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Cold War casualties commemorated
Denis Price
By Denis Price
Local writer and historian

The only RAF aircraft to be shot down by the Soviet Union during the Cold War was based at RAF Leconfield near Beverley.

The Avro Lincoln was on a routine training flight in an air corridor, between Hamburg and Berlin in March 1953.

The unarmed aircraft was shot down by Soviet MIG fighters, killing all seven members of the crew.

The incident caused a major diplomatic rift between the Soviets and the UK.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill condemned the action in the House of Commons.

The aircrew were buried in a Leconfield church

The bodies of the airmen were returned to the UK and buried in St Catherine's churchyard in Leconfield.

Standing in the autumnal leaf-strewn churchyard of St. Catherine's Leconfield, it's difficult to link this tranquil corner of England with one of the more tragic incidents of Cold War confrontation, one which probably passed unnoticed by a people struggling to 'get by' immersed as they were in a time of post war austerity.

These same people of England's eastern flatlands were well used to the sight of military headstones in their churchyards. They stand as sad reminders of an earlier war, a conflict which sowed the seeds of a further confrontation lasting over 40 years, known euphemistically as the Cold War.

The headstones of five airmen stand among those of their wartime comrades as victims of this confrontation.

The airmen, Squadron Leader Fitz, Flight Lieutenant Wyles and Sergeants Jones, Mason and Stevens were all members of the crew of Lincoln bomber RF 531, with the pilot, Flight Sergeant Dunnell, who was buried elsewhere.

On the 12th March 1953 their aircraft, Avro Lincoln RF531 of 192 Squadron flying from the Central Gunnery School at RAF Leconfield, was the second of two Lincolns to be dispatched to perform 'routine NATO liaison sorties'.

These were carried out every two weeks over Europe by NATO Air Forces and used in this instance for air gunnery and fighter affiliation training.

The two unarmed Lincolns took off some two hours apart to perform their tasks during a period when the Russians were being described as "particularly aggressive" toward the West, having shot down an American fighter and attacked other Allied military and civilian aircraft over the previous few days.

With the occupying powers having designated air corridors in the skies above Germany, the Soviets were extremely sensitive to alleged departures from these corridors particularly those adjacent to their areas of influence. Any Allied incursion into perceived Soviet airspace would be immediately challenged.

The first Lincoln aircraft, even when overflying the British zone, was 'buzzed' by two Soviet fighters conducting mock attacks until the Lincoln changed course, flying westward to land unscathed at Leconfield.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill described the incident as a "wanton attack"

The second ill-fated Lincoln RF531 was attacked without warning by two Soviet fighters as it entered the Hamburg to Berlin air corridor.

On fire, it broke up in mid air with the bulk of its fuselage landing near Boizenburg in the Soviet Zone with the remainder in the British Zone.

The crew all died, some in the aircraft and others after being fired on by their attackers as they parachuted to earth, although one parachute failed to open. These events were confirmed by German civilian witnesses.

It is widely accepted that the downed Lincoln may have over-flown the border with Soviet controlled territory, but the severe nature of the response gives an indication of the Cold War tensions of the time.

Following protests from the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in the face of Soviet accusations that the unarmed Lincoln had initially fired on their fighters, the bodies of the crew and the wreckage of the aircraft were returned within days of the incident together with an uncharacteristic 'expression of regret' from the Soviet authorities.

On March 19th 1953 a week after take off, members of the crew of Avro Lincoln RF531 returned to Leconfield to be buried in St. Catherine's churchyard with full military honours.

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