Kapustin Yar

Canberra PR3

At the end of the Second World War a large number of captured Nazi scientists were transported back to Russia and enticed to work on developing rockets similar to the V2 for the Soviet Union. When these scientists eventually returned to Germany, it was soon realised that they were one of the few sources of up to date intelligence on Soviet scientific activity and they were quickly debriefed by American and British intelligence officials. It was during these debriefs, in early 1953, that Western intelligence began to get reports of a new Soviet missile testing site at Kapustin Yar, a remote site near the Volga River (48.35N, 46.18E), to the North of the Caspian Sea and East of Volgograd, still known then as Stalingrad. The returning German scientists reported that the Kapustin Yar site was one of the most important military missile testing grounds in the USSR. Western intelligence agencies were determined that Kapustin Yar should be photographed to confirm the reports, the problem was how?

At this time, before the U-2 was built, the USAF lacked an aircraft with the necessary performance for such a risky sortie. However, the Canberra had recently entered RAF service and this aircraft alone possessed the performance necessary for this particular mission. The USAF approached the RAF and requested their assistance; with an agreement for the USAF to support the mission in any way required and then share in the results. The idea of the RAF flying such a mission made perfect sense. Firstly, there was a Presidential ban on the USAF from over flying the Soviet Union. Secondly, the Canberra was the only aircraft available with sufficient range, speed and altitude to be able to carry out the mission and was an excellent day photographic platform, as well as being able to fly high enough to evade most of the Soviet air defences. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was informed of the USAF proposal and gave authority for the sortie to proceed.

Canberra PR3 WE137 540 Sqn

The generally accepted version of events is as follows: one day sometime in Aug 53, a specially modified Canberra B2 or PR3 took-off from Giebelstadt, in what was then West Germany, and headed East directly towards Kapustin Yar. The entire sortie took place during the day and the Canberra, probably carrying a crew of two a pilot and a navigator, would have climbed to its maximum operating altitude, between 46,000 and 48,000ft, as the fuel burn off. The Canberra was tracked on radar by Warsaw Pact forces all along its route, as it flew over Czechoslovakia, Poland and then the Ukraine. Continued attempts to intercept the Canberra were made, but at this extreme altitude the MiG-15 pilots, who were operating without any onboard radar, failed to intercept the aircraft. The MiG-15 pilots were unable to maintain the same altitude as the Canberra, so they began to attempt to zoom-climb up behind the aircraft and quickly fire off a few shots from their cannons, before they quickly stalled and lost height. Eventually, as the Canberra neared Kapustin Yar, one MiG-15 pilot got lucky and managed to obtain a few hits on the Canberra. Although the Canberra was not seriously damaged, the holes in the airframe caused a slight vibration. Consequently, although the Canberra photographed Kapustin Yar as planned, the photographs were blurred and revealed little detail of the site itself. After completing the photo run, the Canberra turned southeast over the Caspian Sea and eventually landed at an airfield in Iran.

Canberra PR3 WE141 540 Sqn

Red Air Force Lieutenant, Mikhail Shulga, recalls trying to intercept a Canberra in his MiG fighter in the Kapustin Yar region, although the exact date is unknown. He was guided during the attempted interception by Soviet ground control and recalled: "I began to climb to 48,000 ft, to 48,500 ft, and they said ‘Look around you. Look to the right and look to the left.’ I looked. They said ‘look higher and look a bit to the right.’ I looked up and there a few thousand feet above me I saw the plane. They asked me: 'Can you see it ?' I said, 'Yes, I can, shimmering beautifully in the sunshine.' They said: 'Prepare your guns.' So I accelerated and climbed up towards the plane - 4,500 feet, 5,000, 5,500 feet higher and my plane was stalling. Nothing came of it. The plane was flying higher than me. They said: 'Do it again.' I tried again. 'Can’t you reach it?' No, I can’t.'" Later, on 5 Aug 1960, the Philadelphia Inquirer carried another account of the incident by a Soviet defector, who in 1953 had served as an air defence radar operator. The defector remembered that ‘During the (Canberra) flight all sorts of unbelievable things happened ......... in one region the operator accidentally sent the Soviet flights West instead of East; in Kharkov, the pilots confused the planes (aloft) and found themselves firing at each other.’ The defector also reported that: The incident resulted in a major purge. Many Generals and Officers were removed from their posts. One General was demoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and committed suicide. Other personnel were sent to punishment battalions.

Assuming the various sources who have detailed the sequence of events described above are telling the truth, it is now 52 years since this incident took place and yet, despite everything else that has been de-classified since the end of the Cold War and the Freedom of Information Act, the precise details of what actually took place remain as elusive as ever. The official UK government position is that the flight did not take place - so perhaps it's time to review the evidence and then you can draw your own conclusions.

The RAF overflight of Kapustin Yar was first mentioned in 1964 by Robert Amory, deputy director of the CIA in the 1950s, in an oral history he completed for Columbia University. His version was that the USAF Chief of Staff Nathan Twining said "it couldn't be done" but the RAF did it instead. A British Canberra took off from Germany and "got some fair pictures" then landed in Iran, but it had been detected by Soviet radar en-route. According to Amory the British said “God, never again, so to speak. The whole of Russia had been alerted to the thing and it damn near created a major international incident. But it never made the papers”. The same story, with some additional details about the Canberra being intercepted and damaged by gunfire, was repeated by Stewart Alsop in 1968 in his book about the CIA entitled 'The Centre'. It is believed that Alsop was supplied with the additional information on the overflight by General Lewis, a key USAF intelligence officer in the mid-1950s.

No more details about the overflight surfaced until the 1980s when a CIA historian, Don Welzenbach, was researching the history of the CIA's airborne reconnaissance program for his book 'Overview'. He interviewed Dr Jim Baker, the famous Harvard astronomer who designed the lenses for most US reconnaissance cameras in the 1940s and 1950s. Don Welzenbach wrote that Baker recalled that visiting Europe in Jan-Feb 54 when a high ranking RAF intelligence officer, possibly Air Marshal Fressanges, told him that the Kapustin Yar overflight had taken place the previous summer, although in a later interview Baker stated that they only discussed high-level oblique photography. In a later paper that Don Welzenbach submitted to a US/UK symposium held in Sep 93, he linked the overflight to Operation Robin and stated that an extended range Canberra PR7 had conducted the mission, despite having previously referred to a "specially modified Canberra Mk II" as being the aircraft used for this sortie. As the PR7 didn't enter RAF service until 1954, this type of aircraft would not have been available in the summer of 1953.

The next reference to the RAF overflight of Kapustin Yar was made by Cargill Hall, the NRO Historian, in his 1997 paper in the US Military History Quarterly "The Truth About Overflights". Hall includes more detail, stating that the flight was part of Project Robin and was conducted by a Canberra B2, stripped of all excess weight and with its bomb bay filled with fuel tanks, carrying a special camera with a 100 inch lens. It departed from Giebelstadt in Aug 53 and flew at between 46-48,000ft via Kiev-Kharkov-Stalingrad en-route to Kapustin Yar and then down the Volga River before landing in Iran. Hall also mentions the aircraft being damaged and the consequent poor quality of the blurred images obtained. Although the RAF overflight of Kapustin Yar has been mentioned in some subsequent publications, they all essentially repeat the same details described by Cargill Hall, without adding any additional new information. The official UK Government position remains unchanged, officially the flight never took place and so far no mention of the over flight has ever been uncovered from The UK National Archives, formally the Public Records Office in Kew.

So we are faced with three possibilities about the overflight of Kapustin Yar:


  1. The over flight of Kapustin Yar never took place and all the details have been made up.
  2. The over flight of Kapustin Yar never took place, the details of the over flight have been confused with other RAF over flights, in particular, Op Ju-Jitsu or Op Robin.
  3. The over flight of Kapustin Yar took place essentially as described by Cargill Hall and others, but for reasons best known to the faceless bureaucrats who make these decisions, the file is still withheld from public view.

If we examine the first possibility, the obvious question is why would various Americans officials, who were in a position to know what took place, decide to make up this incident? If they wished to make up a daring overflight to ‘spice up’ their recollection of Cold War incidents, why would they suggest the sortie was undertaken by an RAF aircraft - surely they would have described the sortie as being undertaken by a US aircraft?

RB-45C in RAF colours at Sculthorpe

Looking deeper into the second possibility, I can see no obvious reason why anyone would confuse Op Ju-Jitsu with the overflight of Kapustin Yar. The requirement for Op Ju-Jitsu was completely different - to radar map potential targets for SAC and Bomber Command, rather than a photographic reconnaissance sortie to check on activity at a secret rocket test site. Three American RB-45Cs, crewed by RAF personnel, were used rather than a single Canberra. The RB-45Cs departed from Sculthorpe in England and flew three different routes well north of the track taken by the Canberra. Although it is believed that RAF Canberra’s undertook other sorties over southern Russia in the early 1950’s, they are believed to have been mounted from Turkey and Iran, not from Germany. Op Robin, more of which later, was a series of flights in 1954 and 1955 along the East Germany border that used a special camera to take a series of long-range oblique photographs of targets over the border. The Op Robin flights operated out of RAF Wyton, flew at about 40,000ft on a course roughly 40 nms parallel with the borders of West Germany and no overflight of any Warsaw Pact territory took place. The Op Robin sorties were all conducted by a 'specially modified Canberra', WH 726 fitted with an American 240 inch bomb camera, but this aircraft should not necessarily be confused with the 'specially modified Canberra' that undertook the Kapustin Yar overflight, although the same aircraft could have been used for both operations. The differences between the two operations are glaringly obvious and I find it difficult to believe that anyone involved in intelligence activity at the time would confuse either Op Ju-Jitsu or Op Robin with the overflight of Kapustin Ya.

Op Robin Canberra WH 726 with bomb camera

If we assume the overflight of Kapustin Yar by an RAF Canberra took place as described, why did the RAF, rather than the USAF undertake the sortie? Firstly, by 1953 the various US intelligence agencies had reliable information from numerous German scientists that the Soviets were developing rockets at Kapustin Yar and would have been determined to discover exactly what was going on - the USAF had a real paranoia about Soviet aeronautical capabilities at this time. At the time the USAF were forbidden for conducting overflights of Russia and anyway lacked an aircraft with the necessary range and performance to undertake this sortie. Also, after the first successful Op Ju-Jitsu sortie in Apr 1952, the UK Government under Winston Churchill clearly had few reservations about agreeing to undertake this kind of operation using a specially modified Canberra. Churchill was very keen that Britain play an active part in an alliance with the USA and agreeing to an operation like the Kapustin Yar overflight is exactly the kind of daring operation that would have appealed to him.

Op Robin Canberra WH 726 with bomb camera

In 1996-7 the UK government released two files that help shed some light on RAF reconnaissance activities in the early 1950s. The two files were the Secretary of State for Air's files on 'Project Robin' (AIR 19/1106) and 'Operation Ju-Jitsu' (AIR 19/1126). Rather surprisingly, the first three papers from the Project Robin file (two from Dec 54 and one from Mar 55) are still withheld. These 50 year old papers presumably contain some sensitive information, although quite why this information, that is almost certainly related to information that has been in the public domain for so many years, can still be considered sensitive is a mystery. The documents might contain details of the Kapustin Yar overflight, or refer to the other Canberra overflights of southern Russia, or some detail of Op Robin - until someone actually realises that this information is unlikely to surprise anyone, least of all the Russians, and actually releases these three papers, we simply just don't know what they contain. However, currently other than an obscure reference to ‘a recent flight in the Eastern Mediterranean’ in a memo to the Secretary of State for Defence dated 22 Jun 55, there is nothing in the Op Robin file to suggest that this operation had any connection with the overflight of Kapustin Yar.

240 inch Bomb camera

The next question that needs to be addressed is which squadron and what aircraft was used for the RAF overflight of Kapustin Yar? The most obvious squadron for undertaking the sortie was 540 Sqn based at RAF Wyton. They were a dedicated Canberra reconnaissance squadron who had been employed for specialist reconnaissance tasks - their later involvement in the Top Secret Op Robin confirms their suitability for an unusual reconnaissance sortie. By May 1953 the Canberra PR3 was just coming into service, and 540 Sqn were soon equipped with eight aircraft. The remaining aircraft on the squadron strength consisted of three Canberra B2s on loan from Bomber Command from Jun-Jul 53 (WH726, WJ573 and WJ574). Originally built as bombers, these three Canberra's were 'specially modified' for reconnaissance duties with 540 Sqn. These modifications would certainly have included the installation of a number of cameras in the bomb bay and possibly even the rear fuselage. In addition, although with tip-tanks the Canberra B2 had a range of 3,000 miles, this may well have been extended by adding an additional fuel tank in the bomb bay, making any of these three aircraft suitable for a very long-range sortie over Russia.

Peru B72 Reg 236 (WH726)

The Operational Record Book for 540 Sqn records that on 27th and 28th August 1953 two aircraft (Canberra B2s WH726 and WJ574) flew 'long range sorties as briefed' as part of an 'operational exercise'. However, although these two flights have previously been identified as possibly being the Kapustin Yar overflight, further research by Chris Pocock has made this possibility very unlikely. According to the ORB these aircraft took-off at 0800hrs from RAF Wyton and returned to Wyton at 1030hrs. Rather unusually, three crew, rather than the usual two, were carried in each aircraft. WH726 carried a Wg Cdr AWH (Freddie) Ball from the Wing HQ, together with Sqn Ldr WN (Don) Kenyon (OC 540 Sqn) and Sgt AJ (Jim) Brown. WJ574 carried Flt Lt Garside, Flt Lt Shield and FS Wigglesworth. On 28 Aug 53 the same two aircraft flew a similarly described mission from Wyton between 1010hrs and 1220hrs with the same crews, expect that Flt Lt Reeve substituted for Flt Lt Shield. Note that both sorties look place in daylight, during the morning when visibility was good, but well after sunrise in the East and why were the older B2s used for these sorties, rather than the newer PR3s?

What was considered sufficiently important about this 'operational exercise' that it was necessary to have three, rather than usual two crew on board, including a wg cdr from Wing HQ? We know from the file that Op Robin had received political approval in Jun 53, so I believe that these sorties were the first attempt to fly accurately at high level down the West German / East German border, remaining at least 10 miles inside the West German border whilst obtaining long-range oblique photographs of targets inside East Germany. This sortie probably provided clear evidence that the current RAF cameras on the Canberra B2 provided insufficient detail for this kind of operation and probably led to a request to the US for the loan of one of their latest long-range oblique cameras for installation in one of the Canberra B2s. The use of two aircraft for these two sorties is significant - the later Op Robin sorties in 1954 and 1955 always involved two aircraft, with the second aircraft checking that the first aircraft was not leaving a contrail. The additional crewman on board each Canberra could have helped cross-check the accuracy of the navigation to ensure the aircraft remained within West German airspace, or operated the camera. Unless the official records are incorrect there is no reason to assume that either sortie had anything to do with an overflight of Kapustin Yar.

It is clear from the records that all three Canberra B2s were later transferred from 540 Sqn to other Canberra squadrons, including 58 Sqn which was also stationed at RAF Wyton. Subsequently, on 1 Mar 54, Flt Lt DC Downs and Flt Lt J Gingell flew Canberra B2 WH726 to Hanscom Field in the USA where the aircraft was fitted with the 240 inch LOROP bomb camera for Op Robin. Consequently, if the Kapustin Yar overflight did take place as reported in Aug 1953, the crew would not have had access to the Canberra equipped for Op Robin as the aircraft was not fitted with the special camera until six months later. Furthermore, conventional downward looking framing cameras were much preferred by photographic interpreters of this period for the kind of imagery that was required of Kapustin Yar, so they would not have specified the use of a special LOROP camera. Finally, having flown all the way over Eastern Europe, with all the risks that entailed, there would be little point in standing-off' from Kapustin Yar to use a LOROP camera, there were no SAMs around in those days and little threat from AAA at 48,000ft, so it would make far more sense to plan a direct overflight.

All this evidence points to the RAF over flight of Kapustin Yar being a completely separate operation from Op Robin. I believe the available evidence suggests that 540 Sqn undertook this operation using one of their specially modified Canberra B2s. Such a Top Secret and politically sensitive sortie would not have been recorded in the squadron or station records at the time, as these records were only classified to Secret.

Line up at Warton inc '236'(WH726)

So what can we pierce together about the Kapustin Yar sortie? If it took place in the summer of 1953, as most people now believe, it could have involved a Canberra PR3, but most probably was one of the modified Canberra B2s and either way it would almost certainly have been flown by a crew from 540 Sqn. The sortie was almost certainly mounted from Giebelstadt, an American base about 8 miles southeast of Würzburg in West Germany. The aircraft’s departure would have been timed to allow it to arrive overhead Kapustin Yar (48.35N 46.18E) during daylight, lets say midday. Assuming a departure from Giebelstadt (49.38N 009.58E), a direct track to the target would have been about 1603 miles - given a cruising speed of 420 kts, this leg would have taken around 4 hrs, therefore, the aircraft probably took off between 0700 and 0800hrs GMT. If the aircraft eventually landed at Tabriz this was about another 772 miles, assuming a direct track this equates to a flight time of about 1hr 45 mins, so the aircraft probably landed between 1400-1500hrs GMT having flown about 2400 -2500 miles. Up until the 1957 coup d’etat, the RAF made regular visits to various Iranian airfields. The Canberra certainly landed in Iran and Tabriz was the airfield closest to the Russian border, but either Khatami near Isfahan, or Zehedan near Tehran were all within range.

Because of the range of the target from Gieblestadt, there would have been little option of flying anything other than directly towards Kapustin Yar, which is situated some 60 miles east of Volgograd (formally Stalingrad), in an area to the north of the Caspian Sea. But this poses an interesting question: why mount the sortie out of Giebelstadt, West Germany, at extreme range where the only option available was a direct track to the target over an area known to be covered with radar sites and fighter stations? If it was possible to land the aircraft in Iran, then why not mount the sortie from there or from the RAF Habbaniya in Iraq? Both these options would have been nearer to the target and would have allowed the aircraft to enter Russia through a much less heavily defended area. Another option would have been Incirlik in Turkey, which was later used in 1956 as a base for U-2 operations over Russia. Perhaps the UK wanted the flight to depart from a US base in West Germany, knowing it would be tracked by radar, to give the impression that the aircraft was American, rather than British. Certainly, there must have been some overriding reason why the sortie was flown from Giebelstadt, but exactly what that was remains yet another mystery.

PR3 WE139 540 Sqn

It is widely believed that the RAF did undertake the daring mission over Kapustin Yar in 1953, but unfortunately which aircraft and crew flew the sortie still remains a complete mystery. There are various possibilities. The range of a Canberra B2 with tip tanks was 3000 miles, with a ceiling of 48,000ft, so this type of Canberra would certainly have been capable of the sortie. However, it is not known whether the ‘special modifications’ which were carried out to the Canberra B2’s that served on 540 Sqn included the installation of an additional fuel tank in the bomb bay, nevertheless, this is a distinct possibility. In comparison, the range of a Canberra PR3 was 3585 miles, with a ceiling of 50,000ft, so the sortie could have been carried out using a Canberra PR3, fitted with a standard F52 camera, the PR3 certainly had greater range and altitude than the B2 without tip tanks and an additional fuel tank. So did Canberra of 540 Sqn fly the daring Kapustin Yar sortie? Unfortunately many of the members of 540 and 58 Squadron are now dead and their individual stories are lost forever. Several officers who served on 540 Squadron, including Gordon Cremer, Don Greenslade and Harry Currell who served of 540 Sqn were also involved in the RB-45C sorties from Sculthorpe. Given the details that have now emerged about Op Ju-Jitsu, hopefully more details may eventually emerge about reconnaissance flights over Russia by Canberra’s during the early 1950’s – time will tell.

Canberra WH726 was struck off RAF charge on 21 Sep 66. It was initially sold to BAC on 1 Feb 66 and then after conversion to B72 standard, was then sold to Peru, given the Fuerza Aerea del Peru (FAP) registration 236 and joined the FAP Frupo de Bombardeo 21 at Limatombo. Unusually, no photographs of this aircraft in RAF service seem to be available, however, a photograph does exist of the aircraft in service with the FAP and the aircraft’s eventual fate is unknown, but it is believed to have been scrapped. Canberra WJ573 was transferred from 540 Sqn to 1323 Flt and then was stored at the RAF Technical College at RAF Henlow from 20 Oct 1960 as part of the RAF Museum collection until it was scrapped at Henlow in 1975. Canberra WJ574 was sold back to BAC in Dec 69 and after conversion to TT18 standard, the aircraft served on FRADU until Jul 91. The aircraft is now in private hands and is still flying today in the USA. I believe that it was one of these three Canberra B2 aircraft that carried out the Kapustin Yar overflight – but which one is anyone’s guess.

A number of years ago I visited an aviation museum and had a long conversation with a retired senior RAF officer who spent his entire career in interpreting reconnaissance information. During our conversation he described how, once all the useful data had been 'extracted' and all the appropriate organisations had been given the opportunity to make their own interpretation of a sortie or programme, the Top Secret file containing all the relevant correspondence and photographs would then be archived in a very high security storage facility, in case the data was required at some future date. However, high security storage facilities have a limited capacity, so there was always pressure on whoever was the custodian of the facility and had responsibility for the files, to see if any could be removed to create space for new files. Bear in mind that some facilities stored literally thousands of top secret files, the less files you were held responsible for, the easier it was keeping track and accounting for these highly sensitive files and, as the loss of a single file was a court martial offence, there was always pressure to permanently dispose of files if at all possible. Although I imagine some file custodians did give consideration on the need to ensure that future researchers could have the opportunity of establishing what really went on by having access to the unwanted files, I imagine this was well down their list of priorities. Indeed I was told that the process of de-classifying a file with a view to it eventually finding its way to the National Archives, was extremely long winded and complex, requiring all kinds of signatures and approvals, often from the USA or other countries; often one or two organisations would block the declassification for no really obvious reason and once this had happened, it was unlikely that approval would be sought in the future, regardless of whether the ‘data’ became even less sensitive with the passage of time - people were simply too busy to try and go through the whole time consuming process for a second time. Therefore, given the complexity and additional work involved in attempting to de-classify a sensitive file, compared to the ease with which these files could be destroyed, it is perhaps unsurprising that there are so many ‘holes’ in the MOD files from the 1950s onwards.

Once the decision to destroy a particular file was approved it was put to one side and when sufficient files were available they used to be taken under armed escort to the old Battersea Power Station and burned in one of their incinerators – I imagine a more modern incineration facility is currently in use. Consequently, as not a single hint whatsoever has emerged from the MOD files after over 50 years of the Kapustin Yar operation, I suspect that every mention of it has literally gone up in smoke and unless some currently hidden diary or written record by one of the individuals involved suddenly emerges, we will unfortunately most likely never be able to get to the bottom of what actually happened.

Despite the overflight taking place nearly 50 years ago, being openly acknowledged by the Russians and alluded to in a wide variety of publications, nothing has ever been officially admitted by the British Government about this famous incident. Furthermore, unlike the RAF RB-45C overflights from Sculthorpe, no individual has ever admitted taking part and the actual aircraft involved has never been positively identified. In the interests of Cold War military and aviation history, it is widely hoped that something eventually emerges on the Kapustin Yar overflight at The UK National Archives in Kew, although for the reasons outlined above, I suspect this will never actually happen. Only when the whole truth finally emerges, can the skill and bravery of the men who actually flew this sortie be publicly acknowledged; hopefully this will happen whilst they are still alive and allow them to receive the long-overdue public plaudits that they so richly deserve.

Updated 15 Feb 09