The Cold War (1947-1991)

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Avro Shackleton AEW.2 - Cold War ‘Sentinel’

Group Captain David Greenway (ret’d), a former Shackleton pilot and commanding officer of 8 Squadron, talks to Dr Kevin Wright about the Shackleton AEW.2 in RAF service.

A Hawk of No 1 Tactical Weapons Unit firing a salvo of 68mm unguided rockets from a Sneb pod. Feature Premium

Step Back in Time – 1980 Hawk Flight and Tactical Training at RAF Brawdy

An interesting snapshot, from the January 1981 issue of Aeroplane Monthly, of RAF fast jet training from a time when the air force was ramping up aircrew throughput to populate the growing Tornado GR.1 force

The Last Lightning Show at Binbrook

RAF BINBROOK – AUGUST 22, 1987 Brian Hodgson recalls an historic event that was a fitting farewell to the charismatic Lightning, despite rain and low cloud.

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Life on a RAF Germany Phantom squadron

With the Cold War in full flow, West Germany’s position on the front line demanded an allied presence. Former RAF Phantom pilot Al Munro gives a taste of his Battle Flight years

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The Blackburn Buccaneer: Red Flag’s low-level legend

Former Buccaneer squadron commander Graham Pitchfork describes the RAF’s extraordinary success during the early Red Flag exercises

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How the RAF took the Harrier into the field

The Harrier Field Force was a revolutionary concept for the Cold War RAF, yet despite its birth pangs, it soon evolved into an unrivalled capability. We spoke to the man who, more than anyone else, made it so

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74 Sqn and the Lightning F.3

Tony Clay describes the Lightning F.3 and its time with the RAF’s famous ‘Tigers’, 74 Squadron

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TSR2: The greatest aircraft the RAF never flew?

Arguably the most controversial aircraft in British history, the TSR2 still has the power to divide opinion. Was it rightly cancelled or a missed opportunity? In the January 2017 issue of Aviation News, Dr Kevin Wright weighed up the arguments.

On the O.R.P. at Horsham St. Faith, Javelins of Nos. 141 and 23 Squadrons are positioned and plugged-in to the telebrief for the next scramble. Feature Premium

Revealing 1950s Fighter Command exercise report

A fascinating article on a 1957 UK air defence exercise which focused on countering a massed attack on the first day of a conflict from 'The Aeroplane’s' June 7 issue

An RAF Comet of 216 Squadron. Feature Premium

On-board an RAF Comet training flight to Africa in 1957

A revealing account of RAF Comet operations from the May 17, 1957 issue of The Aeroplane

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What was the Cold War? 

Why do you put ‘Cold War’ in inverted commas? We’re often asked that. It’s because it was like no other war; an amalgam of incidents – some obvious, others open to debate, all conveniently given a label. Those who died in Korea, or were shot at in high-flying U-2s or prematurely aged during the Cuban missile crisis won’t call the experience ‘conceptual’, of course. 

World War Two is boxed neatly by formal declarations of war, sombre surrenders and clear-cut reasons for hostility. The ‘Cold War’ does not bask in such certainty. Most people know about its ending, but not its beginnings or what the ‘battles’ were. 

British writer George Orwell penned a feature called You and the Atomic Bomb in the London Tribune of October 19, 1945, describing a “permanent state of ‘cold war’”. Winston Churchill gave a speech entitled The Sinews of Peace at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946 and spoke about the lowering of an ‘Iron Curtain’ across Europe. 

The world readily accepted these expressions to help understand an era that was without parallel. It was partly a ‘shooting war’, but mostly one of global intrigue, military alliance, deterrence and – ultimately – spending power. 

Who was involved in the Cold War? 

World War Two started with the Soviet Union in alliance with the rabidly anti-communist Nazi Germany. This Machiavellian pact was shattered when Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. Then Stalin and the Allies embraced – Marxists and capitalists entwined for the common good. 

Suspicions grew in Moscow: were the Allies holding back, allowing Germany and the USSR to annihilate one another? Stalin was not told of D-Day until the invasion forces set-off. On the other hand, what about his commitment to fight Japan? The Red Army walked into Manchuria, Korea and Sakhalin on August 8, 1945 but events had turned this into a hollow-looking gesture. 

Two days before, the USAAF dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and, 72 hours later, on Nagasaki. Stalin had never officially been informed of this game-changer. Things equalised in the Kazakhstan desert on August 29, 1949 when the USSR joined the nuclear weapons ‘club’ to provoke a nuclear war. 

From January 20, 1945 the USA had a very different president in Harry Truman. He had an increasingly ambivalent attitude to Moscow, declaring in January 1946: “I’m tired of babying Soviets”. He believed it was not a case of if the USSR rolled westwards, but when. Isolationism had led to Pearl Harbor; America now needed to be proactive. This was the ‘Truman doctrine’, which he announced on March 12, 1947, committing the USA to supporting “free peoples who are resisting attempted subversion by armed minorities or by outside pressures”. leading to the support with military aid. The 'Truman Doctrine' later led to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, a military alliance between the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other Western European nations.

Stalin was convinced that after Napoleon and Hitler, the next warrior to violate his country would be American. The lands occupied as the awesome Soviet war machine trundled towards Berlin in 1944-1945 became ‘buffers’ to ensure history did not repeat itself. Milovan Djilas in his exceptional Conversations with Stalin summed up Stalin’s outlook as resulting from “his personal experience and historical heritage, he trusted nothing but what he held in his fist”. His grip tightened on Eastern Europe in February 1947: the democratic government in Czechoslovakia was ousted by the communist party and the Soviet ‘bloc’ was completed. 

How did the Cold War end?  

The scene was set: two ‘superpowers’, their associates and doctrines, locked in a no-holds-barred struggle to force the other into submission. Nearly five decades of tension, dotted with flashpoints when Kalashnikovs and Hawker Hunters could give way to Tupolevs and ICBMs at the press of a button. 

This ‘Cold War’ came to an end with unexpected rapidity. On November 9, 1989, East Germany abandoned all border restrictions and the Berlin Wall became meaningless as the Soviet influence waned and democratic governments rose. Crowds flocked to the dark symbol of repression and down it came, chunk by chunk. 

Forty-three days later, Romania’s odious Nicolai Ceausescu faced a massed meeting of enraged citizens in Bucharest. His facial expression said it all: he’d lost it, he was about to be engulfed by a tide of democracy. On Christmas Day, he and his wife were shot. 

Christmas featured again two years later when the Soviet Union vanished, to be replaced by an increasingly-loosening commonwealth of states. Most pundits agree that the death of the USSR brought the ‘Cold War’ to a close; although some see it as the only the beginning of the end. 

The so-called ‘Peace Dividend’ was short-lived. Conspiracy theorists rant that something had to fill the vacuum where the ‘Cold War’ once was. From September 11, 2001 another clash within inverted commas took centre stage: the ‘War on Terror’. 

Cold War Timeline – When did the Cold War start and end? 


February 4 – At the Yalta Conference, the Allies agree to divide Germany into four occupation zones – British, US, French and Soviet. Berlin will also be divided into four zones. 

August 2 – The Potsdam Conference ends with the Potsdam Agreement, organising the division and reconstruction of post-war Europe. 

August 6 and 8 – The US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to unconditional Japanese surrender and the end of World War Two shortly after. 


March 5 – Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warns of the descent of an ‘Iron Curtain’ across Europe. 
September 6 – US Secretary of State James F Byrnes states the intention to keep US troops in Europe ‘indefinitely’. 


January 1 – The US and Britain unite their zones in occupied Germany to form the Bizone. 
November 17 – The United Nations calls for free elections in both North and South Korea. 


April 3 – US President Harry S Truman brings the Marshall Plan into effect, offering economic assistance to war-ravaged Western European nations. 
June 24 – Soviet leader Joseph Stalin orders the blockade of all land routes from West Germany to Berlin, in an attempt to starve out French, British, and US forces. In response, the three Western powers launch the Berlin Airlift to supply citizens. 
September 9 – The Soviet Union declares the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) to be the legitimate government of all Korea. 


April 4 – NATO is founded in a bid to resist communist expansion. 
May 11 – The Soviet blockade of Berlin ends. 
May 23 – In Germany, the Bizone merges with the French zone to form the Federal Republic of Germany, with Bonn as its capital. 
August 29 – The Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb. 
October 1 – Mao Tse-Tung declares the foundation of the communist People’s Republic of China. 
October 7 – USSR declares its zone of Germany to be the German Democratic Republic, with its capital as East Berlin. 


January 5 – China severs diplomatic relations with the UK. 
February 16 – China and the Soviet Union sign a pact of mutual defence. 
June 25 – North Korea invades South Korea, beginning the Korean War. Five days later the UN sends forces to aid the South. 
October 2 – UN forces cross into North Korea. 
October 22 – China invades Korea and in November pushes UN forces back towards South Korea. 


March 14 – UN forces recapture Seoul from the Chinese. 


June – US Strategic Air Command places Convair B-36 Peacemaker and Boeing B-47 Stratojet nuclear bombers at bases within range of Moscow. 
October 2 – The UK successfully tests its first atomic bomb, making it the world’s third nuclear power. 


March 5 – Death of Stalin. After a power struggle, he is succeeded in September by Nikita Khrushchev. 
July 27 – Armistice ends the Korean War. 


May 14 – The Warsaw Pact is founded in Eastern Europe. It is the communist military equivalent to NATO. West Germany joins NATO and begins rearmament. 


October 23 – Hungarians revolt against their Soviet-dominated government but they are crushed by the Soviet military which reinstates a communist government. 
October 29 – The Suez Crisis. France, Israel and the UK attempt to remove President Nasser from power after he nationalises the Suez Canal and aligns himself with the Soviet Union. Aggression ends when a UN peacekeeping force is installed. 


January 1 – Fidel Castro comes to power in Cuba following a revolution. 
December – A communist insurgency supplied by North Vietnam and the Soviets vow to overthrow the anti-communist South Vietnam Government. 


May 1 – US Lockheed U-2 pilot Gary Powers is shot down and captured while flying at high altitude over the USSR. 
July 31 – Communist insurgents in Malaya are defeated. 


January 3 – US President Dwight D Eisenhower severs diplomatic relations with Cuba. He is succeeded as president by John F Kennedy on January 20. 
April 15 – ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion. A CIA-backed invasion of Cuba by counter-revolutionaries ends in failure. 
August 13 – The Berlin Wall is built by the Soviet Union following the failure of talks to decide the future of Germany. 


February 10 – Captured US pilot Gary Powers is exchanged for senior KGB spy Col Rudolf Abel. 
October 16 – Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy blockades the island on discovering that the Soviets have installed military and nuclear bases there. Nuclear war is narrowly averted when the Soviets withdraw and concessions are agreed by both sides. 


November 22 – Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. Speculation mounts that communist countries or even the CIA may be involved. 


April 20 – In Moscow, US President Lyndon Johnson and Khrushchev agree to cut back the production of materials used in nuclear weapons. 
August 4 – The US becomes involved in the Vietnam War after claiming that North Vietnamese naval vessels had fired on US destroyers. 
October 16 – China tests its first atomic bomb. 


March 8 – The US begins sustained bombing of North Vietnam. 
November 14 – US troops engage Vietnamese forces in the Battle of la Drang. 


January 30 – The Tet Offensive begins in South Vietnam. It lasts until June, and while technically a US victory, it raises questions about America’s long-term prospects of success. 


March 17 – The US bombs communists in Cambodia. 
July 20 – The US achieves the first manned moon landing, a major victory in the Space Race. 
July 25 – US troop withdrawals from Vietnam begin. 


March 5 – The landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is ratified by the US, the UK and the USSR. It aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. 


February 21 – US President Richard Nixon becomes the first American leader to visit China since it became the People’s Republic of China. 
December 18 – Nixon announces the start of a massive bombing campaign in North Vietnam. US involvement finally ends with the Paris Peace Accords agreement on January 27, 1973. 


April 30 – South Vietnam falls to the North Vietnamese and the two countries are united under a communist government. 
July – The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project is the first joint flight of the US and Soviet space programmes, effectively ending the ‘space race’. 


June 18 – US President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sign the SALT-II agreement outlining limitations and guidelines for nuclear weapons. 
July 3 – The US secretly aids opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, Afghanistan. 
December 24 – The USSR invades Afghanistan in a bid to save the crumbling communist regime, damaging relations with the West. 


March 21 – The US and others boycott the Moscow Olympics. 


March 8 – US President Ronald Reagan describes the Soviet Union as “an evil empire”. 
September 1 – A civilian Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 is shot down by a Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 ‘Flagon’ interceptor with the loss of all 269 aboard. 
October 25 – US forces invade the island of Grenada in a bid to expel Cuban troops, oust the Marxist military government, and stop the construction of a Soviet-funded airstrip. 


July 28 – Several allies of the Soviet Union boycott the Los Angeles Olympics. 
December 16 – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher entertains incoming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Chequers in a bid to open new channels of communication. 


March 11 – Gorbachev becomes leader of the Soviet Union. 
November 21 – Reagan and Gorbachev meet for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland. 


October 11-12 – The Reykjavik summit sees the superpowers agree new terms for nuclear arms control. 


June – Gorbachev announces new policies of ‘perestroika’ (restructuring) and ‘glasnost’ (more freedom and openness). 
December 8 – Gorbachev and Reagan sign the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Some claim that this marks the end of the Cold War. 


May 15 – The Soviets begin to withdraw from Afghanistan. 
May 29-June 1 – Reagan and Gorbachev meet in Moscow to ratify the INF Treaty. Reagan describes his “evil empire” comment as belonging to “another time, another era”. 


June 4 – Chinese protests are crushed by the communist government in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre. Later in the year, communist regimes end in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Chile and other nations. 
November 9 – Demolition of the Berlin Wall begins. 
December 3 – As the Malta Summit closes, Gorbachev and new US President George Bush declare that a long-lasting era of peace has begun. 


May 29 – Boris Yeltsin is elected as the president of Russia. 
October 3 – Germany is unified. 


July – The Warsaw Pact is formally dissolved. The Warsaw Treaty Organisation of Friendship, Co-operation, and Mutual Assistance was established on May 14, 1955 in response to West Germany joining NATO on May 6 of that year. The founding member states were: Albania; Bulgaria; Czechoslovakia; East Germany; Hungary; Poland; Romania and the USSR. The Warsaw Pact disbanded on February 25, 1991. 

December 25 – Following a phone call from Yeltsin, Bush delivers a Christmas Day speech acknowledging the end of the Cold War. On the same day, the hammer and sickle – a communist symbol – is lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. The Soviet Union is dissolved and Russia internationally recognised as its legal successor.