“Alert crew at No. 3 Fighter Wing (Royal Canadian Air Force), Zweibrücken, Germany waits to scramble as Sabres fly overhead.” (This photo is from Leslie Roberts, There Shall Be Wings: A History of the Royal Canadian Airforce, 1959, and is now in the public domain.)

In 1950 and 1951, Canada sent ground and air forces to Europe as part of NATO’s Integrated Force. The deployment of these forces to Europe in peacetime, and as part of an allied command, raised constitutional questions about their use in war (CDEX01119).  

What would happen in case of a surprise attack against NATO forces? Would the government send Canadian Forces into action without first consulting with Parliament? 

By 1951, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester Pearson discussed these issues, and the Department of External Affairs prepared a draft speech on this matter that the Prime Minister could give in the House if needed. 

In 1953, a series of air incidents between aircraft from different states, including Canada, raised questions about the role of the RCAF in Europe, and the relationship between Canada’s NATO commitments and the commitments of its allies, like the United States and United Kingdom, who were members of NATO but also had distinct obligations in the occupation of Germany (CDEX01131).

The varying obligations of different states created confusion. The RCAF’s First Air Division in Europe, stationed primarily in France and Germany (CDEX01123), relied on American and French Air Control to provide direction to their fighters. It appears that Canada’s allies, at times, expected Canadian fighters to intercept and identify Soviet aircraft in German air space, but the Canadian government insisted this was a responsibility of the occupiers, not Canada. 

At one point in 1953, General Lauris Norstad, then commander-in-chief of United STates Air Forces in Europe,  proposed that Canadian fighter aircraft fly with "hot guns" (CDEX01129), armed and ready to fire.

This briefing book examines four air incidents in NATO Europe in 1953, and considers, in each case, either Canada’s role in these crises or the implications for Canada. 

The documents below are drawn from a single folder at Library and Archives Canada, “Soviet air attacks in Germany - Possible employment of RCAF,” RG25-A-3-b, Volume number: 6030, File number: 50290-40.

While none of the documents explicitly make the connection between the Canadian government’s concerns about the possibility for an expanding crisis or war in Europe caused by an air incident, the arrangement of the folder, including St. Laurent’s draft remarks and the nature of the incidents, suggests this issue was on the mind of Canadian leaders.

Department of Defense - Berlin Corridors.jpeg

A map of "Berlin Airlift Air Bases -Winter, 1948-1949," showing the general air space and corridors related to the incidents in this briefing book. (U.S. Department of Defense.)

On March 10, 1953, an American F-84 plane was shot down by Czechoslovakian MIG aircraft (CDEX01209). The event became an international incident, despite the lack of casualties, since the Czechslovaks and Americans disagreed whether the plane had crossed the Czech-German border into Czechoslovakia. The event contributed to a closer regulation of air corridors in Berlin (CDEX01147). The Canadians stood by the United States’ version of events (CDEX01147), indicating the strength of American-Canadians relations and NATO cohesiveness at the time.

On March 13, 1953, an RAF Lincoln Bomber was performing a routine mission when it was shot down by Soviet forces while flying over the Hamburg-Berlin air corridor , resulting in the loss of seven British airmen. Following the attack, UK government officials, such as the High Commissioner, frequently communicated with the Canadian government, like the Secretary of State of External Affairs. These communications detailed the discussions being held within the UK government concerning the possible reasons for the Soviet attack, what was found at the wreckage site, and how to respond to the attack (CDEX01149). The question of the potential deployment of RCAF squadrons in European airspace was raised (CDEX01165). However, Canada’s role as a non-occupying power in Europe complicated this matter. 

On March 19th, 1953, a week after the Lincoln bomber incident, two RCAF fighters under the command of the American Air Control Centre intercepted a Dakota transport aircraft over Metz, Germany (CDEX01146).  The plane was carrying a Russian delegate to the United Nations and was authorized by Air Control to fly from Paris to Berlin.  However, the plane was 1hr and 50min behind schedule and Air Control was not notified of the delay, so the RCAF fighters carried out a routine inspection of the aircraft (CDEX01159).  

Afterwards, the Soviet Union filed a complaint to the Air Safety Centre, claiming the plane was “menaced” despite no shots being fired (CDEX01191).  Believing the fighters were American, the initial complaint was filed to U.S. authorities and fuelled pre-existing tensions between the Americans and Soviets (CDEX01194).  The Canadians remained quiet on the matter for some time, debating whether it would be wise to reveal the pilot’s nationalities to the Russians (CDEX01195).  The French authorities, despite some hesitancy from Pearson, eventually revealed that the pilots were Canadian (CDEX01204).

On July 29, 1953, four RCAF aircraft accidentally crossed over the Czechoslovakian border after disappearing from American Air Traffic Control radars. They had been directed by the Americans to intercept an unidentified radar plot (which was not within the scope of their duties as a non-occupying force in Germany), but were temporarily lost due to radar fade. When the RCAF fighters were discovered to be on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, they were immediately recalled and returned to base without incident (CDEX01211). 

This event was worrying for the Canadians, who had been closely following the above incidents in which British and American aircraft were shot down in the region by Eastern Bloc fighters (CDEX01210). Canadian lives could have been in danger because of the directions they had received from the Americans, which caused tensions within NATO and reopened discussions of the Canadian military’s role in Europe.