In 1934, the British Air Ministry issued a specification for an aircraft to replace the aged Hawker Hector biplane, which were reserved for the RAF's army co-operation tasks, such as reconnaissance, artillery spotting and communications. The aircraft companies Hawker, Bristol and Avro were initially selected to produce designs for the new aircraft. Westland was later included.
Hawker had simply designed a new variant of their old model. Bristol and Westland were thus chosen and ordered to produce two prototypes.
Bristol's Type 148 was a low wing monoplane based loosely on their Type 146 fighter. It was similar to the North American Harvard trainer, but performed much better and was in fact a very good design. Westland's P.8 had been designed by the relatively inexperienced "Teddy" Petter (it was only his second design) but he had spent much time and effort finding out the requirements the squadrons had for the plane. Thus his plane had good visibility from the cockpit (as the wings were mounted on top of the canopy), easy handling, good low speed control and the ability to operate from short runways or clearings.
The first prototype made its maiden flight on June 15th, 1936 at Boscombe Down. In October, it was selected by the Air Ministry and allocated the name Lysander (in keeping with the tradition of naming RAF's army co-operation planes after classical warriors).
The Lysander Mk. I entered service with No. 16 Squadron, where it was used for message dropping and artillery spotting exercises. Crews liked the plane as it was very pleasant to fly, nicknaming it 'Lizzie'. During 1938 and 1939, seven RAF squadrons received Lysanders, replacing their Hawker Hectors. By the time WWII broke out, the Mk. II model had replaced most of the Mk. I's. The Mk. II had a slightly more powerful Bristol Perseus XII engine. Many of the older models were sent to the Middle East.
Four Lysander squadrons served in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. When Germany's Blitzkrieg hit France, the Lysanders were quickly found to be inadequate in combat performance, and losses in both spotting and bombing tasks were tremendous. The squadrons were decimated. Some successes were also recorded, mostly in dropping supplies, but they also managed to shoot down some Luftwaffe aircraft, despite being slow and armed only with 7.7 mm machine guns. Of the 174 Lysanders sent to France, 88 were destroyed in air combat and 30 on the ground, with around 120 crew members lost.
After this failure, the Lysander was assigned new tasks, including air-sea rescue, which the Lysander performed very well, dropping life rafts and supplies.
The Lysander returned to France one year later. This time, the Special Operations Executive used it to transport clandestine cargo and passengers into and out of occupied France. In August 1941, No. 138 Squadron was formed to conduct these operations. When range needed to be increased, new SD versions were created by adding an under-fuselage fuel tank. A ladder was also fitted for quick retrieval of SOE operatives to the rear cockpit.
Carrying covert operatives into and out of France is the task for which the Lysander is remembered. No other British plane could land in the small forest clearings these operations were flown to. The Lysander had outstanding short takeoff and landing performance and very good control in slow speeds.
Until the end of 1944, the Lysanders flew around four hundred sorties to France, delivering 239 passengers and bringing back around 500. Lysanders were also used in North Africa in 1939 and 1940 flying artillery spotting and reconnaissance missions. Several Lysanders were also lost in Greece. Two squadrons flew the Lysanders in the China-Burma-India theatre.
Lysanders were also built in Canada with an improved cockpit heating system. Also, the Turkish Air Force received 36, the Irish Air Corps 6, the Royal Egyptian Air Force 20, the Finnish Air Force 12 and the Portuguese Air Corps 8. Additionally, the United States received three for evaluation.
- Crew: 2 (pilot and rear gunner); SD variants usually had no rear gunner
- Span: 15.2 m
- Length: 9.29 m
- Height: 4.42 m
- Wing area: 24.2 m²
- Powerplant: Bristol Mercury XII, 890 hp (Mk. I), Bristol Perseus XII, 905 hp (Mk. II), Bristol Mercury XX, 870 hp (Mk. II), all air-cooled radial 9-cylinder engines
- Weight (empty): 1,840 kg (Mk. I), 1,890 kg (Mk. II), 1,980 kg (Mk. III)
- Weight (loaded): 2,690 kg (Mk. I), 2,730 kg (Mk. II), 2,870 kg (Mk. III)
- Maximum speed at 3,000 m: 352 km/h (Mk. I), 370 km/h (Mk. II), 341 km/h (Mk. III)
- Stall speed: 87 km/h (Mk. I), 88 km/h (Mk. II), 90 km/h (Mk. III)
- Climb to 3,000 m: 6.9 min (Mk. I and II), 8 min (Mk. III)
- Take off to 15 m: 230 m (Mk. I), 225 m (Mk. II), 280 m (Mk. III)
- Range: 640 km, 1125 km (SD)
2 Colt-Browning 7.7 mm machine guns
1 Lewis or Vickers 7.7 mm machine gun in rear cockpit (Mk. I and II)
2 Colt-Browning 7.7 mm machine guns in rear cockpit (Mk. III)
Additionally, one of the following could be carried:
16 9 kg bombs (12 on the Mk. IIIa)
4 50 kg bombs
2 113 kg bombs
- Numbers built: 2 P.8 prototypes, 187 Mk. I, 517 Mk. II, 517 Mk. III, 347 Mk. IIIa, 100 Mk. IIIa.TT (target towing) - total 1652-1786 in various sources (the numbers from the various models add up to 1670)