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A84 GAF Canberra

GAF Canberra Although the piston engined Avro Lincoln heavy bomber had only entered RAAF service in 1946, by late 1948 it was already obvious this aircraft would become quickly obsolete. Investigations into a more modern replacement were therefore begun, resulting in the order of 48 English Electric Canberra jet bombers in 1950.

Like the Lincoln, the Canberra would be built under licence in Australia by the Government Aircraft Factory (GAF). Additionally, its Rolls-Royce Avon engines would be built in Australia by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC).

The Australian Canberra was based on the British B.2 version but with provision for increased internal fuel capacity in a redesigned wing leading edge (incorporated from the 21st aircraft and retrofitted to earlier examples), a revised radio suite and a reduction in crew from three to two - pilot and navigator/bomb aimer. The first 27 aircraft were powered by two 6,500 lb thrust Avon Mk. Is and the remainder by 7,500 lb thrust Avon Mk. 109s.

The Australian built aircraft was designated simply the Canberra Mk.20 (not B.20 as is usually reported) and the serial numbers A84-201 to 248 were applied.

Before Australian production of the Canberra got underway, two British built Canberra B.2s were ordered so as to provide training and familiarisation but not for use as pattern aircraft. The first of these (A84-307) arrived in Australia in August 1951 and the second (A84-125) in May 1952. After testing, both aircraft went to 82 Wing at Amberley Qld.

A84-125 was actually the third Canberra to arrive in Australia, having been preceded by RAF B.2 WD942 in March 1952. Although allocated the RAAF serial A84-2, it was never formally taken on RAAF charge and was returned to Britain five years later. A84-3 was allocated to another RAF B.2 in Australia but not used, while the same applied to A84-1, which remained in the UK and on RAF strength.

Two other British built Canberras did join the RAAF, T.4 trainers A84-501 and 502 which were delivered in 1956.

The first GAF built Canberra Mk.20 (A84-201) flew in May 1953 and entered service with 82 Wing in December of the same year. No 2 Squadron was the first to receive the Canberra followed by No 6 Squadron in 1955 and No 1 Squadron in 1958. The 48th and last Canberra Mk.20 was delivered in September 1958. Five aircraft (A84-201 and 203-206) were converted to dual control Mk.21 trainers in 1958-59.

RAAF Canberras achieved some national fame in 1953 when A84-201 and 202 participated in that year's England to New Zealand Air Race, the latter finishing a close second outright to a RAF Canberra. Long distance flights were a feature of early RAAF Canberra operations, these included goodwill trips to the USA.

Canberras from No 2 Squadron became the first Australian jet bombers to perform a combat sortie in September 1958 when an attack against terrorists in Northern Malaya was carried out, the first of many such excursions.

Nine years later, the Squadron was sent to Vietnam as part of Australia's large commitment to that conflict, remaining there until June 1971 and in the meantime achieving an enviable record flying what was by then regarded by many as an obsolete bomber.

Operating as part of the USAF's 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, 2 Squadron's Canberras flew just six per cent of the Wing's sorties but inflicted 16 per cent of the damage. Overall, 11,963 sorties were flown in Vietnam, 76,389 bombs dropped and two aircraft lost.

By the time it returned to Australia, 2 Squadron was the last RAAF operational Canberra Unit, 1 and 6 Squadrons having temporarily converted to F-4E Phantoms while they waited for the much delayed F-111s to arrive. 2 Squadron continued flying Canberras well past their planned retirement date until 1982, in the meantime completing many cartographic surveys in Australia and overseas (notably Indonesia), the Canberras equipped with survey cameras. The Canberra's distinguished RAAF career officially ended on 30 June 1982 when 2 Squadron flew four aircraft over Brisbane and surrounding areas in a farewell flypast.

(English Electric/GAF Canberra Mk 20/Mk 21)

DESCRIPTION: Tactical bomber

POWER PLANT: Two 6,500 lb thrust Rolls-Royce/CAC Avon Mk I or 7,500 lb thrust Avon Mk 109 turbojets.

DIMENSIONS: Wing span 64 ft 0 in. (19.50 in); length 65 ft 6 in. (19.96m); height 15 ft 7 in (4.75m)

WEIGHTS: Empty 25,400 lb (11,521 kb); max. loaded 50,000 lb (22,680 kg)

PERFORMANCE: (Avon 109s) Max speed 504 kt (933 km/h); normal cruise 380 kt (703 km/h); initial climb 4,200 ft (1,280 m)/min; operational ceiling 45,000 ft (13,716 m); radius of action (4,500 lb bomb load) 984 nm (2,060 km); max ferry range 3,154nm (5,841 km)

ARMAMENT: Max bomb load 8,000 lb (3,629 kg); typical Vietnam load six 750 lb (340 kg) bombs, four in bomb bay and one under each wingtip.


Canberra A84-235, a Mk.20 delivered to the RAAF in October 1956. It ended its operational life as an instructional airframe at Wagga, NSW RAAF base. It remains there as a gate guard, as seen here in May 2001, in Vietnam-era paint scheme and bearing the red lightning fin flash of 2 Sqn. RAAF.
Canberra A84-235, Wagga NSW

2 Squadron RAAF in Vietnam

This Information was supplied by Brendan Lynch,

 Secretary of the RAAF Vietnam Veterans Association



As Australia increased its forces in Vietnam, the decision to deploy an RAAF bomber squadron to that country was made public on December 23 1966. From the RAAF's perspective the deployment could not have been more opportune. The Australian bomber squadrons were equipped with the British designed, Australian built Canberra twinjet bombers, elderly, but as events proved, extremely effective.

For Vietnam operations, the RAAF's Canberra's usually carried six 750 lb. (340 kg) M117 general purpose bombs - four in the bomb bay and one under each wing tip.
New state of the art F-111s were on order and the timing of the announcement was such that Australia's future F-111 crews could obtain valuable combat experience in Vietnam before taking delivery of their new aircraft in the United States. In the event, this plan was frustrated by successive delays in the F-111 programme, which went on for several years. Despite this, the Vietnam deployment went ahead and 2 Squadron was selected as the unit, which would go. A detachment from 5 Airfield Construction Squadron (ACS), along with a small 2 Squadron advance party arrived at Phang Rang Air Base, 250 km north-east of Saigon in February 1967 to prepare for the Squadrons arrival. The Australians were welcomed to Vietnam (on radio) by "Hanoi Hanna" the communist version of Tokyo Rose.

"The 5ACS detachment arrived in Saigon from Singapore where we were ushered straight onto a Caribou to Vung Tau", recalled Sgt. Ron Campbell. "At Vung Tau we were given a quick meal, issued with weapons, loaded back onto the Caribou and flown to Phang Rang. You can imagine the look on the faces of the Americans who were waiting with movie cameras rolling to welcome the Aussies in their slouch hats, only to be greeted by a group of people, dressed in new suits (purchased in Singapore) with rifles over their shoulders!"

The airfield construction men, in cooperation with American troops, worked long hours to construct 2 Squadron's living quarters, messes, dining hall, headquarters and maintenance hangar. By March 1967 the USAF had spent nearly a year building a giant air base at Phang Rang. The strip was complete; the aircraft revetments in place and sorties were being flown daily. The rest was industrial organized mayhem with roads, buildings, water and powerlines being constructed all over the huge area.

Canberra's arrive in Vietnam

Led by Wng. Cdr. Rolf Aronson, 2 Squadron's 8 Canberra's took off from Butterworth, Malaysia on April 16 1967 and after a two hour flight touched down at Phang Rang Air base, South Vietnam. And placed under control of the USAF 7th Air force and became part of the 35 Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW). On April 23, all Canberra's began tactical operations. Wng Cdr. Vin Hill, DFC, AFC (a combat experienced pilot of the Korean War) and his navigator were the first to take off.

Low Level

After the 27th, the Squadron operated almost exclusively by night. 8 missions per night, 7 days a week.
After 3 months Wng Cdr. Aronson pressed his American commanders into allowing 2 Squadron to undertake some daylight visual bombing. But the American Commander was dubious.
Experimental low level daylight missions proved so successful that 2 Squadron was allowed to fly two and later four of it's missions by day. The Americans still had reservations - after all the Australians would be the only ones in Vietnam using the level bombing technique from low level - a form of attack disliked by the Americans.

A good Record

In October General William C. Westmoreland carried out an inspection of the base. About 2 Squadron he stated " The RAAF has an elite Canberra squadron, which has impressed me very much. Its discipline is superb and there is obviously a very high esprit de corps within the squadron". On November Wng Cdr. Aronson returned to Australia on the expiration of his tour of duty. Wng Cdr. David Evans replaced him.

The Australians were deployed to bomb around the besieged Americans at Khe Sanh. One pilot even recorded an 'accidental" 260 km incursion into North Vietnam. Flg Off McGregor recalled the start to another mission in 1 Corps right on the DMZ. On rendezvous with a madly weaving FAC he was given the following ground fire report. "Heavy small arms and LMG fire to 1000 ft, HMG and Quad 20mm cannon fire to 2500ft, AAA and possible SAM activity at higher altitude". Busy scene. Flg Off McGregor and Flg Off Jim Aiken were bombing from only 800 ft, the crew achieved excellent results, but received bomb shrapnel in the tail-plane of their aircraft. On return a visiting Air Vice Marshall and their CO were waiting for them, not overly impressed with the damage. But on being given the mission details all was "forgiven'

In 1969, Colonel Gailer, the 35th TFW's commander found to his shock that while only flying about five percent of the 35th TFW's missions, the Australian squadron was obtaining no less than 16% of the Wings assessed bomb damage.
Rocket and mortar attacks against Phang Rang continued. One attack began just as everyone lined up at the mess for lunch. Sgt. Carl Noonan was late and had just opened the mess door when a mortar round impacted out side. He was blown through the door, along the floor and into the servery counter. Quite nonchalantly he stood up and said to the startled cooks, "I'll have the usual, thanks…!"

Heavy Workload

On April 25, 2 Squadron's 40,000th bomb was dropped while on November 28, Plt. Off. J Kennedy and Plt. Off. A Curr dropped the 50,000th.Flt. Lt. G Cramer, a veteran Navigator with many years service in Canberra's, created a RAAF record by completing 3000 flying hours in Canberras. This was equivalent to 375 working days, each of 8 hours.
Cramer flew the 3000th hour on his 275th combat mission in South Vietnam. He returned to Australia after completing 285 missions and was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In October 1969 the very last Martin B-57 (the American built and modified version of the Canberra - which like other USAF aircraft utilised dive bombing as its form of attack) squadron departed for the US leaving 2 Squadron as the only Canberra type unit operating in South East Asia.
Recalling one mission Plt. Off. J Kennedy and Flt. Lt. N Duus commented; "On reaching the target area, a bunker system in V Corps. The crew found the cloud base was down to 1000 ft. We were forbidden to bomb below 1000 ft., but 2 Squadron had a reputation for not bring any bombs home. (Canberra's could land with a full load of bombs. The Americans would not do this) As a result we decided to bomb from 800ft. " We dropped the bomb and through the Perspex window I watched it fall. I saw it explode, then almost immediately the window disintegrated. We thought we'd been hit by ground fire." "By now we were quite angry with the VC and advised the FAC that we wanted to drop the rest of the bombs on the target. This was done and we headed for home".

"On the way back I inspected the damage in the bomb site area. I had not been wearing flying gloves and received small cuts on my hands. I then glanced up and around for the first time and saw a large piece of shrapnel (from our own bomb) which had penetrated through the nose cone and was now protruding through the upper skin of the aircraft."
"After landing at Phang Rang the realization that I had almost been killed hit home- hard. So in hindsight the moral of the story is 'if one is going to drop bombs, one must reach safety height'."

Tragedy struck 2 Squadron on November 3 1970 when Canberra A84-231 failed to return from on of the squadron's infrequent Combat Sky spot missions. The aircraft crewed by Flg. Off. M Herbert and Plt. Off. R Carver had bombed a target in poor weather conditions north of Da Nang when it disappeared off the Sky spot radar controller's screen. All 2 Squadron missions scheduled for the next day was cancelled as the remaining Canberra's joined USAF in a fruitless search for the aircraft and crew. No trace of the aviators was ever found and no adequate explanation is available, although many in the Squadron suspected a North Vietnamese SA-2 surface to air missile was responsible. A replacement crew and aircraft was sent from Australia, as was a new Commander Wng Cdr John Downing. In January 1971 a Canberra crewed by Flg. Off. Copley and Flt. Lt A Pinches supported ARVN troops and their Australian Advisor. They were in Heavy contact with the enemy. The crew destroyed the mortar position; it's crew and the ammo supply.

Weeks later the Australian Advisor called in to Phang Rang to personally thank the RAAF fliers for their assistance. And told them how he and his fellow advisors had purposely misled the FAC's so that the ordinance from the bombers fell much closer to their own positions than was allowed by standard operating procedures. This surprising information reinforced to the Australian crews the need for accurate bombing.

On February 9 1971 Wng. Cdr. Downing and Sqdn Ldr B Johnson in Canberra A84-234 were to provide immediate close support to allied troops in contact with the enemy. The troops were in ambush positions so their location could not be marked by the FAC's. The Canberra made 5 runs over the target in the face of heavy ground fire. Of the strike the American FAC later recorded:
Their aggressive and accurate deliveries were directly responsible for the saving of many lives. The first bomb they dropped obliterated five enemy hootches; successive bombs accounted for a secondary explosion, an enemy radio station, yards and yards of trenches, bunkers and with no doubt in my mind significant numbers of enemy soldiers killed.
" Their responses to messages passed from the ground praising their accuracy and advising them of the intense fire they were taking on each pass were so calm and professional I was thoroughly dismayed." On the Australians last run, the Canberra was hit by a massive hunk of shrapnel which tore through the nose section, narrowly missing the crew and partially severing the elevator cables before embedding itself in the IFF panel.

As all their bombs had been expended the Australians calmly wished those in the FAC's aircraft "a good day" and departed for Phang Rang where a safe landing was made. For their part in the action Downing and Johnson were awarded American Distinguished Flying Crosses. Strangely, the two Australian were not notified of the awards and neither received the medal or the citation to accompany it.

A Notable finale

Flg. Off. S Fenton and Plt. Off. Murphy in Canberra A84-234 were tasked to support a US Army Infantry company in heavy contact with a North Vietnamese force near the Demilitarised Zone. On arrival in the area the Canberra crew found that the soldiers of both sides were dangerously close to one another. The FAC directing the strike was gravely concerned that the friendly troops as well as the enemy would die in the bombing. If, however, the Canberra was not cleared to attack the friendly troops would quickly be overrun and wiped out. Reluctantly, the FAC authorised the attack to begin.

Due to the close proximity to the US troops, the North Vietnamese thought they would be immune from air attack but on realizing their error they directed a considerable volume of fire onto the approaching Canberra. As extreme accuracy was required, the cool Australian Pilot held the Canberra on a straight and level course through the enemy's gunfire and his equally calm and efficient navigator released one bomb, achieving excellent results according to the excited reports from the friendly ground troops. The North Vietnamese were not so happy with the success of the Canberra's bombing and directed even more fire at the aircraft.

Another five runs were made over the target with one bomb being released each time. The North Vietnamese force suffered severely and fled the battlefield in disorder leaving 80 bodies behind. 


June 4, 1971 was set as the Squadron's day of departure from Vietnam. On June 1 flying ceased to allow the men to complete packing and movement arrangements. All eight Canberra's departed Phang Rang on the 4th as planned and arrived in Darwin a few hours later. The ground staff followed later in transport aircraft. During it's operational service, 2 Squadron was credited with the destruction of 7000 BUILDINGS, 10,000 BUNKERS, 1000 SAMPANS, 36 BRIDGES AND AN UNKNOWN NUMBER OF ENEMY TROOPS. The Squadron as a whole was awarded a Vietnamese cross of Gallantry and a United States Air Forces Outstanding Unit Commendation for it's service in Vietnam - high honours indeed. There can be no doubt that 2 squadron was the most effective tactical fighter/bomber Squadron to operate in South Vietnam.



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