Colchester, 2 August 2016
When was the last time that an RAF aircraft was confirmed as being shot down by an enemy in an air-to-air engagement?
It was during the Suez crisis in 1956.
I call it an engagement rather than aerial combat because the casualty was an unarmed photo reconnaissance 'plane: a 58 Squadron English Electric Canberra PR 7, WH799.
Two of the crew ejected safely; the third – the navigator, 26-year-old Flying Officer Roy Urquhart-Pullen – was killed.
The Canberra was crippled in its starboard engine by cannon fire from a Syrian Air Force Gloster Meteor F8. The British-built fighter was one of two small batches that had been sold to the Syrians by Britain in the early 1950s.
I was unaware of any of this until I was asked to make a picture to mark the 60th anniversary of the encounter this November.
The Canberra was a superlative aircraft, conceived in the 1940s as a jet successor to the equally brilliant De Havilland Mosquito.
In continuous service with the RAF for more than half a century, Canberras were also licensed to Australia and to the United States of America (as the B-57) and subsequently used by almost a dozen other countries.
Through a succession of improvements the PR 7 had evolved from the B 6 bomber version.
Suez – an embarrassment in British history – is not a conflict that brings any cause for celebration, aside from the fact that the RAF pilots did their job efficiently and bravely as usual.
The photo reconnaissance Canberras were stationed at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. Like all the allied aircraft in the region they were given a hasty, D-Day type treatment of high contrast fuselage and wing bands, in this case yellow and black - although a shortage of the correct paint meant the ones in Cyprus wore more sandy coloured 'yellow' stripes.
The Syrians were not directly involved in the conflict but were very closely allied with Egypt – their pilots trained there – and British commanders were very keen to know what was happening in the Syrian airfields amid reports of Russian MiG fighters being delivered.
An earlier overflight on 6 November had been thwarted by cloud cover but it had also been intercepted by the Syrians. It had been fired on – unsuccessfully, at extreme range, but you might think it surprising that a repeat mission was ordered in another unarmed and unescorted Canberra.
Syria had limited air defence resources but had devised a basic system involving ground observers telephoning in aircraft sightings. Centrally-controlled fighters could then be scrambled to intercept the intruders. Sound familiar?
So it was that as WH799 did the rounds of target airfields – and because the Syrians were already alert it was caught, in the vicinity of Homs, in a break in the cloud cover that had cloaked its mission.
In a diving stern attack one of the Meteors set fire to the Canberra's right engine.
The normal crew on the photo reconnaissance aircraft was two. In this case the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bernie Hunter, who was sitting in an ejector seat. His navigator-cum-photographer, Flying Officer Urquhart-Pullen, lay in the transparent blister in the aircraft's nose, but also had an ejector seat in a compartment behind the pilot.
On this occasion however there was a third man aboard: Flight Lieutenant Sam Small. The PR Canberras at Akrotiri had received a field modification that had installed a periscope in the nav station so its occupant could look backwards to watch for attackers. You can just make this out in my picture. Sam Small was in the nav seat to do this.
Realising the aircraft was doomed the pilot ordered Small to eject, which he did. Hunter said he did not know what became of Urquhart-Pullen – possibly he tried to bail out through the normal forward entrance hatch. His body was found with the wreckage, which came down just inside Syria, and now lies in the Anglo-American Cemetery in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
Hunter and Small landed on their parachutes just on the Lebanese side of the border. They were taken to a Syrian border post but after a tense few days they were repatriated.
At midnight on the day they had been shot down, Britain declared a ceasefire.
Making the picture presented a number of challenges, as always. Checking the details of the aircraft proved tricky and I had to make a number of educated guesses.
For example, I went with the widely accepted version that a lack of yellow paint for the detachments on Cyprus resulted in a more sandy mix for the identification stripes.
And on many of the Canberra bombers the stripes around the fuselage were centred on the RAF roundel. However on another of the PR aircraft at Akrotiri I know they were painted further back, so I went with that as being the more likely.
The trickiest thing to depict was the metallic sheen of the aluminium paint scheme. I settled on a mix of brightness and dark areas, with a partial overlay of reflected sky blue and clouds, as looking most effective to my eye.
As so often, it's all about the light.
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