On March 12, 1953, an RAF Avro Lincoln was thundering through the air above Germany. The aircraft, RF531, was part of the RAF’s Central Gunnery School and had taken off from Leconfield in Yorkshire that morning as part of a training flight. Piloted by 29-year-old Flight Sergeant Peter Dunnell, RF531 had a seven-man crew who were conducting a mission to allow NATO radar operators and fighters to practice their interceptions.
In response, the crew would run their defensive gunnery drills, tracking the attackers with their turrets and shooting them…with cameras. These would allow crews to assess their skills when they got back to their base and could view the footage. Of course, no ammunition was carried, and in fact the gun feeds were disconnected to make sure no accidents occurred – a wise precaution as one of my previous videos points out.
The missions were a fortnightly occurrence. The Lincoln’s would transit across North-West Europe, reaching Hamburg and then turning towards Berlin. Here they would enter the twenty-mile-wide flight corridor that crossed Soviet-controlled East Germany to reach West Berlin, before turning around and returning to their bases in the UK. It was a run-of-the-mill job, a regular occurrence.
Except on this occasion, things were destined to go hideously wrong.
As it flew towards the Berlin corridor, RF531 apparently strayed into East German airspace. It is not clear just how long the Lincoln stayed in the forbidden territory, but it is known that at 1120 local time, as RF531 returned to the permitted corridor, it was intercepted by two MiG-15s of the Soviet Air Force.
At least one of which proceeded to open fire with its cannons.
There was clearly no match.
The Lincoln, basically an updated version of the Lancaster bomber, was little more than a sitting duck for the two cutting edge jet fighters. Raked by the MiG’s cannons, the Lincoln burst into flames and went into a steep dive. The MiGs followed it down, continuing to fire. Engulfed in flames, RF531 broke up in mid-air. The main body of the aircraft crashed into a wood near Bolzenburg, 3 miles inside the Russian Zone. The remainder of the aircraft fell to ground on the edge of Luneburg Heath, 15 miles southeast of Hamburg, inside the British Zone.
The event marks the only recorded occurrence of the loss of an RAF aircraft to a Soviet attack. Which is bad enough, but what happened next truly seems inexcusable.
Of the crew, four went down with the aircraft.
German civilian witnesses on the ground reported that the remaining three crew managed to bail out. One of men’s parachute failed to open, and he fell to his death. The other two’s chutes did open, and they began to descend.
Then the MiG turned about, swooped down, and opened fire once again.
Both crewmen were dead when they hit the ground.
Such an action would be classed as a war crime by most combatants during a conflict. During a time of peace such an action is, quite frankly, out and out murder.
The reaction in Britain was, as I am sure you can imagine, outrage. The Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, described the attack as “barbaric” while addressing the United Nations in New York. The Soviet’s countered that the Lincoln had not just intruded into their air space but had opened fired on the MiGs when they had confronted it.
This drew in Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. After conducting his own investigation and learning that RF531 was disarmed because of the nature of its mission, he told the House of Commons on March 17 that the incident had been a “cruel and wanton attack”.
The United States also reacted strongly, with additional F-86 Sabre fighter jets being ordered to Europe and the hawks in Congress calling for Soviet aircraft to be shot down at the slightest provocation. Western European air forces were all placed on alert. The Cold War looked to be teetering on turning hot.
So why did the Soviet pilots react, quite frankly, so viciously? Probably because of the timing.
While shoot downs occurred with surprising regularity throughout the Cold War, March 1953 was an extremely bad time to be flying in or near Soviet-controlled airspace. Only two days before the loss of RF531, a USAF F-84 Thunderjet was shot down by MiG-15s after it strayed into Czech airspace.
In fact, a mere two hours before RF531 was shot out of the sky, another Lincoln engaged on the same mission was intercepted by MiG-15s over the British zone of control and turned away as they began to act aggressively towards it.
Then on March 17, the day Churchill addressed the Commons, a civilian BEA Viking passenger aircraft was shot at by MiGs as it travelled to Berlin whilst well within a designated corridor. Fortunately, no damage was inflicted on this occasion.
But before this, on March 15 a WB-50 aircraft – which admittedly was flying 25-miles from the Soviet coast off Kamchatka – was attacked by MiG-15s and drove them off with fire from its turrets. This example may give an indication as to why RF531 was attacked.
American aircraft, and those of their allies, were routinely intruding into Soviet-controlled airspace for intelligence gathering and had been doing so for years. But now the Soviets seemed to have switched to a zero-tolerance policy.
So what had changed?
In my opinion, and it is pretty much all this is, it was down to one key fact.
On March 1, Stalin had died.
It is difficult to convey just how much this must have impacted on the Communist worlds’ psyche. Because let us remember, Stalin WAS the communist world in the run up to his death. His demise shook both the Soviet Union and its dominion to its core and set about a vicious power struggle that would see many of the top officials in the Soviet government either purged or executed.
And into this maelstrom of suspicion and uncertainty which was just erupting, less than a week after Stalin’s funeral, blundered an errant Lincoln bomber – with tragic results.
This also raises the second question, one that has been asked many times over the ensuing years regarding RF531. Was it errant, or was it engaged on a secret mission of its own?
The Avro Lincoln was used by the RAF for both photographic and signals reconnaissance, so could RF531’s final flight have actually been intended to probe Soviet defences and tease out important information. After all, and as pointed out, such occurrences were commonplace.
To be honest, it seems unlikely. Richard Aldritch, one of the most foremost historians on British Intelligence, states that it was simply a tragic incident. He does admit that RF531’s final flight was tracked by British signals intelligence units on the ground in the British zone of control, but that was standard protocol.
If RF531 had been engaged in reconnaissance, the fact would likely would have been released to the public by now. Information on even more controversial missions, such as the damaging of an RAF Canberra in August 1953 whilst deep within the Soviet Union, is now public knowledge. This would indicate that had RF531 been involved in intelligence gathering, said information would have been announced.
Regardless, the consequences of the ill-fated flight were very real. Seven men were dead, and an aircraft lost. The Russians ultimately expressed regret over the deaths and returned the bodies of the lost airmen that had fallen in their territory. Keen to smooth over things the British authorities waived any compensation claims for the victims.
This too has fed into the conspiracy idea but considering the fraught international situation – with Predient Eisenhower at the time talking about using atomic weapons to finally bring the three-year war in Korea to an end – perhaps that was for the best.
Overall, the final flight of RF531 is an important reminder of how quickly things can go wrong when everyone’s finger is on the trigger.