Project Robin

Canberra PR3 The codename ‘Project Robin’ has often been identified with the photographic sortie conducted by a single RAF Canberra over Kapustin Yar, probably in the summer of 1953. However, recently de-classified files indicate that Kapustin Yar was probably a totally separate operation, although it is highly likely that Canberra B2, WH726, which was definitely involved in Project Robin, was also used either for the sortie over Kapustin Yar or in support.

In his article on overflights R Cargill Hall has stated that the Kapustin Yar sortie was flown in late August 1953 from Giebelstadt in West Germany. Records from 540 Sqn, who most likely conducted the sortie, note that on 27th & 28th Aug 53 ‘long range operational sorties’ were flown by Wg Cdr Freddie Ball and Sqn Ldr Don Kenyon in WH726 and Flt Lt Gartside and FS Wigglesworth in WJ574. A second aircraft usually followed an aircraft engaged on an operational sortie for the initial part of the flight, both as an airborne spare and to check that the lead aircraft was not leaving a giveaway contrail. From the details that have gradually begun to emerge from a variety of sources, this record appears to coincide with what can be established on the Kapustin Yar sortie, but until the official records are released, it is impossible to confirm if this was the actual sortie.

Canberra B2

The Canberra sortie over Kapustin Yar highlighted the well known danger of a reconnaissance aircraft having to overfly a highly sensitive, and therefore very well defended target, to obtain photographs. However, although side-facing cameras had been installed in various aircraft over the years, their optics were generally fairly restricted and this prevented the camera from having any really effective ‘range’ from the aircraft. In the United States the brilliant camera designer, Jim Baker, had developed a reconnaissance camera with a 100-inch lens. What was needed was a suitable aircraft which could carry the camera to the highest possible service ceiling, allowing it photograph targets at maximum range. At the time there was nothing in the USAF inventory that was suitable, but the RAF’s Canberra fitted the bill exactly.

Canberra B2 WH726 as 236

In June 1953, following an approach from the USAF, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Air Staff, agreed in principle, subject to certain conditions, that the 100 inch American camera could be fitted to a Canberra, the aircraft chosen was a B2, Serial No: WH726. It was agreed that the USAF would be given copies of any ‘interesting’ photographs the Canberra obtained. Later in Jan-Feb 1954 Jim Baker visited the RAF’s Director of Intelligence, AVM Fressanges to discuss various issues, including the specially equipped Canberra. During the visit, Fressanges discussed the Kapustin Yar sortie, another clear indication of summer 1953 being the correct timescale for the sortie. Of course there is a possibility that the camera could have been hurriedly installed in time for WH726 to use it on the Kapustin Yar overflight later that summer. But, given the timescale involved, there would have been little time for the aircraft to be suitably modified and the equipment tested but it is a possibility. Also, would the Americans have been prepared to risk the loss of this unique and highly expensive camera on such a dangerous sortie, possibly allowing it to fall into the hands of the Soviets, so soon after it came into service?

Canberra B2 WH726 as 236

The actual F22 camera fitted to WH726 was known as a ‘Bomb Camera’ and used very advanced folding optics, allowing the entire unit to be enclosed in a compact housing resembling a large oil drum which was designed to be mounted in the bomb bay of an aircraft - hence the name. Photographs show the ‘Bomb Camera’ was mounted in the front part of the bomb bay of WH726, looking out of a window cut-out through the side of the port bomb bay door, almost in line with the port undercarriage.

After being fitted with the F22 ‘Bomb Camera’ the specially equipped Canberra, WH726, was ready to start operations. The Canberra was flown at 40,000 feet over West Germany, from Lubeck in the north to the junction of the borders of Czechoslovakia in the south, on a course roughly 40nm parallel with the East German border. Given that the camera looked-out of the port side of the bomb bay, the sorties would have to have been flown from North to South. The camera had an impressive range of around 60nm on flight trials a clear photograph of St Pauls cathedral in central London was obtained whilst the aircraft was over the Channel near Dover.

The Project Robin sorties that can be confirmed took place on the following dates:

  • 23 Apr 1954
  • 8 May 1954
  • 11 May 1954
  • 26 Aug 1954
  • 27 Aug 1954
  • 3 Jun 1955
  • 18 Jun 1955
  • 19 Jun 1955
  • 23 Jul 1955

These nine sorties were flown along the borders of Soviet controlled Germany. The flights covered several different areas and included sorties that were abandoned owing to poor weather conditions. Further flights were planned to cover the borders of Czechoslovakia and the then Soviet Zone of Austria. The photographs obtained certainly justified the further use of the aircraft, but whether other sorties were then subsequently conducted is not known. When the first U-2 sortie over Eastern Europe took place on the 20th June 56 the value of the photographs that the Canberra could obtain were immediately superseded and Operation Robin was quickly scaled down. The camera was subsequently removed from the Canberra and the aircraft returned to more ‘normal’ duties with 540 Sqn. WH726 was subsequently sold back to BAC, converted into a Mk B72 and sold to Peru where it was registered as ‘236’. The eventual fate of WH726 is unknown – a great shame considering the aircraft’s unique history.

What other Canberra’s supported WH726 as it engaged in Operation Robin and where are they now?

B2 Serial No: WH800 was converted by BAC into a PR57, sold to the Indian Air Force and given the registration P1098.

B2 Serial No: WH712 was converted by BAC into a B(1)2 for Venezuela and registered as ‘1425’

The PR3’s that are known to have served with 540 Sqn are:
WE136, WE319, WE140, WE141, WE142, WE143, WE144, WE145, WE148, WE149, WE167, WE168 and WE170

Note:
Canberra B2 WJ574

A number of publications state that a Canberra B2 Serial No: WH574 was used to support the 540 Sqn ‘long range operational sorties’ on 27th and 28th Aug 1953. In the authoritative work on the Canberra ‘English Electric Canberra’ by Ken Delve, Peter Green & John Clemons, published by Midland Counties Publications in 1992, all the Canberra’s produced are listed. There is no record of a Canberra B2 with an RAF Serial No of WH574. However, a Canberra B2, Serial No WJ574, was accepted into service by 540 Sqn on 4 Jun 53. This aircraft was later sold to BAC in Jun 1969, converted to TT18 standard and sold to the RN for duties with FRADU. The aircraft still survives to this day in the USA where it is a regular on the airshow circuit in its old FRADU colours.