First Canberra Era 1954/59

Conversion from the Lincolns to Canberra B2 aircraft took place at Bassingbourne over the three months between March and June 1954. 100 Squadron had returned to Wittering, and was operational by July 1954 in time for a visit by His Royal Highness, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in late July

The change from a heavy piston-engine bomber to a light two-engine jet bomber brought about significant changes to crew configuration. Gone were the wireless operators, the bomb aimers, the flight engineers and the gunners of the Lancaster and Lincoln days. The crews were carefully selected from the pilots and navigators to man the new Canberra. The Official Records stated that 100 Squadron was to be a Main Force Squadron of Bomber Command, but equipped and manned for trials work with the Bomber Command Development Unit (BCDU). In effect, 100 Squadron was a trials unit performing whatever test flying was required by the BCDU, also based at Wittering.

On 21st April 1954, Sqn Ldr Hunt took command of the Squadron. He continually reminded the aircrew that the work of 100 Squadron, in conjunction with the BCDU, was of paramount importance to Bomber Command. The Canberra was the first of the jet bombers in what would soon become an all jet force. 100 Squadron became an important unit in terms of the trials and activities it undertook. The Bomber Command Armament School, also based at Wittering, needed trials work for the ‘V’-Force special weapons requirements. The Squadron also carried out trials over Heligoland to determine the behaviour of 1,000-pound General Purpose bombs on release.

Other important trials were the development of aircraft flight patterns to avoid detection by hostile Air Interception (AI) radar. The Squadron operated high sensitivity passive radar receivers mounted in the tail of the Canberras, which provided a pictorial display for pilot interpretation. Using this radar, it was possible to determine the flight path of enemy aircraft, and take avoiding action to stay out of range. The trials covered many aspects of Canberra operations including tests to overcome heating problems with the Avon engines and difficulties with restarting the engines at high altitude. Other trials included landing on snow covered runways and co-operation with night fighters from Coltishall. The Squadron also co-operated with Coastal Command’s Air-Sea Warfare Development Unit in an exercise where a ‘ditched’ crew in a dinghy had to recover an airborne lifeboat dropped from a Shackleton and sail it back to port.

On 21st October 1955, at long last, 100 Squadron received its Standard, for which it qualified in 1943 after 25 years of service. The Standard was presented by Air Marshall Sir George Mills, AOC-in-C of Bomber Command, who had himself served with 100 Squadron between 1927 and 1929. The Battle Honours represented on the Standard were:
• Ypres 1917;
• Somme 1918;
• Independent Force and Germany 1918;
• Malaya 1941-1942;
• Fortress Europe 1943-1944;
• Ruhr 1943-1945;
• Berlin 1943-1945;
• Normandy 1944-1945.

Regretting that he was unable to attend the presentation, Marshal of the RAF Lord Trenchard writing to Sqn Ldr Kunkler said, “I look upon 100 Squadron almost as one I have been in myself. I seem to have been connected with the Squadron most of my service life, and I always remember the good work done by members of it.” It was also during this period that the Wittering wing received the Freedom of the Borough of Stamford, and both 40 and 100 Squadrons began to carry the blue and gold chequer board on their aircraft. Indeed, ‘The Boneyard’ still carries the blue and gold chequer board markings on the Hawks of today.

During this period, Wg Cdr Ivor Broom was OC the BCDU, while Sqn Ldr Kunkler was OC 100 Squadron. There was a good relationship between the BCDU and the Squadron; indeed, Ivor Broom was present at the wedding of Flt Lt Keith Garrett. Also present were Wg Cdr Colin Bell and Air Cdre Charlie Goulthorpe both Association members.

In August 1956, the Squadron was divided into a Trials Flight at Wittering, and a Recce Detachment Flight at Wyton. The 100 Squadron (Recce Detachment) was formed from 82 (PR) Squadron after it had disbanded. This Flight, commanded by Sqn Ldr Hammatt, was tasked with preparing to support Operation Grapple, the British Thermo-Nuclear H-Bomb Tests at Christmas Island in the Pacific. Between August 1956 and February 1957, the PR7 aircraft of 100 Squadron (RD) underwent extensive modifications to prepare for the task; this presented a heavy load for the ground crews. The aircrews also carried out an extensive training programme in preparation for Operation Grapple. Rapport between the ground and aircrews was excellent, and all worked well together.

In February 1957, the ground crews departed for Christmas Island to prepare the dispersal. The conditions, both domestic and working, can best be described as ‘basic’. The aircraft arrived in early March 1957; the first to arrive was WJ822 piloted by Sqn Ldr Hammatt. 100 Squadron (RD) were tasked with providing high level met reports, and also high altitude photography when the H-Bombs were actually dropped. 76 Squadron, equipped with Canberra B6 aircraft were to carry out Thermo-Nuclear cloud penetration immediately after the drop to gather air samples for analysis. The 100 Squadron aircraft had been fitted with STR18 HF radios and Green Satin radar to assist with navigating over long distances over the wide expanse of the Pacific. There were many hazards for the aircrews. Sqn Ldr John Clubb has recalled his experiences in an article published in ‘The Hornet’. John has also been recorded on camera talking about his time with 100 Squadron.

Aircraft maintenance and serviceability were major problems for the ground crews. The climate was one of high humidity and temperature, and this was exacerbated by frequent and heavy rainstorms. After one very severe storm, a 100 Squadron Canberra was badly damaged after landing on a flooded runway. Keith Ellis has also written up his experiences, which have also been published in ‘The Hornet’. Suffice to say, that the ground engineers met the task, keeping the aircraft flying under difficult and demanding environmental conditions often working very long hours. Three cheers for the man on the ground!

After a great deal of very hard work, the first H-Bomb drop took place on 15th May 1957. The drop was made by a Valiant B1 of 49 Squadron also from Wittering. A 100 Squadron Canberra PR7 took photographs of the burst, and it was described, by Boss Hammatt, as ‘the biggest bloody bang I ever saw!’ The long hours of work continued, and the second drop took place in early June. After this drop, the 100 Squadron aircrews threw a party for the ground crews as a very nice gesture of ‘thanks’. The aircrews packed many, many cans of lager into ice; the trouble was they froze solid. The thirsty erks, deprived of beer, attacked the hard stuff, also provided by the thoughtful aircrews, with disastrous results! A lot of erks only made it back to their tents courtesy of Peter Langdon who ran a ferry service using the Squadron 3 tonner. This somewhat ‘infamous’ party has faded into100 Squadron folklore!

100 Squadron aircraft were also tasked with ferrying the air samples collected by 76 Squadron back to the UK immediately after each drop. In this task, Canberra PR7 aircraft of 58 Squadron, also based at RAF Wyton were situated at USAF and RCAF staging post airfields along the route to act as couriers in getting the samples back to the UK as quickly as possible. Sadly two of the aircrew lost their lives attempting to land under very adverse weather conditions at Goose Bay.

The third and final drop was achieved pretty much on schedule, and then the aircraft were prepared for the long flights home. The ground crews remained on the Island wrapping up the stores, spares and shutting down the dispersal areas. The Air Ministry made a lengthy film of Operation Grapple. The IWM hold this film, but a copy in DVD format is available in the Squadron archives. The Recce Detachment of 100 Squadron was disbanded on return to Wyton in August 1957, and the aircraft were handed over to 58 Squadron. Many of the aircrews also joined 58 Squadron, and took part in further H-Bomb tests on Christmas Island.

Trials work continued at Wittering, and a great deal of work was carried out in developing bombing trials in support of the TSR2 programme. For example, new bombing tactics were under development. This involved penetrating at an altitude of 250 feet to get underneath enemy radar. One method was termed ‘Low Altitude Bombing’ (LAB) or ‘toss bombing’, which entailed releasing bombs in a 50-degree dive, then pulling out in a half roll to the opposite direction. A variation was to go in low, and release the bombs in a near vertical climb and ‘toss the bombs over the shoulder’; a particularly ‘hairy’ operation! Even though the TSR2 was cancelled, the trials work carried out by 100 Squadron was not wasted. The work would prove to be useful in the Buccaneer-Force, and eventually for the Tornado.

These examples give us a good insight into the importance of the contribution of 100 Squadron to the security and defence of the UK during the ‘Cold War’. Even though ‘the Boneyard’ operated largely ‘behind the scenes’ it was not a ‘backwater’. Nevertheless, 100 Squadron was disbanded on 31st August 1959. This was the first time that the Squadron would not be in the active list of RAF Squadrons since its formation in 1917; some 42 years. The disbanding parade took place in Stamford and the Standard was temporarily laid up in St George’s Church, Stamford. The Standard Bearer was Flt Lt Barker, the youngest officer on the Squadron at that time.

100 Squadron had served in peace and war for 42 years, and disbanding such a proud unit was a sad occasion. However, our journey is not yet over. 100 Squadron had risen from the ashes in 1942, and it would do so again. 100 Squadron had made the conversion into the jet age in 1954, and had carried out trials work that was to make an important contribution to Bomber Command. 100 Squadron Recce Detachment had also made a vital contribution to the first British Thermo-Nuclear H-Bomb tests in the Pacific in 1957. 100 Squadron air and ground crews had shown versatility and courage in carrying out complex and demanding tasks. Once again, 100 Squadron ‘had kept it going’. The disbanding of 100 Squadron in August 1959 is not to be the end of the journey. The Standard was rested, but not for long, as we move forward into the Victor Era.