The Anson was derived from the commercial six-seat 652 and the militarised version, which first flew on 24 March 1935, was built to Air Ministry Specification 18/35. It was the first RAF monoplane with a retractable undercarriage. Avro allotted the type number 652A to the Anson. The first production run resulted in 174 Anson Mk I aircraft for service with Coastal Command. No. 48 Squadron RAF was the first to be equipped in March 1936.
A distinctive feature of the Anson I was its landing gear retraction mechanism which required no less than 140 turns of the hand crank by the pilot. To forgo this laborious process, early model Ansons often made short flights with the landing gear extended at the expense of 30 mph (50 km/h) of cruise speed.
At the start of the Second World War, there were 26 RAF squadrons operating the Anson I: 10 with Coastal Command and 16 with Bomber Command. However, by this time, the Anson was obsolete in the roles of bombing and coastal patrol and was being superseded by the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and Lockheed Hudson.
Limited numbers of Ansons continued to serve in operational roles such as coastal patrols and air/sea rescue. Early in the war, an Anson scored a probable hit on a German U-boat. In June 1940, a flight of three Ansons was attacked by nine Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Remarkably, the Ansons downed two German aircraft "and damaging a third before the 'dogfight' ended", without losing any of their own. The aircraft's true role, however, was to train pilots for flying multi-engine bombers such as the Avro Lancaster. The Anson was also used to train the other members of a bomber's air crew, such as navigators, wireless operators, bomb aimers and air gunners. Postwar, the Anson continued in the training role and light transport roles. The last Ansons were withdrawn from RAF service with communications units on 28 June 1968.
The Royal Australian Air Force operated 1,028 Ansons, mainly Mk Is, until 1955. The Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy operated Ansons until 1952. The USAAF employed 50 Canadian-built Ansons, designated as the AT-20.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force operated 23 Ansons as navigation trainers in the Second World War, (alongside the more numerous Airspeed Oxford), and acquired more Ansons as communication aircraft immediately after the war. A preserved navigation trainer is in the Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum at Wigram. Avro Anson 11 G-ALIH of Ekco Electronics at Blackbushe, Hants, in September 1955.The Egyptian Air Force operated Ansons in communications and VIP duties. A specially outfitted Anson was gifted to the then King by the Royal Air Force. The Royal Afghan Air Force obtained 13 Anson 18 aircraft for various duties from 1948. These aircraft survived through 1972.