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A Tense Situation, A Genuine Apology, and A Sincere Invitation

Photo: The Advocate, a newspaper of Northwestern and Western Tasmania, 14 March 1953. Front-page article titled “Callous Russian Attack on Plane Brings New Tension”

Leadership roles come with a heavy burden, and there are times when a leader must take a stand in a difficult situation. Being an authentic leader also means responding appropriately when one’s actions are called into question by others, especially on the stage of world events. Before promotion to the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union, General Chuikov was given military leadership responsibilities in the Soviet-German sector, a responsibility he took seriously. In 1949, he became Commander-in-Chief of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany after his predecessor, Marshal Sokolovsky, was reassigned. Formerly allied nations were now engaged in the Cold War, and tensions between the superpowers increased over time.

After October 1949—the formation of the German Democratic Republic—the Commander of the Soviet troops in Germany performed purely military functions. In particular, he coordinated (interacted) with the paramilitary formations of the GDR. Vasily Ivanovich was tasked with protecting Soviet territory in Germany, which meant taking a firm stance against western military actions which threatened the Soviet zone. One such occurrence happened during Chuikov’s leadership, and the following article describing what happened was published on 14 March 1953 in Tasmania’s newspaper The Advocate as a major headline:

“The shooting down of a British Lincoln bomber by Soviet jet fighters yesterday struck a blow to hopes of an easing of the present East-West tension. Britain and Russia bitterly accused each other of air-space violations. Six British airmen were killed in what the British High Commissioner in Germany (Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick) called a ‘deliberate and brutal act of aggression.’ Sir Ivone yesterday protested to the Russians ‘in the strongest possible terms,’ an instruction from Mr. Churchill. At the same time a British Foreign Office spokesman denied a Soviet charge that the Lincoln had been trespassing over the East Zone of Germany at the time. ‘If the Russian airmen had paid a little less attention to the gunnery and a little more to navigation these regrettable incidents would be less frequent.’

The British authorities maintain that the bomber was flying correctly along the Berlin-Hamburg air corridor in the direction of a British zone when it was deliberately attacked. Britain has asked for reparations for the loss of life and damage to the aircraft, and is also expected to request the Russian authorities to punish those responsible for the tragic incident. The bomber, cruising on an exercise flight, approximately 30 miles south-east of Hamburg, West Germany, was attacked at 2.30 p.m. in a cloud-flocked sky. […]

The Russian Version

The Russians claim the Lincoln was 75 miles inside forbidden East German territory. They also allege it fired first on the Soviet planes when ordered to land. The Russian Commander-in-Chief in Germany General Chuikov in a note to the British High Commissioner Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick protested against the violation of the Russian zone. It said two Soviet planes sighted the British inside East German territory. ‘The Soviet planes demanded that the trespassing plane should follow them and land at the nearest airfield. The trespassing plane not only failed to submit to this lawful demand, but fired on the Soviet planes.’

[Chuikov’s] note added: ‘One of the Soviet planes was obliged to answer by a warning shot. The trespassing plane, however, continued firing. Soviet fighters were obliged to return the fire, after which the British aircraft began to lose height. The bodies of four airmen have been found. One badly injured airman has been taken to hospital. On the shattered plane were two aviation guns, a machine-gun of large calibre, ammunition and some spent cartridges. In informing you of the above most annoying facts concerning British military aircraft, I also protest to you against the violation of British aircraft of the German Democratic Republic frontier.’”

As one can tell, the incident caused increased tension between the Soviets and the British in post-war Germany. Deborah Larson’s work titled Anatomy of Mistrust: U.S.-Soviet Relations During the Cold War provides insight into the outcome of the tense situation. In response to the Soviet-British conflict over aerospace, U.S. President Eisenhower commented during a 19 March 1953 press conference that Soviet efforts to seek peace after the incident would be ‘just as welcome as it is sincere’” (44). Larson continues:

“As if to answer Eisenhower’s request for proof of its sincerity, the Soviet government made numerous conciliatory gestures. The Soviets eased restrictions on the diplomatic corps and on journalists and adopted a more restrained rhetoric. On 27 March 1953, the Soviet government apologized to the British government for a fatal air collision over East Germany; and shortly afterward the chairman of the Soviet Control Commission in Berlin, General Vasily Chuikov, invited the United States and France to join in British-Soviet talks on air-corridor safety. The Soviets also loosened traffic blocks around Berlin and admitted a group of American journalists to Moscow” (45).

In reflection of the above accounts, the response of leadership to world crisis in exchanging suspicion and mistrust for open dialogue demonstrates the focused commitment of these leaders. All stakeholders needed to take a step back from the incident, regroup, and then move forward with an alternate approach in response. The Cold War was a precarious time of modern world history, and neither side wanted to appear weak. However, it was crucial to international relations for the British, French, American, and Soviet Union leaders to strengthen diplomatic relations for a resolution.

Special thanks to reviewers/contributors Rustem Vakhitov and Randy Blackerby


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