Library Reference Number: 231
The English Electric Canberra
This entry is comprised of five parts -
- A Glint in the Eye of the Designer
- The First Flight of the Canberra
- The Canberra Enters RAF Service with Bomber Command
- My First Tour on Canberras
- My Second Tour on Canberras
This is a compilation of condensed extracts from the book on the English Electric Canberra aircraft, entitled: ‘Canberra – The Operational Record’ by Robert Jackson (ISBN: 1-85310-049-8)
‘When William Edward Willoughby Petter – better known to his friends as Teddy – moved from Westland Aircraft in 1944 to take up the post of Chief Designer with the Aircraft Division of the English Electric Company Ltd at Preston, Lancashire, he brought with him an enormous amount of experience, coupled with a remarkable sense of aerodynamic innovation. The latter was reflected in the designs for which he had been responsible at Westland – the Lysander Army co-operation aircraft, the Whirlwind long-range escort, and the Welkin high-altitude interceptor.
By the time Petter joined the company, it was well established in aircraft production techniques, having been a ‘shadow factory’ involved initially in building 770 twin-engined Handley Page Hampdens at their large airfield at Samlesbury, between Preston and Blackburn, where they had three huge aircraft assembly halls and associated hard-standings. At a later date, production was switched to the Handley Page Halifax and the English Electric company was a major producer of the type, turning out 2,145 of the total wartime production of 6176.
The concept for the RAF’s first jet bomber came from Petter himself. His early thoughts on the subject (whilst still with Westlands) had been for a single-engined design, with the engine buried in the fuselage, and the fuel and weapon load in the wings. The problem was that there was no jet engine of sufficient power then available for this configuration. It soon became apparent that the twin-engined configuration was much more satisfactory.
The new light jet bomber was seen as a replacement for the Mosquito, to operate primarily in the radar bombing role at high altitude. After discussions between English Electric and the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP), in May 1945 the concept was formalised by the issue of the MAP Contract E3/45 (later revised to B3/45): this called for four prototypes. Petter and his team then had meetings with Rolls-Royce Ltd and, by July 1945, it had been agreed that that bomber would be powered by two AJ65 axial-flow turbojets, each of 6,500 lbs static thrust – later named Avon engines – although there were teething problems with this engine, even when it first entered RAF service. However, it was anticipated that these power plants would enable the aircraft to reach speeds of 500 knots IAS.
The design was centred round a bomb load capacity of 10,000 lbs, including a provision in the bomb bay for a 300 gallon fuel tank, in addition to the internal fuel tanks holding 1375 gallons in the fuselage. The aircraft was to be fitted with hydraulically operated dive-breaks, as well as split flaps. Wing span was to be 64 feet, length 65 ft 6 ins and the height 15 ft 7 ins.
By the end of 1948, component assembly of the A1 prototype was nearly complete. In the meantime, B3/45 had been revised somewhat, emerging in 1947 as B5/47. This made provision for a visual bombing system and added a third crew member as bomb aimer. Provision was also made for two jettisonable wingtip fuel tanks, each of 500 gallons capacity.
The first prototype was given the airframe number VN799 and the final assembly got underway early in 1949. Roland Beamont, English Electric’s Chief Test Pilot, had by now been investigating the effects of compressibility at speeds of up to 0.84 Mach and altitudes of 45,000 feet, in a clipped wing Gloster Meteor Mk IV aircraft. These early trials at high altitude showed quickly that the new jet bomber above 40,000 feet would be extremely difficult to intercept by existing RAF aircraft.
Without a fanfare, the A1 first prototype VN799 was rolled out of the hangar at Warton on 2 May 1949, finished in a plate blue colour overall. Engine runs and taxying trials began on 8 May, with only minor nose wheel shimmy being experienced. On 9 May, Beamont made three short hops to check elevator, aileron and rudder response: these proved satisfactory, within the manoeuvring constraints of the runway, and the decision was taken to make the maiden flight as soon as the weather conditions allowed. These called for 10 miles visibility, no more than 8/8th cloud cover at medium level, wind less than 20 knots with a 10-knot crosswind component. These conditions applied on 13 May 1949’.
‘The first flight of a new aircraft is an important event and however well planned, can be subject to delays and slippage. The days leading up to the first flight can be frustrating, but eventually the aircraft is fuelled and engines are started, with slow and fast taxy-runs along the runway – sometimes with just a sliver or two of daylight visible under the wheels – all indication lights in the cockpit are out and all the panels are fitted again for the last time and all the important paperwork checked once again.
Thus it was, in the second week of May 1949 at Warton when all the indications suggested that a first flight of the English Electric A1, VN799, on Friday was likely. Accordingly the test pilot was called into the Chief Designer’s Office to discuss progress, where a solemn Ted Petter, designer of what became known as the Canberra, reminded Chief Test Pilot ‘Bee’ Beamont that Friday was indeed the 13th of May and everyone would understand if the flight was delayed until the next day……..
Bee’s immediate reply was that ‘if the aeroplane is fit to fly, then I will fly it on that day’. And it was, and he did. And the rest, as they say, is history’.
(Extract from the March 2012 Newsletter of The Canberra Association, as told to Phil Spencer, Honorary Secretary of the Association, by Chief Test Pilot Bee Beamont himself, reproduced with Phil Spencer’s permission).
(Extracts from the book ‘Canberra – The Operational Record’)
‘On 10 May 1951, Canberra B2 WD930, which belonged to the Handling Squadron at A&AAE Boscombe Down, was flown to RAF Binbrook by Flight Lieutenant Press of the RAF Flying College, Manby. Here he gave a lecture to the assembled pilots and navigators of No 101 Squadron on the handling characteristics of the new jet aircraft, and he then flew away, leaving the unit to continue operating their four-engined Avro Lincolns, until their Canberras were delivered. In the meanwhile, No 101 Squadron pilots and navigators were given a short conversion course onto jets, flying Meteor Mark T7s and single-seat Mark IVs from Binbrook.
No 101 Squadron’s first Canberra arrived at RAF Binbrook on 25 May 1951 in the hands of Wing Commander Roland ‘Bee’ Beamont, Chief Test Pilot at English Electric, who gave a 5-minute display over the airfield before landing. He then gave a talk to an assembly of pilots and navigators. The unit’s second Canberra, WD938 arrived on 3 July. Further new airframes arrived and crews were converted, with the squadron gradually building up experience: they flew both on cross-countries, for 3 hours or more at high altitude (45,000 ft), and on bombing on the ranges at Wainfleet and Donna Nook. Fighter Command pilots flying Meteor Mk 8 aircraft were soon reporting that they could not intercept the Canberras, which could out-turn them at 40,000 ft and above.
No 101 Squadron and a newly-formed Jet Conversion Flight at Binbrook speeded up the conversion of crews of No 617 Squadron which was the next unit to receive its Canberras, in January 1952. Sadly two Canberras were lost in accidents – one during a GCA when the aircraft crashed into the ground – and the other crashed into the ground when its tail-plane actuator failed, but the conversion process continued.
No 12 Squadron at Binbrook was the third unit to convert, when it received its first Canberras in April 1952. In May 1952, No 9 Squadron started the conversion process. It took a while for the fifth squadron at Binbrook to convert to the new aircraft, as airframes were being sent to form the OCU, but No 50 Squadron’s new airframes started arriving in August 1952. Thus the first Wing of 5 squadrons was formed at Binbrook. It began to operate during Bomber Command exercises, together with Lincolns and B29 Washingtons. As time went by, other Canberra Wings were formed at Scampton, Hemswell, Coningsby, Marham, Wittering, Honington and Waddington. Later, a Canberra Wing was formed at Gütersloh in Germany: this was known as the ‘Bomber Command Element of 2TAF.
No 231 Operational Conversion Unit formed at RAF Bassingbourn near Cambridge on 1 December 1952, to convert crews to the new aircraft and this accelerated the build-up process. The first Canberra T4 trainer version arrived at Bassingbourn in May 1953 and a total of 66 of this trainer version were built.
A total of 416 B2 Canberras were built and entered RAF service, but on 26 August 1952 at Samlesbury, the first flight of what became the B6 Canberra took to the air and thus began a phase of the improved version of the jet bomber, gradually replacing the B2.
Personal Experiences of Dennis Sawden during his First Tour on Canberras.
By the time I reported to FTS for pilot training in April 1953, I had already served in the RAF for over two years. I had been called up for National Service on 9 January 1951 and, during a week at RAF Padgate for kitting etc, we were addressed by two RAF flying instructors and told that if any of us had any interest in applying for NS pilot training, we should note that the length of the training had just been increased and therefore vacancies for pilot training were very limited: even so, there was a good chance that our 2 years service would end before we had qualified for the flying badge: thus we were discouraged from applying for pilot training This all came as a complete surprise and those of us interested just had to accept that we would have to do something else during our conscription period. At that stage, I had no interest in staying in the RAF after my two years conscription period.
Next, I spent 6 weeks at recruit training school at RAF Melksham in Wiltshire. Here I was put forward for commissioning and, because I had been in the Army Cadets at school, I was posted to the RAF Regiment Depot at Catterick. As the sole officer cadet on an 8-week course amongst 30 or so raw recruit Airmen Gunners for the RAF Regiment, I completed a physically demanding and arduous course, concentrating on weapon training – and generally training to be ‘a soldier in RAF blue’: I was as fit as a fiddle when the course ended. Next, my 9-weeks OCTU course at RAF Spitalgate near Grantham led to being commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF Regiment on 19 July 1951. This was followed by 6 weeks under canvas at RAF Watchet in Somerset, as a supernumerary member of staff at the RAF Regiment Light Ack-Ack Gunnery School. Here I spent many happy summer days, observing and assisting on the 40 mm Bofors live-firing range, out over the sea, the drogue target being towed by Hawker Tempest aircraft from RAF Chivenor. From August to October 1951, I underwent an 8-week Weapon Training and Fieldcraft Instructors’ course back at the RAF Regiment Depot, Catterick, to complete my training.
I was posted to British Air Forces of Occupation (BAFO) in Germany, to No 54 (Rifle) Squadron RAF Regiment, as the flight commander of 35-plus Airman Gunners, based at RAF Lüneburg, near Hamburg, arriving in October 1951. Early in 1952, the whole squadron was moved to RAF Gatow, Berlin, to conduct armed patrols of the airfield at night, to prevent German civilians vandalising the airfield lighting installations, from which they were stealing the lead insulation, to sell it. After 3 months, during which King George VI died, my Squadron returned to RAF Lüneburg and shortly afterwards we moved permanently to join the RAF Regiment Wing at the newly-opened large NATO airfield at Wildenrath, close to the Dutch border near Roermond. Here the station commander was the famous former Battle of Britain pilot Group Captain J E ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, who required each of the three Vampire ground-attack squadrons to pair off with one of the three Regiment squadrons – in my squadron’s case with No 71 (Eagle) Squadron. This arrangement led to me spending a lot of time with their pilots and flying with them in Vampire T11s – or with other pilots in the station’s de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane. As a result of this, I knew I wanted to apply to train as a pilot. Just before my 2 years National Service was ending, I had acute appendicitis and surgery at BMH Wüppertal, but I was successful in my application to transfer to aircrew. However, it was not until April 1953 that I returned to the UK to start my pilot training. By then, I had built up very useful general experience in the RAF.
I was sent to No 9 FTS at Wellesbourne Mountford near Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire for my BFTS course on de Havilland Chipmunks. I was the only previously-commissioned officer on the course of 33 trainee pilots (otherwise all Acting Pilot Officers) when we started flying in May 1953. I completed 70 hours day and night flying on this fine little aircraft by early August 1953, but by then several of my course colleagues had fallen by the wayside. Staying on at Wellesbourne, I progressed to the AFTS stage on the .North American Harvard 2B. From August 1953 to March 1954, I completed just over 200 hours day and night flying on the Harvard which was most enjoyable. To whet our appetites for what was to come, on 13 January 1954, we were each given an exhilarating 20 minutes ‘Famil’ ride in the rear seat of a Gloster Meteor Mark 7 dual-controls trainer, which visited the station. The great day came when we received our pilot’s brevets and I was one of just 11 of the 33 trainees left on the course, all being awarded our ‘Wings’ on 31 March 1954.
I was posted to No 211 AFS at RAF Worksop near Retford in Nottinghamshire, for my advanced jet flying training on Meteor Mk 7 and Mark 8 aircraft, and I started flying on 27 April 1954. In addition to the challenge of converting to fly jet and much faster aircraft for the first time, I also had to learn how to handle two engines. Most sorties lasted just 40 minutes, but I remember them being action-packed sessions, when one had work hard to cover the wide range of aspects in the syllabus. Great emphasis was placed on single-engined flying, high altitude flying and amazing aerobatics in such a high performance aircraft, with a maximum airspeed of 515 knots – quite a contrast to the Harvard! It was not unusual to be asked when flying with the CFI, Wing Commander J B Cowerd, to go straight into a roll-off-the-top, from take-off, often when there was 8/8 cloud cover, so one zoomed upwards hopefully and usually found oneself in bright sunshine as one rolled the aircraft out into level flight. Also, it was not unusual when overshooting from a normal twin-engined practice approach to have the high-pressure cock on one of the two engines pulled up by the instructor, closing down that engine, so one had to quickly gain control of the aircraft and fly on one engine: single-engined flying, and re-lighting, became a regular feature of the course. But to my intense relief, after 41 hours dual and 40 hours solo flying by day and night, I completed the course on 15 September 1954. I was granted a short spell of leave and when I returned to RAF Worksop, I was informed that I would next be posted to RAF Leeming, to the night fighter OCU in October: this surprised me somewhat, as I had never seen myself as a fighter pilot, but I was held at Worksop as a supernumerary and, over the next month was given two revision sorties in the Meteor. I also volunteered to fly 3 sorties as second pilot in the station’s Percival Prentice, a very slow and cumbersome former basic training aircraft, which was used for local ‘errands’. Then, I was surprised again; in October, my posting to Leeming was cancelled, and I was told that instead I would be going to the Canberra OCU in late November, but that, first, I must attend a 2-week ‘G-H’ (radar blind-bombing) course. However, I was delighted at the prospect of flying Canberras.
It was at this stage that I entered Bomber Command for the first time. I was posted to the Bomber Command Bombing School (BCBS) at RAF Lindholme near Doncaster in late October 1954, for just a 2 weeks course. After a few days of instruction on the ground, meeting newly-trained navigators on the course with us who would be operating the bombing radar in the aircraft, and learning the principles of G-H and visual bombing, as well as seeing the equipment for ourselves, we were all given airborne instruction in the Vickers Varsity, a twin-engined-training aircraft, with dual controls and a tricycle undercarriage. We pilots were to fly as second pilot, in the right-hand seat, and our captains were all very experienced staff pilots, most with wartime experience, several of them Polish. Our navigator colleagues on the course were down at the back of the Varsity, taking it in turns to give bomb aimer’s instructions to the pilot. Sorties lasted between two and three hours and pilots and navigators on the course took it in turns to either give or follow bomb-aiming instructions. I did a total of 11 hours flying there, the last sortie being on 8 November 1954. This was a very different world to the Flying Training Command atmosphere I had been used to: I recall particularly being programmed to fly one Varsity sortie with a Polish Master Pilot Gustowski, whom I had never met until then. I was sitting in the crew room, awaiting my sortie, when this short, burly figure came in and called my name; when I replied, his pre-flight briefing consisted solely of: ‘Kom – vee fly’!
I arrived at No 231 OCU at RAF Bassingbourn near Royston in Cambridgeshire in mid-November 1954 and joined No 53 Bomber Course. We were soon embarked on an intensive few weeks in the ground school, being taught and examined on all the aircraft systems in the English Electric Canberra which by now had been in service for just over two years, so one felt privileged to be getting to know ones way round and let loose on such a modern aircraft. The OCU was very busy training aircrews for both bomber and photographic reconnaissance squadrons throughout the RAF. There were two officers’ messes and accommodation was so short that, for the first few weeks, newcomers slept in four-berth civilian caravans parked around No 2 Mess which, in mid-winter, was not much fun! During the ground school phase of the course, we were encouraged to crew up as soon as possible and I was soon approached by two navigators, who had obviously already teamed up and were looking for their pilot. John Eggleston came from Sussex and had served in the Royal Navy during the war as a Petty Officer in Signals; he wore the Atlantic Star in his war medals and became my Nav Plotter. Norman Blanchard was a direct entrant who had worked in the drawing office of a steel works at Scunthorpe before entering the RAF: he became my Nav Radar/Bomb Aimer.
On 22 December 1954, I flew my first sortie in the Canberra T4, a Famil session of 1 hour 45 mins, with a staff QFI and a staff Nav. A week later on 29 December 1954, I flew another T4 trip, a 1 hour 55 mins session on asymmetric flying, with John Eggleston as Nav. Two more trips in a T4 on 4 and 10 January 1955 led to a dual check in a T4 on 1 February. Soon afterwards, I flew as passenger (sitting on the ‘Rumble’ seat) of a B2 Canberra (the bomber version), with a QFI and staff Nav, plus John Eggleston, for a 40 mins demo: I was then sent for my first solo, with John Eggleston as my Nav, for 55 mins. On 2 February 1955, with my crew of John Eggleston and Norman Blanchard, we flew a short cross-country, our first trip together as a crew. Further sorties in the B2 followed, on GH Tracking and screening for visual bombing, plus several cross-countries, so we soon built up useful hours. On passing my Instrument Rating Test, we progressed to medium-level bombing, dropping 25 lbs practice bombs on Otmoor and other ranges and we also undertook many Simulated Blind Bombing (SBB) runs at various radar plotting locations, one being on Southend Pier! In early March, we completed the night flying phase of the course, which included more live visual bombing and SBB trips. Cross-countries covered a lot more ground than we had been used to: one I recall was Base – Lands End - John O’ Groats – Base. On fine days, the view from the cruising altitude of over 40,000 feet was really impressive, to say the least, and we soon got used to these extreme and previously unused altitudes. We completed the OCU course with a night visual bombing sortie, dropping 10 practice bombs on one of the ranges at Wainfleet in The Wash.
Like many of the crews on the course with us, we were told that we were being posted to No 104 Squadron, which had been reformed at RAF Gütersloh, a former Luftwaffe base near Bielefeld in Germany, to serve on one of four Canberra B2 squadrons forming the new No 551 Wing, the Bomber Command Element of 2TAF. After a spell of embarkation leave, we all reported to Liverpool Street Station in London one evening, to catch one of three military boat trains to Harwich, for the overnight crossing to The Hook of Holland. Much of the next day was spent in a slow moving military train which reached Gütersloh in the late afternoon.
No 104 Squadron
This squadron has just been reformed. During WW2, No 104 Sqn had operated Wellingtons in North Africa and Italy where in February 1945 they re-equipped with Liberators. But at Gütersloh in April 1955, the CO was Sqn Ldr Edward Stephenson, who had flown Lancasters with No 12 Squadron at Wickenby at the end of the war and since then had become an experienced flying instructor. Initially, he had just one flight commander, Flt Lt Norman Greenhow. All crews were brand new, straight from the OCU, so it must have been quite a challenge in terms of supervision and management, but the squadron soon settled down and played its part in the overall effort of No 551 Wing, the Bomber Command Element of 2TAF: this consisted of Nos 102, 103, 104 and 149 Squadrons - each equipped with ten Canberra B2s..
All our early flying on 104 concentrated on GH and visual bombing practice, dropping 25 lbs practice bombs by day and night on ranges at Nordhorn and Sandbanks in northern Germany, or in UK. Full load bomb-load take offs featured once a month, with 6 x 1000 lb sand-filled bombs. Most of the airframes we had were brand new and we had our crew names painted beside the entrance door: my crew’s airframe was WJ628 and we took great pride in it. We flew the B2 version with wing-tip tanks fitted; this gave us a total fuel load of 1800 gallons and so sortie lengths gradually settled down at an average of 3 hours. Every so often, we were required to fly limited aids cross-countries, using no radar but relying on radio bearings to navigate: these could last for nearly 4 hours, but were tedious in the extreme, just sitting at extreme altitude, always over 40,000 feet and up to 48,000 feet (our limit), where the cockpit heating was often found wanting – and frost could occasionally be seen forming inside. Squadron exercises led us into participation in major exercises, like Bomber Command ‘Bombex’ or 2TAF Command exercises. All the time, new crews, initially graded as ‘Non-Combat’, were working to achieve good bombing accuracy, leading to an acceptable category of ‘Combat’, which as a crew we achieved on 5 August 1955. Higher categorizations were Combat Star and Select, but, within a few months, time was to run out on us and we didn’t progress further on these.
On exercises, radio silence was strictly applied, so start up and taxy-ing was done in silence, with Aldis lamp signals from the runway caravan for take-off. With each of the four squadrons contributing perhaps eight of their 10 aircraft on strength, this meant a string of 30 or more take-offs at one minute intervals, with each aircraft climbing to extreme altitude, to follow an identical route. The Canberra unstuck soon after 100 knots was reached and was then soon into the climb at 330 knots: this was maintained until the Machmeter showed .72 Mach, at which speed the rest of the climb was completed, usually levelling off at 45,000 feet or just above, depending on the altitude separation decided. Time to this height (with tip tanks fitted, and just one or two 25 lbs practice bombs on board) was 18 mins. We cruised at .74 Mach and this gave a groundspeed of about 420 knots. Visibility at high altitude was of course excellent and one could see for miles around, by day and night. One never saw the aircraft ahead or behind, but one was conscious of the need for accurate time-keeping and navigation, as the route usually included at least one or two Simulated Blind Bombing (SBB) runs on a radar calibration ‘target’ on the ground, either in UK or Germany. Radio silence continued throughout, except of course at the SBB or G-H bombing range, where we called at the initial IP and ‘Bomb Gone’: the range replied with ‘Bomb Observed’, but we had to wait until de-briefing on the ground to hear our accuracy. It was not unusual to drop a single practice bomb using G-H on a range in either Germany or UK, from altitudes of 45,000 feet and above, and amazingly good bombing accuracy was achieved: ‘Direct Hits’ were not unusual.
One memorable night, on 23 September 1955, we took off just after dusk in one of these streams at one minute intervals, on Exercise BEWARE. We climbed up through 20,000 feet of 8/8 cloud cover and emerged into what was still partial daylight, above all the cloud, continuing the climb to our transit altitude above 40,000 feet, on a route over Land’s End and Glasgow, before returning to base over the North Sea. We dropped our single practice bomb on Luce Bay range in south-west Scotland through complete cloud cover and landed at 3-minute intervals after 3 hours 35 minutes in the air. But it proved to be a sad night for us all: as were walking back from dispersal to the squadron hangar, after midnight, with the last few Canberras in the stream still landing, suddenly we heard a Canberra on its final approach open up the engines to full power, but shortly afterwards it crashed and a column of flames leapt into the air. Knowing it must be one of the 104 Squadron crews, we later discovered that it was Plt Off ‘Jonah’ Jones, who had flown a tour on Manchesters in Bomber Command during the war. Apparently his pilot’s canopy had suddenly misted up completely (a known fault in the early days, through descending from high altitude temperatures). Suddenly blinded and unable to see the runway ahead, Jonah attempted to overshoot and go round again: however, the early Avon engines could surge (stall) when the throttles were opened too suddenly – and, with one engine stalled, this caused his aircraft to turn over and crash. All three crew members were killed, so, soon afterwards, we were introduced to pall bearer duties at a military funeral for our three friends, at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery near Hanover.
Very occasionally, the follow-my-leader route took us to a pre-arranged point, such as the Brest peninsula – and then at the appointed second, the whole stream turned through perhaps 90 degrees, onto the same heading, to produce a vast line-abreast approach to, usually, the UK south or east coast. In this way in the early stages, we tried to swamp the day fighter resources and for a while we only saw NF (night fighter) Meteors staggering up to altitudes well below us, unable to get near us. Then at a second appointed time en route, the whole line-abreast formation turned onto a given heading, which, in theory, should have put us all in extended line-astern again – but it never happened that way! Each crew would have been given a time to report at the entry point for the Standard Let Down procedure, designed to bring 30 or more Canberras back on the ground, but landing at 3-minute intervals, rather than the one minute intervals which had applied when they took off: this was to avoid turbulence from jet-wash. There was great jostling for position at or near the vital ‘entry point’ (usually at about 20,000 feet) and one had to have a good look out, in case another Canberra zoomed in from nowhere and made the radio call first, to take your entry time. This meant an extended trombone of time-filling, until one’s new entry point time was achieved. Once into the Standard Let Down, all was straight forward, as a strict order for landing had been established and this led into a GCA, or PAR as they were later called. This let-down procedure could take up a significant amount of time, at the end of the sortie.
Air Staff Instructions did not permit Canberra pilots to ‘join battle’ with intercepting fighters at extreme altitude, by taking evasive action. This was because, as explained earlier, the Canberra’s early Avon engines were susceptible to ‘surge’ if the throttles were handled harshly at height, for instance when taking evasive action. But a number of brave souls did engage with Hunters and Javelins, once they started to reach our altitudes (in 1956), and inevitably these Canberra pilots experienced either single or double engine flame-outs. The problem was that the procedure to relight the Canberra’s Avon engine required descending to 20,000 feet before the re-light button could be used, so it was easy to be found out. However, I never heard of a Canberra pilot being unable to relight his engine(s) at this lower altitude.
Squadron flying continued through the winter months of 1955, with further radar or visual bombing – and more exercises, including the Bomber Command Bombex on a Thursday night. For a while, in the very cold weather, we encountered problems in the starter cartridge housing: this could result in the whole assembly exploding, sending hot metal shrapnel flying in all directions and damaging adjacent aircraft in dispersal: however, this was soon solved with a local modification and different grease in the assembly. My average monthly flying hours were about 25-30, including two or three night sorties in a month. But in March 1956, an ‘hours race’ developed between the four squadrons on the Wing at Gütersloh and I totalled 49 hours 35 mins by midnight on 31 March 1956. It was at about this time that I was invited to apply for a Permanent Commission, about which I was obviously pleased, as I had discovered that the RAF way of life suited me well. I was interviewed by the station commander and later by our AOC, Air Vice-Marshal SR Ubee, at No 2 Group HQ, Sundern, across the other side of Gütersloh town. In due course, my Permanent Commission was confirmed.
But the next morning (and it was the 1st of April 1956), the station tannoy made an unusual announcement that all aircrew were to assemble in the wing briefing room. Here we were given the shattering news that all Canberras throughout the RAF had been grounded - because of tail-plane actuator failures. The motor driving and controlling the movement of the whole tail-plane had been found to be faulty, causing the tail-plane to run away, outside its normal traverse, resulting in the aircraft bunting or going into a steep climb. (We had had no cases of this at Gütersloh). There was no forecast of the duration of the grounding, so we had no aircraft to fly, thus about 120 members of aircrew were seemingly out of a job! We dispersed to our squadrons and over the next few days a new pattern of life evolved. Places were found on courses in Germany and UK, a golf course was built by ‘volunteer aircrew’ on the far side of the airfield and, generally, aircrew were permitted to undertake anything reasonable that they could come up with. In my own case, I had by this stage established myself as a member of the station and Command SRa Competition Rifle and .38 pistol teams and it was known that my range conducting officer qualifications (from my 2 years in the RAF Regiment) were still valid. With the unit’s Regiment officer away on a long course in UK, I found myself conducting all range practices of station personnel for their annual qualification shoot over the next few months. – thus I was able to practise ad lib for shooting matches in Germany and at Bisley.
The tail-plane actuators on the Canberra T4 trainers on each of the four squadrons were the first to be modified and I flew our T4 twice in May 1956, to keep me current. We then had more shattering news – the Wing was to be disbanded, because of a change in NATO policy. We were all interviewed by personnel staff from Command HQ and asked whether we would like to return to UK, or stay in Germany (on another unit) or stay at Gütersloh? I chose the latter: My Plotter, John Eggleston, chose to return to UK, as he had become engaged to a nursing officer in the QAs (Army Nursing Service). Norman Blanchard had married during our first year in Germany and his wife had come out to join him, so he elected to stay at Gütersloh too. The B2’s tail-plane actuators had been modified by July and I flew a B2 twice later in that month. The Wing officially disbanded on 31 July 1956.
No 59 Squadron
I was selected to remain at Gütersloh, to join the newly reformed No 59 Squadron, with Norman Blanchard as my sole navigator. Our role was to be ‘Night Interdiction’, at low level, and in due course our B2s would be replaced by the Canberra B(I)8, fitted with a four-cannon gun-pack. Sqn Ldr Edward Stephenson, our CO on ‘104’, became the aircrew flight commander and the squadron was under the command of Wg Cdr A (Artie) Ashworth DSO DFC* AFC* MID, newly posted in. With an eye-patch over an injured eye, and a bushy moustache, ‘Artie’ had a wicked glint in his eyes, and a wry sense of humour, so was soon popular. He had trained at home in New Zealand by 1940, come to UK on transfer to the RAF and completed a tour of Wellingtons in Bomber Command in 1941/42. He then completed another tour on Wellingtons in Malta and the Middle East. Returning home to New Zealand, he then flew another tour on Corsairs with the RNZAF in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and Espiritu Santo (now called Vanuatu), before returning to UK, where he was posted to No 635 Squadron with Lancasters at Downham Market, in the Pathfinder Force. Post war, he had completed the Empire Test Pilots’ School course in December 1948 and, after another visit home to New Zealand, he served at RAE Farnborough in 1949/51 before being given command of No 139 Sqn in July 1953, which had received its Canberras in November 1952 at Hemswell. He was indeed a very experienced pilot, but very modest about it all – and he had our complete respect.
All the single-nav crews on ‘59’ had been on squadrons in No 551 Wing at Gütersloh, so all had experience on type – and we all knew each other. But, all of a sudden, instead of operating at up to 48,000 feet, under Bomber Command Air Staff Instructions (ASIs), we were now to fly at low level, under 2TAF ASIs, so there was a lot to learn, but it was all of interest and there was great enthusiasm for the new role. At first, we flew our B2s on low level cross-countries for about 2 hours over western Germany, at 1000 feet above the ground (AGL), at just 250 knots. Later we flew Hi Lo Hi trips, transiting at high altitude (to conserve fuel) to then let down into the low flying system further afield, eg in southern Germany or the UK. From the outset, there was plenty of night flying, with approximately one-third of our flying at night. Bombing was by shallow dive, starting from about 2000 feet, dropping 25 lb practice bombs at 500 feet on Nordhorn range in Germany and it soon became normal to drop 8 x 25 lb bombs in a short time, flying a racetrack pattern at the range, releasing the bomb eventually at about 250 ft and then zooming up to 2000 ft, before winging over into the next shallow dive. This was exhilarating flying, particularly at night (!), and amazing accuracy was achieved. There was still some participation high level exercises, providing ‘targets’ for NATO fighter aircraft, but the emphasis was on low flying and a typical sortie would be a 2 hrs 30 mins low level cross country over Germany, including a slot on a range to drop 8 x 25 lb practice bombs by shallow dive. As one became more experienced, we were cleared to lower transit heights, at 500 ft and eventually 250 ft AGL – and transit speeds were upped to 300 kts. Very occasionally, we were authorised to fly a clean Canberra (without wing-tip tanks) on a low level sortie at 400 kts, but the turning circle was vast and the controls became very heavy: our fuel was soon gone too! However it should be remembered that the Canberra was designed as a high altitude aircraft! In May 1957, formation flying was introduced and after Exercise Guest in May 1957, I flew in a formation fly-past for the C-in-C.
Also in May 1957, Sqn Ldr Edward Stephenson was flown to UK to collect our first B(I)8. Great was the excitement with his arrival back with it - and pilots were keen to convert onto this very different-looking Canberra, with the bulge of the four-cannon gun-pack beneath. I flew my first B(I)8 day sortie on 20 May 1957 and my first night trip in the type was on 17 June 1957. This was very much a pilots’ aircraft, with a raised pilot’s position, in a fighter- type cockpit canopy, offset to port to improve visibility to all-round – very different to the B2. But the most memorable of the conversion sorties was on 28 June 1957, when it was our turn to fly the Proof of Maximum Endurance (PME) navigation exercise, to show all crews just how far and how high the B(I)8 would go – to the Mediterranean and back, all within 5 hours. We took off and climbed northwards to the Frisian Islands, off the north coast of Germany, where we turned south, climbing to our initial cruising altitude. However, on this sortie we were using the Cruise Climb technique, when one set the engine revs and then, as the fuel was used, the aircraft was allowed to climb, for improved range. The weather was fine, with little cloud, and the visibility was almost unlimited. Our route took us down over eastern France and around Switzerland, to coast out over Monaco, heading for the northern tip of Corsica, where we had reached 50,000 feet, our maximum permitted altitude (for the oxygen equipment we were using). Here, after just 2 hours in the air, we turned westwards towards Marseilles, and en route we could see the Pyrenees down to our left. We then headed north again, around Switzerland and back up to the Frisian Islands, before turning south again, to let down into base, where we landed after exactly 4 hours and 30 mins in the air.
All through the summer months June to September 1957, I flew the B(I)8 on low level cross-countries and/or shallow dive bombing, by day and night, averaging 30 hours a month. On 19 August 1957, I used the gun pack for the first time and fired the four Hispano 20 mm cannons simultaneously on air-to-ground at Nordhorn range: this was another exhilarating experience, as, with a 525 rounds per gun capacity, this gave 50 seconds of firing time – impressive for its day. But that evening, in a B(I)8, with Norman Dodd as my Navigator, we flew a low level cross country and did some continuation training (practice approaches etc) and then made our final landing just before midnight. It was a fine night, but with no wind and we were using the westerly runway, with a slight downhill slope - with a tributary of the Dortmund/Emms canal at the far end of the runway overrun. I was still getting used to the wheel brakes being operated by pedals on the rudder bars, rather than by hand on the control column, but when I pressed the brake pedals, the aircraft lurched to port (left) and I saw that there was no brake pressure for the starboard wheel. The aircraft was still going fairly fast, so I told Norman Dodd and informed air traffic of our plight. All I could do in the dark was to apply full Maxaret brake to the port wheel – and hope for the best! As the aircraft ran off the far end of the 2000 yard runway, we made a shuddering turn to port through 180 degrees on the rough grass, in the dark, and the aircraft eventually came to a rest, facing in the opposite direction! The fire crews were soon beside the aircraft as we climbed out unscathed, but more than a trifle relieved. The starboard wingtip had just missed hitting a small brick building, part of the airfield lighting installations: we had had a lucky escape. The fault was found to have been the excess length of the heavy duty hydraulic hose to the starboard wheel, so the hose had been chopped through during the final undercarriage selection.
In early September, I was selected to go (in a Canberra B2) on a week-end Southern Ranger to Malta/Luqa, the outbound leg taking 3 hrs 25 mins – and the inbound leg back to base just 5 mins less. Exercise Brown Jug took place later in September 1957, with all the targets at low level in Denmark. The memorable thing about the preparations for this exercise was that we were briefed that there were many mink farms in Denmark and that if mink were frightened, eg by low flying aircraft, the adults were likely to eat their young, so we had to plot the position of every Danish mink farm given – and plan our low level routes to avoid the mink! A new type of target for us was also included, namely shipping strikes, off the Danish coast, so it was an interesting exercise. Other 2TAF aircraft participated and on 24 September 1957, I flew in a nine-ship formation of Canberras, together with 24 RAF Venoms from Wünstorf, in an impressive fly-past over Copenhagen and Elsinore. This proved to be my last trip on No 59 Sqn, as I had completed two-and-a-half years in Germany and it was time to return to the UK. This had been an unusually varied but thoroughly interesting and enjoyable tour, flying two types of Canberra, in very different roles.
Personal Experiences of Dennis Sawden during his Second Tour on Canberras
Towards the end of my first tour on Canberras, on No 59 Squadron at RAF Gütersloh, whilst I was waiting in a queue to be briefed on my next targets during ‘Exercise Brown Jug’ in September 1957, our CO, Wg Cdr ‘Artie’ Ashworth, called me aside and told me that a signal had been received, saying that I was to be interviewed at Air Ministry in London about my next posting. This resulted in me being selected to become in October 1957 one of two Air Ministry liaison officers with the 500 or more boys’ preparatory schools in the UK, for which I was being granted acting rank of Flight Lieutenant. Based in Adastral House, Theobalds Road, London (where I attended only on occasional Mondays to handle paperwork and correspondence), I spent the next two-and-a-half years driving my own car to visit these schools all over the UK, to lecture and show films, dress boys in flying kit and generally provide general interest information. Mostly I stayed in hotels when away overnight from RAF Kenley, where I had chosen to base myself, as it was convenient for London office days – and my parents’ home in Sussex.. In the summer terms, having arranged for school parties to visit RAF airfields, I would then fly myself to these units in an Avro Anson or de Havilland Chipmunk from RAF Northolt or RAF Biggin Hill, to meet these parties. During that tour, in April 1959, I managed to secure a place on 2-week jet refresher flying course for staff officers, at RAF Manby/Strubby, when I did 10 hours flying on Meteors. In April 1960, I volunteered to give air experience to CCF/RAF cadets on Easter Camp at RAF Church Fenton and this provided 24 hours of varied flying, to keep in flying practice.
In preparation for my next posting, I completed a one-month refresher flying course on piston-engined Provosts at RAF Manby in June/July 1960 and this led to me becoming a student on No 204 Course at the Central Flying School (CFS) at RAF Little Rissington, from July to November 1960, to become a Qualified Flying Instructor. Whilst there, I flew Famil sorties in a Hunter F4, Vampire T11 and Jet Provost T3, before converting to the de Havilland Chipmunk, for my next appointment, as one of the QFIs on Cambridge University Air Squadron, flying from Marshall’s Airport, Cambridge, where I arrived in early December 1960 and continued until December 1962. I was promoted to squadron leader rank on 1 January 1963.
From January to August 1963, I served as the RAF member on a joint service working party at the Ministry of Defence, Main Building, Whitehall, London, on signals delivery indicators and this was followed by being posted to become one of two Cadet Squadron Commanders at the RAF Technical College, Henlow. During this two-year tour, I married and our daughter was born. Having passed the necessary qualifying exam, I was selected for the RAF Staff College at Bracknell from January to December 1966, at the end of which I embarked on a jet refresher flying course at RAF Manby/Strubby in February/March 1967. I then completed No 171 Long Photographic Reconnaissance Course on Canberra PR3s and T4s at RAF Bassingbourn, lasting 16 weeks, during which I was crewed up with Flight Lieutenant Nick Walker as my navigator. This led to my next posting - to Germany again, for the third time!
No 80 (PR) Squadron
I was to be the ‘A’ (Aircrew) Flight Commander on No 80 Squadron, equipped with ten Canberra PR Mark 7s at RAF Brüggen on the German/Dutch border near Roermond, where I arrived in early October 1967. Also at Brüggen was No 213 Squadron, equipped with B(I)6 Canberras, with a four-cannon gun-pack and capable of delivering a tactical nuclear weapon. They always had a 3-man crew and armed aircraft on immediate QRA standby, in a heavily guarded compound on the far side of the airfield.
By this time, air trooping had replaced the lengthy sea and rail journeys to/from Germany. My wife and I, with our 2-year old daughter, chose to cross with our brand new Hillman Super Minx Estate car (one of the last to be built) from Hull to Rotterdam, when the sea crossing was very rough, and we then drove across Holland, very bleary eyed, to move into a married quarter on the station, which came with the job. Here I was to fly the PR7 version of the Canberra. The squadron had had this Mark of the aircraft for 12 years, since August 1955, and considering that they had been designed originally for high level work but had been switched to the low level role in the late 1950s, they had stood up to the extra stresses and strains of this work very well. One of our PR7s had the airframe number WH773, which was the first PR7 off the production line and had first flown from the Samlesbury factory airfield on 28 October 1953. The PR7 was a development of the PR3, but with more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon 109 engines, each giving 7500 lbs of thrust. Additional fuel tanks in the wings and the ventral tank (in the front part of the bomb bay space, only in PR versions) gave a maximum capacity of 3,305 gallons: this provided an impressive range. The PR7 could be fitted with a selection of day (vertical and oblique) and night cameras, the latter being triggered by photoflashes. To my mind, the PR7 was the best of the five Canberra versions that I ever flew.
Although I had been warned in UK that the squadron’s future was in doubt, it still came as a shock to be told on arrival that the unit would disband in October 1969: however, this was two years ahead, so I concentrated on settling into my new duties. The squadron commander was Wing Commander R E W (Dick) Nettley, a Navigator and bachelor, living in the Officers’ Mess, and a lover of Wagner’s music. There were 15 two-man crews, so my duties centred on the day-to-day management of the all-officer aircrew element of the squadron – and the planning and supervision of the daily flying programme: about one-third of our flying was at night. As a contributor to the air power of the Central Region of NATO, we were required at all times to have one QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) crew available to fly at one hour’s notice. This was tested by occasional alert practices, called by the station commander, to test the unit’s reaction times and ability for fulfil its war role. Every 2 years or so, the RAF Germany Command Tactical Evaluation (‘Taceval’) Team would descend on the station and call a no-notice alert, to bring the whole station to a war footing; these exercises could last for 2 to 3 days and were a thorough test of our operational capability.
Planning photographic reconnaissance flying, especially at low level, is of course highly dependent upon the weather, but the PR7 gave us the flexibility to go far afield to find good weather conditions. So it was not unusual to set up a Hi-Lo-Hi profile, during which the aircraft would transit at .74 Mach at high altitude to/from the ‘target area’ (to conserve fuel), before letting down, usually under control, at a master airfield in UK (or in another part of NATO), to then operate at low level for up to an hour or so, before climbing out again. This was often the case for us, and crews got used to high level transit to such airfields as Lossiemouth, Leuchars, Valley, St Mawgan or Manston, so that we could fly in the UK low level system, to take oblique photographs of (usually) three briefed targets. Of course, the ideal situation would be when the weather allowed crews to fly the whole sortie at low level, over northern or southern Germany, in which case a sortie length of 3 hours at low level was normal. Transit speeds of 300 knots, at an altitude of just 500 or 250 feet above the ground were normal, although transit speeds were reduced to 270 knots during bird migration periods, as jet engines do not like ingesting our feathered friends. After each trip, the crew would go to the adjacent MFPU (Mobile Field Photographic Unit) to view with a stereoscope the negatives of the oblique photographs they had taken and select the best ones for printing: these would then be passed to our two PIs (Photographic Interpreters) on the squadron, a flight lieutenant and a sergeant, who held a vast library of ‘targets’ for use when briefing crews for sorties.
Night photography involved booking time slots on military ranges or training areas in Germany or UK, where military vehicles at set map references would be photographed. The night cameras had open lenses which would be triggered by our release of a string of very bright photoflashes, thus illuminating the target. RAF PR Canberra squadrons in NATO had a wealth of experience in both day and night photography and this was tested in an annual competition called ‘Royal Flush’ against USAF teams from 4 ATAF in southern Germany, equipped at the time with the more advanced Phantom RF4s.
All RAF flying has to be approved by an ‘authoriser’ and, in our case, the squadron commander, the two flight commanders, the navigation leader (a squadron leader), an RN lieutenant commander pilot of the Fleet Air Arm and one experienced flight lieutenant Navigator took it in turns to carry out this task, supervising the flying programme for that part of the day/night. The authorising officer for the day’s flying would attend a special met and air traffic briefing at 0730 hours, after which he would decide to which area the morning sorties would be sent. On arrival at the squadron hangar, the authoriser and one of the PIs would plan the route and targets, submit the flight plans and have all the briefing information marked on the board in the briefing room. The day flying crews would attend the main weather and air traffic briefing at 0815 hrs – known as Morning Prayers – and on arrival at the squadron would attend the further briefing given by the authoriser and PI, before route planning by the crews. First take-off was usually at 1000 hours, with perhaps three or four aircraft on the morning programme leaving at 10-minute intervals for their 3-hour sortie. Whilst these aircraft were airborne, the authoriser had to be available to go to the air traffic control tower in the event of an emergency, to give advice from the ground, but otherwise he would either plan a new route and targets for the afternoon sorties – or busy himself with other duties. Normally, we had up to four aircraft available for flying in the afternoon: towards the end of my two years, the age of our Canberras dictated the one or two airframes were always in our hangar, on non-destructive testing (NDT), looking for cracks or other potential weaknesses, in what were becoming ‘ancient’ airframes, so the daily availability for flying was then reduced!
In weeks when our monthly night flying task was being undertaken, crews would be stood down until night flying briefing in the late afternoon/early evening when a similar briefing and preparation routine would be followed. The authorising officer would then become ‘OC Night Flying’ and after briefing and launching the sorties, would go to the control tower until after the last aircraft had landed, ready to deal with any emergencies.
Occasionally the squadron was given special photographic tasks and these always provoked keen interest amongst the crews detailed for them. Sometimes vertical photography was asked for by Command HQ, but usually tasks were for low level oblique photography, using the side facing cameras. One regular tasking was to photograph particular map references at low level on the Isle of Sheppey, where the Royal Engineers School of Camouflage would have their students on courses endeavouring to hide various items of military hardware. We would take the obliques at a given time and map reference and, on return to base, the photographs would be developed quickly and then taken by another aircraft to RAF Manston, where a dispatch rider from the RE School would collect them and the results would be shown to course students before the day was out. Closer to home, we could be tasked to do Line Searches of a given stretch of road, to find military convoys. A frequent request was to photograph at low level a given map reference in open country: on flying past it, little or nothing could be seen with the naked eye, but on developing the prints, it would be possible to pick out parts of military hardware, not fully covered or camouflaged – the tracks of a tank, or a glinting windscreen, or the muzzle of a gun. Our crews took great professional pride in carrying out all these tasks and very high standards of flying and photography were achieved.
Because I had to take my turn at authorising and supervising flying, I often got out of phase with Nick Walker, who would then fly with another pilot when I was kept on the ground, but every endeavour was made to keep established crews flying together. However, there was always value in flying with another Navigator, as some of the squadron aircrew had considerable experience and were on their second or third tours on PR Canberras. When Nick and I could not fly together, I would often invite Squadron Leader Mike Dawson to fly with me: he as a Navigator on a ground tour, serving as Sqn Ldr Ops, so was always keen to fly.
During the winter months of 1967/68, I managed to fly about 20-30 hours a month, but in March, although I flew only 13 hours, these were taken up mostly with a ‘Southern Ranger’ when, on 12 March 1968, Nick Walker and I flew direct from Brüggen to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, taking 4 hours 10 minutes for the leg. On 13 March, we flew the Akrotiri to Luqa/Malta leg at low level (over Crete) in 3.00 hours and on 14 March, the Luqa to Brüggen leg in 3 hours. Back at base in April 1968, a lot of our flying was in preparation for the squadron to represent 2ATAF in Exercise ‘Royal Flush’, the periodic low level photographic competition with the USAF in 4ATAF (southern Germany). In early May, I seemed to be doing only a lot of engine air tests and then, on 27 May 1968, we were all awakened rudely at 0445 hours by the station’s alert hooter sounding. This was a station commander’s alert, when the whole station switched onto a war footing and operated sorties as if in a war situation. Nick Walker and I first flew a Hi-Lo-Hi sortie to/from targets in Schleswig-Holstein (near the Danish border) lasting 1 hr 35 mins during the morning. Later we were airborne again for a low level route to two targets in northern Germany, lasting for 2 hrs 40 mins.
The exercise ended at about 1600 hours, soon after we landed and, in accordance with an old tradition, nearly everyone headed for the bar in the officers’ mess, for a ‘happy hour’, before heading on home! But I still had to prepare the flying programme for the next day, so, still in flying kit, I checked on the number of aircraft expected to be available for flying the next day, but I was still busy preparing the flying programme for the next morning when I was contacted on the telephone by the station commander, an unusual event for me. The group captain advised me that RAF Taceval Team had just descended on RAF Wildenrath, a few miles to our south, and that No 17 (PR) Squadron there was short of a Canberra PR7. He said that, as I was the only PR7 pilot at Brüggen who had not started drinking in the bar, he was sending a navigator down (who had not started drinking either) – and please would I deliver one of our PR7s to No 17 Squadron at Wildenrath as soon as possible! Needless to say, Phil Compton (the sober navigator) and I got airborne promptly, but once airborne with full wing tip tanks, we could not land for about an hour, until to the tip tanks were empty, so we had to fly around at about 3000 feet in the late afternoon sunshine, using up the fuel as quickly as possible, so that we could then land at RAF Wildenrath, which we did by about 1800 hours. A vehicle had been sent to fetch us back to Brüggen, but it had seemed like ‘a hard day in the office’ by the time I got home that evening!
I went on leave in early June, but on my return, on 27 June, the squadron was busy finishing participation in Exercise Sky Blue, over Norway, which made a change of scenery. The next day, Nick Walker and I flew a 2.00 hour sortie over the 4ATAF area in southern Germany. Two days later, we flew a Hi-Lo-Hi sortie over UK, letting down and climbing out at RAF St Mawgan in Cornwall and getting back to base after 3 hours 30 mins in the air. The next day, our squadron organised a competition, with all crews flying a low level route over northern German, to the same 3 targets – each crew being given a specific TOT (Time on Target). My next two days were taken up with sorties in the Canberra T4 (dual-controlled) version, on instrument-flying practice and taking my annual IRT (Instrument Rating Test) to gain my Master Green card. Then on 10 July, I flew a Command Task, taking vertical photographs of the NATO Air HQ at Brunssum in Holland. Life was certainly varied!
In July that we had a change of squadron commander when Wing Commander Ray Offord, a pilot, took over from Dick Nettley, who returned to UK after his tour. Ray Offord had started as an RAF Apprentice but had flying experience on fighters, but came to us from a Canberra Strike squadron at RAF Laarbruch. The rest of my flying in July continued on a varied note – giving periodical day or night checks to some of the pilots, a tasking search with vertical cameras for mobile British Army SAMs in northern Germany, another Hi-Lo-Hi to three targets in SW England, letting down at St Mawgan and climbing out from RNAS Yeovilton. We also did a night photo-flashing sortie at Nordhorn range, after a night low level navigation exercise. My monthly flying totalled 25 hours, 11 hours of which were at night.
By virtue of our age and seniority, all the supervisors on the squadron lived on the station in married quarters. Many of the younger married aircrew were accommodated in spare married quarters at RAF Rheindahlen or at RAF Geilenkirchen, both some distance away. These officers either used their own cars to travel to/from work, or were bussed in and out: thus during any alert, there was a hour’s delay before many of these aircrew reported for duty, but we were always able to generate the required number of crews to fulfil our war role.
In September 1968, Nick Walker and I flew a 3.00 hour Hi-Lo-Hi sortie over to East Anglia where we had two LL targets and a few days later, we did 3.00 hour night sortie, transiting at high level to let down at RAF St Mawgan for low level night photo-flashing over the army ranges on Salisbury Plain. My flying for that month, before a spell of leave, ended with another 3.00 hour day sortie at low level over northern Germany, with three targets to be photographed.
During October, I was kept busy giving initial PR7 demonstration sorties to two new pilots, before they flew the type for the first time. Nick Walker and I also did two 3.00 hour sorties down into the 4ATAF area in southern Germany: on one of these, we took as a passenger a Master Sergeant of the German Air Force who was attached to our squadron as part of the Exercise Squadron Exchange. His squadron was Lekg 42 Jagdbomberstaffel, based at GAF Pferdsfeld near Saarbrucken, with Fiat-G91 single-engined reconnaissance aircraft. Another task which Nick and I undertook was two day sorties with vertical cameras, to the army ranges at Otterburn in the high Pennines of Northumberland – as well at the NATO ranges at Hohne and Borkenberge, in Germany, searching for military targets. Life was certainly varied.
The whole squadron came in a for a considerable surprise – and a severe sense of humour test - on a wet and windy Friday evening in mid-December 1968 when, at about 1845 hours, whilst getting ready at home to attend in civilian clothes the annual squadron all-ranks dinner and dance at a well-known local hostelry in Brüggen village, the station alert hooter sounded. Yes, the HQ RAF Germany Taceval Team had arrived to bring the station onto a war footing and to test all our war procedures. We couldn’t believe our ears when the hooter sounded in such poor weather, but, literally, we had to drop everything and head for the squadron HQ. Wives were disenchanted! The irony of the event was that, because of the poor weather, we could not fly any of the Taceval sorties, but the exercise was not stood down until midnight. We had all paid in advance for the dinner dance, so a lot of food went to waste that night: we had failed to send an invitation to the Taceval Team – in effect saying ‘Please don’t come that night’ – but they did! (The Taceval Team visited the station again later, when all the required sorties were flown and everything was tested - to their satisfaction).
Routine but varied day and night flying continued, but on 21 February 1969, I was lucky enough to be selected for another Southern Ranger, to Cyprus. In the middle of the German winter, we looked forward to enjoying some sunshine. This time, my Navigator was Gill Whitall, a very experienced PR man – and also a fellow supervisor – and we took with us as a passenger Sqn Ldr Mike Dawson, Sqn Ldr Ops, who often flew with me on low level sorties, when Nick Walker was not available. On Friday 21 February, we flew from Brüggen to Malta/Hal Far, as the runways at Luqa were being resurfaced; this leg took 3 hrs 30 mins. The next day (Saturday), we flew Hal Far to Akrotiri in 2 hrs 30 mins and had a restful stay until the Monday morning. However, on the Monday morning, the forecast for landing Hal Far was not good, with a weather front passing through, but the rain and low cloud was expected to be clear by lunch time. On checking the weather at midday, the prospects for landing at Hal far were much better, so we elected to fly at low level. We passed by Crete, but later ran into more cloud than expected. When we made radio contact with Hal Far, the landing weather was poor and close to the limits, with several aircraft stacked, so we joined the stack. We listened to captains ahead of us, reporting the weather conditions on the approach over the sea cliffs into Hal Far, and eventually our turn came to make a radar controlled approach. We came out of cloud only a short distance from the runway threshold and landed, but I felt as though I had earned my flying pay that day. (It transpired that after leaving Akrotiri, they had endeavoured to contact us by radio, to recall us because of the Hal Far weather, but the Canberra was notorious for poor radio reception from astern}. Then, after an overnight stay, we found that everywhere in northern Germany was enveloped in thick fog, with all airfields in RAF Germany closed, so we spent another three days at Hal Far until the base weather at Brüggen improved sufficiently to complete the exercise, by flying Hal far to base in 3,00 hours. That taught us a lesson – it is not always sunny in the Mediterranean!
In early March 1969, I was in RAF Hospital Wegberg, having surgery on my left foot, so it was not until 27 March that I resumed flying: this was all in the T4 – giving either day or night checks to several of our pilots. I spent a lot of time on the ground in April, managing only 8 hours day flying – and 4 hours at night.
But the highlight of my second tour on Canberras came in May/June 1969, when I was selected to take a detachment of four Canberras to the Italian Air Force base at Treviso/St Angelo, near Venice, as part of the NATO Exercise Squadron Exchange programme. This scheme was designed for squadrons of the NATO air forces operating for short periods from bases in other NATO countries. On 5 May 1969, Nick Walker and I flew to Treviso/Istrana, taking with us the Squadron Engineering Officer, Warrant Officer Harrison, to carry out a reconnaissance, to set up the detachment. The outbound leg to Treviso/Istrana on 5 May took just 2.00 hours. We were taken by road to the smaller airfield at St Angelo for our overnight stay, where we met Major Vinicio Salvi, the IAF liaison officer for the RAF detachment. Many of the Italian officers could speak good English, so having checked and set up all the arrangements for the 14-day attachment of our four Canberras, it was decided that our aircraft would operate without tip tanks from St Angelo, because of the relatively short runway. We flew back to Brüggen the next day in 2 hours. (I had to have another minor operation on my left foot in hospital in mid-May, but I was soon fit for flying again, and kept busy with preparations for the visit to Italy).
On 2 June 1969, an RAF C-130 Hercules arrived at Brüggen to take me plus 2 other aircrew officers, with all the ground-crew plus equipment to Treviso/St Angelo, the leg taking 2 hrs 35 mins. The four Canberras followed and we set up everything, ready to operate the next day. On flying days, we had an early start at the officers’ mess – and the Italian breakfast consisted of small cups of strong coffee, plus a small selection of sweet buns or cake, which we consumed standing at the bar in the mess entrance hall. There was then a longish walk (often in the rain) for the daily air traffic briefing and met at 0630 hours. First take offs for the Canberras were at 0830 for 2 to 3 hour sorties. The Italians would not permit us to fly as low as in Germany (ie at 250 or 500 feet above the ground), so we flew at 1000 feet, and used different lenses for our oblique photography. Because of my commitments in charge of the detachment, and taking my turn at authorising, I managed to fly only three lengthy low level sorties, but we were also hampered by an unexpected number of thunderstorms and generally poor weather. On one long sortie of 3 hours, I took Major Salvi with me as a passenger and he was highly impressed with our methods of operation. He asked me to take him to his home area near Pescara, on the Adriatic coast, halfway down the length of Italy, to see his father’s quarry and cement works I took what turned out to be a series of high quality obliques of the site – and later he showed me an enlarged and framed version of the best, which he was going to present to his father, for display on his office wall!
Day flying finished by soon after 1200 hours and it was then the IAF custom for all officers to have a full lunch together in their Mess: everyone was then stood down and the IAF officers headed off home, or to their rooms in the mess, for their siesta. But ‘the mad dogs and Englishmen’ in the Canberra detachment chose instead to make use of the IAF minibus, which took small parties to the coastal beach lido at Jesolo for the afternoon! It was easy to reach Venice by train from Treviso town and many RAF members of the detachment headed to these bright lights in their off-duty time. Altogether, it was a highly successful and enjoyable detachment. However, the IAF squadrons based at Treviso elected not to make the usual reciprocal detachment to Brüggen, as they seemed to dislike the prospect of northern Germany temperatures and different flying weather. All too soon, our RAF C-130 Hercules arrived at Treviso/St Angelo on 15 June 1969 and once the four Canberras had departed safely for base, we followed in the C-130, the leg taking 2 hours 55 mins – longer than the outbound leg, possibly because the aircraft was laden with generous gifts of wine to many members of the RAF detachment!
Normal flying resumed throughout June, with day and night checks to be given in the T4, or normal day and night low level sorties to be flown; I did 21 hours flying that month. I did two sorties in early July and then went on leave for three weeks. My wife and I had planned to go south by car with our daughter to the north-west coast of Italy, near Pisa, where we had booked a holiday flat. However, thanks to a very generous offer of the use of his flat in Treviso town from Major Salvi, the IAF liaison officer at Treviso/St Angelo, we were able to spend several days there en route, enabling us to see a lot of Venice and the surrounding countryside, before we headed for the west coast. This was a most enjoyable leave.
When I returned to work in late July, plans were already being set for the squadron to be disbanded: we were to be taken off operational commitments on 31 August 1969 and our aircraft were then to be collected or flown by our crews to other locations, some in Germany and some in UK. But I seem to have got myself into the air fairly frequently in August, as I completed 36 hours that month – and only 1 hour 15 mins was at night, when we had a serious electrical unserviceability and had to abort a planned night photo-flashing task. Otherwise, I did a lot of low level photography, in north and south Germany, France and Holland, as well as the UK: I was mindful of the fact that this was probably my last full tour on flying duties. Our popular CO, Ray Offord, knowing that we were the first of the three Canberra PR squadrons in RAF Germany to disband, led several formation practices and on 3 September, we managed to put up an eight-ship formation, of two boxes of four in line astern: I was No 4 in the second box. We toured all the RAF stations in Germany, making low passes over each, and, with a final flourish, we made a timed fly-past over the combined BAOR/RAFG HQ building at Rheindahlen. My last sortie on No 80 Squadron was on 1 October 1969 when, with Fg Off Bob Ross as my Navigator, we did a 30 mins engine air test, but one of the engines surged, making unpleasant and unfamiliar bangs (very unusual for a jet engine), so it was obviously time to finish! By now I had 1189 hours on type – and I never flew a Canberra again.
This was a most enjoyable tour. I was the last to leave the squadron, handing over our empty hangar and accommodation to the German Clerk of Works. After seeing my wife and daughter off on the air trooping service from RAF Wildenrath to Luton Airport, I handed over my married quarter and, with our Hillman Super Minx over-laden, I drove back to UK, picked up my wife and daughter and headed off on disembarkation leave.
The rest of my RAF service can be summarised briefly. From 1969 to 1972, I was on the staff of the Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre at RAF Biggin Hill. I was then the senior RAF Schools Liaison Officer based in Bedford and covering 600 schools in six counties, from London to Leicester, from 1972 to 1975. I then commuted by train daily from Bedford to London for the next 3 years (1975-1978), to work in civilian clothes in the Ministry of Defence, as a staff officer in the Directorate-General of RAF Training, in Adastral House, Theobalds Road, a building I knew well from a previous tour there. I was then appointed as OC Flying (and a lot of other things) at RAF Halton near Wendover, Bucks, but by the age of 51 years in 1984, I decided to take early retirement.
On leaving the RAF in April 1984, after 33 years service, my wife and I chose to settle in north-west Leeds in April 1984 when I was selected to be the Ministry of Defence (Retired Officer Grade 2 – Squadron Leader) Wing Admin Officer for 19 Squadrons of the West Riding Wing, Air Training Corps, based in Bradford, where I worked for 9 years. In my spare time, I joined the Air Crew Association and I became a volunteer at The Allied Air Forces Memorial and Yorkshire Air Museum, at Elvington near York: here I became their public address commentator at major events and air shows, as well undertaking a variety of tasks, including writing a number of books to raise funds for the museum.
I retired on my 60th birthday on 26 August 1992. I enjoyed more voluntary work at the Yorkshire Air Museum, but also took up woodwork and furniture restoration, and my wife and I spent a lot of time in the Yorkshire Dales and in the Yorkshire Wolds, where my surname had its origins. In 1999, we bought a cottage midway between Newton Stewart and Wigtown, in south-west Scotland, to be nearer our daughter, her husband and our two grand-daughters. Life still treats us very well.
Tailpiece on the Canberra
Having first entered RAF service in 1951, the Canberra in various Marks was in continuous service with the RAF until the last three PR Mark 9s of the PRU were flown from their base at RAF Marham, to the MU at RAF Kemble for disposal. The date was 31 July 2006 – a fine 55 years!
- 'Canberra - The Operational Record' by Robert Jackson (ISBN: 1-953-10-049-8)
- ‘English Electric Canberra’ by Roland Beamont & Arthur Reed (ISBN: 0-7110-1343-8)
- Pilot’s Notes – Canberra B2 (3rd Edition June 1956)
- RAF Flying Log Books – Dennis Sawden
- Website of ‘The Canberra Association’ ( See Webmaster Note below)
Webmaster Note:Until submission of this article, I had no knowlege concerning the 'Canberra Association' and hence no reference to it on the links web page. This oversight has thus been addressed as of February 23rd 2013.