Published on February 10, 2017
By Thomas Van Hare
The two USAFE F-84E Thunderjets made a beeline toward the border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia. At the border, they turned left to a northerly heading of 320 degrees. Lieutenant Warren G. Brown and his wingman, Lieutenant Donald Smith, held close formation as the pair climbed through 13,000 feet of altitude. Both pilots scanned the skies for the bogeys that had been reported by US radar. Suddenly, Lt. Brown saw them — two silver specs flying a mile away coming at them from above and nearly straight ahead He punched the transmit button on his stick and called to Lt. Smith, “We’ve got a couple of strangers at one o’clock.”
Lt. Brown had tangled with MiG-15s before and recognized them immediately. Then, he had flown an F-86 Sabrejet in the skies of the Korean War. “They’re MiGs!” he shouted into the radio. Seconds later, the pair of planes flashed past. Both were already in a tight turn to cut behind the two of USAFE fighters. The F-84Es were no match for the MiGs in a turning fight. One of the MiG-15s latched onto the tail of Lt. Smith.
“You’ve got a bogey at 5:30!” Lt. Brown shouted in warning to Lt. Brown. However, the second MiG was coming around onto his own tail. He pulled hard into a turn and the two F-84Es were at once separated. Things were turning rapidly sour.
Even if there was no war, nobody knew what the Russians and their satellite states would do. Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, had died less than a week before. Nobody knew what that might mean for the next generation of Soviet leaders. It seemed that “the Reds” might want to make a point.
The date was March 10, 1953.
Set-Up for a Tangle
With the death of Stalin, everyone recognized that the transition to new leadership after Stalin’s death would be a delicate time. USAFE was to fly routine interception missions and border patrols. In the southern sector of West Germany, the task fell to the 53rd Fighter Bomber Squadron, which was part of the 36th Fighter Bomber Wing based out of Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base in Bavaria. Two of the squadron’s F-84E Thunderjets were sitting ready that morning to scramble in case any US early warning radar systems picked up any aircraft along the Czechoslovakian border.
The 36th Fighter Bomber Wing held the line along the southern end of so-called “Iron Curtain”. The Cold War was tense but was not a shooting war. Nonetheless, Czechoslovakian and USAFE planes patrolled across the border within sight of one another. Usually, it was USAFE intercept the Czechoslovakians, since the latter as yet lacked the radar systems to detect and track USAFE planes in the sector.
That morning in the cockpits of the two ready planes were Lieutenant Warren Brown, USAFE, 30 years old, from Denver, Colorado; and his wingman, Lieutenant Donald Smith, USAFE, 24 years old, from Marysville, Ohio. Their planes were armed and ready for “routine” interceptions, carrying drop tanks. The Czechoslovakian planes were considered possibly hostile, given that they were in the Soviet Bloc, though no actual combat had yet taken place.
Usually, the Czechoslovakians would take off, get detected by US early warning radars, and USAFE would order a scramble. A pair of USAFE fighters would take off to intercept, usually F-84E Thunderjets. Once at the border, the two sets of planes would cautiously eye one another at a distance, staying on their respective sides.
Typically, the Czechoslovakians flew older Avia S-199s, a Jumo-powered version of the World War II era Messerschmitt Me 109G. That older propeller-driven fighter was no match for USAFE’s newer jet fighters, which included both F-80 Shooting Stars and F-84E Thunderjets. Sometimes, the Czechoslovakian Air Force would fly their newer MiG-15 fighter jets on training flights. These aircraft, which the Czechoslovakians designated the S-102, had just been received the previous year. As such, the pilots were still fairly inexperienced in their use, though it was recognized that the Czechoslovakian pilots were generally disciplined and quite capable. Typically, if the Czechoslovakians were flying their Avia S-199s, once intercepted they would keep their distance.
If they flew their MiG-15s, after a short while, they would turn back to their bases due to limited fuel. Then the USAFE flight would return to base and land. To ensure that the USAFE planes could go the distance, they always carried wing tanks for extra fuel. USAFE also had a tendency to “push the border” and it was common for fighters to simply fly a straight line along the demarcation line, even if the actual border line wasn’t straight at all. Thus, they would often cross into Czechoslovakian territory where the border line jutted out into West Germany. They figured that without radar, the Czechoslovakians either wouldn’t care or wouldn’t know.
That morning, however, the two sides did more than just eye each other at a distance. A fight was brewing.
At 10:40 am, the USAFE radio came alive with the order to scramble for an intercept. A pair of aircraft had been spotted on the Czechoslovakian side, heading toward West Germany’s border. As it turned out, the two Czechoslovakian aircraft were MiG-15s that had taken off from their base at Líních, an airfield near Dobran. The lead plane was flown by Lt. Jaroslav Sramek. His wingman was Lt. Milan Forst. The two were intending to practice intercepts and air combat maneuvering, with Lt. Forst making the first pass on Lt. Sramek’s MiG, and then switching roles so that Lt. Sramek would make a pass on Lt. Forst, then switching roles again.
On the ground at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, Lieutenants Brown and Smith got their engines started. They quickly taxied to the runway and Lt. Brown rammed his throttle forward. Lt. Smith followed suit on his wing. The pair took off straight ahead and were airborne at 10:45 am. Quickly, they pulled up their landing gear and turned to fly toward the border, climbing steadily as they increased their speed. They checked in on the radio and got a report that the two Czechoslovakian planes were nearing West Germany.
Reaching the border a few minutes later, they turned to a northerly heading of 320 degrees and began to scan the skies for the other aircraft. The time was 10:59 am. The two American pilots assumed that the two Czechoslovakian planes were fighters — what type, however, was uncertain. When Lt. Brown saw the two and recognized them to be MiG-15s, it was already too late to fly to a point of advantage. The Czechoslovakians were already across the border and, what was worse, they passed and quickly reversed to get onto the tails of the two F-84E Thunderjets.
Both USAFE pilots pulled into a hard turn, expecting the MiG-15s to break off and make a run back to their border. However, the two Czechoslovakian pilots did not break away — instead, they stayed with the F-84Es and tightened their turn to try and cut inside. The engagement quickly became a turning battle as both sides tightened in to try to advantage the other. The MiG-15s, however, had the upper hand, having an advantage in altitude and generally being better in a turn than the F-84E.
Dogfight over the Iron Curtain
Lt. Brown pulled on the stick as hard as he could in hopes of disallowing the MiG-15 on his tail a deflection shot. His F-84E made three turns in the sky but the MiG-15 not only stayed on him, but closed the gap. Not expecting a fight with the Czechoslovakians, Lt. Brown had not punched off his wingtip fuel tanks, a mistake that further worsened the performance of his plane. Still, he did not truly expect the Czechoslovakian planes to fire on his plane — after all, he was confident that they were on the German side of the border. Likewise, he was sure that the Czechoslovakian military did not want to start a shooting war so soon after the death of Stalin.
Meanwhile, in the cockpit of the Czechoslovakian MiG-15 fighter, Lt. Jaroslav Sramek (later Colonel), knew that he had the advantage over the American fighter plane. Whether by navigational error or by plan, Lt. Sramek knew that the American fighters were over Czechoslovakia, not West Germany. His orders were clear — he was to engage with his guns firing, first to fire a warning shot and attempt to force the American plane to land, and if it did not cooperate, he was to shoot it down.
Later, he recounted the engagement as follows: “It happened on that day over the village of Merklín [near Pilsen], I spied a pair of planes, which were not ours. They were F-84s. They were clearly encroaching on our airspace. I reported the situation and I received orders to fire a warning shot. There was no other possibility of apprehending them. I was to detain them and get them to listen to my instructions. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out like that.”
The Czechoslovakian pilots had spotted the two USAFE interceptors first and had turned toward them to make an intercept of their own. They pulled hard into a turn even as they were crossing the American F-84Es so as to get behind them. Both MiG-15s were at full throttle. Once behind the F-84E, Lt. Sramek pulled hard to get into firing position as he called on his radio for authorization to fire. It was quickly granted.
“Straight away they tried to evade us,” Lt. Sramek later reported. “But because the MIG 15s were better the F-84s, we were able to turn easily and manoeuvre into a position where I could fire a warning shot.”
On board the F-84E, Lt. Brown recalled what happened next as follows — “I glanced over my left shoulder and saw I had a MiG on my own tail. I tightened up my turn and made three complete 360 degree turns. I didn’t think he’d shoot at me over the U.S. Zone or I would not have been in that situation. I would have dropped my tip tanks. The MiG kept turning with me. I didn’t want to make any hostile moves. I just kept tightening my turn as much as possible. When I looked back again he was closed in to less than a thousand feet — maybe 500. Suddenly, I saw his guns spurting balls of orange fire. All his guns were blazing. I turned around and pressed against the armor plating for protection. Suddenly the whole airplane shuddered and flipped over, almost on its back. I didn’t know where he hit me because I could still control the plane.”
Lt. Sramek’s view of the combat was similar — “The warning shot hit his extra fuel tank (wingtip tank) on the right-hand side. Fuel started escaping from it. He tried to escape to the south.”
Some damage was done and Lt. Brown later recalled, “I was just recovering, not having much difficulty in bringing the plane out of its dive when I got the orange overheat light. It flashes on when the engine overheats. I thought maybe my tailpipe was cracked and pulled back the throttle to ‘idle’. I yelled to Smith, ‘I’ve been fired at. I’ve been hit!'”
Taking a Second Shot
For Lt. Sramek, the chase was simple. The F-84E Thunderjet was straight ahead and was flying in a straight line, heading south, without turning. He closed rapidly from directly behind. What he didn’t know was that Lt. Brown had lost sight of him and was preoccupied with the damage he had already suffered. Lt. Sramek closed rapidly.
Lt. Brown had not only lost sight of the Czechoslovakian MiG, but also of his wingman. “Then my overheat light blinked out. I looked back to see if my MiG was still behind. I couldn’t see him but I saw my right stabilizer was pretty well shot off. I figured I might still make it back to ‘Fursty’ so I called Smith again for a heading….”
Lt. Smith had lost his MiG and quickly called a heading back so that Lt. Brown could start his flight back to base. Then, he spotted Lt. Brown’s plane and also saw the Czechoslovakian MiG-15 closing in from above and behind. It was too late for him to even call a warning break. It was 11:03 am — four minutes had elapsed since the two MiG-15s had been sighted.
Lt. Sramek was directly on the F-84E’s tail and slightly above and closing rapidly at 600 kts airspace. He was lined up perfectly for a shot and once in close range, he simply pulled the trigger. He later recalled, “In view of the fact that I was higher than him I was able to catch him easily and my second round disabled him. After firing the shot I saw flames coming from his craft.”
The F-84E was hit badly. Lt. Brown recalled the moment with clarity — “Everything went kaputt at once. The airplane began vibrating violently and I got the orange overheat light again. My right wing suddenly opened. Pieces of skin flew off and smoke or vapor poured out of the hole. I didn’t know whether I was on fire or what, but I figured it was about time to part company with the airplane.”
Lt. Sramek could see flames coming from the back of the stricken F-84E and knew it would not last long. He turned left into a climbing turn to head back to his base. He fully expected that the wreckage of the F-84E crashed would be recovered by Czechoslovakian ground forces and that the American pilot captured.
Ejecting to Safety
The entire rear half of Lt. Brown’s plane was aflame. He pulled the canopy release handle and once it had popped off, he reached to pull the ejection seat handles. Instantly, the rockets fired and he was out of the plane, punched high above his stricken Thunderjet on the ejection seat.
Once clear and out, knowing he was at low altitude, he reached for the D-ring to pull his ‘chute, but then realized he was still stuck to the ejection seat. Kicking it free, he then pulled the D-ring and felt the parachute open. Moments later, he came down into some trees, cutting his face slightly. Otherwise, he was uninjured. Shortly afterward, a group of German villagers came upon him and directed him where to walk to find the nearest village.
His stricken F-84E Thunderjet plowed into a snow-covered hillside near the village of Falkenstein, about 22 miles (35 km) inside West Germany. It was destroyed on impact.
Meanwhile, the other MiG-15, flown by Lt. Forst, was still hunting the second F-84E Thunderjet that was flown by Lt. Smith. Suddenly, Lt. Forst spotted the other F-84E Thunderjet flash by above and head of him. He turned to pursue but lost it when it entered into cloud. Lacking radar systems (such systems would only come on later generation fighter jets), there was no way Lt. Forst could find the plane again.
Lt. Forst searched the area or a short time, hoping to catch a glimpse of the retiring F-84E. At speeds in excess of 600 kts, however, it only took a few minutes before the two planes were more than a dozen miles apart. Lt. Forst never saw the second F-84E Thunderjet again. Finally after reporting that he had lost contact, at 11:09 am he too was called back to return to base.
In later years, the Czechoslovakians would declare that the air battle had taken place over their territory near the village of Merklín. They claimed that the F-84E, once hit, had continued flying for a time into West Germany before crashing. The Americans would maintain that the entire engagement had taken place over West Germany, which they claimed was proven by their radar.
One possibility that remains possible is that the USAFE planes pushed their luck and crossed into Czechoslovakian airspace, whether by plan or by accident it is hard to know. Once the F-84E Thunderjets had engaged the Czechoslovakian MiG-15s, it seems clear that they turned toward their base. They likely crossed back into West Germany. At the speeds they were flying — 600 kts — that meant that they were crossing 10 miles a minute. While in the chase, the two MiG-15 pilots may have gotten fixated on their targets and lost awareness of their location, particularly once Lt. Sramek was in his tail chase with the F-84E that he ultimately shot down. As such, they may have also been mistaken and pursued the Americans across and onto the wrong side of the border.
Lt. Forst admitted as much when he was later interviewed and reported, “We flew over nearly continuous layer of clouds, through which only occasionally we saw flashing by a piece of land. At this time, we were not much interested in our location as the main thing was not to lose sight of the foreign aircraft.”
Weather records report that at the time it was clear on the Czechoslovakian side of the border, but had at least 8/10 cloud cover on the West German side, lending significant evidence to the scenario that the initial encounter had taken place on the Czechoslovakian side of the border but that the shoot down had taken place over West Germany. Of course, the F-84E also crashed in West Germany.
Ultimately, it seems that nobody will ever know for sure where the dogfight began, but it almost certainly ended over West Germany since the wreckage was recovered fully 22 miles from the border. A local farmer who witnessed the crash of the F-84E also reported that he heard the gunfire from the MiG-15 seconds before. Finally, the end of the engagement played out at low altitude.
The F-84E Thunderjet was written off as destroyed in the crash. Its identification numbers were F-84E-5-RE s/n 49-2152. USAFE attempted to paint the situation in a positive light and issued a statement that read, “The fact that one of them was shot down was due to faulty manoeuvring plus the superior speed of the MIGs, but the incident proved that our radar warning; system to effective and that our fighters can be up in the air to intercept intruders within minutes.”
One Final Note
The Americans and NATO were not wrong that the Soviets meant to pick a fight, perhaps to demonstrate that they were still an aggressive, capable opponent even with the passing of Joseph Stalin. Just two days after the loss of the F-84E, the Russians crossed the border into West Germany farther north in the British Zone. Two of their new MiG-15 fighters intercepted a British bomber that was flying toward Berlin in the approved corridor. The bomber, an older RAF AVRO Lincoln (RF531 “C”), was a training plane assigned to the Central Gunnery School. At the time, it was flying a routine radar reconnaissance flight. The four-engine AVRO Lincoln was no match for the Soviet jets, who simply attacked it without warning. On the first firing pass, they damaged it badly. The AVRO Lincoln began a dive, already on fire. Rather than let it go, both MiG-15s followed it down, firing relentlessly until it broke apart in the air.
Although the plane was attacked about 20 miles (32 km) to the northeast, near Lüneburg, West Germany, the bulk of the debris crashed into a small forest near the town of Bolzenburg, about three miles into East Germany, barely across in the so-called the Russian Zone. Three of the seven RAF flight crew members managed to bail out, but the other four were killed during the attack. One of the three who bailed out died because his parachute failed to open. The other two were killed afterwards when one of the Russian MiG-15s circled back and fired on them as they hung helplessly from their parachutes. Later, Winston Churchill himself would characterize the Russian action as a “wanton attack” and noting less than “murder”.
USAFE and all NATO air forces were issued orders to shoot first in any other engagements that might follow. Diplomatic messages were conveyed to the Russians and Czechoslovakians that the West would engage if further provoked. This did not dissuade the Soviets, however, and two additional incidents followed in short order.
The first incident involved a British European Airways Vickers Viking airliner that was flying on a scheduled flight to Berlin. It was intercepted by a pair of MiG-15s that fired their cannons near the plane. The pilots assumed that this was either to convey a threat or perhaps was done to get them to fly more in the center of the 20 mile wide flight corridor that the nations had agreed on to allow air access to Berlin. Thankfully, the MiG-15s did not return to fire on or near the plane a second time.
The second incident was a full-on attack aimed at an American B-50 that was flying a weather reconnaissance mission. The B-50 was armed, however, and the crew fired back with their defensive guns. Although they were heavily outclassed, their fire somehow drove off the attacking MiG-15s. Thankfully, in the wake of these events, the situation stabilized after a few more weeks and both sides backed down from what was evolving quickly into an undeclared war.
The Cold War had gone back cold.