Canada's Cold War Fighter Pilots

by Colonel W. Neil Russell, CF Ret.

Many Canadians have forgotten how close the World came to annihilation through global nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s. And many readers are not aware of the significant contributions to end the war that were made by Canada and by a small group of young pilots of the Royal Canadian Air Force. This is a review of how the Cold War started and how it progressed; the story of 1 Canadian Air Division based in Central Europe from 1951 until 1967, and particularly the fine young fighter pilots of the Air Division, some of whom paid with their life to do what their country asked. Why do I tell this story? Because I was there and have subsequently done a lot of reading to find out details, some of them reported for the first time.

Part One, the Cold War, 1946 to 1991

As Winston Churchill said in 1946, just as the World was looking for lasting peace at the end of the Second World War, "An Iron Curtain has fallen across Central Europe." The communist Soviet Union, which had been an ally of Great Britain, the United States, Canada and other nations as they fought against Nazi Germany, had ulterior motives. In 1945, as the war was ending, the Soviet Union gained control over the Baltic States, already occupied East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, creating what was first known as the "Soviet Bloc" and later "the Warsaw Pact".


Instead of de-mobilizing, like the allied powers, the Soviet Union and its partners maintained conscription, establishing large, strong armies and air forces which threatened Western Europe and North America.

In East Germany the Group of Soviet Forces numbered some 340,000 troops; its strongest formation, the First Guards Army, dug in its modernized tanks and artillery just a few kilometres from the border with West Germany. Behind the border, 47 airfields were established, equipped, first with MIG-15 and MIG-17s, and later with supersonic MIG-21s and other aircraft presumed capable of carrying nuclear bombs. In the other satellite countries, initially, there were only indigenous armed forces, but in several cases the Soviets moved in, distrusting an increasingly reluctant ally.

Further east in Russia, Belorussia and the Ukraine the Soviet Long Range Air Force [LRA] was activated, first with four engine piston aircraft, copies of the US B-29 Super Fortress, and later with modern jet engine long range bombers capable of launching thermal nuclear bombs and missiles against targets in North America. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the World's first intercontinental ballistic missiles, later, hardening their launch sites and equipping them with multiple war heads. The Soviet Navy was no match for the combined capability of the USA, UK and France, but it had the world's largest fleet of long range submarines, most nuclear powered, and many with ballistic and cruise missiles aimed at targets in North America.

Churchill's "Cold War," as he called it in 1946, soon heated up. In 1948, to test the determination of the Western Allies, the Soviets, with East German support, blockaded road, railway and canal access to Berlin. This resulted in the Berlin Airlift where hundreds of American transport aircraft flew round the clock, in good and bad weather, delivering food and heating coal to three airfields located behind the Iron Curtain in West Berlin. The two million people of West Berlin nearly starved and froze, but they determinedly survived until the Bloc backed down. Later, in 1960, the Soviets and East Germans attempted to squeeze off allied air access to Berlin. This resulted in the Western Allies going to maximum readiness. The same year, 1961, in order to stop embarrassing defections, the East Germans started to build the Berlin Wall. In 1962, the Soviet Union attempted to deliver and install medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba, resulting in the well known "Cuban Missile Crisis". The World watched with fear as American and allied forces, including Canadians, moved to high alert status. President Kennedy ordered Soviet ships carrying missiles on their decks to turn back. Luckily, they did, for the United States had contingency plans to strike Cuba, an act which could have lit the fuse of global war.

Other crisis of the Cold War, now mainly forgotten, included the shooting down or the unarmed American U-2 long range reconnaissance aircraft flown by Gary Powers, and the 1983 shooting down of a South Korean airliner with over 240 passengers aboard which, according to the Soviets, violated their air space in the North Pacific. Although the public was seldom aware, allied intelligence used to closely monitor Soviet nuclear tests; large exercises of the LRA, including the activation of deployment airfields in the High Arctic; deployment of Soviet submarines off the coasts of North America, and test firings of increasingly sophisticated ICBMs.

How soon we forget that the 50's and 60's were very tense years, resulting in the establishment of the North American Air Defence Command [NORAD] with its hardened command centre under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado and the alternate, Northern NORAD Headquarters, deep underground at North Bay, Ontario. The Canadian Government's underground four story emergency command centre at Carp, near Ottawa, as well as provincial hardened survival centres are just Cold War curiosities now, but they are reminders that governments were serious enough to spend millions of dollars to help ensure the survival of key national leaders.

The Cold War unexpectedly came to an end in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The United States under President Reagan, supported by NATO, increased military, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Soviet Union, which was already suffering economic stagnation. The newly appointed Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced "Perestroika" [restructuring] and "Glasnost" [openness], under which the satellite states, starting with Poland and spreading to East Germany and others, elected non communist governments which withdrew from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union itself broke up in 1991, leaving the United States the world's dominant military power, although Russia retained most of the massive Soviet nuclear arsenal. We know now, that towards the end, the Soviet Union was spending 25% of its gross national product on armaments; it could not keep up with the combined economic strength of the western allies. The history of the Cold War is a success story of how economic strength, defence preparedness and the maintenance of a balance of power prevented a potentially disastrous global nuclear war.

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