Project ROBIN

 

Project ROBIN was an example of close UK-US air intelligence co-operation during the Cold War. It involved the mounting of a powerful US camera system in a British reconnaissance aircraft, to enable long range oblique photography to be taken of the Soviet zones of occupation in Eastern Europe.

 

As relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated following the Second World War, the western powers lacked up-to-date intelligence on Soviet military and industrial installations in Eastern Europe. In early 1954 a Royal Air Force Canberra B2 aircraft, serial WH726, was flown to the USA to be fitted with a very long focal length camera colloquially known as the 'bomb camera'. This camera employed a series of mirrors to achieve a focal length of 240-inches, and was fitted into a 10-feet long cylinder mounted in the aircraft's bomb bay. The camera pointed out of a port-facing window in the forward fuselage of the aircraft, which would then be flown along the border to take photographs of territory to the east. The Canberra was selected for this project because it was capable of achieving the high altitude required to enable photography of targets well inside Soviet-controlled territory. The camera was reported to be so powerful that during a test flight over the English Channel off the coast of Dover, clear photographs were taken of St Paul's Cathedral, 75 miles away in central London.

 

After ministerial permission for peripheral intelligence collection flights was given, the modified Canberra was used by 58 Squadron, RAF, to photograph targets in East Germany. The method employed was to fly a southerly course, 10 to 40 miles inside the British and American zones of occupation, at heights of over 42,000 feet. A second aircraft flew alongside the ROBIN aircraft to watch for condensation trails, which would reveal the aircraft's position and course.

 

The first ROBIN sortie was flown on 23 April 1954, between Lubeck and Brunswick, in the British Zone of Occupation, with the camera pointing east. The flight was probably intended to test the equipment in an operational setting, and the aircraft stayed between 10 and 18 miles west of the border with East Germany. This image of Krebsförden, south of Schwerin, was one of the first images taken during the sortie.

 

A vertical camera was mounted in the aircraft, to photograph the ground directly below and to provide a precise record of the aircraft's position during the sortie. This image records the aircraft passing over Geesthacht. In later sorties, where the aircraft was positioned over the Mediterranean while taking oblique photographs, this camera was omitted.

 

Another oblique photograph taken during the first ROBIN sortie, showing the town of Gardelegen, 19 miles inside East Germany.

 

During a later ROBIN sortie, on 12 December 1956, photographs were collected of intelligence targets in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Here, oil storage tanks at Baniyas, Syria, are recorded.

 

Shipping movements at Port Said, Egypt, are recorded on this photograph taken at the end of the 12 December 1956 sortie. 

 

 

Flying at high altitude, and so far from the targets being photographed, meant that the imagery collected often suffered from degradation due to atmospheric effects such as haze, as well as obscuration of the target by cloud formations at lower altitudes. Nevertheless, some useful intelligence was gathered about territories where access was denied to British and American military aircraft. 

 

The value of the photographs that the Canberra could collect was immediately superseded when the Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft entered US service in June 1956. This aircraft could reach 70,000 feet of altitude and following the first U-2 sorties over eastern Europe, Project ROBIN was quickly scaled down. Further ROBIN sorties were flown over the eastern Mediterranean in late 1956 and early 1957, however, in support of UK-French interests in the Suez Canal zone. The camera was subsequently removed from the Canberra and the aircraft was returned to normal duties with the RAF, eventually being sold to Peru.

 

Project ROBIN sorties were declassified in 2004 and photography was released to NCAP by the UK Ministry of Defence, not only of Austria, East Germany and Hungary but also of Egypt, France, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. Work to catalogue these sorties is undertaken as and when resources allow; to date, 3 of the 25 sorties released have been catalogued. A provisional list of the ROBIN sorties held appears below.

 

 

SORTIE DATE COUNTRY COVERAGE
ROBIN/0001 23 April 1954 Germany Luneburg, Braunschweig, Schwerin, Stendal
ROBIN/0002 11 May 1954 Germany Neustadt, Luneburg, Braunschweig, Schwerin, Wittenburg, Magdeburg
ROBIN/0005 26 August 1954 Germany Luneburg, Braunschweig, Rostock, Schwerin
ROBIN/0006 27 August 1954 Germany Butzow, Sternberg, Schwerin, Rostock, Warlitz, Domitz
ROBIN/0007A 14 October 1954 Cyprus, Egypt, France Kythrea, Cairo, Port Said, Ismailia, Provence
ROBIN/0007 7 March 1955 Israel, Palestine Lod, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Gaza
ROBIN/0008 21 June 1955 Germany Lubeck, Rostock, Schwerin, Braunschweig, Stendal
ROBIN/0011 29 September 1955 Austria, Hungary Kirchberg, Szombathely, Zalahashagy
ROBIN/0012 10 October 1955 Germany Bad Doberan, Ludwigslust, Gadebusch, Stendal
ROBIN/0009 26 August 1956 Egypt Port Said, Alexandria
ROBIN/0010A 28 August 1956 Egypt Port Said, Alexandria
ROBIN/0011A 24 October 1956 Israel Haifa, Afula
ROBIN/A0001 12 December 1956 Syria, Lebanon, Egypt Baniyas, Beirut, Port Said
ROBIN/A0002 14 December 1956 Syria Latakia, Baniyas
ROBIN/A0003 16 December 1956 Syria, Egypt Latakia, Matruh
ROBIN/A0004 17 December 1956 Syria Latakia
ROBIN/0013 14 January 1957 Lebanon, Israel, Egypt Beirut, Haifa, Alexandria
ROBIN/0014 16 January 1957 Syria, Lebanon, Israel Latakia, Beruit, Haifa, Jaffa
ROBIN/0015 18 January 1957 Syria, Egypt Latakia, Alexandria
ROBIN/0016 19 January 1957 Syria Baniyas, Latakia
ROBIN/0017 21 January 1957 Syria, Lebanon Latakia, Beruit, Sidon
ROBIN/0019 24 January 1957 Syria Baniyas
ROBIN/0020 25 January 1957 Egypt Alexandria
ROBIN/0021 3 February 1957 Syria, Lebanon, Israel Latakia, Tripoli, Beruit, Haifa
ROBIN/0022 4 February 1957 Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt Latakia, Beruit, Sidon, Herzliyya, Gaza, Alexandria

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An example of the Canberra aircraft used to collect aerial imagery during Project ROBIN.