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The First SAM Kill PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Krzysztof Dabrowski   
Jul 17, 2012 at 10:36 PM
While it is not a secret anymore that the first SAM "kill" in a combat situation took place in the skies of China on October, 7, 1959 the details of this incident are still relatively little known. For this reason it is worthy to shed some light on those events over half a century ago.

Looking into the dragon's den

Ever since the Koumintang was expelled from continental China to the island of Taiwan as a result of its defeat at the hands of communist forces in the Chinese Civil War the ability to monitor the developments taking place on the mainland by western - American in particular - intelligence agencies was drastically reduced. Yet because of China's [1] importance and potential as well as its close alliance (at that time) with the Soviet Union it was vitally important for the West to keep an eye on the events there. Considering the situation, reconnaissance aircraft were the best and sometimes the only means to obtain the information sought. Not surprisingly the skies of the PRC were frequented by a number of uninvited aerial "visitors" ranging from RAF Spitfires to US supplied but Taiwanese flown Martin RB-57Ds. [2] The latter were provided under the "Diamond Lil" program run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1958 a number of Chinese Nationalist pilots were trained to fly the RB-57 with three [3] aircraft being subsequently delivered to Taiwan. From early 1959 on they started performing deep penetration reconnaissance missions over the mainland. Since they were flown at a high altitude - at least 20 000 m and more - the reconnaissance aircraft were out of reach for fighters available at that time not to speak of traditional anti aircraft artillery. Yet nothing lasts for ever and the "reds" were about to come up with a worthy answer to the challenge.

A Taiwanese RB-57D, serial 33981. (Albert Grandolini collection)

Uncle SAM goes to China

It was obvious that Taiwanese overflights can not be tolerated but mainland China did not have the necessary means to counter them. For this reason the PRC leadership requested assistance from the Soviets. The latter responded quickly and by late 1958 / early 1959 started the delivery of SA-75 Dvina (SA-2) surface to air missile systems. In all five SAM batteries and one training set were handed over the Chinese. In addition 62 V-750 and V-750V surface to air missiles as well as various technical equipment were also provided. [4] The hardware was accompanied by Col. Victor Slusar who headed a team of specialists (among them Lt. Col. Aleksander Piecko and Lt. Col. Yuriy Galkin) tasked with training PLAAF personnel on the new weapon system. Wasting little time they went down to work. Soviet instructors noted that the Chinese trainees showed great desire to acquire knowledge and were learning quickly. As a result by mid June 1959 it was possible to conduct the first live firing exercises in the Gobi desert which were successfully completed. It still took over two month of intensive training before the Chinese were judged fit to utilise the new weapon system in combat but considering that they had to come to grips with a wide range of complex technical issues PLAAF personnel mastered the SAMs relatively fast.

Finally on 20 September 1959 the PLAAF surface to air missile units were declared combat ready. It was about time - even overdue - for the aerial incursions continued with an RB-57 actually overflying Beijing in June. The few SAM batteries available were positioned in the vicinity of the Chinese capital so as to cover the likely routes of the Taiwanese reconnaissance aircraft. In order to achieve surprise the deployment was handled in a very secretive manner with their personnel pretending to be drilling crews looking for natural resources which was also a convenient cover story for the movement of various technical equipment. It should be underlined that the SAM sites were entirely manned by the Chinese without Soviet assistance. Of course the Chinese were not completely left to their own devices for Col. Slusar stayed in the PRC as an adviser. It was a wise choice not only because he had trained the Chinese SAM operators but also because he established a good rapport with them in the process. However the show was to be run by the Chinese and although Col. Slusar's opinions carried considerable weight his role, while not unimportant, would be auxiliary.

Chinese SA-2 „Dvina” launchers and missiles, in a propaganda photo. An operational site would have its launchers arranged in a circular pattern (thus the third from left to right is out of place) and spaced considerably wider, if no earth berms or ramparts were present around each launcher – such as on this image, where the potential launch blast could damage the other missiles in the vicinity. (Albert Grandolini collection)

The kill

Chinese SAM operators were eager to prove their skills but for over two weeks nothing happened. An especially tense period were the days from 1 to 4 October for the celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the declaration of the People's Republic of China were taking place. It was thought that ROC is likely to make a provocative aerial incursion at that time but no unwelcome "guest" from across the Straits of Formosa appeared. Than in the morning of 5 October an aircraft flying from the direction of Taiwan entered PRC airspace over the Fujian province. Chinese radars were tracking the intruder as its flypath took it in the direction of Nakin and fighters were scrambled but since the RB-57 was maintaining an altitude of 20 - 21 000 meters they were unable to intercept. Meanwhile the airspace violator crossed the Yangcy river and came within about 500 km of Beijing. It seemed the hour of the SAMs was coming but all of a sudden the Taiwanese aircraft turned in the direction of Shanghai and flew away never coming into the range of the missiles. The Chinese were not only disappointed but above everything very worried that the SAMs were somehow exposed. However after some deliberation they decided not to make any hasty moves but to wait for another chance - as subsequent events showed it was the right decision.

Two days later on 7 October in an almost exact repetition of the previous event Chinese radar operators detected a high altitude aerial intruder. Because of the obvious importance of the events unfolding the efforts to deal with the airspace violator were coordinated by the general staff of the PLA with Col. Slusar present to lend advice should it become necessary. Even though experience had so far demonstrated, that fighters were unable to intercept a RB-57 they were ordered into the air and took up the chase hoping that the reconnaissance aircraft might loose altitude because of a malfunction or for some other reason. Meanwhile the intruder which was indeed an RB-57 (no 5643) with Captain Ying Chin Wong at the controls continued to fly in the direction of Beijing and this time it did not turn back. It soon became clear that the Taiwanese aircraft will come into the range of SAMs and for this reason manned interceptors were ordered to disengage clearing the sky for the missiles.

The RB-57 was on a course that would take it into the range of the 2nd Rocket (i.e. missile) Battalion under the command of Yue Zhenhua. As the distance dropped to 200 km he received the order to destroy the reconnaissance aircraft. The battalion's radars picked up the target from a range of 115 km - the distance was closing rapidly and when it decreased to 41 km Yue Zhenhua gave the command to launch a salvo of three missiles with the first lifting off at 12 : 04 p.m. soon followed by the remaining two. After about 40+ seconds the target was struck at a range of approximately 29 - 30 km. There was no doubt that hits were attained for the aircraft engaged started to rapidly loose altitude. When it was down to 5 000 meters the targeted aircraft disappeared from the radar screens and it was rightly concluded that it had disintegrated. Its destruction was swiftly reported up the chain of command and PLA general staff officers accompanied by Col. Slusar soon arrived at the scene flown in by a helicopter. The remains of the downed aircraft were quickly located strewed over a radius of about 5 - 6 km. Despite having broken up in mid air the aircraft's remains were correctly identified as those of a RB-57. As many as 2471 shrapnel holes were found in the pieces of wreckage examined - no wonder the aircraft disintegrated. Unfortunately the incident proved fatal for the Taiwanese pilot who was killed by the missiles' fragments when his mount received the crippling hits.

A secret well kept

Capt. Wong must have been killed right when the first missile struck for he did not manage to transmit a radio massage informing about the disaster that befell him. [5] Because of this the Taiwanese did not know what happened except that one of their aircraft went missing. There were no news from the mainland about the downing of a plane and it was expected that the "reds" would explode with propaganda if that happened. In addition they did not have (so it was wrongly thought) the necessary means to shot it down in the first place. Taking the above into consideration the seemingly logical conclusion was that the RB-57 must have crashed into the South China Sea because of some sort of a mishap. As a result a communique claiming just that was issued by ROC authorities. This was exactly what the Chinese on the continent were waiting for - in response they issued a communique of their own stating the Taiwanese aircraft downing and also exposing the other side as having an obvious problem with facts. One crucial detail was left out though, namely by what means exactly was the intruding aircraft shot down. Thanks to this the actual capabilities of Soviet SAMs remained an enigma to the West until F. G. Powers found out about them in a way he would have preferred not to experience.

The deadly game of cat and mouse continues

The loss of a single reconnaissance aircraft to an unknown cause, even if the pilot was lost with it as well, could not derail the efforts to reconnoitre mainland China especially that they were considered vitally important. In addition the Taiwanese received a new “toy” from the USA in the form of the U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft which had capabilities in many ways superior to that of the RB-57. Once ROC pilots finished training on the U-2, reconnaissance missions over continental China resumed with renewed intensity. While the Chinese now had battle tested weaponry and men who could tackle high altitude targets the number of SAM system at their disposal remained limited. This meant that as long as a U-2 would not overfly a location defended by the SAMs it could roam the Chinese sky with impunity.

In order to be able to counter the aerial incursion with the means available the Chinese tried to deduce the location to be reconnoitred in advance so as to appropriately position their AD assets. After studying the U-2 flight patterns they concluded that Nanchang is the place most likely to be paid a "visit" by the elusive aerial intruders. Accordingly SAMs were deployed there and the only thing left to do was to wait. On at least two occasions a U-2 was approaching Nanchang only to turn away for some or another reason. But the proverbial Chinese patience paid off with September 9, 1962 being the day. It was on that date that the U-2C (no 387) with Chen Huai-sheng (Huai Chen) at the controls flew into the range of the PLAAF’s 2nd Battalion. For a second time in his military career Yue Zhenhua gave the orders to engage an actual enemy aircraft. Once more the SAMs worked as advertised downing the U-2. Its pilot was found alive alas succumbed to his injuries while treated in hospital.

Taiwanese U-2 devoid of all markings, except a very small roundel on the rear fuselage, just behind the airbrake. (Albert Grandolini collection)

It seemed the SA-75 was as close to a Wunderwaffe as one can get in real life but a number of U-2 losses to SAMs around the World (USSR, China, Cuba) sent the Americans to work on appropriate counter measure systems. Taiwanese U-2s were soon fitted with an EW suite which gave the pilot warning of the aircraft being locked on by the SAM’s radars. Thanks to this evasive action could be taken in advance. Since the Dvina as most SAM systems of her time was not particularly well suited to engage manouvering targets a few successive turns (even two could be sufficient) were usually enough to cause a miss and bring oneself out of danger. [6] After Taiwanese U-2s managed to avoid being hit by surface to air missiles launched against them on several occasions the Chinese realised that they must be equipped with some sort of electronic countermeasure device. While for obvious reasons its works remained a mystery the Chinese concluded that the best way to deal with it would be to shorten the time frame of the engagement so as to give the U-2's pilot as little warning and consequently little time to initiate evasive action as possible.

Since Soviet tactical procedures were rigid and time consuming it proved possible to shorten the engagement sequence considerably. In addition a SAM battery's engagement radar would be activated only if the intended target was well within range. As the overflights continued it was only a matter of time before the PLAAF got the opportunity to test the idea practically. On November 1, 1963 the U-2 (no 355) flown by Yeh Chang-di (Robin Yeh) was over the Jiangxi province when it was suddenly struck by a salvo of three missiles. The 2nd Rocket Battalion was waiting in ambush and its CO Yue Zhenhua ordered the target to be engaged according to the new tactical concept. Everything lasted for a mere 8 seconds with the Taiwanese pilot finding himself outside his disintegrating aircraft's cockpit before he had a chance to do anything. Yeh passed out but regained his senses and safely floated down to earth under the parachute. However his vows were not over for once on the ground he was captured by the Chinese militia and was released by the PRC on November 10, 1982 having spend close to twenty (sic !) years imprisoned. The remains of his aircraft were collected and carefully examined, the EW systems in particular provided the Chinese with valuable information. Having analyzed it the Chinese decided to use alternating frequencies when tracking and engaging a target in order to confuse an aircraft's electronic defences.

Losses suffered did not stop the overflights especially that with the Viet Nam war picking up in intensity it was crucial to reconnoitre communist supply lines running through China. A U-2 (no 362) with Lee Nan-ping (Terry Lee) in the pilot's seat was on a mission tasked with just that when it was shot down on June 7, 1964 over the Fujian province. It was again the work of the 2nd Battalion whose commander Yue Zhenhua added a fourth Taiwanese aircraft to his tally. The operation was a classic SAM ambush of the sort tried out before with the missile battery secretively deployed in the area were Taiwanese aerial activity was expected only to suddenly activate its radars and launch a missile salvo when the target was well within range. It worked out as planed with the U-2's pilot exclaiming over the radio that the warning light informing about being illuminated by radar had come on. That was the last thing heard from him for a few moments later his aircraft took hits which borough it down. Lee’s body was found in the wreckage of the U-2 - according to the Chinese he had no chance of saving himself for the ejection seat was not armed and was therefore useless.

Group photo of Taiwanese U-2 pilots. The second from the right is Terry Lee/Lin who was shot down and killed on June 7, 1964 by Yue Zenhua’s unit, being his 4th and final victory. The third from the left is Tom Wang/Huang, shot down and KIA on September 8, 1967, this case being the 5th - and final - U-2 shot down over China. The three caucasian males in civilian clothes in front of them are definitely US instructors. (Albert Grandolini collection)

A well earned praise

The U-2 downings were much celebrated by the PRC as victories over "imperialists" but also as a sign of China's ability to defend itself against foreign interference. [7] For this reason the shot down U-2s were publicly displayed while those who brought them down were honoured. On June 6, 1964 the PLAAF's 2nd Rocket Battalion was awarded the title of "Hero (heroic) Battalion" and on July 23, 1964 its personnel was received by Mao himself. For his role as the unit's CO Yue Zhenhua was deservingly [8] promoted to the rank of a full colonel becoming the highest ranking PLAAF officer to serve in the capacity of a battalion commander. However as much as the U-2 "kills" were a Chinese propaganda hit the shooting down of the RB-57 on October 7, 1959 was only briefly mentioned in a communique (see above) with the circumstances of the event remaining a secret for 25 years - it was only after a quarter of a century that it was officially revealed what happened, but even then few outside the PRC noticed. In fact when the SAMs were first delivered to the PRC the Chinese and the Soviets agreed that if a foreign aircraft is shot down using them both sides shall abstain from releasing any significant details about its downing especially information concerning the use of surface to air missiles. Initially it was sensible not to reveal the capabilities of this novel (at that time of course) weapon system but after a number of cases when U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft were shot down over the USSR, Cuba and PRC by SAMs it did not make much sense anymore - yet who said that military secrecy, especially in communist countries, was logical? Concerning Victor Slusar once his tenure in China was over he returned to the Soviet Union, served in the PVO attaining the rank of Major General and settled in Belarus upon retiring. After this Soviet Republic became an independent state he was invited to the Chinese embassy in Minsk as an honorary guest in recognition of his efforts decades ago.

Yue Zenhua, on the left, shaking hands with Chairman Mao Zedong. (Albert Grandolini collection)


Meanwhile the U-2s were, among other improvements, fitted with a new ECM system which employed active jamming. Yet it did not prevent the downing of two more reconnaissance aircraft. On January 10, 1965 a U-2 (no 358) was shot down over Inner Mongolia with a missile salvo launched by the PLAAF's 1st Rocket Battalion. The aircraft's pilot Chang Li-yi (Jack Chang) survived and was held captive by the Chinese for many years regaining his freedom on the same day as Yeh Chang-di (see above), that is November 10, 1982. The final U-2 loss over continental China took place on September 8, 1967. [9] Aircraft no 373 with Huang Jung-Bei (Tom Huang) at the controls was brought down over the Zhejiang province by HQ-2 SAMs [10] of the 14th Rocket Battalion. Unfortunately the last incident was fatal for the pilot.

Soon thereafter reconnaissance missions involving deep penetration of airspace over mainland China were discontinued. Within a few years a new era in Sino - American relations was opened by US President Richard Nixon's official visit to Beijing. It did not mean a complete halt to Cold War aerial activity nor were Chinese SAM operators left without anything to do but all this is a different story...

Beijing, 1965 – display of the wrecks of all four U-2s shot down over mainland China until than. Three of them had been downed by Yue Zenhua’s unit. (Albert Grandolini collection)


[1] The author is well aware of the fact that the official names of the Chinese states located on the Asian continent and on the island of Taiwan are the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Republic of China (ROC) respectively. The term “China" fits both and the same applies to “Chinese" when it comes to the people inhabiting them. Let it be clearly stated that when the PRC and its citizens are simply termed “China” and “Chinese" while the ROC and its inhabitants are called “Taiwan" and “Taiwanese" it is neither the result of ignorance nor is it meant to be disrespectful to anybody and last but not least it is not a political statement on the “one China issue” but is done for the sole purpose of communicating in a short and clear manner which side is meant in a given context.

[2] Some sources claim the aircraft were actually RB-57Cs.

[3] Information available differs not only concerning the aircrafts' version (see the previous footnote) but their number as well - it was also reported that just two airframes were delivered.

[4] At that time the S-25 (SA-1) and the SA-75 (SA-2) surface to air missiles systems had already entered service but were initially available in limited numbers with the SAM sites defending only the most important locations such as Moscow, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) as well as a few others. In addition the Soviets were themselves having a problem with western high altitude reconnaissance aircraft penetrating their airspace. In this context the very fact that as many as five surface to air missile batteries were supplied to China clearly shows the importance the Soviets attached to their Asian ally.

[5] The pilots were of course supposed to maintain radio silence during the reconnaissance missions over the mainland yet a catastrophic event such as being shot down was surely reason good enough to break it. [6] A sudden dive would also do the trick of dodging an incoming missile but the U-2 was not particularly well suited for performing this kind of manouver.

[7] This is better understood considering Western and Japanese interventions in Chinese matters which left a deep trauma in the collective conscience of that nation - one that could only be healed by China visibly asserting itself against foreign interference.

[8] Yue Zhenhua was only one “kill” short of becoming a “SAM ace”. Till the massive aerial battles of the wars in Viet Nam and the Middle East he unquestionably had the most experiences in operating surface to air missiles against real aircraft as opposed to targets on a range. He was also the first to use this weapon system in actual combat - this alone is reason enough for him to go down in the annals of aerial warfare - and last but not least he could boast four high altitude reconnaissance aircraft shot down , including three U-2s, which was a feat not be be repeated by anybody.

[9] The date September 9 was also given.

[10] HQ was short for Hong Qi meaning Red Flag. The Chinese first "cloned" the SA-75 under the designation HQ-1 and than produced an improved variant, the HQ-2.

Last Updated ( Sep 05, 2012 at 10:10 PM )
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