The English Electric Canberra B.2, WH725, IWM – a worthy successor to the Mosquito!

Sometimes when you see an aircraft you just know that its ‘right’, and usually, after you have seen it fly, you are certain of that. The de Havilland Mosquito was one of those aircraft – elegant, swift and deadly. It had been one of the solid pillars of Bomber Command during WW2, and thanks to a programme of continuous technical development, was still effective in 1945. The last, high speed, pressurized, high-altitude version of the Mosquito, the B.35, was just too late for wartime RAF service from U.K. bases, although two squadrons, No. 109 and 139 at RAF Hemswell, operated them until 1952. It was obvious that the future lay with jet aircraft, and the Luftwaffe had shown the way, using both the Me262 as a fighter-bomber and the Arado 234 as a bomber in the later stages of WW2.

The Air Ministry issued Specification B.3/45 for a two-seat jet bomber, capable of radar-controlled bombing missions, and English Electric responded with a neat twin-engined design powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon axial-flow turbojets; the aircraft was designed by the eminent designer W.E.W Petter, who had earlier left Westland Aircraft. The new aircraft had a very low aspect ratio wing, which gave the best possible range performance at high altitude, and the first prototype, VN799, made its maiden flight at Warton on 13 May, 1949, in the capable hands of the WW2 ace Wing Commander R. P. ‘Bee’ Beamont, CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, Belgian Croix de Guerre, RAF. Just like the aircraft it was to replace, the de Havilland Mosquito, it had no armament and relied on pure speed and electronic aids to evade defences. Like the Mosquito, it also turned out to have amazing manoeuverability for a twin, and carried a crew of two (initially) – and it looked ‘right’.

Inevitably, as with many new aircraft, there were changes, and rather than a two-place ‘radar-bombing’ aircraft, the Canberra (as it became known) had its mission altered. The fifth prototype, VX165 and another aircraft, VX169, became three-seat aircraft, with a traditional ‘visual bombing’ nose. This standard became known as the Canberra B.2, being built to Spec. B.5/47, the first production example (WD929) flying on 8th October, 1950. The version was the first Mark to be issued to RAF squadrons, the first unit to re-equip being No. 101 at RAF Binbrook, who started to discard their Avro Lincolns in May 1951. The B.2 was equipped with two Rolls-Royce Avon 101 engines of 6,500 lbs thrust, which gave it an initial climb rate of 3,800 ft/min, a ceiling of 48,000 ft and an impressive range of 2,660 miles. Maximum speed was 570 mph at 40,000 feet and no less than 517 mph at sea level. Bomb load was initially 6,000lbs, all carried internally.

Just as with the Mosquito, orders for the Canberra poured in, and it became obvious that many of the other major British aircraft manufacturers would have to become involved in the programme. The Korean War was raging at the time, and the Canberra (along with other aircraft such as the Hawker Hunter) had been placed in a special ‘super priority’ by the British Government. English Electric, the parent company, built 202 B.2s, Shorts built 60 (first delivery, October, 1952); Avro turned out 75 (first in November, 1952), and Handley Page 75 also (first aircraft in January, 1953). A total of 412 Canberra B.2 aircraft were built, equipping no less than 43 different RAF squadrons and other units, at ‘home’ with Bomber Command’s ‘Light Bomber Force’, with RAF Germany, and other RAF Commands such as the Middle East Air Force and the Far East Air Force. It also was used by specialist units such the RAF Flying College, Manby.

Replacement of the Lincoln and Mosquito in RAF Bomber Command was swift, and the Canberra began to be appreciated by RAF crews for its fine flying qualities. Given its potential for export sales, and a desire to ‘show the flag’, a series of ‘goodwill’ flights involving Canberras were made, a notable one being ‘Operation Roundtrip’ during October and November of 1952, when aircraft of No. 12 Squadron flew a 24,000 mile route visiting many countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Also, on 17th December, 1953, a B.2 from the RAF Flying College, Manby, WH699 – named ‘Aries IV’- crewed by Wing Commander G. Petty and Squadron Leaders T. McGarry and J. Craig, broke the London to Cape Town record in a time of 12 hours 21 minutes (an average speed of 486 mph). Unfortunately, WH699 was lost later in a fatal crash.

One aspect of Canberra operations which was not widely discussed was its rôle as a tactical nuclear bomber. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Great Britain developed its own nuclear weapons, in the shape of air-delivered, free-fall bombs. One of the so-called ‘second generation’ weapons was built by Hudswell, Clarke Ltd of Leeds, and was code-named ‘Red Beard’. Described, officially, by the RAF as ‘Bomb, Aircraft, HE, 2,000lb, MC’, to disguise its actual nature, it was a tactical nuclear bomb. It had a ‘mixed core’ of Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239, giving a yield of between 15 and 25 kilotons (the Hiroshima weapon’s yield was 16kt and the Nagasaki bomb 21 kt). The actual weight of ‘Red Beard’ was 1,650lb, and it was carried in a special fixture, which was covered in perforated baffles – this was to prevent buffeting which occurred when the Canberra’s bomb doors opened. Declassified documents reveal that 48 ‘Red Beard’ bombs were held in Cyprus, ready to attack Warsaw Pact forces from the south, and approximately 14 held in the U.K. Also, from 1952 onwards, RAF Canberras based in Germany, were capable of carrying U.S.-controlled Mark 7 nuclear weapons (varible yield of between 8 and 61 kt). These weapons were under the direct control of SACEUR (always a U.S. four-star General or Admiral).

The development of the Canberra was rapid, and the successor to the B.2, the Canberra B.6, was introduced from June, 1954, but the B.2 was still available in quantity in October and November 1956, when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt during the Suez Campaign. Canberras from Nos. 10, 15, 18, 27, 44 and 61 Squadrons attacked military targets in Egypt from bases in Cyprus.

Here we can see a fine example of the B.2, WH725, suspended from the roof in ‘AirSpace’ at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield. Built by English Electric (construction number, EEP71206) it was delivered on 25th May, 1953 to No. 15 Squadron, RAF Coningsby. Transferred to No 50 Squadron at RAF Binbrook, following the Suez Campaign, it moved with the unit to RAF Upwood in Cambridgeshire, to join another Canberra squadron, No. 60. It was finally ‘struck off charge’ after a flying life of 19 years, in 1972, and placed in store at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford for eventual display.

Repainted with the yellow and black ‘Suez stripes’ seen on British, French and Israeli aircraft during that campaign, WH725 was displayed externally at Duxford in the late 1970s and 80s. Eventually restored and finished as a 50 Squadron machine, it bears the 50 Squadron emblem of a gold-handled sword on the wing tip tanks, as it hangs from the roof.

The English Electric Canberra was to be built in many versions (including the highly-successful Martin B-57 as used by the USAF in Vietnam) and see operational use everywhere from India to the Falklands; it was flown by the air forces of 17 nations, in bomber, trainer, photo-reconnaissance, electronic warfare and intruder versions. All in all, it was a most amazingly adaptable and efficient aircraft, and a worthy successor to the illustrious Mosquito!

2 comments on “The English Electric Canberra B.2, WH725, IWM – a worthy successor to the Mosquito!”

  1. Another excellent post Ross, and the information regarding the RAF being able to launch nuclear strike missions from the south against Warsaw Pact targets during the Cold War is illuminating. There is an EE Canberra being restored at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum (a long name) and it won’t take too much work as it was flying until a decade (give or take) ago. What was remarkably interesting to me was the horizontal tail plane which was of wood construction — the structure as well as skin!


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