§ 3.39 p.m.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR AIR (LORD DE L'ISLE AND DUDLEY)
My Lords, by leave of the House, I should like to intervene for a few minutes to make a Statement similar to that which is being made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place.
24 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, March 12. 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. 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 0.5 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 eighteen months. The course prescribed for the Lincoln ran parallel to the zonal boundary and forty 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 airman 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.
25 British aircraft in the Western Allied Zone of Germany will continue to carry out their normal exercises, taking all possible precautions. Should Soviet air-Graft 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.
§ LORD HENDERSON
My Lords, I wish to thank the noble and gallant Lord the Secretary of State for his statement of the facts regarding what I am sure we all consider the unjustifiable shooting down of the Lincoln bomber. The resultant tragic loss of seven lives—and here I should like to repeat the words used by the Secretary of State—was "due to a cruel and wanton attack by Soviet righter 'planes." The noble Lord's statement is itself a direct contradiction of the explanation advanced by the Russian authorities, because it is obviously impossible for an unarmed 'plane either to open fire or to return fire. I should like to associate noble Lords who sit or these Benches with the expression of sympathy uttered on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to the families of the crew whose lives have been lost.
There are two points that I should like to raise with the Secretary of State. In the course of his statement he said that the pilot and navigator were both fully trained and experienced officers. The general public do not always understand the meaning of a "training flight," and they may have assumed that the crew were, in fact, being trained in flying. Can the Secretary of State give us an indication of the flying experience possessed by the pilot and the navigator? Secondly, the Secretary of State said that training flights will continue, and that all possible precautions will be taken. Does he not consider it desirable that for future training flights the margin between the plotted course and the frontier should be such as to allow for navigational errors, drift and the effects of adverse weather? Perhaps the noble and gallant Lord will be good enough to reply to those two points
§ LORD DE L'ISLE AND DUDLEY
My Lords, may I take the second question first? The course plotted in this case was at the nearest point forty miles from the western zonal frontier: the course actually lay west of two of our Royal Air Force-occupied airfields, at Fassberg and 26 Celle. There were, moreover, ample ground navigational aids available. We can only conjecture that there must have been a navigational error. It is not, however, one that it is possible to guard against, and in my view the precautions taken and the margin of error allowed were adequate. As regards the first question of the noble Lard, he is perfectly right: both the pilot and navigator were very experienced airmen. The pilot had completed altogether 1,500 hours of flying, arid had what is called a green ticket—which is a ticket granted for a high standard of instrument flying. He had also done a large number of hours on Lincoln aircraft. The navigator hid wartime navigational experience, and had flown more than 1,000 hours. I think that shows that this was a most experienced crew, and it is impossible to explain how the error, as error there must have been, occurred.
§ LORD HENDERSON
While thanking the noble and gallant Lord for his reply, there is one other suggestion that I should like to make. His statement makes it perfectly clear that the Russian explanation of the incident is totally untrue; that is to say, that the Lincoln was unarmed and, therefore, could not fire. That statement has been made to-day, and it was made earlier. But so far as I can recall, it has not been made officially to the Soviet Government—it does not appear in either of the two Notes sent by the British High Commissioner in Germany. Is it not desirable that an official statement of the actual facts, which are the crucial facts in the case, should be brought to the attention of the Soviet Government?
§ LORD LAYTON
My Lords, I do not propose to make any comment on the statement that has been made, except to associate myself with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, that the statement given this afternoon is proof that the excuses given by those who committed the outrage are groundless. My purpose in rising is mainly to associate Peers who sit on these Benches with the expression of sympathy with the families of those who perished as a result of this attack.
§ LORD LLEWELLIN
My Lords, I should like to ask the noble and gallant Lord this question. Is it not normal, and has it not been so for a long time, both in this country and in Germany, to send up 'planes, when they are on training, unarmed as this one was?
§ LORD DE L'ISLE AND DUDLEY
My Lords, that is quite accurate. Noble Lords will realise that there is a great deal of traffic, civil and military, which flies to Hamburg and in the region south of it. Indeed, it would be impossible, in time of peace, going about our peaceable missions, not to allow ourselves freely to use our air space in that Zone.