De Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk T.10 WG486 of RAF Gatow Station Flight over the Brandenburg Gate in 1994. Of 1940s vintage, the venerable Chipmunk outlasted all the other aircraft types by successfully operating for forty years in the BCZ.
View from a BRIXMIS Chipmunk under fire from a Soviet soldier. Flying at low level over Soviet installations clearly carried a risk and on occasions aircraft returned with the odd extra hole. Fortunately no one was ever hurt in such incidents.
From the outset the Russians harassed flights in the Corridors, but this was inconsistent and not directed solely at ICFs. The level of harassment depended on the international political temperature at the time. In the late 1940s/early 1950s there was often harassment of flights and incidences of Russian fighters opening fire on Allied military and civilian aircraft using the Corridors. This was especially true in the lead-up to the Berlin Blockade and Airlift. The fighters sometimes flew very close to aircraft, causing crashes and fatalities, such as the BEA Viking and Yak-3 collision over Dallgow-Döberitz in April 1948.
There were certainly many near misses, but these were generally attributed to accidental miscalculation, or excessive zeal, rather than deliberately planned and officially sanctioned action, although the possibility that there was a mix of both cannot be totally discounted. There were also instances when Soviet fighters practised interception techniques on aircraft in the Corridors. In times of heightened international or local tension, there were likely to be more ‘interceptions’ and close fly-bys to demonstrate to the West the Corridors’ vulnerability. This was especially true in 1961 and 1962 when the second Berlin crisis approached its climax. Incidents that involved large numbers of MiG fighters operating within the Corridors and intercepting aircraft were discussed by the British Cabinet in February 1962. Overall, Corridor incidents may well have been under-reported to avoid drawing unwanted attention to reconnaissance flights.
In 1962 the US complained to the Soviets on a number of occasions about the interception of its Corridor flights, although few resulted in formal diplomatic protests. On 23 July, two MiGs closed to within a hundred feet of a Carol Ann CT-29 (49–1910) some 10 to 15 miles north of Tempelhof. Later on the same day, a US Overseas Airways DC-7 was shadowed for some seven to eight minutes about 70 to 80 miles west of Berlin in the Southern Corridor. The ‘interception’ took place at around 4,000ft and at one point a MiG was only 20yd from the DC-7 and flying ‘in a manner which endangered the DC-7’s safety’. The US protest added that this was the fourth serious incident in seven days.
Frank Doucette, flying aboard the Hot Pepper C-54, recounted that:
Flying in the South Corridor, we got caught with the camera door open, working. The MiG pilot looked and waved. We waved back and took his picture. When we got to Berlin we contacted ‘Homeplate’ and they said for us to go to Châteauroux Air Base, France. When we got there, we were directed into a large hangar with engines running. We shut down and there was sitting another C-54 with the same tail number. Imagine that!
The crew returned to Wiesbaden in the re-marked aircraft and for the next week continued to ‘trail their coat’ along the Corridors. ‘Captain Stan Sturgill, First-Lieutenant Ron Hummel and I flew the Corridors at maximum altitude and at its edge. We had parachutes, steel pots, and blood chits, but the Soviets didn’t take the bait as they could see the distinctive large belly radome was absent.’
One of the most serious harassment incidents was the interception of a Pembroke. On 17 January 1972 XL954 was intercepted by three MiG-17’s which thundered by in line astern. Rob Fallon, one of the navigators, described how their Pembroke, flying close to the edge of the Southern Corridor, suddenly started bouncing around:
Immediately the radio became very frantic and we went onto a discrete frequency. The pilot lowered the undercarriage and flaps and brought XL954 down close to its stall speed and moved us back onto the corridor centreline. Meanwhile we were bouncing around in the back, rewinding the film to re-expose it, expecting that we might have to force land. Our cover story suddenly looked very thin. I had been reading the Gulag Archipelago at the time and had visions that, even if very lucky, we might end up in Siberia for a very long time!
The MiG-17s couldn’t compete with such slow speed, so carried on circling in order to stay with us. Soon another aircraft, this time a MiG-21, came up. It flew on a reciprocal heading beneath us and close enough to see the pilot looking up and waving. We could easily see the missiles loaded under the wings; he was probably at around 2,000ft. Radar was talking to us continually and monitored its approach.
After the event the RAF received an apology for the incident from the Russians through the BASC. The excuse given was that a trainee radar operator monitoring the Corridors had mis-plotted an aircraft, showing it had an apparent ground speed of 600 knots. Checking the inbound flight plans to Berlin, the only thing around was a twin-engined RAF aircraft and he made the assumption that it was one of our new RAF Phantoms commencing an attack run on Berlin to start World War Three! They were told that we were not shot down, or forced to land, because the first CAP MiG to buzz us told his control that the aircraft was not a Phantom and perhaps they should check again.
One significant piece of intelligence came out of this incident. The intercepting pilots could be heard talking in Russian. This confirmed Soviet involvement in CAPs because until then the intelligence suggested that only East Germans operated the alert and CAP aircraft.
A number of possible reasons explain the near misses experienced by Allied reconnaissance aircraft in the Corridors, such as high cockpit workloads causing distraction, failing to understand ATC instructions, and some because individual pilots wanted to ‘show off’ or be ‘mischievous’. Despite the harassment, not a single Allied aircraft operating in the Corridors or BCZ on reconnaissance operations was brought down, although the Soviets had shown on many occasions that they were quite prepared to bring down overflights and peripheral missions and to harass civilian and military flights en route to Berlin. There are instances of Allied aircraft leaving the relative safety of the Corridors but these were rare and largely undocumented. When they happened noisy Soviet protests usually followed, but not always. On 6 May 1975 an RAF Pembroke strayed from the Centre Corridor, penetrating into GDR airspace by 3½ miles. It eventually regained the Corridor after flying some 15 miles further before flying on to RAF Wildenrath. The British BASC element reported: ‘no contact was possible on any frequency’ with the aircraft until after it re-entered the Corridor. The Soviet controller in the BASC was not told of the incursion and no protest was filed.
Official records cast no light on the reasons for this ‘diversion’ so any explanation is speculative. Deliberately leaving the Corridor, even just by a few miles, was very risky. Such action would have to be approved at a very high level and justified by an intelligence priority of the highest order. Close-in ‘looks’ happened very rarely. They were never ‘officially’ authorised and there would be no official instructions. At the crew brief it could be suggested that, if conditions allowed, they might fly to the very edge of the Corridor to photograph a target of great importance but the final decision rested with the crew. In the event of a Soviet protest, the crew might receive an ‘interview without coffee and biscuits from their CO’, which was then instantly forgotten. The simple explanation is that there was probably a navigational error and the pilot eased the aircraft back into the Corridor rather than make an abrupt turn, in the hope that no one would notice it.
However, in this instance, the following day another Pembroke, most likely a passenger aircraft flying from RAF Gütersloh to Gatow along the Centre Corridor, adjacent to where the previous day’s Pembroke had left the Corridor, was subjected to a frightening airmiss:
the twin jet came from the South [and] passed in front of Pembroke by approx. 50yd. Then made a left turn onto a Southerly heading and disappeared from the Pembroke pilot’s view.
Unable to identify it definitively, the pilot described it as a ‘twin jet, swept wing with red star on fuselage’.
No other details of this incident are available, but the airmiss could indicate that the previous day’s excursion had indeed been noticed by the Soviets and was a sign of their displeasure.
As serious as reconnaissance flights were, a number of incidents, with a humorous side, illustrate that the Soviets had a very clear picture of what the Allies were doing. Phil Chaney described that during his tour: ‘one week before Christmas at an airfield on the Centre Corridor trampled out in the thick snow, just in front of the tower, in English and in time for the routine Pembroke’s overflight was “Happy Christmas”.’
Others have recounted similar messages. Indeed, snow seems to have been a popular medium for Soviet communication with overflying aircraft. As well as simple greetings there were also forthright expressions of the desire that the recipients ‘go away’ – or words to that effect. Phil Chaney describes another contact with the Russians around 1980 during a darts match against members of the BASC in the Gatow Officers’ Mess. ‘While I was playing against the Russian Colonel, he turned to me and asked, very slowly, if I was visiting on “The Pembroke” – then winked!’
Major General Peter Williams, who did two tours with BRIXMIS, was convinced that even the East German population knew precisely what the Chipmunks did. He recalls:
On one occasion a forester stopped us on tour as we were trying to creep up on a Soviet radar deployment in a forest north of Potsdam and, taking no notice of our protestations of incomprehension, announced: ‘Sorry, but you’re too late! The Russians were here for four days with about a dozen trucks, but they went home to Schönwalde late this morning. But don’t worry, your little plane came over and buzzed them earlier!’
Similarly, on 26 March 1981 there was a BASC Senior Controllers meeting. At the time there were a number of ongoing disputes between the western allies and the Soviets over a number of issues. These included a very close ‘airmiss’ between a Soviet helicopter and a Panam airlines B-727, a bullet that had struck an RAF C-130 landing at RAF Gatow and the Soviets unhappy with the conduct of western light aircraft flights within the BCZ, but especially the British and their Chipmunk in parts of the zone. At the time the Soviet Chief Controller, Colonel Evstigneyev was seen as rather a testy and excitable man and during the meeting he protested a number of times about alleged low flying transgressions in the Karlshorst and Werneuchen airfield areas of the Chipmunk and said: ‘Earlier this week the British Chipmunk was near Karlshorst taking pictures. The pilot took some of me walking between buildings. May I have copies please.’ Roy Marsden has also asserted that the Soviets knew exactly what the RAF Chipmunks were up to. He has said that in meetings with Soviet SERB officers they ‘often made oblique references to those who participated, about the Chipmunk aircraft and where it had been seen over installations both inside and allegedly outside the BCZ’. He believes that the Soviets largely turned a blind eye to many of the West’s intelligence-gathering activities in and over Berlin and the GDR. He thinks many senior Soviet officers, up until the late 1970s, had served in the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) and did not want to repeat that experience. They perhaps thought the way to deter a Western pre-emptive attack was to let them see just how strong Warsaw Pact forces were and that this would dissuade ‘any reckless Western politicians’ from risking conflict for a ‘quick victory’.
Why not Stronger Countermeasures?
If well aware of Allied reconnaissance flights, why did the Soviet forces not undertake stronger countermeasures? There are a wide range of possible explanations for this.
Some British participants expressed the view that the lack of strong action against Western aircraft was a quid pro quo from the Soviets for the occasional wanderings of allegedly camera-equipped Aeroflot and Interflug flights that deviated from their assigned flight track to overfly military installations in Federal Germany. They would not respond to ATC instructions until they had returned to their assigned route. For example, on 29 October 1976, Aeroflot Flight SU297 from Moscow to Madrid, via Luxembourg, made a substantial deviation from its assigned track and flight level to overfly the USAF’s Bitburg Air Base. At the time the TAB-V aircraft shelters there were being modified to accept F-15 aircraft and it was strongly believed that SU297 had deliberately deviated to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the base.
Similarly Peter Jefferies recalls the time that a Mi-26 Halo heavy-lift helicopter was en route to France for its first appearance at the Paris Airshow in 1981. It transited the Corridors, as it was entitled to do, exiting into West German airspace, then deviated from its approved flight plan to overfly the USAF bases at Bitburg and Hahn. During the deviation it failed to respond to any ATC transmissions. On arrival in Paris the rear clamshell doors opened to reveal a camera on an oblique mount in the rear fuselage.
The Risks of Deliberate Shoot Downs
To deliberately bring down a Corridor reconnaissance flight without prima facie evidence of its activity would have been a very high-risk strategy for the Soviets. It would certainly have resulted in an international incident and immediately increased local tension, with the possibility of Western retaliation.
Proving aerial espionage in international airways such as the Corridors would have needed the airframe and reconnaissance equipment to survive sufficiently intact to be put on public display, like Powers’ U-2. It would have been entirely unpredictable whether such a result could have been achieved from a forced landing, or shoot down. Even if the Soviets could publicly demonstrate ‘aerial espionage’, it would probably have bothered few politicians and diplomats on either side. Intelligence gathering was practised by both parties, so apart from some faux diplomatic indignation and posturing followed by tit-for-tat responses, inevitably temporarily damaging local relationships, it would have made little difference overall. The main outcome would have been a Soviet propaganda victory and there might have been a short-term suspension of reconnaissance flights, but they would have resumed after a decent interval. Western retaliation might have included harassing of Aeroflot and Interflug flights over West Germany or barring them from Western airports. The possibilities were endless but would have depended on Western political will. The only real value in shooting down an aircraft would have been to apply political and military pressure on the city and there were easier, and more predictable, ways to do that around Berlin.
Capturing a reconnaissance aircraft intact, with the crew alive and being able to put them on public display, would have been a very different matter. There were often attempts to lure aircraft out of the Corridors by ‘spoofing’ – giving false instructions or signals by Soviet and GDR forces. This came in many forms, such as suggesting that an aircraft was off-course and needed to correct its heading. If a genuine in-flight emergency was ever declared, a ‘helpful voice’ would come on to the frequency offering landing options at a Soviet or GDR airfield along the route. In 1981, Peter Jefferies was a passenger on a training flight which started to receive suspicious instructions that would have directed them into Werneuchen airfield. The day was ‘8/8ths blue and gin clear’ so it was a fruitless exercise by the Soviets, but nevertheless they tried.
Equipment Displays – Showing Us Too
Periodically the Soviets put on equipment displays to show senior officers their latest ‘kit’. They would show examples of each equipment item to be found in a formation, or present a themed display of equipment associated with a particular function, such as the Army-level air defence equipment display shown in image 66. These displays were often mounted under a Corridor and there was considerable speculation that besides their stated purpose they were also intended to be a ‘show and tell’ for the West’s benefit.
The foregoing is compelling enough evidence that the Soviets and East Germans were fully aware of the reconnaissance flights. What they may not have been aware of was the quantity and high quality of the photography produced and the intelligence extracted from it.
As well as putting equipment on display that would be very visible to reconnaissance flights, there is some evidence to the contrary, that the Soviets sometimes tried to conceal the presence of specific equipment items until they were ready to reveal them. In early 1977, the SA-8 Gecko SAM system was the ‘hot’ intelligence ‘flavour of the month’. Was it in East Germany or not? Peter Jefferies remembers being on a training flight in Pembroke XL953, which was not ‘in fit’ on 15 March 1977. The flight landed at RAF Gatow in the late morning and after lunch they took off to ‘do’ the BCZ. As the aircraft approached Dallgow-Döberitz, three SA-8 Gecko TELAR were seen moving at high speed across the former airfield towards the hangars. Was this just a normal return to barracks? Or had the garrison been warned of the ‘spyplane’ and was it quickly attempting to conceal the SA-8’s presence?
Why did the Soviets and East Germans not locate their forces in areas out of Corridor and BCZ camera range? Most GSFG and NVA forces were housed in former Reichswehr barracks that had been taken over at the end of the war, although the NVA possessed some new-build barracks. The cost of building all new facilities out of camera range would have been prohibitive. Locating forces out of camera range would also have created a huge gap in the centre of the GDR devoid of military forces, which would need to be repopulated with forces prior to any hostilities. Moving forces to fill such a gap would have been an important indicator in its own right that would have been hard to ignore. In any case constructing bases in almost any part of the GDR would still have left them vulnerable to some level of AMLM observation and aerial reconnaissance.
If the Soviets knew so much, why were the Allies so secretive about their reconnaissance flights? A cursory glance suggests that much of the secrecy practised by Allied military and governmental bodies was directed at concealing this knowledge from elements of their own, and other, military services and governments, although proving this would be extremely difficult. Openness would certainly have confirmed for the Soviets what they had long suspected. Reconnaissance operations were restricted to the three Allies. The British, French and US products were only shared directly between them and not widely with other NATO Allies. The West German government was never formally informed about the British flights until after they ceased in 1990. The Germans would almost certainly have insisted on the USA and UK sharing their information and material with them in return for allowing the flights’ continuation. Given the extent of the FRG government’s penetration by hostile intelligence services, the Soviets would soon have become totally aware of the operations and probably their products. Keeping the flights’ existence from them, and other less secure NATO nations, was considered necessary to reduce the risk of the operation’s compromise.
The use of transport and training aircraft meant that the intelligence-gathering operations were not overtly flaunted in the Soviets’ face, especially as they were integrated into the normal supply and VIP flights to and from the city. The sensors carried were very discreetly mounted and the numerous tell-tale external blisters and aerials associated with dedicated reconnaissance aircraft disguised as far as possible. Whilst the real role was kept largely hidden from the casual observer and was not an open affront to Soviet sensitivities, there was no immediate need for any ‘face-saving’ retaliation. This was a repetition of the situation created by early overflights of the USSR. Aware of the realities, as long as Corridor and BCZ flights were not too obvious, or provocative, the Soviet government was not forced into a political position where it was forced to act against them.
Politicians generally appeared to have recognised the military need for overflights to acquire intelligence. British politicians, senior MoD and FO/FCO officials saw political benefits of co-operation with the USA. Sharing British-collected imagery was a way of maintaining good relations with the US intelligence community and contributing something tangible to the US–UK intelligence ‘special relationship’, which was inevitably dominated by the Americans. But British politicians and officials were considerably more nervous about Soviet awareness of the programmes than the French and Americans. The British wanted the Corridor flights kept on a short leash, with a high degree of political control and ‘low visibility’. Their US counterparts treated Berlin operations in a more relaxed manner, important, but essentially ‘routine’ in nature. Both countries quickly developed procedures to balance the potential gains against the political and military risks involved until operations ended in 1990. The combination of AMLM activities and overflights of the GDR resulted in considerable information sharing between the three Western Allies and provided their intelligence agencies with rich pickings over the duration of the Cold War.
Britain, France and the USA devoted significant resources to the collection and exploitation of airborne intelligence in the Corridors and BCZ and from peripheral flights. The operations grew in both extent and sophistication and were vital for several reasons. Until the mid-1960s they provided the only regular, relatively low-risk, surveillance of the most forward-based Soviet and East German forces. The priority was to try to gauge the level of direct threat to West Germany and Berlin, especially during the turbulent period of the second Berlin crisis between 1958 and 1962 and when The Wall was erected. Later, the priority changed to assembling more processed intelligence on the huge number of troops and their equipment stationed in the GDR and around Berlin that were widely observable from the Corridors and BCZ. This vast array of equipment was often the latest and best that the Soviet forces possessed. Corridor and BCZ flights produced a prodigious quantity of high-quality imagery and were in a strong position to record the evolution and development of Soviet and GDR force structures over the forty-five years of the Cold War.
The operations were conducted in great secrecy, despite the circumstantial and anecdotal information that the Soviets and East Germans were well aware of them. These flying activities went largely unhindered by Soviet and GDR forces. Indeed the Soviets became complicit in the whole process by being prepared to keep their knowledge of the Western flights largely to themselves. The Allies conducted the flights covertly, keeping them largely secret from their own armed forces, let alone the wider public. This allowed the Soviets to ‘turn a Nelsonian eye’ to them, largely impotent as they were to prevent them, without provoking a serious crisis with the West. Had the Soviets been determined to hide their activities and equipment from the West, they could have done so more effectively. By not constantly trying to hide all their operations and equipment, sometimes doing the complete opposite by putting them openly on display, the Soviets helped foster an element of stability, even at very tense times across a vulnerable divided city at the heart of the Cold War.