The Willing Conscript

Declared Flight magazine in 1944, “To many people the York is held to be Britain’s first post-war civil aircraft. That it is a stop-gap, at best a wartime compromise, seems to be generally overlooked.” But if the Avro’s steady service had indeed made people forgetful of its hand-me-down origins (which seems unlikely since, as we’ll see shortly, it was part of a much larger bone of contention), then it might have been more generous if Flight had allowed that the York was more of a ‘wartime conscript’. For while its close relation, the Lancaster, was framed and famed for fighting, the York was called up in the latter part of the war and the immediate post-war period to fulfil a role that was less martial, but nonetheless vital.

“The primary reason for the York’s existence,” as Flight put it, “was the necessity of providing a reliable, easily-produced aircraft with good range and payload to take care of the transport requirements of the various branches of the Government and the fighting services.” That we didn’t already have suitable aircraft in the pipeline was largely due to our failure to develop civil aviation during the inter-war years with the same vigour and imagination as, say, Germany or the US When the war came, then, and the resources of our aero industry were largely concentrated on the production of fighters and bombers, it made sense to take advantage of the advances made in this field by the US, and to rely – through the provisions of the 1941 Lend-Lease Act – on our trans-Atlantic ally for transport aircraft.

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This was all well and good but, while Article VII of the Act states that it’s terms and conditions, “shall be such as not to burden commerce between the two countries, but to promote mutually advantageous economic relations between them,” it wasn’t exactly a partnership of equals. Britain and the US had been long-standing economic rivals but now, as Alan P Dobson explains in his book US Wartime Aid to Britain 1940 – 1946, Britain found herself at a disadvantage: “[her] industry was increasingly turned over to war production with the results that the nation’s export earning capacity was ineluctably reduced while imports continued, depleting her gold and dollar reserves apace.”

On the one hand, then, “the British argued that the Lend-Lease agreement should be construed in a broad way to compensate Britain for her wartime sacrifices for the common good” – her lone stand during 1940 and ‘41, for example, the liquidation of overseas assets to pay for it, not to mention the loss of Commonwealth life and limb – “and to allow her to build up sufficient reserves to provide her with an adequate base for the eventual return to a peacetime economy.”

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On the other hand, Dobson continues, the Secretary of the US Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, and his advisors regarded Lend-Lease as a means to challenge the major role that Britain and her Empire played in the international economy by limiting Britain’s accumulation of gold and dollar reserves, and intensifying restrictions on her export trade. “Morgenthau was not anti-British,” Dobson maintains, “indeed he was one of the leading advocates of aid to Britain, but he was opposed to British international monetary and financial policies, and was determined to place the US and the dollar firmly in the driving seat in this area.”

Lend-Lease, then, was part of a longer game than W.W.II, and the division of manufacturing effort, such that development of transport aircraft largely became a US priority, was just one of its gambits: it was foreseen that, if in the course of fighting the war, Britain’s civil aviation programme fell even further behind that of the US then come the peace Britain would continue to buy US aircraft to service her domestic and overseas needs. And it’s in the light of this realpolitik that the prickliness in the next part of Flight’s editorial should probably be read: “It is an amazing thing, but Avro’s can have no-one working officially on the York – the machine is not a designated type and, despite the fact that the firm is being urged to produce more and more Yorks for official use, production has to be made in a ‘hole-and-corner’ fashion in odds and snippets, as no labour of any description can be made officially available for the work. By contrast, our American allies are producing modern commercial types as hard as they can go, and any men working on these are exempt from military service automatically. A situation which makes one think.” There is, after all, a difference between a fraternal embrace and an economic half nelson.

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In the event, it was enough to make some parts of the Government think that a counterbalance was needed. In the case of the aero industry, one of the forms that this took was the Brabazon Committee, formed in late ’42 with the aim of anticipating our post-war civil air transport needs, and which subsequently set in train the development of a series of aircraft designs, from a short-haul carrier to a large trans-Atlantic airliner, with the idea of pump-priming the industry in readiness for peace-time production.

The York wasn’t one of Brabazon’s future concepts, however; as Flight indicated, it was a private venture developed at Avro’s expense to try and meet the immediate operational requirement (OR.113) for an interim long-range transport aircraft. The company had a considerable advantage, of course, in being able to base its design on the Lancaster, whose mainplane, tail assembly, 1620hp Merlin engines, and undercarriage were mated with a new, square-section fuselage that could carry a 7.5-ton payload, yet had twice the volume, so providing plenty of scope for different configurations and loads. By using Lancaster parts wherever possible, Avro was able to build the York using only 9000 jigs and tools, rather than the 30,000 typically required by an all-new design. Also, using assemblies already familiar to the workforce helped to keep down construction times and so further reduce the costs.

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In July 1942, only five months after it had left the drawing board, the first York prototype – an unfurnished freighter, LV626 – took to the air. When subsequent trials showed that it answered the needs of OR.113, it attained the legitimacy required to sanction the production of three further prototypes against Ministry of Aircraft Production specification C.1/42.

The second prototype to be built, LV629, was fitted with passenger seats, but was broken up in 1948, while the fourth, LV639, had doors installed in the floor with a view to dropping paratroops, though tests showed that turbulence along the fuselage made it unsuitable for this purpose. In the meantime, the original York, LV626, was refitted with 1650hp Bristol Hercules VI radials – a proving exercise also carried out with the Lancaster II as a precaution against an interruption to the supply of Merlins – and thus became the sole York Mk.2. But LV633, the third prototype, had an altogether more colourful career: fitted with square windows rather than round, to afford a better view, it was equipped to provide a ‘flying conference room’ for Winston Churchill.


Named Ascalon after St George’s lance, the York’s first outing with the Prime Minister was in May 1943 when, accompanied by Generals Brooke and Marshall, he flew from Gibraltar to Algiers to meet Eisenhower. In his book, Churchill Goes to War, Brian Lavery records that Brooke was full of praise for the York: “Very comfortable,” the General wrote, “with a special cabin for PM, drawing room, berths for four besides PM, and lavatory.” Ascalon was also used by King George VI on his visit to units in North Africa and the Med’, and the early production Yorks were likewise used as VIP transports for some of the figures who cast very long shadows indeed. MW102, for example, was the flying office of Lord Mountbatten in his role as viceroy of India and C-in-C South East Asia Command, while MW107 was for a time the personal transport of Field Marshall Jan Smuts, who was a moving force behind the League of Nations and the framing of the UN charter. MW126 had the unhappy distinction of being the aircraft in which Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory was killed en route to Ceylon in ’44. And when HRH the Duke of Gloucester took up the post of Governor-General of Australia in ’45, MW140 Endeavour became his personal transport, and later the only York in the Royal Australian Air Force. Tempting though it is to take liberties with Shakespeare and suggest that, for these VIPs, the winter of wartime discomfort was made luxurious summer by this son of Lancaster, the York’s real role was less glamorous but arguably more useful.


In 1944 – the period of the York’s ‘hole-and-corner’ production – output didn’t exceed three machines a month, yet in the April B.O.A.C established the UK-Cairo route using five Yorks that flew via Morocco. The following year, however, Avro was able to step-up production of the type, for which the RAF became the principal customer: between 1943 and ’48, 208 were delivered to RAF Transport Command where – with their 2700-mile range and mix of freighter, passenger carrier, and passenger-freighter configurations – they were able to service the inter-continental trunk routes. Immediately after the war, 25 civil Yorks were built for joint RAF / B.O.A.C service, and in October ’45 Flight reported that the newly inaugurated 68-hour long UK-South Africa route would be operated with Yorks until Avro Tudors were available. The Tudor, a long-awaited Brabazon design, turned out to be something of a damp squib, but in the meantime another dozen Yorks flew the British South American Airways (BSAA) schedules, and found themselves in competition on the Buenos Aires–London route with the five Yorks bought by Flota Aerea Mercante Argentina. 

In 1946, the RAF began to replace the York with Handley Page’s Hastings, and the joint service aircraft were transferred to B.O.A.C. The arguments about Britain’s civil aviation industry still rumbled on into this post-war world however, and in April 1947 it was the subject of a House of Commons debate: “It seems to me,” said Major Sir Duncan McCallum, MP for Argyll, “that very few people in this country really comprehend the vital importance of this industry to our existence, or at any rate to the development of our trade, and in particular the export trade in the future. Sometimes there seems to be a lack of co-operation between the Ministers responsible for the manufacturing and operating side of the industry, and other Members of the Government. For instance, the Chancellor of the Exchequer continually urges his desire to limit the expenditure of dollars, and to intensify our export trade. Yet, in order to operate British airlines we are constantly purchasing foreign machines, Constellations, Dakotas – although many of these come from Lend-Lease – Lockheed Lodestars, and even Junkers. When precious dollars have to be expended, we use foreign aircraft on British airlines” – precisely the condition of dependency that had been forecast earlier – “whereas many of our manufacturers feel that if only certain petty annoyances and restrictions could be removed from the handling of the industry, they could, to large extent, step up production.”

The honourable member went on to report that, “while I was in India in January, I had the privilege of flying in a Viking from Calcutta to Delhi. These British machines are the most comfortable in which I have ever flown. I can only wish we had a few more of them on our internal airlines. It was pretty well noiseless, fast, and extremely comfortable and I, personally, much prefer it to the York.” However, it wasn’t the noise and comfort aboard the dependable York so much as its load-lifting ability that was the issue during 1948 and ’49, when the nine RAF squadrons still equipped with the Avros used them to fly 29,000 sorties carrying 230,000 tons of supplies to Berlin during the Air Lift. When this tally was added to the runs made by the Yorks of B.O.A.C and independent operators such as Skyways, the Avro was responsible for carrying nearly half of the British contribution to the lifeline.


Even so, the emergence of new types offering, as indicated by McCallum, new benefits, foreshadowed the end of the York’s days as a B.O.A.C passenger-carrier. The York fleet began to be run down, though a number continued on the London–Singapore run, where the Avro again proved its worth by carrying some distinctly exotic passengers. Apparently, the York’s high-wing tail wheel configuration and that adaptable fuselage space made it ideal for carrying animals, and on their weekly return runs from the Far East, the Yorks would uplift animals. Though the bulk of these passengers were monkeys, birds and tropical fish, larger animals were also carried, including tigers and elephants.

As they were passed down into the hands of independent operators, the Avros continued to play a part in the post-war world’s changing order. In 1955, for instance, as the Cold War deepened, a dozen refurbished Yorks were flown to Canada to airlift men and materials to the DEW (distant early warning) Line sites along the Arctic Circle. A large number of ex-military Yorks were also used to service contracts for long-distance troop-carrying flights to parts of the Commonwealth such as Fiji, and also Malaya, whose independence in 1957 also marked the sale of the last of B.O.A.C’s York fleet, which had clocked up 44 million miles.

Many of this ageing fleet eventually moved to the sun on a permanent basis: Ascalon II, for example – the replacement for Churchill’s original flying conference room – was ferried to Beirut where it was used by Trans-Mediterranean Airways to fly pilgrims to Mecca. By the end of 1964, after 21 years of steadfastly stopping gaps, there wasn’t a single York left on the UK register; the last of Britain’s long-distance conscripts had finally been demobbed.


“The use of Lancaster components,” Flight found in its review of the York, “undoubtedly contributes largely to the all-round excellence of the aircraft. Any aircraft with a percentage structure weight of 30%” – the ratio of the Lanc’s structure to its overall weight was, in fact, comparable to that of the Spitfire – “can hardly fail to be efficient.” In the air, that efficiency was also manifested in the stick forces, which were described as ‘purely nominal’ in spite of the aircraft’s all-up weight of 68,000 lbs. Similarly, the rudder was reportedly beautifully balanced and responsive, the third and fourth prototypes and all production models being fitted with a third fin (which was slightly smaller than the outer fins) to provide increased vertical area at the tail to compensate for the increased keel surface forward of the C of G. The result, Flight enthused, was that, “the York is as delightful to handle as one could wish, the response and absolute dead-beat positiveness of aileron, elevator and rudder being something quite out of the ordinary.”

While a Lancaster’s crew would probably have recognised the controls and cockpit (though, “one can hardly refer to an ‘apartment’ like this as a cockpit,” the magazine said), what was completely different, of course, was the interior equipment in the passenger versions. The most basic of these were what was called first-class standard, from where the appointments went up through ‘junior important personages’ and ‘very important personages’ to ‘super-important personages’. At the time of Flight’s review in ‘44, there were more Yorks of the first-class passenger category than any other, and these had two carpet and leather-lined cabins, each seating 12, separated by a wardrobe space and a toilet room, behind whose stretched leather walls lurked an Elsan flushing closet. The galley, meanwhile, was situated towards the tail but, as is the case today, food wasn’t actually cooked there but rather kept hot in what was described as, “an elaborate hay-box type of electrically heated cabinet.” Plus ca change, eh?

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