British Secret U-2 operations and the RAF pilots who flew the Dragon Lady on CIA’s behalf during the Cold War

British Secret U-2 operations and the RAF pilots who flew the Dragon Lady on CIA’s behalf during the Cold War

By Dario Leone
Nov 16 2023
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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British U-2 operations

Although known through authors like Chris Pocock and Paul Lashmar, for many years the UK government consistently refused to publicly admit any significant British involvement with the U-2 programme. Such connections long remained a very sensitive topic, with only a slow drip of information seeping out. In January 2019, a small number of key detailed files were finally released to the UK National Archive.

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As told by Kevin Wright in his book We were never there Volume 1: CIA U-2 Operations over Europe, the USSR and the Middle East, 1956-1960, the story of British U-2 operations is as much a political as a military one. After Prime Minister Anthony Eden was swept aside following the Suez debacle, Harold Macmillan’s premiership was a recovery period for intelligence operations. Anglo-American relations were rapidly restored with senior British government members, including Macmillan, regularly briefed on U-2 operations.

Four RAF pilots trained to fly the U-2

As a result of these developments, the US became interested in British involvement with the U-2 programme.

British interest accelerated during 1957. Macmillan agree that four Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots would be trained to fly the U-2. Flt Lts John MacArthur, David Dowling, Michael Bradley and Squadron Leader Chris Walker were all sent to Laughlin Air Force Base (AFB), Del Rio, Texas. Tragedy struck almost immediately when Chris Walker died on Jul. 8, 1958. Departing for a high altitude training flight in Art 380 he suffered hypoxia, due to a build-up of ice in the oxygen system, and consequently lost control of his aircraft. Unsuccessfully attempting to escape, he crashed near Amarillo over 450 miles from Del Rio. He was replaced by newly promoted Squadron Leader Robert Robbie Robinson.

Potential British overflight incident

The first three pilots joined Det B at Adana Air Base (now Incirlik Air Base), Turkey, during November 1958, Robinson arrived soon after.

British Secret U-2 operations and the RAF pilots who flew the Dragon Lady on CIA’s behalf during the Cold War
Fictitious serials were part of U-2 life. Here, marked ‘417,’ Art 349 sits at RAF Watton in May 1959 ready to fly two RAF meteorological mission as part of its cover. (TNA, via Chris Pocock)

In Downing Street and Whitehall the fear of political fallout from any potential British overflight incident was considerable. Macmillan placed a number of conditions on UK participation. ‘British’ missions were to be flown by “civil pilots (not RAF). The aircraft were not to wear RAF markings and operational flights required specific Prime Ministerial approval. In December 1958 a final exchange of letters confirmed the operational arrangements in which Macmillan reserved the right to be the final approving authority for all flights using British pilots.

OLDSTER

The operational plan, signed between the RAF and CIA on Oct. 28, 1958, was a project named ‘OLDSTER.’ MI6 assisted the Air Ministry with clandestine elements of the operation. Overall command was vested with distinguished wartime bomber Pilot Group Captain Thomas Bingham-Hall DSO DFC on Nov. 12, 1958. His cover was as ‘CO Meteorological Experimental Research Unit’ (MEU), to be based at RAF Watton, Norfolk. He also maintained an office at the Air Ministry in London and was responsible to the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations). Individual British flights were controlled via the ‘Air Ministry Operations Centre,’ later named the ‘Air Force Operations Centre,’ with links to the Cabinet Office and Defence Operations Centre. Most communications on U-2 related work were handled via the CIA/USAF HBJAYWALK communications network [a dedicated network for passing U-2 communications], which sometimes activated a temporary node at Watton.

Identifying Soviet nuclear bomber bases

For UK flights the British sought broad US assent then planned missions in detail through the normal U-2 CHALICE [as the CIA U-2 reconnaissance effort was known until Jan. 4, 1961] process. At that stage the US could veto individual British proposals. The UK Joint Intelligence Committees’ initial priority was identification of Soviet nuclear bomber bases that could be used to attack Britain. The US focus was already shifting towards Soviet missile development and deployment. Therefore, to secure US agreement British priorities had to be balanced with American ones. British approval for sorties reached Macmillan having been passed up, via the Foreign Office Permanent Under Secretary, the Vice Chief of the Air Staff, Secretary of State for Air, and the Foreign Secretary for ‘provisional political clearance.’ When secured, it was notified to US authorities.

British Secret U-2 operations and the RAF pilots who flew the Dragon Lady on CIA’s behalf during the Cold War
Newly promoted Squadron Leader ‘Robbie’ Robinson was the British element CO of Det B at Adana. (Via Paul Lashmar)

Approval to launch a U-2 mission

Final approval to launch the mission was passed by signal to the RAF Liaison Officer at Adana no less than five hours before the scheduled departure. Whilst the British planning process was parallel to the American one it was certainly not independent of it. This approach ensured that the British could fly missions, but not spring any surprises on the Americans.

British Cover Story

The OLDSTER unit devised various cover stories in case a British U-2 mission was lost. It was considered vital to protect American U-2 operations and their use of Adana. The British pilots were to be nominally civilian, employed by the Meteorological Office, rather the Royal Air Force. If a British pilot was lost in an incident it was to be claimed that the aircraft had been conducting a weather flight from Peshawar, headed to a British base on Cyprus. The use of Adana, in any event, to be explained by the better maintenance facilities there than were available on Cyprus.

If a British pilot was ever captured by the Russians, they were simply instructed to tell the truth on the basis that: ‘The Russians would get the story out of the pilot anyway and if he told the truth at once it could save him from the worst treatment.’ Meanwhile the British authorities intended to simply try and cast doubt on the accuracy of any Soviet protests.

Meteorological Flights

A memo from Richard Bissell outlined to Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, General Andrew Goodpaster at the White House of British preparations U-2 operations. It also told the President that two U-2s were soon to be staged through RAF Watton to fly a small number of meteorological missions:'” The CIA had agreed to make a U-2 available for the British to fulfil their wish: “to conduct a minimum of two successful meteorological research missions from Watton to further British cover story and provide British Meteorological Office with upper air data.’ RAF Kinloss was to be made available as a staging held to support operational missions if required.

U-2 print
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Two U-2 spy planes at RAF Watton

At RAF Watton secure space was cleared in Hangar 2 for two U-2s that would ‘belong’ to the MEU for its tasks. The Commandant of Watton’s Central Signals Establishment was briefed on their real role. He was also responsible for the peripheral SIGINT collection missions flown by the stations 51 Squadron Comets and Canberras. The `OLDSTER unit at the Air Ministry controlled all MEU activities and support. Watton was additionally to handle CIA U-2s being ferried between Adana and the US, to further strengthen the MEU cover story.

U-2 weather flights

The first weather flights were scheduled from Dec. 10, 1958 onwards. Although the aircraft and support arrived at Watton, the missions were abandoned, ironically due to near continuous heavy fog, difficult for the U-2s to handle.

For its return to Adana ‘radar suppression’ was practised as it transited through Mildenhall, Manston, Lyon, Pisa, Taranto, Araxos and Athens control zones Radar suppression could take different forms. The various radar units were pre-warned that an aircraft would pass through its coverage. They simply ignored the contact, maintaining only a listening watch as it followed a specified route, or passed through at a notified time, normally high above any other traffic. Air traffic ensure that any calls from the U-2 were answered with no information that might give away its position, altitude bearing or course. The aircraft returned to Adana on Dec. 21, 1958 using the anodyne callsign ‘Air Force Jet 9304,’ ready for the first British Middle East overflight on Dec. 31, 1958.

We were never there Volume 1: CIA U-2 Operations over Europe, the USSR and the Middle East, 1956-1960 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Paul Lashmar and Chris Pocock

U-2
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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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