18 August 2010

The Australian Canberra in Vietnam

Monday I'd posted about the South Vietnamese Air Force's brief, if not flawed, operation of the Martin B-57 Canberra during the Vietnam War. They weren't the only nation outside of the United States to operate the Canberra in Southeast Asia. In 1967, the English Electric Canberra Mk.20s of the Royal Australian Air Force's No. 2 Squadron arrived at Phan Rang AB, which at the time was home to the USAF Martin B-57 operation under the aegis of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing (an F-100 Super Sabre outfit). At the start of combat operations, the eight Canberras were assigned to night attack missions where they made bomb drops from 20,000 feet under direction of the Combat Sky Spot ground radars that would direct the bombers when to make their drop. While the strikes were very accurate and effective, a better role was soon found for the Australians. 

By mutual agreement with the Seventh Air Force and No. 2 Squadron, the RAAF Canberras would mount eight sorties a day against up to 16 targets, seven days a week. All the targets were within South Vietnam to minimize the anti-air threat and make best use of the Canberra's visual bombing equipment. Their radio call sign in Vietnam was "MAGPIE" from the squadron's crest. As the Australians were trained exhaustively on visual bombing, most of the targets assigned to No. 2 Squadron were in the Mekong Delta region. Often the targets were shifted to targets of opportunity spotted by airborne forward air controllers and with the Canberras at altitude, little to no warning proceeded the bombing runs as the bombardiers used Second World War-vintage precision visual bomb sights to hit targets from 20,000 feet that were normally hit at lower altitudes by USAF crews. The Australian crews quickly developed a reputation for pinpoint bombing and were the only combat aircraft in the entire Vietnam theater for the entire duration of the war that employed level bombing with visual bombsights from altitude. 

By 1969 approximately 70% of No. 2 Squadron's targets were in the Mekong Delta where the level visual bombing technique was best suited. With most of the Delta region flat and at sea level, it made the job on the Canberra's bombardier easier. Since the English Electric Canberra Mk.20 didn't have underwing hardpoints like the USAF B-57s, the wing tip tanks were removed and replaced with bomb racks to supplement the bomb bay load. Since most of the targets weren't far from Phan Rang AB, the extra fuel in the tip tanks wasn't needed. 

On 3 November 1970, after three and a half years of combat operations without a single loss, the first RAAF Canberra was lost on a Combat Sky Spot radar bombing mission near Da Nang. MAGPIE 91, flown by Flight Officer Michael Herbert with Pilot Officer Robert Carver as bombardier, executed a near perfect bomb drop from 22,000 feet at night and were lost without a trace after their run. On 14 March 1971 another RAAF Canberra was lost to a SAM missile while on a mission to the northwest corner of South Vietnam. Although the crew were rescued the following day, the Seventh Air Force directed that no aircraft should operate near known SAM zones without adequate electronic countermeasures equipment. By 1971 nearly all of the northern quarter of South Vietnam had been infiltrated by NVA units with portable surface-to-air missiles. By this point in the war, the USAF B-57 operation was winding down and with the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing leaving Phan Rang as part of the "Vietnamization" of the war, there was no point in No. 2 Squadron remaining behind. 

No. 2 Squadron flew its last combat mission in Vietnam on 31 May 1971, making it the 11,963 mission flown by the Australian Canberras in Southeast Asia. Within a week the Canberras were refitted with their wing tip tanks and returned to RAAF Amberly via Darwin to become a reconnaissance and target towing squadron that would eventually be disbanded in 1982. In 2000, the RAAF reformed No. 2 Squadron to operate the Boeing 737 AEW&C Wedgetail. 

Source: Martin B-57 Canberra: The Complete Record by Robert C. Mikesh. Schiffer Military History Press, 1995, p116-119.

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