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Book Review: Voices Under Berlin – A Novel of the Berlin Spy Tunnel by T.H.E. Hill

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Voices Under Berlin was somewhat of a sleeper when it was first printed, but word is getting around now, which necessitated a second printing.

This is the story of the Berlin Tunnel and the people who listened in on the conversations and tapped into the teletype messages of both the East Germans and the Soviets, who occupied East Germany from 1945 until 1989. Digging for Operation Gold, or Operation Stopwatch, as it was called by the British, began in September 1954 and was completed in February 1955. The tunnel was opened on February 25th, and lasted only 11 months, 11 days, before it was penetrated by the Soviets.

Although the operation was compromised while it was still in the planning stages by a British double agent, George Blake, the Soviet KGB decided to allow the project to go on, seeing it as a golden opportunity for disinformation. A warehouse with an especially deep tunnel was built specifically as a staging area for the tunnel. The 1,476-foot tunnel sat about 20 feet under the most heavily patrolled border in existence, and only 18-inches under a busy street. It was an engineering marvel.

It was impossible, of course, to alert all the East Germans and Soviets in the Occupied Zone of the tap, and the CIA eventually collected and recorded over a half-million calls, which were recorded onto some 50,000 magnetic tapes. It was only in 1961 that the U.S. learned of the KGB compromise, when Blake was arrested, tried, and convicted, but since the haul was full of valuable intelligence, it was deemed a success. The tapes were recorded and translated by hundreds of U.S. Army linguists on site in the Berlin Tunnel, as well as by those in CIA headquarters in the U.S. Although Voices Under Berlin is a novel, most of the operational data is real, with mainly the people and situations depicted being fiction.

In addition to the riveting story of the Tunnel and day-to-day revelations and discoveries, this is also the hilarious, and dramatic and emotional story of those who accomplished it – hilarious because of the sometimes intense boredom, and intensely dramatic and emotional due to the constant pressure of being susceptible to discovery and possible death at the hands of the Russians and East Germans. When one is under such severe and life-threatening pressure for weeks on end, it’s no wonder that those involved resorted to the pranks and jokes they pulled, both on one another and on the Soviets and East Germans.

I strongly recommend Voices Under Berlin to anybody who’s interested in the Cold War, or anybody who’s ever been in the military. They’ll immediately recognize many of the characters and situations. The jargon is very well explained, and it has a handy glossary to help you through the occasional “Pentagonese” that needs translating. And even if you have no particular interest in the Cold War or the military, most will still assuredly enjoy this book. Don’t miss it!

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