01 September 2017 marked the 60 years of induction of the English Electric Canberra in the Indian Air Force. It was the first generation Jet Bomber manufactured in large number through the 1950s. The prototype of Canberra, first flew in May 1949 and in January 1957 the aircraft was selected by the Indian Air Force to equip its bomber and strategic reconnaissance fleet. The Canberra Jet bomber was first inducted in the IAF in No. 5 Squadron (Tuskers) at Agra on 01 September 1957.
For over fifty years, Canberra has been a familiar sight the world over, both in war and in peace. Designed in 1944 to meet a specification for a jet bomber, Canberra has had an unrivalled history in the world of military aviation. During its lifetime, it equipped over sixty Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons alongwith a number of special flights. It was license-built both in Australia and the USA. It also proved a best seller overseas, being operated by seventeen air forces, and seeing active service with many of them. The No. 5 squadron of IAF was the first to get equipped with the Canberra Bomber in May 1957, and by 1959, two more squadrons, No. 16 and 35, had become operational.
The Canberras took part in all major operations including the liberation of Goa in 1961, the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, 1987 Op Pawan in Sri Lanka, 1988 Op Cactus in Maldives and 1999 Kargil war. On 18 December 1961, Canberras of No 16 and 35 Sqn bombed the Dabolim airport forcing Portuguese forces to surrender. The Canberra last saw action in the Kargil war in 1999 where it flew recce missions, during one of the missions one aircraft’s engine was hit by a missile.
Canberra, the only bomber of the Indian Air Force until late seventies, got the first taste of operation on December 18, 1961 when 16 Squadron and 35 Squadron were tasked to carry out reconnaissance and bombing of Dabolim airfield in Goa. Canberras of No. 35 Squadron were the first jet aircraft of the IAF to bear its arsenal on an enemy. The highly accurate bombing damaged only the target with no civilian casualties. By December 20, Goa had been reclaimed.
The Belgian Congo Faced political turmoil in 1961 and the UNO was called in for help. When the situation in Katanga (UHHQ) and the capital Leopoldville worsened, India was requested to send strike aircraft on behalf of United Nations. Earmarked for this task was the proud No. 5 Squadron. When political turmoil broke out in Belgian Congo in 1961, UNO requested India for strike aircraft. Within five years of serving the IAF, on 09 October 1961, under the command of Wing Commander AIK Suares Vir Chakra, six Canberra aircraft of No 5 Squadron took off from Agra for Leopoldville, over 6000 km away to join the United Nations’ Multinational Force in the Congo. This was the first ever-Indian fighter-bomber contingent to take part in UN operations. The offensive operation in Congo earned the Squadron two Vir Chakras, one Vayu Sena Medal and five Vishisht Seva Medals.
Though the Canberras stood down in the Chinese conflict and did not fly any combat sorties, reconnaissance sorties went through. The Canberras flew 22 photo recce missions between totalling more than fifty hours. Areas of Aksai chin and Eastern Sector were covered to monitor enemy encroachment. Canberra's mettle was again tested in 1965 Indo-Pak war. Numerous high level bombing missions were successfully flown during the course of the short war.
The cohesive teamwork of skillful pilots and meticulous diligent navigators kept Canberra a viable and dependable bomber force when the 1971 war broke out. It spearheaded a strong counter-attack on a number of Pakistani targets. Throughout the war, Canberras gave the enemy no respite even at night due to persistent night raids on numerous targets. The highlight of the 1971 operations was bombing attacks carried over the oil refinery complex at Karachi. The results of these raids were so devastating that the Karachi oil complex was ablazing for nearly a week. Canberra Squadrons were richly rewarded with four Maha Vir Chakra, a dozen Vir Chakra and many other gallantry awards and distinguished service awards in recognition of their contribution to the victory in 1971 war.
Advent of potent air defence system consisting of low-looking radars, surface-to-air missiles and supersonic fighters equipped with air-to-air missiles in late seventies signalled formal retirement of this great war-horse from combat duties. However, superb aerodynamic design, high system reliability and good maintainability gave Canberra a lease of life to march on for some more time, albeit, in secondary roles viz. electronic warfare, maritime strike and target towing. The photo recce Canberras continued to operate stealthily for some more time.
It was effectively used in the Kargil conflict and brought the first photographic proof of enemy intrusion in the Indian territory. Despite taking a missile hit and the left engine blown apart, the pilot of the aircraft, Wg Cdr Perumal and his navigator, Flt Lt Jha skillfully managed to land back safely at a nearby base. For this act of bravery, Wg Cdr Perumal was awarded Shaurya Chakra.
The sturdy Canberra could survive the enemy’s missile attack and landed safely with all vital information. During its service, Canberra provided invaluable photo reconnaissance inputs of enemy territory during wars and peace time operations, resulting in accurate and effective operations. After 50 years of glorious service to the Nation on 11 May 2007 at Air Force Station Agra, the IAF bid adieu to its legendry old war horse.
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