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The clandestine wartime missions of the Westland Lysander

The clandestine wartime missions of the Westland Lysander

It was 80 years ago that the Westland Lysander entered RAF service.  After an inauspicious start to its operational career the ‘Lizzie’ was eventually to find a niche supporting covert operations in enemy-occupied territory. Here, we take a brief look at its story… 


The Westland Lysander was designed in the mid 1930s in response to an RAF requirement for a new army co-operation aircraft.  Although it looked rather ungainly, this high-winged monoplane powered by a Bristol Mercury radial engine had some advanced features for the time, including  slats and flaps that deployed and retracted automatically to reduce pilot workload during takeoff and landing.

The cabin was generously glazed, affording the pilot and observer/rear gunner excellent fields of view. A map shelf separated the two crew members.  The fixed undercarriage had large wheel fairings with mountings for machine guns. Bombs and supply canisters could also be attached here.  

With its rugged undercarriage, low stalling speed and impressive short take-off and landing (STOL) capability, the aircraft could operate from airstrips where space was limited, a capability that would become crucial to its later success. 

Into action

The ‘Lizzie’ as it was subsequently nicknamed first entered RAF service with No.16 squadron at Old Sarum in June 1938.  Five RAF Lysander squadrons supported the British Expeditionary Force in France after the Second World War broke out. The slow and un-manoeuvrable Lysander was however easy prey for Luftwaffe fighters and losses were high. 

The Lysander’s vulnerability meant it was unsuited to the army co-operation role for which it had been developed, so many were re-purposed to serve in the air-sea rescue role, locating downed pilots, marking their position with a smoke bomb and then dropping a dinghy to them. 

There is footage of the air sea rescue work in a 1942 British Movietone film on YouTube: 


Other wartime roles for the Lysander included assisting with radar calibration or acting as target tugs. 

Covert operations

It was in the service of the Special Operations Executive (SoE) that the Lysander finally found its ‘raison d’etre’. 

Two squadrons (Nos. 138and 161)were formed to support covert SoE operations in Europe during World War 2, flying a mixture of aircraft that included Hudsons, Halifaxes and Whitleys as well as Lysanders. The larger aircraft were used for parachute drops of agents or supplies but the Lysander, with its excellent short take off and landing capabilities, was ideal for situations where a touch down in enemy-held territory was required. 

The Lysander was used extensively to ferry secret agents into and out of Nazi-held territory by night, as well as retrieve allied airmen who had been shot down and were on the run.

Lysanders were adapted for this role in several ways. Black paint was applied to the undersides and in some cases all over, to make the aircraft harder to spot from the ground when flying slowly at low level near landing sites. A 150 gallon fuel tank was fitted to the belly of the aircraft to increase its range, and a ladder was fixed to the port side of the fuselage to give passengers faster access to the rear section of the cabin. To save weight and make additional space, all the armament was removed. 

The ‘special duty’ Lysander pilots had to navigate by the light of the moon, using just a map and compass. Usually they were looking for an improvised landing strip in a field marked out with flame torches by an SoE agent or the French Resistance, although they were advised not to rely purely on spotting these lights. Once on the ground in enemy held-territory, a fast turnaround was imperative to evade German patrols. 

If the mission involved both the insertion and extraction of agents, the outgoing agent would hand out his own luggage and take in the luggage of the homecoming agent before disembarking. Up to four passengers could be carried in the Lysander in extreme circumstances (and extreme discomfort): one on the floor, two on the seat, and one on the shelf. Once loaded up, the Lysander would quickly get airborne again, the pilot using boost control override to climb away as rapidly as possible.   

It was also essential of course not to fall for a trap set by the Germans. Pilots were told to avoid landing if the identification signal was not correct, there was an irregularity in the flare path or if the indicated field was not the one they expected. 

If the Germans were lying in ambush when a Lysander landed, they would normally wait until the aircraft was about to take-off before opening fire so that they could capture all the occupants alive for interrogation. Thus landing in the absence of gunfire was not necessarily a sign that the Germans were absent. However, the Lysander proved to be a very illusive aircraft and many agents were ferried successfully to and from the continent without detection.     

In total 1786 Lysanders were manufactured, 225 of these in Canada. Today, about a dozen are still in existence including several airworthy examples. Although not as famous as other wartime RAF aircraft such as the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster, as a surreptitious transporter of spies and equipment the ’Lizzie’ nevertheless carried out vital undercover work that helped to shape the outcome of World War 2.           

Lysander key facts

  • The ‘Lysander’ was named after the Spartan admiral whoin the ancient world defeated the Atheniansin the last major battle of the Peloponnesian War.
  • If Britain had been invaded in 1940, Lysanders armed with machine guns and small bombs would have been deployed to attack German forces on the landing beaches
  • A prototype ‘turret fighter’ version of the Lysander was produced, with a twin tail configuration and 4-gun Nash and Thompson power-operated tail end turret, but this variant did not go into production.     
  • During 1940 the Canadians sent all of their available Hawker Hurricanes abroad to fight in the Battle of Britain so some of their Lysanders were briefly pressed into service as home defence fighters.
  • No. 357 Squadron RAF supported covert operations in South East Asia during the latter stages of the war, flying Lysanders as well as other types.  
  • The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, Bedfordshire, England,has an airworthy Lysander  painted in the all-black scheme of a No. 161 Squadron special duties aircraft. 

For more information, check out our Westland Lysander Owners Workshop Manual.