We here in Britain have a rather big obsession with ‘the war’.
Uncle Albert was always going on about it, our Prime Minister thinks he’s a modern-day Winston Churchill, and every Christmas we all sit down to watch The Great Escape and laugh at how we managed to get one over on the Germans.
As a self-claimed lover, not a fighter, I don’t always agree with this jingoism – but I do love myself a proper good war film, especially the old ones like The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Eagle Has Landed and of course – The Dam Busters.
The Dam Busters tells the story of Barnes Wallis, an engineer and inventor from near Nottingham who created the ‘bouncing bomb’, a devastating weapon that could be dropped out the bottom of a plane and would then skirt along the top of the water until it hit something – preferably a dam – causing catastrophic damage to the German war effort and sinking a few Jerries along the way.
This week marks the 80th anniversary of Operation Chastise – a night attack by 617 Squadron RAF Bomber Command – using Barnes Wallis’ special bombs. So successful was the raid, that the Möhne and Edersee dams were breached, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr valley and of villages in the Eder valley.
Something that the film won’t tell you though is that an estimated 1600 civilians were killed by the flooding, and the RAF lost 53 aircrew with 8 aircraft destroyed.
But what has this got to do with Manchester I hear you ask?
Well, it’s a little-known fact amongst many that the city centre of Manchester was actually once home to one of the earliest aircraft designers and producers in the world – AVRO – who began manufacturing as early as 1910 at Brownsfield Mill on Great Ancoats Street.
AVRO was founded by a fella named Alliot Verdon Roe, and was one of the world’s very first aircraft builders. In fact, he’s the guy who achieved the first all-British powered flight in 1909 in Lee Valley Park in Hackney, flying an aircraft he designed and constructed called ‘The Bullseye‘.
They didn’t start production on any sort of scale until 1912, with the creation of the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the RAF – who were treated to 18 brand-new AVRO 500 bi-planes which could gly a whopping 60mph at 2,000 ft high – which is less than the height of the current tallest building in the world – that ridiculous one in Dubai.
The AVRO 500 was a huge success though, and it propelled (yep) the company into the national consciousness – helped considerably with the breakout of war just two years later.
Between the first and second world wars, AVRO struggled, but with the breakout of war again in 1939 – it was all hands to battle stations as the fires were stoked in AVRO’s factories across Manchester. It’s at this point where they created three of their most famous planes – and probably the most infamous bomber of all time – the Lancaster.
AVRO’s factories in Woodford in Stockport and in Chadderton in Oldham employed over 17,500 workers, producing more than 700 Lancasters over the course of the war. It became a true celebrity during the war – with Lancasters (and her crew) responsible for some of the most dangerous and successful raids of the conflict.
None more so than Operation Chastise, as the Lancaster was chosen as the craft to carry the bouncing bombs to their targets. To do so, Barnes Wallis himself came up to Manchester to work with AVRO’s Chief Designer Roy Chadwick to modify and adapt the bomber for the mines.
Because of the increased weight of the bombs, and their unusual shape, much of the Lancaster’s internal armour was removed and the bay doors were removed – leaving the bombs dangling down below the fuselage. They then installed an auxiliary motor which would spin the bomb as it dropped – giving it the momentous to bounce along the water.
After the war, Barnes Wallis went on to tinker and invent more aeroplanes and aeroplane-related stuff – most of which goes right over my head. AVRO too continued to design and construct aircraft – keeping afloat thanks to the Cold War and another of their most famous creations – the Vulcan.
Often mistaken for a UFO when flying above, the Vulcan is a very distinctive V-shaped jet bomber that AVRO produced in the 50s and 60s. The Vulcan initially carried Britain’s first nuclear bomb – the Blue Danube ‘gravity bomb’ – and continued to be used actively as our nuclear deterrent right into the 1960s.
It was then used to carry various nuclear armaments and bombs, and was used extensively during the Falklands War – the plane’s only actual combat mission during its 40-year service.
This week marks the 80th anniversary of Operation Chastise and to commemorate the occasion, the Lancaster Bomber will once again fly over areas close to Manchester.
On Saturday 14th, it will be seen above the skies at a number of northern locations including Long Eaton in Nottinghamshire, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire and Marbury in Cheshire.
If you want to know more about the history of AVRO, and take a look at a real-life Vulcan, head on down to the AVRO Heritage Museum at their old factory in Woodford. (Their old Ancoats factory is now a block of flats, aptly named – AVRO.)
It’s open every Saturday and Sunday and they do a MUCH better job of explaining everything than I have.