Avro Lancaster Just Jane - Gallery & History

One of only two active Avro Lancaster bombers in Europe, NX611 Just Jane a Mk.VII, has a varied and interesting history. Although currently operating on a regular basis in a taxyable condition, it is hoped she will be the focus of a restoration to flight project in the future as G-ASXX... 


  

Lancaster Just Jane, Fred and Harold…An Introduction.

 

There can be little doubt amongst aviation or historical enthusiasts of the importance of the Avro Lancaster and its contribution to the Allied victory in the Second World War. Indeed, it is claimed by enthusiasts to be one of the greatest and most famous aircraft ever built. Many hundreds of thousands of words have been written over the years on the subject of the Lancaster and its role within the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, films produced for the ‘big screen’, countless magazine articles have explored combat experiences and numerous documentaries filmed for television. All this media, enthusiast and veteran attention built the legend that is the Avro Lancaster.

 

When G-ASXX touched down at RAF Biggin Hill on 13th May 1965 after its 12,000 mile delivery flight from Australia, no one could possibly have foreseen the aircraft’s convoluted history over the coming decades; ownership changes, moves between airfields, falling into disrepair, gate guard duties and finally since 1987, a secure home at East Kirkby, in the care of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.  

 

The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre was established over 25 years ago by farming brothers Fred and Harold Panton. Located on the fringe of the former Royal Air Force Station East Kirkby, once home to 57 and 630 Squadrons flying combat operations with Avro Lancasters, it is most appropriate that to be found residing within the museum site are a number of historic aircraft. These include the menacing yet iconic lines of the frequently taxying 1945 vintage Lancaster Just Jane. 

 

With Just Jane taking a leading role, the museum is widely recognised as one of the World’s leading sites established to commemorate Bomber Command and the terrible losses incurred by its personnel. When visiting the museum and experiencing the roar of  Just  Jane’s four Rolls Royce Merlin 24 engines during a taxy run, it is worth recalling the sobering statistics of war. For every 100 airmen who joined Bomber Command, 45 were killed, six were seriously wounded and eight became Prisoners of War. Of the 120,000 who served within Bomber Command a staggering 55,573 were killed – in fact on a single night of operations over occupied Europe, Bomber Command would suffer more losses than Fighter Command experienced during the entire duration of the Battle of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940.Between entering Royal Air Force service in 1941 and the end of European combat in May 1945, 7377 Lancasters were built. These went on to fly 156,192 missions, dropping 608,612 tons of bombs – more than all other British heavy bombers combined, but at a dreadful human cost   21,750 airmen were killed on operations in the Lancaster. So many untold stories; so many selfless acts of courage…

 

The Lancaster that was destined to become Just Jane was built as NX611 at the Longbridge works by Austin Motors in April 1945. The third aircraft off the line as part of an order for 150 Lancaster B.VIIs destined to join the RAF’s 30 Squadron strong TIGER FORCE, for operations in the Far East against the Japanese. Following the Japanese surrender the force was disbanded and the newly built, but now surplus Lancasters were flown in to storage at the RAF Maintenance Unit in Llandow, Glamorgan. NX611 remained here until April 1952, when she was sold for a reputed £50,000 as part of a batch of 54 Lancasters to the French Government. Under a Western Union agreement, the French Navy (L’Aeronavale) was to supplement RAF patrols of the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes. NX611 was converted to a Maritime Reconnaissance standard by Avro’s at Woodford and collected by a French ferry crew on 30th May 1952. By now painted midnight blue and coded WU15, further modifications included the removal of the mid upper turret, the fitting of an airborne lifeboat and the provision of ASV radar.


For the next ten years WU15 operated from bases in Brittany and Morocco. In November 1962 WU15 was redeployed to New Caledonia, a French Pacific territory around 1000 miles east of Australia. The ferry route was via Malta, Istanbul, Tehran, Karachi, New Delhi, Calcutta, Phnom-Penh, Singapore, Djakarta, Bali, Darwin and Townsville. WU15 was operated by Escadrille de Servitude 9S from Noumeau; one of three Lancasters carrying out patrols, ASR, communications and liaison duties across a wide area of the south Pacific. Interestingly, during her time with the French WU15 also participated on bombing raids over Indo-China, a role not far removed from her original purpose. After two years of service the three Lancasters at Noumeau were withdrawn due to high maintenance costs and a shortage of spares.

 

Meanwhile, 13,000 miles away in the United Kingdom, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society (HAPS) had enquired about the possibility of acquiring one of these Lancasters for preservation. After a lengthy wait without any response, the French authorities contacted the society - not only did they offer to donate a Lancaster, but they would also deliver it as far as Australia or New Zealand. Hasty arrangements were made by HAPS and in August 1964, WU15 touched down in Australia at Bankstown, near Sydney. After completion of an overhaul and a test flight, WU15 was repositioned to Mascot, also near Sydney, in readiness for the lengthy flight to the UK. Although still carrying the white paint scheme, roundel and badges from French service the registration was changed from military WU15 to civilian G-ASXX.

 

On 25th April G-ASXX took off from Mascot and started her 12,000 mile journey to the UK via Coolangatta, then Amberley, Darwin, Changi, Butterworth (escorted on departure by an RAF Victor and Canberra plus RAAF Sabres), Calcutta, Karachi, Bahrain, Akrotiri, Istres and finally Biggin Hill.  After 19 days and 70 hours of flying time, on 13th May 1965, the Lancaster arrived safely at Biggin Hill – fittingly her crew comprised of serving or retired RAAF members, many of whom had served in the United Kingdom as Lancaster aircrew during the war. By this point total air time from new was 2411 hours. The Air Registration Board promptly grounded G-ASXX; the number of flying hours allowed for one engine and propeller had expired, so restoration work commenced. All parts were carefully examined and where necessary restored to an airworthy condition. The white paint was stripped back to bare metal and a RAF night bomber black & camouflage scheme was applied. The original RAF serial NX611 was reapplied and the code letters HA-P added; an authentic WWII Lancaster unit code (218 Squadron) that also represented the owners, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society. 

 

The Lancaster was subsequently named 'Guy Gibson' and after two years of hard work her first post re-certification flight took place on 6th May 1967. On 19th-20th May NX611 flew to RAF Scampton for the 24th Anniversary of the Dams Raid. A number of the original 'Dambuster' crews were on-board and were warmly welcomed at Scampton by none other than Sir Barnes Wallis, the inventor of UPKEEP, the bouncing bomb used by 617 Squadron on the legendary Dams raids of May 1943.Sadly HAPS were unable to find enough sponsors to keep NX611 flying and eventually all assets were transferred to Reflectaire Ltd. Since NX611’s return to the UK she had only flown 14 times, piloted by Neil Williams with Eric Hughes assisting as navigator. The 30th March saw NX611 relocated to the former USAAF airfield at Lavenham in Suffolk. Shortly afterwards the code letters HA-P were replaced by GL-C in honour of Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC DSO DFC who visited the airfield and performed a taxy run in NX611 whilst there. NX611 relocated on 7th February 1970 to Hullavington, Wiltshire - Richard Todd, the actor who played Guy Gibson in the 1953 classic film 'The Dambusters' was on-board recording commentary for a TV programme.

 

Once at Hullavington a re-paint and inspection was in order, and after a series of undercarriage retraction tests and engine runs NX611 was cleared on a special certificate of airworthiness for a single flight with a maximum duration of three hours. On 26th June 1970 NX611 took off from Hullavington for her very last flight of the 20th Century – to Squires Gate Airport, Lancashire, where an aviation museum was being formed with the Lancaster as the main attraction. A former 617 Squadron bomb aimer, Ron Valentine, sat in the Lancaster’s nose as a passenger. He was treated to a low level, high speed run over Lake Bala in North Wales, one of the lakes used in training by the original Dambusters, with the whole flight lasting one hour twenty minutes.

 

It is at this point that Fred and Harold Panton make a return to the narrative. Losing their brother Christopher during the Nuremburg raid of 30/31 March 1944 (please refer to the footnote for further details) had naturally left a lasting impression on his younger brothers, who for quite some time had been seeking a way to commemorate their brother’s memory. Post war, Fred and Harold’s thoughts had turned towards acquiring a surplus four engine Handley Page Halifax; however their Father was against the idea. Sometime later an advertisement was shown to Fred detailing an auction at Squires Gate, which included a certain Lancaster for sale as the result of an aviation museum under liquidation. The brothers knew this was their best chance of acquiring an aircraft. NX611 was put up for auction, as lot 63, on 29th April 1972 but was withdrawn because unbelievably she failed to draw enough interest, and failed to exceed the set reserve price. Fred had made the long journey to Squires Gate and returned home despondent. However two days later the aircraft was sold privately to a bidder and eventually the name of the buyer was released. The brothers made contact, explaining their interest and asking for first refusal should NX611 ever become available for sale again. The buyer, Lord Lilford, had brought the aircraft with the intention of keeping her flying. However, after considering the expense of continued rental of the land where she stood, an alternative route was pursued; this saw the Royal Air Force dismantling NX611 and transport her to RAF Scampton, where she would act as the airfield’s gate guard for a ten year period.

 

By early 1983 the Lancaster’s ten year period at Scampton was coming to an end and despite strong interest from other parties, by September NX611 was finally the property of the Panton brothers. NX611 remained at Scampton for a further five years, to allow for construction of a suitable hangar and other necessary preparations at East Kirkby. It was now 16 years since Fred had first seen NX611 at Squires Gate, but the arrival of the Lancaster at East Kirkby airfield was the start of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre - Fred and Harold’s ambition to commemorate their fallen brother and his Bomber Command colleagues had at long last been realised.

 

Now hangared and safe from the elements at East Kirkby, NX611 was surveyed during 1990 and found to be in excellent condition with both the airframe and engines appearing sound. The name Just Jane was applied to the port side, inspired by a popular 1940s newspaper comic strip character. The title City of Sheffield is carried on the starboard side in honour of the City’s steel works that provided many parts for the Lancaster aircraft, its Merlin engines and the weapons it would carry to war. In December 1993 the decision was taken to restore one of the four Rolls Royce Merlin engines. The restoration project began on 10th January 1994 – 728 man hours later and at a cost of £7,000 number three engine was finally ready to run for the public. A few months later the second engine was successfully restored and started. Following the success of running Just Jane on two engines, it was time for another exciting step to be taken – a short taxi run on three engines. Saturday 22nd April 1995 was the day chosen to celebrate Just Jane's 50th birthday – and to perform the first public taxy run. The fourth engine was restored and started easily on 13th July 1995 – East Kirkby now had an operational Lancaster representing the wartime era. It had taken just 13 months, albeit 13 months of extremely hard work, to turn a dusty static airframe into a living memorial to the 55,573 fallen members of Bomber Command.

 

The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is open six days a week, Monday to Saturday, but closed over the Christmas and New Year Holidays. Just Jane can be seen taxying at numerous occasions between March and November - please visit their website at www.lincsaviation.co.uk for further information. 

 


Above: NX611 in French L’Aeronavale service as WU-15. 

 

Above: L'Aeronavale Lancasters on patrol. Below: G-ASXX seen on arrival at Biggin Hill in May 1965, and later repainted and coded HA-P, possibly pictured at RAF Scampton in May 1967. For a comprehensive review of NX611's markings click HERE.

Above: Two images of G-ASXX displayed at RAF Scampton's main entrance, the Lancaster carrying original NX611 serial and coded YF-C.  Below: NX611 fresh out of the RAF Scampton paint shop.

Below: NX611 is photographed here at RAF Scampton on 10th April 1974 in the complex process of relocating to the Lincolnshire airfield’s main entrance for display - firstly leaving the airfield perimeter track to join the A15 via Old Ermine Street, and then the aircraft is captured as she is towed along the A15 towards the main entrance. Pictures courtesy of the Lincolnshire Echo, via Richard Taylor.

Below: Returning to 1969, here G-ASXX  is photographed on 30th March as she makes a low level flypast of the control tower at Lavenham. Courtesy of the East Anglian Daily Times, via Richard Taylor.

 

Below: A very pleasing aerial picture of G-ASXX - photographed here en route from Biggin Hill to RAF Scampton, where the Lancaster was to take part in the 24th Anniversary of the Dambusters Raid in May 1967. Courtesy of the Richard Fletcher Collection.

 

For further Just Jane reading, these highly recommended titles are available from the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre's on-line store. Please click on the book covers for more information.

 Christopher W. Panton

 

The rural English county of Lincolnshire is dotted with many disused airfields and memorials dedicated to those lost in service of their country during the Second World War; indeed a brief perusal of any county map will reveal numerous familiar place names from where these mighty Lancaster bombers once operated, and families lost husbands, brothers, sons, uncles and fathers on their final flights –  the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is the result of one family’s determination to mark the loss of a beloved brother. Christopher Whitton Panton.

 

Christopher Whitton Panton enlisted in the Royal Air Force in June 1942, having previously been a member of the Air Training Corps. By August 1943 19 year old Chris was serving as a Flight Engineer with 433 (Porcupine) Squadron RCAF at Skipton-on-Swale; his Halifax III was HX272 'Nielson’s Nuthouse'  and fellow crew comprised of Pilot Christian Nielsen, Bomb Aimer Leo Millward, Navigator Don Awrey, Wireless Operator 'Harry' Cooper, Rear Gunner 'Moe' McLaughlin and Air Gunner J Thompson.

 

The Nielsen crew were on the operations roster for the night of 30th/31st March 1944, the target being revealed as Nuremburg at briefing time. This one night proved to be a disaster for Bomber Command - in fact it turned out to be the Command’s heaviest single raid loss of the war. That night was a full moon and normally it would have been a stand down period for the bomber Squadrons, but the raid had been planned on the basis of an earlier weather forecast indicating there would be a protective blanket of high cloud on the outward flight, along with a clear target area. A weather reconnaissance Mosquito returned from the route with the news the weather was far from ideal, in fact the only cloud present was over the target area and there was a strong headwind. Despite this news, the raid was to continue… German night-fighters pounced on the bomber stream as it approached the Belgian border; 82 bombers were shot down well before the target area with a further 14 lost on the return journey home.

 

Chris was only hours away from completing his 30th sortie and first tour of Operations when the Halifax was intercepted by a Luftwaffe Bf110G over Friessen, near Bamberg, Germany. HX272 was the 76th aircraft shot down on this dreadful night. During two attacks by the Bf110G, its machine gun fire hit the petrol tank in the aircraft’s wing and the Halifax was quickly ablaze. The Captain ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft but in the few seconds between the order being given and the crew acting on it, another burst hit an empty fuel tank causing an explosion; the Halifax went into an uncontrollable dive. Three crew members survived; one was able to exit via a turret and two others were blown through the side of the aircraft when it exploded at around 15,000 ft.

 

94 bombers and 537 aircrew were lost in total on this raid - 64 Lancasters and 31 Halifaxes; 11.9 per cent of the force dispatched. A further eleven aircraft crashed on return to the United Kingdom or were written off and seventy more bombers sustained battle damage. Note: 537 Airmen were Killed in Action or Missing, with a further 157 becoming Prisoners of War and 11 Evading Capture.

 


RAF East Kirkby (55 Base) - A Brief History.

 

East Kirkby originally functioned as a decoy airfield and its wooden Whitley bombers were targeted on several occasions by the Luftwaffe, however construction of the airfield proper began in 1942. Located eleven miles north of Boston and directly south of the A155 Coningsby to Spilsby Road, it became one of the county’s most southerly bomber bases. Built as a heavy bomber station with a trio of paved runways and three large T2 hangars, the station was completed during August 1943 and allocated to 5 Group; 57 Squadron and its Lancasters arrived from RAF Scampton during August and 630 Squadron formed here from B Flt of 57 Squadron in November; Both Squadrons stayed for the duration of the war with the the last operational sortie being flown on 25th April 1945 against the SS Barracks at Berchtesgaden.



At 01:45 hours on the 4th March 1945 a Luftwaffe JU-88 intruder aircraft joined the circuit, moments after four Lancasters had landed safely following a raid on Ladburgen. With a ‘scram’ order issued to any remaining aircraft in the area and the runway lighting switched off, the JU-88 was left with no airborne targets and decided to strafe the base with canon and machine gun fire, hitting the Motor Transport section and the 57 Sqn briefing room, where sadly five personnel were severely wounded, one subsequently dying of his injuries.

 

The following are the know casualties of the raid:

F/O A.Healey RAF (Died later of his wounds)

F/O G.E. Pine RAF (Seriously Injured)

F/S Cleghorn RAF (Seriously Injured)

F/L D. Fiffield RAF (Seriously Injured)

 

On 17th April 1945, 57 Sqn Lancaster PB360 N-Nan was being bombed up in preparation for a Group raid against railway yards at Cham in south eastern Germany. A fire broke out and as the station fire tender arrived two 1000lb high explosive bombs detonated, killing two men instantly. As more rescue workers arrived further bombs exploded nearby, killing two more and setting alight three Lancasters. Further explosions rocked the station as more bombs exploded and the flames spread to other aircraft. Six Lancasters were totally destroyed (in addition to PB360, these were LM673, ND472, NN765, PD347, RF195) and a further 14 damaged - almost the entire strength of 57 Squadron. Due to the extensive damage the airfield suffered, it was to be a week before operations resumed, just in time for the final operations of the war. This incident also resulted in nearby Hagnaby Grange being wrecked. East Kirkby's worst night of aircraft losses was 21st June 1944 when eleven aircraft were lost in an attack against Wesseling. In total, 212 operations were carried out the airfield, from which 121 Lancasters failed to return, and an additional 29 were lost in operational accidents.

 

On 20th July 1945, 460 Sqn arrived from Binbrook. Originally destined to be part of the TIGER FORCE destined for operations in the Far East, it disbanded during October 1945. August saw 57 Sqn become the first unit to be equipped with three of the new Avro Lincoln for service trials. The Squadron disbanded in November, reforming the next day at Elsham Wolds. 460 Sqn had disbanded during October and East Kirkby was closed to flying by the end of the year.

 

The airfield was re-activated during August 1947 for use by a detachment of Mosquitos from nearby RAF Coningsby based 139 Squadron. East Kirkby ceased flying once again in February 1948 and it was placed under Care & Maintenance. During the 1950s the airfield was designated as a reserve airfield for the United States Air Force (USAF) and its basic facilities were improved. The Cold War resulted in runway 08-26 being lengthened at the 26 end by 1266 yards and in June 1954 RAF East Kirkby re-opened with C-47s from Strategic Air Command Air Rescue, these operating from here until 1958, when the airfield was handed back to the RAF and once again declared inactive. The Ministry of Defence finally disposed of the site in April 1970.

 


Squadrons based at East Kirkby

57 Squadron

August 1943

November 1945

630 Squadron

November 1943

July 1945

460 Squadron RAAF

July 1945

October 1945

3917ABS/7AD SAC USAF

August 1954

1958

 

Personnel based at East Kirkby Killed in Action

 

57 Squadron

630 Squadron

RAF

349

301

RAAF

40

29

RCAF

43

43

RNZAF

8

11

SAAF

1

1

USAAF

3

1

RNorAF

3

0

 

As detailed above, a number of non-aircrew station personnel also lost their lives during the same period.

 


 

L’Aeronavale Lancasters

 

As already mentioned above, under a Western Union agreement, 58 Lancasters were converted to Maritime Reconnaissance standard by Avro’s at Woodford and then transferred to the French Navy (L’Aeronavale) to supplement Royal Air Force patrols of the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes.

 

Of particular interest to readers may be the batch of 21 Mk.VII Lancasters (i.e. Just Jane).

 

NX611 was converted to Maritime Reconnaissance standard by Avro’s at Woodford and collected by a French ferry crew on 30th May 1952. Painted midnight blue and coded WU-15, further modifications included the removal of the mid upper turret, the fitting of an airborne lifeboat and the installation of ASV radar.

 

NX611 delivered June 1952 as WU15; Flottilles 10F, 24F, 25F, Escadrilles 9s, 52S, 55.
NX613 delivered December 1951 as WU01; Forttille 2F, Escradille 10S.

NX615 delivered May 1952 as WU12; Units unknown.

NX616 delivered September 1952 as WU22; Forttille 11F, Escadrille 4S, 23S.

NX619 delivered May 1952 as WU11; Units unknown.

NX620 delivered August 1952 as WU20; Flottille 23F, Escardrille 10S.

NX621 delivered July 1952 as WU19; Flottille 11F, Escadrille 25S.

NX622 delivered June 1952 as WU16; Flottille 24F, 25F, Escadrille 9S.

NX623 delivered June 1952 as WU14; Flottille 10F, 25F, Escadrille 4S, 55S.

NX627 delivered April 1952 as WU09; Escadrille 10S, 52S, 55S.

NX639 delivered October 1953; Units unknown.

NX633 delivered May 1952 as WU10; Escadrille 55S.

NX664 delivered August 1952 as WU21; Flottille 11F, 24F, 25F, Escadrille 9S, 52S, 55S. Cockpit section on display at St.Mande, France.

NX665 delivered June 1952 as WU13, Flottille 10F, 25F, Escadrille 9S, 62S, 55S, 58S. Aircraft on static display at Western Springs, New Zealand.

NX666 delivered March 1952 as WU05; Flottille 2F, Escadrille 10S.

NX667 delivered September 1952 as WU23; Flottille 10F, 24F, 25F.

NX668 delivered October 1952 as WU24; Escadrille 10S, 55S.

NX669 delivered August 1952 as WU18; Flottille 23F, 25F, Escadrille 10S.

NX703 delivered March 1952 as WU08; Flottille 2F, 23F, Escadrille 55S.

NX723 delivered September 1953; Units unknown.

NX758 delivered October 1953; Units unknown.

 

Avro Lancaster B.VII NX611 (G-ASXX) Specifications

 

Engines: Four Rolls-Royce Merlin 24 engines (1640Hp each)

Dimensions:
Span 102ft
Length 69ft, 11 3/4in
Height 20ft 6in
Wing area 1300sqft

Weights:
Tare 37,330lbs
Maximum all up 72,000lbs
Maximum landing 60,000lbs
Maximum bomb load 18,000lbs
Maximum specialist bomb load 22,000lb (Grand Slam)

Performance:
Maximum speed 275mph at 15,000ft
Cruising speed 200mph at 15,000ft
Service ceiling 25,000ft

Range 2,350 miles with 7,000lbs bomb load