Swedish Air Force Pays Tribute To Spy Plane Crew Shot Down By Russia 70 Years Ago
Swedish spy flights over the Baltic Sea led to a violent response from the Soviet Union back in June 1952.
Seventy years ago to the day that Soviet fighter jets brought down a Swedish Air Force C-47 Dakota on a reconnaissance mission over the Baltic Sea, the country's military has performed a commemorative flight in the same area. Back in 1952, the loss of the C-47 and all eight crew onboard began a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Sweden that would also see a Swedish Air Force Catalina flying boat shot down, while it was on a search and rescue mission for possible survivors from the Dakota.
Earlier today, the Swedish Air Force assembled a formation of one Gulfstream S 102B Korpen intelligence-gathering aircraft and two JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets that flew together to honor the eight men killed when the C-47 was shot down on June 13, 1952. The formation flight was organized in cooperation with Sweden's National Defence Radio Establishment, also known as the Försvarets Radioanstalt, or FRA. Roughly analogous to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), this arm of the Swedish Ministry is primarily responsible for signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and supporting national cybersecurity efforts.
Escorted by the Gripens, the Gulfstream flew in a circuit over the crash site in the Baltic Sea, as well as overflights of the Swedish Defense Materiel Administration buildings in Stockholm, Bromma Stockholm Airport, and FRA headquarters at nearby Lovön.
The loss of the C-47 (or Tp 79 in Swedish military nomenclature) was one of the most significant Cold War incidents involving Sweden and was long shrouded by secrecy on both sides. The twin-engine aircraft, equipped for SIGINT duties, had been operating over the Baltic Sea when it was first reported missing. In the run-up to the sortie of June 13, the C-47 and FRA ground stations had been monitoring a Soviet Navy exercise that was being run in waters off the coast of Estonia, then known as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).
Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was it finally confirmed that Soviet air defenses had shot the C-47 down. For many years, details of the C-47’s actual mission were not publicly known, with the Swedish authorities providing the cover story that the aircraft had come down while on a navigational training flight.
Following the Soviet disclosure, the official Swedish account now told of how the C-47’s intelligence-gathering flight had been planned two days in advance and that the aircraft departed Bromma at around 9:00 AM local time on the morning of the 13th. The adapted transport was equipped with British-supplied SIGINT equipment. It’s unclear what exactly the SIGINT specialists were targeting, but a Soviet air defense radar known to be on the coast of the Latvian SSR may have been the object of interest.
Meanwhile, the Soviet military was tracking the Swedish spy plane and a MiG-15bis fighter was launched from the alert facility at Tukums, near Riga, at 10:44 AM.
Every 20 minutes, the crew of the C-47 sent a coded report via VHF radio indicating the aircraft’s position. This continued until around 11:30 AM when a garbled radiotelegraphy message was picked up by the Swedish Air Force.
This marked the time that the MiG-15 engaged the C-47 with a combination of 23mm and 37mm cannon fire. The pilot, Capt. Grigory Osinsky, had received the order to attack while the Swedish aircraft was in international airspace around 32 to 35 nautical miles east of Gotska Sandön, an uninhabited Swedish island north of Gotland.
The garbled message was the result of the C-47’s navigator being hit by shrapnel, while other rounds riddled the airframe and engines, starting a fire. The MiG pilot claimed to have seen two parachutes, and only two bodies were ever located onboard the wreckage, but, whatever the case, all eight of the Dakota's crew perished during or after the aircraft plunged into the waves.
A memorial in Stockholm to those killed in the shootdown of the Tp 79, serial number 79001, on June 13, 1952:
A Swedish Air Force Tp 47 Catalina flying boat was on alert, as usual for such missions, and two of these flying boats were soon involved in the search for the missing C-47. Other aircraft and Swedish Navy ships also joined in the rescue efforts, but these failed to find anything, until an unopened rubber dinghy was located by a ship on June 15.
The following day, a concerted air-sea rescue effort was launched first thing in the morning, now focusing on an area northwest of the Estonian island of Hiiumaa. At around 4:00 AM, the crew of a Catalina noticed a pair of MiG-15s flying past. The jets then returned, firing tracer rounds as a warning. According to the flying boat crew, they were firmly outside the 12-nautical-mile boundary denoting Soviet territorial waters.
The Soviet jets then rocked their wings, a sign for the Catalina to follow, but instead, the Swedish pilot dived to escape the area. After Soviet fighters had pressed home seven separate attack runs, the flying boat was forced down. The crew of five was able to escape and the men were picked up by a West German freighter. Whether the Catalina ever crossed into Soviet territorial waters is unclear, but it seems that, at the very least, it had been flying very close.
The wreck of the C-47 lay for many years at the bottom of the Baltic, finally being rediscovered in 2003 and then being salvaged the following year. Remains of four of the eight crew members were identified and the aircraft’s hulk was subsequently put on display at the Air Force Museum in Linköping, Sweden.
The recovery of the C-47 put and end to any continuing secrecy over the fact the aircraft had been shot down while on a covert SIGINT mission. While reconnaissance flights were a potentially risky business at this early stage in the Cold War, the actions of the Soviet pilot were notably aggressive and have never been adequately explained. After all, it was clear the C-47 was flying over international waters when it was shot down. It may have been the case that Soviet authorities wanted to issue a clear warning to the Swedish that they did not wish to tolerate SIGINT flights in the Baltic, especially during exercises there.
Such were the high stakes of the Cold War intelligence-gathering ‘game’ that the air force decided to resume SIGINT flights with another C-47, now provided with a fighter escort. The government blocked that move, but by 1953 Swedish recce aircraft were once again patrolling the Baltic.
While the targets of SIGINT today are very different, the Baltic theater is strategically important today just as it was 70 years ago. Sweden is now poised to join NATO, however, which will likely only increase the requirement for intelligence in this area, as well as potentially ramp up tensions with Russia. Already, NATO flights in the area have been subject to close attention from Russian aircraft, at times leading to complaints of dangerous flying.
In the meantime, the Swedish Air Force and FRA remain very active in the Baltic, with Gulfstreams and other reconnaissance assets continuing the vital work of their pioneering forebears, all those years ago.
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With thanks to Robert S Hopkins, III, whose forthcoming book, Crowded Skies: Cold War Reconnaissance over the Baltic, authored with Lennart Andersson, will provide many more details of these incidents and other intelligence-gathering flights in the region.