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Canberra PR9 / PR7 / T4

The first jet bomber to serve with the Royal Air Force, the English Electric Canberra was designed with no defensive armament, relying instead on high speed, an operational ceiling of 48,000 feet, and great manoeuvrability to avoid opposing fighter aircraft. The fact that the Canberra is still in service today is testimony to the quality of the original design. Currently the RAF operates three versions of the aircraft, the T4 is a dual control trainer, and dedicated reconnaissance missions are undertaken by the venerable Canberra PR7 and PR9, specialist aircraft that contribute significantly to meeting the RAF's reconnaissance task.

The Canberra's photo-reconnaissance role was, ultimately, to prove its most important and long-standing duty. The first RAF reconnaissance version, the PR3, first took to the skies on 19 March 1950. The main difference between other Canberra versions was a 14-inch extension to the forward fuselage to accommodate an additional fuel tank, a camera bay and a flare bay. Deliveries to the first squadron, No. 540 at RAF Benson began in December 1952. Shortly after this, the squadron moved to RAF Wyton and was joined by the two other Bomber Command reconnaissance squadrons, Nos. 58 and 82, which were equipped with Mosquitos and Lancasters respectively. In the space of the next two years, all three squadro4ns had initially re-equipped with PR3s, but an improved version, the PR7, was soon to replace these aircraft.

2 TAF in Germany also saw the arrival of PR3s and PR7s during 1954 to replace its Venoms and Meteors. Four squadrons based at Wildenrath, Laarbruch and Bruggen took part in many exercises, with the most success being enjoyed at low-level where the crews could evade 'enemy' radar cover. However, during the course of 1956, two UK-based squadrons, Nos. 82 and 540, disbanded, leaving No.82 Sqn, along with Valiant-equipped No. 543 Sqn, as Bomber Command's only reconnaissance assets. Both of these squadrons spent much of their time photo-mapping likely approach routes for the RAF's strategic deterrent so that accurate fixes could be made prior to release of the Blue Steel stand-off missile, and updating of the V-Force navigational charts. No. 13 Sqn based in Cyprus received its first PR7s in 1956, and shortly after joined other RAF squadrons involved in Operation Musketeer.

It was during these sorties in early 1960, that the definitive Canberra reconnaissance version, the PR9, made its debut with No. 58 Sqn. The PR9 featured uprated Avon engines and a larger wing span, which it was hoped would allow the aircraft to fly at 60,000 feet (18,298m), but initial trials with the PR9 proved that this was feasible. During 1962, PR9s were used to photograph Russian shipping movements during the Cuban crisis, but by early 1963, No. 58 Sqn had handed over its aircraft to No. 39 Sqn in Malta, and disbanded. The squadron remained based at Luqa until September 1970 when it moved to RAF Wyton, and finally disposed of its ageing PR3s. The Germany-based squadrons flew their PR7s until they were replaced by Phantoms during 1969-71, and some airframes were refurbished and subsequently sold to overseas air arms. Throughout the 1960s, those aircraft with No. 13 Sqn were involved in many operational flights over the Middle East. Conflicts between Iraq and Kuwait (1962-64) and Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi (1970) saw the squadron photographing disputed areas and troop movements from various forward operating bases in the Mediterranean.

When the RAF withdrew from its remaining bases in the Gulf during 1971, No. 13 Sqn moved to Malta and replaced No. 39 Sqn who disbanded. Now assigned to NATO, it provided the only high altitude reconnaissance squadron on its southern flank until 1978 when it moved to RAF Wyton before disbanding in 1981. The last remaining PR9s remained on the strength of No. 39 Sqn until it was disbanded in June 1982 and replaced by No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) also at Wyton under the control of No. 18 Group. However, rationalisation of the RAF in the early 1990s resulted in No. 1 PRU assuming the numberplate of No. 39 Sqn (although officially its title is No. 39 (1 PRU) Squadron) in 1992, and it is with this squadron that the Canberra PR9 continues to perform its duties today.


  • 39 (1 PRU) Squadron, RAF Marham - 5 Canberra PR9, 2 x PR7 and 2 x T4

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:52:27 ZULU