The Canberra had its origins in 1944 as thought turned to developing a replacement for the unarmed high speed, high altitude de Havilland Mosquito bomber. Several long-established high-profile British aircraft manufacturers submitted proposals. Among the companies short listed to proceed with development studies, however, was a surprise: new entrant English Electric—a huge and long-established industrial manufacturing concern which had not made aircraft until the desperate need for bombers during the early years of World War II saw it set up to build the Halifax under licence. The new English Electric design team was headed by former Westland chief designer, W E Petter.
In May 1945 a contract was signed, but with the post-war military wind-down, the prototype did not fly until May 1949. It was a deceptively simple design, looking rather like a scaled-up Gloster Meteor with a shoulder wing. The fuselage was circular in cross section, tapered at both ends and, cockpit aside, entirely without protrusions; the line of the large, low aspect ratio wings was broken only by the tubular engine nacelles.
Although jet powered and of all-metal construction, the Canberra design philosophy was very much in the Mosquito mould: provide room for a substantial bomb load, fit two of the most powerful engines available, and wrap it in the smallest, most aerodynamic package possible; rather than devote space and weight to defensive armament that could in any case never hope to be overcome purpose-designed fighter aircraft, simply make it fly fast enough and high enough to avoid air-to-air combat.
The Canberra was originally designed for a crew of two under a fighter-style canopy, but delays in the development of the intended automatic radar bombsight resulted in the addition of a bomb aimer's position in the nose. Wingspan and length were almost identical at just under 20 metres, maximum takeoff weight a little under 25 tonnes. Power was provided by a pair of 30 kN axial flow Rolls-Royce Avon turbojets.
The prototype proved vice free, and with a minimum of modifications, the Canberra B2 entered squadron service with RAF 101 Sqn. in May 1951—just too late to see action in the Korean War. With a maximum speed of 470 kt (871 km/h), a standard service ceiling of 48,000 ft, and the ability to carry a 3.6 tonne payload, the Canberra was an instant success. It was built in no less than 27 different versions, equipped 35 RAF squadrons, and was exported to Argentina Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Ethiopia, France, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Rhodesia, South Africa, Sweden, Venezuela, and West Germany.
In the United States where the USAF needed to replace the B-26 Marauder, 406 Canberras were manufactured under licence as the Martin B-57 in several versions, initially almost exactly the same as the English Electric pattern aircraft, later with a series of substantial modifications. In Australia, the Government Aircraft Factory (GAF) built 48 for the RAAF, broadly similar to the British B.2 but with a modified leading edge and increased fuel capacity. In the United Kingdom, the demand for Canberras exceeded English Electric's ability to supply, and Handley Page also manufactured them under licence. Total worldwide Canberra production was 1352.
Canberras remained in front-line service with major air forces throughout the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and continued to serve as bombers and reconnaissance aircraft with minor air forces through the '80s and '90s. In the UK and the USA, a handful are retained for support roles such as photographic mapping, aerodynamic research, electronic countermeasures, and electronic intelligence gathering until the present time. The PR9 variant saw service in 2003 operations against the Iraqi regime.
The Canberra played a part in many conflicts, being employed as a bomber by Britain during the Suez Crisis, by both Britain and New Zealand in Malaya, the United States and Australia in Vietnam, by Ethiopia against Eritrea and then Somalia during the 1970s, and by both Rhodesia and South Africa against non-white African nations. In the Falklands War and in the India-Pakistan wars of the 1960s and '70s, Canberras fought on both sides!
But perhaps the best remembered role the Canberra played was in the Cold War, where modified very high-altitude Canberras overflew the Soviet Union and China many times before the advent of the purpose-designed Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. In 1955 the USAF ordered 20 RB-57Ds from Martin, with modified Pratt & Whitney J57 engines and an extended 33 metre wingspan. These, and a later version with longer 37 metre wings, were used for both photographic and electronic reconnaissance. After President Eisenhower's 1960 ban on overflying the USSR, they continued to monitor Eastern Block nations, often flying just outside territorial limits at about 60,000 ft to look deep into the forbidden territory, until one was shot down over southern Europe in 1965.
The Canberra could fly at a higher altitude than any other bomber right through the 1950s and set a world altitude record of 70,000 ft in 1957. (The Lockheed U-2 could certainly have flown higher, but was secret at that time.)
About 10 airworthy Canberras are in private hands today, and are a popular feature at flying displays. The one illustrated here was photographed at Avalon (near Melbourne) in early 2003, shortly before giving an extraordinary demonstration of the manoeuvrability of the type. This aircraft, owned by the Temora Aviation Museum, was built in the United Kingdom by Handley Page and delivered to the RAF as a B.2 in 1955. It served with four operational squadrons before being converted for target towing duty, and was retired in 1991, spending most of the next ten years in storage. It was overhauled in 2001 and flown to Australia, where it was repainted in its current scheme to represent one of the Canberras 2 Sqn. RAAF used to fly 11,963 combat sorties in Vietnam.