Sometimes a weapon is re-purposed, and makes a major impact in its new rôle. For example, the Lewis gun was designed as a light, portable, squad machine gun; undoubtedly, its greatest impact was in the air, becoming one of the first air-to-air weapons, an application which lasted well into WW2. The Westland Lysander was brought into service just as the task for which had been designed – Army Co-operation – was undergoing major revision. It is fair to say that the Lysander became obsolete (as did its contemporary, the Luftwaffe’s Henschel Hs126) much faster than expected.
The first Lysander was constructed to Specification A.39/34, in 1936, but production Mark 1 aircraft (Spec. 36/36) didn’t reach Army Co-operation Command, and No. 16 Squadron, RAF, until 1938. Orders from the Finnish Air Force, Turkish Air Force, Royal Egyptian Air Force and others, followed. Despite a top speed of only 220 mph, when the British Expeditionary Force went to war in 1939, in France, a Lysander became the very first RAF aircraft to shoot down a Luftwaffe aircraft to fall on B.E.F. territory (an He 111 bomber). Mark I and Mark III aircraft were powered by the reliable Bristol Mercury engine, but the Mark II had the unusual Bristol Perseus sleeve-valve unit. National Steel Car Corporation Limited (eventually Victory Aircraft) of Malton, Toronto, Canada built 225, and Westland built 1,427 Lysanders of all Marks, with production ending in 1942. The B.E.F. and its Air Component fought valiantly, but were overwhelmed, the Lysanders even being used as ground attack aircraft (rather than their usual rôle as spotters for the guns, and short-range reconnaissance). During the Battle of Britain they undertook coastal patrols around Southern and Eastern England, and made ready to attack the expected German invasion. Attempts were made to beef-up the ‘Lizzie’s’ armament. Two 20mm Oerlikon cannon were fitted to the spats and braced to the fuselage, but this trial was not pursued. A Boulton & Paul 4-gun turret (4 x .303 Brownings), as fitted to that company’s Defiant fighter was shoe-horned into one aircraft, but that did not fly. One desperate modification which did fly (but crashed) was the so-called ‘Pregnant Perch’, a radical modification with a broad tailplane (almost like a second wing) carrying a mock-up of a four-gun tail turret. Needless to say, it was almost unflyable. After the Battle of Britain was over, the Lizzie was quickly replaced in Army Co-operation Command by the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk and other fighters.
The RAF were left with a stock of Bristol Mercury-powered, two-seat, high-wing monoplanes, with excellent short-field performance, but limited offensive capabilities (small bombs could be carried on stub wings attached to the wheel spats), and hardly capable of defending themselves in the ‘new world’ of high-speed fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf109. In the short-term, Lysanders were used to perform air-sea rescue duties for Coastal Command, liaison, and target towing duties. However, many Mark III and Mark IIIA aircraft were converted to a much more exciting rôle.
Here we see the Shuttleworth Trust’s, Canadian-built, Lysander Mk IIIA (SD) - G-AZWT - at Old Warden, Bedfordshire; formerly RCAF ’1582′, but painted as ‘V9367′, ‘MA-B’ of No. 161 Squadron, RAF, a unit which specialized in insertion/extraction of agents of the Special Operations Executive for undercover work with the Resistance in France and other countries. The aircraft’s (SD) designation stood for Special Duties, and was an attempt to mask the actual work being undertaken. This aircraft was flown by Pilot Officer Peter Vaughan-Fowler (later, Group Captain, DSO, DFC and Bar, AFC, CVO, Croix de Guerre and Palm, Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur) who made more landings in Occupied France (17) than any other pilot. The aircraft has a dummy 150 gallon belly tank fitted (the real article gave the ‘Lizzie’ an 8 hour range), and a fixed ladder welded to the port side of the fuselage for easy access for the clandestine passengers; a small bench seat is fitted for two people (three in extremis), and the two Browning .303 machine guns in the spats were retained.
When Winston Churchill established the Special Operations Executive, in July 1940, he demanded that it, ‘Set Europe ablaze’. The Lysander’s original rôle might have been overtaken by events, but it truly helped to fan the flames of resistance in Occupied Europe during WW2.