The Westland Lysander – The IAF’s first monoplane bomber

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The Westland Lysander equipped three of the four IAF Squadrons in its heyday – Indian pilots flew it into battle in the jungles of Burma to the hostile lands of the North Western Frontier.


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The Westland Lysander equipped three of the four IAF Squadrons in its heyday – Indian pilots flew it into battle in the jungles of Burma to the  hostile lands of the North Western Frontier.  Seen here is a Lysander II of No.4 Squadron in late 1942, sporting bomb carriers under the stub wings, twin .303 inch  Brownings in the rear cockpit.  Not clearly visible in the picture are two forward firing Brownings installed in the main wheel spats, just above the main landing lights.   Photo Courtesy :  Bruce Robertson Collection via 4+ Publications



It was an odd sight in the skies over Europe and Asia during the Second World War. At a time when the latest fighters were designed with sleeker looks, more powerful engines and heavy armament, this particular aircraft, the Westland Lysander was the anti-thesis of the philosophy. It had a stubby fuselage with a radial engine in the front, two non-retractable undercarriage legs. High wing monoplane supported by V struts, and would be flying along at speeds that today’s motorcars would exceed by miles!

The aircraft was the result of the Air Ministry Specification A.39/34 calling for a two-seater Army Cooperation role replacement of the Hawker Hector. The Army Cooperation Squadrons of that time were cooperating directly with the Army, and tasks like reconnaissance, artillery spotting, communication, liaison etc were to be the responsibilities of the Army Co-operation squadrons.

Westland Aircraft Limited, based at Yeovil, Somerset, England submitted a proposal called the P.8, by engineer Arthur Davenport, under the technical direction of Edward (teddy) Peter, the famous aircraft designer. Petter himself was instrumental in gathering opinions from the Army and RAF Army Cooperation squadrons that went into the final development of the aircraft. Good visibility from the cockpit and special performance from small airfields and areas, and slow flying speeds were the essentials of Army Cooperation work.

Prototypes and Production Orders

Westland received the order for the aircraft and two two prototypes were given the go ahead in June 1935. The first prototype (K6127) was flown on June 15, 1936. It was powered by a 840 hp Bristol Mercury IX radial engine. The second prototype (K6128) flew six months later, on December 11, 1936. The second prototype had a more powerful 905 hp Mercury XII Radial.


- The Mercury IX powered prototype Lysander K6127, seen during its flight trials.


The Air Ministry finally chose the Westland design in September 1936 and ordered for its first batch of 169 aircraft the same month. It was about this time, the aircraft was named the Lysander – in the tradition of naming Army Cooperation aircraft after classical warriors. (Lysander was a Spartan admiral who defeated the Athenian fleet in 405 BC). The production was carried out in two versions, the Mk I and Mk II, respectively powered by Mercury XII and the Bristol Perseus XII engines. The latter engine was tested on the first prototype before actual production began.


The Lysander was a ‘modern’ design as far as Army Cooperation aircraft were concerned. For the first time, it featured an enclosed cockpit that provided some crew comfort. It was a high-wing monoplane design with a fixed undercarriage, powered by a radial engine.

The pilot sat high in his cockpit and had an excellent field of view from his position. The position of the pilot was such that the wings on the aircraft were at his eye level to the sides, so he had a good view above and below the wings. The pilot’s cockpit had a aft-sliding roof and vertically sliding side windows. The entire cockpit was a long glass house with the air gunner / observer sitting in tandem to the pilot. The gunner sat on a swivel seat that would allow him to face forward as well. The gunner could also double up as the bomb –aimer with access to a bomb sight that could be aimed through a clear glass panel in the fuselage. A 95 gallon self sealing aluminum main fuel tank is placed just behind the pilot’s seat dividing the space between the two crew members.


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The Cockpit and Instrument panel of the Lysander. Click on the images above and on the right to see larger views and explanation of the numbers.



The undercarriage was a unique design. it was built around an upside down horse shoe shaped strut that had internally sprung Dowty wheels at either end. The strut was covered panels to give it some stream lining. The Pilot had step holds and hand holds inserted in wheel spats to allow him to climb into his cockpit. Rather uniquely, each of the wheel spats housed a .303 Browning machine gun with about 500 rounds each. These fired outside the propeller arc and this eliminated the requirement for synchronising gear. Additionally Stub wings can be fixed to the wheel spats to which a variety of bombs can be fixed. The stub wings were stressed to carry either a single 250lb bomb , or four 20lb bombs each, or two 112lb bombs. The spats also housed two powerful landing lamps that helped the pilot land the aircraft without any external lighting aids, even on rough ground.


- A period Cutaway drawing of the Lysander as published in FLIGHT magazine. Note the prone position of the air gunner in a ‘bomb aiming’ role on the floor of his position.


The wings were an advanced design of their own. The wings tapered outward from the tip towards the root and at a point tapered inwards. The aircraft featured automatic slats – that deployed whenever the aircraft’s speed fell below a point. The slats would also deploy the trailing edge flaps – This was the first aircraft in which the pilot didn’t have to remember to operate the flaps!. It also relieved the pilot the burden of retracting them before the safe speed was exceeded.

The automatic slats and flaps gave the aircraft tremendous low speed performance. It could hang in the air at just 55miles per hour! The aircraft was almost impossible to stall in level flight. As the speed was lowered, the aircraft would go into a nose high attitude and there was no wing drop or spin that develops. The stall would be delayed to an exceptionally large angle of attack and is not usually reached in the normal envelope of flight operations. During take off, the aircraft did not require the tail to be lifted and would lift off straight once take off speed of 80 mph was reached.  The aircraft was cleared for a maximum diving speed of 300 mph, and aerobatics as well as spinning were prohibited. Sudden maneuvers and heavy loads were prohibited when flying at high speed.

The Lysander was produced in three distinct variants – the Marks I, II and III. There were subvariants within each mark – the differences as illustrated below



Type Power Plant Details, Variants, Conversions Number Produced End User
Prototype 2 RAF
Mk I 664-kW (890-hp) Mercury XII radial Conversions include TT.Mk1 variant (Target Towing) 169 RAF
18 EAF
Mk II 675-kW (905-hp) Bristol Perseus XII radial Conversions include TT.MkII variant (Target Towing) 399 RAF
36 Turkey
Mk III 649-kW (870-hp) Bristol Mercury XX or 30 radial Twin 7.7-mm (0.303-inch) Browning machine guns in the rear cockpit for the observer instead of a single Lewis machine gun.

Sub variants include ·

  • Mk IIIA – Mk IIIs with Additional Armour protection·
  • Mk IIISD – Special version for clandestine operations. No armament, long range fuel tank under the fuselage, fixed external ladder at Observers position.
  • TT.Mk III – Mk IIIs converted into target tugs.
  • TT.Mk IIIA – New production target tugs built upto Mk III standards. Armament removed, attachments for drogue targets and a winch in the rear cockpit.
RCAF 225
Grand Total 1517


Of the above, only the Mk.II and Mk.IIIs ever served with in numbers with operational squadrons in India.

Service with the RAF

The Lysanders entered squadron service in May 1938. The first RAF Unit to get them was No.16 Squadron, RAF based at Old Sarum, UK , the birth place of Army Cooperation training.

The first Indian to fly in a Lysander was IND/1560 Pilot Officer Surendra Nath Goyal (later AVM). He did this as a passenger in Lysander Mk.I L4691 on 13th September, 1938. He had only received his commission from RAF Cranwell in June 38 and arrived at Old Sarum for Army Cooperation training. Goyal was attached with No.16 Squadron in August 1938. He was with the Squadron for three months, during which time he flew Hawker Harts and Furys. He never got to fly the Lysander directly, though he did fly as a Passenger in two flights on this day, each lasting half an hour. He remembers that at that time the Lysander was the ‘latest’ as far as Army Cooperation aircraft went. It would be quite some time before Indian pilots would get to see or fly the aircraft.

The other two graduates out of Cranwell after Goyal, Arjan Singh and Prithipal Singh, had to finish their course in an accelerated mode as war had broken out and they never got to fly the Lysanders. It would be another two years before Indian pilots got to solo in and make their first flights in this aircraft.

At the onset of the Second World War, seven squadrons of the RAF were operating the Lysanders in England. When the British Expeditionary Force went to France, six of these squadrons formed part of the BEF.  However most of these units suffered badly when the Germans invaded the low countries and subsequently France. Only about 50 odd out of a total of 174 Lysanders that were sent to France made it back to the British Isles.

From then on, Lysanders would equip additional squadrons, including those in Australia and Canada.  Starting from 1941, the “Lizzie” as it was affectionately known, were employed in full force in the Special Operations role. No. 138 (Special Duties), was formed to operate missions for the Special Operations Executive to maintain contact with the French Resistance. They were used to drop covert agents in Occupied France, and on many occasions to also evacuate Agents, downed allied airmen etc back to the UK.  These Special Operations Lysanders were modified Mk III Variants – with a long range fuel tank underneath, and a fixed Ladder to assist the rear passenger to get in and out of the aircraft with ease. These aircraft were also painted black overall to take advantage of the night sky.

Lysanders in India

The first Lysander arrived in India in March 1938, when the second prototype aircraft K6128 was dispatched for the Aircraft Depot India, Karachi for carrying out tropical trials. The aircraft was attached to No.5 Squadron RAF during this period was tested in Peshawar and Kohat. The aircraft ended its life somewhere in the Indian Subcontinent as a Ground Instruction airframe by July 1940, probably at Ambala in the Technical school.


The second prototype K6128 seen at Miranshah in Northern Waziristan, in current day Pakistan. The aircraft was attached to No.5 Squadron whose Westland Wapitis can be seen in the background. Photo Courtesy – Profile Publications – Harold Penrose -
- The Second Prototype Lysander on temporary gun butts erected by No.31 Squadron RAF at Drigh Road Karachi. Note the Indian labourers using brute power to lift up the tail!Photo Courtesy – A Pictorial History of the RAF – Vol 1 – JWR Taylor


India remained the haven for biplanes till August 1941, when the first batch of 48 Lysander IIs arrived at Aircraft Depot, Drigh Road. These were allotted to Nos.28 Squadron RAF and No.1 Squadron IAF. Subsequently, No.20 Squadron, RAF, Nos. 2 and 4 Squadrons IAF were also re-equipped with the Lysanders.

Two examples briefly served with No.104 (GR) Squadron IAF (more about this later!). By mid-43, all front line Lysander units had given them up for the Hawker Hurricane and the type was relegated to training establishments like the 151 OTU, No.1 AGS(I) and No.22 AACU.


No.28 Squadron RAF  under Sqn Ldr P N Jennings received its Lysanders at about the same time as No.1 Squadron, IAF.  Lysander Mk II N1273 of No.28 Squadron RAF over the Khyber. This particular aircraft crashed on take-off at Kohat on 19 Dec 1941. Photo Courtesy – Eyes of the Phoenix – Geoff Thomas -
- Three Lysanders in a flypast over Kohat in late 1941 / early 1942. Another aircraft can be seen on the ground.
Two Lysanders of No.28 Squadron seen at Kohat before the far eastern front flared up.  Lysander – “BF-M” P1686 or similar in the foreground & BF-Y behind, of No.28 Squadron. 

No.28 Squadron was always considered as the ‘rival’ squadron to No.1 Squadron IAF. Both units flew into Burma within days of each other.  P1686 was one of the aircraft flown by No.28 to Burma. It was lost when Bombs fell off and destroyed it on take off at a Landing Ground near Mingaladon (Rangoon)17/2/42.  Frank Powley Collection


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