Over 1,000 Canberras of all types were built between 1949 and 1963, and used by the air arms of 16 countries world-wide; Australia, South Africa, Venezuela, India and Germany amongst others, all flew the Canberra for many years in a wide range of roles such as bombing, reconnaissance, electronic counter-measures and target towing. Indeed, Argentinean Canberras fought against RAF aircraft during the Falklands conflict in 1982, and licence-built bomber and reconnaissance Canberras even saw service with the Australian and United States Air Forces during the Vietnam War.
In 1944, the first Meteor jet fighters were entering service with the RAF, and companies with experience in building bomber aircraft were tasked with designing and developing the country's first jet-bombers. To this end such famous companies as Vickers, Avro and Handley Page were chosen along with English Electric, a relative newcomer to aircraft design and production, to bid against a series of specifications that were being drawn up by the Air Ministry and Ministry of Aircraft production. English Electric were awarded contract E3/45 (later changed to B3/45) in May 1945 covering the production of four prototype aircraft by the end of 1949. This short timescale meant that the aircraft would be conventional in design, but, as Freddy Page, Chief Aerodynamicist said, the company's policy was to produce an aeroplane that was 'the extreme in adventurous conventionalism'. A team of some 260 people was quickly recruited under the leadership of WEW 'Teddy' Petter who had previously worked for Westland Aircraft at Yeovil. During 1947, the specification was amended to include a visual bomb aiming system, and this resulted in the addition of a third crew member as bomb aimer.
From the outset, the aircraft was designed to operate at speeds comparable to fighter aircraft of the time, and so particular attention was given to producing a clean aircraft with high quality flying controls. Final assembly of the first aircraft, known as the A1, began in early 1949, and on 2 May the completed airframe, serial number VN799, was rolled out of its hangar at Warton and prepared for a series of engine runs and taxying trials. These had been satisfactorily completed by the 11th, and the team now felt confident enough to prepare the aircraft for its first flight at the first available opportunity. Weather conditions on the morning of May 13 were favourable and a decision was made to fly the A1. No major problems were discovered, and, after some minor modifications to the rudder, the test programme began in earnest. By the end of August the aircraft had exceeded 40,000ft (12,200m) and reached speeds in excess of 500mph (805km/h), and a few weeks later the aircraft was shown to an admiring public at the Farnborough airshow. Such was the vigour of Wg Cdr Beamont's display, that when the bomb bay doors were opened, the flight instrumentation pack fell out over the airfield!
The three remaining the Canberra B1 prototype aircraft joined the programme before the end of the year, and a variety of tests were carried out over the coming months to clear the aircraft for RAF service. The next batch of 132 aircraft ordered was to the revised three-crew specification of 1947; the B2 was a straight development of the existing A1/B1 airframe, the PR3 was the first reconnaissance version and the T4 was a dual control trainer. The first B2 flew for the first time on 21 April 1950 followed by a second in August and the first production standard aircraft in October of that year. With trials now being carried out at a very intensive rate, the aircraft was eventually cleared for RAF service in the Spring of 1951.
The first RAF Squadron to receive the Canberra was No. 101 based at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. Its first aircraft, a Canberra B2, arrived on 25 May 1951, and was delivered by Wg Cdr Beamont, who gave a short demonstration of the aircraft's aerobatic capabilities, before being met by the Station Commander and other executives for a short hand-over ceremony. Prior to receiving Canberras, the squadron had flown Lincoln bombers, and due to delays in Bomber Command's new strategic bombers (ultimately the Valiant, Vulcan and Victor), it was decided that the Canberra would be used in the strategic bombing role as a stop-gap measure. Interestingly, the Lincoln pilots and navigators chosen to fly in the Canberras were given a conversion course on Meteors, and about three hours of flying was considered enough for the transition to jet aircraft. The next version of the Canberra to enter service was the PR3, the first aircraft joining No. 540 Squadron at Benson in December 1952 who were currently operating Mosquitos in the photo-reconnaissance role. These aircraft featured a crew of two and carried a pack of four or six cameras for daytime operations, while night duties required the use of two F.89 cameras. The fuselage was also stretched by 14 inches to accommodate an additional fuel tank and flare bay.
By August 1952, the three remaining Binbrook squadrons (Nos. 12, 9 and 50) had exchanged their Lincolns for Canberras, and No. 231 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) had formed at Bassingbourn as the dedicated training and conversion squadron. During 1953, re-equipment with the new jet bomber gathered pace. Two more Bomber Command Wings, Scampton and Coningsby, had joined the Canberra force by mid-year, and two ex-Mosquito squadrons, Nos. 109 and 139 at Hemswell, were using the aircraft in the target-marking role.
Canberra squadrons took part in many training exercises during this time, and frequently penetrated the radar screen of the defending forces without detection or opposition. Operations at night and also at low-level were particularly successful; one Canberra crew from Binbrook obligingly made a second pass over the USAF base at Lakenheath after his initial low-level run had completely surprised the air defences at the base. Some squadrons also took part in exercises to help develop tactics in attacking Soviet Navy battle groups.
During the following year, a further two Wings (Marham and Wittering) received Canberras, and No. 149 Sqn became the first Germany-based squadron when it moved to Ahlhorn and joined the 2nd Tactical Air Force (2 TAF). Major rebuilding work in preparation for the forthcoming strategic bomber force at Coningsby and Scampton forced the relocation of their squadrons to Honington, Waddington and Cottesmore. No. 101 Sqn received the first of the new improved B6 version of the Canberra in June, which featured ejection seats for all crew members and other changes. The aircraft now formed the backbone of Bomber Command operations until the end of 1955, when the first of the V-bombers, the Valiant, became operational with No. 138 Sqn at Wittering. This signalled the run down of Canberra strategic bombing operations in the RAF, and by the time No. 139 Squadron at Binbrook was disbanded in December 1959, most other Canberra squadrons had transferred to V-bomber operations - only Nos. 9, 12 and 35 Sqns remained as part of Bomber Command. All three squadrons would finally join the V-Force during 1962 with Vulcans.
Following re-equipment of Bomber Command strike wings with aircraft of the V-Force, surplus Canberra airframes were re-assigned to squadrons in the Middle East.
During 1954, following the build-up of Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, it was decided to establish a Canberra Wing at Gutersloh in Germany to carry out night intruder duties. A development of a dedicated intruder version was some way off, it was decided that existing B6 airframes would be modified to carry a gun pack and have pylons fitted to enable carriage of rocket launchers or bombs. Twenty-two of these interim aircraft, designated Canberra B(I)6, were converted and issued to No. 213 Squadron.
The first of the new aircraft, known as B(I)8s, flew for the first time on 23 July 1954, with the first deliveries to No. 88 Sqn at Wildenrath beginning in mid-1956. These aircraft featured a revised fighter-style cockpit, offset to port to improve visibility for the pilot. The navigator's position was also move forward of the pilot into the nose, and did not have an ejection seat. From January 1958, the three B(I)8 squadrons (No. 59 being the third), were committed to the low altitude tactical bombing role. This involved a high-speed (over 450 mph, 724 km/h), low-level approach to the target area, followed by a sharp 3.4g pull-up into a loop, in the course of which a nuclear store was released. By 1960, No. 16 Squadron had converted to Canberra B(I)8s, and the 2 TAF Canberra strike squadrons were maintaining one aircraft on 15 minutes' readiness to carry out a nuclear strike should a war break out.
The tremendous stresses placed on the airframe in its low-level role were starting to seriously affect the service life of the aircraft, and the squadrons were looking forward to trading their Canberras for the new TSR2 aircraft in the late 1960s. However, when political wrangling forced the cancellation of TSR2 (and its replacement, the American F-111), the Canberras were forced to soldier on until the early 1970s when the squadrons re-equipped with Buccaneers and Phantoms.
From the outset, the versatility of the Canberra airframe allowed many aircraft to be fitted with a variety of special equipment for trails and experiments. A number of aircraft were modified to carry out radiation cloud sampling during Britain's atomic weapons test programme in the Pacific during the 1950s.
During the first live hydrogen bomb drop in May 1957, two Canberra PR7s of No. 100 Sqn carried out pre-drop weather checks, and two rocket-fitted Canberra B6s of No. 76 Sqn flew through the radioactive cloud at a height of 56,000 feet (17,078m) sampling the air and collecting samples. After their return to base, the two aircraft were decontaminated and their samples transferred to two waiting PR7s of No. 58 Sqn for their transit to the UK. One of these aircraft was sadly lost when it crashed whilst attempting to land in blizzard conditions at Goose Bay, Newfoundland in Canada.
In 1958, two Canberra B2s joined No. 192 Squadron at Watton, Norfolk which specialised in electronic intelligence (ELINT) duties. The Canberras usually operated over the Baltic, monitoring Russian transmissions and recording them onto a tape recorder in the bomb bay. Modified Canberra B6s continued to fly with the squadron (renumbered No. 51 Sqn in October 1958) until their eventual retirement in 1976.
|Country||Date||Aircraft Type and Mark||Comments|
|Argentina||Ordered: Dec 1969
Delivered: Nov 1970-Sep 1971
|10 refurbished B2s (known as B62s) and 2 T4s (T64s)||Some aircraft thought to have undertaken reconnaissance of approaching British Task Force during Falklands War, 1982. One aircraft shot down by Sea Harrier with AIM-9L Sidewinder missile. Other aircraft also involved in bombing British troops, and second aircraft hit by anti-aircraft fire. Total of 35 sorties flown during the conflict.|
Delivered: Oct 1982
|3 ex-RAF PR9s||Used for frontier surveillance and shipping reconnaissance.|
|Ecuador||Ordered: May 1954
|6 new-build B6s||Overhauled during 1962.|
|4 refurbished B2s (as B52s)||Used during Ogaden War in 1977. Two aircraft destroyed in Eritrean separatist attack on Asmara airfield, 1984.|
|3 ex-RAF and 3 new-build B6s||Used for trials work. Retired in 1979.|
|Peru||Ordered: 1st:Aug 1955, 2nd:1966, 3rd:1968, 4th:1974
Delivered: 1st:May 56-Feb 57, 2nd:1966-1967, 3rd:1969, 4th:1975-1978
|1st: 8 ex-RAF B(I)8s (as B78s)
2nd: 6 ex-RAF B2s (as B72s) and 2 ex-RAF T4s (as T74s)
3rd: 3 ex-RAF B(I)6s (as B(I)56s) and 3 ex-RAF B6s (as B56s)
4th: 11 refurbished ex-RAF B(I)8s (as B(I)68s)
|Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)||Ordered: 1st:Late 1957, 2nd:1981
Delivered: 1st:Mar 1959-Mar 1961, 2nd: 1981
|1:15 ex-RAF B2s and 2 B2s converted to T4 standard |
2:1 B2 and 1 T4
|Used during Rhodesian Civil War, 1972-1979.|
|South Africa||Ordered: 1962/63
|6 new-build B(I)12s and 3 ex-RAF T4s||Final B(I)12 was the last production Canberra.|
|2 refurbished B2s (known as Tp52)||Used as radar and avionic trial aircraft. Retired in 1973.|
|Venezuela||Ordered: 1st: January 1953, 2nd: January 1957, 3rd: 1965
Delivered: 1st: 1953, 2nd: 1957, 3rd: 1966
|1st: 6 ex-RAF B2s (as B52s),
2nd: 1 ex-RAF and 7 new-build B(I)8s (As B(I)58s) and 2 new_build T4s (as T54s)
3rd: 12 ex-RAF B2s/B(I)2s (as (B52/B(I)2s) and 2 PR3s (as PR53s)
|All surviving aircraft refurbished 1977-80 as follows:
B(I)8 to B(I)88,
T54 to T84,
B2 to B82,
B(I)2 to B(I)82
and PR3 to PR83.
|West Germany||Ordered: 1966
|3 ex-RAF B2s||Used by Luftwaffe on 'special duties'. Two aircraft fitted with cameras in bomb bay and used by Military Survey Dept. for unspecified tasks.|
Delivered: August 1951
|2 new-build B2s||Supplied as 'pattern aircraft' for licence production of 48 aircraft (Canberra B20s). Four T4s supplied during 1956. Used by No. 2 Sqn Royal Australian Air Force in Vietnam War, 1966-1971. Over 10,000 operational missions flown in theatre dropping nearly 66,000lbs (30,000kg) of bombs for the loss of two aircraft. Type retired in 1982.|
|New Zealand||Ordered: 1958
|11 new-build B(I)12s and 2 new-build T13s||B(I)12 was modified B(I)8, and T13 a modified T4. Seventeen B2s and three T4s loaned until new aircraft delivered. Aircraft withdrawn in 1970 and sold to India.|
|India||Ordered: 1st: January 1957, 2nd: 1963, 3rd: 1963/64, 4th: 1965, 5th: October 1969, 6th: 1970, 7th: 1975
Delivered: 1st: April 1957-mid-1959, 2nd and 3rd: 1963/64, 4th: 1968, 5th: 1970, 6th: 1971, 7th: 1975
|1st: 65 new-build B(I)8s (as B(I)58s), 7 new-build T4s (as T54s) and 8 new-build PR7s (as PR57s)
2nd and 3rd: 6 ex-RAF B(I)8s (as B(I)58s), 2 ex-RAF PR7s (as PR57s) and 1 ex-RAF T4 (as T54)
4th: 3 ex-RAF T4s (as T54s). Only one aircraft delivered
5th: 10 ex-RAF B15 and B16s (as B66s)
6th: 2 ex-RAF PR7s (as PR57s)
7th: 6 ex-RAF T4s
|First 19 B(I)58s and 2 T54s were diverted off RAF contracts. Up to 5 aircraft lost during 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, with up to 4 lost during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War.|
|USA||Ordered: Early 1951
Delivered: March-September 1951
|2 new-build B2s||'Pattern aircraft' for licence production of 250 aircraft by Martin Comapany. One aircraft lost during high-g trials in December 1951. Delivery of second aircraft set an official trans-Atlantic record on 31 August 1951 - Aldergrove-Gander (Newfoundland) in 4 hr 18 min 24.4 sec. Three aircraft (RB-57Fs) used by NASA on stratospheric reconnaissance programme.
24 B-57B/RB-57Bs supplied to Pakistan in 1959, and these aircraft used in hostilities against India in 1965. Small numbers of aircraft also supplied to Taiwan and Vietnam.
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