2 Squadron RAAF

A History of RAAF No. 2 Squadron

Brief History

No 2 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (known as 68 Australian Squadron, Royal Flying Corps until January 1918) formed in Egypt in September 1916. Squadron pilots were largely drawn from Australian Light Horse units, while many of the ground staff had served with the pioneer Australian squadron Half Flight. The squadron left for training in the United Kingdom soon after its formation and deployed to Baizieux, France in September 1917.
Equipped with DH 5 and, later, SE 5a aircraft, No 2 Squadron earned distinction flying in both ground-attack and aerial-combat operations on the Western Front. The squadron’s most successful period occurred from April 1918, when it moved to La Bellevue airfield. In June 1918 Major Roy Philiipps shot down four enemy aircraft, including two Fokker triplanes, in a single day. The squadron was disbanded in July 1922.

No 2 Squadron reformed at Laverton in Victoria on 1 May 1937 and was equipped with Hawker Demon aircraft. At the outbreak of the Second World War the squadron patrolled Australian waters using Avro Anson aircraft. Re-equipped with Lockheed Hudsons, it moved to Darwin in April 1941.

In December 1941 a squadron detachment was sent forward to Timor to cover Australian troops in the area. Enemy air raids and the rapid Japanese advance nevertheless forced the detachment back to Darwin in February 1942.

During 1942 and 1943 No 2 Squadron flew bombing, ground-attack, anti-shipping, and reconnaissance missions over the Japanese-occupied Netherlands East Indies. As a result of these operations the squadron was awarded the US Presidential Unit Citation in July 1943 for “outstanding performance of duty in action”. Having begun to train with Beaufort aircraft, in May 1944 the squadron converted to B 25 Mitchell bombers, which remained in service for the rest of the war. The squadron disbanded in May 1946.

In September 1948 No 21 Squadron became No 2 (Bomber) Squadron. At this stage the squadron used Lincoln aircraft. In 1958 the squadron, now equipped with Canberra bombers, deployed to Butterworch airbase in Malaya as part of the Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve.

In April 1967 No 2 Squadron deployed to South Vietnam. The squadron was based 260 kilometres north-east of Saigon at Phan Rang airbase with the American 35th Tactical Fighter Wing. In Vietnam, No 2 Squadron initially conducted high-altitude radar-controlled missions at night, before an outstandingly successful adoption of low-level daylight bombing.

Over a four-year period in Vietnam the squadron flew an average of eight missions every day. Despite firing nearly 12,000 combat missions, the squadron remarkably lost only two-aircraft in the conflict: one disappeared on a night-bombing mission; and the other was shot down by a surface-to-air missile near the demilitarised zone in March 1971.

No 2 Squadron returned to Australia from Vietnam in June 1971 – The squadron performed a flypast over Brisbane in June 1982, before disbanding in the following month.

No 2 Squadron reformed once again in January 2000. to operate Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C). The aircraft will begin entering service in 2009 and will operate from RAAF Base Williamtown near Newcastle. Six Boeing 737 NGs are currently being modified to accommodate sophisticated mission systems and radars that will increase Australia’s surveillance and air combat capability, provide air defence support for our naval fleet, assist in civil operations such as border protection and search and rescue. The Defence Material Organisation (DMO) took delivery of the first two aircraft from Boeing in November 2009.

Phan Rang, Ninh Thuan province, Vietnam, 1970-01. Informal outdoors group portrait of officers of No. 2 Squadron RAAF gathered on the tarmac at Phan Rang Air Base for a ‘hose-down’ celebration for the crew of one of the squadron’s Canberra B20 light bombers who have just completed their last bombing mission in Vietnam. In the celebration, which became something of a tradition with No. 2 Squadron at Phan Rang, a fire tender met the crew on their arrival back at base after completing their final mission and hosed their aircraft down.

The men are (left to right): Flying Officer (FO) Allan Clancy, pilot and Squadron Operations Officer, who is wearing the standard form of undress for a rest day of casual shirt, shorts and long socks; Pilot Officer (PO) Desmond Hyde, navigator; PO John Bennett, navigator; PO Ross Hardcastle, navigator; PO Robert Cuttriss, navigator; PO Allan Curr, navigator; Flight Lieutenant (FL) Brian Hammond, pilot; PO Richard O’Ferrell, pilot; FO Robert Moloney, navigator; Flight Lieutenant Anthony Taylor, navigator and Squadron Bombing Leader; Brigadier General Wallace L Clement, of the United States Military Assistance Command Training Directorate; Squadron Leader (Sqn Ldr) Brian Sweeney, pilot and Flight Commander, No. 2 Squadron; PO John Kennedy, pilot, who is one of the two crewmen who are receiving the ‘hose-down’; Wing Commander Jack Boast, CO of No. 2 Squadron, who is wearing the traditional ‘non-flying’ uniform of short-sleeved shirt, shorts and long socks; FL Robert Howe, navigator; FO David Palmer, navigator and the other recipient of the ‘hose-down’, who is holding a bottle of champagne; Sqn Ldr Frank Lonie, navigator and Navigation and Bombing Officer, No. 2 Squadron; FO Michael Herbert, pilot, who was soon to be posted as missing, presumed killed in action (KIA); Sqn Ldr Arthur Barnes, DFC, AFC, pilot and Flight Commander, No. 2 Squadron, who is wearing a flying scarf; PO Harold Bradford, pilot; PO Barry Carpenter, pilot.

Most of the officers are wearing flying suits, mainly of the older cotton variety, and are not drinking as they expect that they will soon leave on a flying mission. FO Palmer is wearing one of the newer fire-resistant Nomex flying suits. FO Hammond and PO Kennedy are wearing so-called ‘bowyangs’ around their legs, items of equipment that attached their legs to the ejection seats of their aircraft, such that their legs would not be severed by the aircraft’s instrument panel in the event of an ejection. The Canberra B20 light bomber flown by Kennedy and Palmer stands at the rear of the group. (Formerly 200254)

Second Squadron History

‘Consilio et Manu’ – To Take and To Hold

A new Australian air unit, initially referred to as the ‘Third Squadron’, was formed in Egypt on 20 September 1916, with the nucleus of pilots and air mechanics from the pioneer No 1 Squadron AFC, now flying as No 67 (Australian), 5th Wing RFC at Kantara. Captain Oswald Watt was appointed the Commanding Officer of the new No 68 (Australian) Squadron RFC. The squadron was not designated as No 2 Squadron AFC until January 1918.

Following the unit’s formation at Kantara and its arrival in England in January 1917, it began training as a single seat fighting scout unit at Harlaxton, as part of the 24th Training Wing, RFC. The squadron consisted of three flights: A Flight with six Avro 504; B Flight with two Bristol Scouts and four Sopwith Scouts; C Flight with six DH-5 (Service Flight). After mobilisation in August 1917, all instructional machines were re-allotted to RFC training units. The unit then took delivery of the de Havilland DH-5 fighting Scout for its deployment to France.

The nucleus of the squadron came from No 1 Squadron in Egypt and only a relatively small percentage of pilots under training came from Central Flying School in Australia. Reinforcements necessary to build the unit up to RFC personnel strength were recruited from AIF volunteers in France, Britain and Egypt. Infantry provided the greatest number of student pilots, followed by engineers. By contrast, fewer recruits came from the Light Horse.

Deployment to France

Over the summer (European) of 1917, the CO and many pilots were attached to RFC squadrons in France to gain operational experience. They flew the DH-5 Scout as well as the Camel; one pilot flew a Nieuport, in which he was shot down and captured by the Germans.

Finally, led by the Commanding Officer, Major W.O. (Oswald) Watt, No 68 (Aus) Squadron, RFC, flew 15 x DH-5 Scouts from Harlaxton, Lincolnshire on 21 September 1917, to St Omer, France, arriving at 1700 the same day. The next day, the squadron flew to Warloy, and on the 23 September, flew to their allotted front line aerodrome – Baizieux. The squadron became part of the 13th (Army) Wing, RFC, operating in support of the British 3rd Army.

On Sunday Tuesday October 1, they flew the first operational patrol. More engine problems were encountered than the enemy. For the first two months, the 18 aeroplane Australian DH-5 Squadron was engaged on typical fighting scout work, close offensive patrol. Several engagements were largely indecisive owing to faster enemy machines dictating terms of engagement.

The DH-5 was too slow and troubles with the Le Rhone rotary were commonplace. In addition, its performance over 10,000 feet wasn’t as good as Sopwith Scouts. In fact its lack of speed probably caused an early loss when Lieut Morrison, lagging behind due to engine problems, was attacked and shot down by four Albatross scouts.

2SQN DH-5 Scout with Capt Wilson in the cockpit and his aircraft mechanic, near the propeller Photo: RAAF

Battle of Cambrai

In contrast to the traditional massive artillery assault preceding an offensive, the British 3rd Army planned an assault on the Germans by employing massed tanks and air power to support an Army offensive in November 1917. The strategy chosen was to reduce the destruction and devastation that usually occurred after an artillery barrage. The 13th Scout Wing were called upon to be aerial cavalry in what was known as the ‘Battle of Cambrai’.

Despite very bad weather, No 68 (Australian) Squadron and No 64 Squadron engaged in operations supporting the Army offensive. Carrying out ground attack missions in flights of six DH-5 Scouts, in two ‘vic’ formations, the squadron bombed and strafed enemy strongholds and troops. Three pilots were lost in two days of fierce operations in mid November 1917. The Germans rushed Richthofen’s Circus to the area in an attempt to take back control of the air and the German Army counter- attacked at the end of November. No 68 (Australian) Squadron pilots flew at tree-top heights and strafed and bombed the Germans locations, with great success in stopping the German advance.

The British lines were held. The squadrons continued to fly wave after wave of ground attack missions until 7 December, when the Battle of Cambrai was over. The Battle was the first time that aircraft and tanks were used to support a ground offensive; the combination was an outstanding success for air power. The Germans never forgot this highly successful employment of air power. While the DH-5 Scout was used with great results in ground attack missions in the Battle, it was the end of DH-5 operations in France.

Squadron pilots and ground crew were awarded a number of decorations for their efforts in the Battle of Cambrai, Six Australian pilots were awarded the Military Cross in one day’s operation, more than had been awarded in a day by any squadron in the RFC.

A flight of DH-5 fighters returning from close offensive patrol over the front line on the Western Front. Photo: From a painting by Norman Clifford, RAAF Heritage Collection, RAAF Museum

The SE-5A (Scout Experimental-5)

The squadron began re-equipping with the SE-5A in December 1917. The aircraft (the Scout Experimental -5) was built by the Royal Aircraft Factory to counter the German Albatross scout that was so effective. The improved version, the ‘A’ model, had two machine guns, a more powerful engine, a higher speed and greater endurance. It remained with the squadron until the end of the War. The squadron carried out training in the new machine and it took a couple of months before squadron pilots were sufficiently trained to conduct combat missions.

On January 15, 1918, No 68 Squadron AFC, reverted to its original identity as No 2 Squadron AFC, although the War Diary refers to it as 2nd Squadron AFC. The squadron continued with ‘General Flying Practice’ and following the move to Auchel, carried out ‘Line Patrol’. Crashes and forced landings were still frequent as new pilots were trained. On January 24, every SE-5A was in the air either on practice flights or on escort for No 2 Squadron, RFC. However, there were six forced landings out of a total of 18 machines airborne.

The squadron occupied a number of airfields in operations against the German Army as they, the Germans, withdrew.

In operations with other units of the RFC and AFC, the squadron engaged in air combat against the new Albatross D.VII German fighter. The squadron also continued to conduct low level bombing and strafing missions. The Allies actions resulted in heavy losses of the enemy ground targets and the RFC operated with increasing air superiority over the German Air Service.

However, the German Spring offensive in March 1918 kept the RFC and AFC squadrons heavily engaged in support of the British Army. The attacks by the squadrons against enemy troops and locations helped prevent a severe defeat for the British Army. Again, air power had proved its value in ground warfare.

By the beginning of May, the German offensive was being contained. The squadron moved its operations to the south and together with two RFC squadrons, adopted the ‘Circus’ tactics. Also, the squadron carried out offensive patrols and photographic escorts, but there was little enemy air activity. The OC summarised events in the May 1918 Squadron War Diary:

The feature of the month’s work was the adoption of the “Circus” formations in which this Squadron worked in conjunction with No’s 43 and 80 Squadrons, RAF, both of which had Sopwith Camels. The working heights of the three Squadrons being as a rule 16,000 ft, 14,000 ft and 12,000 respectively. The success that attended the “Circus” was not as great in actual results as might have been expected, the principle reason being that we were working over a quiet Front and with one or two exceptions, only small E.A. patrols were encountered. It had, however, the effect of clearing the upper air of E.A. scout formations. While this result is at all times to be desired it has been experienced that on quiet Fronts, greater numbers of E.A. are destroyed by sending out comparatively smaller formation, and thus encouraging the enemy to fight.
A.M Jones, Major, Commanding
2nd Squadron, AFC. In the Field

Increased German Army activities in the Somme area in June 1918 involved the squadron in increased numbers of operations. The new Fokker D.VII was a formidable opponent and their attacks enabled the Germans to regain a degree of control of the air. By autumn, all German scout squadrons were equipped with the new Fokker. However, the German offensive had been repelled and the RFC and AFC squadrons re-established air superiority. The last big raid that No 2 Squadron was involved in was 9 November 1918. In the 10 months of the war in to November 1918, the squadron flew 8,987 hrs in the SE-5A aircraft in operations

A SE-5A aircraft. Photo: Sierra Dynamix

The Armistice

The German capitulation on 11 November 1918 was almost an anti-climax. There was no combat flying on that day. A few test flights were carried out, but the war had reached a ‘crashing halt’.

On 12 November, eight squadron pilots patrolled what was known as the ‘Balloon Line’ in the morning. The rest of the month was practice flying and test flights, plus a lot of formation flying.

SE-5A aircraft at Lille, France, after the Armistice, Jan 1919. Photo: RAAF

The squadron moved to Hellemmes (Lille) in January and finally, in falling snow, to Serny in February 1919 where they handed the aircraft and equipment over to the RAF on 18 February 1919. Five pilots were engaged at the ‘Enemy Aircraft Acceptance Park, Rely, when they flew German machines from France to England.

Map of 2SQN airfields, in sequence of operating bases, France, 1917-1919. Map: RAAF


The squadron road convoy moved to Havre on 28 February 1919 to await the move to England. Embarking on the ‘Duchess of Argill’ at midnight, they arrived at Weymouth in the morning of 4 March before entraining for Wilton, followed by a 7 km walk to No 6 Camp, Hurdcott. During their wait at the camp for repatriation to Australia, on the days 30- 31 March, the eve of summer, they experienced the heaviest snow falls for the year.

All AFC personnel finally embarked on the Kaisar-i-Hind at Southampton on 6 May 1919 for the voyage to Australia.

The ship departed on 7 May and arrived in Fremantle 9 June, and reached its final destination of Sydney on 18 June.

The AFC Experience

No 2 Squadron achieved outstanding results in the Western Front and proved the value of air power.

However, World War I was largely trench warfare and while the RFC and AFC demonstrated capabilities in strike and close air support, it was a trench war. The lessons learnt required the development of strategies and tactics for the future employment of air power. Few of these found their way into manuals of war or air power leading up to World War II.

Between the Wars

In January 1919, the Defence Council recommended the establishment for a joint air service for both the Army and the Navy. The British Government announced in the House of Commons during June 1919:

“His Majesty’s Government has approved of a proposal of the (British) Air Council that a gift of aeroplanes not exceeding 100 in number should be made to any Dominion requiring machines. The object of this is to assist Dominions wishing to establish Air Forces ‘and thereby develop defence of the Empire by air’.

Eventually the ‘Gift’ increased to 128 aeroplanes: 35 SE5A, 28 DH9, 30 DH9A and 35 Avro 504K It was a generous gift even if Australia had to accept them ‘as is, where is’ and get them to Australia. When they did arrive, it was a major headache on where to hangar or store them. Many of them were still stored in wheat sheds in July 1923; with no maintenance, their conditions were deteriorating.

Following the establishment of the Australian Air Force on 31 March 1921, No 2 Squadron was established as a single-seat fighter squadron with four SE-5As, to be located at Laverton, Victoria. However severe funding restrictions forced the disbanding of the five squadrons formed only months before. The squadrons were then grouped at No 1 FTS as six flights. Composite units were formed and while many aviation activities were carried out, it was not until the 1930s that Australian Governments provided the resources for the RAAF to identify the squadrons and roles necessary to develop a modern air force.

No 2 Squadron reformed at Laverton in Victoria on 1 May 1937 as a General Reconnaissance unit with Hawker Demon aircraft. Bristol Bulldogs and Avro Ansons were introduced in 1938, followed by one North American NA-12; a mixed fleet. The squadron, together with other squadrons, was involved in the Air Pageants at Richmond and Laverton in April 1938.

A RAAF Hawker Demon aircraft. Photo: RAAF

World War II

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the squadron patrolled Australian waters, with Avro Anson aircraft, searching for enemy raiders that could threaten sea convoys. It was to carry out this role for nearly three years, conducting patrols and convoy escorts from Sydney to Albany, WA.

Avro Anson aircraft, patrolling the skies off the NSW Coast. Photo RAAF

Re-equipped with Lockheed Hudsons, it moved to Darwin in April 1941. In December that year, a squadron detachment deployed to Timor to cover Australian troops in the area. The unit carried out attacks on air, ground and maritime targets in the areas of Japanese advances and operations. However, enemy air raids and the rapid Japanese advance forced the detachment back to Darwin in February 1942.

The Hudson Bomber prepares for takeoff at the Defence Air Show, Amberley 2008. Photo: CPL Melina Mancuso RAAF

During 1942 and 1943 No 2 Squadron flew bombing, ground attack, anti-shipping, and reconnaissance missions over the Japanese-occupied Netherlands East Indies (NEI). One special operation involved the resupply to ‘Sparrow Force’ which was resisting, with great courage, the Japanese advance through Timor. As a result of the operations in the NEI, the squadron was awarded the US Presidential Unit Citation in July 1943 for “outstanding performance of duty in action”.

The Squadron began re-equipping with the Beaufort aircraft in December 1943. The squadron continued attacks on Japanese targets, from Hughes, NT into NEI. In May 1944, the squadron converted to B-25 Mitchell bombers, which remained in service for the rest of the war. They were outstanding ground attack aircraft and after the Hudson and Beaufort, a pure delight to fly.

Armament crews bombing up a Hudson at Batchelor, NT. Photo: RAAF

Based at Hughes south of Darwin, the squadron carried out its first strike with the new aircraft on 27 August 1944 against Lautem West airfield on Timor Island. The squadron continued with operations against Japanese targets for the next 12 months with constant air strikes in the NEI and New Guinea. In August 1945, the unit deployed to Balikpapan, via Biak and Morotai, only to arrive as the war ended. However, flying operations were still carried out, mostly reconnaissance, food drops to POW camps and repatriation of POWs. Flying operations ceased in November 1945 and the aircraft were ferried back to Australia for disposal. The Squadron disbanded in May 1946.

No 2 Squadron’s original unit badge was approved in September 1943, and updated in December 1952 with the St Edwards Crown. The Australian bird displayed in the centre of the crest is described as a Piping Shrike, mistakenly called a magpie, when in fact, it is a magpie lark or Murray magpie (Grallina cyanoleuca). The motto is Consilio Et Manu – To Advise and To Strike.

A RAAF Mitchell near Amberley, July 1945. Photo RAAF

A RAAF Mitchell near Amberley, July 1945. Photo RAAF

Post World War II


No 21 Squadron was renumbered as No 2 Squadron in February 1948 with Lincoln aircraft, as a squadron in 82 Wing at Amberley. Training began with bombing and gunnery sorties at the new Evans Head Range, a range still in use today, but now only with practice bombs.

No 82 Wing Lincoln bombers, built by government Aircraft Factory, at Amberley 1948. Photo RAAF

The squadron carried out long range training exercises and was involved in atmospheric sampling during the British nuclear testing in Australia in the 1950s. However, the end was in sight for long range piston engined aircraft and in December 1953, the squadron received its first Canberra Jet bomber, A84-307, a British built B2 aircraft, later converted to a Mk21 trainer.

The RAAF’s first Canberra A84-307, built by English Electric; near Amberley 1957. Photo: RAAF

The squadron then converted new crews to the Canberra, until No 2 Squadron’s planned move to Malaya was announced, when the role was transferred to No 6 Squadron. With the arrival of the first new Mk 109 engine Canberras in September 1957, all were designated for 2SQN. The squadron started workup for operations in Malaya with the RAF Far East Air Force. No 1 (Bomber) OCU was formed in 1959 to train crews for 82 Wing Canberra crews.

Far East Air Force – Malaya

Following re-equipment with the Canberra, No 2 Squadron deployed to the newly upgraded air base at Butterworth in mainland Malaya, near Penang Island, arriving on 1 July 1958. They remained at RAAF Base Butterworth as part of the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve, Far East Air Force (FEAF) and operated as a unit of 224 Group, Royal Air Force, headquartered at RAF Changi in Singapore.

The Canberras, equipped with the more powerful Mk 109 engines, flew Firedog bombing missions, both with a ground radar unit and visual sighting, against the communist terrorist groups in (then) Malaya. Most of the missions were conducted at medium altitude 15-20,000 feet (4500-6000m) in thick jungle, so bombing effectiveness was difficult to determine.

Eventually, the terrorist groups retreated to Thai/Malay border and engaged in harassment and occasional raids in border areas, but posed no direct threat to bases, main towns or the people. Following cessation of the emergency in July 1960, crews practised mostly low level bombing, as conventional wisdom demanded very low level attacks to avoid SAMs and achieve surprise.

Target acquisition was dependent on accurate low level navigation, which was difficult with the maps in use, and a careful study of target area photographs. However, because most flying was restricted to published low level routes, many crews knew where the targets were located by past experience and repetition. The introduction of 1:500,000 Tactical Pilotage Chart (TPC) improved low level navigation accuracy but other than air defence exercises (ADEXs), there were few suitable ‘targets’ available for training.

Bombs being loaded on Canberra for Firedog mission, Butterworth, Malaya 1958. Photo: Brian McSkimming.

2SQN flight line, Butterworth, Malaysia. Oct 1965. Photo: RAAF

The primary sighting method was a World War ll-vintage vector bombsight in the aircraft’s nose which provided a gyro stabilised visual aiming reticle. The T4 analogue bombsight computer received automatic altitude inputs from the altimeter system and groundspeed from the Green Satin doppler system; target elevation and bomb ballistics were set manually. Together with drift from the doppler, the computer positioned the illuminated aiming reticle in the sight head to indicate weapon/s impact point.

The squadron achieved consistently a low to medium bombing accuracy of about 50 metres Circular Error Probable (CEP); the radius which contains 50% of a significant, representative sample of bomb impacts; it also indicates there is a 0.5 probability of the bomb impacting within 50 metres of the target.

No 2 Squadron members at the 50th Anniversary Dinner, RAAF Hostel, Penang, 1966. Photo: Lance Halvorson

The squadron maintained an operational state of readiness and operated with allied air forces in Singapore, India, and Philippines. Various deployments were conducted for SEATO and other air defence exercises: Exercises “Air Boon Choo” to Ubon, Thailand, “Shiksha” with the Indian Air Force at Agra and “Joss Sticks” to Clark AFB in Philippines and Kadena AFB, Okinawa are examples. Lone Ranger flights to RAF Kai Tak, Hong Kong, were particularly attractive as were the flights to Australia and on to Ohakea Base, New Zealand. 2SQN operated with Royal Navy Venoms, RAF Hunters and B2 Canberras (45SQN) and RNZAF B12 Canberras (14SQN).

Life in Butterworth and Penang was exotic after Australia, especially those fortunate to live on Penang Island. The mixture of colonial and Asian architecture, the tropical climate, the Asian food and the duty free shopping, made a posting to Butterworth a great experience. Together with the very comfortable housing allowances and the provision of ‘house help’, Squadron members enjoyed their posting. The autthor spent a two year tour at Butterworth and enjoyed the experience.

A 2SQN Canberra returning from a bombing sortie at Song Song Range, Butterworth. Photo: RAAF

Indonesian Confrontation

Following the creation of Malaysia in 1962, when Malaya, Singapore and territories in Borneo merged into a new federation, Indonesia engaged in Konfrontasi Indonesia against the new state. Incursions by Indonesian forces occurred from late 1962 to reach a peak in 1965. During the heightened alert and expecting an Indonesian attack on Malaysia, 2SQN Canberras were ‘bombed up’ with 6 x1000lb bombs on a number of occasions.

Aircraft and crews were at various stages of readiness for attacks on the Indonesian Air Base at Medan, Sumatra. Low level bombing tactics were to be employed with multi-aircraft co-ordinated strikes with two or three aimpoints/targets, with 30 seconds separation between each aircraft over the target. Fortunately, Confrontation ceased with the overthrow of Indonesian President Sukarno in 1965.

During 1966 and early 1967, TACAN navigation system and UHF radios were fitted to the Canberras. While not a modification, the paint scheme was changed in 1963 to a darker matt camouflage, including the under surfaces. The roundels on the mainplanes were reduced to 84cm (33”) and the tail numbers were painted black. Before the aircraft deployed to Vietnam in April 1967, the roundels on the mainplanes were removed and the fuselage roundels were reduced to 46cm (18”).

2SQN Canberras with FEAF aircraft overfly Tengah Air Base, Singapore. Sep 1965. Photo: Lance Halvorson

South Vietnam

No 2 Squadron deployed from Butterworth, Malaysia to Phan Rang air base, 35 kilometres south of Cam Ranh Bay, a large USAF base in the far east of South Vietnam, on 19 April 1967. The unit became part of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing which operated the F100 Super Sabre and B57B aircraft on rotation from the 8th and 13th Squadrons from Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Canberra crews after their deployment from Butterworth, April 1967 Photo: RAAF

After conducting familiarization flights within two days of arrival, squadron crews flew eight operational sorties on 23 April. 2 SQN ‘Magpies’ were tasked by HQ 7th Air Force in Saigon, for eight sorties per day for seven days a week, in all areas of South Vietnam, from 23 April 1967 until the last mission on 31 May1971. In four years, the Squadron flew 11,994 sorties.

The Canberra wasn’t the ideal aircraft for ‘strike’ operations in Vietnam, but for a number of reasons, it was the obvious choice for deployment. The main threats in South Vietnam were assessed as low to medium. The air threat from enemy aircraft was non-existent, although the deployment of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) near the DMZ, automatic anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), mostly in the northern Corps regions, was a potential threat. Certainly, all the crews thought so.

Map of South Vietnam and location of RAAF squadrons. Map: USAF in South East Asia 1961-1973, Office of Air Force History USAF 1984

The lack of fitment of radar warning receivers (RWRs) was a major operational disadvantage. Although the short period from the decision to send the Canberras to Vietnam and the deployment precluded their fitment, little was done in the four years No 2 Squadron was in Vietnam. All combat aircraft operating in medium to high threat ‘electronic’ environments, where SAMs and AAA are probable, should be fitted with electronic support and counter measures – ESM, ECM or RWRs.

Ground fire in the target areas and on takeoff and landing were lesser threats, although crews often experienced them. Further hazards were bomb fragments at low level, malfunctioning bombs, ‘near misses’ with other aircraft (both Australian and US) and the artillery firing zones. Two 2SQN aircraft were lost in 1971 and 1972; the cause of the first loss, A84-231, although found 39 years after it disappeared, is inconclusive, and the 2nd was hit by a SA-2 missile. That the squadron did not lose more aircraft is a tribute to the air and ground crews involved, plus a large amount of luck.

Initial Operations

Initially, the Canberras were employed on Combat Sky Spot missions where the aircraft was tracked by ground based MSQ77 radar and the pilot given heading and speed directions to the release point. The Canberra was generally stable at the release altitudes of 15-25000 feet (4500-7600m), although its lack of mapping or weather radar often placed the aircraft in medium to severe turbulence in thunder clouds during the monsoon season, resulting in a number of aborted bombing runs, some seconds before release. To highlight the lack of ‘electronic eyes’, thunderstorms with significant lightning activity often illuminated the surrounding cumulo nimbus (Cb) clouds and identified other preferred attack directions.

Low Level Operations

The first low-level daylight ‘Boomer’ missions for 2 SQN started in September 1967, with forward air controllers marking the targets with smoke. Flying at about 3000 feet (915 metres) AGL to avoid ground fire, the crews achieved accuracies of about 45 metres. The minimum safe release height for the earlier British-designed ex-WW2 war stock bombs of 500lb (227Kg) and the 1000lb (455Kg) high explosive bombs was about 1400 feet (440 metres). The squadron released 10,000 bombs in the first six months.

The Communist Tet Offensive of 1968 increased the range and intensity of the Squadron’s operations. On January 30, four Canberras, oper ating in pairs, bombed enemy bunkers around the besieged U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh while other crews were di rected against enemy targets at Quang Tri. On February 1, the Canberras were in action over three of South Vietnam’s four military regions. The next day, four aircraft flew support missions for the Australian Task Force in the Long Binh and Bien Hoa area.

Although it had only eight aircraft and flew only 4 to 6 percent of the sorties flown by the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing during 1968, No 2 Squadron was credited with 16 percent of all bomb damage inflicted by the Wing’s aircraft.

In the spring of 1970, the Canberras of No. 2 Squadron expanded their role fur ther when they began to fly interdiction sorties against enemy supply routes through the A Shau Valley, just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The autumn monsoon season, with its low clouds, mist and rain, compelled the Can berras to revert to radar-guided combat skyspot missions. Such a mission was being carried out over the Da Nang area on November 3, 1970, by Canberra A48-231, call sign Magpie 91, flown by Flying Officer Michael Herbert and navigator Pilot Officer Robert Carver. After releasing their bombs at an altitude of 22,000 feet, Herbert reported “six away, breaking left” and it is assumed he turned onto a heading of 120 degrees, for home. After his post release radio call with Milky, the Skyspot radar site near Danang, nothing more was heard from Magpie 91. Despite an intensive search, the wreckage, and the remains of the crew, were not found until April 2009.

With the launching of Operation Lam Son 719 on January 29, 1971, No 2 Squadron was called upon once more to provide close support, this time for ARVN troops invading Laos in an effort to sever the branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail running through that neigh boring country. Although the Canberras performed their duties well in spite of the mountainous terrain, the NVA had better anti-aircraft weaponry than before, making aerial operations more hazardous. On March 14, Wing Commander John Downing, then CO of the squadron, was flying his 100th bomb ing mission just south of the DMZ when his aircraft, A84-228, was hit by a SA-2 missile.

John had time to transmit a “Mayday” distress call before Al Pinches, his navigator, ejected, followed soon after by John. The crew ejected at medium altitude and while the pilot’s parachute opened as ‘planned’, at 12,000 feet, the navigator’s parachute didn’t; after a ‘lengthy’ delay, it finally opened. Both sustained injuries on reaching the ground and after spending an anxious night in the jungle avoiding capture by the NVA, made contact with the rescue helicopter on their survival radios. 27 hours after ejecting, they were winched to safety.

With the withdrawal of allied forces well under way, the Government decided to withdraw No 2 Squadron in May 1971. However, they no longer operated in the area near the DMZ, where they were at risk from surface-to-air missiles. The restriction did not signify any letup in the pace of operations. On April 7, FLTLT Stan Fenton and navigator, FLGOFF Peter Murphy, carried out a highly effective attack on NVA and VC forces that were attacking the U.S. Army’s firebase No 6 near the Laotian and Cambodian borders. Although enemy bunkers were only 200 yards from friendly troops, the Canberra’s bombs fell squarely on target, and the pressure on the defenders was immediately eased. After a total of five bombing runs by the Canberras, the Communists withdrew, leaving behind 60 bodies. Remarkably, and in no small measure thanks to the Magpies’ precision bombing, the Ameri can defenders suffered no fatalities.

Reflections on Operations in Vietnam

Although designed as a high altitude jet bomber, the Canberra became an effective low altitude tactical strike aircraft and bomber. Its development and in-service employment up to Vietnam was quite different. As a high altitude jet bomber designed in the 1940s, its performance at high altitude, stability, speed and range made it superior to many of the likely threats posed by all weather fighters at the time. However, many believe, it was just a high altitude jet propelled version of the Mosquito of World War 2 fame – a view with considerable justification.

The aircraft basic design had severe shortcomings for use in modern air warfare – it was limited to 450KIAS at low level, the maximum speed for opening the bomb doors was 350KIAS; it had no powered rudder and the controls were very heavy when manoeuvring at low level. It was very hard to fly at low level in turbulence. The navigator was at a severe disadvantage as he had to leave the security of the ejection seat and lie in the nose of the aircraft to sight and release the bombs. Even so, the Mk1C ejection seat placed severe limitations on crew survivability at low level; its minimum altitude for ejection was 2000ft and 250KIAS. Its lack of a radar warning receiver (RWR) decreased its survivability in a SAM or AAA air war; the cabin air system (heating and cooling) was inadequate for operations in sub-tropical and tropical areas at both high and low level. However, it achieved excellent results in Vietnam. The aircrew were well trained, keen and enthusiastic and did an outstanding job.

On 31 May 1971, the squadron’s last day of operations, nine sorties were flown, with the CO, WGCDR Tom Thorpe participating in one. The honor of dropping the RAAF’s last bomb on Vietnamese soil went to FLGOFF Dave Smith and FLGOFF Pete Murphy. Four days later, the Canberras took off from Phan Rang and set heading for Darwin. In just over four years of operations, No 2 Squadron had carried out 11,994 sorties and released 76389 bombs. The squadron’s performance was recognized by both of its principal allies when the entire unit was awarded the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm and the US Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Combat V Device.

Back in Australia

On return to Australia in 1971, 2SQN continued to operate the Canberra in the aerial photographic survey and target towing roles until the aircraft were withdrawn from service in March 1982. Where required, bombing equipment was removed and four Mk 20s were modified for photographic survey operations, with two modified later as fatigued aircraft were withdrawn from service.

The target towing role involved regular deployments to RAAF Butterworth for air defence training of Mirage fighter squadrons. Canberras conducted a total of 24 ‘Tugbut’ deployments, each of about 6 weeks duration, usually involving one to two aircraft on each deployment, before operations ceased in 1982. In addition, Canberras were tasked as bombers in ADEXs with the Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The aerial photographic survey operations in Australia, SE Asia and SW Pacific achieved considerable mapping quality photography. The Canberra was ideal for the photographic tasks as it was relatively stable, could transit quickly, acquire imagery at high altitude and could divert to other areas for alternate or additional tasks. The squadron conducted the following photographic survey operations:

  • Skai Piksa in Papua New Guinea (PNG) – from March to Dec 1973 and again in 1975;
  • Gading4 operating from Tengah air base in Singapore and mapping Kalimantan, Sumatra and Irian Jaya – 1974;
  • Gading 5 operating from Kemajoram air base in Jakarta – 1976;
  • Christmas Island, Cocos/Keeling group – 1976 Cenderawasih (Bird of Paradise) from Mokmer airfield, (Biak), Gove and Darwin – 1976, 1977; 1978, 1979 1980 and 1981 (continual cloud cover prevented completion of the survey).


Retirement of the Canberra

In the late 1970s, stress corrosion fatigue in the wing attachment forgings was becoming a problem and frequent wing changes were necessary to maintain adequate aircraft numbers on the flight line. Together with other economies in the RAAF, the high cost of maintenance forced a review of the Canberra life of type. Finally, the Canberras were retired from RAAF service in July 1982.

Those who served in Canberra squadrons and support units have many memories, mostly fond, and are proud to have been associated with the “Queen of the Skies” during its time in the RAAF. However, it was a timely retirement.

Plaque Dedication and Reunion

In August 2007, a commemorative plaque was installed in the Remembrance Garden of the Australian War Memorial to commemorate the long and illustrious operational history of No 2 Squadron. The Dedication Ceremony and the Association reunion dinner that night were held in Canberra to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Vietnam Veterans Day held next day, a national event held in Canberra each year.

Air Commodore John Whitehead DSO (Retd), a former Commanding Officer of 2 Squadron in Vietnam, gave the commemorative address. His closing words were:

“The Squadron’s successes would not have been possible without the dedicated contribution of its members at all levels, or without their ideals of courage, endurance, team-work, and mateship.
Through this plaque we commemorate those members of No 2 Squadron who died in the service of our Nation, and the many others who sacrificed much in support of freedom and peace.
We celebrate the Squadron’s past and continuing achievements.
We salute and honour the courage and sacrifice of its members.
The service of No 2 Squadron is not to be forgotten.
Let it be an inspiration to those who serve today, and to those who follow.”

Reformation of the Squadron

No 2 Squadron was reformed in 2000 and established to operate the Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control aircraft. Based on the Boeing 737-700 aircraft, the Wedgetail provides advanced airborne air space control and management for the RAAF into 2010 and beyond.

AEW&C aircraft provide a capability to ‘see’ beyond the radar horizon (18-20 Km at sea level) by positioning the aircraft at about 35,000 feet (10,000m) so that the radar can detect activities in the airspace and on land, out to about 400 kms. The airborne radar can cover a large area of low, medium and high level airspace; an AEW&C aircraft cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet (10,700m) can maintain surveillance over an area of 400,000 square kilometres continuously while airborne. Over a 10-hour mission (eg Darwin to Perth and return), the AEW&C aircraft can cover over 4 million square kilometres. In addition to its area coverage capabilities and the advanced technologies employed, the aircraft can transit to an operational area quickly and can change station in reaction to changed situations.

Design and development of the Wedgetail Aircraft

The Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft is based on the Boeing 737-700IGW airframe and is designed to meet Australia’s requirement for an aircraft to meet the RAAF requirement in Project Wedgetail. The aircraft uses the Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar. The radar is mounted on a dorsal fin on top of the fuselage, dubbed the “top hat”, and is designed for minimal aerodynamic effect. Other modifications include ventral fins to counterbalance the radar and antennas mounted on the nose, wingtips and tail. The Australian aircraft operates ten consoles in the main cabin with space for two more.

In 1997, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems was awarded a contract to supply four AEW&C aircraft with options on a further three aircraft; two of these options have been exercised. Aircraft deliveries were to begin in 2006, but significant program delays occurred, mainly due to problems integrating radar with other major sensors and systems. BAE Systems provides electronic warfare self protection systems, EWSP (ECM, chaff and flare dispensers) and the electronic support measures, ESM ( radar warning systems) and ground support systems.

The first two Wedgetail aircraft were assembled by Boeing and underwent testing in USA before delivery to the RAAF. The final four aircraft were assembled by Boeing Australia at RAAF Base Amberley, QLD. The two aircraft were delivered to No 2 Squadron RAAF Base Williamtown in November 2009, initially Boeing owned and operated. The RAAF formally accepted the aircraft into RAAF service on 5 May 2010. Three additional aircraft were delivered in 2010/11.

Final acceptance was December 2010, with some additional effort, until mid 2011, to achieve about 98 per cent compli-ance of about 10,000 requirements. During the workup to full operational capability, the squadron operated with the RAN and the FFGs and other elements of the ADF. Software upgrades and ESM workup with USN during RIMPAC exercises assisted in the operational assessment of the aircraft and its battle space management systems.

Operation OKRA

The KC-30A and E-7A operating in Iraq are serving with the Air Task Group (ATG), the RAAF’s air combat group operating within a US-led international coalition assembled to disrupt and degrade Daesh operations. The ATG comprises six RAAF F/A-18 Hornets, an E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft and a KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft.

October 23rd 2015 was a historic day for the RAAF following the first combat refuelling by a RAAF KC-30A Multirole Tanker Transport aircraft using its new air refueling boom system (ARBS). The flying boom system allows for faster transfer of fuel than the hose-and-drogue system and will allow the RAAF to air-to-air refuel aircraft such as the C-17A Globemaster III, the E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft and the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter.

The Australian Air Task Group E-7A Wedgetail command and control aircraft of No 2 Squadron has achieved a record 100% mission success rate in Coalition operations against Daesh in the Middle East. The record is attributed to Rotation 5 of aircrew and maintenance personnel that operated the aircraft over the last four months.

A RAAF E-7A Wedgetail carries out the first operational
air-to-air refueling from a RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft in Iraq. Photo: CPL Ben Dempster

Commander of the Air Task Group, Air Commodore Antony Martin, said that the men and women of the E-7A detachment should all be immensely proud of their efforts. “They’ve all set the bar exceptionally high, especially achieving 100% mission completion – a fantastic effort,” he said. “Such success speaks volumes about what the whole team has achieved in the past few months. The take-away for Rotation 5 is that their role and that of the E-7A Wedgetail in facilitating combat airpower capability in the Middle East is first class.”

Rotation 5 Detachment Commander, Squadron Leader David, explained that the record was the first time that an E-7A Rotation in the Middle East had successfully conducted every single mission they were assigned over the period of their deployment – in this case all 36 missions.

Personnel from Rotation Six of the Air Task Group (ATG) E-7A Wedgetail detachment, Task Element 630.1.2, have completed their operational deployment to the Middle East region in 2016. The section received a Commander Air Task Group commendation for, but not limited to, demonstrating excellent teamwork and being adaptable in a dynamic operational environment, ensuring the E-7A was safe to fly all of the missions it was tasked to do.

Written by Lance Halvorson

• History of the AFC in The Great War 1914-18 by Norman Clifford & Lance Halvorson – Air Force Association 2018.
• Office of Air Force History – Air Force Imagery
• Going Solo by Alan Stephens – AGPS 1995
• Highest Traditions by John Bennett – AGPS 1995