History of Electronic Intelligence (ELINT)

Basically, from the beginning of USAFE's aerial reconnaissance efforts against the Soviet Union and its satellites, electronic intelligence (ELINT), along with photography, was a prime product. Its importance is universally recognized now, but that was not the case in 1945-46. However, two disastrous events in August 1946 changed all that. Here is the little-known story.

On 9 August 1946, a US Army Air Forces C-47 departed Tulln Airfield near Vienna, Austria, on a scheduled courier run that would take it to Venice, Italy, then down to Rome. These runs were routine, and this aircraft had three passengers besides the crew and cargo. As the C-47 flew toward Venice, it encountered heavy weather, including an undercast, and, unknown to its crew, blundered into Yugoslav airspace for several minutes. Before long Yugoslav Yak-3 fighters came on the scene and shot the C-47 down. The pilot skillfully crash-landed and all the people aboard survived but were interned.

This caused an immediate uproar from the US government, and stern statements were issued to Yugoslav strongman Tito about immediate release and access to the crash site. Talks were underway when, on 19 August, incredibly, almost the same exact event occurred again. Another C-47 courier aircraft was shot down by Yugoslav fighters in the same area. This time the crew was not so fortunate and all aboard perished.

Under threat of US cutoff of aid Tito yielded, the interned Americans were released, and some compensation paid to the next-of-kin of the dead personnel. Relative calm ensued between the US and Tito. But a question lingered in the minds of officials in USAFE Headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany. How did those Yugoslav fighters -- twice -- find those C-47s in bad weather and shoot them down? Enter "Inky" Haugen.

1st Lt Ingwald Haugen had entered the AAF during World War II and was trained as one of our first "ferrets" -- what we now call electronic warfare officers (EWOs) or "crows." He didn't get overseas until arriving in the US Zone of Germany in the summer of 1946 as a radar instructor. When USAFE went searching for "ferrets" to help solve the Yugoslav puzzle, they found Haugen and one other, 1st Lt Danny Papp. Haugen states that both were instructed to "fit out a couple of B-17s as "ferret" aircraft to investigate the incident. Within two months we had both aircraft fitted with two APR-4 receivers, and APA-17 and APA-24 direction finding antennas."

B-17G in flight.

Where did the B-17s come from? Postwar USAFE unit histories point to a photo-mapping unit, Detachment A of the 10th Reconnaissance Group at Fuerth, Germany. These aircraft were in Europe as part of Project Casey Jones, an attempt to photomap as much of the world as possible to create maps and charts for use in future contingencies.

Lt Haugen states: "We took one of the B-17s carefully along the border near where the C-47s had been shot down, making sure we did not infringe Yugoslav airspace. By luck, on our very first mission, the Yugoslavs cooperated and turned on their radar and began tracking us. We picked up the familiar signals from a German Wuerzburg radar on about 560 MHz and took bearings, dozens of them, all of which cut at the same point. Where the bearings crossed there had been a German radar school during the war. Obviously the Yugoslavs had put into service one or more of the old German radars."

This mission was so successful that USAFE directed that further ferret missions be flown along the border with the Soviet zones of Germany and Austria, as well as over the Baltic Sea. Over the next several years these aircraft detected a gradual Soviet radar buildup in their zones. During the Berlin Airlift 1948-49, the B-17s would fly occasional missions in the Berlin Air Corridors, using call signs making them appear as airlift C-54s ("Big Willie"). They flew only at night and did not land at Tempelhof, declaring emergencies with "landing gear problems" and thus exiting to the west without Soviet observers seeing them.

Thus began the ELINT mission. Detachment A would go on to join a flight of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron (specializing in photo recon) to form the 7499th Air Force Squadron in November 1948. Ever more capable aircraft would take over the ELINT mission -- specialized versions of the C-54, then the C-97, and finally the C-130, each with more sophisticated collection packages. They all contributed vastly to our knowledge of our Cold War adversaries in the European theater, and ultimately to Cold War victory.

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