H-Diplo Article Review 595 on “Cold War Reconnaissance Flights along the Berlin Corridors and in the Berlin Control Zone 1960-90: Risk, Co-ordination and Sharing.” Intelligence and National Security 30:5

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H-Diplo Article Reviews
No. 595
Published on 8 March 2016

H-Diplo Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Kevin Paul Wright.  “Cold War Reconnaissance Flights along the Berlin Corridors and in the Berlin Control Zone 1960-90:  Risk, Co-ordination and Sharing.”  Intelligence and National Security 30:5 (October 2014):  615-636.  DOI:  10.1080/02684527.2014.890467.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02684527.2014.890467

URL:      http://tiny.cc/AR595

Review by Frank Ledwidge, University of Portsmouth


As a very junior Navy intelligence officer, wandering around Bosnia in the mid-1990s, I heard stories told by older and far bolder army colleagues of the legendary Brixmis - the British Military Liaison Mission to East Germany.  This, as Kevin Wright tells us in his excellent article, was set-up in the wake of the Second World War as part of a Soviet-Allied agreement. There were U.S. (USMLM), French (FMLM) and indeed Soviet (SOVMIS) equivalents patrolling agreed areas in East Germany, and in the case of SOVMIS, West Germany. Indeed, SOVMIS was active in various other European countries.  This much, as Wright makes eminently clear, is well-known. As he points out, these missions comprise the topic of several books. The various liaison missions amounted to thinly disguised half-covert intelligence collection units. Everyone knew this, and played the game.   What Wright has discovered is that there was a precisely similar covert operation by the Western Allies, in no way sanctioned by agreement, going on in the airspace around Berlin, the Berlin Control Zone (BCZ), and leading to it - the ‘Corridors’ down which supply and passenger flights were permitted to make their way to the divided city. For decades, Allied aircraft flew what amounted to thousands of photographic reconnaissance missions.  In so doing they collected a huge amount of photographic information on Soviet and East German military deployments and equipment.  

The most immediately impressive aspect of Wright’s work is his methodology.  Whilst his documentary sources are often, of necessity, fragmentary and secondary, his skills as a researcher are amply demonstrated by his interviews with participants.  As mentioned above, the rather more official Military Liaison Missions are now rather well-known, at least amongst those who take an interest in the Cold War on the ‘Central Front,’ the heavily defended border between East and West Germany. The allied air equivalent was, until very recently indeed, extremely 'close-hold,' which is to say not only secret, but also to a great degree somewhat politically sensitive, since the conduct of these missions was based around the cover of 'legitimate' military transport and utility flights.  In other words, the aircraft conducting the aerial reconnaissance did so, apparently, using a great deal of deception.  As one British government minister pointed out when giving permission for an early flight, “I doubt myself whether the risk is worth taking. Using the corridor for spy flights would be a good card for the Russians.” [Harold Watkinson quoted on page 620].   It is testament to Wright’s skills that he has managed to convince so many of those directly involved to give their accounts, and to do so fully and clearly.  Were this simply a narrative, this in itself is impressive, as there is no doubt Wright’s article breaks new ground.

It does more than that.  We in the strategic studies community sometimes are given to forgetting the sheer size and military significance of the military commitment to Europe by all parties for the sixty years of the Cold War.  Too little has been written on conventional operations on the Central Front.  After all, unlike the role of submarines, where the cat and mouse game has been looked at closely, what was there to say about two vast armies facing each other? What this article reminds us is that there remains a great deal still to be said. These armies were doing a great deal more than simply poising.  There was a constant effort to probe, pushing limits to conduct what now is called 'intelligence preparation of the battlespace.'   In the critical Berlin Zone, how was Western military intelligence to determine what deployments the Soviets and East Germans were making?  The collection of such intelligence was particularly important, given Berlin's Cold-War history.  The possibility of a siege of West Berlin along the lines of the Blockade of 1948-49, an operation falling short of war but of great strategic significance, was ever-present.  Outright war was also a serious possibility. Consequently an awareness of Soviet anti-aircraft capabilities as well as order of battle and locations of Warsaw Pact Land Forces around the great city was a vital component of NATO intelligence requirements.

One option to achieve these objectives was to deploy 'high-end' strategic reconnaissance assets aircraft such as U.S. Air Force U2s or British Canberras.  The problem with this course of action was that, somewhat paradoxically, these aircraft were rather obtrusive.  Instead, as Wright outlines, the most anodyne and innocent aircraft in the allied inventory were used to exploit the freedom allowed to them within the agreed airspace. In the UK 's case from 1960 to 1990, the old, slow, two-man cadet primary training aircraft the De Havilland Chipmunk was the main tool, along with almost equally innocent-looking Pembroke transport aircraft.  Nothing could be more unlike the U2 or SR71 Blackbird, yet in the history of aerial reconnaissance, to which Wrights article is a significant addition, there can be no clearer example of 'hiding in plain sight' with such consistent and apparently great effect.  The U.S. were given to using routine C130 flights for the same purposes.  They would travel to Berlin conducting reconnaissance all the way, have lunch and return to their base in West Germany the same day.  Consequently they were known as the 'Berlin for Lunch Bunch.  It is clear from much of the article that the allies felt very much that they were succeeding in stealing a march on the Soviets.  

The article presents us, though, with something of a sting in the tail.  For it seems, and Wright concedes, that the evidence is anecdotal, if persuasive, that the Soviets were well-aware of some, if not much, of what was going on.  The experienced academic historian or indeed military intelligence officer might sigh and say 'yes, and how could they not have been?'   Yet this in no way vitiates the role of these missions in a far wider strategic sense.  Wright points out that in the shadow boxing that was the military intelligence world of the Cold War, it was sometimes important, indeed vitally important, to ensure that the nature and scale of deployments were not misunderstood or exaggerated in the almost constant tension of East –West military stand-off.  With the easing of tension after the Cold War the same problem was openly recognised with the setting up of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and the closely related Open Skies initiative under the auspices, partly, of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.  Their work, albeit attenuated by recent events slightly east of the Central Front in Ukraine, goes on.  As Wright points out, the technical quality returned now from those operations is of lower quality than that gathered in the Corridor and BCZ flights.

As the reader will by now have gathered, “Cold War Reconnaissance Flights along the Berlin Corridors and in the Berlin Control Zone 1960-90; Risk, Co-ordination and Sharing” is a significant addition to the literature on Cold War intelligence and indeed the wider history of the use of air power in what is now termed 'Intelligence and Situational Awareness.'  Anyone interested or concerned in the more unconventional uses of air power, as well as those involved in Cold War historical research, should read it.

Former trial advocate Dr. Frank Ledwidge is senior teaching fellow at Portsmouth University teaching strategy and history at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell.  He is a graduate of Oxford University, holds a doctorate from Kings College, London and is the author of (inter alia) Losing Small Wars (Yale University Press 2011) and Investment in Blood (Yale University Press 2013). Both concern the UK’s recent military performance. A former military intelligence officer, he has served in all the UK’s recent conflicts.

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