Historian clears clouds over spying and shot-down bomber

USAF Globemaster and Thor nuclear missile at RAF Leconfield, East Yorkshire
USAF Globemaster and Thor nuclear missile at RAF Leconfield, East Yorkshire
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It was one of the mysteries of the Cold War, but now Steven Taylor reports on the new evidence which may put an East Yorkshire air base in the clear.

FOR 60 years it has remained one of the Cold War’s most mysterious incidents, which plunged Anglo-Soviet relations to an all-time low and infuriated Winston Churchill.

But now new light has finally been shed on the exact circumstances surrounding the shooting down of a Leconfield-based RAF bomber by Soviet MiG-15 jet fighters in 1953.

On March 12 that year, an Avro Lincoln B2 bomber attached to the RAF’s Central Gunnery School and carrying a seven-man crew failed to return to its base at Leconfield from a routine training sortie to West Germany.

It has long been suspected that the training sortie was merely a cover story and that the Lincoln was actually on a covert intelligence-gathering mission behind the Iron Curtain, using eavesdropping equipment to record Soviet electronic emissions when it was intercepted and shot down.

But according to Intelligence historian Richard Aldrich, who was granted unprecedented access to the files of Britain’s codebreaking agency GCHQ, which authorised spy flights in the 1950s, rumours that the Lincolm was engaged in airborne espionage are unfounded.

“The RAF Lincoln was not directly involved in radio warfare or special duties,” he says. “It was merely an exercise, and wandered out of one of the defined 29 air corridors over the Soviet Zone between West Germany and Berlin.”

Piloted by 29-year-old Flight Sergeant Peter Dunnell, the large four-engined aircraft developed from the wartime Lancaster bomber which took part in the Dambusters’ raids, was participating in a routine exercise testing NATO air defences between Hamburg and West Berlin when it apparently strayed off course and into 
Soviet-controlled East German airspace.

A pair of MiG-15s were scrambled and intercepted the Lincoln, one of which opened fire with its cannons. Badly damaged and on fire, the bomber went into a steep dive.

Two of the crew managed to successfully bale out, but according to the eyewitness accounts of horrified German civilians on the ground, both of the British airmen were shot by the Russian pilot while descending on their parachutes.

The flaming wreckage of the Lincoln came down in some fields in Luneberg, 20 miles south of Hamburg. All seven of the crew perished. The loss of the aircraft started a bitter war of words between London and Moscow, with the Soviets insisting they were forced to act after the Lincoln violated their airspace and fired upon the MiGs.

“A Soviet plane was obliged to answer with a warning shot. The trespassing plane, however, continued firing at the Soviet planes. The Soviet planes were obliged to open fire in return after which the British aircraft began to lose height, and fell south-west of Schwerin, on East German territory,” insisted the Russian statement.

But Moscow’s version of events was contradicted by a British investigation into the incident, which found that the British bomber’s guns were not loaded and that, since the wreckage 
was found well inside the British sector of West Germany, the aircraft was clearly not in Soviet-controlled airspace when it was attacked.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was particularly incensed by the Soviet action, calling it a “wanton attack” and two days after the shooting down of the RAF Lincoln, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden added his own condemnation.

“Her Majesty’s Government takes a grave view of this serious event,” he said. “Deliberate and unprovoked attacks of this kind by what are supposed to be friendly forces can only be called barbaric.”

East-West tensions were especially high at the time, with the Korean war still raging, and just days earlier a US Air Force F-84 fighter had also been shot down by MiGs close to the East German border.

But after their initial furious reaction, the British Government seemed keen to bury the incident and dropped demands for the Soviet Union to pay compensation to the airmen’s families, fuelling rumours, which have persisted ever since, that the aircraft was engaged on a spying mission. But while Aldrich confirmed that the aircraft wasn’t directly involved in intelligence-
gathering, “its progress,” he claims, “was being carefully tracked by a British ‘sigint’ 
[signals intelligence] unit on 
the ground at RAF Charfoldendorf in the British Zone of Germany.”