Revealed: the RAF's secret Cold War heroes

In the late Fifties, the CIA used British pilots to fly U2 spyplanes over the Soviet Union. Some of them were decorated. By Paul Lashmar

THE startling truth of Britain's most closely guarded secret of the Cold War has at last been learned. Four RAF pilots were decorated for their part in the CIA's U2 spyplane missions over the Soviet Union.

Until now, the idea that RAF personnel took part in the flights, which brought East-West tension to one of its most dangerous peaks when the American pilot Gary Powers was shot down and captured in 1960, would have seemed fantasy.

Nearly forty years on, the Government is still refusing to admit the RAF's involvement with the revolutionary long-winged spy plane which, before the age of satellites, was used to photograph Soviet missile sites by daringly flying right across the country.

Ministry of Defence files on the controversial CIA operations are being withheld from the Public Records Office in Kew and, remarkably, the British refusal is preventing the publication of the CIA's own history of the controversial project.

Asked about the RAF's involvement with the U2 saga late last week, the MoD would only say: "The MoD is not in a position to make any comment on the operation of U2 aircraft by the US Government."

It is indeed generally believed that only Americans flew the CIA U2s, but in fact four RAF pilots - Squadron Leader Robert Robinson and Flight- Lieutenants Michael Bradley, David Dowling and John MacArthur - were attached to the CIA to fly the aircraft, and were awarded the Air Force Cross for doing so.

But their citations in the London Gazette (27 December 1960 and 29 December 1961) make no mention of their provocative but courageous spying missions.

The RAF men made several flights, each personally approved by the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, across Soviet Russia to photograph rocket sites. The exact number is still a closely guarded secret.

The leader of the RAF U2 detachment, Wing Commander (as he became) Robert Robinson, spoke of his role before he died last year. He told me: "In 1958 this was the most secret operation in the world and the British involvement most secret of all." Robinson was paid through a secret MI6 bank account.

The U2 project had been approved in 1954 by President Eisenhower to overcome severe difficulties obtaining intelligence from behind the Iron Curtain. In effect a jet-engined glider loaded with cameras, the U2 could fly at an unprecedented 70,000 feet. The first missions were flown from Germany in early July 1956. Then security concerns led to further missions being flown from Turkey, Pakistan or Japan. But by 1958 Eisenhower was worried that the U2 would sour US-USSR relations and it was becoming difficult for the CIA to get his permission for overflights of the USSR.

Richard Bissell, CIA officer in charge, suggested bringing the British into the programme to increase the number of overflights. "My theory was to set up a system whereby there would be another chief of state who could give consent, namely the British Prime Minister. So I approached the RAF, and needless to say, they were eager to be in on the act," he said later.

Harold Macmillan agreed the plan, and four RAF officers were selected and sent to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, for training in May 1958. They were Squadron Leader Christopher Walker, along with Bradley, Dowling and MacArthur.

On 8 July 1958, Sq Ldr Walker was killed when his U2 crashed near Wayside, Texas. In his place Sq Ldr Robert Robinson was brought into the project. After extensive training Robinson was sent to Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey in January 1959 where the CIA's U2 "Detachment B" was based. This consisted of four aircraft, seven US "civilian" pilots and about 200 support personnel from the CIA.

The official cover story for the British was that they were temporary employees of the Meteorological Office in London. The U2's ability to fly so high protected it from Soviet aircraft. The RAF pilots regularly flew over the Middle East and other trouble spots. Occasionally they flew over the Soviet Union despite attempts to shoot them down.

Robinson told me: "You were always looking behind, and you would see many, many aircraft all lined up below you but with the inability to reach you."

How many Soviet overflights did the British undertake? This is one area where Robinson remained coy. In the autumn of 1995 the CIA finally declassified the number of U2 overflights of the USSR - 24. The number of overflights flown by the British remains a secret, but it is between two and four - all personally approved by the Prime Minister. In 1959 Sq Ldr Robinson flew over two Soviet rocket testing sites. Fl Lt MacArthur flew another overflight in early 1960.

The U2 project made headline news across the world when Gary Powers' plane was shot down over Sverdlovsk in the USSR with a SAM-2 missile on May Day 1960. As Eisenhower suspected, a storm was unleashed and Nikita Kruschev, the Soviet leader, cancelled his summit with the Americans.

Robinson warned the US detachment commander that May Day was not a good day to fly over the USSR. "There'd be a maximum alert and it was a very dangerous thing to do, highly provocative, as it turned out. It was getting very close to Moscow and I would think they were very nervous. They knew that something was happening and clearly the order was given it must be destroyed."

After three days of uncertainty the news that Powers had been captured meant the British unit quickly packing up and leaving Turkey. "As soon as it was known that he'd been captured the pilots left immediately. This was really to save the embarrassment with the Turkish government because they didn't know we were there anyway and it was best we left," said Robinson.

The British detachment was instructed to "vanish" until things died down. Robinson went to Spain for some months.

Later, a limited version of the CIA's U2 programme was resuscitated, although there were to be no permanent overseas units and there were no overflights of the Soviet Union.

British involvement continued. In 1961 another two RAF pilots, Sq Ldr Ivan "Chunky" Webster and Fl Lt Charles Taylor, joined the CIA programme. They were replaced in 1964 by Sq Ldr Basil Dodd and Fl Lt Martin Bee. However, Webster lobbied to stay in the U2 programme and resigned from the RAF to be hired by the Lockheed Corporation to continue flying the U2. Other RAF officers flew U2s before British involvement in the project ended in the late 1960s.

Wing Commander Robinson has been the only RAF pilot to speak of his experience. It is hard to understand why, given his testimony and the CIA's openness about the U2, as well as the ending of the Cold War - but the MOD will not release its files on the subject.

Paul Lashmar's 'Spy Flights of the Cold War', Sutton Publishing Ltd, pounds 18.99.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution