ON A WING AND A PRAYER

GEORGE KEREVAN revisits a forgotten part of the Cold War…

Last week, the Prime Minister felt impelled to make a public statement to reassure the British public after two RAF Typhoon fighters were “scrambled” to intercept two long-range Tupolev reconnaissance planes of the Russian air Force were detected off the coast of Cornwall.

The Cornish flypast of the four-engined “Bear” maritime patrol aircraft – in international air space, by the way – was not the first time they have visited the UK. Such fly-bys were regular all during the original (and scary) Cold War, before the fall of the Iron Curtain.

So why the media hysteria now?

Another flypast, at the beginning of February, produced a classic Daily Express headline frightener on the front page: “Intercepted Russian bomber was carrying a nuclear missile over the Channel”. Personally, I strongly doubt that the Daily Express news desk has regular access to how individual Russian planes are armed.

Also, I’m not convinced that any air force lets its crews cart around megaton weapons of mass destruction on routine exercise flights far from base, especially if there’s even a tiny chance of a mishap, and one of the Bears having to drop into Heathrow for emergency repairs.

I have interviewed a US pilot who was engaged in a similar probing flight around North Korea, back in the really bad old days. And his plane was carrying nuclear depth charges. Unfortunately, his Lockheed Neptune contrived to crash on returning to base.

The pilot’s description of his hasty exit from the burning aircraft, as wailing fire engines tried to smothering the wreckage in foam, was still chilling after many decades. Of course, a nuclear device will not detonate just by going on fire but you wouldn’t want to hang around to put it to the test. Which explains why, these days, air forces are more circumspect about putting live nukes on mere publicity flights.

Surely what is sauce for the Russian gander must also be sauce for the RAF.

Nato war planes have radically increased their probing of Russian air space and defences – over the congested Baltic and over the Black sea close to Ukraine and Crimea. The Russians claim that the intensity of these fly-bys by NATO planes has increased to 8-12 sorties per week, in the past year. Big US Air Force RC-135s now conduct operations on an almost daily basis, with more than 140 sorties in 2014, compared to 22 in 2013.

Which makes Russian visits to Cornwall look rather sparse by comparison.

However, there is one element in all this where the two sides are not equally to blame. During the original Cold War, it was the West which routinely and knowingly violated Russian air space – not just stooged around the periphery.

This was a calculated strategy to gather information and intimidate the Soviets. This secret war lasted for decades and resulted in many casualties. It is estimated that more than 130 US air force and Navy personnel were killed or captured during these so-called “ferret” missions.

The US and Nato authorities never made any attempt to recover the survivors, who died in anonymous captivity.

Britain was deeply implicated in these secret flights. In case anyone doubts my sources, I have copies of memoirs by RAF and US spy pilots given at a symposium held by the American Defence Intelligence Agency, in 2001, which attempted to record this strange episode of the Cold War.

The most audacious RAF penetration of “denied” Soviet air space took place on the night of 17-18 April 1952, when three RAF RB-45s took off from their base in Norfolk and headed out over the Soviet Union. Note: three planes, not one, so it looked like the spearhead of a raid to Soviet air defences.

Over Russian territory, the three planes split up to confuse local air defences. Flying high at 36,000 feet, no contemporary Soviet fighter could reach them. The flight leader, John Crampton, describes his impressions: “My most abiding memory of the route across the Ukraine is the apparent wilderness over which we were flying.  There were neither lights on the ground or any sign of human habitation, quite unlike the rest of Europe.”

On a later over-flight, Crampton’s plane was raked with flak while flying over Kiev. An experienced Halifax bomber pilot in World War II, he managed to evade being shot down by Soviet gunners this time: “Thank God, the Kiev defences had misjudged our speed. They chucked everything up a few hundred yards ahead of us.”

As it happened, fearing cannon fire damage to his in-flight refuelling system, Crampton did an emergency stop in West Germany rather than returning straight to the UK. He was commended in person by General Curtiss Le May, head of the US Air Force Strategic Air Command, and the architect of the Soviet deep-penetration flights.

Le May was a vocal advocate of a first strike against the Soviet Union – which may explain a lot about contemporary Russian paranoia.

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