The Swedish DC-3 & The Destiny of its Crew

01-04-2008 , by Roger Älmeberg

On June 13, 1952 a Swedish Air Force C-47, the military version of the famous DC-3, disappeared while on a secret mission over the Baltic Sea.  After an interrupted code-signal from the plane at 11:25 Swedish time, the plane and its crew of eight men were never heard from again.  The disappearance of this plane, much later known as the “DC 3 Affair,” is still a sensitive chapter in Sweden’s Cold War history.  In spite of evidence from intensive research in the archives of a number of nations, some facts in the DC 3 Affair are still classified or unknown.  Thus the destiny of these men remained unresolved for more than fifty years.

The eight men on board included my father, Alvar Almeberg, pilot and commander; Gosta Blad, navigator and radio-communicator; Herbert Mattsson, technician; Einar Jonsson, group-chief and signal intelligence officer; Bengt Book, Ivar Svensson, Borge Nilsson, and Erik Carlsson – all sigint officers

Nine hours before the Swedish plane officially disappeared over the Baltic – Soviet fighters shot down an American RB-29, based at Yokota Air Base in Japan, over the Sea of Japan.   American authorities refuted the Soviet claim that the RB-29 had penetrated into Soviet territory, countering that the aircraft was in international waters.  At the time US search and rescue aircraft found no actual survivors, only two six-man yellow life rafts. Declassification in American archives in the early 90s and subsequent investigations in the former Soviet Union did however yield reports of RB-29 survivors in the Magadan Region and camps in Inta.

Both the DC-3 from the Swedish Royal Air Force and the RB-29 from the United States Air Force had similar missions – gathering signal intelligence from the Soviet Union.  The planes were equipped for technical and communication intelligence and their targets included Soviet radar stations. The Swedish plane was rebuilt and equipped in way similar to American and British signal intelligence-gathering airplanes. The mission – part of a cooperative program exchanging information with the UK and US — was also of highest national interest for the Swedish government seeing Soviet Union as the only possible future enemy.

The DC-3 was assigned to the Försvarets radioanstalt (FRA), Sweden’s National Defense Radio Establishment. FRA, the authority for signals intelligence, earned its reputation for high quality intelligence gathering and analysis during World War II.  Since the War, FRA maintained a deeply secret cooperation with the British GHCQ, located in Bletchley Park and later Cheltenham, and the different US military signal intelligence authorities. Once the American National Security Agency (NSA) was established in Washington in the Fifties, it too then became a secret partner for the Swedish and British signal intelligence communities.

The divergence between the official policy of non-alignment and the secret cooperation led to the Swedish government’s attempt to conceal its intelligence activities from national and international public opinion. This meant that the official report about the plane, even though it said nothing about intelligence activity, was classified.  According to the version to the public, however, the plane “disappeared”.  The classified version, on the other hand, reached the conclusion that the DC-3 had been shot down by the Soviets. A rubber raft with shrapnel, analyzed as coming from Russian ammunition, was one of the indices.

Today there are further indications that the Swedish government got information from the FRA as well as US intelligence communication intelligence and radar surveillance. Shortly after the Soviet attack, people in the Swedish government already knew that only one Russian MIG carried out the attack.   But the secrecy surrounding the plane’s mission, and the government’s cover-up of the intelligence activities, prevented the Swedish government from asking the Soviets the right questions.

Sweden was also involved in espionage and had sent agents to the Baltic area. The Soviets were well aware of this, as they had penetrated those operations. Thus, the Swedish authorities preferred to bury the “DC-3-affair” as soon as possible.  A mysterious “disappearance” would avoid questions about the plane and its crew. Although signal intelligence operations outside territorial borders were not illegal according to international law, they were still sensitive activities generally classified by all governments out of concern for public opinion.

Three days later, June 16, when four Soviet MIG-15 shot down a Swedish Catalina sea-rescue plane searching for the DC-3, the Swedish government found it easier to concentrate on the latter, as the case seemed to be more clear-cut internationally and there were less question of tainting Sweden’s image as a neutral nation.

In other words, efforts to project the image of Sweden as more innocent than other nations, while building secret cooperation with the West, hindered Swedish authorities from pressing the Soviet Union as to the fate of the missing crew of eight.  It prevented the Government and authorities from sharing true information with the airmen’s relatives.  While the message from authorities, and some in government, was that the men could be prisoners in the Gulag; the government never took strong action against the USSR to determine whether the men had perished in the Baltic Sea or were, in fact, prisoners in the Soviet Gulag – where “Swedish flyers” have been sighted as prisoners in Vorkuta and Norilsk.

Sweden’s secret policy to build strong ties to the West was balanced with what may be described as  “kind diplomacy” towards Moscow.  This pattern of behavior is similar to that in the Raoul Wallenberg case. The real nature of Sweden’s foreign and intelligence policy made it impossible for this neutral nation to be a trustworthy, strong and sincere negotiator in sensitive cases connected to the Soviet Union. Nor could the Swedish government present a solid case over the coming years when confronted with national or international outrage. As a result, rumors were later spread that the DC-3 had actually been inside Soviet territory to justify that the Russians shot it down.   In fact, the DC-3 had been a secure distance west of the middle line in the Baltic, far from Soviet borders, when the attack – prepared in advance — was launched,

Thus the wives (only one of whom remarried after 1952), children, brother, sisters and parents left behind suffered a long period of uncertainty and bad treatment from the government over the ensuing decades. Still they persisted, taking many initiatives over the years to try and find out what had happened. They used lawyers, wrote articles and a book, to demand the truth about the DC-3.  The authorities, when compelled to respond, proceeded to give some facts, half-truths and still more lies.

The first public and official recognition of a secret mission from the government came in 1983, after my first book “Flygaren som försvann” (“The pilot who disappeared”) had been published.  Still the information was untrue in many respects. It denied that the plane was gathering radar intelligence, in cooperation with the West. In my family we sincerely believed that my father, and perhaps all the crew, were imprisoned by the Soviets after the DC-3 was forced to land. This was the result of many myths spread around in Swedish society and high military circles. After 1992 we were convinced that the DC-3 had been shot down over the sea, but still thought all, or some, of the crew had been rescued and imprisoned.

The relatives of flyers of downed US intelligence-gathering planes received a similar treatment from the US government and authorities.   Families were left in conflict and despair from dealing with these “disappearances.” Uncertainty is a burden that can paralyze or kill much of family life, particularly when it goes on for decades.

After many years it becomes difficult to be convinced of what really happened – to know and accept ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’  This pattern has been experienced by families in the US with MIA/POWs from the Cold War, Vietnam or Iraq. Sometimes not even a DNA-identification can convince relatives that their MIA is dead, or died at the date the authorities claim.

New Disclosures in the “DC Affair

There was one significant difference in the Soviet response to the RB-29 and the DC-3, the two planes that were shot down on June 13, 1952.  The Soviets admitted shooting down the American plane, but denied any knowledge of the Swedish plane until 1991 and 1992.   Only in the USSR’s final hours did old Soviet fliers start talking about the DC-3. At that point the Swedish and Russian governments set up commissions to work on both sides of the Baltic Sea and progress was made. Still the sensitive questions about why the Soviets attacked the DC-3, what happened to the men, and the real nature of Swedish cooperation with the US and UK were not addressed, and the answers remain classified to this day.

And yet a Soviet document, declassified in June 1992 by a Soviet-Russian committee working parallel with a Swedish committee and dated June 13, 1952, reveals that a Soviet MiG15 attacked the Swedish plane.  This document and additional ones – among them a report to Stalin himself – states that the pilot reported ‘crew parachuted’ – which could mean one or many.

As Soviet planes usually worked in groups, the attack by a single MiG15 — whose pilot was a political commissar sent out over international waters — was a highly irregular mode of fighter-operations.  Efforts were still made to conceal the fact that the attack was prepared in advance.  No explanation was given as to why the Soviets didn’t try to force the DC-3 to land within their borders, as occurred during a number of other attacks and shoot-downs.

Another document from the then Chief of the Ministry of Interior, S. Ignatiev, dated July 2, 1952, says that the operation against the DC-3 went wrong due to bad communications and cooperation.  This would suggest that the Soviets planned to have submarines and navy on hand to pick up equipment and crew.

Between June 9 and 20, 1952 the Soviet navy was conducting extensive exercises – involving both the Northern and Southern fleets – in the Baltic Sea.  At this exercise the Soviets for the first time tested the new Sverdlov-class with its first launched cruiser, Sverdlov.  More than 40 vessels, including a large number of submarines, were taking part in the exercise. Documents from the Russian Baltic Fleet, GRU, Foreign Ministry and some other authorities on this subject still exist but are classified, while others requested are said to be non-existent or destroyed.

To this day, the Swedish authorities deny that the DC-3’s mission was in any way related to these Soviet maneuvers in the Baltic Sea.  And yet a documents found in a different Swedish archive and declassified in 2007 establishes that the DC-3 was gathering intelligence, mostly from the Northern Fleet, on June 10, three days prior to its disappearance

The Equipment Still Classified and Mysterious

Another aspect of Swedish FRA’s denial relates to the importance of the equipment on board the DC-3.  Known as the APR-9, this sophisticated technology could measure radar signals with frequencies lower than inches. Thus it could detect and “fingerprint” the new radars, which the Soviets had installed along the coast, on their ships and in their fighter jets that same year.

According to the Swedish government, Sweden did not get the APR-9 until after the shoot-down.  But actually Sweden got the equipment via British signal intelligence.   A document I found in the National Archives (NARA) in Maryland in 2006 showed that the US gave permission for Sweden to receive this equipment November 22, 1949; three months after Soviet had tested its first atomic bomb.  Other sources have since confirmed that the most sensitive equipment went via the CIA to their European headquarters in Wiesbaden Germany, and then transported to the British who let the Swedes “borrow” it. This system of lending to the Swedes was used also for equipment other than the APR-9 (with a capacity of 10.000 Mhz — meaning it could catch the signals from small frequencies in the most modern Soviet radar and communication installations).

It would be difficult to conclude that such equipment was on board the DC-3 without coming to very interesting and tragic conclusions regarding the plane. Still, the Swedish FRA is sticking to its story that the equipment on a classified « spearhead » mission was « surplus, » and had no relationship whatsoever to the expertise of the intelligence officers on board.  Documents in the US and UK could shed light about this equipment,  if Sweden and Russia cannot.

It should be noted that, after June 1952, cooperation between Sweden, the United States and Britain became even closer.  The development of jet fighters, radar, missiles, and intelligence continued in such a way that the cooperation became the equivalent to that of NATO – each country pledging to defend any other in the secret alliance.  Signal intelligence gathering mission with Swedish aircraft continued until 1953.  A rebuilt Vickers Varsity, ordered in 1952, replaced the missing DC-3.

We do know, from a document in the Soviets’ Ministry of Interior, that the Americans were worried about the equipment falling into the wrong hands. In fact, the Soviets may have already captured APR-9 with the downing of the American Privateer in April 1950, also over the Baltic Sea.  General Fyodor Sjinkarenko, a colonel in the early Fifties, had ordered the shootdown of both the Privateer and later the DC-3.  Sjinkarenko discussed the shoot-down in 1991-1992 but gave contradictory statements.  In regard to the Privateer, he stated that equipment was taken from the bottom of the sea and brought ashore with the plane.  He also stated that the Swedish plane was over Soviet waters even though he was proven wrong by both Swedish and Soviet locations for the plane.

Found – the DC-3 Wreck and Four Men

Fifty years after the disappearance the Swedish government, Air Force, FRA and other authorities commemorated the crew of the DC-3 and its mission.  On June 13 2002, the Swedish government for the first time apologized to the families for their handling of the affair.    In June 2003, fifty-one years after its disappearance, a private diving company who, for three years, had been investigating different parts of the Baltic Sea finally located the wreck of the DC-3.  In 2004 the Swedish government appointed a technical commission to salvage and reconstruct the wreck and to recreate as best possible the circumstances of its shootdown and the fate of its crew.

Once the DC-3 had been lifted from the sea floor in March 2004, it was transported to a cave along the Swedish East coast, which had been outfitted for Swedish submarines during the Cold War.  Here the reconstruction of the Douglas DC-3 plane began.  Taking care of the wreck, excavating the remnants and reconstructing the relics was a challenge for the technicians, criminal investigators, forensic experts and police – as well as the forensic dogs sniffing out traces of the crewmembers.

June 13, 2004, fifty-two years after the disappearance, the eight men got posthumous medals of the highest possible value for their heroic efforts on behalf of Sweden. The Swedish Defense minister, Commander-in-chief, chiefs of the Air Force and other branches, including the FRA, gave their respect to the men and the mission. As in the Wallenberg case, the new theme became the admission that earlier officials had acted wrongly and that the relatives had suffered unnecessary suffering and strains over the years.

From December 2004 through the spring of 2005, four bodies found from lifting the wreckage and searching the sea floor were identified through DNA techniques as Alvar Almeberg, Gosta Blad, Herbert Matsson and Einar Jonsson.  Five parachutes and life vests were missing from the items collected from and around the plane.  This corroborates at least four different Soviet statements or documents that mention ‘four men’ in the crew who did not survive.

Today there is still uncertainty surrounding the destiny of Bengt Book (born March 9, 1925), Ivar Svensson (born November 25, 1921), Borge Nilsson (born April 8, 1923) and Erik Carlsson (born July 3, 1919).  As long as their destinies are unclear, there will be questions and speculations as to their fates.

Remaining Questions Needing Answers

Although governments in Sweden and Russia hope the DC-3 affair will become past history, the relatives left behind still need more answers.

The destiny of the four men who are still missing can be explained if the Russian government and authorities would cooperate fully in this case.

One crucial question is whether the Swedish authorities were well aware of the danger of the mission – particularly since the American plane had been shot down in 1950, and Soviet fighters had tried to intercept American and British planes in the south parts of the Baltic Sea earlier during 1952.   They had trained for forced landings and handling parachutes in water, but no doubt relied on their own radar surveillance for protection.

Was the DC-3 mission deliberately left without radar protection from Sweden?  Why did the FRA not hear and record what happened when the Soviet MIG attacked?  Since FRA could follow the communications in April 8, 1950, when the Soviets shot down the American plane, it is probable that the Swedes could also hear what was going on in the case of the DC-3, particularly since they were already attuned to the huge Baltic Fleet operations in the same area. The directions for different FRA listening-posts on the island Gotland and on the mainland were towards the point of the shootdown as well as toward the Baltic Fleet. If the existing Swedish radars were turned off and no communication gathering was done; it can only mean that it was more important for the DC-3 mission to be a secret even from others in its own military and FRA organization. If such were the case, then the safety of the crew had no significance at all.

The true nature and history of the cooperation with the US intelligence European headquarters for USAF, CIA and military intelligence in Wiesbaden need to be researched and described by historians with access to the files in both countries.

After nearly 60 years we still do not know why and how the Soviet decisions and motives behind the attack were elaborated. Some official reports were declassified in 1992, but there must be more – at least follow-ups on the attack to determine if anyone from the crew jumped and survived.

These unresolved questions are deeply connected to why and how the wives, parents, siblings and children of the DC-3 crew members were left to ponder the fate of the eight men in unnecessary uncertainty.  The relatives of the DC-3 crew, including new generations, will not be satisfied until the most important answers are disclosed, in sufficient detail.

At the same time, the historical dimensions of the Cold War, where the DC-3 Affair plays an important role, are of national and international interest for professionals in history, intelligence, politics and military. For the general public, this case offers a serious lesson about how secret foreign and security politics create myths and illusions for the many, but traumas for those victims living the consequences of such a policy.

Most important remaining questions are:

  • What happened to the four men? Important sources are the records from the Soviet Baltic Sea, Soviet/Russian signal intelligence, reports to and from the GRU, and more reports to and from MGB, IK (the then coordinating intelligence-committee) and Stalin and the Politburo. It is impossible that the document reporting crew parachuting would not have been followed up.
  • Why and how was the Soviet attack on the DC-3 ordered.
  • American and British documents within USAF, Army, State, CIA and other Agencies about the missed DC-3 could clarify the mission and equipment June 13, 1952
  • Swedish FRA has probably some documents and information still not destroyed that can shed light on the DC-3 affair.

April 2008,

Roger Älmeberg


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