HC Deb 17 March 1953 vol 512 cc2067-70
Mr. A. Henderson

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he has any further information with regard to the shooting down of the Lincoln bomber by Russian jet fighter pilots on Thursday last.

The Prime Minister

The House knows that a Lincoln aircraft of Flying Training Command was shot down by Russian MIG 15 fighters near the zonal boundary in Germany at about half-past two last Thursday afternoon, 12th March. The whole crew of seven were killed or have since died as a result of their injuries.

I offer to the families of these officers and airmen the deep sympathy of Her Majesty's Government and of the House in their grievous loss. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

This was due to a cruel and wanton attack by Soviet fighter planes. The Lincoln was unarmed. On training missions, when not engaged in gunnery practice, our aircraft have hitherto carried no ammunition. The belt feed mechanism had in fact been removed from both Hispano 20 m.m. guns in the upper turret, which is the usual practice when it is not intended to fire these weapons. The.5 machine guns in the rear turret were complete but were not provided with ammunition. The Russian assertion that the Lincoln opened fire on them is utterly untrue.

The flight was part of the usual exercising of Allied air defences. Such exercises have been carried out regularly by Flying Training Command over the past 18 months. The course prescribed for the Lincoln ran parallel to the zonal boundary and 40 miles on our side of it. The pilot and the navigator were both fully trained and experienced officers.

A study of the information now available indicates that the aircraft may, through a navigational error, have accidentally crossed into the Eastern zone of Germany at some point. But the evidence of ground observers and the spent cannon shell links from the Russian fighters picked up in our Western zone prove that the Russians repeatedly fired on the Lincoln and mercilessly destroyed it when it was actually west of and within the allied zonal frontier.

The wreck of the aircraft followed in its descent a track which caused it to fall just within the Russian zone. Thus it was actually over our zone when first and mortally fired on, and the lives of seven British airmen were callously taken for a navigational mistake in process of correction, which could have been dealt with by the usual method of protest and inquiry.

British aircraft in the Western allied zone of Germany will continue to carry out their normal exercises, taking all possible precautions. Should Soviet aircraft stray into our zone every effort will be made to warn them and, by following the procedure normally used by nations at peace, to avoid loss of life.

Mr. Henderson

While I and my right hon. and hon. Friends associate ourselves with the sentiments expressed by the Prime Minister, might I put two questions to him? First, is not the Russian case based upon the reports of the Russian pilots that the Lincoln bomber fired first? Is not the British case based on the fact that the Lincoln bomber could not have fired at all because, as the Prime Minister has just said, some guns were out of action and there was no ammunition for the others? Is this evidence not vital to the British case as a complete refutation of the allegations made by the Russian authorities? Why, then, was this evidence not included in either of the Notes which were handed to the Russian authorities by the High Commissioner last week-end, more especially in view of the delay which has apparently taken place in allowing our representatives to inspect the wreckage?

The Prime Minister

The full facts were not known to us at the time when the first Note had to be sent, but they have since been obtained and have been proved.

Mr. Henderson

To ask my other supplementary question, do I take it that in the latter part of his reply the Prime Minister indicated that all steps are being taken to minimise the possibility of these long-range training aircraft drifting, possibly owing to navigational error, near or over the East German border?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. All precautions will be observed.

Mr. Odey

Might I put to the Prime Minister a question regarding the dependants of these airmen who are in the married quarters at Leconfield, which is in my constituency? Will the Government press with every means at their disposal for adequate compensation from the Soviet Government to the widows and other dependants of the murdered aircrew; and if that compensation is not forthcoming, will Her Majesty's Government accept full responsibility for it? Will the Government also protest at the further suffering which was caused by the Soviet Government inasmuch as for 48 hours they refused to allow access to the victims, thereby causing additional anxiety to the bereaved owing to lack of information regarding the identity of the airman who survived the crash and died subsequently?

The Prime Minister

I feel deep sympathy with the points which my hon. Friend has raised. I think it would be more convenient if he put the Questions on the Order Paper, when careful answers can be given after consideration. Nevertheless, our deep sympathy goes out to the families of these airmen who have been destroyed in this way, and I cannot feel that any departure from the existing practice which would in any way be to their detriment would in any circumstances be tolerated.

Mr. Bellenger

What has happened to the bodies of the airmen who fell in the Russian zone? Have they been recovered, and if not, what are Her Majesty's Government doing about it?

The Prime Minister

The bodies have been returned to the charge of Her Majesty's Forces.

Air Commodore Harvey

Can the Prime Minister deny or confirm a Press report that at least one member of the crew of the Lincoln bomber was fired at by one of the Russian fighters after he had parachuted out of the aircraft?

The Prime Minister

I have no proof that I can advance about that at the present time, although I have seen statements to that effect. That the aircraft was repeatedly and mercilessly fired upon until it was destroyed is, I am sorry to say, undoubtedly true.