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.
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).
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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!