Book Review – B-57 Canberra Units of the Vietnam War, by T.E. Bell

First flying on April 21, 1950, and entering service in May the next year, the English Electric Canberra was the West’s first jet bomber since Germany’s Arado Ar-234B of World War II, also serving in the reconnaissance and training roles. The Americans also built 403 under license, though the Martin B-57B acquired a certain distinctive silhouette of its own by replacing the original side-by-side crew arrangement with a tandem cockpit under a longer bubble canopy.

Like many other Cold War bombers, the B-57Bs seemed destined to either the sudden oblivion of nuclear war or the eventual oblivion of deterrence followed by retirement, but the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident changed that. Deployed to Vietnam later that month—and suffering an embarrassing spate of crackups in the process—two squadrons of B-57Bs initially flew frustrating “reconnaissance” missions meant simply to “show the flag” until the wee hours of November 1, 1964, when a Viet Cong mortar attack on Bien Hoa Airbase left five of them destroyed and another 15 badly damaged. Replaced by Air National Guard planes, the B-57Bs finally flew their first real combat mission—and the first bomb strike by jet aircraft on South Vietnamese soil—on February 19, 1965. From then on, the Canberras were active in numerous roles, mostly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where their incursions into Laotian air space and their exploits in general were buried deep in secrecy.

As documents have been declassified, journalist T.E. Bell has been able to compile a narrative of an overlooked component of the early American air effort in No. 85 in Osprey’s Combat Aircraft series, B-57 Canberra Units of the Vietnam War. Commendably keeping their activities in perspective with the overall course of the conflict, Bell brings to light the wide range of tasks, suitable for the plane or not, that the aircrews of the 8th and 13th Bomber squadrons faithfully and often heroically carried out over eight years, often at heartbreaking cost, while newer warplanes were making the news headlines. In addition to those U.S. Air Force units, the author gives a nod to those Canberras serving in the Vietnam Air Force, as well as the Canberra B-20s license-built by Australia’s Government Aircraft Factory and deployed to Phan Rang Airbase with No. 2 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, which arguably racked up the highest efficiency rating, plane for plane, of any outfit in Vietnam.

Rounding out this comprehensive and extensively illustrated study are the B-57Gs, B-models upgraded with such deadly electronic armament as low light level television and infrared radar capable of detecting enemy trucks through their camouflage foliage at night, as well as laser-guided bombs and Gatling guns. Complemented by the usual wealth of color profiles by artist Jim Laurier, B-57 Canberra Units of the Vietnam War should be of great interest to enthusiasts of the early jet age and especially welcome among veteran crew members seeing their hitherto-unsung deeds finally getting their due.

Osprey Publishing, 2011

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