Skip to comments.How the West stole the secret in the lake (Sovjet plane)
Posted on 01/23/2004 9:11:17 AM PST by knighthawk
The Soviet Union had the world's best radar - until a Cold War plane crash gave Britain the chance to pinch it. Michael Smith reports.
The Cold War was at its peak when on April 6, 1966, a top-secret Soviet fighter aircraft crashed into the Havelsee, a lake straddling the British and Russian sectors of Berlin. The British mounted a salvage operation, promising to return the aircraft and the bodies of its two pilots to the Russians.
But as a barge and a crane were set up on the lake's surface to recover the aircraft, beneath the surface there was a very different operation to take its top secret technology back to Britain.
Details of one of the most important intelligence operations of the Cold War are to be revealed in a TV program about Brixmis, the British military mission to the Soviet zone of Germany.
The first the British knew of the Havelsee incident was when radio operators at Berlin's RAF Gatow airfield picked up a message from the aircraft's controllers ordering the pilot to try to land on the lake, but inside the Soviet sector. But the aircraft fell short, crashing inside the British zone.
Brigadier David Wilson, then head of Brixmis, was playing squash when the aircraft came down. A quarter of an hour later he was co-ordinating one of the most astonishing espionage coups of the Cold War.
A Brixmis interpreter was sent to the lakeside where Russian troops, commanded by General Vladimir Bulanov, were trying to force their way through a British cordon. They watched as Squadron Leader Maurice Taylor, who unknown to them was the Brixmis operations officer, rowed to the wreckage to take photographs.
The top-secret fighter was later identified as a Yak-28 Firebar, with what was clearly a unique radar capability. Britain and America were desperate to know what made it so good.
Brixmis interpreters were ordered to buy time, trying to mollify the by now clearly concerned Bulanov. At the same time, technical experts were flown out from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough to examine the aircraft's Skip Spin radar, which unlike Western systems could look up and down as well as straight ahead.
Below the water, a British serviceman was trying to get the pilots out of the aircraft. By 1.45pm on the second day the bodies had been bagged up and, below the water, work was going on to remove the radar. Meanwhile, Major Geoffrey Stephenson, one of the British interpreters, persuaded Bulanov that they were still trying to recover the bodies of the crew.
At 4.07 the next morning the bodies were slipped onto a raft. As dawn broke, the Russians were informed they had been recovered and would be handed over that evening.
The cockpit radar unit was on its way back to Britain to be examined, but they needed more time to get the radar dish out of the nose cone, which was buried in the mud. At 2.40pm that day, the Russians noted a launch arriving at the raft to offload a couple of apparently unimportant passengers before departing towards the shoreline of the British sector.
What they did not see was the divers attaching the jet engines by line to the launch which dragged them along behind it, taking them to a jetty a mile from the wreck where they were loaded into crates and flown back to Farnborough for examination. Meanwhile the pilots' bodies were handed over to Bulanov. Within 48 hours, the engines and the cockpit radar unit had been carefully returned to the Firebar's wreckage.
It was at midnight on April 13 that a raft sailed to the Soviet sector where piece by piece the wreckage was handed over to the Russians.
As the engines were handed over, Bulanov looked at them and could clearly see that the tips of some of the rotor blades had been sawn off.
"He didn't say a word," Stephenson said. "He simply looked at me and shrugged, as if to say: 'I've been screwed', and of course he had."
Then the Russians discovered that something was missing. The British insisted that everything had been handed over. If anything was missing it must still be on the bottom of the Havelsee.
What was missing? The Russians were unable to reply. They could hardly say it was a top-secret radar dish. They just had to hope the British were right and it was on the bottom of the lake. It had taken a long time to get the radar dish out but Brixmis had managed it. They just hadn't had time to put it back. The resultant changes to RAF aircraft allowed them to deceive the Soviet's Skip Spin radar and restored parity in the Cold War.
No, the Firebar (Yak-28P) was an interceptor version of the Yak-28 Brewer, a twin-engined medium bomber of about 1960 vintage.
Photo courtesy Federation of American Scientists, FAS.ORG
Sukhoi Su-24 FENCER
Photo courtesy FAS.ORG
Sukhoi aircraft were typically more attractive, with Mikoyan-Gurevich stuff somewhere in the middle.
I'm sure it was an intellegence coup, only in what it told about their weaknesses.