When news of this first Soviet missile test site on the Volga in the Ukraine, southeast of Moscow, filtered out in 1952 following reports from returning German rocket technicians and prisoners of war interviewed in the WRINGER program, a modified Royal Air Force Canberra B-2 from 540 Squadron at Wyton photographed it on a flight from Giebelstadt in West Germany, which overflew Soviet territory in 1953 as Operation ROBIN and landed in Iran. The plane apparently sustained some damage from Soviet air defenses. Kapustin Yar, constructed in 1951 with German labor, remained the Soviet Union’s principal IRBM development facility throughout the Cold War, and was a priority target for overflights. Telemetry from the range was monitored from a National Security Agency intercept station located across the Black Sea, at Sinop in Turkey.
A small village outside the Turkish Black Sea resort of Samsun was the location of a large American radar station that became operational in 1955 to monitor Soviet missile tests at Kapustin Yar. In May 1957, Diyarbakur detected the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile launch, the same month as the Jupiter IRBM was successfully fired in the United States.
RAF PHOTOGRAPHIC-RECONNAISSANCE OVER THE USSR
One area of RAF Canberra photographic-reconnaissance history that still remains shrouded in uncertainty and conjecture is the aircraft’s rumoured operations over the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s.
The USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) was placed under the command of the charismatic General Curtis LeMay in October 1948; high on his agenda was the desire to get radar photographic coverage of as much of the USSR as possible, in order for SAC bombardiers to recognize potential target areas. Of course, at this time a significant amount of mutual suspicion existed between the NATO powers and the Soviets, in what was known as the Cold War. Consequently, LeMay’s ideas of setting up SAC reconnaissance flights over the USSR were officially flatly vetoed by the White House, so that the Soviet Union should have no excuse to carry out military action against NATO.
However, aircrews did experience ‘errors in navigational equipment’ and aircraft did ‘stray’ over Eastern areas of the Soviet Bloc during the Korean War. Also, in April 1950, a US Navy Consolidated PB4Y-2, engaged on an electronic intelligence (Elint) flight over the Baltic Sea, was shot down by Lavochkin La-11s; their pilots said it was a B-29.
The RB-45C variant, also served with the RAF (35 and 115 Squadrons), as part of Opertation Jiu Jitsu. As the USAF was forbidden by the US President from overflying the Soviet Union, but the British Government had no such problems. Therefore, 4 RB-45C aircraft were operated to fly reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. This lasted till 1954, when the RB-45C was withdrawn from Soviet Union flyovers, when one was nearly shot down. Stuart Fowle
In view of Washington’s official reluctance, discussions between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of Britain and the USA, worked out a deal. RAF aircrews would fly American aircraft from bases within the UK, as the Canberra’s electronics were, at that time, still being developed. Radar target plots obtained would be shared between the air forces of the two countries. The aircraft selected for these missions was the four-engined North American RB-45C and, in the autumn of 1951, a small party of RAF aircrew, under the leadership of former No. 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron member Sqn Ldr ‘Micky’ Martin DSO, DFC, AFC, was established. Martin failed the preliminary medical for high-altitude flying and his place was taken by Sqn Ldr John Crampton, the Commanding Officer of No.101 Squadron, with its Canberra B. 2s.
The party was detached to Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB) in Louisiana for the necessary training programme, which was continued at Langley AFB in Ohio, until December. Then, the party transferred to Sculthorpe in Norfolk, from where the US F 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing operated the 322nd Reconnaissance Squadron, one of three RB-45C squadrons stationed around the world. Four aircraft at Sculthorpe were painted up with RAF roundels and large, non-standard fin flashes, but were not allocated serial numbers. Three of the RB-45Cs were flown on the first missions, in the early summer of 1952, on courses set over north, central and southern areas of the Soviet Union. After the flights, the aircraft were returned to the USA and the RAF aircrews rejoined their respective units. Early in 1954, Sqn Ldr Crampton was put in charge of another mission and his navigator was again Sqn Ldr Rex Saunders. This time, their brief was to penetrate further into Soviet airspace than they had in 1952. Crampton and Saunders took radar photographs of over thirty different targets during a flight that covered more than 1,000 miles (1,600km). Again, following the missions, aircraft and aircrews returned to their squadrons and nothing has officially been released about these episodes.
Coupled with these known RB-45C flights, rumours have referred to Canberras taking part in an Operation Robin. What is known for fact is that, in 1951, the Soviets set up a missile production plant in the Kapustin Yar area of the USSR, and ATO was extremely anxious to find out just what type of missiles were involved. It is also a known fact that No.13 Squadron, which had moved to Fayid with its Mosquito PR. 34s on 5 February 1947, had a detachment deployed to Habbaniya, in Iraq, at the end of 1948, in order to carry out intelIigence-gathering flights over southern areas of the USSR.
No. 540 Squadron had started receiving Canberra PR. 3s in December 1952, while still operating with B. 2s. Its records show that, on 27 and 28 August 1953, various crews flew long-range missions connected with Operation Robin. B. 2 WH726 and PR. 3 WH800 were used, with Wg Cdr Ball, Sqn Ldr Kenyon, Fit Lt Gartside, together with Fit Sgts Brown and Wigglesworth listed as taking part. Another of the squadron’s PR. 3s, WE 142, participated in the New Zealand Air Race as ‘No. 2’ and is confirmed as having ‘strayed off course a little’ on 8 October during the race. This ‘straying’ went over Communist territory. Furthermore, the aircraft was ‘delayed’ at Basrah and took third place in the race results. Whether anything can be deduced from these facts depends on an interpretation of semantics.
During 1953, the squadron was loaned an American camera, fitted with a 100in (250cm) focal length lens; it is known that B. 2 WH726 was converted to accept this massive piece of optics. When the camera was being tested, locations in London were photographed while the aircraft was flying over the English Channel. With a camera having that type of performance on board, it is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that WH726 took part in a Kapustin Yar overflight. There was such a flight and this has been confirmed by no less an organization than USSR intelligence.
Soviet records state that Lt Mikhail Shulga, flying an undisclosed type of MiG fighter, was vectored by ground control on to an aircraft in the Kapustin Yar area, recognized as a Canberra. At about 50,000ft (15,200m) and still below the Canberra, the Red Air Force aircraft was at the stall and Shulga’s intended interception had to be aborted. Whether the Canberra in this event was WH726 has never been confirmed, but what has is the fact that this aircraft was something of a special B. 2, which was also operated from Wyton by No. 5 Squadron. A Fit Lt Gingell of that squadron flew WH726 to the USA in March 1954, for a series of joint RAF and USAF trials, quoted as Project Robin and American records cite the aircraft as being a ‘modified Canberra B. 2’. The trials occupied six weeks, after which the aircraft returned to the UK and is confirmed as being on Wyton’s strength on 10 April 1954.
Later in the same month, an Operation Robin mission was flown, followed by two more on 8 and 11 May. On 26 August and on 30 August, further Operation Robin sorties are known to have been carried out, with all being accepted at Wyton – but officially unconfirmed – as reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. Perhaps the correlation between the red-breasted bird and the national colour of the USSR reflects a typically British sense of humour.
Predictably, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) refuses, on the grounds of ‘international sensitivity’, to release files relating to Operation Robin, even in the current atmosphere of improved relations between the west and the former USSR. However, surely the simple fact that Whitehall holds these files is some proof that all is not conjecture.