Two years before Colin Rees was born, his uncle Jack ‘Coogan’ McDonnell, a RAAF officer flying with the RAF, was lost when Lancaster bomber PB636 failed to return from a mission over Germany.
Flight Sergeant JJL McDonnell was the navigator of PB636, which was one of 286 Lancasters and 16 Mosquitoes that flew on the sortie on 22 January 1945. Their mission was to raid a Benzol plant in Bruckhausen, a suburb of Duisburg in Germany. According to reports: ‘The target was visible in the moonlight and the attack was successful. A local Steelworks was also hit but this was probably due to creep and fallback rather than intent.’
Only two Lancasters were lost, which was few for a raid of this size, but unfortunately PB636 was one of them and no trace of the plane has ever been found. The Wing Commander commanding No. 153 Squadron RAF, in a dispatch to the Air Ministry reported:
Lancaster 111 PB636 missing for air operations 22.1.45. I have the honour to refer to this Unit’s signal A-25 dated 22 January 1945. The aircraft was one of 19 detailed from this unit to take part in an attack on Duisburg on the night of 22 January 1945.
Defences consisted of slight heavy flack in barrage form, inclined to increase and mainly bursting above our aircraft. Searchlights were active being aided by con-trails and several aircraft were seen to be coned. No fighters were seen. Nothing was heard form the missing aircraft after taking off from base.
The crew of PB636 were Pilot Flight Lieutenant AE Jones DFC, Engineer Sergeant SS James, Navigator Flight Sergeant JJL McDonnell RAAF, Bomber Aimer Flight Sergeant CL Cullen, Wireless Operator JE Bateup RAAF, Mid Upper Gunner Sergeant RV Trafford and Tail Gunner Sergeant A Simpson.
The Lancaster Centre at MAA
In refurbishing the offices and reception centre at Mangalore Airport, Colin Rees decided to create a living memorial, not only to his uncle Jack, who he only knew as ‘Coogan’ (so named because of his likeness at birth to Jackie Coogan), but also to the Lancaster bomber and all who were involved with it. The entry to the airport executive suites is through the Lancaster Centre, where memorabilia and stories of the famous war machine will be on display.
A short history of the Lancaster
In examining the history of the Avro Lancaster, it is important to consider the circumstances that influenced the aircraft designers of the time. In the years between the wars of 1914—1918 and 1939—1945, especially during the growth of the Nazi movement in the 1930s, political and strategic considerations, tempered by financial constraints, influenced the emergence of militarism both in Germany and in Great Britain. How these factors affected the growth of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the German Luftwaffe in the immediate pre-war years is a complex topic — to learn more, read the 1969 book The Narrow Margin by D. Wood with D. Dempster, Arrow Books.
However, at the start of formal hostilities in 1939, the two airforces were of roughly equal strength. In the two fighter forces, the Hawker Hurricane, the mainstay of the RAF Bomber Command (especially in the Battle of Britain), was inferior to the German Messerschmidt Me Bf 109. However, the balance was rapidly restored by the appearance of the Supermarine Spitfire. All three fighters were used throughout the war in their many variants with varying degrees of success.
Both sides operated at least one obsolescent type of bomber in the opening phases of the war: the British, the Fairey Battle light bomber and the Germans, the Junkers Ju 87B dive bomber. The Fairey Battle operated from airfields in northern Europe in the opening weeks of the war but proved to be almost defenceless against the Me Bf 109. In one raid alone, 63 aircraft took off, but just 28 returned to base. For this reason the Fairey Battle was soon withdrawn and relegated to minor patrol duties such as searching for U-boats off the coast of Ireland.
Initially, the Junkers Ju 87B, was a marked success in the German invasion of Eastern Europe. It played a major role in destroying the Polish airforce on the ground in only two days and the whole of Poland was occupied in a month. However, when used in similar tasks on the western front and against British shipping, it proved to be easy meat.
The main bomber force of the RAF was made up of the Handley Page Hampden, the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and a slowly increasing number of the Vickers Wellington. Although not much to choose between them in terms of performance, the Wellington proved to be the most successful. It was a sturdy and reliable aircraft and in the first so-called ‘thousand bomber raid’ on Cologne in May 1942 made up more than half the force. The Hampden and Whitley were phased out in 1942 and early marks of the Wellington in late 1943 but later variants of the latter were used with great success in various roles throughout the war.
The German mainstay became the Heinkel He 111H and this was used throughout the war as the principal bomber. The second line Dornier Do 17 was phased out in 1942.
This then was the position for the early period of World War II — almost a case of tit-for-tat attacks. However, the situation changed rapidly in favour of the Luftwaffe. With the rapid advance of the German Army westwards across northern Europe, German aircraft were able to operate from captured airfields and thus penetrate deeper and deeper into the British industrial heartland without increasing their exposure to attack in flight over hostile territory. On the other hand, RAF aircraft were forced to fly ever-increasing distances over German-held territory before reaching targets in Germany.
That this situation was not unexpected by British military planners is shown by contracts that led to the production of heavy bombers that could fly faster and higher, and carry a heavier bomb load over greater distances than those already in service. Designs chosen for production were the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax and the Avro Manchester. The Stirling was the first four-engine monoplane bomber and came into service in August 1940 but was not very successful and was relegated to lesser roles by 1944. The four-engined Halifax came into service in March 1941 and was phased out in early 1945 after playing a significant role in night bombing raids for the whole of its period in service.
The twin-engine Manchester, using two very powerful Rolls Royce Vulture engines, also came on line in 1940. It was initially preferred to a four-engine version designed by Avro at about the same time to use many of the same airframe sections. In service, the Vulture engines proved to be unreliable most of the losses of a total of only 40 Manchesters built were due to engine failure rather than enemy action.
The four-engine version was initially known as the Mark 3 Manchester and, because of its similar design to the original Manchester, was able to be brought in service relatively quickly. It was powered by four of the less powerful but very reliable Rolls Royce Merlin engines and soon became known as the Mark 1 Lancaster, arguably the best bomber produced in the war. First flown in 1941 it came into in service in 1942. During the war, it flew twice as many sorties than its nearest rival, the Halifax, and by the end of the war, there were no fewer than 68 bomber squadrons equipped with Lancasters as opposed to 34 Halifax squadrons. By September 1943, the latter had been relegated to bombing less hazardous targets. This is not to say that the Lancaster was uniformly successful in that technical innovations on both sides caused losses to fluctuate. This topic is adequately covered in websites referred to below.
The first Lancasters were built by various aircraft-manufacturing companies on contracts initially let for Manchesters. There were eight marks in all: marks 1 to 7 and variants constructed in the UK and a mark 10 constructed in Canada. The mark 2 Lancaster is interesting in that it was powered by Bristol Hercules radial engines instead of the usual inline Rolls Royce Merlin. This was thought to be necessary because of a temporary shortfall in the production of Merlin engines, a problem very soon resolved. Only 300 mark 2s were built out of a total of more than 7000 in all marks.
The Lancaster was used in many famous operations, notably the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz from a temporary base in Russia and the attacks on the Mohne and Eder dams using the bouncing bomb designed by Barnes Wallis. This carefully planned operation became the subject of a very famous film, The Dambusters. A modified Lancaster, the B1, featured an extended bomb bay without doors and was the only aircraft capable of carrying the 10 000 kg ‘grand slam’ bomb used with great effect in the later stages of the war.
The Lancaster remained in service after the war but was phased out and replaced by the Avro Lincoln, which, although a different aircraft in its own right, bore much more than a passing similarity to its predecessor. The basic design of the Lancaster also was the genesis of the Avro York transport aircraft, the Lancastrian civil airliner and, via the York, the Shackleton long-range marine meteorological and reconnaissance aircraft that continued in service until 1992.
For more information about upcoming RAF events, No. 153 Squadron, the Lancaster or World War II, visit:
There are many websites about the Lancaster giving further details of the history, technical specifications and deployment. A good overview is at Wikipedia and a list of surviving Lancasters is at Wikipedia. Another interesting site is RAF Museum London. This refers to a particular Lancaster, R5868, held in the museum but also includes a day-by-day account of the operations conducted in this aircraft drawn from the logbooks of crew members. The 1952 film Appointment in London is a wartime drama about a wing commander (played by Dirk Bogarde) leading a squadron of Lancaster bombers on almost nightly raids from England. It was partly filmed at RAF base Upwood in Huntingdonshire.
Read a personal memory by a rear gunner of flying in the Lancaster.