Please Note: There have been repeated claims that during the 1991 Gulf War an Iraqi MiG-29 shot down an RAF Tornado GR.1. These claims have never been fully substantiated and as such have been largely dismissed. For more information please read RAF Tornado Losses During Desert Storm
In the general mindset of the British population in the 21st century the 1956 Suez War has largely disappeared in to the abyss of ignorance save for those who have an interest in political and military history. In fact it was one of the most fundamental conflicts in British history because it coldly affirmed Britain’s new position in the post-World War II era and beyond as a second-rate power to the United States. The Empire was already beginning to fracture in to a series of newly-born republics or self-governed territories under the banner of the Commonwealth and the British people themselves were still reeling from the hardship of economic recovery. Given this backdrop it is therefore somewhat symbolic that it would be in this conflict that the Royal Air Force would lose its last aircraft to date in air-to-air combat.
The euphoria of victory against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan still lingered in the British consciousness even ten years after the cessation of the war. The old British sense of superiority in all endeavours seemed reinforced by the country’s thriving air industry that were churning out incredible aircraft that distracted the public from the still rather sorry state of many of the country’s bombed out cities and towns. While fighters still thrilled crowds at the Farnborough air shows the early 1950s actually saw a renaissance for the ‘bomber boys’ whose new mounts seemed light years ahead of the relatively slow and lumbering wartime Avro Lancasters and Handley-Page Halifaxes. These aircraft included the Vickers Valiant, the first V-Bomber designed to give Britain a nuclear knock-out punch, and the earlier English Electric Canberra medium bomber whose grace and performance particularly at altitude seemed to make it almost otherworldly. As crowds watched both the Canberra and the Valiant perform stunning displays at the 1956 air show few could have realized that both these aircraft would be in action by the end of the year.
On July 26th 1956 the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced his intention to nationalise the Suez Canal in response to the ongoing Arab conflict with Israel and western attempts to manipulate him in to making peace with Jerusalem and effectively side with the West in the Cold War. His speech served as a codeword for the Egyptian armed forces to seize the canal and put it under Egyptian rule. This threatened British interests in the region and Britain along with France and Israel concocted a secret plan to retake the canal and oust Nasser from power. Under Operation Musketeer the three nations stunned the world with their assault beginning with the Israelis on October 29th 1956. The Anglo-French force arrived a few days later claiming to be acting in protection of the canal zone amid the fighting and began a massive air assault in preparation for the landings on November 6th. The Egyptians had been virtually routed but it was at this point that the fatal political hammer blow would come down on the operation and it came from Washington.
The British and French governments had made a catastrophic error in assuming they would get American support once the operation began but President Dwight D. Eisenhower was furious at being hoodwinked by his allies. World condemnation for the operation was swift and Eisenhower was not about to put America in to the political firing line having not even been consulted first. The Royal Navy had also used an exercise with American forces in the Mediterranean as cover for the build-up of British warships prior to the conflict which didn’t help matters.
Most seriously, as far as Eisenhower was concerned, was the fear that the operation would only push Egypt closer to the Soviet Union in the Cold War (which it largely did) and that it distracted from the more pressing situation in Hungary. The Hungarian Uprising, a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, broke out just days before the Israeli assault and threatened to destabilise Eastern Europe. The President therefore put his political foot down and demanded the British and French withdraw threatening to cut off financial aid if they didn’t which would have had disastrous consequences for both countries. The conflict officially ended on November 7th 1956 with the British and French withdrawing rather embarrassingly and with Nasser still in power.
Until the order to cease hostilities was given however the British armed forces committed to the fight continued on unabated. One such unit was the Royal Air Force’s No.13 Squadron operating the English Electric Canberra PR.7 out of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. The Canberra PR.7 was the high altitude photographic reconnaissance variant of the Canberra being equipped with cameras and additional fuel in place of offensive weapons. No.13 Squadron and its resident sister Canberra unit, No.58 Squadron, had been heavily involved in the Suez Crisis from the beginning providing the vital intelligence needed by the Anglo-French forces to suppress the Egyptian Air Force and support the invasion force. With the troops now committed, their intelligence gathering efforts were needed more than ever to guarantee that the landings didn’t fall foul to an Egyptian counterattack.
Subsequently the Akrotiri Canberra squadrons conducted six sorties on November 6th including a long range mission that covered Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese territory to investigate the amount of military support the Soviet Union was putting in to the region. Syria was a target for the Canberras because on October 25th 1956, days before the start of hostilities, Egypt signed a tripartite agreement with Syria and Jordan placing Nasser in effective command of all three armies. This reinforced his status as the world’s leading anti-Zionist leader but ultimately did little to benefit his forces on the battlefield who remained outclassed. The flight was nothing new to the Akrotiri Canberra squadrons and had become almost routine being referred to as a “milk run” by the crews. The flight path involved photographing Syrian bases at Lattakia, Alepo, Homs and Beirut as well as bases in northern Iraq. The flight path would take the aircraft to within five miles of Damascus which had been heavily fortified.
The designated Canberra left Akrotiri in the morning flying at medium altitudes using cloud to hide the aircraft. The Canberra flew its first leg over Iraq but upon crossing the border in to Syria near the city of Abu Kamal on the Euphrates River a security post spotted the aircraft and telephoned its position back to the Syrian Air Force. The air base at al-Mezze, south of Damascus, scrambled to get its squadron of Gloster Meteor F.8s in to the air to intercept the aircraft. Among the pilots who launched that day was Lieutenant Hafiz al-Asad, the future President of Syria and father of the current controversial Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The RAF Canberra continued onwards but found that the cloud cover that had afforded them much of their protection was now obscuring their targets. To fly under the cloud would have been to court death and when the silhouettes of the British-built Meteors appeared the crew elected to cut their losses and turn back for Cyprus. The Syrian Meteors pursued the aircraft firing a burst of gunfire at the Canberra at extreme range but failed to find their mark. The Canberra returned to Cyprus with news that the mission was incomplete much to the frustration of the RAF commanders. It is likely that any information regarding the build-up of Soviet-supplied equipment was to be used in trying desperately to sway the Americans back on side because a second Canberra was almost immediately ordered in to the air to essentially repeat the mission.
The aircraft selected was Canberra PR.7 WH799 and the crew that were to fly it consisted of Flight Lieutenant Bernie Hunter as pilot and Flying Officer Roy Erquhart-Pullen as navigator. While reconnaissance Canberras generally flew with a crew of two a third crewmen joined them on this flight namely Flight Lieutenant Sam Small whose purpose was to get operational experience having only just arrived in Cyprus as part of a reinforcement contingent and perhaps more importantly provide an extra set of eyes in the cockpit.
The aircraft launched from RAF Akrotiri at around 1230hrs and proceeded on to the first leg of its mission. Like the previous mission the aircraft went in at around 12,000ft using clouds to mask its approach since even with ground radar stations guiding them the Syrian fighters and anti-aircraft gunners still needed to locate the aircraft visually since they lacked their own radars. Despite this however the aircraft was spotted by Syrian forces positioned around the port city of Lattakia and again the base at al-Mezze scrambled its Meteor F.8s in to the air to try and intercept.
The Canberra made its run over Aleppo but as the it approached Homs the Syrians were directed to climb above the Canberra which unfortunately had now lost its protection by a sudden break in the clouds. In the bulbous cockpit of the Canberra Flt Lt Small stood up alongside Hunter at the controls peering out in to an almost clear sky while Erquhart-Pullen was in the aircraft’s nose in the prone position. Small suddenly spied the unmistakable silhouettes of a pair of twin engined Meteors coming down on to them at a shallow angle.
In order to increase the closing speed and thus limit the time the defenceless Canberra was in the firing line, Hunter turned his aircraft in to the direction of the attacking Syrian fighters. The Syrian pilots squeezed off a few rounds in a desperate bid to hit the British aircraft but got nothing for their effort and passed by at high speed. Their only chance was to try and escape in to Lebanon using the cloud bank above them and so Hunter put the aircraft in to a climb but as he did, Small spotted a second pair of Meteors beginning their attack. Knowing that if he continued climbing then the Meteors would be presented with a clear shot Hunter turned in on the second pair. The second pair of Syrian Meteors opened up on the Canberra with their 20mm cannons as they passed but this time the Canberra’s starboard engine was hit.
The aircraft had been mortally wounded and was now becoming increasingly uncontrollable. Hunter knew the aircraft was doomed and ordered Erquhart-Pullen to return to the main cockpit and abandon the aircraft. Small strapped himself in to the navigator’s ejection seat and was soon launched out of the aircraft. Just why Erquhart-Pullen didn’t respond to Hunter’s instructions is unclear but he never returned to the rear cockpit. Hunter later said that he assumed Erquhart-Pullen had tried to bail out from the front because of a thudding noise he took to be him escaping. With the aircraft no longer flying, Hunter ejected from the aircraft leaving it to begin its final descent to the Earth below landing approximately one mile from the border with Lebanon.
Hunter, somewhat miraculously, landed on the Lebanese side of the border suffering a broken ankle. Small came down a short distance away from him and their two parachutes had attracted a lot of attention from locals who took them to be Israelis. Given the tension between the Arab world and Israel at the time the villagers became intent on venting their anger upon them until an English speaking teacher heard their pleas and managed to calm the crowd down. However, they were still marched by the crowd to a nearby Syrian border post where they were handed over. After a few days of questioning they were met by British officials who arranged to have them taken back to Cyprus by boat.
Flying Officer Roy Erquhart-Pullen’s body was found in the wreckage of the aircraft. It’s possible a stray shell from the attacking Meteors had killed or incapacitated him during the attack. The RAF were criticised by politicians and observers over the incident. The biggest criticism was that an undefended Canberra was instructed to repeat a previous mission that had ended with an interception and had therefore left the Syrians on high alert ready for a follow-up aircraft.
The shooting down of Canberra WH799 was the last time (thus far) that an RAF aircraft was shot down by a hostile fighter in combat. The day after the incident the ceasefire was declared and shortly after that the British and French began their withdrawal amid a new air of Anglo-US hostility that would only be repaired by the need to face an increasingly hostile Soviet Union.