Easy Elsie: The Endangered Wreck of Avro Lancaster Bomber NF920

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 1 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com); wreckage of Lancaster NF920 ‘Easy Elsie’)

The broken wreckage of her wings and fuselage lie where she crash-landed in marshland 72 years ago. On October 29, 1944, a force of 37 Avro Lancaster bombers from Nos. 9 and 617 squadrons took off from RAF Lossiemouth on Scotland’s rugged Moray Firth. Among them was NF920, a Lancaster B.III wearing the code KC-E, known to her crew as Easy Elsie. Her target was the mighty Bismarck-class battleship Tirpitz, the pride of the Imperial German Navy.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 2 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

The great battleships of World War Two carried with them the morale of a nation, and losing them would prove catastrophic not just militarily but on the home front too. Her sister ship Bismarck had been scuttled in May 1941 following battle damage in the North Atlantic. The task of sinking Tirpitz went to the crews of RAF Bomber Command, in a series of missions that would force the famous Avro Lancaster to operate at the very limits of its capabilities.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 3 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com; one of Easy Elsie’s tail fins and rudders)

Armed with eight 15 inch guns, the 800 ft-long Bismarck-class battleships, together with U-boats and other Germany naval vessels, had terrorised Atlantic merchant convoys during the early years of the war. Crippling them became a top priority for Allied forces and with Bismarck out the way, attention was turned to her sister ship Tirpitz.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 4 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

The RAF’s first bombing raid (Operation Paravane – September 15, 1944) failed to sink Germany’s prized battleship. But unbeknownst to Allied mission planners, the damage was extensive enough to convince the Imperial German Navy to write-off Tirpitz as a seaworthy vessel. Instead they chose to patch up her damaged hull and press her back into service as a static, floating gun battery in the event of an Allied invasion of occupied Norway.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 5 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com; part of an RAF roundel)

After the raid, Tirpitz had been towed to the Norwegian fjord city of Tromsø and moored off Håkøya Island. With its location fixed, Bomber Command set about planning its follow-up raid, Operation Obviate, in a bid to banish the ship to the bottom of the fjord once and for all. But Tromsø was just out of range for the RAF Lancasters in their standard configurations, and major modifications were needed to get them there.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 6 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com; the remains of a name)

Fitting extra fuel tanks in the Lancasters’ bomb bays wasn’t an option since the space was needed for the 12,000 lb Tallboy bomb required to sink Tirpitz. Instead, fuel tanks from smaller Wellington bombers were fitted inside the Lancs’ fuselages, giving aircraft a capacity of 2,406 gallons but making their cramped cabins all the more claustrophobic.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 7 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

Another problem was that the Lancasters were now two tons overweight. To counter this, ground crews set about removing various defensive equipment, including the mid-upper gun turret and articles of heavy armour plating. While they worked in earnest, Wing Commander James “Willie” Tait, officer commanding 617 Squadron (which had formed in 1943 for the famous ‘Dambusters’ raid Operation Chastise), began requisitioning more powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engines from other 5 Group Lancasters to be fitted to the specially-modified aircraft earmarked for the operation.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 8 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

As cloud cover began to clear over the target, 37 Avro Lancasters left their bases in Lincolnshire bound for RAF Lossiemouth. One of the aircraft, drawn from No. 463 Squadron RAAF, carried a film unit. Once the Lancs arrived at their forward operating base in northern Scotland, which put them barely within range of Tromsø, final preparations were made for the top secret mission codenamed Operation Obviate.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 9 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

Just after 1am on the morning of October 29, 1944, 148 Merlin engines roared to life, shattering the peaceful calm of the Moray Firth as the bomber force got airborne, each one carrying just enough fuel to complete the 2250 mile round-trip. Among them was the Mk.111 Lancaster, serial number NF920, nicknamed Easy Elsie.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 10 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

A de Havilland Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft had already swept the target and confirmed the weather was good. Operation Obviate was on as the Lancasters flew low inland, using the Scandinavian mountains as a shield against the radar stations around Tromsø. But as the RAF bombers raced against the elements to their target, the wind changed and cloud cover obscured Tirpitz just seconds before they ran in. The Lancasters were forced to bomb blind.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 11 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

The battleship was heavily defended by land and ship-based gun batteries and Lancaster KC-E Easy Elsie was hit by flak as she made her bombing run. Having lost an engine and unable to see the target through the cloud, 26-year-old Australian pilot Flying Officer Daniel William “Bill” Carey eased his mighty Lancaster round to repeat the hazardous move a second time. Carey and his crew are understood to have made as many as six bombing runs before releasing their Tallboy earthquake bomb on the unfortunate ship below. But as Easy Elsie turned for home, the Lancaster was struck by flak once again.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 12 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

By this stage Lancaster NF920 was flying on two engines and couldn’t have made it back to Scotland. Bill Carey set course for neutral Sweden and crash-landed Easy Elsie in marshland near the small community of Porjus, in the north of the country. Apart from a dislocated knee suffered by Carey himself, the entire crew survived unscathed. After an unsuccessful attempt to burn their wrecked aircraft, the crew of NF920 were interned by Swedish authorities for several weeks before being repatriated to the UK.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 13 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

Easy Elsie, however, wasn’t so lucky. The wreck of Lancaster NF920 was destined to lie where she came to rest in the marshes of northern Sweden that fateful night in 1944. Her remains are still there today, more than seven decades after Operation Obviate was prosecuted. The years have not been kind to her. Though the tough northern weather has conspired to fade her national markings, Easy Elsie’s green/brown camouflage and black-painted undersides remain visible. It’s souvenir hunters that have done the most damage. As a result, what was once a substantial wreck (rather like this B-17 Flying Fortress in Papua New Guinea) has been reduced to a substantial pile of torn and twisted metal. Some of her parts have even surfaced on eBay.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 14 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

Despite her deteriorating condition, Easy Elsie likely remains the most impressive Avro Lancaster bomber wreck in Europe (perhaps with the exception of various ditched aircraft). She also fared better than the battleship Tirpitz, which survived Operation Obviate when none of the 32 bombs dropped hit their target, but was finally sunk two weeks later during Operation Catechism – the last of nine attempts to destroy the feared Bismarck-class warship.

The wreck of Avro Lancaster NF920 nicknamed Easy Elsie near Porjus in Sweden where it crash-landed after a raid against the German battleship Tirpitz 15 (Image: Johan Ylitalo (website: JohanYlitalo.com)

Today, the wreck of Lancaster NF920 Easy Elsie can be visited thanks to a wooden catwalk across the swampy ground. A signpost bearing the inscription “2 Lancastern” points the way. How long it survives, however, remains uncertain, as those visitors intent on taking a piece of the bomber with them slowly reduce her to nothing. The final word goes to a Facebook page simply titled Bring Easy Elsie back home to the UK. Though it hasn’t been updated since 2015, the 6,016-strong group’s mission is (or was) clear: “We are trying to repatriate the wreckage of 617 squadron’s (the Dambusters) last remaining Lancaster bomber – “Easy Elsie” from a swamp in Sweden.”

Related: Peter Jackson’s Full Scale Lancaster Bomber Replicas Spotted in New Zealand

 
 


 
 
 

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