Spyplanes at Tempelhof

The "Berlin for Lunch Bunch" - Snooping on the Soviets during the Cold War

EC-97G 52-2688
Camera-equipped EC-97G 52-2688, previously a tanker, climbs out of Tempelhof on 28 February 1965.

From the very beginning of discussions in June 1945, the Soviets were apprehensive about Western air access to Berlin. At the original meetings, British sources report, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the senior Soviet representative in Germany, said that 'this corridor was necessary to prevent your aircraft from observing Russian armies: As tensions built between East and West in 1945-46, both the British and the Americans decided to use the corridors and Berlin Control Zone for just that purpose.

The Soviets had not demobilized to any real extent in Germany, and their forces were immense compared to those of the West. Throughout the Cold War they maintained a huge ground and air force of well over 200,000 men, consisting of as many as 20-plus ground divisions and two air corps. So it became a priority in those years to ascertain how to collect intelligence on them.

Corridor missions begin

The first American aerial reconnaissance efforts in the Berlin Air Corridors were active at least by summer 1946. United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE) had the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, based at Furth near Nuremburg with a complement of F-6 Mustangs, the recon version of the P-51. Within the squadron USAFE set up a secret flight, which received several A-26 Invader light bombers, and then covertly equipped them with cameras. They began corridor flights not long after, disguising themselves as VIP transport and liaison aircraft. They of course used Tempelhof as a turnaround airfield, and photography of Soviet installations began to flow to intelligence consumers. The saga of the 'Berlin for Lunch Bunch' had begun. This name would for the next 44 years symbolize the morning flights to Berlin, lunch at Tempelhof, and afternoon flights back to the West (most often by a different corridor).

Also in 1946, USAFE began collecting electronic intelligence (ELINT) on Soviet activities. It equipped a pair of B-17s, which had been used to photo-map Europe and Africa as part of Project CASEY JONES with ELINT gear, and used them on flights along the East-West German border and other peripheral areas. Further B-17s joined them for photo purposes. They formed a secret detachment under the 10th Reconnaissance Group, also at Furth. In 1947 the 10th and all its units moved to Furstenfeldbruck (nicknamed 'Fursty') near Munich and continued their activities.

Then came the Berlin Airlift, in June 1948. As part of the collection operation some C-47s were acquired and modified with cameras. They occasionally flew as part of the airlift stream, diligently collecting photography. A few B-17 ELINT flights were also made in the Berlin Air Corridors, but only at night. The aircraft had protruding antennae and were not to land at Tempelhof, so crews 'manufactured' an excuse to return to the West without doing so.

Most likely because of the Airlift and its accompanying sharp increase in tensions, USAFE decided to remove the two secret units from their parents and form them into a single squadron. The 7499th Air Force Squadron was activated at 'Fursty' on 1 November 1948.

New base, New aircraft

When the Airlift ended, it was a major victory for the West, but the need for intelligence on the Soviets and their East German satellite did not let up. The 7499th Squadron continued to fly frequent missions in the Berlin Air Corridors. As the Soviets modernized their units and increased their presence, it was vital to gain as much information on them as possible. For better management of this covert outfit as well as to bring it closer to the major USAFE photo and ELINT interpretation centers, the 7499th moved in August 1950 to Wiesbaden AB, within a few miles of USAFE Headquarters.

Beginning in 1950, the unit upgraded to C-54s to do both photo and ELINT work, replacing the B-17s. The C-54 boasted better collection capability, and had the additional advantage of actually being a transport, thus attracting much less attention at Tempelhof. C-47s likewise took over more of the Berlin Air Corridor work from the Invaders (now designated RB-26s), also bearing a more 'peaceful' appearance.

In addition, a new aircraft, a specially modified version of the Boeing C-97A Stratofreighter, made its appearance in 1953. This aircraft (serial 49-2952), covertly carrying a 240in focal length camera, was codenamed PIE FACE and was mostly used along the periphery of the satellite nations. But an occasional Berlin Air Corridor mission, even at the required altitudes of less than 1O,000 ft, would produce spectacular, high-resolution photography, very useful for technical analysis of equipment. This aircraft would provide valuable imagery right up until 1962, when it was finally relegated to the scrapheap after some productive missions around Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Reorganization, T-29s and C-97s

In 1955, in response to increasing collection requirements, USAFE upgraded its reconnaissance effort, creating the 7499th Support Group at Wiesbaden with three squadrons. The former 7499th Squadron became the 7405th Support Squadron, remaining at Wiesbaden as the only unit to conduct corridor collection. Its C-47s and RB-26s soldiered on into the late 1950s, and some C-54s until 1963, but another generation was about to arrive.

The 7405th had been openly tasked with the courier mission to Berlin, meaning it was to conduct daily flights to and from Tempelhof carrying passengers and priority cargo. Under this cover the newer aircraft were to continue their collection using better sensors, including the first infra-red imagery sensors. In 1959 the C-47s were supplanted by four Convair T-29s, navigator trainers converted for courier work and vertical photography. Two Boeing C-97Gs that arrived in 1963 were ostensibly cargo carriers, but fitted with oblique cameras and, in one case, with ELINT gear.

These aircraft were joined by another C-97G, equipped with specialized ELINT equipment designed to gather high-quality technical data on the then-new Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile system, which by the mid-1960s had spread throughout the Warsaw Pact countries, especially in East Germany, and was downing US aircraft over North Vietnam. This platform was especially valuable for providing data enabling the US to design appropriate electronic countermeasures against the SA-2. The north and south Berlin Air Corridors were unique places for this collection, since several Soviet SA-2 sites were located directly within corridor limits. When the SA-2 was superseded by more advanced missile systems, the aircraft was reconfigured to collect on them.

C-130E-II 62-1828
7405th Operations Squadron C-130E-II 62-1828 landing at Tempelhof on 14 April 1981. Note the fake MAC markings (the 7405th was subordinate to USAFE), probably designed to enable these C-130Es to blend in at the 7405th's Rhein-Main base.

1970s-80s: corridor missions dominate

All along, the 7405th and its sister squadrons were also flying peripheral reconnaissance missions throughout Europe and, increasingly, the Middle East, but beginning in the late 1960s Strategic Air Command RC-135s assumed a greater share of the peripheral recon load, until by 1974 all those missions had been ceded to SAC. The 7499th Group and the 7406th and 7407th Squadrons were inactivated. But the Berlin Air Corridor missions were unique - no RC-135s would be flying to Berlin! So the 7405th and its 'Berlin for Lunch Bunch' continued this unique task.

In December 1975, the 7405th flew its last C-97 mission from Wiesbaden and moved to Rhein-Main. There, as the 7405th Operations Squadron, it acquired three heavily-modified C-130Es, airlifters in name only. By this time, technology improvements were such that each aircraft could carry a variety of sensors with advanced capabilities. Thus, if one sensor type detected a new and unusual activity, the aircrew could almost instantly bring other sensors to bear on it. This ability provided lucrative intelligence time and time again.

The 7405th's corridor/Control Zone collection missions, with their pivot at Tempelhof, continued through the 1980s. Then came the 1989 'fall of the Wall; the subsequent reunification of Germany, and the phase-out of Soviet/Russian armed forces from the East. The 7405th helped monitor this until shortly before Germany was reunified. On 27 September 1990, the last C-130 collection mission was flown; then, on 3 October, the Berlin Air Corridors and Control Zone officially disappeared. From 1946 to 1990 the 'Berlin for Lunch Bunch' had flown over 10,000 missions to Berlin. Now it had flown its last, and then faded into military aviation and intelligence history. The 7405th was inactivated in January 1991.

What did the Soviets know?

Despite the extensive measures to conceal the true purpose of these corridor flights, there is ample evidence to confirm that the Soviets knew at least that these aircraft were not what they seemed. They knew that the US was gathering intelligence on their installations and activities from the Berlin Air Corridors, and there are numerous examples of their knowledge. One compelling example illustrates this.

The year is 1994, the location far away from Berlin. A former Soviet 'scientific research vessel; now a cruise ship taking tour groups around the Antarctic, was taking on board a new set of passengers. A navigator veteran of the 7405th and his wife were chatting with the Russian ship captain. The Russian asked the navigator whether he would like to meet a retired Soviet fighter pilot who was on the ship's crew. 'Of course I said yes. The next evening I was invited to the captain's cabin; the captain sent along one of his interpreters so we could talk. It was funny, but after about 30 minutes we didn't need him any more. He had been stationed in East Germany for 10 years, and I had had nine in West Germany, so between our fractured German, pencil and paper to draw pictures, and our hands to fly with, we understood each other with no problem ...

'He asked what I had been flying, and I explained I had been stationed in Wiesbaden and flew to and from Berlin almost every day. With that his face lit up and he asked, 'Which you fly, the electric bird or the picture bird?' He had been stationed at Zerbst [in the south corridor] in the 1950s and '60s flying MiG-19s and MiG-21s. He said what we were doing was common knowledge and they used to fly high-level escort with the military aircraft in the corridors, just hoping they would screw up and get out of a corridor so they could get a shot at one ... So much for tight security.

Why did the Soviets allow these missions to operate? There is no way of knowing for sure, but several reasons suggest themselves. Covert flights spared the Soviets the open insult of overt reconnaissance missions operating in airspace which they controlled. Having positively identified the US aircraft, they could, to a degree, control what was and was not seen. There was probably also 'tacit reciprocity: the unspoken understanding that by allowing these missions to fly without interference the Soviets could carry out similar missions using covertly-configured aircraft (mainly civilian airliners), that ventured into the West. Finally, there was likely an understanding by Moscow that allowing Berlin Air Corridor reconnaissance was a signal that it had nothing really important to hide, while denying that right would alert the West and dramatically raise tensions.

These 10,000-plus Berlin Air Corridor missions gathered very valuable intelligence for the West. Very professional aircrews flew them all without any major incident, thus avoiding undue and embarrassing publicity for both sides. Veritatem Suppeditare (the Latin for 'Supply the Truth'), the official motto of the 7405th for many years and its mission for all 44 years, was fulfilled.

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