When the Germans invaded France and the low countries in May 1940, the RAF’s fleet of Westland Lysander aircraft were put into action as spotters and light bombers. In spite of occasional victories against German aircraft, they made very easy targets for the Luftwaffe and were withdrawn from France during the Dunkirk evacuation.
Lysanders continued to fly supply-dropping missions to Allied forces from bases in England; on one mission to drop supplies for troops trapped at Calais, 14 of 16 Lysanders and Hawker Hectors that set out were lost.
A total of 118 Lysanders were lost in or over France and Belgium in May and June 1940, of a total of 175 deployed. With the fall of France, Air Marshall Arthur Barratt, commander-in-chief of the British Air Forces in France, declared that a “less vulnerable aircraft was required”.
It was replaced in 1941 by camera-equipped fighters such as the Curtiss Tomahawk and North American Mustang, carrying out reconnaissance operations, while light planes such as the Taylorcraft Auster were used to direct artillery. Some UK-based Lysanders went to work operating air-sea rescue, dropping dinghies to downed RAF aircrew in the English Channel. Fourteen squadrons and flights were formed for this role in 1940 and 1941.
A New Role
Special Operations Executive (SOE) – set up in London to link up with resistance movements in occupied Europe – chose the Westland Lysander to support clandestine groups working against the Nazis in Europe because of its high-lift, short take-off and landing capabilities. The Lysander could land on crude and short fields to drop off or pick up agents.
To give it the long range it needed, the aircraft had to be lightened by removing all unnecessary equipment such as guns, armour protection and excess radio equipment, retaining only the radio-telephone for communication with the ground. The pilot would find his way by map, reading light, and the glow of a full moon. Landing strips were marked out by four or five torches, hastily lit and doused as needed. In order to slip in unobtrusively, the Lysanders were painted matte black.
These Lysanders were fitted with a fixed ladder over the port side to provide quick access to the rear cockpit and a large drop tank under the belly. They were designed to carry one passenger in the rear cockpit, but in case of urgent necessity, three could be carried in extreme discomfort. The Lysanders flew from secret airfields at Newmarket and later Tempsford, but used regular RAF stations to fuel up for the actual crossing.
SOE Squadron 138 and 161
The pilots of No. 138 and No. 161 Squadron transported 101 agents to, and recovered 128 agents from, Nazi-occupied Europe.
Check out these two videos on the Lysander! The first includes original newsreel footage from the launch of the Lysander in 1936. The second is an airshow exhibit, narrated by an aviation enthusiast.