Cold War

BRIXMIS: Cold war pilots reunited with spy plane

The men of BRIXMIS conducted low-flying sorties to photograph Soviet troop movements.

Veterans of a secretive cold war unit who flew covert missions over Soviet-occupied East Germany have been reunited with the plane they flew 50 years ago. 

Pilots David Cockburn and Al Woolfrey, now in their 70s and 90s respectively, flew low-flying sorties over Soviet military training areas and bases in the 1980s. 

David described it as "the most interesting job I ever had, probably the most challenging job I ever had". 

Chipmunk WG486 on BRIXMIS duties flying over Berlin CREDIT BRIXMIS Association
Chipmunk WG486 on BRIXMIS duties flying over Berlin (Picture: BRIXMIS Association).

The men have visited the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) at RAF Coningsby, where the plane they once flew is now based.

As part of the covert British Army military unit BRIXMIS – set up at the end of the Second World War as part of a liaison mission between Britain, France, America, and the Soviet Union – the pilots had to loiter at about 500ft above ground level, holding the airframe steady enough for photographers to take clear images.

Al remembers the challenges, saying: "When we're taking the photos, we're flying on the bottom end, if you like, of the flight envelope. 

"I don't think it's a thing that's really taught anymore with their modern flying, what with their modern computers to stop you getting into dangerous situations."

Video: Forces News takes a closer look at what BRIXMIS was and who the spies were.

A Chipmunk trainer plane was used as the cover for these secret flights. Both Dave and Al flew Chipmunk WG486 on operations for BRIXMIS.

The plane has survived and is still in service with the BBMF where it is used to train pilots converting from fast jets to vintage WW2 planes.

This is because the Chipmunk flies in a similar way to the Hurricane and the Spitfire. 

BRIXMIS photographers would typically carry two cameras slung around their necks loaded with fast film, adjusting the focus manually on the fly. 

Al Woolfrey in flying gear as a BRIXMIS Pilot CREDIT WOOLFREY FAMILY
BRIXMIS Pilot Al Woolfrey in flying gear (Picture: Woolfrey family).

The purpose of the mission was to capture top-secret imagery of Soviet kit and equipment.

Former photographer Roger Young recalls his time spent with the unit, saying: "We could see into the tank itself and photograph the ammunition which was stored around the turret. 

"The pilot in the back would have to put the wing down because obviously the wing is blocking the view and the camera then had a clear view at about a 45° bank, straight down at the ground and we'd be firing away – click, click, click."

BRIXMIS photographer unknown demonstrating how they would take a photograph from the Chipmunk CREDIT BRIXMIS Association
A BRIXMIS photographer demonstrates how they would take a photograph from the Chipmunk (Picture: BRIXMIS Association).

The BRIXMIS Chipmunks would take off from what was then called RAF Gatow in Berlin.

A section of the heavily guarded Berlin Wall ran right along one side of the airfield and the unit went to great lengths to hide the aircrew from the East German Border guards, as Roger explains, saying: "We would get in and out of the airplane in the hangar with the hangar doors shut so they couldn't see who we were.

"It would be goggles down so there was no hope of anyone on the Berlin wall being able to see who was actually flying the aircraft," adds Al. 

Al's wife was even told never to hang his flying suit outside to dry, so he could keep up his cover of being a desk officer, not a pilot.

Chipmunk taking off from RAF Gatow CREDIT BRIXMIS Association
A Chipmunk taking off from RAF Gatow (Picture: BRIXMIS Association).

Soviet troops would sometimes take aim at the British crews in flight and there were incidents of chipmunks returning to RAF Gatow with bullet holes shot through the plane. 

As he sits in the cockpit at RAF Coningsby, Al chuckles recalling his most hair-raising moment, saying: "The only time my heart stopped?

"As we crossed the woods and started to fly towards the signals, there was an armoured vehicle with four anti-aircraft guns on the top. 

"This thing burst out of the woods, just down there, 500ft away with all four guns blasting away at us." 

A Soviet soldier takes aim as the Chipmunk flies low over his vehicle in 1975 (Picture: BRIXMIS Association).
A Soviet soldier takes aim as the Chipmunk flies low over his vehicle in 1975 (Picture: BRIXMIS Association).

As some of the few Cold War warriors to have watched the enemy at close hand, these men see clear parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the Soviet army in the 1980s.

Al says: "I always remember back in the 80s they said we think the Russians are not going to fight for the cities, they're going to demolish them. 

"Look out for siege weapons so we were looking for heavy artillery or some incredibly big mortar that would destroy cities quickly." 

David Cockburn also has a sense of déjà vu, saying: "In our day, the Soviet army was conscripted and although the equipment was excellent, we didn't have much opinion of their likely morale. 

"Looking at it now, the Russian side seem, they're conscripted yet again and the newspapers are full of comments about the Russian forces lacking morale." 

L to R Roger Young Al Woolfrey David Cockburn walk to the Chipmunk WG486 CREDIT BFBS
From left to right | Roger Young, Al Woolfrey and David Cockburn walk to the Chipmunk WG486.

On their visit to the BBMF at RAF Coningsby, the veterans share their experiences with Squadron Leader Mark 'Suggs' Sugden, the Officer Commanding BBMR who still flies Chipmunk WG486 today. 

He is impressed by their tales of Cold War derring-do, saying: "It's lovely to hear she does have another side to her and she was there on sneaky spy operations over East Berlin which is a story not often told and wasn't without its dangers.

"Speaking to the veterans today, to hear of them getting shot at in a Chipmunk, it's like I say, it's not something people would associate the Chipmunk with and a lovely story to hear." 

Back behind the controls of the Chipmunk at the age of 95, Al is gripped by nostalgia, saying: "Now that I've got in the airplane, it would be lovely to actually go and have a go, because I'm convinced I haven't forgotten anything".

Squadron Leader Mark Sugden the Officer Commanding BBMF chats to Roger Young Al Woolfrey David Cockburn CREDIT BFBS
Squadron Leader Mark Sugden, Officer Commanding BBM, chats to Roger, Al and David.