THE CANBERRAS AT WAR
The aircraft was a common sight over the city of the Taj Mahal. A round and wide fuselage, a set of straight tapered wings, the dihedral tail plane and elevators, all contributing towards the look of a WW-II twin-engined intruder bomber. But this is no piston-engined aircraft, it had two jet engines and was designed to succeed the famous Mosquito bomber of the Second World War. It was still in service nearly four decades after its induction and it was the only modern jet design of UK origin to be license produced in America till the advent of the Harrier. It was no doubt, the English Electric Canberra. The first ever postwar purpose-built jet bomber.
First flown in 1949, it went into service two years later with the RAF. In 1957 the IAF, looking for a replacement for the B-24 Liberators as the main component of the bomber strike element, chose the Canberra. The IAF’s first order for 65 B(I) Mk.58 bomber-interdictor, 7 TMk.54 and 8 PR Mk.57 was placed in 1957.
Later another six B(I) 58, two T.54 and two PR 57s were acquired to take the total acquisitions to 90. The first unit to equip with this type being No.5 Tuskers Sqn at Agra. The TMk.54s equipped the Jet Bomber Conversion Squadron (JBCU). By June 1957, No.106 S.P.R. Sqn. was raised on the PR Mk.57s. By September 1958, Nos. 16 and 35 Sqns re-equipped with the Canberra. Taking into a total of five units that flew this aircraft.
Powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon engines, the Canberra presented a dramatic picture during engine startup, spewing jet black smoke from its intakes as a result of a cartridge starter and misleading many a novice crewman into believing the aircraft is on fire. It streaked across the sky at 580 mph at an altitude of 10 km and was only marginally slower than the F-86 Sabre.
Flying at a maximum altitude of 48,000 feet, carrying 3.5 tons of ordnance in its bomb bay, it satisfied the cardinal rule of the bombers in WW-2, “Get in high, with speed and get out fast”. The Canberra was extremely agile for its size and it would even give a Starfighter, its run for its money at altitudes less than 5000 feet.
The Canberra carried a crew of two sometimes three, consisting of Pilot and Navigator/Bomber-Aimer. It could carry a bomb load of 8000 lbs. which gave it the capability to carry in one sortie what would take 4 Mysteres to deliver. It’s good performance led to the development of an intruder version with rockets and a four gun external pack. It could step in to do the ground attack fighters role, provided air superiority had been achieved.
At the time of training at the Air Force Academy, all cadets who failed to qualify in the flying grade were given the option of going in for ‘Advanced Navigation for Low Level Flying Techniques’ a short name for navigation in the Canberras.
Both the pilots as well as the designated navigators would be sent to the JBCU for training. It can be said that just as every pilot dreams of entering the fighter stream, every navigator dreams to be a Canberra navigator, for this is the only avenue for them to train to fight against an enemy.
Equipped to fly on interdiction missions by night, the only aircraft in the IAF to do so, it could strike at Vital Points/Vital Areas of the enemy, its induction meant an increase in the long range strike potential of the IAF. The actual doctrine behind the design of this aircraft being it will fly higher and faster than enemy interceptors, thus providing it some immunity. This scenario was fulfilled till 1950.
It was much faster than the British frontline fighters consisting of the Vampires and the Meteors. But the effect of radar and interceptors like the Sabres and the Starfighters, equipped with new air-to-air missiles was never realized. It did dawn late that now the bomber will have to fly lower and lower and in the night to evade such interceptors.
The Canberra did carry an Orange Putter tail warning radar, which notified the pilot, whenever any interceptor was vectoring it from behind, thus enabling him to evade the fighter. It was with this kind of a radar, did one of the Canberras reported being chased by a Mach 2 fighter, before the invasion of Goa. This invariably was lot of help in the war, warning many a Canberra of approaching interceptors.
The aircraft’s basic flaw was in that it was outdated by the time it saw service with the IAF. The Canberra would have fulfilled its role in early 1950’s, but by 1965, there were lot of weaknesses in the aircraft. Air Commodore Peter Wilson, VrC, who commanded No.16 Squadron during the war, has this to say about the Canberra as a bomber,
“The Canberra was a strong, docile, easy to fly aircraft, but it was obsolete when the IAF bought them. It had been made obsolete by the transonic fighter aircraft, which had been introduced at the same time. She could not survive as a level bomber in the day and use at night against relatively small targets such as airfield structures required radar bombing and marking equipment, which the IAF did not have.
It was effective against specialist targets like Badin during the day, but night use like the PAF B-57’s were not possible because of the very poor light transmission of the windshield. Night shallow glide attacks on unlit ranges were an exercise in bravery, which brings me to the subject of IAF Canberra B58 navigators. They were unique in the world as aircrew, who flew on operations without a chance of getting out of the aircraft in an emergency. It was reprehensible, that the British aerospace industry should sell such aircraft and that the Indian Govt., should buy them.”
Peter Wilson was referring to the chances the Canberra navigator had in times of an emergency. In the Canberra, only the pilot is equipped with an ejection seat. The navigator sits at a small table buried deep in the fuselage with his head at the knee level of the pilot. Whereas the pilot could just punch out in his ejection seat in times of an emergency, it was a laborious routine for the Navigator to go through the process of bailing out.
The navigator has to unbuckle himself from his position, go to the hatch, pull the lever that opens the crew entry hatch and a windbreak popped out of the hatch to protect the crew from the windblast. The navigator having to jump and release his parachute manually. All this with the assumption there was sufficient altitude to jump out and deploy one’s chute.
If it happened when the Canberra was in the take off mode, or landing finals, where there is not enough altitude, it was certain death for the navigator. Not surprisingly, there were many incidents when pilots refused to eject in an emergency and tried to land their stricken aircraft rather than abandon their navigators. And many paid for it with their lives.
Gp. Capt J.C. Sengupta would vouch for the fact that the Canberra has no business loitering around at high altitude in daytime over hostile territory. He was a young Squadron Leader in 1959. On 10 April 1959 the PR Canberra of No. 106 Sqn, which he was flying on a weather reconnaissance mission strayed into Pakistani Territory.
Sqn. Ldr. J.C. Sen Gupta and his navigator, Flt. Lt. S.N. Rampal did not have an inkling of their mistake till they felt warning shots of the bullets fired by a PAF F-86 Sabre. The Canberra was intercepted by the Sabres and attacked. Soon the aircraft was on fire and Sen Gupta ordered Rampal to take to the parachute. The navigator pulled the pop up shield at the escape hatch and jumped out.
Sen Gupta ejected moments later, fracturing both his legs as they hit the cockpit dashboard during the ejection. Both coming down near the Pakistani town of Rewal. Sen Gupta landed in a gorge and laid down unable to get up, while Rampal descended on a village. The Pakistanis interned both the crew.
Four days later both were repatriated. It was not a first incident in which an Indian aircraft strayed into Pakistan. But it was the first incident in which one side used force to shoot down the others aircraft. This incident provided a lot of embarrassment to the IAF. If the flight has been in night time, one can be sure that a Starfighter would have replaced the Sabres.
After this incident, the Canberra flew in the Congo and the Goa liberation actions. It was used with a heavy hand in the Goan conflict when waves of them were used to disable the Dabolim airfield in view of the air opposition expected from there. In the end such fears were unfounded and the Canberras had a dry run.
The Canberras faced better response in the Congo war. Several were damaged lightly by Katangan ground fire. But they managed to destroy all the air opposition on ground. And in one occasion one of the navigators sustained a severe wound by the ground fire. Nevertheless, it earned the Canberra the first gallantry awards for the IAF in over a decade when the CO of the Tuskers, Wg. Cdr. A.I.K. Suares and his navigator Flt. Lt. M.M. Takle who was wounded were both honored with the Vir Chakra.
While the three bomber squadrons were training for the battle to come, the Jet Bomber Conversion Unit, or the JBCU for short was fulfilling a dual role. One that of training the pilots and navigators designate for their induction into regular bomber squadrons at the same time contribute its mite with the nine on strength T.Mk 66 bomber trainers if required. The JBCU was always commanded by a Squadron Leader
The Canberras stood down in the Chinese conflict and did not fly any combat sorties, though some recce sorties were flown. At the outbreak of the ’65 war, three units were based with WAC. No 5 Tuskers under Wg Cdr. P.P. Singh, and No 35. the Jet Bomber Conversion Unit under Sqn. Ldr. Padmanabha Gautam. No. 16 Sqn under Wg. Cdr. Peter Wilson was based at Kalaikonda with the Eastern Air Command. No.106 SPR Sqn was at Bareilly under Wg. Cdr. J.M. Nath, MVC.
NO.5 TUSKERS SQUADRON
No.5 Tuskers Squadron had a several firsts to its credit in the Indian Air Force. It was the first IAF unit to fly the Canberra, the jet bomber. It was the first bomber to see action, at Congo and already had two Vir Chakras on its roll. When war came in September 1965, the squadron was based at Agra, under the command of Wg. Cdr. Prem Pal Singh, a doughty Sikh, who was earlier flying Dakotas but converted to flying bombers and went on to command the squadron.
Pakistan reported that the IAF first used Canberras on September 1st in Chamb, but the reality was the Canberras took part only on September 6th after the PAF raids on the Indian airfields. In riposte for the attacks on Pathankot, Adampur and Halwara, No.5 Tuskers attacked the Sargodha Complex, and other satellite fields like Bhagtanwala, Murid and Chota Sargodha, early into the hours on September 7th.
Nothing significant was achieved, but it did help in a way that two Sabres were scrambled from Mauripur to intercept the bombers and one of the crashed on take off killing the Pakistani pilot. No.5 Squadron did the difficult job of ground support as well, along with the Mysteres, Gnats and Hunters. It was not a easy job but they performed it well especially in the Khem Karan and the Chamb sectors.
No.5 Squadron’s crowning achievement being the raid on Peshawar on the night of Sept 13/14th. As recounted earlier, six aircraft flew all the way to the Afghan border to bomb Peshawar airfield and successfully attacked the target. All the six aircraft returned without loss, in spite of interception by Starfighters. This raid found itself as a legend in the Canberra’s war record with the IAF.
In the various missions that No.5 Squadron planned along with other squadrons, it was invariably the pathfinders that indicated the targets. Theirs was an unenviable job. Heading much in front of other bombers, these Canberras were specialists. They mark out the way to the target and take upon the responsibility of marking out the target with either flares or the Target Indicator Bombs (TIB).
Success or failure depended much on the accuracy of the pathfinder, with Wg. Cdr. P.P. Singh being in the forefront of many of these missions. Not surprisingly, P.P. Singh received the Maha Vir Chakra for his part in leading No.5 Squadron.
Supporting No.5’s Canberras were the Canberra trainers of the Jet Bomber Conversion Unit, also based at Agra. Sqn. Ldr. Padmanabha Gautam was the Commanding Officer of the unit and regularly flew their aircraft along with the Canberras of No.5 and No.35. Gautam received the Maha Vir Chakra at the end of the conflict.
The judicious use of the Canberras helped keep the attrition rate at a minimum. Several times Canberras reported being chased by night fighters, Without effect. No.5 Sqn’s only combat loss, and by far the only Canberra lost in the air during the war was on from the raid on Sargodha on September 21st.
The Starfighters on CAP received sufficient notice to chase and intercept the Canberra, flown by Flt. Lt. M.M. Lowe. The Canberra was bought down with a Sidewinder near Fazilka. Lowe had ejected from the doomed aircraft, but his navigator Flt. Lt. K.K. Kapur did not have time to bail out, died in the crash. Lowe was captured by the Pakistani Army regulars and handed over to the PAF.
NO.16 RATTLERS SQUADRON
The second Canberra squadron to see much action in the war was No.16 Rattlers. They were initially based at Kalaikonda, under the command of Wg. Cdr. Peter Maynard Wilson. At the outbreak of the war, No.16 was based at Kalaikonda. Half of its aircraft were ordered to move out to Gorakhpur, so that they would be out of range of any attackers from East Pakistan.
Initially there was never an intention of involving the ground, air or naval forces in the Eastern Sector. But on late evening of September 6th, No.16 received orders to attack targets in East Pakistan. The decision to attack targets in East Pakistan was intimated by the AOC-in-C, Eastern Air Command, Air Vice Marshal Shivdev Singh to the Station Commander at Kalaikonda, Gp. Capt. M.B. Naik.
The target given to be attacked first was surprisingly Chittagong airfield, as air intelligence in a mistaken assumption reported the Sabres of No.14 PAF Squadron to be deployed there. A two aircraft strike was planned in the early hours of September 7th. The Canberras were armed with two 1000 lb. bombs and ammunition for the forward firing 20mm cannon.
Wg. Cdr. Wilson flew the lead aircraft with Sqn. Ldr. Shankaran as his navigator. The second aircraft was flown by Sqn. Ldr. Karve with Fg. Off. Rajwar as his navigator. Both aircraft left Kalaikonda in the early hours of September 7th. In the darkness, the aircraft flew over the Bay of Bengal to approach Chittagong from the sea, the monsoon rains made their job even more taxing.
Opposition in terms of interception by Sabres was a possibility, so the plan was to attack the airfield individually with a between time lag of ten minutes before the TOT of each aircraft. Chittagong airfield was identified properly and Wilson made his run in to attack the intersection of the runways. Both the bombs were dropped on the intersection after making three runs on the airfield. And much to the surprise of the crew, the bombs failed to explode.
The second Canberra being flown by Karve was called in, and Karve did a good job in placing the bombs on the runways, and this time the bombs exploded. Both Canberras returned safely back to base. But not before Hunters of No.14 Sqn intercepted and nearly shot them down!
Apparently No.14 Sqn was not informed off the raids and they did not have the information of incoming aircraft. The Hunters in fact started the attack run on the Canberras, before realising their identity and breaking off. The strike was disappointing from the start and Wg. Cdr. Wilson noted down the description of the raid with one word. “FIASCO”!
It is interesting to note that on receipt of news of Chittagong and other targets in East Pakistan being attacked, several Sabres were scrambled to intercept the attackers. One of the Sabres crashed, reportedly chasing a contact, killing its pilot Flt. Lt. Aziz. The problem with the bombs was some of them were of WW-2 vintage and were very unreliable. This problem was repeated even in the 1971 War, six years later, when Hunters had to make a second pass on the targets firing the cannons to ignite the bombs.
Both Wilson and Karve with their navigators were being de-briefed on this mission when the Pakistani Sabres put in their retaliatory attack at about 0631 hours. Airfield defences were caught napping and two Canberras of No.16 were destroyed on the ground. Along with another four Vampires. The Pakistani Sabres slipped back unscathed.
A second attack was intercepted by the Hunters of No.14 Sqn. at around 1000 hrs and two Sabres were downed, but still further damage was inflicted on the Canberras, with the destruction of another two more aircraft. These four aircraft were the only Canberras lost on the ground by the IAF due to enemy action.
The PAF losses did not end at suffering in the hands of the Hunters. Apparently the strike came from the direction of Dhudkundi, and after interception from the Hunters, they had to exit at high speed from Kalaikonda. Radio intercepts reported ejections due to low fuel. This does nothing to detract from the point that the PAF raids were handled well from the beginning. Even Wilson could not help in admiring that the PAF squadron appeared very well led and motivated.
It was not until ten days later that No.16 Sqn again got involved in flying offensive sorties. The second mission flown by No.16 was of five aircraft, mounted from Bareilly against Sargodha on the night of Sept. 16th. Wg. Cdr. Wilson flew the lead aircraft again with Sqn. Ldr. Shankaran, as his navigator.
Shankaran not only had to navigate but also had to mark the target with 2 x 1000 lb. Target Indication Bombs dropped at low level in a shallow glide attack and this was supposed to be followed up by the other four aircraft, who would drop 6 x 1000 lb. bombs each on the TIBs.
Arriving over the target at an altitude of about 500 feet above ground level, Wilson could not observe the runways or the airfield structures till anti-aircraft fire opened up. The TIBs were dropped from that level, and this was followed up by the HE bombs of the other four aircraft in the formation who were flying at a higher altitude of 7000 feet.
All the five aircraft climbed back for the return trip to base after dropping their bomb loads and in the return trip, Wilson’s Canberra was chased by a Starfighter. Wilson on being warned by the Orange Putter took rapid evasive action by putting the aircraft into a spiraling dive down to the level of about a 1000 feet above ground level. The Starfighter, which was doing the interception entirely on radar, was unable to follow through and lost its prey. The only causalities in the raid were the pilot’s ego.
No.16 Sqn’s third mission was a one-aircraft recce mission to Chak Jumhra later in the war but it was the last and final raid that made its mark on the Pakistanis. Badin was home to a Signal & Radar Unit of the PAF, which provided coverage to PAF air operations in the south-western sector. This particular site has been proving a veritable pain in the neck just as Amritsar Radar was to the Pakistanis. And No.16 Sqn was detailed to attack Badin and destroy the SU. Wg. Cdr. Wilson recounts the raid.
“The fourth and last mission flown by the squadron was against Badin on the 21st September and mounted from Agra. There were no staging airfields though the aircraft landed for fuel on the way back. The mission consisted of 6 aircraft and was mounted at 10:00 hrs. on target with no escorts of any description.
The aim of the mission was to destroy the eastern dome of the SU, which was wrongly thought to be the azimuth radar, and to damage supporting installations. Since level bombing was not accurate enough to destroy the dome, it was decided to use 68mm rockets, which had sufficient velocity to approach the accuracy of gun fire.
The plan of attach required one aircraft to climb to 10,000 feet – 80 miles short of target to act as a decoy in case of fighter pressure over target. This aircraft returned to base after a brief exposure.
Four aircraft at 2 minute intervals approached at very low level and then climbed to 7000 ft. AGL for bomb runs. The first two aircraft carried 2 x 4000 lb bombs (World War II vintage) and the next two aircraft 6 x 1000 lb bombs each. The ballistics of the 4000 lbs. bombs were unknown and the first 2 bombs fell short and called the correction. The second aircraft was more accurate and the other 2 aircraft had no problem.
The rocket firing aircraft carrying 2 x 19/68 mm pods approached from the south at 30 feet AGL and fired upwards at the dome. Only one pod fired and the rockets were seen to splash on the dome. The aircraft exited the area eastward.
There was considerable smoke on target and flak bursts were numerous. Since not a single 20mm round was fired, Badin village could only have been hit by fire from the Pakistani A-A guns.”
The first four aircraft dropped their bombs from an altitude of 7000 feet and the last aircraft which was flown by Wilson approached the target, and fired its rockets from as low as 30 feet. Here also, snags accompanied the Canberras. One of the rocket pods refused to fire and only the rockets from one pod hit the target.
This combination of high and low altitude attack by the bomb- and rocket-carrying aircraft got through the defences, and Badin Singal & Radar unit bore the brunt of 28,000 lbs. of bombs and 19 x 68mm rockets in a matter of minutes. This raid was a tactical surprise for the Pakistanis. And it hit them when they were not expecting it.
It has been confirmed that the Badin unit went out of commission afterwards, mainly because their radar tower too had been knocked down. Luck also favoured the Canberras. A strike against Gadra road by Pakistani Sabres took place about the same time and this was on the way back to Mauripur when the Canberras attacked Badin. However the Sabres were already low on fuel and could not be diverted to intercept the Canberras.
The success of the Badin raid can be assessed from the fact, lot of Pakistani accounts of the raid admit that they were taken by surprise at the raid. Unlike the numerous raids on Amritsar the PAF undertook, Badin never received any attention, lulling them into a false sense of security. It was alleged that the Canberras strafed Badin village.
However it needs to be stressed none of the Canberras actually strafed Badin village. The only aircraft carrying the cannon packs that day were the rocket-armed Canberras. And of the two, one of the Canberras was the decoy aircraft that did not take part in the actual raid. While the other was flown by Wilson. And he did not fire the cannons at all. The strafing Badin received would be more due to the splinters from the Pakistani A-A Fire rather than Indian action.
No.16 Squadron flew a total of four missions and 14 sorties and in this brief number of sorties dropped over 50,000 lbs. of HE (High-Explosive) bombs besides employing rockets and cannon shells. For the successful daylight attack on Badin, Wg, Cdr. Wilson was awarded the Vir Chakra after the war.
No.35 Squadron was another squadron which flew missions in the 1965 War, but as in No.16, it did not take part in full-scale operations. No.35 was under the command of Wg. Cdr. Bakshish Singh and it was on alert since late August. The squadron managed to fly for only four days, from Sept. 7th to Sept 10th, after which circumstances forced the squadron to be withdrawn from the front line.
The last time No.35 Squadron flew in action has been in the Goa Operations when eight of the Canberras successfully disabled the runway at Dabolim airport. Then no Portuguese air opposition or anti-aircraft fire was present. This time, the targets like Mianwali, Sargodha and Chaklala are a different picture altogether.
One of the pilots who flew with No.35 was Sqn. Ldr. Goraya. He was at the outbreak of the war serving with a NCC Unit in Bombay. He was pulled from that unit (he was ex-Liberators and Canberra’s 6 Squadron) and given one sortie before being sent off to fight in the war with No.35 Squadron.
He flew in one of the first missions that attacked Sargodha. And on the way, the tail warning radar of his aircraft lit up just across the border. He dropped his aircraft to ground level from 20000 feet almost over stressing on recovery. Goraya then decided that hedge hopping was safer and continued his mission at a low level. He pulled up as he approached the airfield.
The interdictor squadron (No.5) commanded by P.P. Singh was to mark the airfield. He saw some bombs go off and A-A commence firing. He dropped his payload from an altitude of about 4000 feet AGL into the general area. Goraya remembers only one thing most prominently about his debut mission. He was scared most of the way!
Disaster took place on September 10th, when a mission about to take off from Halwara, encountered trouble. The squadron was to fly a mission to Kasur. Four aircraft were scheduled to take off escorted by Hunters of the No.7 Squadron and then proceed to attack targets at Kasur. Once finished, the first four will return to be replaced by another four that will rendezvous over Ferozepur escorted by Gnats.
The first pair of bombers soon took off, however, the second aircraft in the formation, had a bird hit which broke the plexiglas shield at the bomb-aimers station, blinding the navigator in the process. The navigator tried to jettison the bombs and in a state of panic they were released with bomb bay doors still closed!
Now the pilot was in a hurry to land, he made an approach to a wrong runway and in a high-speed landing, all the tyres burst and the aircraft broke through the runway crash barrier and caught fire. Luckily both the crew members jumped out of the aircraft before the fire spread through the aircraft. Another Canberra, which was on the take-off run while the stricken Canberra was coming into land, also suffered some damage.
This incident now blocked the runway at Halwara and prevented the other aircraft from taking off. And only the second section of bombers completed the mission with just the Gnats as escort. This incident had an adverse effect on the top command which viewed the spate of mistakes as an error, the Commanding Officer of No.35 was relieved and the squadron withdrawn from the frontline.
The Canberras in the conflict flew nearly 300 counter-air sorties in the 22 day period. Almost all the major airfields were bombed and over 600,000 lbs. of bombs dropped on these airfields. With the exception of No.5’s sole loss, all the other missions came back unscathed.
The lone Canberra loss is contrasted with the four B-57s losses admitted by the Pakistani Air Force. All the B-57s were downed by A-A Fire. And the fact none of the Indian Canberras were lost to Pakistani A-A fire points to the better tactics employed by the bombers. No.5 Squadron flew nearly 150 sorties against the Pakistani targets.
When the hostilities came to a close Canberras took a large chunk of the honours. Bagging 3 out of the 5 MVCs and 8 out of the 42 VrCs. Infact six navigators were awarded the coveted VrCs. The raids on Peshawar, Badin and Kohat has now become part of the Canberra legend.
The Canberra was to follow this contribution by its sterling role in the 1971 War, where airfields like Sargodha, Mauripur, Karachi oil tanks, etc. made the Canberra’s reputation even stronger. However the advances in radar as well as opposing enemy aircraft led to higher losses in the air. The Canberra went on to complete over four decades of service with the IAF.