It took a very long time, but the UK Ministry of Defence finally released the Royal Air Force files on British participation in the CIA’s U-2 program to overfly the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. And fascinating they are, containing everything from operational cables and reports, to policy deliberations within the Air Ministry and the Foreign Office, and memoranda to the Prime Minister, seeking his approval for the illegal flights.
Actually, the files were released in 2019, but there are 23 of them containing 2,700 pages, so it has taken me a while to copy and review them! They reveal significant new detail, including just how worried the British government was that the RAF’s role would become public knowledge, and how anxious it was to please the US, its senior partner in this unique intelligence-gathering effort.
In this post, I will cover the highlights from the newly-released files from 1958-60, concentrating on the political aspects. I will post further stories on this website at a later date: the operational details concerning the overflights make very interesting reading. Meanwhile, you can find my earlier research in my book 50 YEARS OF THE U-2. You can also find a good account of the British involvement in the January and February 2019 editions of THE AEROPLANE magazine, available by mail order here. But those two articles largely consisted of information from a CIA history, and they were written before the British files surfaced in The National Archives.
The RAF was invited to join the U-2 project in late 1957. President Eisenhower was refusing to approve many of the overflights that the CIA proposed, after some of the earlier ones had been detected by Soviet radars, leading to a protest from Moscow. Project Director Richard Bissell believed that their frequency could be increased if the UK could make some of them, and take responsibility if anything went wrong. A joint effort might also confuse the Russians, he thought. The RAF was only too pleased to gain entry to this above-top-secret, high-tech undertaking. Although detected, the previous overflights had proved that Soviet fighter-interceptors could not reach the U-2’s cruising altitude of around 70,000 feet.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (right) agreed to talks in late February 1958, and in anticipation of a successful outcome, the RAF sent four pilots to the Laughlin AFB in Texas for training in late March. Thereafter, the key point of discussion was to what extent the RAF would operate independently of the US. Eventually, an integrated operation was arranged. The British activity was allocated a separate codeword. The first two of these were short-lived, before “Oldster” was adopted.
The ‘cover story’ was a key concern to the government. For public consumption, it settled on “meteorological research”, to match the CIA’s cover story. But because knowledge of the project was so strictly confined within Whitehall and the Air Ministry, there was even a separate cover story for those with Top Secret clearances who might become suspicious: radar reconnaissance and the air sampling of nuclear weapons fallout. The U-2 did indeed also perform those missions, but Project Oldster was all about taking photos of the Soviet Union.
There was a protracted and convoluted debate about whether the British U-2 pilots should be civilians to aid in deniability, again matching the American practice. The PM favored this. Some in Whitehall suggested that the pilots could be portrayed as working for a commercial company that was under contract to the Meteorological Office. All this time, meanwhile, the four chosen pilots were training at Laughlin (above, right) in full RAF uniforms!
In the end, it was agreed that they should remain as RAF officers. But when they were deployed to Adana, Turkey, the primary base for the CIA’s U-2 operations (‘Detachment B’), they would wear civilian clothes and pretend to be working for the Met Office.
Three RAF pilots and a flight surgeon (Flt Lt John Clifford) arrived at Adana in mid-November 1958. The fourth pilot, Sqn Ldr Chris Walker, had been killed in a training accident at Laughlin. He was due to become the British commander within Det B; his replacement was Sqn Ldr Robbie Robinson (above, left) who arrived at Adana in early January, together with a navigator eg mission planner (Flt Lt Collingwood).
In an exchange of telegrams in December 1958, MacMillan and Eisenhower agreed that if there was an incident during an overflight, the country whose pilot was at the controls would accept responsibility. Sir Patrick Dean, the senior civil servant in the Foreign Office, was surprised. “It would require a brave PM to authorize the flights at all,” he wrote.
On 7th December 1958, Detachment B sent a U-2 to RAF Watton in East Anglia for two weeks (right). The PM had insisted on this, to lend credibility to the cover story. A statement was inserted into the official Meteorological Magazine explaining that the US was loaning two U-2 aircraft for weather research flights in the UK by RAF pilots. Unfortunately, the severe frost and fog allowed only one such flight. (Det B made two more excursions to Watton, in May and October 1959. Some more “weather” flights were made over the UK, and the deployments also served to practice the “Fast Move” technique that had been developed by Det B – deploying the U-2 to staging bases with minimum support equipment, to help disguise and speed operations).
In London, flight clearance procedures were drafted by the small Oldster team within the Air Ministry. A proposed schedule for the next three months would be submitted for approval by the Secretary of State for Air, the Foreign Secretary, and the Prime Minister. The RAF optimistically wanted to fly six overflights of Russia in the first three months of 1959, plus up to two flights each month over the Middle East. Final approval for each flight would be requested from the PM 24 hours before the scheduled takeoff.
But the British U-2 effort was hardly independent. The detailed planning for each mission was to be done in Washington, at the CIA’s U-2 Project HQ. An RAF Wing Commander, Norman Mackie, was assigned there for liaison with London. At Det B, the CIA was responsible for the maintenance of the aircraft and their sensors, secure communications, and most of the other operational necessities. The US Air Force provided significant support, including airlift.
The PM wrote to the President on 12th December confirming the flight clearance procedures that he had made. “We should ensure that our policy at any one time is the same”, he added. The President replied seeking a clarification. “The idea of maintaining your separate authority has seemed to me essential to the project”, Eisenhower wrote. He was apparently reassured by a subsequent discussion between US Secretary of State Foster Dulles and British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd.
On the last day of 1958, an RAF pilot flew the UK’s first operational mission, an overflight of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Imagery from the flight was shown to the Prime Minister on 4th February 1959. He was “greatly impressed”. A further 18 Middle East missions would be flown by RAF pilots from Det B over the next 15 months, all conducted without the knowledge of the overflown countries. None of the flights were detected. However, the PM took a keen interest in the routes, and refused permission to overfly Israel.
But the primary purpose of the RAF joining the U-2 project was to fly over the Soviet Union. In early 1959, planning for a British overflight codenamed Operation Marshland began. The Soviets had not yet installed early warning radars opposite Pakistan, so the mission planners hoped a U-2 could enter ‘denied territory’ from there without detection. The British High Commissioner gained permission from Pakistan President Ayub Khan (above) for a U-2 to fly out of Peshawar. London did not tell the British diplomat the true purpose of the flight. He – and therefore also Ayub Khan – was told that an electronic intelligence mission along the Soviet border would be mounted. US transport aircraft would support the mission, and would refuel enroute to Pakistan via one of Britain’s colonial possessions in the Gulf.
However, political approval for this operation never came. Sir Patrick Dean believed this was not an opportune time to seek overflight permission from the PM. Nevertheless, MacMillan was informally approached during his tour of RAF stations on 1st April, probably by the Chief of the Air Staff, but to no avail. The RAF’s optimism about flying regular missions over the Soviet Union was dashed. Throughout 1959, East-West diplomacy and the possibility of a thaw in the Cold War, served to reduce Whitehall’s appetite for the potentially risky and provocative U-2 missions, despite their obvious intelligence value.
In the event, the targets deep inside the Soviet Union that had been planned for Operation Marshland were covered on 9th July 1959 by an American mission that President Eisenhower approved. Codenamed Operation Touchdown, it was a complete success, and by taking off from Peshawar, managed to avoid tracking by Soviet radars.
But there were plenty more places where the Soviets were thought to be designing, building and testing advanced weaponry, especially nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). British intelligence suggested some of the locations to their American counterparts. In an attempt to motivate the Brits, the two most senior American intelligence officials in the U-2 project flew to London in late October. Photo interpretation expert Art Lundahl and intelligence targets chief Jim Reber briefed MacMillan, Lloyd, senior Whitehall mandarins and the RAF hierarchy on the success of Operation Touchdown, and showed them high-resolution imagery of the ICBM launch site at Tyuratam and other key intelligence targets.
It was an impressive presentation, and it worked. In November, a new request to the PM for a Soviet overflight codenamed Operation High Wire was painstakingly re-drafted eight times by the Oldster cell, the RAF leadership, then the Secretary of State for Air, and finally the Foreign Office, before it reached Macmillan. The multi-page proposal was signed by the Secretary of State for Air, George Ward. It included the detailed route and the major targets.
“The intelligence prize is great. There is a risk, but the U-2 is still ahead of the Russian defences,” Ward wrote. As for the delicate task of gaining approval to use Peshawar again from Ayub Khan, the PM was told that “the U-2 is only on the ground there for a few hours, and this in darkness.” As with the 9th July American flight, the Pakistan President would be misled into thinking that the U-2 would only be flying an electronic intelligence mission along the Soviet border.
The PM approved the flight, and the intricate Operation High Wire swung into action. The RAF arranged for the C-130 transporting the support crew and equipment to be refueled enroute to Peshawar in Bahrein. Early in the morning of 6th December, Sqn Ldr Robinson took off and headed north over the Soviet border. Cruising at 70,000 feet, he flew as far as Kuybyshev where two bomber factories were located. Then he turned southwest to overfly the operational bomber base at Saratov, and the large test complex for most of the Soviet Union’s medium-range missiles at Kapustin Yar. As well as these three high-priority targets, there were plenty more along the way. After a 3,600-mile flight lasting over eight hours, Robinson landed back at Adana, Det B’s home base in Turkey.
The overflight was another success. It was not detected. The quality of the imagery was excellent. Western intelligence had not seen aerial photographs of most of the targets since the Second World War. The U-2 Project HQ in Washington cabled congratulations to the RAF “on such a fine, professional performance”. The CIA Director Allen Dulles told the Chief of the Air Staff that “the entire intelligence community is extremely gratified by the excellent and timely results.”
Success brings its own rewards: on the last day of 1959, PM Macmillan agreed to another overflight. There were preferred and alternative flight plans. Operation Knife Edge would fly north to cover Kazan, another strategic bomber base, and then go west to survey aircraft factories and missile facilities. Like the previous British overflight, it would takeoff from Peshawar and land at Adana. Operation Square Deal which would fly east, to investigate the nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk and the air defence missile test range at Saryshagan. This would also takeoff from Peshawar, but the landing would be in Zahedan, and airbase in northern Iran, which had been used for the same purpose by the American overflight the previous July. As with previous overflights, the actual day of operation would depend on a good weather forecast. If the primary route was cloudy, the alternative route would be flown.
In the event, Operation Knife Edge was flown, but not until 5th February 1960 because of poor weather over the key target areas. Flt Lt John MacArthur covered 3,000 miles in a flight lasting 8 hours 40 minutes. He flew over new Soviet radar and surface-to-air missiles sites, missile test and launch facilities, a key military shipyard, arms factories and nearly 100 airfields. At Kazan, the U-2’s camera captured a previously-unknown supersonic bomber aircraft, later identified as the Tu-22 Blinder.
Despite the success of Knife Edge, the attitude in Whitehall towards another mission was to “let sleeping dogs lie for a time”, noted Gp Capt Colin Kunkler, the RAF officer in charge of the Oldster cell in the Air Ministry. The Foreign Office was more nervous than ever about the illegal flights.
In Project HQ meanwhile, there was renewed optimism that President Eisenhower would approve an American overflight. But permission to takeoff from Pakistan was still the key to success. Wg Cdr Mackie cabled London from Project HQ: “the feeling here is that Ayub Khan knows a lot more about our purpose for using Peshawar than he has been told.” There was speculation in Washington, that the Pakistan President would extract a price for continued use of the airbase: the US to supply his air force with supersonic F-104 fighter-interceptors.
On 29th March, the Air Minister and RAF chiefs showed the results of the most recent overflight in Whitehall. “Thanks for today’s impressive presentation,” Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd (right) told George Ward. “These flights must give us a lot of credit with the Americans”.
The next overflight took place on 9th April: the operation codenamed Square Deal that had been mooted two months earlier. Some of the planning had been done in London, but it was flown by an American pilot. Like the three previous overflights, it took off from Peshawar. Ayub Khan had been pacified: he got his F-104s. But the Soviets had closed their early warning radar gap, the U-2 was tracked for much of its journey, and fighter intercepts were attempted, unsuccessfully.
In a previous post, I have described how this experience might have led the CIA to cancel future overflights.But the imperative to gain further insight into Soviet nuclear missile development in particular, led the CIA to plan another overflight, which President Eisenhower approved. Operation Grand Slam was mounted from Peshawar on 1st May 1960. The flight was again detected on entry by Soviet radar, Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk, and in the resulting furore, the hoped-for thaw in East-West relations never happened.
The RAF pilots were withdrawn from Turkey immediately, but the navigator was kept on as a liaison officer, “partly as a gesture to the Americans and partly to retain our stake in the U-2 program,” according to one of the RAF files. In London, the government agonized about how to keep the British participation secret. It was public knowledge that Sqn Ldr Walker had been killed in 1958 during U-2 training. The media suspected a cover-up. The Labour opposition tabled questions in Parliament.
“The general policy here is to say nothing,” Gp Capt Bingham-Hall cabled to Project HQ from the Oldster cell in the Air Ministry. “Once any explanation is attempted, the door is open for lower class peasants to force it wider.”
The policy succeeded. In Washington, however, President Eisenhower decided that he had no alternative to a full confession. He banned future overflights, and the overseas detachments were withdrawn. But a slimmed-down U-2 unit was established by the CIA at Edwards AFB, with the capability to deploy at short notice. The RAF assigned two pilots, a navigator and a flight surgeon to this unit throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.
A key reason for staying involved was “to maintain strong intelligence ties with the US,” according to an Assistant Chief of the Air Staff. In particular, the RAF wanted to participate in a successor to the U-2 that the CIA was planning: the even higher-flying, supersonic Blackbird. But the invite never came.
The US Air Force had been flying ‘overt’ U-2 missions all the time since 1957. In 1974, the ‘covert’ CIA unit was disbanded. But an updated version of the jet is still in service with the Air Force today.
with thanks to Lin Xu for extracting the imagery of Kapustin Yar and Kazan from the US National Archives