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Book Review: Experiences with the CIA 1950’s Berlin Spy Tunnel by Robert T Browne

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[Editor’s Note: This review complements a review previously published on BlogCritics, here, and an interview with the author of the reviewed book, found here.]

Experiences with the CIA 1950’s Berlin Spy Tunnel is a memoir, most of which was penned by Bob Browne, with some details and memories written by three others who were also there during that time. The combined memoir relates some of the memories of these four individuals, along with some photographs and some other associated memorabilia. The first 45 pages were compiled by Browne, while the remaining 23 pages are by three other members of the site crew.

The Berlin Spy Tunnel, 1476 feet of tunneling to hit a target two inches in diameter, buried 27 inches below the main East German/Soviet highway, was completed on February 28, 1955; the tap chamber a month later on March 28; and it was discovered by the East Germans and Soviets on April 22, 1956. Although it was only in operation for just under 13 months, the take from the taps amounted to 18,000 teletype tapes and 11,000 voice tapes. The tapes were then sent weekly via armed courier to London and Washington, DC, for processing and transcription.

Even though the tunnel’s existence was divulged by British MI-6 operative and Soviet mole George Blake from the beginning, and was thus known by the Soviets, it was still very productive, as evidenced by the amount of information taken from it. Although the Soviets knew of it, it is speculated that they took no action on it until its chance discovery a year later. The reason? They didn’t want their knowledge of it to lead back to Blake. George Blake was far too important to the Soviets to risk it. When it was finally discovered, it was by chance when the East Germans came upon it while they were looking for the source of other communications problems they were experiencing at the time.

The crew for the tap compound consisted of 45-50 men, from cooks and guards to electronics experts and a linguist. Life at the compound was not typically military, according to various comments sprinkled throughout the memoir. Some of the atypical perquisites were that military personnel there were allowed to wear civilian clothes; there was no reveille; and there was a huge refrigerator kept full of beer which was free to all (probably bought and paid for by the CIA). On the other hand, all the personnel at the site were very dedicated to their jobs, often working long hours and days of overtime voluntarily to keep pace with the take from the taps.

Because the details of the Berlin Spy Tunnel have only recently been declassified by the CIA, nobody was permitted to make or keep even private notes on any of the details involved. The result is, of course, that in several instances, the personal memories of the authors are not necessarily accurate and sometimes even conflicted. However, allowing for the fog of time, the memories that are contained within still add important details to the story, as well as a human touch.

Two of the more interesting situations described are the melting of the snow cover on the ground over the tunnel, caused by excess heat in the tunnel, and another situation which could have easily provoked a shooting war. The situation with the excess heat was solved by hurriedly installing a cooling unit in the tunnel, which stopped the melting of the snow on the ground above. Had the temperature difference remained, the snowmelt would have been a straight line from the American side of the fence to the German/Soviet side.

The other situation was a relatively minor, at first, one which could easily have gotten out of hand, and it was all caused by a dog. One day, one of the German Shepherds used by the American troops disappeared; the GIs assuming it must have run off. A couple days later, one of the GIs who knew the dog well spotted him on the East German side of the fence separating the East and West sides of Berlin.

Another American came by just then, and the GI explained the situation to him. The pair walked right up to the fence, and the first GI called to the Vopos — the Volks polizei or people’s police — who had the dog in the bed of a truck. “That’s my dog!” he called to them in German. “No, it isn’t,” one of the Vopos replied.

The first American, the one who had initially recognized the dog, had just returned from an overnight guard duty shift; thus, he was armed with a loaded carbine. The two Americans then crossed the border, one of them carrying a loaded weapon, and again told the Vopos that the dog was theirs. He called to the dog, and the dog bounded out of the bed of the truck and came to the GIs, obviously happy to see them. The first American again told the Vopos that the dog belonged to them, and they took it with them back to the American side of the fence. Fortunately, the incident between the GIs and Vopos ended there. That is, except for the royal chewing out the GIs received for the incident.

Below, I’ve listed some other URLs from the CIA’s website which also add a great deal of detail to what otherwise remained mainly a whispered account for the past 40 years.

As is often pointed out, the newspapers are quick to report the CIA’s mistakes and failures, but their successes are not reported. Here’s one instance where a huge success can now be revealed. This is a great story of a great operation, accomplished by a great bunch of government employees, both military and civilian. It’s a story not only great to read about it, it’s also great to even know about it, albeit 40 years later.

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of this memoir, contact Bob Browne directly at svaz1@cox.net. Cost is $13 for media mail, and $14 for first class postage

Other interesting and more detailed articles concerning the Berlin Tunnel can be found here, here, and here

I highly recommend this memoir and all the other files above. Together, they relate a remarkable story of a highly dangerous and hugely successful CIA operation.

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