The English Electric Canberra is Gone
by Anandeep Pannu
The B.Ae/English Electric Canberra is now out of service with the Indian Air Force. The Indian Air Force was the last Air Force in the world to fly the Canberra. The IAF was also the largest operator of the EE Canberra with close to a 100 aircraft (not counting the license built Martin Canberra of the USA) aside from the Royal Air Force.
The RAF only saw action with Canberra in one major conflict, the 1956 Suez crisis and in one minor one, the Malayan “Emergency”. The IAF saw service in 2 major conflicts (the 1965 and 1971 Indo Pak war) and in three relatively minor conflicts the 1961 Goan conflict, the 1962 Chinese war and the 1999 Kargil conflict.
That of course is an undeniable record on paper – but in my opinion the Canberra had an impact on the “psyche” of the IAF that was larger even than the paper record. I will try to explain what that impact was in the next few paragraphs.
It was the first aircraft that symbolized the new approach that India as a nation took. Getting an offensive weapon, especially a jet bomber in the 1950s signified that India was going on the offensive and not just defending itself. The Liberator squadrons served as the initial backbone of the “bomber” force – but they were rendered quickly obsolete by the advent of jet fighters. The Canberra remained a real threat to our enemies, notwithstanding improved air defenses, for a couple of decades after it was acquired.
The Canberra also allowed some of the senior pilots of the IAF who were too senior to transition to the new swept wing jets (Mystere, Hunter and Gnat) a chance to bring their vast straight wing Spitfire, Tempest, Vampire and Toofani experience to Canberra units. These pilots included people like Nath and Walter Marshall who got gallantry awards and participated in two wars. They were able to be effective combat pilots for an extra tour of duty or two. They retained their edge to the benefit of the IAF and were able to pass their skill and attitude on to younger aircrew in a squadron setting.
However I think that the most important role that the Canberra was able to play was as an aircraft that allowed “social mobility” to aircrew. There is a very definite caste system in the IAF, the fighter or “combat” pilots ruling the roost. Serving on the Canberra allowed multi-engine pilots and navigators to be “combatants”. Instead of being just in support roles, these people found themselves on equal footing with thenmore glamorous fighter pilots in combat. For instance, Air Marshal PP Singh won the Maha Vir Chakra for Canberra combat operations in 1965. It must have been a sweet victory since he acted as a target for fighter pilots flying the slow and plodding Dakota, before being assigned as a Canberra pilot.
Flying at night was not something routinely practiced by fighter or fighter-bomber aircrew before the Canberra was introduced. The Vampires, Toofani – even the Toofanis and Hunters were not equipped for effective night combat. The Canberra’s primary operations were at night, leading the IAF to gain experience in operating at night. The Canberra had a large role in making the IAF a truly “all weather” combat force.
The Canberra was the only multi-crew combat aircraft from the time it was introduced to the time the SU-30 was introduced in the 21st century. The IAF had started on the Wapiti and had operated the Hart and Vengeance with “gunners” and later with “observers” . The Canberra had a navigator who in most IAF Canberra marks also doubled as the bomb aimer. The navigator had a large, some say the primary, role in making the Canberra combat effective. This was not something that the fighter dominated culture of the IAF had experience with! Despite this experience with navigators as weapon systems operators – the SU-30 initially had two pilots operating it. I am not sure whether this has worked , but most Air Forces have not succeeded in having two fighter pilots function effectively in the same aircraft together. That is probably the reason why WSO’s are being used in the Su-30 recently. Canberra aircrew would say, “I told you so”.
I will close with Wg Cdr Walter Marshall’s words, because I don’t think I can even come close!
“With a fighter aircraft canopy & left hand throttles, she was really a big,big Fighter Bomber. With 4x 20mm Cannon & a rock steady dive, you could tear a target to pieces with one burst. The Canberra was fun in all its roles which I had the good fortune to experience. High Altitude Blue Study Bombing ‘a la’ Cat & Mouse”, Level Bombing Stick & Salvo 1000lbs. Flare Dropping Live, Dive Bombing & Front Gun, and last but not the least Mine laying 2×4000 mines both day & night. The only thing missing perhaps was R/P’s though later I believe this was also added to it role or capability.”
Photo Copyright 2007 Shiv Aroor