The Berlin Tunnel: True and False

The Russian deep state TV channel Zvezda aired a new documentary on the Berlin Tunnel last Wednesday, 22 January: “Samaya Skandal’naya Proslushka XX Veka“. The tunnel burrowed through from the Western side of Berlin – occupied by the Allies – through into the East, the Russian zone – nominally under the jurisdiction of the G.D.R. The equipment in the tunnel tapped 120 telephone lines of the Soviet authorities in addition to other forms of secret communications of particular interest to the N.S.A. and G.C.H.Q. Given that hitherto the allies had been unable to break into Soviet ciphers, this must have seemed like Christmas.

For eleven months and eleven days phone conversations were recorded by British Ferrograph Recording Company machines. The analysis of the raw data in Britain and the United States enabled N.A.T.O. to map the order of battle of the Western Group of Forces of the Red Army throughout Central Europe. It was especially valuable at a time of continued tension in the Cold War as the disposition of those forces would indicate whether a hot war was at all likely. And all those indiscreet phone calls alongside the official communications gave the allies intimate details of officers serving in Berlin who would rise to the top in the coming years and whose personal relationships could come to matter a great deal.

The intercepts amounted to the hundreds of thousands despite a vigorous publicity campaign by the Russians to take extreme care, particularly when communicating by phone – “Ne boltai u telefona“, the posters pleaded. But they could not go further, become more explicit or use knowledge of interception to issue disinformation, without jeopardising the presence of their most important spy, George Blake (M.I.6.), who had given them the minutes of the meeting that set up the operation.

The overall story of  “Operation Gold” is well known as the tunnel was ostensibly discovered by the East Germans and the Russians and exposed to the world on 21 April 1956. But C.I.A. issued an internal history that is false and is taken as true by historians of the agency. When the Soviet authorities publicised the existence of the tunnel they purposefully laid sole responsibility for it upon the Americans. There was good reason for this that the documentary explains. The exposure of its existence was carefully timed just after the arrival of First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and Chairman of the Council of Ministers Nikolai Bulganin in London on an official visit (19 April). The idea was that public exposure of the tunnel, attributed only to the American ally, would sow divisions at the core of the Anglo-American special relationship. Anti-Americanism was at that time a crucial means of recruitment for Soviet intelligence in Britain (and France.)  They need not have bothered as Britain’s secretly planned attack on Egypt in concert with France and Israel that autumn did far more damage than the Russians could ever do to the “special relationship.”

Subsequently the myth became reality. The Americans certainly paid for the tunnel. But, as with the overthrow of the nationalist régime under Mossadeq in Iran in 1953, it was actually a project created by M.I.6. American money was, however, needed to make it a reality, there was no money without U.S. participation and, once they were invited in, they took over management and stuck their own label on the product.

In this case the project was thought up by Englishman Peter Lunn, the son of the famous travel company entrepreneur who, as head of M.I.6. station in Austria, had created a similar tunnel – “Operation Silver” – in Vienna. The Americans knew about “Operation Silver” earlier than has been acknowledged. Otto Urbach, serving  the agency as a naturalised American in Vienna, was also an engineer and, like Lunn, a fanatical skier. They were very good friends. In 1953 they were both stationed in Berlin, Urbach working under station chief and friend Bill Harvey, with Lunn, once again, as head of M.I.6. station.

The documentary includes  interviews conducted with George Blake and his former handler Lt. General Sergei Kondrashev in the mid-1990s, plus, more recently, veteran Mikhail Bogdanov. It is fascinating to note that, at the time of the tunnel, Blake told his handler that he intended to marry M.I.6. secretary Gillian Allen, but he was advised against the idea. He went ahead anyway.