Book Review of Shadow Flights: America’s Secret Air War against the Soviet Union

Curtis Peebles. Shadow Flights: America’s Secret Air War against the Soviet Union. Novato, California: Presidio Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-891-41700-2. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Pp. vi, 322.

PeeblesSlowly but surely information has been coming forward about United States and American-sponsored reconnaissance missions against the Soviet Union and China during the early years of the Cold War.  In this study, Curtis Peebles, a freelance aerospace historian, examines the American reconnaissance effort from the late 1940s to Operation Grand Slam in 1960.  The author is well-known for his studies including The Moby Dick Project: Reconnaissance Balloons over Russia (1991), The Corona Project: America’s First Spy Satellites (1997), and Twilight Warriors: Covert Air Operations against the USSR (2005).

RB-45C aircraft at RAF Sculthorpe, England (1952)Peebles depicts the rise of Cold War reconnaissance from the first U.S. Far East Air Forces RF-80 covert overflight of the Soviet Far East during the Berlin Crisis (1948-1949) to the Soviet shootdown of a Central Intelligence Agency U-2 mission in May 1960.  The author points out the vital need for intelligence regarding the testing, production, and deployment of Soviet bombers, submarines, missiles, and nuclear weapons.  Overflights during this period included the flying of RB-45C, RB-47, RB-57, and U-2 aircraft by American and British aircrews.  These flights consisted of border shadowing, shallow penetration, deep penetration, and cross-county overflight missions over East Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and other countries to gather daytime photographic, nighttime radarscope photographic, and signal intelligence.  Reconnaissance balloon operations, such as Operation Genetrix, are not ignored.  Peebles is commended for discussing the results of reconnaissance operations.  The study is informative on the risks involved in carrying out these missions with the threat of anti-aircraft fire, MiG interceptors, and later surface-to-air missiles.  Peebles explains that each mission from the mid-1950s on required the permission of President Eisenhower.  He did not take lightly the risks to the aircrews and world peace.  There were some very long delays between U-2 missions (up to sixteen months) waiting for the President to approve flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s.

800px-Lockheed_U-2A_USAFThe study closely examines the development of the CIA’s U-2 program.  From the Lockheed “Skunk Works” plant in California to the testing of the U-2 at “The Ranch” at Groom Lake in Nevada, followed by the operational deployment of the reconnaissance plane to England, West Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, and Japan, the history of the CIA’s covert U-2 operations is revealed.  Three U-2 detachments provided valuable intelligence of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries, actions involved in the buildup and conduct of the Suez Crisis (1956), Lebanon (1958), Taiwan Strait Crisis (1958), and Tibet (1959).  Peebles is great at integrating international relations with intelligence needs and the U-2 operations.  U-2 intelligence confirmed that there was no bomber gap in the mid-1950s or missile gap in the late 1950s.  The last U-2 mission over the Soviet Union, flown by CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers, launched from Peshawar, Pakistan, on its way to Bodo, Norway, in May 1960.  It was the first U-2 mission planned to fly across the whole width of the Soviet Union.  Unfortunately, it was shot down near Degtyarsk in the Ural Region of the USSR.

Shadow Flights is an intriguing look at Cold War strategic reconnaissance.  It uses the many sources now available that were previously classified for national security purposes.  The mostly declassified official CIA history, Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welzenbach’s The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974 (1998), is a great source on U-2 missions.   Other highly recommended works are Chris Pocock’s The U-2 Spyplane: Toward the Unknown, A New History of the Early Years (2000) and The Black Bats: CIA Spy Flights over China from Taiwan, 1951-1969 (2010), Dino A. Brugioni’s Eyes in the Sky: Eisenhower, the CIA and Cold War Aerial Espionage (2010), and, of course, Francis Gary Powers and Curt Gentry’s Operation Overflight: The U-2 Spy Pilot Tells His Story for the First Time (1970, reprinted as Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident [2004]).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Cold War (1945-1991), United States Foreign Policy, United States Military History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review of Shadow Flights: America’s Secret Air War against the Soviet Union

  1. William Young says:

    Reblogged this on Military History and commented:

    Fascinating study of early Cold War spy flights.

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