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Romance of the Canberra Light Bomber with the Indian Air Force

Updated on December 29, 2019
emge profile image

MG is a senior air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a voracious writer on military history

The Canberra

The Canberra was an English light bomber manufactured by the English Electric Company. It was inducted into the Royal Air Force in 1951 after a prototype flew in 1949. The Canberra was a first generation jet bomber with a range of about 2000 miles. It flew at sub-sonic speed, but during its heydays was a lethal weapon of offense. The aircraft was powered by two Rolls Royce Avon engines and was generally considered a reliable machine.

The plane was inducted into the Indian Air Force at a time when India still looked to Britain for the supply of weaponry and aircraft. The IAF also got the Photo Recce version of the Canberra and based it at Agra. The plane was a light bomber, but in an age when there was no supersonics, the Canberra had a successful run. The plane impressed the US AF as well and it was manufactured under license in America and was known as the Lockheed B-57.The Americans gifted the B-57 to the PAF as Pakistan was a member of SEATO and the Baghdad Pact.

The Indian Air Force opted for the Canberra and paid for it in hard currency. Two squadrons were equipped with the Canberra. The Plane generally had a crew of 2, one of who was the navigator. It could also carry 4 X 2000 Lb bombs and had a bombing sight that allowed precision bombing.

The Canberra with the IAF

The IAF put the Canberra for varied uses. One of these was missions for photo recce of enemy countries air installations. The Canberra had a ceiling of over 50,000 ft and as such could fly undetected. It had a powerful camera that could take high-resolution photographs.

In 1959, a secret mission was approved by the Defense Minister Krishna Menon to photograph Pakistan airfields and hangers in the Punjab. This information was vital for the IAF to plan any counter to the PAF. The mission was to take just about 10 minutes as the Pakistan Punjab borders India and their airfields at Sargodha, Lahore and Sialkot were close to India.

The Canberra photo recce version took off from an Indian forward airfield on this mission. The plane was piloted by squadron leader Sengupta and the Navigator was Flight Lieutenant Rampal. The plan though top secret had been leaked to the PAF by a senior officer of the IAF, who was in a honey trap with Pakistan Muslim girl spy.

The result of this leak was disastrous. As the plane entered Pakistan airspace, an F-86 Sabre Jet, was already airborne and waiting for the Indian plane. The plane which was flying at an altitude of 45000 ft was fired on and caught fire. The crew bailed out and suffered multiple injuries, but were picked up and taken to hospital in Lahore. The spy mission was a disaster and Krishna Menon and the Air Staff had to cut a sorry figure.

The High of the Canberra: Bombing of Karachi

In 1971 war broke out between India and Pakistan and the IAF was given the task to bomb military targets in Pakistan. The highlight of this war was the bombing of Karachi docks and OIl and military storage tanks of the Pakistan army.

The IAF mounted air raids on Karachi and in raids lasting a week completely destroyed the Karachi port and docks. the oil dumps were set on fire and the fires raged in Karachi for days. the Pakistanis were non-plussed at the ferocity of the raids and also suffered heavy causalities. The raids rendered the Pak navy ineffective and supply of oil to the army became a problem. The Canberra was also used for interdiction and supply lines and trains were hit all over Pakistan. It was a very successful operation and played no mean part in Pakistan agreeing to a cease-fire and giving up its claim to East Pakistan.

Canberra in service

The Canberra had a checkered history with the IAF. At the time of its induction the Russians offered the IL-28, but as India was still having a hangover of the Raj, the Canberra was preferred (It was double the cost of the Russian bomber). The Canberra was inducted into the IAF in 1957 and began its long association as a front line plane. It replaced the B-24, heavy bomber.Canberra bomber aircraft were based at POONA in 1956 when No.16 Squadron was formed as a conversion squadron. Subsequently, Nos.5 Squadron and No. 35 Squadron were also formed and equipped with the Canberra B(I)Interdictor Bomber.Later No101 PR Squadron was formed with the recce version of the Canberra.

Military use of the Canberra

The Canberra's first went into action in 1961. This was during the Indian invasion of Goa, then a Portuguese colony. The aircraft was used to bomb the Dabolim airfield. A few sorties were also mounted in support of operations against Diu. During the 1962 war with China, the Canberras were moved to North India in anticipation of their use against China, but a timid political leadership wasted the bombers, which could have been effective against the Chinese.

The Canberra was put to use in the 1965 and 1971, as also UN Operations in CONGO in 1961. The Canberras were highly successful in interdiction and support bombing.The Canberras last saw action in the Kargil war when one of its planes suffered a missile attack. The plane made it back to its base on one engine

This was as late as 1998.

The canberra had tremendous success in the 1971 war and apart from setting Karachi ablaze, they bombed the PAF airfields in Punjab, blunting the PAF air defence..

The Canberra was phased out at the turn of the 21st century after a great stint with the IAF.

Canberra's of the IAF
Canberra's of the IAF

Last Word

The Canberra is now phased out, but it forms a significant part of Indian Air Force history.A Canberra, is on display at the Air Force Museum at Delhi in the AF tech area. Another Indian Canberra is on display at the Shri Shivaji Preparatory Military School (SSPMS) in Pune. One more Canberra is preserved at Pune at the air base.and another is located inside Kheria Air Force Station, Agra. The IAF cannot forget the Canberra.


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh 

      5 months ago from Singapore

      Thank you, Larry. The Canberra survived for a longer period in India as there were no supersonics at that time in India's vicinity

    • profile image

      Larry Gomes 

      5 months ago

      The Canberra was indeed a verstile plane. It was used extensively by the Royal Air Force but in my view the plane had a very short operational lifespan is it was sub Sonic. The advent of the Supersonic Mig 21 ended the dream of the Canberra. Nice article as I have a personal liking for this British bomber

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh 

      4 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you lions. Yes, these bombers had a great life span and can never be forgotton

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      4 years ago from PNW

      The life of the modern bombers have been amazing. The Canberra; The B-52. Earlier, the B-24, B-25 and B-29s all served somewhere for upwards of 30 years. It's a tribute to the design, manufacture and maintenance personnel. Very interesting article. Voted up and shared.


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