The Secret Story of the CIA’s Francis Gary Powers

Francis Gary Powers in 1962 meeting the Senate Armed Services Committee. Click on the image to find all of the videos mentioned in this blog post.

February 10th 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union handing over Francis Gary Powers in exchange for Colonel Vilyam Fisher. One of the highest profile cases in the Cold War, British Pathé followed the story from Powers’ crash through to his safe but controversial return. Other videos on this page include the original trial of Rudolf Hess, a press conference held by President Eisenhower and a British Pathé tour of a famous U-2 plane.

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Secret intelligence pilot Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane was shot down on the 1st May 1960 by a Soviet surface-to-air missile over Sverdlovsk. The target destination of Powers’ espionage mission had been the site of the Kyshtym Disaster.

Powers parachuted to the ground and was captured by Soviet troops, crucially he was unable to activate his U-2’s self-destruct mechanism before evacuating the plane. Back in America CIA didn’t realise this failure to destroy the vehicle and so when Powers’ plane finally landed (almost fully intact) Soviet intelligence were able to study its surveillance equipment and learn about U-2 technology.

Francis Gary Powers was the first pilot to be successfully hit by a Soviet S-75 surface-to-air missile, new Soviet technology that finally enabled them to counteract US espionage missions which had been taking place some 70,000 feet above the Soviet Union for some years. CIA didn’t know that Soviet Union now had the technology to hit U-2 planes as they were so high up, causing sceptics to doubt the circumstances of Powers’ crash and subsequent capture and some worried how much information has been sucked out of him during interrogations.

On August 17th 1960 following a very high profile trial Powers was sentenced by the Soviet Union and imprisoned for three years and then made to serve seven years of hard labour in Vladimir Central Prison (where Powers developed a good rapport with his fellow prisoners).

This British Pathé has coverage of the 1960 trial. This first reel “Powers Trial – Ike’s Comment” shows Powers’ wife and father entering the court in Moscow, and we see people inspecting the plane’s wreckage and other pieces of evidence. Eisenhower issues a statement from Washington refusing to comment on the trial itself in case this worsened Powers’ position in the trial. 

In another reel “The Powers Trial” we can see shots of the trial itself (no foreign journalists were allowed to attend). The narrator suggests the trial is more of an ideological battle than about the specific events of Francis Gary Powers’ mission announcing “Russia directed her venomous attack largely against America itself”

Eisenhower also appears in this British Pathé reel “President Defends Spying” discussing U-2 planes and stating “no one wants another Pearl Harbor. This means that we must have knowledge of military forces and preparations around the world, especially those capable of massive surprise attacks”

On February 10th 1962 Powers was exchanged along with an American student Frederic Pryor for the Soviet Colonel Vilyam Fisher (also known as Rudolf Abel like in British Pathé’s reel) who had been captured by the FBI in Berlin. Upon his return Powers was awarded CIA’s Intelligence Star, but was criticised by some for the various imperfections of his failed mission.

British Pathe have this video of the exchange in the archive called “Headlines In The U.S. – The Abel For Powers Exchange” with a commentary by Peter Roberts. The narrator explains how it was lucky that Abel had not been sentenced to death by the Americans upon capture as this would have meant they couldn’t swap him for Powers.

The original arrest of Rudolf Abel is shown in this 1957 newsreel “Red Spy Nabbed” filmed in Brooklyn. Used a building within view of the Assistant US Attorney’s office and had an office studio with high-powered radios. “He is the highest ranking Russian ever arrested here on spy charges, he could pay with his life”

In this British Pathé reel “Gary Powers Vindicated“, perhaps the most popular newsreel covering this entire subject, we see Powers explaining his crash to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and demonstrating with a model U-2 how his plane should have self-destructed. The press ask Powers what he told the committee, he replies “Well I don’t have much time, all I know is there seemed to be an explosion, I don’t know what caused it but I feel that it was not in the aircraft itself”. “So do you believe it was a rocket?” asks the journalist. “Well I can’t say that, but I think that it was external. How it got there I have no idea.”

A U-2 plane filmed by British Pathe in 1967 at a Bedfordshire airbase

British Pathe also have this interview with Powers’ father Mr. Oliver Powers after he attended a trial hearing Russia. He tells the press  “We are thankful to have the opportunity of seeing Francis, however briefly, once again. I should also like to voice our appreciation to the Russian people for their courtesy and consideration which they showed us.” When asked is Francis has any requests the father fights tears back and admits that he asked for warm clothing for the terribly cold Russian winter.

Powers died in a helicopter crash in 1977 when his Bell 206 Jet Ranger ran out of fuel. It is thought that at the last moment he’d noticed children playing where he’d intend to land, and so he sought alternative landing place. If he had landed where originally intended then he may have lived.

For more information on the U-2 planes themselves, this quirky British Pathé reel filmed in Bedfordshire is useful with good close-up shows of U-2 planes and a high altitude pressure suit demonstration from pilot Ken Mason.

Other material in the British Pathe Film Archive relating to the Francis Gary Powers story include this mini documentary “Espionage” has footage of the Francis Gary Powers trial.

Author: British Pathé

British Pathé holds the world's finest newsreel collection. We also represent the Reuters historical collection. All 220K films are viewable on our website.

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