The USMLM and Soviet Technology

USMLM's ex-Keitel digs in Berlin.

USMLM’s ex-Keitel digs in Berlin.

Tank and AFV News has a great article, an extended version of one that author James Warford, an expert in Soviet tanks, published in the tankers’ branch magazine, Armor. We’ve always liked tanks, as very interesting weapons and technology in their own right, even though they strike us as a pretty awful place to die. Likewise, we’ve always been interested in espionage, and this is a story of a very peculiar kind of espionage that took place under an extremely strange and historically unique set of rules of engagement on all sides.

If the intel collectors stayed within the letter of the agreement, they had near-diplomatic immunity. But then, they couldn’t always get the access they wanted to the targets they were tasked with collecting on. If they bent the rules, immunity was gone, and they could (and did) get detained, threatened, beaten up, and shot.

usmlm_potsdam_house

USMLM Potsdam House, 1964. This originally belonged to a Hohenzollern prince.

You might say Big Boy Rules were very much in effect, in the heyday of the Four Powers Military Liaison Missions.

Under the postwar Huebner-Malinin Agreement, each ally maintained a “liaison mission” in the opposing side’s zone. In no time at all, these “liaison missions” became, primarily, sanctioned — but limited — spies. (Technically, the US could maintain one in the French or British zone, and vice versa, but in fact three missions were loose in the Soviet sector, and one — the Soviet Military Liaison Mission — in the three Western Allied sectors. Berlin had originally been divided into thirds for occupation, and the US and UK gave up slices of their zones so that the French could have a sector of their own. But the three Western allies cooperated and competed in spying on the Group of Soviet Forces Germany).

A Ford Custom Sedan was the usual vehicle in the sixties, and the drivers praised its off-road ability -- as modified.

A Ford Custom Sedan was the usual vehicle in the sixties, and the drivers praised its off-road ability — as modified.

The US mission was based in a compound in Potsdam in the Soviet Sector, and in what had been a secret command post of Wehrmacht Field Marshal Keitel in Berlin. Americans being car-happy, our effort was characterized by “tours” or patrols in modified sedans or SUVs, like the 1963 Ford seen here that was used in 1963-65. A tour may have seemed aimless to the Soviet counterintelligence elements tasked with thwarting it, but each one had specific targets and a concrete plan.

 

Early USMLM plate, and new 1964-89 version, right. Yes, the mission commander had one on his personal Corvette in '64.

Early USMLM plate, and new 1964-89 version, right. Yes, the mission commander had one on his personal Corvette in ’64.

Same style plate, a couple of decades later.

Same style plate, a couple of decades later.

The military liaison mission vehicles had distinct license plates. (NATO vets will remember their SMLM card, which described what to do and what to report if you saw the Soviet mission’s vehicles).

Flogged hard, a mission vehicle lasted some 25,000 miles. A mission team was two men, an NCO driver who was proficient (ideally, natively fluent) in German, and an officer LNO who had had an extensive course in Russian (fluency would have been nice but we’re unaware of any time this happened, while native-fluent German-American drivers were common).

Just one example of how successful the “Tri-Mission” (US, British and French) efforts were over the years, and the true depths that these dedicated and courageous team members would go to gather intelligence, can be seen in their response to the Soviet Army practice of “litter-bugging.” It seems that the Soviets were notorious for throwing away valuable documents and paperwork and leaving them in un-secure trash dumps when they moved from one location to another. Going through these trash dumps had been part of USMLM operations for some time but it wasn’t until 1976 that a more formalized and intensified effort was launched. It wasn’t long before these efforts were coordinated under a program called SANDDUNE. SANDDUNE produced a wide variety of intelligence including Soviet Army unit training schedules, tank firing tables, vehicle maintenance manuals, troop rotation plans, radio call-signs and frequencies and new equipment technical documentation, to name a few.

BRIXMIS had a very similar program to SANDDUNE called Operation Tamarisk. Tamarisk was equally successful and published accounts describe BRIXMIS team members not only digging through trash dumps but also through retired latrines and sites used for medical waste disposal. The examination of medical waste sites understandably proved to be challenging for mission members. “It was an extreme strain on the boys to do that job. But it did produce what might be called surgical memorabilia which linked the stuff to (Soviet) battle wounds.”5

The Holy Grail -- imagery of the inside of the highly secret T-64A was obtained by US and British missions.

The Holy Grail — imagery of the inside of the highly secret T-64A was obtained by US and British missions.

Perhaps the most significant find to result from SANDDUNE and Tamarisk efforts over the years was made near a Soviet Army barracks at Neustrelitz, in Northern East Germany in 1981. A Tamarisk operation conducted by three BRIXMIS team members “under the noses of sleeping (Soviet) sentries,”6 produced a personal logbook. The logbook was written in Russian and included technical drawings. According to a British Military Intelligence Officer who had knowledge of what the logbook contained and who subsequently debriefed the team that discovered it, “it was (at the time) the most important thing we have had from any source for ten years.”7 The logbook contained top-secret information detailing the composition of the armor and the strengths and weaknesses of the new Soviet T-64A. The logbook also contained the same type of information regarding the even newer and more mysterious T-80B MBT

via James Warford on the USMLM and the T-64 – Tank and AFV News.

You’ve probably heard of the greatest failure of USMLM, the incident in which the LNO was shot by a sentry, and then the Soviets denied him medical treatment until he bled out. (His driver subsequently went SF).

Soviet pass for a mission vehicle.

Soviet pass for a mission vehicle.

This story, because of its location and Warford’s interests, concentrates on technical intelligence about tanks. However, the USMLM, BRIXMIS, and the FMLM all collected military intelligence of all kinds: technical intelligence, imagery, and other disciplines, sources and methods that are best left in the vault, even though the military liaison missions are no more. And they did it against all arms and services. Mission-gained intelligence could often corroborate or leverage intelligence gathered through other means, and vice versa.

Interior of the pass. It is for a 1965 Ford Custom which was assembled in Mahwah, NJ with the 4-barrel 352 cid engine -- not, as frequently reported, a hi-po engine.

Interior of the pass. It is for a 1965 Ford Custom which was assembled in Mahwah, NJ with the 4-barrel 352 cid engine — not, as frequently reported, a hi-po engine.

Naturally, the Soviet Military Liaison Mission (SMLM) was doing the exact same to the West at the exact same time. Such was the Cold War!

The reason this report’s a bit schizophrenic, with Warford’s reports of 1980s effort and our comment on how they did it in the 1960s, is because we can also provide a 1964 historical report (the source of all these black and white pictures) which has been declassified. It was an interesting year, with the Soviets shooting down two US aircraft, casualties of the Cold War who are forgotten today.

USMLM 1964 Report.pdf

Very little seems to have changed in the practices and procedures of the USMLM, except that by the mid-80s they had American sedans and also West German vehicles, including Mercedes Geländewagen SUVs.

With the loss of the Soviet satellite/slave states in Eastern Europe, this mission came to an end, and both Western and Russian spooks had to find other ways to keep tabs on one another. Of course, they did. But during the Cold War of over forty years, they ran military liaison missions in each other’s back yard!

20 thoughts on “The USMLM and Soviet Technology

  1. Raoul Duke

    Get hold of a copy of “Recovery” by Steven A. Thompson- a novel written in the 80’s that had USMLM troops racing to recover a black box from a shot-down prototype aircraft, behind East German lines.

    I recall it as being pretty good, though it’s been thirty years or so, since I read it. Looks like the Kindle version is out there, too.

  2. MattL

    If only I had the time to dig into all these fascinating facets of history you keep tantalizing the readership with…

    1. Jim Scrummy

      I blame Hognose for my Amazon Book Wish List increasing in size every week. Then he gave us the Abebooks link, which also hurts my wallet.

  3. DB

    British Special Air Service Staff NCO Ken Connor was the man who found the tank manual when he was serving with BRIXMIS. He devotes a chapter to the story in his book: Ghost Force, The Secret History of the SAS. He also came up with the first live rounds of the AK-74 by literally feeling around a firing range berm in the dark on his hands and knees. Good stuff. His Land Rover had a switch that, when flipped, would duplicate the front and rear lighting of an East German Trabant at night.

      1. guy

        “The examination of medical waste sites understandably proved to be challenging for mission members.”

        Ug, did Bond ever have to do that? I need to go find some Tums.

  4. Cap'n Mike

    Great Article
    Yet another Rabbit hole to fall into.
    I wonder if those 352 Four Barrels were modified at all.
    Ford sold lots of stuff over the counter in those days, designed for the FE that would bolt right on.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I’ve been told they had 406s, 427s etc., but the VIN comes back to a 352/4. All the same block, but the 427 was over square and made higher revs. The 406 (discontinued in, I think, 62 or 63) and the 427 were also cross-bolted main caps.

      1. Wes

        While often wishing for the Bronco (way before G’wagen days) there is no denying the visceral something of an interceptor-package equipped, yes… 427, with a 4-speed. Too much vehicle for DDR road ‘quality’ though; they were flogged to death. An interstate or autobahn is not a tank trail.

        For those who have some long winters & like to lay-in a reading task, a large chunk of annual unit histories (in essence, the CO’s annual report) are available here:

        http://www.coldwarspies.com/reading_room/usmlm_histories/

        They used to be on the USAREUR server but that was decommissioned and they reside now at the site above. On that page, the graphically-depicted volumes represent the ’60’s, ’70’s, and 80’s. Dig deeper but **** Bandwidth warning Will Robinson ****
        They are LARGE pdf’s, but make for some interesting, and often whimsical, reading.

        Thanks Hognose for the very nice overview. To the comment above RE SMLM, I later spent some time in V Corps and saw them all the time. I’m sure it had nothing to do with Frankfurt having a big PX, Commissary & Class VI store (where they had shopping privileges). :)

  5. Keith

    http://usmlm.us/

    This site is relevant to the subject. I thought you might find it interesting.

    Actually the first place I ever read about all this beyond W W II history was in Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” where it got mentioned in the run up to war.

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