Recconiassance Flight Over the USSR

Date: - August 1953

Type of Aircraft: - 1 Canberra

Nationality: - RAF

Launch Site: - Giebelstadt

Altitude Flown: - 46,000+

Remarks: - The Canberra photographed Kiev, Kharkov, Stalingrad, and Kapustin Yar. Aircraft was damaged by AAA and landed in Iran.

Map showing the August 1953 Reconnaissance Flight from Giebelstadt

In the spring of 1953, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had reconsidered strategic overflight reconnaissance after word reached Western intelligence of a formidable Soviet missile program under way at a base called Kapustin Yar, near Stalingrad. Once again, Churchill approved an overflight. This time the RAF and the USAF collaborated to squeeze a large, oblique-looking camera into the aft fuselage of a standard RAF B-2 twin-engine Canberra bomber. This bomber could not be air-refueled; but, stripped of all excess weight and with its bomb bay filled with fuel tanks, the aircraft possessed a range sufficient for it to fly at high altitude from Germany across the southern USSR, and then swing south to Iran.

The British assigned the name "Project ROBIN" to this effort, which consisted of two or three shallow penetration missions over the Eastern Bloc satellite states preparatory to the main event. Approved by the prime minister, the primary mission was flown in late August 1953 from Giebelstadt in West Germany, close to the East German border. The Canberra was tracked by Soviet radar almost from the moment of takeoff. Happily for an RAF aircrew flying in broad daylight, accurate radar tracking did not prevent various elements of the Soviet air defense system from performing a Keystone Kops routine for Stalin’s heirs in the Kremlin. In the face of an air defense system on full alert, the "unidentified" aircraft, operating at 46,000 to 48,000 feet altitude, remained untouched. With its 100-inch focal-length camera peering obliquely out the port side, it flew doggedly east past Kiev, Kharkov, and Stalingrad to its target, Kapustin Yar.

In spite of frantic commands and radar vectoring, Soviet fighter aircraft could not see the airplane above them and did not successfully intercept the plane until it approached Kapustin Yar. Though they managed to hit the British machine, it flew on, and the fighters lost sight of it again. Damage to the aircraft, however, introduced vibration, which adversely affected the optics performance of the camera. Pictures of Kapustin Yar subsequently furnished to the USAF and CIA were blurred and of poor quality; they apparently revealed little. The Canberra turned southeast to follow the Volga River. It escaped and managed to land safely in Iran. Its nearloss ended any further British thoughts of daytime strategic reconnaissance overflights of the western USSR.

But the flight had unexpected results. Seven years later, on August 5, 1960, the Philadelphia Inquirer carried an account of the mission by a Soviet defector who had served in 1953 as an air defense radar officer: During the [Canberra] flight all sorts of unbelievable things happened. In one region, the operator accidentally sent the Soviet flights west instead of east; in Kharkov, the pilots confused the planes [aloft] and found themselves firing at each other. The result was a major purge. Many generals and officers were removed from their posts. One general was demoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and committed suicide. Other personnel were sent to punishment battalions.

It is believed that the overflight of Kapustin Yar began during the night sometime in the summer of 1953, when a Canberra took off from Giebelstadt in West Germany and headed east, behind the Iron Curtain. Although flying above 45,000 feet, the Canberra was continually tracked by radar as it flew over East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Ukraine - on a direct track for Kapustin Yar. Under close guidance from controllers on the ground, Soviet fighters made repeated attempts to intercept the Canberra, but this proved impossible in the dark. However, as dawn began to break and the sky grew lighter, the high-flying Canberra gradually became visible. In the event, the MiG15 pilots who then attempted to intercept the aircraft found they were unable to maintain the altitude of the Canberra and were forced into repeated attempts to zoom-climb up behind the aircraft and fire off a few shots, before their MiG’s stalled and lost height. Despite these repeated attempts at interception, the courageous crew of the Canberra continued heading towards the target. Finally, as it approached Kapustin Yar a MiG eventually managed to obtain a few hits on the Canberra. Although the Canberra was not seriously damaged, the airframe started to vibrate slightly as Kapustin Yar came into view. The Canberra quickly photographed the target and immediately turned southeast, over the Caspian Sea towards Iran, where it eventually landed. Unfortunately, when the photographs were later developed, it was discovered that the airframe vibration had effected the optical performance of the camera. Despite the extremely brave efforts of the crew, the photographs the Canberra obtained of Kapustin Yar were blurred and of rather poor quality; consequently, they revealed little actual detail of the site itself.

Red Air Force Lieutenant, Mikhail Shulga, recalls trying to intercept a Canberra in his MiG fighter in the Kapustin Yar region. He was guided by Soviet ground control: "I began to climb to 48,000 feet, to 48,500 feet., and they said "Look around you. Look to the right and look to the left." I looked. They said "look higher and look a bit to the right." I looked up and there a few thousand feet above me I saw the plane. They asked me: "Can you see it?" I said, "Yes, I can, shimmering beautifully in the sunshine." They said: "Prepare your guns." So I accelerated and climbed up towards the plane - 4,500 feet, 5,000 feet, 5,500 feet higher - and - my plane was stalling. Nothing came of it. The plane was flying higher than me. They said: "Do it again." I tried again. "Can’t you reach it?" "No, I can’t."Although it is impossible to accurately confirm the individuals and the aircraft which undertook this daring sortie until the official records are released, a clear possibility does exist. The official records of 540 Squadron note that on August 27th and 28th 1953, "long range operations sorties" were carried out by Wing Commander Freddie Ball, Squadron Leader Don Kenyon and Flight Sergeant Jim Brown in WH726 and Flight Lieutenant Gartside and Flight Sergeant Wigglesworth in WJ574. The first PR3, the Canberra photo-reconnaissance version came into service in the Spring of 1953 with 540 Sqn, based at RAF Wyton, and they are the most likely unit to have undertaken the mission. In the summer of 1953 they were equipped with the Canberra PR3, the first of which, WE135, was delivered in Dec 1952. By May 1953 there were only 4 PR3s in 540 Squadron the rest of the squadron strength was made up of converted B2 Canberra bomber versions.

WH726 was later fitted with an American supplied 100 inch camera and flew a number of border flights throughout Europe and the Middle East. Using the camera to look deep inside Warsaw Pact countries, the modified Canberra obtained hundreds of highly valuable photographs. These sorties were codenamed Project Robin. Although the Kapustin Yar sortie could well have used the same codename, it is believed that the long-range camera was not fitted to WH726 until after the mission was completed.

So what else can we pierce together about the Kapustin Yar sortie? If it took place in the summer of 1953 it could have involved a Canberra PR3 but most probably was the modified B2 Canberra, WH726, and would almost certainly have been flown by a crew from 540 Sqn. Another Canberra, possibly B2 WJ574, probably escorted the aircraft some of the way to ensure it wasn’t leaving an obvious contrail. The sortie was also certainly mounted from Giebelstadt, an American base about 8 miles south of Wurzburg in West Germany. The aircraft’s departure would have been timed to allow it to arrive overhead Kapustin Yar (48.35N 46.18E) at dawn. Assuming a departure from Giebelstadt (49.38N 009.58E), a direct track to the target would have been about 2110 miles - given a cruising speed of 420 kts, this leg would have taken around 5 hrs. Therefore, as it was summer, and dawn would have been around 5am the aircraft probably took off around midnight. If the aircraft eventually landed at Tabriz this was about 730 miles, assuming a direct track this equates to a flight time of about 1 hour 45 mins, so the aircraft probably landed around 7am having flown about 2840 - 2900 miles. Up until the 1957 coup d’etat, the RAF made regular visits to various Iranian airfields. The Canberra certainly landed in Iran and Tabriz was the airfield closest to the Russian border, but either Khatami near Isfahan, or Zehedan near Tehran were just about within range.

The range of a Canberra B2 with tip tanks was 3000 miles, with a ceiling of 48,000 feet. This type of Canberra would certainly have been capable of the sortie; it is not known whether the "special modifications" which were carried out to the B2’s that served on 540 Sqn included an additional fuel tank in the bomb bay, but this might be a possibility. The range of a Canberra PR3 was 3585 miles, ceiling 50,000 feet.

Because of the range of the target from Gieblestadt, there would have been little option of flying anything other than directly towards Kapustin Yar, which is situated some 60 miles east of Volgograd (formally Stalingrad), in an area to the north of the Caspian Sea. But this poses an interesting question why mount the sortie out of Giebelstadt, West Germany, at extreme range when the only option available is a direct track to the target over an area known to be covered with radar sites and fighter stations? If it was possible to land the aircraft in Iran, why not mount the sortie from there or from the RAF base at Habbaniya in Iraq? Both these options would have been nearer to the target and would have allowed the aircraft to enter Russia through a much less heavily defended area. Another option would have been Incirlik in Turkey, which was later used in 1956 as a base for U-2 operations over Russia. There must have been an overriding reason why the sortie was flown from Giebelstadt exactly what that was remains another mystery.

It is generally accepted that the RAF did undertake the daring mission over Kapustin Yar in 1953. But unfortunately which aircraft and crew flew the sortie still remains a mystery. There are various other possibilities. It could have been a PR3 using a F52 camera. The PR3 had greater range and altitude than the B2. So did Canberra B2 WH726 fly the Kapustin Yar flight? Unfortunately many of the members of 540 and 58 Squadron are now dead and their individual stories are lost forever. Several officers who served on 540 Squadron, including Gordon Cremer, Don Greenslade and Harry Currell, were also involved in the RB-45C sorties from Sculthorpe. Given the details that have slowly begun to emerge, this flight and possibly many others, were made over Russia by Canberra’s during the early 1950’s eventually the full story will emerge.

Despite the overflight taking place nearly 50 years ago, being openly acknowledged by the Russians and alluded to in a wide variety of publications, nothing has never been officially admitted by the British Government. Furthermore, unlike the RAF RB-45C overflights from Sculthorpe, no individual has ever admitted taking part and the actual aircraft involved have never been positively identified. In the interests of military and aviation history, it is widely hoped that the file on the Kapustin Yar overflight eventually emerges into view at the Public Record Office. Only then can the skill and bravery of the men who actually flew this sortie be publicly acknowledged - hopefully this will happen whilst they are still alive to receive the long-overdue plaudits that they so rightfully deserve.

The codename "Project Robin" has often been identified with the photographic sortie conducted by a single RAF Canberra over Kapustin Yar, probably in the summer of 1953. However, recently de-classified files indicate that Kapustin Yar was probably a totally separate operation, although it is highly likely that Canberra B2, WH726, which was definitely involved in Project Robin, was also used either for the sortie over Kapustin Yar or in support.

In his article on overflights R Cargill Hall has stated that the Kapustin Yar sortie was flown in late August 1953 from Giebelstadt in West Germany. Records from 540 Sqn, who most likely conducted the sortie, note that on 27th & 28th Aug 53 "long range operational sorties" were flown by Wing Commander Freddie Ball and Squadron Leader Don Kenyon in WH726 and Flight Lieutenant Gartside and FS Wigglesworth in WJ574. A second aircraft usually followed an aircraft engaged on an operational sortie for the initial part of the flight, both as an airborne spare and to check that the lead aircraft was not leaving a giveaway contrail. From the details that have gradually begun to emerge from a variety of sources, this record appears to coincide with what can be established on the Kapustin Yar sortie, but until the official records are released, it is impossible to confirm if this was the actual sortie.

The Canberra sortie over Kapustin Yar highlighted the well known danger of a reconnaissance aircraft having to overfly a highly sensitive, and therefore very well defended target, to obtain photographs. However, although side-facing cameras had been installed in various aircraft over the years, their optics were generally fairly restricted and this prevented the camera from having any really effective "range" from the aircraft. In the United States the brilliant camera designer, Jim Baker, had developed a reconnaissance camera with a 100-inch lens. What was needed was a suitable aircraft which could carry the camera to the highest possible service ceiling, allowing it photograph targets at maximum range. At the time there was nothing in the USAF inventory that was suitable, but the RAF’s Canberra fitted the bill exactly.

In June 1953, following an approach from the USAF, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Air Staff, agreed in principle, subject to certain conditions, that the 100 inch American camera could be fitted to a Canberra, the aircraft chosen was a B2, Serial No: WH726. It was agreed that the USAF would be given copies of any "interesting" photographs the Canberra obtained. Later in Jan-Feb 1954 Jim Baker visited the RAF’s Director of Intelligence, AVM Fressanges to discuss various issues, including the specially equipped Canberra. During the visit, Fressanges discussed the Kapustin Yar sortie, another clear indication of summer 1953 being the correct timescale for the sortie. Of course there is a possibility that the camera could have been hurriedly installed in time for WH726 to use it on the Kapustin Yar overflight later that summer. But, given the timescale involved, there would have been little time for the aircraft to be suitably modified and the equipment tested but it is a possibility. Also, would the Americans have been prepared to risk the loss of this unique and highly expensive camera on such a dangerous sortie, possibly allowing it to fall into the hands of the Soviets, so soon after it came into service?

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Updated: January 30, 2004