Junkers Ju 86 high-altitude reconnaissance/bomber

The Junkers Ju 86 was a twin-engine medium bomber. Six military variants were produced by Junkers Flugzeug und Motorenwerke AG: the Ju 86 D, E, G, and K bomber series and the Ju 86 P-2 and Ju 86 R-1 reconnaissance variants.

The aircraft was originally designed as a high-speed, ten-passenger civilian plane and medium bomber with a four-man crew based on Luftwaffe specifications. It was in competition for Luftwaffe contracts with the Dornier Do 17 and Heinkel He 111; all three received contracts, but Heinkel dominated the industry with He 111 production ultimately reaching 6,556 aircraft while Junkers built 910 Ju 86s.


Engineers for Junkers Flugzeugwerke AG designed a bomber similar in construction to those built by the company’s competitors and characterized by all-metal construction; a broad, rounded fuselage tapering toward the rear and ending at a twin-stabilizer-and-rudder system; and a low-wing design featuring double flap and aileron configuration. The series went through several cockpit configurations in size, shape, and glazing. The early Ju 86 A and D variants were powered by Junkers Jumo 205C diesel engines; later variants were fitted with BMW 132N radial engines.

Two Ju 86 D airframes were converted in 1939 as prototypes for the Ju 86 P-2 Höhenbomber (high-altitude bomber) and the Ju 86 P-1 Aufklärer (reconnaissance) aircraft. Structural modifications to the Ju 86 P-2 included a smaller two-man pressurized cockpit that reduced overall length by three feet. Three vertical cameras were installed in the bomb bay. Defense armament consisted of a single fixed, rear-firing MG 17 machine gun. The P-2 was powered by two 1,000-horsepower turbocharged Junkers Jumo 207A-1 diesel engines providing a maximum speed of 224 miles per hour (420 kilometers per hour). Approximately 40 P-1s and P-2s were built.

The unarmed Ju 86 R-1 followed with four-bladed propellers powered by 1,100-horsepower 207B-3/V diesel engines with nitrous oxide injection boosters for the superchargers. Wingspan was nearly 21 feet (6.4 meters) longer than that of the P-2. Conflicting information confuses the record on specific performance data of the reconnaissance variants, especially the R-1’s maximum service ceiling; some sources cite the aircraft as capable of reaching more than 49,000 feet (14,935 meters), some 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) higher than the P-2’s rated ceiling.

Combat in the Stratosphere


The Ju 86’s service life as a frontline bomber was rather brief, as it was outperformed by the He 111B, which was approximately 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) faster. In addition, the diesel engines of the A and D were difficult to maintain in the field. Most Ju 86 bomber variants were taken out of frontline service during 1939. However, demand for high-altitude bombers and recon aircraft remained strong, and the Luftwaffe requested that between 37 and 40 Ju 86 Ds be converted to the Ju 86 P bomber and Ju 86 P-1 photo intelligence platform. The Ju 86 P-2 prototype (W.Nr. 0421) first flew in February 1940. Luftwaffe units equipped with the aircraft began reconnaissance operations that summer. The P-2’s rated service ceiling was 39,300 feet (11,980 meters), but there were instances in which 42,000 feet (12,800 meters) was obtained, an altitude that was beyond the capacity of conventional enemy fighters for some two years. Approximately 16 Ju 86 Ps were upgraded to the Ju 86 R-1 recon variant, with W.Nr. 5132 becoming the first of that type delivered to the Luftwaffe in early 1942.

Aufklärungsgruppe (Aufkl. Gruppe; reconnaissance group) (F)/Ob.d.L. was equipped with the Ju 86 P-2. Some of these aircraft bore Lufthansa markings and began unmolested flights over Britain in the summer of 1940, followed by missions over Soviet territory during the winter of 1940 and 1941 from bases in Poland and Hungary. On 15 April 1941, a Ju 86 P2 suffered engine failure and was intercepted by a Soviet fighter near Rovno, Poland. The Russian plane opened fire, damaging the port engine and forcing the German pilot to make a crash landing. The pilot and observer were caught by Soviet authorities but later escaped and joined advancing German forces at the opening of Operation Barbarossa. Between 1942 and 1943, 1./Versuchsverband Ob.d.L. (Experimental Unit) conducted recon flights over Soviet territory with the Ju 86 P-2; Aufkl. Gruppe (F)/Ob.d.L overflew the Middle East with the Ju 86 R-1.

When Aufkl. Gruppe Ob.d.L. was disbanded, four R-2s were transferred to Crete in June 1942, followed by one more in August, for operations with 2(F)/123. To counter the German reconnaissance plane, the British and Soviets modified Spitfire V fighters by removing most nonessential equipment, including all but one wing gun. According to British records, the first successful interception took place north of Cairo on 24 August 1942, when a Spitfire of No. 103 Maintenance Unit (MU) brought down a Ju 86 from Aufkl. Gruppe 2(F)/123. However, German records show the Ju 86 R-1 returned to base safely, though damaged. One more reconnaissance variant was lost to the RAF on 6 September and one Ju 86 R-1 was recorded by 2(F)/123 as lost due to engine failure on 29 August. Encounters with the high-altitude RAF Spitfires led to the field installation of one rear-firing M 17 machine gun in recon Ju 86s. Still, two more aircraft became operational losses during November and December 1942. The group was down to one Ju 86 R-1 by October 1943 when it completed conversion to the Ju 88 recon variant.


Retired. The Ju 86 P-2 was withdrawn from frontline service by mid-1943; the Ju 86 R-1 was withdrawn in July 1944, as within months of acceptance by Luftwaffe units, it, too, could be intercepted by aircraft such as the Spitfire IX. Junkers exported the Ju 86 K bomber to several countries but none of the reconnaissance variants were sent abroad. The only known survivor is a Ju 86K in the Swedish Air Force Museum.

Specifications (Ju 86 R-2)

General characteristics

    Crew: 2 (pilot and radio operator)

    Length: 16.46 m (54 ft)

    Wingspan: 32 m (105 ft)

    Height: 4.7 m (15 ft 5 in)

    Wing area: 97.5 m² (1,049 ft²)

    Empty weight: 6,758 kg (14,900 lb)

    Max. takeoff weight: 11,530 kg (25,420 lb)

    Powerplant: 2 × Junkers Jumo 207B-3 diesel engines, 746 kW (1,000 hp) each


    Maximum speed: 420 km/h (261 mph) above 9,000 m (29,527 ft)

    Range: 1,580 km (980 mi)

    Service ceiling: 14,400 m (47,244 ft)

    Rate of climb: 4.67 m/s (920 ft/min)



        1 x 7.92 mm (0.31 in) MG 17 machine gun remotely controlled in rear fuselage, firing aft

    Bombs: Up to 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lb) of ordnance in four internal ESAC 250 bays rated at 250 kg (550 lb) each

        4 × 250 kg (551 lb) (1,000 kg/2,204 lb total)

        16 × 50 kg (110 lb) (800 kg/1,764 lb total)

        64 × 10 kg (22 lb) (640 kg/1,410 lb total)



Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

Developed under the code name Senior Crown, the SR-71 Blackbird became the ultimate Archangel, the capstone in the lineage that began with the first A-12. The SR-71 has the distinction of having served for more than three decades, while the A-12 was in combat for barely a year. No other aircraft has ever had the distinction of being the fastest operational aircraft in the world from the day it entered service until the day it was retired three decades later. No other aircraft has ever set a world speed record on its retirement flight.

In 1983, in a flightline conversation at Beale AFB, an SR-71 pilot told this author that the Blackbird represented “high nineties technology that we were lucky to have in the sixties.” Today the nineties have come and gone, but there has yet to be anything else quite like the extraordinary Blackbird.

“The Blackbird was a wild stallion of an airplane,” Ben Rich, the program manager, recalled in his memoirs. “Everything about it was daunting and hard to tame—building it, flying it, selling it. It was an airplane so advanced and awesome that it easily intimidated anyone who dared to come close. Those cleared to see the airplane roar into the sky would remember it as an experience both exhilarating and terrifying as the world shook loose … with the roar of an oncoming tornado and the ground shaking under [one’s] feet like an eight-point earthquake, as the engines spouted blinding diamond-shaped shock waves.”

One of those “cleared to see” the SR-71 was CIA Director Richard Helms.

“I was so shaken, that I invented my own name for the Blackbird,” Helms later told Ben Rich about watching a nighttime launch at Groom Lake. “I called it the Hammers of Hell.”

Five feet longer but largely similar to the single-seat A-12, the tandem seat SR-71 evolved out of Kelly Johnson’s suggestion that the US Air Force should consider a reconnaissance aircraft like the CIA’s Archangel. While the A-12 and YF-12A aircraft were originally delivered mainly in a natural metal finish, SR-71s were coated entirely in a dark blue-black paint, earning them the Blackbird name.

The first SR-71A (tail number 61-7950) made its debut flight at Palmdale, California, near Edwards AFB, on December 22, 1964. Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland, a veteran of the A-12 program, was at the controls. The second and third Blackbirds made their first flights during March 1965.

A total of thirty-one Blackbirds rolled out of final assembly at Palmdale between August 1964 and May 1967. These included twenty-nine SR-71As and two SR-71Bs, the latter designed as trainers with an elevated rear seat in a fashion similar to that of the A-12B Titanium Goose. In the SR-71A, unlike the A-12B and the SR-71B, the rear seat, accommodating the reconnaissance systems officer (RSO), was not elevated.

In addition to the A and B variants, a thirty-second Blackbird was designated as SR-71C, which was completed in 1969 using the salvaged rear section of a YF-12A.

In January 1965, as a home for the incoming Blackbirds, the US Air Force activated the 4200th SRW at Beale AFB as a component of SAC. The subsidiary 4200th Support Squadron (later 4200th Test Wing) was the umbrella organization for the D-21 program at Groom Lake. In October 1965, the 4200th SRW was redesignated as the 9th SRW, assuming the lineage of the 9th Bombardment Group, which dated back to before World War II. This wing was comprised of two strategic reconnaissance squadrons (SRS), the 1st SRS and 99th SRS. In July 1976, in a strategic reconnaissance consolidation, the U-2s of the 100th SRW were reassigned to the 9th SRW.

Aerial refueling support was initially provided to the 9th SRW by KC-135Q tankers operated by the 9th and 903rd Aerial Refueling Squadrons (ARS) of the 456th Bombardment Wing. After 1975, the squadrons were reassigned directly to the 9th SRW.

The first Blackbird to arrive at Beale AFB was an SR-71B trainer that came in on January 7, 1966. The first operational SR-71A reconnaissance bird arrived on April 4. The first overseas deployment came two years later, by which time all of the SR-71As and SR-71Bs had been delivered.

Even before the aircraft had much of a chance to prove themselves, the Nixon administration counterintuitively decided that there should not be more Blackbirds—ever. They went so far as to demand that Lockheed literally break the mold. Aside from the single SR-71C hybrid, no more Blackbirds were built.

“One of the most depressing moments in the history of the Skunk Works occurred on February 5, 1970, when we received a telegram from the Pentagon ordering us to destroy all the tooling for the Blackbird,” Ben Rich recalls sadly. “All the molds, jigs, and forty thousand detail tools were cut up for scrap and sold off at seven cents a pound. Not only didn’t the government want to pay storage costs on the tooling, but it wanted to ensure that the Blackbird never would be built again. I thought at the time that this cost-cutting decision would be deeply regretted over the years by those responsible for the national security. That decision stopped production on the whole series of Mach 3 aircraft for the remainder of [the twentieth] century. It was just plain dumb.”

Indeed, the fascinating career of the Blackbird had barely begun.

Beginning on March 8, 1968, the 9th SRW formed a detachment of Blackbirds at Kadena AB on Okinawa, where they operated alongside the CIA A-12 detachment until May 8. Nicknamed “Habu” after a pit viper indigenous to Okinawa, the SR-71s would remain at Kadena for more than two decades until early 1990. During most of this time, they were known as Detachment 1, although they were originally called OL-8 (for Operating Location 8, numbered in sequence with previous SAC U-2 detachments).

Another SR-71 nickname that came into use was the term “Sled,” which was widely used by Blackbird pilots, who referred to themselves as “Sled Drivers.”

The Kadena detachment’s first mission on March 21, 1968, was followed by 167 more through the end of the year. The numerous wartime missions through the next few years included key battlefield surveillance missions, including those that helped planners assess air support for major battles, including the siege of Khe Sanh.

Other missions were conducted over North Korea and the periphery of both Chinese and Soviet air space—the latter including surveillance of the Soviet naval facilities around Vladivostok. Detachment 1 also conducted long-range missions over the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Detachment 4 of the 9th SRW was established at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom in 1976, hosting short duration SR-71 and U-2 deployments until 1984, after which it became a permanent fixture through 1990. Missions included routine surveillance of East Germany, Poland, the Baltic Sea, and Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula. In April 1986, Detachment 4 Blackbirds conducted pre- and poststrike reconnaissance of Libyan targets that were attacked during Operation El Dorado Canyon.

The 9th SRW also operated SR-71 missions directly from the United States. In 1973, they conducted overflights of the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War, staging from Beale by way of Griffis AFB in New York and Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina.

Under operational code names including Giant Plate and Clipper, the 9th SRW conducted routine overflights of Cuba through the 1970s. Unlike the more vulnerable U-2s, the fast, high-flying SR-71s were essentially impervious to any form of air defenses that could be brought to bear over Cuba.

During the 1970s, the US Air Force authorized the SR-71 to come out of the shadows long enough to give the world a sense of its capabilities. On September 1, 1974, Major James Sullivan and Major Noel Widdifield set the speed over a recognized course record while flying 3,508 miles from New York to London in just under two hours at an average speed of 1,435.6 mph.

On July 27 and 28, 1976, three SR-71s were used to set three separate absolute world records. Captain Robert Helt and Major Larry Elliott set the record for absolute altitude in horizontal flight (by an aircraft taking off under its own power) of 85,069 feet. Major Adolphus Bledsoe and Major John Fuller set an absolute closed course speed record of 2,092.3 mph. Finally, Captain Eldon Joersz and Major George Morgan set an absolute straight course speed record of 2,193.2 mph that still stood in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The Blackbird’s full potential of speeds in excess of Mach 3.3 and operations above 100,000 feet has been repeatedly rumored but never made part of any official record.

The actual top speed of the SR-71 is still classified. Some people say that it was far beyond Mach 3.3. Others have said that it was never reached, that the Blackbird never was accelerated to its full potential maximum speed. An SR-71 pilot once told this author that if any other aircraft ever took away the Sled’s absolute speed record, one of the 9th SRW pilots would just go up the next day and “step down a little harder on the accelerator.”

The record still stands.

In another conversation, this author was speaking with a former ground radar operator who tracked an aircraft, not a missile, flying at Mach 6, and he nearly panicked. If there was ever a case of a truly unidentified UFO, this was it. The man reported this bogey to the officer in charge, who glanced at the scope and assured him, “Don’t worry, it’s one of ours.”

In his book, Sled Driver, SR-71 pilot Brian Shul recalled a radio exchange that occurred as he was over Southern California at 68,000 feet. Monitoring various radio transmissions from other aircraft, he heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its groundspeed.

“Ninety knots,” replied Los Angeles Center.

A Twin Beech asked for the same and was given a faster speed of 120 knots.

At that moment a cocky Navy F/A-18 pilot came on.

“Center, Dusty 52 requests groundspeed readout.”

The response came, “525 knots on the ground, Dusty.”

Unable to resist, Shul and his RSO clicked their radios simultaneously.

“It was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew,” Shul recalls. “We were both thinking in unison.

“Center, Aspen 20,” Shul said, addressing Los Angeles Center. “You got a ground speed readout for us?”

“Aspen,” the controller replied after a long pause. “I show 1,742 knots.”

Shul notes that “no further inquiries were heard on that frequency.”

Though the SR-71 was probably never seriously threatened by enemy countermeasures, its ultimate undoing was, ironically, another Lockheed product, which was not an airplane.

As Lockheed’s Skunk Works was building spyplanes for the CIA, Lockheed Space Systems was developing spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). During the Cold War, if there was anything blacker in the metaphorical sense than the CIA and the black jets of Area 51, it was the NRO and its satellites. These were operated under the cover name “Discoverer,” but were known in the black world as “Keyhole” after their Itek high-definition cameras. Indeed the NRO itself, and the work it was doing in the 1960s and 1970s, was not declassified until the 1990s. Information about the work it is doing today is not something for which one should hold one’s breath.

The NRO was formed in suburban Washington, DC, in 1961 specifically to centralize work being done by the CIA and DOD to develop reconnaissance satellites. The NRO was separate from the CIA, although there would be extensive interaction, and many former CIA and black world spyplane hands, such as Ozzie Ritland and Richard Bissell, played a role in NRO’s early days.

Lockheed Space Systems and the Lockheed Missile Division, which were later combined to form the Lockheed Missiles & Space Company (LMSC), were created in Southern California but moved north in the late 1950s to what later became Silicon Valley, finally settling in Sunnyvale. It was responsible for the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident submarine-launched missiles, as well the NRO spy satellites.

The Discoverer/Keyhole series included the KH-1 through KH-3 satellites, which were part of a program code named Corona. Also coming under the NRO mandate were the KH-4 Mural, KH-5 Argon, and KH-6 Lanyard. Operational through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the early Keyholes were “film-return” systems in which photographic film was dropped back into the atmosphere from outer space, retrieved by specially modified aircraft, and processed. Through 1972, the KH-1 through KH-6 spacecraft exposed 2.1 million feet of film and took 800,000 pictures.

In many ways, the early Keyholes were operationally inferior to the SR-71 and its fellow Archangels. While the resolution of the cameras was the best that money could buy, the satellites orbited 75 to 100 miles above their subjects, while Blackbirds flew less than 18 miles above. Aircraft could also be sent over a specific target at a specific time, while satellites were confined to specific orbits. Finally, the process of retrieving the film capsules was complicated, difficult, and not always certain, despite techniques having been honed to a fine art by those doing the retrieving.

All this began to change late in 1976, as the NRO deployed the first of its KH-11 satellites, which now used electro-optical digital imaging. As the KH-11 satellites matured, and as at least a half dozen were launched during the 1980s, photoreconnaissance changed completely. No longer did film have to be retrieved, and no longer did decision makers have to wait days to see their coveted secret pictures. They could now see them instantaneously.

Despite the retrofitting of digital systems and communications links aboard the SR-71s, which allowed them to deliver imagery in near “real time,” the US Air Force itself recommended the retirement of the Blackbirds.

“General Larry Welch, the Air Force chief of staff, staged a one-man campaign on Capitol Hill to kill the program entirely,” Ben Rich wrote in his memoirs. “General Welch thought sophisticated spy satellites made the SR-71 a disposable luxury. Welch had headed the Strategic Air Command and was partial to its priorities. He wanted to use SR-71 refurbishment funding for development of the B-2 bomber. He was quoted by columnist Rowland Evans as saying, ‘The Blackbird can’t fire a gun and doesn’t carry a bomb, and I don’t want it.’ Then the general went on the Hill and claimed to certain powerful committee chairmen that he could operate a wing of fifteen to twenty [F-15E] fighter-bombers with what it cost him to fly a single SR-71. That claim was bogus. So were claims by SAC generals that the SR-71 cost $400 million annually to run. The actual cost was about $260 million.”

Both Welch and SAC commander General John Chain testified before Congress that the SR-71 should go, and so it did.

As Rich so aptly reflected, “a general would always prefer commanding a large fleet of conventional fighters or bombers that provides high visibility and glory. By contrast, buying into Blackbird would mean deep secrecy, small numbers, and no limelight.”

Blackbird operations, except training flights, were officially terminated in November 1989, having been eliminated from the FY1990 Defense Department budget.

On March 6, 1990, one Blackbird famously set a series of world speed records on its “retirement flight.” The SR-71 with tail number 64-17972 was flown from California to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM) Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, where it would eventually go on display. In the process, it set the official National Aeronautic Association coast-to-coast speed record of 2,086 miles in one hour and seven minutes, averaging 2,124.5 mph. It made the 311-mile St. Louis-to-Cincinnati leg in less than nine minutes, averaging 2,176.08 mph.

Within a few months of this much-publicized flight, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army had occupied Kuwait and the United States was involved in the Desert Shield buildup that culminated in Operation Desert Storm in January and February 1991. During that conflict, many operational commanders, including General Norman Schwarzkopf, lamented the absence of expedited reconnaissance that the SR-71 might have contributed.

Mounting concerns about the situations in world trouble spots from the Middle East to North Korea led Congress to reconsider the reactivation of the SR-71. In 1993, Admiral Richard Macke, director of the joint staff for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that “from the operator’s perspective, what I need is something that will not give me just a spot in time but will give me a track of what is happening. When we are trying to find out if the Serbs are taking arms, moving tanks or artillery into Bosnia, we can get a picture of them stacked up on the Serbian side of the bridge. We do not know whether they then went on to move across that bridge. We need the [reconnaissance information] that a tactical, an SR-71, a U-2, or an unmanned vehicle of some sort, will give us, in addition to, not in replacement of, the ability of the satellites to go around and check not only that spot but a lot of other spots around the world for us. It is the integration of strategic and tactical.”

In its FY1994 appropriations, Congress authorized a reinstatement of funding to permit a revival of part of the SR-71 fleet. By that time, many of the twenty surviving SR-71s were being prepped for museum displays, but at least a half dozen were in storage at Palmdale or flying research missions with NASA.

The US Air Force moved too slowly on the path to SR-71 reactivation, and in October 1997, using a line-item veto, President Bill Clinton deleted the funding. The Blackbird was permanently grounded by the US Air Force in 1998, leaving just two at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB.

One of the last NASA missions for the SR-71 was the Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE) series conducted in 1997 and 1998. The object was to study aerodynamic performance of lifting bodies combined with aerospike engines such as would have been used in the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works X-33, the demonstrator for the conceptual VentureStar single-stage-to-orbit reusable spaceplane. The latter program was abandoned by NASA in 2001 but pursued by Lockheed Martin thereafter.

In signing off any discussion of the Blackbird’s demise, Americans are left with the words that Senator John Glenn spoke on the floor of the US Senate on the day after the 1990 “retirement flight.”

Said the former astronaut, “The termination of the SR-71 was a grave mistake and could place our nation at a serious disadvantage in the event of a future crisis. Yesterday’s historic transcontinental flight was a sad memorial to our short-sighted policy in strategic aerial reconnaissance.”


Bill Weaver climbs into an SR-71 at Palmdale.

The NASA SR-71B Blackbird in flight over the Sierra Nevada in 1994.

During the course of the A-12 program, the Air Force had been exceedingly helpful to the CIA. It provided financial support, conducted the refueling program, provided operational facilities at Kadena, and airlifted A-12 personnel and supplies to Kadena for operations over Vietnam and North Korea. Through it all, the Air Force remained frustrated that a strategic reconnaissance mission had been given to another government agency.

On July 24, 1964, at 3:30 p. m., president Lyndon Johnson held a news conference at the State Department Auditorium revealing to the world the existence of Lockheed’s Mach 3-capable reconnaissance aircraft:

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to announce the successful development of a major new strategic aircraft system, which will be employed by the Strategic Air Command. This system employs the new SR-71 aircraft and provides long-range, advanced strategic reconnaissance plane for military use, capable of worldwide reconnaissance for military operations.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, when reviewing the RS-70, emphasized the importance of the strategic reconnaissance mission. The SR-71 aircraft reconnaissance system is the most advanced in the world. The aircraft will fly at more than three times the speed of sound. It will operate at altitudes in excess of eighty thousand feet. It will use the most advanced observation equipment of all kinds in the world. The aircraft will provide the strategic forces of the United States with an outstanding long-range reconnaissance capability. The system will be used during periods of military hostilities and in other situations in which the United States military forces may be confronting foreign military forces.

The SR-71 uses the same J58 engine as the experimental interceptor previously announced, but it is substantially heavier and it has a longer range. The considerably heavier gross weight permits it to accommodate the multiple reconnaissance sensors needed by the Strategic Air Command to accomplish their strategic reconnaissance mission in a military environment.

This billion-dollar program was initiated in February of 1963. The first operational aircraft will begin flight testing in early 1965. Deployment of production units to the Strategic Air Command will begin shortly thereafter.

Appropriate members of Congress have been kept fully informed on the nature of and the progress in this aircraft program. Further information on this major advanced aircraft system will be released from time to time at the appropriate military secret classification levels.

Although President Johnson’s announcement had no impact on the status of the program, the Air Force was now under great pressure to get the first aircraft completed and shipped to Lockheed’s Palmdale facility by October. Difficulties with vendors continued to plague the program. Finally, on October 29, 1964, the first SR-71 was surreptitiously delivered by truck convoy from Burbank to Palmdale for final assembly and preflight preparations. Engine runs were initiated on December 18, 1964. Three days later, the first taxi tests were undertaken. In his journal, Kelly Johnson wrote, “A large number of SAC people were here to see taxi test of aircraft 950. They were very much impressed with the smooth operation. I delayed the flight of the aircraft one day, due to unfavorable weather and to get it in better shape to fly.”

The next day, December 22, 1964, the first SR-71, with Skunk Works test pilot Bob Gilliland at the controls, flew aircraft 950 for the first time. Departing from Lockheed’s Air Force Plant 42 facility at Palmdale, it remained airborne for just over an hour and reached a speed in excess of one thousand miles per hour. Although the first SR-71 flight had been completed with few difficulties, ongoing flight testing of the aircraft had not been problem free.

During April 1965, fuel and hydraulic difficulties led to numerous test flight cancellations. Johnson noted, “We have gone through very extensive reworks of the electrical system and tank sealing on the SR-71s. Category 1 tests are way behind schedule, but so are Category 2 tests. The Air Force are very understanding. Our major problem now has to do with the range, where we are about 25% short. We have made our speed, altitude, and are getting good results with the sensor packages.”


The SR-71 flight test program, conducted at Palmdale, was not without its accidents. The first accident involved aircraft 952. On January 25, 1966, Skunk Works test pilot Bill Weaver and his back seater, Jim Zwayer, were to evaluate procedures for improving high Mach cruise performance by reducing trim drag. Although not a true ejection out of the SR-71, the following story told by Weaver is priceless in conveying the experience of departing a Blackbird at an altitude of fifteen miles and speed of Mach 3.2:

Among professional aviators, there’s a well-worn saying: Flying is simply hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. But I don’t recall too many periods of boredom during my thirty-year career with Lockheed, most of which was spent as a test pilot.

By far, the most memorable flight occurred on January 25, 1966. Jim Zwayer, a Lockheed flight-test specialist, and I were evaluating systems on an SR-71 Blackbird test from Edwards Air Force Base. We also were investigating procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high- Mach cruise performance. The latter involved flying with the center of gravity located further aft than normal, reducing the Blackbird’s longitudinal stability.

We took off from Edwards at 11:20 a. m. and completed the mission’s first leg without incident. After refueling from a KC-135 tanker, we turned eastbound, accelerated to Mach 3.2 cruise speed, and climbed to seventy-eight thousand feet, our initial cruise-climb altitude.

Several minutes into the cruise, the right engine inlet’s automatic control system malfunctioned, requiring a switch to manual control. The SR-71’s inlet configuration was automatically adjusted during supersonic flight to decelerate airflow in the duct, slowing it to subsonic speed before reaching the engine’s face. This was accomplished by the inlet’s center-body spike translating aft and modulating the inlet’s forward bypass doors.

Normally, these actions were scheduled automatically as a function of Mach number, positioning the normal shock wave (where air flow becomes subsonic) inside the inlet to ensure optimum engine performance. Without proper scheduling, disturbances inside the inlet could result in the shock wave being expelled forward-a phenomenon known as an “inlet unstart.”

That causes an instantaneous loss of engine thrust, explosive banging noises, and violent yawing of the aircraft-like being in a train wreck. Unstarts were not uncommon at that time in the SR-71’s development, but a properly functioning system would recapture the shock wave and restore normal operation.

On the planned test profile, we entered a programmed 35-degree bank turn to the right. An immediate unstart occurred on the right engine, forcing the aircraft to roll further right and start to pitch up. I jammed the control stick as far left and forward as it would go.

No response. I instantly knew we were in for a wild ride.

I attempted to tell Jim what was happening and to stay with the airplane until we reached a lower speed and altitude. I didn’t think the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 feet were very good. However, g-forces built up so rapidly that my words came out garbled and unintelligible, as confirmed later by the cockpit voice recorder.

The cumulative effects of system malfunctions, reduced longitudinal stability, increased angle of attack in the turn, supersonic speed, high altitude, and other factors imposed forces on the airframe that exceeded flight control authority and the Stability Augmentation System’s ability to restore control.

Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion. I learned later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only two to three seconds. Still, trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces.

Then the SR-71 literally disintegrated around us.

From that point, I was just along for the ride. And my next recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream-Maybe I’ll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining consciousness, I realized this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was disturbing, because I could not have survived what had just happened.

I must be dead. Since I didn’t feel bad-just a detached sense of euphoria-I decided being dead wasn’t so bad after all. As full awareness took hold, I realized I was not dead. But somehow I had separated from the airplane.

I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s faceplate had frozen over, and I was staring at a layer of ice.

The pressure suit was inflated, so I knew an emergency oxygen cylinder in the seat kit attached to my parachute harness was functioning. It not only supplied breathing oxygen but also pressurized the suit, preventing my blood from boiling at extremely high altitudes. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the suit’s pressurization had also provided physical protection from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become my own escape capsule.

My next concern was about stability and tumbling. Air density at high altitude is insufficient to resist a body’s tumbling motions, and centrifugal forces high enough to cause physical injury could develop quickly. For that reason, the SR-71’s parachute system was designed to automatically deploy a small-diameter stabilizing chute shortly after ejection and seat separation. Since I had not intentionally activated the ejection sequence, it occurred to me the stabilizing chute may not have deployed.

However, I quickly determined I was falling vertically and not tumbling. The little chute must have deployed and was doing its job. Next concern: the main parachute, which was designed to open automatically at fifteen thousand feet. Again, I had no assurance the automatic-opening function would work.

I couldn’t ascertain my altitude because I still couldn’t see through the iced-up faceplate. There was no way to know how long I had been blacked out or how far I had fallen. I felt for the manual activation D-ring on my chute harness, but with the suit inflated and my hands numbed by cold, I couldn’t locate it. I decided I’d better open the faceplate, try to estimate my height above the ground, then locate that “D” ring.

Just as I reached for the faceplate, I felt the reassuring sudden deceleration of main-chute deployment.

I raised the frozen faceplate and discovered its uplatch was broken. Using one hand to hold that plate up, I saw I was descending through a clear winter sky with unlimited visibility. I was greatly relieved to see Jim’s parachute coming down about a quarter of a mile away. I didn’t think either of us could have survived the aircraft’s breakup, so seeing Jim had also escaped lifted my spirits incredibly.

I could also see burning wreckage on the ground a few miles from where we would land. The terrain didn’t look at all inviting-a desolate, high plateau dotted with patches of snow and no signs of habitation.

I tried to rotate the parachute and look in other directions. But with one hand devoted to keeping the faceplate up and both hands numb from high-altitude, subfreezing temperatures, I couldn’t manipulate the risers enough to turn. Before the breakup, we’d started a turn in the New Mexico-Colorado-Oklahoma-Texas border region. The SR-71 had a turning radius of about one hundred miles at that speed and altitude, so I wasn’t even sure what state we were going to land in. But, because it was about 3:00 p. m., I was certain we would be spending the night out here.

At about three hundred feet above the ground, I yanked the seat kit’s release handle and made sure it was still tied to me by a long lanyard. Releasing the heavy kit ensured I wouldn’t land with it attached to my derriere, which could break a leg or cause other injuries. I then tried to recall what survival items were in that kit as well as techniques I had been taught in survival school.

Looking down, I was startled to see a fairly large animal-perhaps an antelope-directly under me. Evidently, it was just as startled as I was, because it literally took off in a cloud of dust.

My first-ever parachute landing was pretty smooth. I landed on fairly soft ground, managing to avoid rocks, cacti, and antelopes. My chute was still billowing in the wind, though. I struggled to collapse it with one hand, holding the still-frozen faceplate up with the other.

“Can I help you?” a voice said.

Was I hearing things? I must be hallucinating. Then I looked up and saw a guy walking toward me, wearing a cowboy hat. A helicopter was idling a short distance behind him. If I had been at Edwards and told the search-and rescue unit that I was going to bail out over the Rogers Dry Lake at a particular time of day, a crew couldn’t have gotten to me as fast as that cowboy-pilot did.

The gentleman was Albert Mitchell Jr., owner of a huge cattle ranch in northeastern New Mexico. I had landed about 1.5 miles from his ranch house-and from a hangar for his two-place Hughes helicopter. Amazed to see him, I replied I was having a little trouble with my chute. He walked over and collapsed the canopy, anchoring it with several rocks. He had seen Jim and I floating down and had radioed the New Mexico Highway Patrol, the Air Force, and the nearest hospital.

Extracting myself from the parachute harness, I discovered the source of those flapping-strap noises heard on the way down. My seat belt and shoulder harness were still draped around me, attached and latched. The lap belt had been shredded on each side of my hips, where the straps had fed through knurled adjustment rollers. The shoulder harness had shredded in a similar manner across my back. The ejection seat had never left the airplane! I had been ripped out of it by the extreme forces, seat belt and shoulder harness still fastened.

I also noted that one of the two lines that supplied oxygen to my pressure suit had come loose, and the other was barely hanging on. If that second line had become detached at high altitude, the deflated pressure suit wouldn’t have provided any protection. I knew an oxygen supply was critical for breathing and suit pressurization but didn’t appreciate how much physical protection an inflated pressure suit could provide.

That the suit could withstand forces sufficient to disintegrate an airplane and shred heavy nylon seat belts yet leave me with only a few bruises and minor whiplash, was impressive. I truly appreciated having my own little escape capsule. After helping me with the chute, Mitchell said he’d check on Jim. He climbed into his helicopter, flew a short distance away, and returned about ten minutes later with devastating news. Jim was dead. Apparently, he had suffered a broken neck during the aircraft’s disintegration and was killed instantly.

Mitchell said his ranch foreman would soon arrive to watch over Jim’s body until the authorities arrived. I asked to see Jim and, after verifying there was nothing more that could be done, agreed to let Mitchell fly me to the Tucumcari hospital, about sixty miles to the south.

I have vivid memories of that helicopter flight as well. I didn’t know much about rotorcraft, but I knew a lot about “red lines,” and Mitchell kept the airspeed at or above red line all the way. The little helicopter vibrated and shook a lot more than I thought it should have. I tried to reassure the cowboy pilot I was feeling OK; there was no need to rush. But since he’d notified the hospital staff that we were inbound, he insisted we get there as soon as possible. I couldn’t help but think how ironic it would be to have survived one disaster only to be done in by the helicopter that had come to my rescue.

SR-71A Cutaway drawing

1. Pitot head

2. Alpha/beta probe, incidence and yaw measurement

3. RF isolation segment

4. RWR antennae

5. VOR antennae

6. Interchangeable nose mission equipment bay

7. Loral CAPRE side-looking ground-mapping radar antenna

8. Antenna mounting and drive mechanism

9. Detachable nose bay mounting bulkhead

10. Cockpit front pressure bulkhead

11. Fuselage chine section framing

12. Rudder pedals and control column, Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System (DAFICS)

13. Pilot’s instrument panel

14. Windscreen panels, port only with electrical de-icing

15. Heat dispersion fairing

16. Upward hinging cockpit canopy

17. Ejection seat headrest

18. Canopy actuator and hinge point

19. Pilot’s ‘zero-zero’ ejection seat

20. Side console panel with engine throttle levers

21. Canopy external release

22. Retractable ventral UHF antenna

23. Liquid oxygen bottles (3)

24. Rear cockpit side console with ECM equipment controls

25. Reconnaissance Systems Officer’s (RSO) instrument console and viewsight display

26. SR-71B dual control variant, nose section profile

27. Conversion Pilot’s cockpit

28. Elevated Instructor’s cockpit enclosure

29. RSO’s upward hinging cockpit canopy

30. RSO’s ejection seat

31. Cockpit sloping rear pressure bulkhead

32. Canopy hinge point

33. Honeycomb composite chine skin paneling

34. Astro-navigation star tracker aperture

35. Platform computer

36. Air conditioning equipment bay, port and starboard

37. Avionics equipment, port and starboard, access via nose undercarriage wheel bay

38. ELINT equipment package, port and starboard

39. Twin-wheel nose undercarriage, forward retracting

40. Hydraulic retraction jack

41. Infra-red unit

42. IFF transceiver

43. Flight refueling receptacle, open

44. Recording equipment bay

45. Starboard sensor equipment bays

46. Fuselage upper main longeron

47. Close-pitched fuselage frame structure

48. Forward fuselage fuel tankage, total internal capacity 12,219 US gal of JP-7 (80,280 lb)

49. Tactical Objective Camera (TEOC), port and starboard

50. Operational Objective Camera (OOC), port and starboard

51. Camera-mounting pallets/access hatches

52. Quartz glass viewing apertures

53. Stability Augmentation System (SAS) gyros

54. Forward/center fuselage joint ring frame

55. Center fuselage integral fuel tankage

56. Beta B.120 titanium skin paneling

57. Corrugated wing skin paneling

58. Starboard main undercarriage, stowed position

59. Intake center-body bleed air spill louvers

60. Bypass suction relief louvers

61. Starboard engine air intake

62. Movable conical intake center-body (spike)

63. Spike-retracted (high-speed) position

64. Boundary layer bleed air perforations

65. DIFACS air data probe

66. Diffuser chamber

67. Spike hydraulic actuator

68. Engine inlet guide vanes

69. Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning turbojet engine

70. Nacelle bypass duct

71. Bypass duct suction relief doors

72. Split nacelle and integral outer wing panel hinged to vertical for engine access/removal

73. Starboard outer wing panel

74. Starboard outboard elevon

75. All-moving starboard fin

76. Fixed fin root segment

77. Afterburner duct

78. Afterburner nozzle

79. Tertiary air doors

80. Exhaust nozzle ejector flaps

81. Variable area exhaust nozzle

82. Starboard inboard elevon

83. Inboard elevon hydraulic actuators (6)

84. Inboard elevon servo

85. Starboard wing integral fuel tank bay

86. Corrugated titanium skin paneling

87. Brake parachute housing

88. Parachute doors

89. Parachute, drogue and release linkage

90. Skin doubler

91. Center fuselage frame structure

92. Aft fuselage integral fuel tankage

93. Inboard elevon servo input linkage and mixer

94. Roll and pitch trim actuators

95. Fuel jettison

96. Port all-moving fin

97. Fin rib structure

98. Torque shaft hinge mounting

99. Rudder hydraulic actuator

100. Rudder servo and yaw trim actuator

101. Fixed fin root rib structure

102. Port engine exhaust nozzle

103. Ejector flaps

104. Port outboard elevon

105. Elevon titanium alloy rib structure

106. Honeycomb composite RAM trailing edge segments

107. Outer wing panel cambered leading edge

108. Leading edge RAM segments

109. Outer wing panel titanium rib and spar structure

110. Outboard elevon hydraulic actuators (14)

111. Outboard elevon servo

112. Engine bay tertiary air intakes

113. Engine nacelle/outer wing panel integral structure

114. Nacelle/outer wing panel hinge axis

115. Port nacelle ring frame structure

116. Inboard wing panel integral fuel tank bays

117. Multi-spar titanium alloy wing panel structure

118. Main undercarriage wheel bay

119. Wheel bay thermal lining

120. Hydraulic retraction jack

121. Mainwheel leg pivot mounting

122. Main undercarriage leg strut

123. Torque scissor links

124. Intake duct framing

125. Outer wing panel/nacelle chine structure

126. Three-wheel main undercarriage bogie

127. Port Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning engine

128. Afterburner nozzle

129. Afterburner fuel manifold, continuous cruise operation

130. Compressor bypass ducts (6)

131. Engine accessory equipment

132. Inlet guide vanes

133. Port air intake

134. Movable center-body (spike)

135. Spike honeycomb composite skin

136. Spike frame structure

137. Inboard leading edge RAM wedges

138. Leading edge spar

139. Inner wing panel leading edge integral fuel tankage

140. Wing root/fuselage attachment root rib

141. Close pitched fuselage frames

142. Wing/fuselage chine blended fairing panels

“Stalin Has Been Deceiving Me All Along”

Zentralbild/Heilig 11.8.1954 Dr. Otto John sprach vor der Internationalen Presse Am Mittwochvormittag, dem 11. August 1954, legte der ehemalige Präsident des Bundesamtes für Verfassungsschutz, Dr. Otto John, vor den Pressevertretern des In- und Auslandes die Gründe dar, aus denen er mit der Politik der Adenauer-Regierung gebrochen hat. UBz: Dr. Otto John bei seinen Ausführungen.

Otto John (19 March 1909 – 26 March 1997) was the first head of West Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, from 1950 to 1954. He is best known for his controversial move to East Germany in 1954, which has been interpreted as treason or an abduction.

Initially, the only information available to the Allies on the failed twentieth of July attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life had been what the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, chose to tell the German people and the world, a story of almost divine salvation of the Führer. A narrow window into the plot opened two months afterward. Otto John, a lawyer with Lufthansa, the German passenger airline, who worked undercover for the Abwehr and who was a member of the conspiracy, provided an eyewitness account. Previously, while moving between Berlin and Lisbon, John had delivered intelligence to the Allies on German atomic research and on rocket and missile testing conducted at Peenemünde. He had managed to escape to Madrid four days after the coup collapsed. There he told his story to the OSS chief in Spain, an account subsequently relayed to FDR.

John described how he had arrived in Berlin on July 19, 1944, to play his part in the overthrow of the Nazis. The next day, at 6 P.M., he went to the Bendlerstrasse, the German General Staff headquarters. There he saw Lieutenant Colonel Count Klaus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who, five and a half hours before, had planted the bomb to kill Hitler at the Wolfsschanze, the Führer’s military headquarters in East Prussia. After Stauffenberg had returned to the Bendlerstrasse, he announced confidently that the Führer had been killed. “I myself saw Hitler being carried out dead,” he said, which was not true. But thereafter his authority was accepted unquestioningly by far senior officers. John was struck by Stauffenberg’s cool self-possession as he reeled off orders and made phone calls to set in motion a strategy to seize the levers of government. John was especially surprised to hear Stauffenberg take a call from Albert Speer, the Reich’s armaments czar and Hitler favorite. In an organization chart that the conspirators had drawn up for their new government, Speer’s name appeared in a box marked “Armaments.” If Speer was coming over to them, the plotters reasoned, that would spell success.

They had, however, already committed fatal blunders. Despite Stauffenberg’s assurances, Hitler was not dead, not even seriously hurt. Secondly, the plotters failed to cut communications between the Wolfsschanze and Berlin. Consequently, Stauffenberg’s orders were countermanded almost instantly by Hitler’s chief military aide, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Sensing that the plot was unraveling, John slipped out of the Bendlerstrasse. Upon his arrival home, as he recounted, “I heard the radio announce a message by Hitler. I could not believe my ears and was convinced that the Nazis were using a double.” They were not. The conspirators had also failed to seize control of Berlin’s radio stations, and Goebbels quickly exploited the blunder by putting the Führer on the air.

Upon telling his story to the OSS in Madrid, John turned over a list of the plotters and their sympathizers, adding a fervent plea: “The following information must not be used as propaganda. It must be placed only at the disposal of such persons who will promise that the names followed by X will remain secret, as the fate of these persons is still uncertain, and they would run the risk of being exposed to reprisal action by the Nazi terror if their names were to be linked in a general way with the attempt against Hitler.”

John’s and Ambassador Oshima’s were the only insider accounts available to Roosevelt until Allen Dulles obtained a report from Hans Bernd Gisevius. The hulking, half-blind Abwehr agent and conspirator assigned to the German consulate in Zurich had, without a word to Dulles, suddenly disappeared back into Germany on July 12. Three weeks after the failure, a German undercover courier arrived at Herrengasse 23 with a message for Dulles from Gisevius. The American was happily surprised. He had assumed that the man had perished in the massacre the Gestapo was conducting against the plotters. Yes, the coup had failed, Gisevius wrote, but conditions within Germany were still unstable. “… [I]t is only necessary for the Allies to strike hard and the entire German structure will collapse,” he claimed. When five more months passed and nothing further was heard, Dulles again concluded that Gisevius had been caught and executed. Just days after the thwarted coup, Dulles had cabled Washington, “The blood purge will be ruthless.” The Gestapo had indeed continued its remorseless manhunt, arresting anyone however distantly connectable to the plot while the Nazi People’s Courts dispensed drumhead justice. The vendetta ultimately cost the lives of 4,980 officers and civilians, with Count von Stauffenberg and Otto John’s brother among the earliest victims. In the end, all that the twentieth of July plot achieved was to enable the Gestapo to solidify its grip on the German populace.

The courier from Berlin returned again, and Dulles was amazed to learn that Gisevius was still alive, hiding in the apartment of his girlfriend, Gerda. The Bern spy chief notified the OSS mission in London, which set a rescue strategy in motion. The plan demonstrated how far OSS technical sophistication had advanced in just two and a half years. Since Gisevius had once been an early member of the Gestapo, the London station forged papers to cast him again as an agent of that organization. The first obstacle was to locate a photograph. Gisevius’s face could be found only in a group shot. The London counterfeiting section managed to enlarge the image of his head to passport size. Stationery seized from Gestapo headquarters in liberated areas was rushed to London and used to produce phony orders. The thorniest challenge was to replicate the Gestapo’s Silver Warrant Identity Disk, a gray medallion of unknown alloys, and serially numbered. Possession of the medallion provided the bearer with unlimited access anywhere and the power to arrest.

On January 20, 1945, the six-month anniversary of the failed plot, Gisevius heard the bell ring in Gerda’s apartment. He opened the door a crack and spotted a package on the doorstep. In it he found the medallion, Gestapo ID, a German passport, and orders to proceed from Berlin to Switzerland as Dr. Hoffmann of the secret police. Thus armed, the huge and imperious Gisevius managed to bully his way through several checkpoints, and by January 22, he was at Herrengasse 23 giving Allen Dulles the fullest firsthand account yet of what had happened at the Bendlerstrasse. Five days later, the conspirator’s report was on the President’s desk. Gisevius explained that the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life had been the third that month. An earlier bomb had been set to go off during the Führer’s visit to Munich on July 6, but an Allied air raid upset this plot. Ten days later, General Helmuth Stieff brought a concealed explosive into the Wolfsschanze, but at the last minute lost his nerve and left. Four days later, Stauffenberg carried out the attempt that Hitler miraculously survived. Gisevius confirmed Otto John’s identification of the fatal flaws in the coup, particularly the failure “to destroy Central Information office including all communications installations of East Prussian Headquarters to prevent any communication. So that even if Hitler was not killed, he would not be able to make this known until plotters had control of the situation.”

Gisevius’s most startling revelation was contained in another report Donovan relayed to FDR on January 27, five days after the German’s escape. It dealt not with the mechanics of the plot, but with its politics. Until now, the assumption in the White House had been that anti-Nazi conspirators were interested only in making peace with the Western Allies in order to keep the Russians out of Germany. But Gisevius revealed that Count von Stauffenberg intended to conclude a peace with the Soviets if the putsch were successful, and proposed to announce the establishment of a “workers and peasants” regime in Germany. “The present situation on the Eastern Front and the general trend of the situation in Germany,” Gisevius concluded, “indicate that an eastern solution of the war may be more attractive to Germany.” He claimed further that Stauffenberg had been in secret contact with the Seydlitz Committee, led by General Walter von Seydlitz, who was captured at Stalingrad and had gone over to the Russians. Seydlitz had assured Stauffenberg that the Soviet Union would accept fair peace terms and not demand that the Wehrmacht disarm completely. The Seydlitz conditions could have been extended only with Moscow’s approval and made one thing clear: for all of FDR’s scrupulous determination never to give even the appearance of abandoning the Soviet Union, Stalin was evidently willing to consider a separate peace that would leave Britain and America to fight on alone.

Donovan urged the President to change course. FDR’s insistence on unconditional surrender, the general argued, could drive Germany into the Russians’ arms. He suggested “a subtle psychological approach” to turn anti-Nazi Germans toward the West while still sticking to unconditional surrender. Under Donovan’s formula, if the German officer class would give up a hopeless struggle and end further bloodshed, “Wehrmacht officers who contribute to such a constructive policy… would be treated with the consideration due their rank and according to the services which they render in the liquidation of the Nazi regime… . “ Roosevelt disregarded Donovan’s recommendation to soften unconditional surrender by so much as a word, just as he had rejected every other suggestion that might conceivably trigger Stalin’s distrust.


The fact that Hitler had utterly crushed his opponents after the conspiracy became manifest five months later when he was able to mobilize the Wehrmacht for its stunning offensive through the Ardennes. Even before the Battle of the Bulge, OSS Bern had produced troubling evidence of Hitler’s intention to fight to the death. The Germans were reportedly building a “National Redoubt” centered in the Salzkammergut, rugged and inaccessible mountain terrain in western Austria and bordering southern Germany. There, according to Bern, “vast underground factories, invulnerable in their rocky depths,” were being hewn from the mountainsides. Preparations were said to be under way to enable Nazi leaders to withdraw into this impenetrable fastness where elite troops, sustained by huge, buried stores of food, fuel, arms, and ammunition, would carry on the struggle. Bern predicted that subjugation of the Redoubt could extend the war from six months to two years and exact more casualties than all the previous fighting on the western front.

The superheated rhetoric of an Alpine rampart “defended by nature and by the most efficient secret weapons yet invented” had the ring of thriller fiction. General Eisenhower, however, did not dismiss the threat. “If the German was permitted to establish the Redoubt, he might possibly force us to engage in a long, drawn-out guerrilla type of warfare, or a costly siege,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Thus, he could keep alive his desperate hope that through disagreement among the Allies, he might yet be able to secure terms more favorable than those of unconditional surrender.” Eisenhower concluded: “The evidence was clear that the Nazi intended to make the attempt… .”

Oddly, the signals of a last-ditch Nazi stand were contradicted by intelligence also coming out of OSS Bern. “This whole project seems fantastic,” Dulles cabled Washington. He had become more interested, not in a Nazi scheme to prolong the war, but with an opportunity presented to him to hasten its end. He had word that the commander of German forces in northern Italy, the former Luftwaffe star tactician, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, might consider a secret surrender. The struggle up the Italian boot had been long and bloody with Kesselring conducting a brilliant withdrawal and giving up every mile grudgingly at a steep price to the Allies. If such a surrender could be arranged, it would remove one of the most stubborn German forces from the field, and, coincidentally, represent a major coup for the OSS.

The possibility of a secret surrender on the Italian front, so seemingly desirable at first blush, was to initiate a particularly acrimonious chapter in the long saga of East-West distrust. A split among the Allies remained the dying Nazi’s last hope against obliteration. That objective became apparent in a long Ultra intercept picked up between Berlin and Dublin and relayed to the White House in February 1945. Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had prepared a policy directive to be transmitted in the Enigma code to all German embassies in neutral countries. Each chief of mission was to attempt a high-level contact from among enemy representatives. As Ribbentrop instructed, “… [R]estrict yourself to one particularly important English and American channel through a secret agent.” This go-between was to leak Berlin’s current thinking, which ran: “The new and greatest fact that this war has brought out is the military power of the Soviet Union. Stalin has subjected [sic: subjugated] all of Eastern Europe and the Balkans (Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Serbia, Hungary)… . Russia has no intention of ever releasing them again… . it intends to make these countries finally communistic states as part of the Soviet Union… . The offensive against Germany, however, shows that Stalin is pursuing a much greater objective even beyond that: he wishes to conquer and occupy Germany and thus complete the conquest of Europe.” Ribbentrop further directed his ambassadors to tell their Allied targets that “Germany is today the only power still fighting the Soviet Union… . If Stalin should succeed in overcoming German resistance on the East Front, the BOLSHEVIZATION of Germany, and consequently of all Europe, would be once and for all an irrefutable fact.” Lest the British and Americans think they would be spared, Ribbentrop told his emissaries to make clear that “Stalin hates England. After the conquest of Europe, therefore, the destruction of the English Island by the Soviets would only be a question of time… . The Bolshevization of the U.S.A. itself would then only be a question of time. The only political and spiritual counterpoise against the undoubtedly strong doctrine of Communism is National Socialism, therefore just the factor which the English and Americans want to exterminate. The English Crown, the English Conservative Party and the American governing class should therefore have only the wish that nothing should happen to Adolf Hitler.” The Nazi foreign minister directed his representatives to express dismay at the pigheadedness of Western leaders. They were to say to their contacts, “One marvels in Berlin that in London and Washington no one is willing to see this and that the present policy of the English and American governments must lead not to securing a long period of peace, but quite to the contrary, to producing a state of perpetual war.” Ribbentrop anticipated that any agent peddling this line would be asked about the fate of the Jews. “The question of the Jews,” they were to answer, “is a German domestic affair which, if Germany doesn’t want to fall to Communism, must be solved in Germany. The Jewish question in other countries does not interest Germany.” He neatly sidestepped the fact that millions of non-German Jews from all over occupied Europe had already perished in Nazi extermination camps.

While the foreign minister’s instructions were to make his arguments known through high-level Britons and Americans, his message reached the most prominent American of all within days. The Ultra cable delivered to FDR by the British comprised a remarkable stew of lies, truth, and prophecy. Ribbentrop’s forecast of the postwar fate of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, then being overrun by the Red Army, and the emergence of “perpetual war” between East and West, at least a cold war, proved remarkably on target.

Roosevelt has left no indication of his reaction to Ribbentrop’s intercepted stratagem. However, its existence made not a dent in his determination to stick by the Soviet Union, a resolve that was tested just days later by the latest news out of OSS Bern. Two months had gone by since the first hint that Field Marshal Kesselring might be receptive to a separate German surrender in Italy. Then, on February 25, Dulles learned through Baron Luigi Parilli, an Italian industrialist, that Karl Wolff, an SS general associated with Kesselring, wanted to meet with him secretly. According to Parilli, General Wolff claimed that the Germans in Italy were demoralized by their remorseless retreat up the Italian peninsula. They wanted to quit.

Dulles put Wolff to the test. The Germans had captured two leading Italian resistance fighters, Ferruccio Parri and Antonio Usmiani, the latter also an OSS spy in Milan. Dulles would talk to Wolff only if he released the two men. Three days later, he received word to present himself at a hospital in Zurich. On his arrival, he was taken to a room where he met the unshaven, unkempt, but beaming Parri and Usmiani. They had been blindfolded and driven over the Italian-Swiss border on Wolff’s orders the very day that they were condemned to be shot. In giving up the two Italians, the SS officer believed he had proved his good faith. He next sent Dulles a message from Italy suggesting they meet in Switzerland to start discussing a surrender.

Within days, Dulles found himself in a country inn outside Zurich where a tall, thin man, with a knife-edge profile and self-important air, rose to greet him. Karl Wolff, dressed in civilian clothes, first engaged Dulles in small talk, boasting of how he had managed to relieve the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel, of his coin collection. Dulles, nevertheless, knew that he was dealing with no Nazi bon vivant. Ultra intercepts suggested that Wolff was a key participant in sending Italian Jews to their death at Auschwitz. Finally, the SS general got down to business. Germany had lost the war, he admitted to Dulles. He believed that his superior, Field Marshal Kesselring, an independent spirit and no Hitler sycophant, would not only be willing to take his forces out of the fight, but would do so unconditionally. After the two men parted, Dulles returned to Bern and informed Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, commander of Allied forces in Italy, of his conversation with Wolff.

And then Wolff’s hopes seemed to be dashed. Hitler’s personal plane unexpectedly arrived at Kesselring’s headquarters and whisked the field marshal away to become the Wehrmacht commander on the western front. Kesselring’s replacement was to be General Heinrich von Vietinghof, an unknown quantity as far as his attitude toward surrendering his troops. Wolff managed to get a message through to Dulles that he would need a couple of weeks to work on Vietinghof. There the matter hung while General Donovan briefed FDR on what could be the OSS’s greatest triumph of the war.

The threat of a National Redoubt was tied closely to what happened on the Italian battlefront. If the Germans in Italy fought on, they would provide a shield behind which the reported fortress in the Alps could be built. If they surrendered, the Redoubt would be exposed on its southern flank. Churchill, ever the geopolitician, saw that determining the truth or falsity of the Redoubt was crucial. Diverting troops to conquer it could reduce the Western Allies’ chances of taking Berlin and would leave the city to the Russians. Who occupied the German capital, Churchill believed, would decisively influence who dominated postwar Germany. But the reality of the Redoubt remained confused. Just as Churchill was preparing to leave London for a mid-March trip to the western front, the Americans provided him with a Magic decrypt in which the Japanese ambassador to Bern informed Tokyo that the Germans were indeed turning the Alps into an impregnable stronghold. Dulles’s operation, however, continued to send mixed signals. On March 6, FDR received a dispatch radio-telephoned from Bern reporting the publication in Swiss newspapers of maps showing the borders of the Redoubt and descriptions of vast stores piling up in underground bunkers. Another OSS assessment reported, “It is believed that eventually the Redoubt will hold 15–25 divisions composed of SS Storm Troop detachments, Hitler Jugend [Youth], and the special OKW Führer Reserve created for service in the Redoubt.” Yet the same Bern operation concluded, “Much of this is probably fiction… . Talk of building in the mountains great new underground factories is nonsense. It would take years.” Allen Dulles cabled Washington, “I do not believe … that months of elaborate preparation have been devoted to fortifying, arming, and stocking a great German reduit.”

Sharing this skepticism, Churchill showered Roosevelt and Eisenhower with pleas not to abandon Berlin to the Soviets. On April 1 he sent the President a “Most Secret” message questioning Eisenhower’s shifting of armies southward. “I say quite frankly that Berlin remains of high strategic importance. Nothing will exert a psychological effect of despair upon all German forces of resistance equal to that of the fall of Berlin. It will be the supreme signal of defeat to the German people… . The Russian armies will no doubt overrun all Austria and enter Vienna,” he told Roosevelt. “If they also take Berlin, will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contribution to our common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future?” He advised FDR, “… [F]rom a political standpoint we should march as far east as we can into Germany as possible and that should Berlin be in our grasp, we should certainly take it.” But Eisenhower was nevertheless diverting forces southward should the Redoubt prove real.


Bill Donovan’s fortunes continued to gyrate. The OSS might succeed in arranging the early surrender in Italy of a tough, stubborn foe. Yet Vessel had been blown the day before Donovan gave FDR his first report on General Wolff’s overtures for an Italian surrender. And then, not long after the Trohan stories had painted him as a potential American Gestapo chief, another potential disaster arose.

The OSS’s employment of Communists had proved a tangled affair. On a simplistic level, it seemed obvious that no one should be employed by the United States whose allegiance was to a party favoring the overthrow of the government. But a world at war created ambiguities. Donovan, staunch Catholic, Wall Street Republican, thoroughgoing establishment figure, was using Communists knowing that they were virulent anti-Nazis. He had once remarked, “I’d put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help defeat Hitler.” Since the fall of the previous year, Donovan, in his determination to penetrate the Reich itself, had allowed his officers to recruit refugee labor leaders, including Socialists and Communists. In a remote corner of liberated France, the OSS ersatz German infantry company, the Iron Cross mission under Captain Aaron Bank, was continuing to train to parachute into southern Germany and capture high-ranking Nazis expected to flee into the Redoubt.

Still, FDR’s journalistic nemesis, the McCormick-Patterson chain, was not about to let any Roosevelt vulnerability go unexploited. That March, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald published the names of ten Army officers alleged to be Communists or to have close Communist ties. Four of the ten belonged to the OSS. A subcommittee of the House Military Affairs Committee summoned Donovan to explain the presence of Reds on his payroll. In preparation, Wild Bill had Otto Doering, another alumnus of his New York law firm, now an OSS aide, check federal law on the hiring of Communists. Doering briefed his boss the day before the general was to testify and told him that he stood on solid legal ground. The War Department had issued instructions saying, “[M]ember-ship in the Communist Party will not affect the status of Army personnel if it is established that their loyalty to this country is greater than any other loyalty.” Furthermore, Doering could point out that the Supreme Court had recently stated it had not yet decided whether or not the Communist Party actually advocated the overthrow of the government by force.

On March 13 an Army sedan flying the two-starred flag of a major general halted under the Capitol portico. For the first time since the creation of the OSS, Donovan faced congressional interrogation. He well knew the prejudices he confronted. The OSS had a reputation as the place where the well-connected could play at war. With its personnel recruited from the old-boy network, prestigious law firms, old-line banks, the academic elite, those who had been educated abroad, and friends of friends of these people, the agency’s image as an enclave of privilege was inevitable. Far preferable for a draft-age American with influence to wrangle an OSS commission and comment mysteriously at Georgetown dinner parties, “I’m simply not in a position to discuss what I do,” than to crouch in a foxhole at Anzio. To its enemies, the OSS was a preposterous fraternity of tycoons, scholars, football stars, scientists, financiers, playboys, pickpockets, counterfeiters, and safecrackers. Rumor even had it that the OSS sprang useful criminals from jail. The truth was rather less colorful. As for imprisoned counterfeiters, the OSS chief of document forgery observed, “These people were a bunch of dilettantes, amateurs. If they were any good, they wouldn’t have been caught. We wanted professionals.” In a probably accurate assessment of Donovan’s personnel, one OSS veteran concluded, “In half of my comrades, I knew the bravest, finest men I would ever meet. The rest were phonies.”

Taking this elite organization down a peg or two appealed enormously to anti–New Deal Republicans on the House Military Affairs subcommittee. But once in the hearing room, Bill Donovan, fixing his interrogators with cool blue eyes, speaking with the quiet authority that had become his trademark, stood by his people. “These four men I’ve been in trenches with,” he testified, “I’ve been in the muck with, and I’d measure them up with any men. I did not find that they were Communists. I found that they were not.” The hearings ended without any action taken against the ten officers, including the four from the OSS. Still, the anti-Roosevelt members of the subcommittee achieved a marginal victory. They had fresh ammunition for their old accusation, however denied, that the Roosevelt administration was riddled with Reds.

The general’s protégé Duncan Lee, placed initially in the OSS front office and by now chief of the Japanese section, was not among the four allegedly Communist OSS officers named in the original newspaper story. By the time Donovan appeared before Congress, Lee had broken off his contacts with Communists. While Donovan knew the four officers against whom the charges had been lodged, he doubtless would have been staggered to learn that a member of his law firm whom he personally had brought into the OSS was reported to have spied for the Soviets.

Though he had come out of the congressional investigation with only flesh wounds, Donovan thereafter became more cautious in the use of Reds. Parachuting 175 well-armed German Communists into the Reich just as the country teetered on the rim of collapse might prove difficult to justify. The Iron Cross mission was scrubbed. Far better to display OSS’s mettle by achieving the surrender of whole German armies in northern Italy than snagging a few Nazis on the run in the Alps. The former possibility grew when Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean, agreed that the pursuit of a separate peace in the Italian theater could go forward. On March 12 he notified the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, who represented all Allied forces, that he was prepared to negotiate. An encouraged Allen Dulles gave the enterprise a code name, Operation Sunrise. The Combined Chiefs, however, notified Alexander to hold off until the Russians could be informed. FDR thereafter instructed Averell Harriman, his ambassador in Moscow, to alert the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, that peace negotiations on the Italian front were imminent. Molotov replied that Russia would immediately dispatch three Red Army officers to join the talks. The Americans rejected this move out of hand, as did Field Marshal Alexander. The Combined Chiefs of Staff concurred, suggesting that with the Soviets involved, something that might take “four hours would take four months.” Harriman was instructed to advise Moscow that, at this preliminary stage, no point would be served by direct Soviet participation. Russians could attend, but only as observers. Molotov shot back that, under those conditions, they chose not to send anyone.

Operation Sunrise began to provoke an extraordinary exchange between the leaders of two presumed allies. Molotov, besides rejecting Soviet officers as mere observers, was now demanding that the talks be called off completely if the Russians could not take part. On March 24, FDR sent a “Top Secret” cable to placate Stalin. In it, he was not above dissembling. He told Stalin, “The facts are as follows: some few days ago unconfirmed information was received in Switzerland that some German officers were considering the possibility of arranging for the surrender of German troops… in Italy.” He reminded Stalin that the Soviet government had immediately been informed of this development. Ignored in this message was the fact that two of Field Marshal Alexander’s high-level officers had already been dispatched incognito to Switzerland to meet with General Wolff. FDR also maintained that if an enemy facing American troops appeared willing to surrender, his generals were bound to pursue the opportunity. “It would be completely unreasonable for me to take any other attitude or to permit any delay which must cause additional and avoidable loss of life in the American forces.” He appealed to Stalin “as a military man” to understand his reasoning. FDR reminded the Soviet leader that his position was no different than Stalin’s upon the recent entrapment of German troops by the Red Army at Koenigsberg and Danzig, a Russian matter in which FDR had no reason to involve the United States. Secretary of War Stimson put it more bluntly to the President. The surrender of German armies in Italy was, he said, “a matter in which Russia has no more business than the United States would have at Stalingrad.”

Stalin’s response was swift and the harshness of tone shocking. “I agree to negotiations with the enemy,” he cabled Roosevelt, “only in the case where these negotiations will not make the situation easier for the enemy, if there will be excluded a possibility of the Germans to maneuver and to use these negotiations for shifting their troops… to the Soviet front… . I have to tell you,” Stalin went on, “that the Germans have already used these negotiations… in shifting three divisions from Northern Italy to the Soviet front.” As for Roosevelt’s analogy of Koenigsberg and Danzig, Stalin curtly dismissed it. The Germans in these sectors were surrounded, he said, and “if they surrender, they will do it in order to avoid annihilation. They could not be shifted elsewhere.” As for the Italian front, Stalin could not understand “why representatives of the Soviet command were refused participation in these negotiations and in what way could they cause inconvenience to the representatives of the Allied Command.” Stalin’s reaction was not entirely paranoid. The Soviet leader understood that if the German army did surrender in Italy, every soldier, gun, and tank not immediately penned in by the Allies could be expected to be thrown against the Russians.

The shrillness of Stalin’s message alarmed Roosevelt. He fired back, “I must repeat that the meeting in Bern was for the single purpose of arranging contact with competent German military officers and not for negotiations of any kind.” He intended to set Stalin straight on one further point: “I feel that your information about the time of the movements of German troops from Italy is in error.” He acknowledged that three German divisions had indeed been shifted from Italy to the Russian front. But “the last division of the three started moving about February 25, more than two weeks before anybody heard any possibility of surrender” in Italy. Roosevelt was so taken aback by Stalin’s hostility that he asked Harriman to find out if the words represented the Soviet leader’s thinking or merely that Stalin had signed a draft originating in the Kremlin bureaucracy. Harriman reported back that both the words and the sentiments were Stalin’s. The President, who believed he could woo and win anybody and who had invested so much capital in charm and persuasion to establish mutual trust with the Soviet dictator, now began having second thoughts. His fear, he confided to an associate, was that “Stalin has been deceiving me all along.”

The Soviet leader was not yet finished. On April 3 he fired an even more brutal salvo. He cabled FDR regarding the peace maneuvering in Italy: “You insist there have been no negotiations yet. It may be assumed that you have not been fully informed.” Not only had negotiations been held, Stalin insisted, but the German commander on the western front “has agreed to open the front and permit Anglo-American troops to advance to the East, and the Anglo-Americans have promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms.” This was not the first time that Stalin’s deep-dyed distrust had surfaced. In March the American 9th Armored Division had been astonished to find the Ludendorff railroad bridge across the Rhine near the town of Remagen intact and had poured troops across it. The Russians did not regard this breakthrough as an American military triumph. German thoroughness and efficiency were legendary. How was it possible, the Russians reasoned, that the enemy had not blown a bridge pointing straight into Germany’s heartland, unless they wanted the Americans to cross it? Stalin regarded the bridge’s capture as further proof, as he put it to FDR, that “the Germans on the Western front have in fact ceased the war against England and the United States. At the same time they continue the war against Russia.” The fact that Hitler had had four officers responsible for the loss of the bridge shot and that the Luftwaffe had bombed it into the Rhine were merely inconvenient facts interfering with Stalin’s preconceptions.

An angered FDR called in Admiral Leahy and General Marshall to help him draft his reply to Stalin’s cable of April 3. “I have received with astonishment your message,” the response began, “containing an allegation that arrangements which were made between Field Marshal Alexander and Kesselring, ’permitted the Anglo-American troops to advance to the East and the Anglo-Americans promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms!’ “Roosevelt repeated his argument that thus far no actual negotiations had taken place. “… [Y]our information,” FDR went on, “must have come from German sources which have made persistent efforts to create dissention between us… . If that was Wolff’s purpose in Bern your message proves that he has had some success. Frankly,” Roosevelt concluded, “I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment toward your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.”

Stalin now held out a slim olive branch. Three days after the President’s retort, he cabled back, “I have never doubted your honesty and dependability… .” But he was still not done pressing his major premise, that Russia was being abandoned to carry on alone. The Germans, he noted, “continue to fight savagely with the Russians for some unknown junction, Zemlianitsa in Czechoslovakia, which they need as much as a dead man needs poultices, but surrender without any resistance such important towns in central Germany as Osnabrück, Mannheim, Kassel. Don’t you agree that such a behavior of the Germans is more than strange and incomprehensible.” He had one more charge to unload. Back in February, he claimed, General Marshall had tipped off the Red Army staff to expect major German attacks at two points, in Pomerania and at Maravska Ostrava. Instead, the Germans struck in a completely different sector southwest of Budapest, “one of the most serious blows in the course of the war… .” Here Stalin was accusing the chief of the American Army not simply of bad faith but of treachery. These exchanges marked the nadir in the three and a half years of wary alliance and threatened to create the only outcome that could give Hitler any hope of salvation, a rupture between the East and the West.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945

FDR still faced the threat that Hitler would hole up in the Alps for a fanatic Armageddon. In the midst of the Roosevelt-Stalin countercharges over Operation Sunrise, General Marshall sent the President an estimate on April 2 that the “will to fight of these [German] troops will depend largely on whether Hitler and his subordinate Nazi leaders, or the German High Command will have transferred their headquarters into the ’redoubt’ area. If Hitler does so, a fairly formidable military task requiring a considerable number of divisions may still confront the Allies… .” Now was hardly the time to risk the alliance, especially since the Russians had made their first installment on their promise at Yalta to enter the war against Japan. On April 5 they broke their peace pact with the Japanese. Through a Magic decrypt it was as if FDR were in the room in Moscow when the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, delivered the blow to the Japanese ambassador, Naotake Sato. Sato answered, hopefully, “The Japanese government expects that even after the abrogation of the treaty by the Russian government there will be no change in the peace in the Far East from what it has been in the past.” Molotov gave a chilling answer: “At the time when this treaty was concluded Russia was not yet at war with Germany… . After that Japan began war with England and America which are allies of Russia.” And, as Molotov well knew, the Americans, pursuing Project Hula, were already well along in turning over ships and training Soviet seamen to enter the war in the Pacific.

The Penkovsky Era

Each man here is alone.

—Oleg Penkovsky quoted in the Penkovskiy Papers

Bad news, like every secret communication from Moscow, arrived at CIA Headquarters encrypted. The news that arrived mid-morning on November 2, 1962—as the Cuban Missile Crisis was winding down—was particularly bad. Colonel Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky, a career Soviet military intelligence officer and the Agency’s most spectacularly successful spy, was, in all likelihood, lost. Penkovsky had held a senior position in the Glavnoye Razedyvatelnoye Upravlenie (GRU), the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff while secretly reporting to U.S. and British intelligence. In the colorful parlance of espionage, he had almost certainly been “rolled up.”

At the new Agency compound at Langley, Virginia, the paint was barely dry on the walls when the Communications Center on the ground floor—Headquarters’ sole secure link to Moscow personnel—received the super-enciphered message. It arrived as an “IMMEDIATE” cable, a long, narrow strip of paper snaking out of a bulky machine, much like a price quote from an old-fashioned stock ticker. The encoded message was contained in an intricate pattern of perforations that ran along the paper’s length. When the transmission was complete, the paper was torn off by the communicator, and then run through a printer that produced a neat array of seemingly random numbers and letters on a sheet of standard letter-sized paper. A second level of decryption was needed to render the message into plain text. This phase of decryption guarded against the potential for security failures along the transmission path, whether over the air or via land lines. Like placing a strong, small safe inside a larger safe, this last layer of decryption could be performed only by one of a handful of authorized officers from the Soviet Russia Division (SR) of the CIA’s Directorate of Plans.

Although the DDP sounded like the dullest of bureaucracies, its name veiled the most secretive directorate in the Agency. Hidden beneath the vague acronym resided the responsibility for the CIA’s “cloak and dagger” work. Within the DDP, SR was particularly shrouded with “cloak.”

If asked about their job by neighbors or friends, SR personnel would repeat a carefully rehearsed cover story of working for one or another government department, but never the CIA. It was not unusual for DDP operations officers to remain undercover even after retirement, and maintain their cover stories until their deaths. Even the top-secret clearance, required for employment at the Agency, did not authorize someone to know rudimentary details regarding SR or its personnel. If an Agency colleague asked about an SR staffer’s job, they would receive only generalized replies and most knew better than to probe for details. Secrecy within the Agency was both enforced by official policy and expected as part of professional etiquette.

Virtually no one, with the exception of SR personnel, was allowed into SR spaces. A no-nonsense secretary immediately confronted any visitor who opened the unmarked, always closed, hallway doors that led into the division’s suite and friends of SR officers from other parts of the agency did not drop in to plan weekend activities or for office gossip. When SR officers left the area, even for a short time, security procedures mandated that desks be cleared and all work secured in one of the division’s high-security 500-pound black steel safes.

SR Division applied strict need-to-know compartmentation through BIGOT lists that restricted access to what many would consider routine information coming out of the Soviet Union. Within the division information was distributed like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Only a very few ever saw an entire operational picture. Those outside of SR could only assume that a puzzle existed. Within CIA’s instinctively tight-lipped security environment, SR’s added multilayered security cloak created a mystique that some viewed as arrogant and unnecessarily obsessive.

The term “BIGOT list” existed—and still exists—as a holdover from World War II when the most prized stamp on the orders of personnel traveling from England to Africa was “TOGIB,” meaning “to Gibraltar.” To reach Africa, the majority of personnel made the dangerous journey by ship through seas controlled by German U-boats. However, for a select few, there were the highly prized seats on a flight to Gibraltar. For these lucky individuals, the stamp on their orders was reversed to read BIGOT and the term thus acquired its special meaning in intelligence circles, carrying with it the inference of not only rarity, but also safe passage and a valued mission.

There were other levels of compartmentation as well. A top-secret clearance did not provide automatic access to specific operations or programs. TS, a security clearance level required for all CIA staff employees, only made one eligible for potential access to a compartmented program. The BIGOT access was granted based on responsibilities and an individual’s demonstrated need to know about the operation.

SR’s security policies extended to written communications within Headquarters. SR did not rely on the CIA’s usual interoffice mail couriers nor were its officers permitted to use the 1960-era state-of-the-art pneumatic tube system that carried classified documents to every corner of the 1.4 million-square-foot building. Everything regarding Soviet operations was hand-carried from office to office by either an SR operations officer or one of a dedicated cadre of women known as Intelligence Assistants.

It was standard operating procedure for the communicator to place the encrypted message in a heavy manila security envelope, securely seal it, and call SR to advise that a cable had been received from Moscow. On the morning of November 2, the young SR officer who walked to the communications vault, accepted the sealed envelope, and, without opening it, retraced his three-minute route to SR’s small warren of offices, could not have known that he now had a role in one of history’s most significant espionage events.

At his desk, the officer opened the envelope, removed the single sheet of paper, and, with painstaking care, began deciphering the message by hand. He used a one-time pad, or OTP, whose printed columns of numbers and letters exactly matched those used by the person who had composed the brief message. After the message was deciphered, the page of the one-time pad used was destroyed. The Soviet Union paid a heavy price during World War II when they reused one-time-pad pages for communicating with agents in different parts of the world. This seemingly innocuous error provided an advantage to U.S. code breakers who were able to unravel many Soviet ciphered communications that had been intercepted from Washington, D.C. and New York City. This secret would become known as VENONA and remains one of the notable achievements of the Army Security Agency and later the National Security Agency.

The cable did not mention Penkovsky by name. Rather, it reported that Richard Jacob, a CIA officer in Moscow, was apprehended while clearing a dead drop. After a nerve-shattering but relatively brief interrogation, the message continued, Jacob was released to the custody of the U.S. ambassador and returned to the safety of the U.S. embassy. Because he was a diplomat, Jacob could not be formally charged with a crime. Instead, he was “PNG’ed,” declared persona non grata by Soviet authorities and ordered out of the country.

Penkovsky’s arrest by the KGB was not confirmed during those first few hours, but it did not seem realistic to hold out much hope for the agent. As in the immediate aftermath of any roll-up, there were more questions than facts, but for those few who knew about the case, it required no imagination to conclude that Penkovsky either was dead or would be very soon.

The officer delivered the decrypted cable up the chain of command to the SR Division Chief. The Chief took the bad news to the Deputy Director for Plans who in turn briefed John McCone, the Director of Central Intelligence. Within twenty-four hours, McCone would personally inform President Kennedy. That so few understood the enormous impact Penkovsky’s arrest would have on America’s national security was partially due to the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the nearly eighteen-month operation and the care given to the handling of the remarkable intelligence he single-handedly supplied.

Intelligence reports based on Penkovsky’s information had been structured to suggest that the intelligence originated from multiple sources. To reinforce this illusion, the Penkovsky product circulated under two code names, IRONBARK for that material that was scientific or quantifiable and CHICKADEE for material that included his personal observations. For anyone outside the small group who knew the truth, the vast quantity of intelligence flowing from the Soviet Union looked like the work of an extensive spy network, coupled with mysterious and advanced technical collection, rather than the efforts of a single spy.

A small team of CIA and British intelligence officers ran Penkovsky. He was alternately known as HERO to his American handlers and YOGA to the British. Jacob had been chosen to service the dead drop because he had recently arrived in Moscow and had a strong cover in a traditionally non-alerting, low-level administrative position. As such, he was less likely to be identified as a CIA officer and draw KGB surveillance.

According to later accounts, Jacob entered the dingy hallway of an apartment house at 5/6 Pushkinskaya and removed an ordinary matchbox wrapped in a short length of wire that formed a hook to secure it behind a radiator. As Jacob was placing the matchbox in his pocket, the KGB team jumped him from their hiding places in the vestibule. During the ensuing scuffle, he managed to drop the matchbox to the floor through a slit in the lining of his raincoat pocket, ridding himself of incriminating evidence and avoiding the nasty legal and diplomatic problems arising from having Soviet state secrets on his person. The technicality did not matter to the KGB team, since it was obvious why the American was in the building. Once subdued, Jacob was hustled into a waiting car and whisked off to a nearby militia station.

The final act of the Penkovsky drama had begun that morning with two voiceless phone calls—silent calls—to a phone answered by a U.S. official. The silent call was a signal activating the communication plan issued to Penkovsky by his handlers when they had met outside the Soviet Union. Arguably the most critical piece of any operation, the commo plan provided agents, such as Penkovsky, with precise contact instructions and schedules to establish secure communication under both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances.

Because the CIA assumed that the KGB monitored all telephone calls to and from the U.S. officials, the silent call represented a clever piece of tradecraft that allowed a message to be sent, even if the call was monitored. Penkovsky had been instructed to go to a remote public telephone and call a specific number. When the phone was answered, he said nothing, but waited ten seconds before hanging up. The call to the specific number and the length of silence before hanging up were the message that directed intelligence officers to a telephone pole marked with a symbol written in chalk, an X. The simple chalk mark announced that the dead drop site at the Pushkinskaya apartment house had been loaded.

These standard pieces of tradecraft—the silent call, followed by a signal site marked with an X and dead drop—were part of a commo plan, code-named DISTANT, designed specifically for Penkovsky to provide an early warning of imminent Soviet attack on the West. The small matchbox that Jacob found tethered by wire behind the radiator might have contained information signaling the start of World War III.

With the silent call, Penkovsky, who had not been heard from or seen since early September, had apparently, reemerged. It was possible that nothing serious was wrong. If it was a trap—a provocation on the part of the KGB—then it was worth the chance. “We had been worried about him, it had been quiet for quite a while,” said the case officer who decrypted the message and whose memories are still vivid after more than four decades. “But in the past he had come up again. To my knowledge we had no warning, nothing to indicate they’d caught him.”

Now, with Jacob’s arrest, whatever glimmers of hope that might have existed with Penkovsky’s reemergence, seemed far-fetched. It was possible that a bystander had seen Penkovsky suspiciously fiddling behind the radiator as he loaded the dead drop and called authorities who then laid in wait. It was also possible that the KGB had not been fooled by Jacob’s cover and defeated his countersurveillance maneuvers en route to the dead drop site. Any number of other scenarios about Penkovsky’s fate was possible, but only a single distressing conclusion was probable.

Penkovsky’s handlers had grown increasingly troubled by recent events surrounding the operation. Penkovsky had vanished from operational sight for several weeks prior to the silent call and his GRU superiors abruptly canceled his scheduled trip to Seattle in the autumn of 1962. Additionally, the sheer volume of intelligence he was providing on his Minox film cassettes suggested a level of clandestine activity that could not continue undetected indefinitely. So voluminous was Penkovsky’s productivity during the first half of 1962 that his handlers decided to discontinue temporarily tasking him for new intelligence collection.

The operation would refocus on supporting his work for the GRU by providing comprehensively written technical articles to be published under his name and supplying harmless intelligence products he could take back to Moscow from trips to the West. The intent was to strengthen Penkovsky’s credibility among superiors, raising him above suspicion and moving him into circles of even greater access to Soviet secrets.

During a three-month period between October 1961 and January 1962, Penkovsky met with his contact in Moscow, Janet Chisholm, the young wife of British MI6 officer Roderick Chisholm, eleven times in public locations. During these brief encounters, she received thirty-five rolls of film containing hundreds of images of top-secret Soviet documents. In January, Penkovskyreported what he believed was surveillance on Mrs. Chisholm but showed no personal alarm. Rather, he suggested that dead drops replace their contacts “on the street.” Early successes, it seemed, emboldened Penkovsky but, in his handlers’ opinion, the agent’s level of productivity was alarming as well as gratifying.

Had Penkovsky dropped his guard or grown careless as the inherently dangerous work became routine? It was possible. Had he grown to feel invulnerable and above suspicion? That, too, was possible. It only became known much later that George Blake, an MI6 officer who spied for the Soviets, alerted the KGB that Janet Chisholm was actively supporting her MI6 husband in operations. Consequently, when the couple arrived in Moscow, KGB surveillance teams were waiting for them.

Confirmation of the disaster arrived a few hours after the first message with news of the arrest of Greville Wynne, a British businessman traveling in Hungary. A sometime contact between Penkovsky and his handlers, Wynne was arrested by a KGB team in Budapest, also on November 2, and flown back to Moscow.

The final curtain fell a month later. On December 12, a notice in the Soviet newspaper Pravda announced Penkovsky’s arrest in late October, more than a week before Jacob’s apprehension. Six months later, on May 7, 1963, Penkovsky stood in a courtroom before the same judge who had presided at the trial of Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down in May 1960 over Sverdlovsk. 

The trial lasted four days. Penkovsky, in an attempt to save his life, admitted that he had passed secrets to the Americans and British. Prosecutors cited “moral degradation” among the reasons for his traitorous acts, while a witness bolstered this claim by testifying that he had seen the defendant sipping wine from a woman’s shoe during a night of heavy drinking.

On May 17, a public notice appeared that Penkovsky had been executed.

Rumors about his death eventually began to leak out. While the Soviet press announced an execution by firing squad, another, unconfirmed report, claimed that he had been burned alive in a crematorium and the grisly episode filmed as a warning to new GRU officers who might someday consider cooperating with the West.

Wynne was also tried, found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released in 1964 as part of a spy swap for Gordon Lonsdale, a Soviet spy convicted in Britain.

Like a silent explosion, the capture, trial, and execution of Penkovsky sent shock waves of uncertainty, recrimination, and retribution through American, British, and Soviet intelligence circles. While the badly burned Soviets restructured the GRU, the British and Americans, uncertain about when and how Penkovsky was first identified, faced a flood of questions. If Penkovsky was under KGB suspicion as early as December of 1961, or January of 1962, did this mean the Soviets manipulated the information he provided? If so, when did he begin reporting controlled information designed to mislead American and British analysts? For that matter, could anything he reported be trusted?

Material long disseminated by analysts to policy officials was recalled and painstakingly reexamined. The eventual conclusion was that the Soviets had not played Penkovsky back against the Americans and British, but that left unanswered the mystery of why, if Penkovsky was suspected as early as December 1961, the Soviets continued to allow him access to secret files and materials.

Over the next several years, the Penkovsky case would become a cottage industry within the CIA as every aspect of the operation was analyzed to determine what was accomplished and what went wrong.

The Penkovsky operation had produced an astonishing amount of material. During his year and a half as an active agent, he supplied more than a hundred cassettes of exposed Minox film (each containing fifty exposures or frames). The more than 140 hours of debriefings in London and Paris produced some 1,200 pages of transcripts and reams of handwritten pages. He identified hundreds of GRU and KGB officers from photos, and provided Western intelligence officials with their first authoritative view of the highest levels of the post-Stalin Soviet Union. In fact, he supplied so much information that both the CIA and MI6 set up teams dedicated exclusively to processing the material, which resulted in an estimated 10,000 pages of intelligence reports. 

More than the quantity, the substance of the documents on the Minox film and his knowledgeable debriefings impressed both CIA and MI6. Penkovsky appeared at a crucial time during the Cold War when tensions and the potential for nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the West were at an apex. This volatility was heightened by a lack of certainty on each side about the intentions and capabilities of the other. 

The failed Soviet attempt to isolate the British-, French-, and U.S.-controlled sections of Berlin by blocking all ground and rail transportation and shipments into the city during 1948 and 1949 was still a fresh memory when the United States was caught off guard by unpredicted assertive Soviet technological, military, and political actions beginning in 1957. The USSR launched Sputnik in 1957; shot down Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 reconnaissance plane on May Day, 1960; and built the Berlin Wall in 1961. So anemic was U.S. intelligence access to the plans and intentions of the Kremlin that the text of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous speech denouncing Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 came to the CIA via a third party, an Israeli source operating behind the Iron Curtain.

Through the late 1950s, Khrushchev’s seeming obsession with the United States was rising to dangerous levels. His fixation with U.S. objectives was fueled first by an alarmist 1960 KGB report that falsely described the Pentagon’s intention to initiate war against the Soviet Union “as soon as possible” followed by a failed attempt to overthrow Castro in 1961. Then, in 1962, two erroneous GRU intelligence reports warned of an imminent nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union by the United States.

“Our production of rockets is like sausages coming from an automatic machine, rocket after rocket comes off the assembly line,” bragged Khrushchev.  

Penkovsky’s assignment to the State Committee for the Coordination of Scientific Research Work granted him access to the highest levels of military circles. He, in turn, provided the West with a contrasting view of both Soviet capability and Khrushchev’s belligerent stance. “His [Khrushchev’s] threats are like swinging a club to see the reaction. If the reaction is not in his favor, he stops swinging,” Penkovsky explained to the team in a Paris hotel room in 1961.

For the Kennedy administration, Penkovsky’s reporting put the lie to the Soviet leader’s braggadocio, while the intelligence he provided, combined with overhead intelligence, influenced downward revisions of Soviet missile production in National Intelligence Estimates.

Penkovsky also revealed the real dangers of diplomacy without independent and timely intelligence. As the Cuban missile crisis heated up, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin used back-channel communication through Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, and other White House officials to assure President Kennedy that only short-range defensive, rather than offensive, missiles were going into Cuba. Similar false assurances also flowed through the back channels of diplomacy from GRU Colonel Georgi Bolshakov, working under cover of the TASS news agency, through Robert Kennedy.

However, the technical manuals provided by Penkovsky for the Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles allowed CIA photo analysts to identify and match the deployment pattern or footprint with U-2 reconnaissance photos taken over San Cristobal, Cuba. Far from being defensive and of short range, the missiles were armed with 3,000-pound nuclear warheads and a range of some 1,000 nautical miles, and were more than capable of reaching Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Finally, Penkovsky’s information provided analysis of the Soviets’ overall lack of preparedness for war, allowing President Kennedy to face off against Khrushchev during the crisis. His insights, derived from personal access to Kremlin leaders, added independent weight to technical evidence that Soviet military threats were overstated, if not hollow. The American President was emboldened to act and denied the Soviets a nuclear missile foothold in the Western Hemisphere. For that brief and critical moment in time, history turned on the material provided by one man, Oleg Penkovsky.

In the wake of the Penkovsky case, the CIA undertook the unprecedented measure of bringing to press in 1965 The Penkovskiy Papers [sic]. The Agency, working with journalist Frank Gibney and the publisher Doubleday & Company, publicly exposed many of the operational aspects of the GRU revealed by Penkovsky. An immediate bestseller, the book presented most Americans with one of the first in-depth looks at Soviet intelligence operations in the West.

The Penkovskiy Papers offered remarkable details of Soviet tradecraft, from tips on American personal grooming and social customs (“Many Americans like to keep their hands in their pockets and chew gum”) to evading surveillance and selecting dead drop sites. One section warned of the dangers presented by squirrels running off with small packages left at dead drop sites in New York’s Central Park.

For American readers, the book confirmed their worst suspicions that Soviet spies were active and successful in the United States. It may have also implied an equally aggressive and thriving U.S. espionage capability in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The few who understood how dependent American intelligence had been on HERO’s production knew the time had come to change the game plan. The case had revealed grave deficiencies in the tradecraft needed to handle long-term agents inside the Soviet Union. America’s technology and the CIA’s Technical Services Division would become key players in a new operational strategy.

Space Diamond: Almaz

In late 1963 the American government scrapped its military spaceplane but, as a consolation to the USAF, the politicians decided to proceed with a small manned orbital reconnaissance platform called MOL. This led to a rapid appraisal of American strategy in Moscow and an upsurge of interest in a small military space station under development by Chelomei’s OKB-52. This project was proceeding well and a full-sized mock-up of the space station had been completed by March 1964. It was broadly similar to the USAF’s MOL and would be used for optical and radar reconnaissance missions. During September 1964 the project was formalised into an outline of proposals for consideration by the Ministry of Defence, and on 12th October OKB-52 was authorised to proceed with full development. The programme was called the Orbital Piloted Station (OPS), it received the reference 11F71 and the codename Almaz (Diamond).

Securing a formal agreement to proceed with Almaz on this date was fortunate, because two days later Khrushchev was deposed and Vladimir Chelomei would rapidly fall from favour through his friendship with the former chairman. In its initial form Almaz was a 20 ton (18 tonne) spacecraft. There were a number of similarities to MOL and it would be launched into orbit carrying a three-seat re-entry capsule called Vozvrashaemiy Apparat (Return Apparatus – VA). VA would utilise a hatch cut into the capsule’s heat shield to allow easy access to the space station, rather like the system designed for the American Gemini B. To begin with VA was seen as a good idea, but the plan was finally dropped and it was felt that better use could be made of the space station by ferrying crews to and from orbit in separate vehicles, with Almaz remaining in service for at least two years. A new partly re-usable manned vehicle would be responsible for servicing Almaz space stations and this was also under development by OKB-52. But the time required for development meant that Soyuz spacecraft would initially handle this function.

The Almaz space station would have a maximum length of 47ft 9in (14.55m), a maximum diameter of 13ft 6in (4.15m) and a launch mass of 41,8001b (18,960kg). Electrical power would be generated by two large solar panels with a span of 75ft 5in (23m) and a collecting area of 560ft2 (52m2). This would produce just over 3kW. There would also be two small rocket engines to allow orbital correction manoeuvres. The most important item of equipment carried by the space station was a very large telescope using a catadioptric optical system mounted into the wall of the space station. Identified as Agat-1, this high-quality hand-built instrument had an aperture of one metre and was capable of imaging surface detail at an equivalent level to the US CORONA spy satellites. Details would be captured on 50cm square film, which is said to have provided a resolution of 100LPM, and the telescope could be made to lock onto a specific area of interest using a spotting scope. A separate optical unit called Volga was also carried for recording surface detail in infrared, although the resolution was much lower than the visible light system.

Once photographs had been taken the film could be returned to Earth using a small Information Return Capsule (KS1). This tiny vehicle had a mass of approximately 7931b (360kg) and a diameter of 2ft 9in (838mm). It was equipped with a miniature solid-fuel de-orbit motor and a heat shield that was jettisoned when the parachute was released. An inflatable airbag was deployed to reduce landing impact and a tracking device was fitted. Alternatively, the film could be processed on the space station, scanned and transmitted to a ground station via a fairly secure downlink. This was probably quite slow as the technology available at that time was relatively crude. As a reminder that Almaz was a military platform undertaking highly classified operations, the vehicle carried a defensive 23mm recoilless cannon in the forward section and the station was equipped with a self-destruct system for last resort use.

Progress with the project was slow because resources were being directed towards the lunar programme, but by 1970 a number of Almaz vehicles had been built for ground tests and two operational Almaz spacecraft were nearing completion at the OKB-52 plant at Krunichev. Chelomei was now instructed to pass the full Almaz specification to the Korolev Design Bureau to facilitate systems integration into its rival DOS project, which would fly as Salyut 1 in 1971. Chelomei’s enemies within the State system never missed an opportunity to remind him of past events and this transfer of information to OKB-1 is said to have delayed the Almaz programme by two years. Had Chelomei not occupied such an important role within the country’s military-industrial structure, it is fairly clear that Dimitry Ustinov would have swiftly removed him from his directorship of OKB-52.

But Chelomei continued to receive support from the Air Force and during 1970 a team of twenty-two cosmonauts headed by Pavel Popovich began training for Almaz operations. Further modifications were made to the Almaz design and there were plans to install side-looking radar, but these were shelved. The first Almaz space station (OPS-1) was finally launched on 3rd April 1973, although it was designated Salyut-2 to conceal the fact that there were two separate space station programmes and this was the military version. But the vehicle was damaged after the upper stage of the Proton rocket suffered a fuel tank explosion and debris punctured the wall of the space station, leading to loss of air pressure. No Soyuz missions were flown to the station and, officially, Salyut-2 completed a series of prearranged tests and was successfully de-orbited on 28th May 1973. The true details of what had taken place would remain secret for several decades.

The second Almaz launch took place at Baikonur on 24th June 1974 as Salyut-3. The first team of cosmonauts arrived at the Almaz space station (designated OPS-2) on 4th July and carried out a variety of survey operations. It is believed that this was a specific military mission and the main areas of interest were in China. In 1969 there had almost been a nuclear exchange between Russia and China following a series of border clashes over disputed territory. An uneasy stalemate followed that remained unresolved until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A second Soyuz crew lifted-off for Almaz on 26th August 1974 but their rendezvous system failed and they were forced to return, making a difficult landing in the dark. A film capsule is believed to have been automatically ejected from OSP-2 on 23rd September 1974, but no further manned missions were undertaken and Almaz was de-orbited over the Pacific on 24th January 1975.

The third and final Almaz space station (OPS-3), using the cover Salyut-5, was launched on 22nd June 1976. During its period in orbit there were three separate Soyuz missions to Almaz (OPS-3), but the second Soyuz flight failed to dock with the space station. After de-orbit this spacecraft made an unplanned night landing in the semi-frozen Tengiz Lake during a snow blizzard, which prompted a major rescue operation. Almaz OPS-3 finally re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on 8th August 1977 and was destroyed.

Almaz OPS-4 was completed and was fully prepared for the next mission. The optical system was no longer a feature of this spacecraft and had been replaced with radar and ELINT equipment. Amongst the changes was a new docking unit capable of accommodating a TKS spacecraft and a Soyuz spacecraft. It is also reported that the defensive cannon was replaced by small unguided missiles. But this Almaz mission never took place and by the start of 1978 there was little enthusiasm for further manned orbital reconnaissance operations. No money was available for such endeavours with the Buran programme eating up funds.

Designed as an alternative to Soyuz by OKB-52, the TKS spacecraft was specifically produced to support the Almaz military space station.

On 28th June 1978 the manned Almaz programme was officially closed. However, it was decided that the three existing space craft, which were in various stages of completion, would be converted into unmanned Almaz-T satellites Fitted with the Mech-K (Sword) side-looking radar developed by NPO Vega-M. The first launch was planned for 1981 but was cancelled on the grounds of cost. The three spacecraft were then placed in storage until 1985 when Chelomei’s successor Gerbert Efremov managed to have the Almaz-T programme re-started. The spacecraft were now modified by removing the unnecessary docking system and the first Almaz-T was launched from Baikonur on 29th October 1986, but the second stage of the Proton rocket failed to separate and the vehicle was destroyed

On 27th July 1987 the second Almaz-T was successfully launched into a high inclination 71.92° orbit. Identified as Cosmos-1870, it stayed in orbit until 30th July 1989. The third Almaz-T was launched on 31st March 1991 using the name Almaz-1. There were a number of technical problems but it is believed that the satellite managed to return useful data before it was de-orbited on 17th October 1992. A follow-on Almaz-2 was planned with more advanced electronics and a radar system capable of resolving detail as small as 16ft (5m). However, the Soviet Union was no longer in existence and the country was in financial chaos, so the programme was abandoned.

On Satellites

The complete list of U.S. Reconnaissance Satellite from 1960 to current days


Along with the all-important communications and GPS navigation satellites, there are four other types of military reconnaissance satellites.

1. Optical-imaging satellites that have light sensors in the visible light, infra-red and ultra violet spectrum that can ‘photograph’ objects and weapon systems down to the size of a tennis ball. They can identify targets, make maps and also spot dangerous events like enemy missile launches.

2. Radar-imaging satellites aimed at the same targets that can observe the Earth using different radar wavelengths, even through cloud cover, to cover targets invisible to visible light, infra-red and ultra violet spectrum imagery.

3. Signals-intelligence, or ELINT-ferret, satellites to collect the radio, microwave and electronic transmissions emitted from any country on Earth.

4. Relay satellites that speed military satellite communications around the globe by transmitting data from spy satellites to ground stations on Earth. Most military satellites can now transmit intelligence in real time.

All these satellites can be launched into a regular movable orbit, or can be positioned to hover above a single target on the globe’s surface in what is known as a geosynchronous (geostationary) orbit

As early as 1946, more than eleven years before Sputnik 1, history’s first artificial space satellite, went into orbit the US Project RAND released a remarkably prescient report: Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship (SM-11827).

Although it was the US Navy that first mooted the idea of space satellites, the then Major General Curtis E. LeMay USAF insisted that space operations were just an extension of air operations and tasked Project RAND to undertake a wider feasibility study. The resulting reports noted:

Since mastery of the elements is a reliable index of material progress, the nation which first makes significant achievements in space travel will be acknowledged as the world leader in both military and scientific techniques . . . A satellite vehicle with appropriate instrumentation can be expected to be one of the most potent scientific tools of the twentieth century. The achievement of a satellite craft would produce repercussions comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb . . .

Thus the space race was born.

Little could the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, often quoted as having come up with the concept of the communications satellite, have realised that his 1945 article titled ‘Extra-terrestrial Relays’ in the British magazine Wireless World would spawn a revolution in global communications, intelligence, and mapping. Clarke’s article described the fundamentals behind the deployment of artificial satellites in geostationary orbits to relay radio signals.

Despite the optimistic RAND report little progress was made in the following decade. For a long time the USAF did not believe that the satellite could be a military weapon. They only saw its potential as a tool for communications, and science. In 1954, the US Secretary of Defense stated publicly, ‘I know of no American satellite program.’

It was only in 1955, as part of American plans for the International Geophysical Year 1957–58 that the White House publicly announced that the US intended to launch satellites by the spring of 1958. This became known as Project Vanguard. Shortly afterwards the Soviet Union countered by announcing that they intended to launch a satellite by the autumn of 1957.

After that the pace of satellite development accelerated. In early 1956 President Eisenhower established an Intelligence Advisory Board, who urged the development of a reconnaissance satellite. The Air Force’s WS-117L project showed promise as it offered multipurpose technical reconnaissance capabilities. The planned satellite included a SIGINT payload, an imagery intelligence (IMINT) payload in which film from onboard cameras could be scanned and transmitted to ground stations, and a hard-copy camera system by which film would be returned to earth via a re-entry capsule. Hardcopy photographs were important because their resolution would be pin-sharp, unlike the fuzzy electronically transmitted images, which were comparable to 425-line black-and-white television at best.

The Advisory Board was, however, concerned about the pace of the satellite programme, which they believed was too slow to meet the threat presented by the Soviets. They directed that priority be given to the USAF WS-117L project and concentrated on the technology of hard-copy film recovery.

The Americans were right to be worried about the Soviets’ progress. On 4 October 1957, to the world’s amazement, the USSR launched a football-sized satellite called Sputnik 1 into orbit. The global propaganda impact was enormous as the 22-inch diametre sphere, weighing 190.5 pounds, passed overhead making electronic beeping noises. The Soviets followed up their scientific triumph when, a month later,TASS, the Russian news agency announced the launch of Sputnik 2.

This second satellite was a 507 kg, 1.2 metres-long cone. In addition to the scientific measuring instruments, it carried a live dog called Laika inside a pressurised cabin. Laika was the first animal to reach the upper layers of the atmosphere. The message was clear; if a dog could do it, then so could a man. Sadly, the good-natured mongrel bitch only made a one-way journey. Her planned launch was never designed to be followed by a recovery from orbit.

However, the launch of Sputnik and its display of Soviet technical power caused serious concern in the United States. Any rocket capable of launching such a payload into earth orbit was equally capable of carrying a nuclear weapon and acting as an ICBM. America was shocked by the sudden turn of events, and the Cold War ratcheted up another notch.

Desperate to catch up, the United States managed to launch their first satellite, Explorer 1, on 31 January 1958. The programme was driven by the need to be able to detect any Soviet nuclear build-up and, more important still, to give any warning of a Soviet missile launch.

The First IMINT Satellite started under the name Discoverer as part of the follow-on work on the USAF’s 1956 WS-117L satellite reconnaissance and protection programme, soon to be renamed Corona.

The Discoverer/Corona programme carried out thirty-eight public launches and achieved many technological breakthroughs. Discoverer 1, launched in February 1959, was the world’s first polar-orbiting satellite. The first mission returned with 3,000 feet of film (more than the entire U-2 program up to then), covering 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory. Discoverer II, launched in April of 1959, was the first satellite able to be:

Stabilised in orbit in all three axes

Manoeuvered on command from the earth

Separate a re-entry vehicle on command

Send its re-entry vehicle back to earth

These characteristics meant that the US now had the potential for a new technical intelligence collection source, parked overhead in space. Discoverer 8, launched in August of 1960, ejected a capsule that was subsequently recovered from the Pacific Ocean, the first successful recovery of a man-made object ejected from an orbiting satellite. It was Discoverer 9 that inaugurated the age of satellite reconnaissance when its discharged film capsule was recovered in the air over the Pacific by a specially-modified JC-130 aircraft, making it the first successful aerial recovery of an object returned from orbit. Satellite reconnaissance was now filling a crucial strategic intelligence gap because, after the Gary Powers U-2 debacle, President Eisenhower had suspended all overflights of the USSR.

The Corona programme continued in secret until 1972 (the date of the last film recovery), with 144 launches. The growing importance of the satellite reconnaissance and intelligence was recognised in 1961 when the White House ordered that all satellite reconnaissance programmes would come under a new intelligence agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The NRO operated several different versions of Corona during the program’s lifetime, introducing different camera systems and making improvements. Eventually these so-called ‘Keyhole’ (KH) missions could produce imagery with 5–7-foot resolution. It was Keyhole imagery from the Corona series that showed that the Soviets had far fewer strategic missiles and bombers than had been originally thought. For the remainder of the Cold War, technical intelligence from satellite IMINT, combined with SIGINT, consistently gave US officials accurate estimates of how many missiles, bombers, and submarines the Soviet Union really had.

The second satellite programme to evolve from WS 117L was called SAMOS, and was intended to carry a heavier reconnaissance payload. Four of the eleven SAMOS launches failed and the image quality was poor. As a result, the programme was stopped in 1962. SAMOS was accompanied by MIDAS early warning surveillance satellites stationed in geosynchronous orbit over Soviet missile sites. However by 1974 the Department of Defense had developed a new system called GAMBIT, with a ‘77-inch focal length camera for providing specific information on scientific and technical capabilities that threatened the nation’, according to the NRO.

Later GAMBITs carried a state-of-the-art reconnaissance pack, including a 175-inch focal length camera with a resolution of less than two feet, and the ability to process, transmit, and receive electronic signals while on mission, thus allowing dissemination of near realtime digital imagery for targeting and strategic threat.

As the Cold War turned even more dangerous in the mid 1960s, American planners conceived a new and highly advanced satellite codenamed ‘Hexagon’. Hexagon was an extraordinarily ambitious project to place a huge spy satellite into space to look into the very backyards of the Soviet Union and Communist China. At the time (1967), it was the most classified project in America. It was also the most unlikely. Joseph Prusak, who had worked as an engineer on earlier civilian space projects, spent six months waiting for his security clearance, working in what the hirees called the ‘Mushroom Tank’ (because they were kept in the dark about what their new jobs were to be). When he was finally cleared and briefed on Hexagon, Prusak wondered if he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

The massive KH-9 Hexagon spy satellite was the largest satellite up to that time. ‘I thought they were crazy,’ Prusak said. ‘They envisaged a satellite that was 60-foot (18-metres) long and 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) and supplying film at speeds of 200 inches (500 centimetres) per second. The precision and complexity blew my mind.’ Not for nothing was the Hexagon dubbed, ‘Big Bird’. The plan to fire something weighing fifteen tons and the length of two busses into space was, in 1970, almost beyond belief. The project suffered a serious setback on its first launch when the delivery rocket blew up on the pan. Undaunted, the American intelligence agencies persisted. They knew that, potentially, they had a game changer on their hands.

Earlier space spy satellites such as Corona and Gambit were at least a whole generation – if not two – behind the plans for Hexagon. But neither offered the resolution nor sophistication of Hexagon, which was intended to take thousands of high-resolution pictures of Soviet missiles, submarine pens and air bases, even of individual bombers, missile silos and army units on exercise.

Later launches were more successful. Early Hexagons could stay up for 124 days but, as the satellites became more sophisticated, follow-on missions were extended to last for up to five months in space. The key to the missions’ success was the satellites’ revolutionary imagery package. The so-called ‘Key Hole’ system was built around a suite of new cameras with a panoramic ‘optical bar’ designed by Phil Pressel. Much later, Pressel explained his motivation to work on the Hexagon. ‘I never wanted to work on an offensive weapon system, something that would kill people. I am happy that I always worked on reconnaissance or intelligence projects, projects that secured our country.’ The result of his lifelong secret, one of the United States’ most closely guarded intelligence assets, was a behemoth larger than a London bus: the now declassified KH 9 spy satellite.

One of his revolutionary rotating cameras looked forward of the long thin satellite as the other looked aft, thus capturing detailed imagery in stereo, with a declared resolution of about two to three feet. (Insiders hinted that it could spot and photograph much smaller objects.) The Hexagon’s twin optical-bar panoramic-mirror cameras rotated as they swept back and forth while the satellite flew over earth, a process that intelligence officials referred to as ‘mowing the lawn’. The results were astonishing. According to the National Reconnaissance Office, one single Hexagon frame could cover a swathe of 370 nautical miles (680 kilometres) – about the distance from London to Koln, or Washington to Cincinnati.

The film was recovered by dropping film return-capsules for recovery. A specially equipped aircraft would try and catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute as it floated to earth after the film canister’s re-entry. However, the very first recovery of the ‘film bucket’ from a KH-9 Hexagon in spring 1972 went badly wrong. The Air Force recovery aircraft failed to snag the parachute and the capsule, with its vital load of high-resolution photographs of the Soviet Union’s submarine bases and missile silos, plunged into the sea to sink to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

The Americans were undaunted by the failure. In a remarkable feat of Cold War clandestine ingenuity, the US Navy’s deep submergence vehicle Trieste II managed to locate and recover the film bucket and its priceless cargo at a depth of nearly 16,000 feet.

After that the Keyhole success rate increased and the KH Series satellites became a vital part of the US intelligence effort, as the Cold War went into its increasingly expensive end game and America ratcheted up the price of staying in the fight. The Soviets were increasingly falling behind in the race for eyes in the sky. By the early 1980s they were unable to invest enough to keep up with burgeoning American technology, especially as the NRO developed the Keyhole programme to operate the KH-8 Gambit 3 and KH-9 Hexagon in tandem, teaming up to photograph areas of military significance in both the Soviet Union and China. The KH-9 would make the first pass, imaging a wide swathe of terrain, to be scrutinised by imagery intelligence analysts on the ground looking for so-called ‘targets of opportunity’. Once these potential targets were identified, a KH-8 would then be manoeuvred over the target to photograph the precise location in much higher resolution.

The Hexagon’s final launch in April 1986 met with disaster just like the very first launch, as the spy satellite’s Titan 34D booster erupted into a massive fireball just seconds after lift-off, crippling the NRO’s orbital reconnaissance capabilities for many months. However, by then, the Hexagon satellites’ early warning job was nearly over as the USSR slid into economic and eventually political ruin.

NASA’s Rob Landis was unequivocal about the contribution satellites made to US and Allied intelligence during the Cold War: ‘You have to give credit to leaders like President Eisenhower who had the vision to initiate reconnaissance spacecraft, beginning with the Corona and Discoverer programs,’ Landis said. ‘He was of the generation who wanted no more surprises, no more Pearl Harbors. Frankly, I think that Gambit and Hexagon helped prevent World War Three.’

Few would disagree. The 1970s programme of Rhyolite/Aquacade satellites were designed specifically to intercept Soviet and Chinese microwave relay signals traffic, much of which missed the receiving dish and, because of the curvature of the Earth, carried on into space. By placing a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit at a position in the sky where it could intercept and catch the beam, the US government was able to listen in on Soviet telephone calls and telex cables during the Cold War. Even the Kremlin’s car-phone system was vulnerable.

It was not just SIGINT. Jimmy Carter was astonished, on coming into the White House in 1977, to be presented by the CIA with a series of pin-sharp photographs of the movement of tanks in Poland in real time. The images had been taken by the latest KH 11 satellite. Carter was delighted at the intelligence that satellites could now provide to him as Commander-in-Chief. From then on the US satellite budget has always been safe.

In 1991, the role of intelligence was revolutionised by the Gulf War. Satellite intelligence was used to provide warning of Scud attacks, to target Patriot anti-missile rockets, to provide weather data, aid with land navigation and aerial bombardment, and serve as a communication channel. The growing struggle against Islamic jihadi terrorists has also seen a heavy reliance upon satellite imagery and electronic intelligence in efforts to trace the movements of key terrorist leaders and identify targets.

This switch from strategic to tactical intelligence has brought with it enhanced capabilities for reconnaissance satellites. For example, the US government’s hunt for, and elimination of, the al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could only have been accomplished with real-time satellite surveillance.

And where the US led, other countries have followed; every nation with the technical prowess and financial resources now has satellites in space, from communications satellites to GPS navigation systems, as well as the numerous intelligence platforms. Foremost among them is Israel, which, unwilling to rely on the US for its satellite images, launched its first reconnaissance satellite in April 1995. Japan has also acted on its own regional security concerns and launched reconnaissance satellites; its first launch was in 2003, specifically to keep an eye on China and North Korea. Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, and Pakistan have all become owners of the most expensive intelligence-collection assets in history.

Inevitably, much of the work and technology of the satellite intelligence programmes has been highly classified and we can only guess at the very latest intelligence collection systems. One satellite intelligence programme, however, has been well aired in the world’s press: the US-controlled ECHELON system.

ECHELON first made the news in 1988 when a Lockheed employee, Margaret Newsham, admitted to a US Congressman that the telephone calls of a US senator were being collected by the NSA. Congressional investigators determined that ‘targeting of U.S. political figures would not occur by accident, but was designed into the system from the start’. Later that year, British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell wrote an article for the New Statesman called ‘Somebody’s listening’, outlining the signals intelligence gathering activities of ECHELON. By 1996 the cat was truly out of the bag. Nick Hager, a New Zealand journalist provided specific details about the ECHELON satellite surveillance system, claiming that it was a joint UK-US-Canadian-Australian system that could eavesdrop on any telephonic communication.

In 2000 a former Director of the CIA confirmed that US intelligence uses interception systems and keyword searches to monitor European businesses. This prompted the European Parliament to investigate the ECHELON surveillance network. The US refused to meet the members of a European investigating committee, and the BBC reported that, ‘The US Government still refuses to admit that Echelon even exists.’

According to the whistle blowers – or traitors, depending on your point of view – ECHELON and its follow-on systems such as PRISM, DISHFIRE, TURBULENCE and MYSTIC still exist, now with enhanced capabilities to monitor, intercept, and record telephonic and email transmissions, as well as any other communications in the electronic sphere. If ECHELON’S intelligence collection capabilities in 2001 were described as ‘awesome’, then there is hard evidence that that Big Brother’s electronic ear is today even more powerful: a conclusion that raises serious questions for the citizen’s right to privacy, democratic politicians and lawyers.

That the post-ECHELON systems exist is not in doubt. In 2012 a Royal Canadian Navy intelligence officer, Sub Lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, was sentenced to twenty years after pleading guilty to having downloaded and sold information from the Codeword (the security level above top secret) STONEGHOST communications interception system to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

The digital age and modern communications systems have taken satellite and intelligence collection to new heights, in every sense. Until its retirement in 2011, modern intelligence satellites were intercepted and refuelled in space using the Space Shuttle, whose design was specifically tailored to include a cargo bay big enough to recover and repair America’s intelligence collectors in space. Intelligence agencies and decision makers now rely almost entirely on satellites for their technical intelligence.

Today’s satellites still have five major roles as intelligence collection sources: early warning, to provide warning of an attack by detecting ballistic missile launches; detecting nuclear explosions on the ground and in space; photo surveillance, (IMINT) to provide images from space using a variety of sensors that can see through cloud using synthetic aperture radar and millimetric radar as well as spectral imaging; intercepting electronic-reconnaissance radio waves across all frequencies (SIGINT); and radar imaging to identify and measure any particular equipment or systems of interest, (MASINT).

Inevitably, the market place has recognised the potential profitability of satellites. Literally thousands of commercial satellites now surround the earth, competing for commercial reconnaissance as well as communications. This broader role for reconnaissance satellites was recognised in 2005 when America’s National Geospatial Intelligence Agency used information from US government satellites, commercial satellites, and airborne reconnaissance platforms to support hurricane-relief efforts and provide information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With the end of the Cold War, private companies even began to sell declassified imagery as the distinction between government military satellites and commercial satellites disappeared. Since the 1990s, commercial vendors have entered the market and their modern, relatively high-resolution imagery from satellites offer an invaluable tool to commercial enterprises such as oil prospecting, geologists, weather forecasting, or crop production, as well as many other applications. And, since the advent of ‘Google Earth’ in 2005, we can now all gain access to free satellite imagery. Google’s systems are capable of excellent resolution — down to less than half a metre; and even that is rumoured to be limited only by US government restrictions to prevent the image quality from getting too good.

Today the NRO and its fellow intelligence agencies operate ground stations around the world that collect and distribute intelligence gathered from reconnaissance satellites, both imagery and electronic. Along with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), with its primary mission of collecting, analysing, and distributing geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) in support of national security requirements, US hi-tech satellite intelligence has reached a new level, providing comprehensive GEOINT for US military and intelligence efforts, as well as assistance during natural and man-made disasters, and even security planning for major events such as the Olympic Games. It was the NGA that was credited by the White House and Pentagon with providing critical intelligence for Operation Neptune’s Spear in 2011, when United States SEALS raided a secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama Bin Laden.

However, just as satellites seemed poised to take over the role of image collectors entirely, there was a significant development in the field of reconnaissance aircraft. In the last twenty years new Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been developed for imagery and signals intelligence. These drones are significant because they give the decision maker and the battlefield commander an ‘eye in the sky’ without, crucially, risking an expensive and vulnerable pilot. Moreover, modern UAVs are relatively cheap, they are flexible, they can stay aloft for hours and they provide a remarkable cost-effective force multiplier for commanders at all levels.

For example, at the time of writing (2015) the USAF’s RQ-4A Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aerial reconnaissance system which can give field commanders high resolution, near real-time imagery of large geographic areas from thousands of miles away. It can carry out reconnaissance missions in support of all types of operations. With its 14,000 nautical-mile range and forty-two-hour endurance, combined with satellite and line-of-sight communication links to ground forces, the Global Hawk can operate anywhere in the world. High-resolution sensors, including visible and infrared electro-optical systems and synthetic aperture radar, will conduct surveillance over an area of 40,000 square nautical miles to an altitude of 65,000 feet in twenty-four hours.

Global Hawk is high-tech, big and expensive; but it is still a great deal cheaper and more flexible than rocket-launched satellites. Its smaller cousins are much cheaper still, and these smaller UAVs have the added advantage of being very hard to detect, and even more difficult to shoot down. Some are even expendable, designed to be abandoned once the mission is completed; others are small enough to be shaped like birds. But all have the capability of relaying intelligence images in real time to a commander at any level from a reconnaissance patrol to defence ministers.

Even Britain’s cash strapped austerity MoD has confirmed that the most cost-effective way ahead for aerial reconnaissance is the UAV, announcing at the end of 2014 that Britain was adding extra Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft to its forces deployed to fight Islamic State militants.

In the twenty-first century, IMINT has come to dominate our lives and the battlefield, from space and from drones, whether we like it or not. Unless it is undercover, tucked away in a hangar, or out of sight, nowadays nothing is secret from the eye in the sky that is aerial reconnaissance.