Op Jiu Jitsu

RB-45C To successfully bomb targets in the Soviet Union, USAF SAC aircraft would have had to fly at high altitude and possibly in bad weather or at night, making it virtually impossible to identify targets visually. Navigation beacons could not go far into the USSR, so in order to correctly identify their targets, the navigators had to be able to recognise them from the radar images they created. Radar portrayed large towns and geographical features quite clearly, but it was difficult to predict how a radar picture of features like factories and missiles sites would actually appear. For guaranteed accuracy it was important that bombardiers should be provided with photographs of the radar images of their targets. The head of SAC, Gen Curtis LeMay, wanted to send SAC reconnaissance aircraft over the Soviet Union to obtain radar photographs, but was prevented by President Truman. Without this crucial target information, air planners could not accurately determine the enemy's vital centers. As early as 1951 the Truman ban on overflights was proving a real problem for Strategic Air Command, whose targets were scattered across the Soviet Union but were mainly concentrated in the most populous and industrial regions in the Western part of Russia.

RAF crews in front of RB-45C

General LeMay, was able to get some radar reconnaissance photographs of targets in the Eastern islands of the Soviet Union and China under the cover of Korean War operations. However, this ruse was not possible for the far more important targets in the Western half of the Soviet Union. LeMay discussed the problem with his boss, the deputy head of the USAF, General Nathan L. Twining, and the other Joint Chiefs of Staff. They decided to ask the British, who were more gung-ho and anxious to prove their worth in the special relationship, for their assistance. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed to the British Joint Chiefs of Staff a set of special missions over the eastern part of the Soviet Union. The deal was that the U.S. provided the aircraft and the RAF would fly the missions. The USAF would then share radar target plots with the RAF, allowing them to also be used for the British nuclear bomber force.

RB-45C and KB-29 tanker

The aircraft chosen for the operation were the USAF's RB-45Cs which had in-flight refuelling capacity, enabling them to greatly extend their range, and could fly at Mach 0.72 up to 38,000ft. In July 1951 the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing was based at the USAF base at Sculthorpe, near Fakenham in Norfolk and equipped with RB-45C’s. Only 33 RB-45Cs were built and the 91st SRW was the main operating unit with three squadrons. One was on temporary duty in England, another in Yokota in Japan and one at the unit's HQ in the U.S. At that time the RB-45C of the 91st SRW at Sculthorpe was mainly engaged in mapping the Rhine River, all the way from the English Channel to Switzerland using uncontrolled mosaic photography. These missions were generally extended to 10 or 11 hours with in-flight refuelling from a KB-29 tanker. The RB-45C crews were instructed to stay 100 miles away from Eastern Europe, particularly as the RB-45C had proved vulnerable in Korea to the MiG15 in daylight. However, the new secret missions were planned as nightflights because radar reconnaissance, unlike photographic reconnaissance, was not reliant on light. The RB-45C carried a crew of three - pilot, co-pilot and navigator. So nine RAF men and a doctor were posted to the secret unit. They were not all volunteers and most had no idea what they were about to do.

RB-45C in RAF colours

Sqn Ldr Micky Martin of Dambuster fame was initially selected to lead the operation, unfortunately when he failed to pass the necessary medical for high altitude flying, another leader for the Special Duties Flight had to be found. In July 1951 Sqn Ldr John Crampton, a WW2 veteran who had flown Halifax with Bomber Command in 1943-45 and post-war Meteors and Vampires with Fighter Command, was in command of 97 Sqn flying Lincolns. Crampton was summoned by the C-in-C Bomber Command and told to assume command of the Special Duties Flight in conditions of utmost secrecy. The initial group of aircrew also included Flt Sgt’s Joe Acklam and Bob Anstee, who were normally crew members on B-29s operating with the RAF's 115 Squadron, Fl Lt Bill Lindsay and Sgt John Hill, who were on 35 Squadron and Flt Lt Rex Sanders, who was the filling a staff appointment in the Air Ministry. In September 1951 the secret RAF unit was sent to the USA for training, first to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana then onto Langley Air Force Base near Virginia and finally Lockbourne AFB near Colombus, Ohio. Only Crampton and Sanders knew what the real reason for the training. Bob Anstee thought they were assessing the RB-45C for possible RAF use. Early in December the unit returned to Sculthorpe for further training with mixed USAF and RAF crews. A couple of the original team had not been deemed suitable for jet flying and replacements were eventually found. Training missions were flown over the UK and Europe, day and night using live camera and radar. Following a general election, the RAF apparently found the great wartime leader Winston Churchill much more approachable about overflights than his predecessor, Clem Atlee, and Winston soon gave permission for the flights to take place.

RAF crews at Sculthorpe

On the March 21 1952 the first special mission was flown just by one RB-45C with Crampton, Sanders and their co-pilot, Sgt Joe Acklam. They went up and down the Berlin corridor, fast and at maximum height. It wasn't for radar reconnaissance, but to see how the Soviets responded to a medium jet aircraft flying through particularly sensitive airspace at speed.

Then, on the April 16 1952 Crampton and Sanders were called to RAF Bomber Command headquarters at High Wycombe for a briefing on the actual mission. On a wall map were marked out the three routes. One was from Sculthorpe through Germany to the Baltic states, the second was south of that, through Germany towards Moscow and the third was south of that, going down through the centre of Russia and then arcing down south on the way out taking in some of the industrial complexes in the south of the Ukraine.

RAF Sculthorpe

Crampton and Sanders went back to Sculthorpe and briefed the other two crews. Up to this point the other RAF crew members did not know the real purpose of the unit. When Flt Sgt Bob Anstee, who had survived over 50 bombing missions over Germany, saw the planned routes he did not fancy chancing his luck another time. "I thought at that time 'Oh my god, what have they let us in for? Why? Why us? Why did we get lumbered with it?' "I was only shown the flight plans and the patchwork of targets we had to do. It's too long ago to remember but they were basically south of Moscow. Most of us knew nothing of what really was happening until that stage." In case they were captured by the Soviets, the crews were given cover stories that they had got lost. They also carried a bag of false navigation plots and maps. "We did carry a complete set of false flight plans and a complete set of false tales that we got ourselves beautifully lost, but how much that could have worn with all the equipment on the aircraft, I don't know. And if that couldn't have been destroyed we wouldn't have stood much of an argument with them at all," said Anstee.

Churchills letter of authorisation
1st Overflight.

On the night of 17-18 April 1952 three RB-45C aircraft were wheeled out of the hangars at RAF Sculthorpe. All the USAF markings had been taken off them and they were resplendent with RAF roundels, much to the surprise of most of the station personnel. After take off, 2 aircraft were refuelled in-flight by USAF RC-29s tankers over Denmark, the other was refuelled over Germany. "Once we left Copenhagen on our way in there were quite a few lights and ground features you can see from the air then. Lights on the ground always give you some reference but once you get into Russia itself, Russia is one large black hole with lights, odd lights here and there. Nothing like flying over a densely populated country or flying over any big areas, like France and Germany. So therefore when you do see lights they really stand out and the way we went in there was very little, there were big areas we were supposed to be photographing; most of them were installations out of their radar range, armed installations which are not lit, and once we came up south of Moscow itself you can see all the lights. Moscow’s a big place and lit up so you do get a good reference point from that. When asked what he thought when he saw Moscow out of the window, Bob Anstee replied "I thought I'd be very happy when I didn't see it any longer and was going the other way again." Crampton and Sanders took the most southern route, which was also the longest. "The flight I was involved in was rather a long one, we had to refuel over Germany before we went in, and we flew about a thousand miles into Russia and then arced our way southwards to come back. And on the way out we had to refuel again to get back to base. Our total flying time for that mission was about ten and a half hours, said Crampton. The other crews also returned safely.

RB-45C at RAF Sculthorpe

A Canberra flew into Sculthorpe from RAF Wyton to take the film to the Central Reconnaissance Establishment. All the aircrew involved were given an Air Force Cross or Air Force Medal for the missions. In "peacetime" these medals were given for missions that in wartime would have probably earnt the Distinguished Flying Cross. The AFC required no citation and during the Cold War they were frequently awarded to crew that flew intelligence missions.

The Soviets had detected the flights and were furious and they may have been the catalyst for a special commission that was set up in Russia to examine the ineffectiveness of the air defence system against Western intrusion flights.

RB-45C camera layout

On the May 9, 1952 Crampton and Sanders flew their aircraft back to Lockbourne AFB via Goose Bay. General LeMay wanted to congratulate the British crew at Lockbourne. "We were invited to General LeMay's office and he was very polite to us and very nice to us and congratulated us and then said, 'Where would you like to go? We'll lay an aircraft on for you to wherever you like.' Which was rather nice. In fact we went to Washington for a couple of weeks," said Sanders. "We were flown back to Sculthorpe and then we all dispersed back to our units.

In a letter dated 12th September 1952 from Sir John Slessor to Gen. Vandenberg another similar operation under the code name "Ju Jitsu" was proposed. However once again the Americans did not use their crews for political reasons. In October 1952 Sqn Ldr Crampton was asked to prepare the unit for another mission. The unit did a lot of training, including a lot of night refuelling. There also needed to be some crew changes as Bill Lindsay had been badly injured in a B-29 crash. Two new recruits, Fl Lt. H Currell and Fl Lt. McAlaistair Furze, joined the unit. The exercise carried on for about 5 weeks and then all of a sudden the whole exercise was called off and the crews were dispersed back to their previous units.

Nothing happened then for a year and two months, then once again the crews were ordered to form up at Sculthorpe, where they did about a month's intensive training. This time they were developing the radar side by improving the radar and the camera facilities. The RAF aircrew kept up the appearance of ordinary exchange crews. More crew changes needed to be made and Fl Lt. Bill Blair, an RAF exchange pilot with the 91st, was recruited. Eventually Rex Sanders was called up again to headquarters RAF Bomber Command for a briefing. Once again there were three routes, roughly the same as last time. One north, one for the centre and one for the south. Just a lot longer," said Sanders. They were told that the Y service was going to monitor the operation. They were told that the mission was as important for the Y service test of Soviet Defences as the actual mission. A senior RAF officer said that even if they failed to achieve their primary mission, from the RAF point of view, the Y service element was sufficient to justify the mission. The RAF was very interested in the organisation of the Soviet Air Force. "We also were told that aircraft would be flying from the American side listening in to the Russian reaction," said Sanders. GCHQ's Y service geared up for the missions weeks in advance. The Unit was given a date and was told it couldn't be changed. "Everything was extremely secret, very few people in the Air Force knew about this. Very few people in Bomber Command knew about it. And in my case, I never even told my wife about it," said Sanders

RB-45C in RAF colours
2nd Overflight

During the evening of 28-29 April 1954, the RB-45C aircraft were again rolled out of the hangers at RAF Sculthorpe with RAF roundels but no serial numbers, all American insignia had again been blacked out. The routes were similar but a lot longer than the first mission and Crampton again chose the longest, the southern route that penetrated Soviet airspace by about 1000 miles and covered some 30 targets, mainly Soviet Long Range Air Force bases. "These targets were fairly scattered over the southern part of Russia. We were zigzagging from one target to another, in quite a piece of evasive routing, I suppose, which might have added to our safety. I don't know. It certainly prolonged our time over Russia," said Sanders.

The British crews had little idea of the commotion they had caused in Russia. The whole Soviet Air Defence network was alerted. General Vladimir Abramov was the Commander for the Kiev region. In 1993, he described how he ordered his pilots to try and ram Crampton and Sanders' plane. "Since it was the dead of night and our MiGS had no radar then, we tried to direct pilot Batyshev and the second pilot into a head-on collision," he said. One of the Soviet pilots was Lt. Nikolai Sysoev. He now said: "Ideally, we weren't meant to ram head-on, but to ram the most vulnerable parts of the plane." Despite guidance from Soviet ground control radar, the MiG pilots could not find the intruder in the dark. So the British crews knew nothing of the Soviets' kamikaze tactics. But they had other problems. "On the way back we experienced quite a bit of heavy flak, which was a surprise. We didn't expect anything in that particular part of the world. But it didn't do us any harm. My only reaction was it was going to spoil my radar reconnaissance work and I tried to let it not do so," said Sanders. "As we came out of the Iron Curtain countries across into Germany, we tried to pick up the tanker aircraft, but unfortunately it was unable to give us fuel, and we were getting pretty low. So we had to land at the American air base Furstenfeldenbruck, which caused some consternation. Here was an aircraft coming from the East landing about three in the morning that shouldn't be there. So we were very quickly refuelled and sent on our way back to Sculthorpe," said Sanders. The only public reference ever made was a paragraph in the Daily Telegraph the next morning referring to unidentified aircraft refuelling over Copenhagen.

RB-45C in RAF colours

These flights were a terrific gamble. Although the MoD still refuses to release the all the files, there can be no doubt that Churchill personally approved the flights. That is what the crews were told. What did Rex Sanders think of Churchill's gamble? "I think it was an amazing decision and very much reflects the character of Churchill. It was a great risk. Had we gone down there would have been quite a furore." But was there a risk of the Soviets mistaking the missions for nuclear attacks. "It did cross our minds that they might be thinking that we were doing something more serious than just taking reconnaissance photographs. We had no real way of knowing what they would make of it. It did cross our minds that they might think this was an actual attack by three aircraft," said Sanders. Did Rex Sanders think the flights had caused tensions? "I'm sure they did. But I think, from the Russian Air Force point of view, they probably recognised them for what they were." In 1992 the Russian military writer, Lt. Col Anatoli Dokuhaev, referred to the last flight in an article in the armed forces magazine "Red Star". He said though that it had been thought by the defence units that they were reconnaissance flights, "Specialists of the day could not rule out that there were not nuclear weapons on board." The Russians had identified the aircraft as B-47s and thought they were USAF flights. This was to be the last radar British recce mission. "Why?," I asked, "The Russian defences were improving all the time. They were getting new fighters, improved fighters, and the speed and height of the RB45 was becoming a bit obsolete. I think the risks would have been too great, with that aircraft," said Sanders.