by: Rowan Baylis [ ]
Published late last year, the new edition of The Avro Manchester by Robert Kirby must surely represent the most detailed study of this ill-starred aircraft that we’re ever likely to see. Originally printed in 1995, the text has been revised and expanded to incorporate the fresh material that the author has gathered over the 20 years since.
The 248 x 172 mm hardback book is a hefty read at 509 pages, with the highly detailed text backed up by around 200 photos and diagrams. The content is, necessarily, quite technical in places, but I still found the extraordinary tale of the Manchester almost impossible to put down, such is the clarity and sheer "readabilty" of the author's style.
Before reading the book, I have to admit to being largely ignorant of much of the Manchester’s history. Sure, I knew the picture usually painted of a basically sound aircraft that was let down by its engines, but the story that Robert Kirby tells is far more complicated - and totally absorbing. What becomes apparent is that both the airframe and engines were forced into service long before they were anywhere near ready, with a consequently catastrophic degree of unreliability. Neither Avro nor Rolls Royce emerge with a great deal of credit, and nor does the Air Ministry whose officials were responsible for some fatally misguided decisions during the Manchester’s (thankfully) brief career.
The only group in the whole sorry saga deserving unqualified praise are the airmen and groundcrew who battled to overcome the countless problems with the aircraft and take the fight to the enemy with the only weapon they had at their disposal.
One of the benefits of the short time the Manchester served is that it has allowed the author to follow its progress in almost forensic detail. With so few aircraft ever available for most raids, we can relive the experiences of many of the individual crews taking part through first-hand accounts gathered by the author. And their stories make for gripping reading as these young men faced danger to a degree that most of us will mercifully never have to. Perhaps the most galling thing for them must have been the degree to which their efforts and sacrifices went unacknowledged in what amounted to an official “cover up” designed to disguise the true depth of trouble which the vital Manchester programme was in.
Ironically, in view of the seriousness of the subject, the first part of the book reads like something of a comedy of errors as, in retrospect, the original design and specification of the Manchester was so wildly over-optimistic; the engines never produced anything like the power envisaged, and the airframe was built around hopelessly short wings that, as the weight of the aircraft steadily increased, proved simply unable to support it. In the UK it’s popular to scoff at Luftwaffe failures like the Heinkel He 177 but, in truth, the Manchester was little better - it was even intended to have a dive-bombing capability like its German rival. The only saving grace was that it was recognised early on that the Manchester was incapable of fulfilling all (or arguably any) of the roles intended for it satisfactorily and work was begun as a matter of urgency on the legendary Lancaster that succeeded it.
But that still left the Manchester undergoing quite basic design changes to overcome basic flaws, even as the first production machines were entering service lacking crucial equipment. Apart from the Vulture engines, the Manchester was plagued by aerodynamic, hydraulic and electrical problems - some of which were down to bad design, others to faulty parts, while some can really only be blamed on poor workmanship in the rush to produce as many bombers as possible.
Some of the revelations in the book are quite astounding to the modern reader. For instance, although the Manchester frequently struggled to even take off, let alone climb to altitude with a full bomb load, there never seems to have been any suggestion to reduce it; consequently, tons of bombs were ditched into the North Sea on the outward journey as crews sought any means to reach the enemy coast at the assigned height. Many sorties were aborted, not only due to the notorious Vultures failing, but when crews deemed it suicidal to continue into the German flak and searchlight belts at low altitude.
The inability of Bomber Command to find its targets by night before the introduction of electronic aids is well documented, but the author’s comparison of German post-raid records with the crews’ recollections and official reports still makes for sobering reading - especially in the light of the bravery of the crews in pressing home their attacks only to inflict so little meaningful damage. Typical of the state of navigation at the time is one crew’s account of strafing a town on their homeward journey which they hoped was in Germany...
From a purely modelling point of view, the book’s chief usefulness lies in the hundreds of rare photos of the Manchester in squadron service. Despite its brief frontline career, the Manchester’s camouflage underwent a number of changes, and the author pin-points these along with the dates of their introduction. One surprising thing that is immediately clear is just how shabby many of the aircraft soon became, with patchy and faded paintwork, areas repainted and battle-damage repaired - and, needless to say, plenty of evidence of the constant work needed to keep the problematic Vultures serviceable.
ConclusionI found the book totally fascinating and a wonderful testament to the crews who struggled through the darkest period of Bomber Command’s battle against the Third Reich. Surprisingly, there are a few who remember the Manchester with affection in their accounts, but an engineer with 83 Squadron probably summed up the feelings of most when faced with latest in the seemingly never-ending stream of failures of one sort or another - "F...ing Manchesters!". Highly recommended.
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