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FEATURE – Canberras over Suez

Photo: Canberra B.6 WT371, seen leading a four-ship of 139 Squadron jets, crashed during the Suez conflict with the loss of all three crew… including one of Al Greethurst’s friends KEY


Liberating the Canal

Sean Feast discovers how Al Greethurst’s bombing and navigation skills in the English Electric Canberra were tested during the Suez Crisis

Al Greethurst was lucky to even fly in the Canberra. In fact, he was fortunate not to have been kicked out of the RAF completely, for earlier in his career while with 8 Squadron in Aden in the early 1950s, he had refused to fly [see In Arabian Skies, March issue].

In the five years prior to his posting to RAF Khormaksar in Aden, however, he’d logged hundreds of hours in the Lancaster, Lincoln and his firm favourite, the Mosquito. His logbook includes taking part in Operation Guzzle to ditch the unused Upkeep bouncing bombs into the sea, flying in the same Lancaster Guy Gibson had captained during the now legendary Dams Raid.

Such experience stood him in good stead, and five months after returning home from Aden he was granted his wish of converting to the English Electric Canberra with 230 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), based at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire. All seemed rosy, but life in the RAF is rarely that simple as Al points out: “Unfortunately, I was nabbed to become [the] Staff Navigator at the new Bomber Command Bombing School and spent six months on a Qualified Bombing Instructor course and six months at an Officer Cadet Training Unit in Jurby [Isle of Man].”

Recently promoted, Fg Off Al Greethurst finally arrived at 231 OCU at RAF Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire, in January 1955… three years after returning home. His first flight was in Canberra T.4 WH843 on February 11 with pilot ‘Nogger’ Norris, who had been his regular Mosquito cohort. Joining them was Sqn Ldr John Barling DSO DFC, a former NCO who was converting to the type prior to taking command of 44 Squadron. While training, Al fulfilled several roles, harping back to the days when observers were also required to be navigator, bomb aimer and general multi-tasker.


Directional aids in the Canberra were considered primitive, being nothing more than minor developments of wartime technology, such as Gee and Gee-H (early radio navigation). After a little over 46 hours in T.4s and B.2s, Al was posted to 109 Squadron at RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire following the end of his conversion in April. Despite his comparatively junior rank, he was appointed bombing leader.

The squadron operated the Canberra B.6, and still held its famous wartime Pathfinder role. As such, the aircraft only required a pilot and navigator in a cockpit designed for three. Al was delighted with the extra space: “In the other Canberras I flew in, the bomb aimer and navigator positions were behind the pilot, and quite cramped. But in the B.6, I had room for extra equipment, including Blue Shadow, the Sideways looking radar system. Blue Shadow was a brilliant idea but based on old technology. It was a development of the Mk.II H2S and was similarly unreliable. Rather than a cathode ray screen, it printed a representation of the ground by scorching an image on specially treated paper that came on a roll.”…


The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at

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