- Royal Air Force English Electric Canberra B.15 of No. 45 Squadron at RAF Tengah, Singapore, in 1963. | Photo: Jeff Thomas

Flightline: 153 - English Electric Canberra

Ordered during WWII, the English Electric Canberra served in the air forces of 16 nations and was license built by Martin Aircraft Company in the US.

The English Electric Company was formed in the wake of World War 1 as the merger of five manufacturers of war goods sought diversify their products. As indicated by the name, EE initially specialized in industrial electric motors and transformers, railway locomotives and traction equipment, diesel motors and steam turbines. As war clouds began gathering over Europe again in the mid-Thirties, EE began ramping up for production of aircraft and other vehicles again. During the war, EE was building Handley Page Hampden and Halifax bombers, as well as Covenanter, Centaur and Cromwell tanks, precision instruments for aircraft, diesel engines for ships, submarines and locomotives, steam turbines for ships, turbo-alternator sets for power stations, electric generators for ships' auxiliaries and a wide variety of other naval and aviation material.

In 1944, the UK Air Ministry issued requirement E.3/45 for a replacement for the de Haviland Mosquito. Further specification refinements, including B.3/45 and B.5/47, issued further details such as a three-man crew and other features such as a visual bombing capability. English Electric initially designed their plane to accommodate a single scaled-up Rolls Royce Nene turbojet, but revisions to the requirement and an inability of the manufacturer to produce the larger engine saw a switch to two engines, first in the wing roots, then pushed out to mid-wing to address weight and balance concerns. The final design wound up resembling an enlarged Gloster Meteor, except for being a mid-wing aircraft.

Orhtograph of an Canberra. | Illustration: Kaboldy

Orhtograph of an Canberra. | Illustration: Kaboldy

On 7 January 1946, the Ministry of Supply placed a contract for the development and production of four aircraft, given the designation A.1. Delays in production of the Avon engine lead to a protracted development, with the first prototype, s/n VN799, taking its maiden flight on 13 May 1949, and the second, VN828, on 9 November. The flight test program proceeded smoothly, with only minor issues needed resolution. Orders were placed for 132 aircraft in bombing, reconnaissance and training variants, with the Royal Australian Air Force also placing orders for 48 aircraft to be produced under license. This early interest by the RAAF in the type led to the aircraft being christened the Canberra, with the first model being the Canberra B.2. On 21 April 1950, the first production-standard B.2 conducted its maiden flight. The B.2 differed from the prototype in having three crew, operational bombing equipment, and provisions for two tip tanks to increase range. A large number of export orders, as well as the RAF's own needs for the plane during the Korean War, saw 400 B.2s completed, including 75 each by Avro and Handley Page, and a further 60 by Short.

The first English Electric Canberra B.2 prototype, s/n VX165. | Photo: JohnnyOneSpeed

The first English Electric Canberra B.2 prototype, s/n VX165. | Photo: JohnnyOneSpeed

The B.2 was followed in 1954 by the B.6, which had improved engines in addition to a one foot long extension to the fuselage which allowed more fuel capacity. Though the type had been too few in number to serve in Korea, the Canberra was used by the RAF during the Suez Crisis in 1956, dropping nearly 1,500 450kg bombs during 278 sorties. Nighttime bombing by the Canberra proved to be ineffective however, as many of the bombs failed to hit the Egyptian airfields being targeted. The only Canberra loss was a PR.7 recon variant shot down on the last day of the conflict on 9 November, ironically by a Syrian Gloster Meteor.

B.6 (s/n XH567) at RAE Bedford in 1979. | Photo: Mike Freer - Touchdown-aviation

B.6 (s/n XH567) at RAE Bedford in 1979. | Photo: Mike Freer - Touchdown-aviation

The B.2 and B.6 were quickly supplanted by the B(I).8, which had an entirely new cockpit and nose which sat the pilot under a fighter-style canopy offset to one side and moved the navigator into the nose. Additionally, provisions were made for the attaching of a ventral pod containing four 20mm Hispano Mk.V cannon for strafing runs, the addition of two hardpoints under the wings for up to 1,000lbs of external stores, and the Low-Altitude Bombing System (LABS), which gave the Canberra the ability to deliver nuclear bombs.

B(I).8 (s/n W1346) on display at the Aerospace Museum, RAF Cosford. | Photo Malcolm Clarke

B(I).8 (s/n W1346) on display at the Aerospace Museum, RAF Cosford. | Photo Malcolm Clarke

Existing Canberra B.2 and B.6 were upgraded to either B.15 standards, which were intended for service in the Near and Far east and were equivalent to the B(I).8, to B.16 standard which also included the Blue Shadow navigation/bombing radar, or were refurbished and sold to export clients.

The B(I).8 was the last bomber variant produced for the RAF, as it was quickly eclipsed in performance by the first of the 'V' bombers, the Vickers Valliant, and by 1961 the last Canberra was withdrawn by Bomber Command. The type remained in use as an interdictor however, and the development of lighter tactical nuclear bombs like the Red Beard allowed squadrons in Germany, Cyprus and Singapore to remain relevant into the 1960s, with the RAF Germany squadrons disbanding in 1972.

Recon and other variants

In 1946 the Air Ministry issued Specification PR.31-46, calling for a replacement of the war-time Mosquito-based photo-reconnaissance aircraft, to which EE proposed a modified Canberra. A 14" plug was added to the fuselage forward of the cockpit to house seven cameras, and additional fuel tanks were added to the bomb bay. The plane, designated PR.3, needed only a crew of two, and the first flight of the prototype was on 19 March 1950. The type entered squadron service with the RAF in December 1952, making it the first aircraft in the RAF designed as a purely photo-recon bird.

A photo-recon PR.3 (s/n WE140) of 540 Squadron RAF at London Heathrow airport in 1953. | Photo: RuthAS

A photo-recon PR.3 (s/n WE140) of 540 Squadron RAF at London Heathrow airport in 1953. | Photo: RuthAS

One PR.3, s/n WE139 of No. 540 Sqd, participated in the 1953 London to Christchurch air race, known as the "Last Great Air Race", setting a record time of twenty-three hours, 51 minutes (including eighty-three minutes on the ground). Second place went to a Canberra B.20 of the RAAF, while third was taken by another PR.3 of No. 540 Squadron.

WE139 on display at the RAF Museum London. | Photo: Nick-D

WE139 on display at the RAF Museum London. | Photo: Nick-D

The PR.7 variant, which first flew in 1953, was based on the B.6 variant and featured increased fuel capacity, more powerful engines, and an anti-lock breaking system. RAF PR.3s and PR.7s were used to overfly the USSR prior to the introduction of the US' U-2. The PR.9 was the last photo-recon variant, and was based on the B(I).8 bomber, with a stretched fuselage, wingspan increased by four feet, and Avon R.A. 27 engines. The PR.9 also added a hinged section to the nose to add an ejection seat for the navigator. PR.9s were at times fitted with Long-Range Optical Photography (LORP) cameras (allegedly based off those used by the U-2 Dragon Lady) as well as infrared line-scan cameras for night reconnaissance. RAF recon Canberras took part in the 1991 Gulf War, the campaigns over Bosnia in the mid-90s, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan after 2001 and Iraq again in 2003. The last official flight of an RAF Canberra was during ceremonies marking the standing down of No. 39 Squadron in 2006.

A PR.9 marked as s/n XH134 at Kemble Aerodrome in 2009. | Photo: MilborneOne

A PR.9 marked as s/n XH134 at Kemble Aerodrome in 2009. | Photo: MilborneOne

In addition to the bomber and recon variants, trainers based on the Canberra have been developed, starting with the T.4 conversion trainer in 1951, the T.11 Airborne Intercept Radar trainer variant, and the T.17 and T.17A electronic warfare trainer.

A T.17A of the RAF at Newquay Cornwall Airport in 1994. | Photo: Chris Lofting

A T.17A of the RAF at Newquay Cornwall Airport in 1994. | Photo: Chris Lofting

Canberra in foreign service

After the RAF, the Indian Air Force had the next most numerous fleet of Canberra (excepting the Martin-built B-57), with up to 107 of various types in service between 1957 and 2007. In January 1957, seeking to replace its aging B-24s, the IAF ordered 54 B(I).58 (B(I).8s modified for service in India) bombers, eight PR.57 photo-reconnaissance aircraft, and six T.4 training aircraft, with deliveries beginning in the summer of that same year. Indian Canberras were deployed as part of a 1962 UN operation in Africa. During the Indo-Pakistani wars of the 1960s and 1970s, both sides flew Canberras, with the IAF's B.58s squaring off against the PAF's B-57s. Indian bombers executed a successful raid on a Pakistani radar site in 1965, but a subsequent raid on a PAF B-57 base was foiled by poor weather. During the 1971 war, IAF Canberras attacked an oil storage facility, allowing Indian Navy missile boats to execute their own attacks. Just prior to the commencement of the Kargil conflict in 1999, a PR.57 (a tropicalized PR.7) was hit by a Pakistani Stinger missile, though it was able to return to base on one engine.

A B(I).58 at the Indian Air Force Museum in Palam. | Photo: Aeroprints.com

A B(I).58 at the Indian Air Force Museum in Palam. | Photo: Aeroprints.com

The Royal Australian Air Force was an early adopter of the type, with a handful of UK-built B.2 being joined by nearly four dozen B.20s built under license by the Australian Government Aircraft Factories. Structurally the same as the B.2, the B.20 was differentiated in that it included a large proportion of Australian- and US-sourced components. RAAF Canberras joined those of New Zealand and the UK in attacks on Communist guerrillas during the 1950-1960 Malayan Emergency, and in 1967 eight B.20s were deployed as No. 2 Squadron to South Vietnam. No. 2's Vietnam service encompassed 12,000 sorties, and dropped over 76,000 bombs, with two shot down by AAA or SAMs. Even as the Canberra was entering RAAF service, a replacement was being sought, with the Avro Vulcan and Handley -Page Victor being evaluated, but were rejected over cost concerns. A 1962 evaluation pitted the BAC TSR-2 against the Dassault Mirage IV, McDonnell Douglas F-4, North American A-5 and General Dynamics F-111. The TSR-2 was initially favored, but the collapse of that program saw the F-111C being selected in 1963. Despite this, RAAF B.20s remained in service until June 1982.

An RAAF Canberra B.20 from No. 2 Squadron during a strike out of Phan Rang air base, Vietnam, in March 1970. | Photo: USAF

An RAAF Canberra B.20 from No. 2 Squadron during a strike out of Phan Rang air base, Vietnam, in March 1970. | Photo: USAF

Argentina received 10 B.62 (refurbished B.2s) and 2 T.64 (refurbished T.4) trainers in the early 1970s to replace their WWII-vintage Avro Lincolns. Eight of the aircraft were deployed to Trelew, Patagonia in support of the Falklands War in 1982, making 54 sorties against British forces. Two Argentine Canberras were lost during the conflict, one being shot down by a Royal Navy Sea Harrier's AIM-9 and another being struck by a Sea Dart SAM fired from HMS Cardiff. The last Argentine Canberra was retired in April 2000.

Test types

One PR.9 was modified by Shorts as the SC.9 as a test aircraft for the Hawker Siddeley (later BAe) Red Top IR-guided missile. The SC.9 was modified with an AI.23 radar as well as an IR seeker. After the conclusion of the Red Top development program, the SC.9 was retained for the development of various radar guided missiles before being broken up in the late 1980s (or middle 1990s, accounts vary).

SC.9 (s/n XH132) photographed arriving for IAT '83. | Photo: Mike Freer - Touchdown-aviation

SC.9 (s/n XH132) photographed arriving for IAT '83. | Photo: Mike Freer - Touchdown-aviation

A second PR.3 was modified by Shorts as the SD.1 as a carrier aircraft for the Beech Model 1072 target drone, built under license as the Short Stiletto.

English Electric retained a number of Canberra for their own test work, and several were loaned to engine manufacturers such as Armstrong Siddeley for the Sapphire, Bristol Siddeley for the Olympus, de Havilland Engine Company for the Gyron Junior turbojet and Rolls-Royce Limited for the Avon. Electronics maker Ferranti used four different Canberra B.2s for avionics development work.

Canberra B.2 (s/n WV787) was used by Armstrong Siddeley, Ferranti and the Aeroplane Armament Experimental Establishment for tests before being preserved at the Newark Air Museum. | Photo: MilborneOne

Canberra B.2 (s/n WV787) was used by Armstrong Siddeley, Ferranti and the Aeroplane Armament Experimental Establishment for tests before being preserved at the Newark Air Museum. | Photo: MilborneOne

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Comments (6)

  • No mention of its many altitude records or that NASA still have three? And my favourite fact: the RAF employed carpenters right up to its retirement for work on its wooden tail... Otherwise, a great article ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿป

      15 days ago
  • WK163 (the one that was fitted with the Scorpion rocket system at one point) is currently being restored after being inactive since 2007. Would be really awesome if it could fly again.

      18 days ago
  • Excellent article.

      14 days ago
  • Is it just me or do I think this plane looks brilliant

      15 days ago
  • Thank you for an interesting article๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘

      15 days ago
6