In 1945 the term “cold war” was about to enter popular culture, thanks largely to George Orwell’s essay, You and the atomic bomb. As Orwell was writing, the British were designing a new jet aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF) –English Electric’s Canberra bomber. It had no defensive armament, relying on speed and high-altitude capabilities to evade interceptors or anti-aircraft fire. Plans for innovative navigation and blind bombing radar were shelved, giving way to an upgraded wartime navigation system and a position in the nose for a human bomb aimer.
The Cold War Bomber
Australia showed interest in late 1948, months before a prototype had flown. In February 1949, an agreement was reached to manufacture the bomber in Australia at the Government Aircraft Factories (GAF) in Victoria for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). It was to become the first export licence for the aircraft. From 1953 to 1958, 48 Canberra bombers were manufactured in Australia, and more than 400 were built in Maryland for the United States Air Force as the Martin B-57 Canberra.
During the 1950s the aircraft set no less than 25 records for speed, distance and altitude. Variants included bomber (conventional and nuclear), photographic and electronic reconnaissance platforms, target-markers, electronic counter-measure trainers, night intruder and ground attack aircraft. Canberras were used to great effect investigating Soviet and Warsaw Pact communications and air defence systems.
The speed and stability of the Canberra made it an ideal platform for collecting atmospheric data in extreme conditions. On 15 October 1953, RAF Canberra bomber WH738, equipped with sampling filters, flew directly through the cloud created by the first atomic bomb detonated on the Australian mainland during Operation Totem 1 at Emu Field in South Australia.
Canberra bomber A84-247, held by the Australian War Memorial, was the second last to be manufactured by the GAF. The aircraft served with 2 Squadron RAAF from December 1958 to August 1977, seeing operational service in Malaya and Vietnam. It flew its first operation in Vietnam on 14 July 1967 and completed more than 680 sorties during the war.
The RAAF Canberras were replaced by the US General Dynamic’s F-111 from 1973, and the last was retired from 2 Squadron in 1982. Globally, 17 nations used variants of the Canberra bomber; as late as 2017, NASA was still using modified Canberras as high altitude research aircraft.
History had an inglorious end for the first production Canberra built. On 15 October 1959, as an unmanned high-speed target drone, WD929 crashed in South Australia before it could be blown out of the skies during surface-to-air guided missile testing.
About the author
Craig Blanch is a Curator in the Military Heraldry & Technology section of the Australian War Memorial.