany, Soviet Lancaster 1 was sent to the Pacific, but was stranded en route when it landed in Krasnoyarsk to refuel only to find that the refueling station did not have gasoline with a sufficient level of octane to power the Merlin engines. By the time the fuel arrived, the Japanese had surrendered. The aircraft eventually found its way to Riga where it was displayed at a technical school. Its ultimate fate is unknown.
The second Soviet Lancaster, aptly christened Number 2 and flown by one I.I. Dubenets, was sent to the 70th Transport Regiment, where it served as a transport aircraft. Following the war, while landing in Moscow, Number 2 skidded off the runway, damaging the nose and the chassis. The aircraft was not restored.
While the two Lancasters that the Soviets eventually obtained were not used as heavy bombers, it is worth noting that they did carry out a significant number of missions, though they never met the enemy face to face. Much like most Soviet warplanes from the Second World War, the two Lancasters have not survived. Nevertheless, their story is indicative of how Soviet forces would use anything and everything at their disposal to achieve victory over Germany.
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