Danger Zone US Clandestine Reconnaissance Operations along the West Berlin Air Corridors, 1945-1990
Three Western Air Corridors to Berlin were established after the Yalta (February 1945) and Potsdam (July 1945) Conferences and formalized on 31 December 1945. The three corridors were 20 English miles wide, from Hamburg, Hannover and Frankfurt-am-Main to Berlin, terminating in Gatow, Tegel and Templehof Airfields, West Berlin. The final mission was flown on 29 September 1990, just a few days before formal German unification and the disappearance of the Air Corridors. The Berlin Air Route Traffic Control Centre was finally closed on 31 December 31, 1994. In between those dates is a fascinating, and very overlooked, history of over 10,000 clandestine reconnaissance flight operations against both the Soviets and East Germans in the heart of the Cold War.
The author, Kevin Wright, states, in the final chapter (Chapter 8 – An Outstanding Achievement),
“I started this book by saying that Berlin was just one corner of the US worldwide intelligence collection programme, which indeed it was, but it yielded valuable intelligence far beyond its size. A great deal of effort was taken to ensure that the aircraft involved in these operations could very effectively, hide in plain sight. These were not the obvious ‘spy planes’ like the U-2 or SR-71, or even the RC-135s, modified aerial tankers festooned with aerials and odd bulges. They were commonly seen transport aircraft, internally transformed by the sophisticated equipment and the operators they carried. Great thought was put into making these aircraft look externally indistinguishable from their standard ‘trash hauler’ relatives when they sat on the flight line. By flying these missions, several times each week for 40 years, they enabled an extremely detailed picture of Soviet and East German military capabilities and intentions to be established. Indeed, this produced a more detailed time series intelligence study than was possible anywhere else in the world.”
The book is a fascinating and remarkable insight into American clandestine operations along the West Berlin Air Corridors, complete with extensive photographs, maps, detailed illustrations, and a color profile section composing the following eight chapters:
- From German Surrender to the Berlin Airlift 1945-49
- An Evolving Capability
- Boeing C-97, Hiding in Plain Sight 1963-75
- C-130, Super Sensor Platform, 1974-90
- Airborne Sensor Operators and PIs
- Flying Soldiers in Berlin
- Living and Working Alongside the Red Army
- An Outstanding Achievement
“Most of the book charts the activities of the now, often self-described, ‘Berlin for Lunch Bunch’ from its beginnings in the aftermath of a destroyed Europe from 1945, through to its eventual reunification in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) that finally ended the Four Power occupation of the City. Starting with the period of uncertainty up to the Berlin airlift, the book follows the timeline through the development of specialized aircraft to collect intelligence to, from and over the city.”
This book covers more than just the three Air Corridors (each 20 miles wide and limited between 3,000 to 10,000ft), it also covers the Berlin Air Safety Center, the Berlin Air Route Traffic Control Center, the Military Liaison Missions, ground stations, and Army operations. This is a fascinating peek behind the (iron) curtain with lots of information available after the Cold War and from participants themselves. Kevin Wright does an amazing job describing this important, and understated, operation in an easy-to-follow manner.
The author does an amazing job retelling the stories of several of the involved aircrews. The ‘Berlin for Lunch Bunch’ was so named for those aircrew that stopped over in Berlin and ate jaeger schnitzels for lunch at gasthauses across the street from Tempelhof Airfield. One squadron even made shoulder patches emblazoned with ‘Eat Ice Cream or Die’ after an ice cream stand in the Templehof waiting area where the crew assembled for their return to Rhein-Main or Ramstein AB. The humor adds welcome humanity to the story.
There are only a few minor errors. The first was placing the Trinity Site atomic test on 16 July 1945 in the Arizona desert (as a New Mexican living only 100 miles from the site, especially on the eve of the much-anticipated Oppenheimer movie, this is an oversight that most New Mexicans endure; after all, Arizona was a part of the New Mexico Territory, not the other way around). The other was placing Fairchild AFB in Seattle, not Spokane, Washington. These minor niggles aside, this is a great book.
Historians and aviation modelers will gain a lot from this book. The black and white photos and color profiles of the aircraft are beautiful and provide a great base for modeling (after all, these intelligence gathering aircraft were designed to look their cargo brethren; there are a few illustrations that show some of the hidden camera panels). The color profile section has great illustrations B-17Gs Flying Fortress, RB-26C Invader, C-54 Skymaster, C-97 Stratofreighter, C-130 Hercules, Cessna O-1 and O-2, UH-1, along with color photos of C-97s, CT-29, Pilatus UV-20A, and black and white Soviet aircraft and combat vehicles.
Kevin Wright earned a PhD in International Relations and teaches Cold War history, international security and politics at the University of Essex. He is also a regular contributor to British aviation magazines and a renowned air-to-air photographer. He has written seven books through Casemate with another two in the pipeline. Kevin is well qualified to write these historical Cold War and modern subjects; he does so in an easy to understand and entertaining manner.
Profuse thanks to Casemate (https://www.casematepublishers.com) and IPMS/USA for providing the review sample.