The Berlin Spy Tunnel Affair
IT WAS PERHAPS THE MOST AUDACIOUS ESPIONAGE CAPER OF THE COLD War. Starting in 1954, British and American intelligence agencies dug a quarter-mile-long tunnel from a suburb of West Berlin under the border and into the Soviet-controlled East. At the tunnel’s end they tapped into telephone and telegraph cables over which the Soviet military command in Germany communicated with Moscow and points east. They listened in for almost a year.
The tunnel project, known as Operation Gold to the Americans and as Prince to the British, was an engineering triumph. It was 6.5 feet in diameter and ran for 1,476 feet only 4.5 yards beneath the East German border guards. Digging it cost $25 million. During the seven months of excavation, more than 3,000 tons of earth were removed and hidden. Operation Gold was a colossal undertaking and a marvelous intelligence coup—or so it seemed.
Number 2 Carlton Gardens was an unlikely nest for spies. The stately town house, with its large chandeliers and sweeping main staircase, was located in London between the Mall and the posh men’s clubs on Pall Mall. Housed in this luxury was Section Y, the arm of the British Secret Intelligence Service responsible for technical operations against the Soviet Union. It was here, in February 1954, that members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its British counterpart, known as MI6, met to discuss plans for the Berlin tunnel.
The British delegation was headed by George Young, then MI6’s director of requirements. Also attending were Peter Lunn, the head of MI6’s Berlin station, and George Blake, a member of Section Y, who took the meeting’s minutes.
One member of the American delegation was Frank Rowlett, a cryptological adviser to Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA and the brother of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In the years before World War II, Rowlett had been on the team that cracked the Japanese diplomatic code known as Purple, a crucial intelligence victory for the United States. Another member of the delegation was William King Harvey, the man who had recommended that Rowlett join the agency. Harvey had left the FBI under a cloud in 1947 and joined the fledgling CIA. By 1954 he had risen to become the CIA’s head of station in Berlin.
These men met to discuss the three telephone and telegraph cables that ran eighteen inches beneath the soil alongside the Schönefelder Chaussee, an East Berlin highway that led to Schönefeld Airport. Together, they knew, the cables contained 172 circuits. If the CIA and MI6 could listen to the traffic going over those cables, they would mine a mother lode of information about Communist intentions in Europe.
Berlin had been a source of East-West tensions even before the end of World War II. Although the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union had agreed on the division of the city in 1944, the Soviet Union had refused to guarantee its co-occupiers access to West Berlin. Tensions came to a head in June 1948, when the USSR responded to a Western campaign of currency reform in their newly united zones by blocking all Western access to Berlin. Until the Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949, Britain and the United States kept West Berlin fed with 2,323,738 tons of supplies brought in by air.
When the blockade ended, West and East Berlin had separate governments. Although the Soviets wouldn’t erect the Wall until August 1961, Berlin was still a divided city. At Potsdamerplatz, where the British, American, and Soviet sectors met, a sign on the Western side told Eastern residents where they could find a library with newspapers and magazines that the Communist authorities denied them. Matters reached another crisis in June 1953, when workers in East Berlin and later throughout East Germany revolted, but the rebellion was put down by the Soviets as the Western powers stood by and watched.
At the time of Operation Gold, Berlin seethed with espionage activity. Kidnappings by the intelligence services were common. “Berlin was exciting—frantic would be a better word,” says a former agent who was stationed there during the 1950s. “There were telephone calls at all hours of the night. It was dependent on the ability of people to cross the border, so it was a constant go go and not too much time to think.”
According to a 1967 internal CIA history of Operation Gold, “The exact moment when the idea emerged of digging a tunnel to intercept Soviet and East German communications is somewhat obscure.” The biographers of Reinhard Gehlen, a German spymaster who worked for Hitler and then for West Germany, credit him with the idea: after a member of Gehlen’s organization got plans of the cable system from a friend in the East German postal service, Gehlen met with Allen Dulles and suggested tapping them.
William Hood, the CIA’s chief of operations for Eastern Europe at the time, vigorously disputes Gehlen’s role. “He couldn’t dial a correct phone number,” Hood says. “Some of the things he and his biographers credit him with are nonsense.” According to Hood, Operation Gold was Bill Harvey’s idea.
Yet some credit must go to the British, who ran a similar, though smaller, operation in Vienna starting in 1949. Like Berlin, Vienna had been divided after the war, with France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States each taking a piece of it. Also like Berlin, Vienna provided a healthy setting for spies.
In 1949 the British head of station in Vienna was Peter Lunn. When the British discovered the location of the landlines over which Soviet representatives communicated with Moscow, Limn hatched a plan that was later known as Operation Silver or Lord. The British rented a house near the lines and dug a seventy-foot tunnel beneath a highway to reach and tap them. As a cover for its activity, MI6 opened a store to sell Harris Tweed clothing. In keeping with Britain’s reputation as a nation of shopkeepers, the business became so successful that it interfered with the tapping activities and had to be shut down.
Upon hearing about Operation Silver, the CIA decided to get into the act. At the prompting of Carl Nelson of the CIA’s office of communications, it began looking at the Vienna cables. Nelson had discovered that American encryption machines had a serious problem: they sent a brief echo of the uncoded message along with the coded one. Anyone who could figure out how to extract the echoes would be able to read the clear text. The United States quickly replaced its machines, but Nelson discovered that Soviet equipment had the same flaw. If the CIA could tap into Soviet landlines, it would be able to hear the faint background ghost of the uncoded messages.
When Nelson went to Vienna to tap Soviet lines there, he quickly stumbled onto Lunn’s operation, and the British and the Americans joined forces. But the American team was not completely forthcoming; it reportedly kept the secret of Nelson’s breakthrough to itself, leaving the British to deal with encoded transmissions.
If Operation Silver could work in Vienna, why not try something similar in Berlin? The challenge was obvious, but the obstacles were daunting. Vienna’s tunnel was only seventy feet long; the one in Berlin would have to be more than twenty times longer. The closest the Soviet communication lines came to the West was near the American sector in Rudow, a remote suburb populated largely by escapee squatters from the East. In Rudow’s desolation, almost any sort of activity would be conspicuous. It would take more than a shop to provide a cover for the tunneling.
As head of station in Berlin, Bill Harvey took the lead role in building the tunnel, which became known as Harvey’s Hole. In the years since, Harvey has become something of a legend—he played a large role in Norman Mailer’s CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost —for among the Ivy Leaguers who made up much of the early CIA, he was wildly conspicuous. As George Blake recalled years later, “This Texan had rather a Wild West approach to intelligence and, as if wishing to deliberately draw attention to this, always carried a six-shooter in an arm holster with him. Its unseemly bulge under his too-tight jacket looked somewhat incongruous in the quiet elegance of Tom Gimson’s office in Carlton Gardens where the meetings were held.”
In fact, Harvey wasn’t a Texan; he was from Indiana. Blake was right about the gun, though; Harvey always carried one. “If you ever know as many secrets as I do, then you’ll know why I carry a gun,” he said. Harvey liked to toy with his gun—spinning the chambers, looking down the barrel as he talked with people on the other side of his desk. Many found the habit disconcerting.
But while the rotund Harvey may have acted like the quintessential Ugly American, there was no doubting his abilities. He was among the first to suspect that the British agent Kim Philby was actually working for the Soviets. For Harvey it may have been a personal vendetta. In the spring of 1951, when Philby and Harvey were both based in Washington, Philby had thrown a dinner party at which his fellow spy Guy Burgess drew an indecent caricature of Harvey’s wife (who was present, along with Harvey) for the amusement of the other guests. After Burgess and Donald Maclean, a British diplomat who was also a Soviet spy, fled to Russia in 1951, Harvey wrote a memo outlining his suspicions of Philby, a memo that was instrumental in forcing Philby out of the secret service. (He fled to the Soviet Union in 1963.)
In his 1968 book My Silent War Philby wrote: “I learned later that the letter had been drafted in great part by Bill, an American official, a friend of mine, whose wife Burgess had bitterly insulted during a convivial party at my house.” Philby continues: “I had apologized handsomely for his behavior, and the apology had apparently been accepted. It was therefore difficult to understand his retrospective exercise in spite. From him of all people!”
Harvey was also a notoriously heavy drinker. His drinking may have been instrumental in his 1947 departure from the FBI, following an incident in which he spent the night in his car in Washington’s Rock Creek Park and his wife reported him missing. Rather than accept a transfer from Washington to Indianapolis, Harvey chose to leave the bureau.
“The first time he dined at my house, he showed that his habits had remained unchanged,” the fastidious Philby wrote. “He fell asleep over the coffee and sat snoring gently until midnight when his wife took him away, saying: ‘Come now, Daddy, it’s time you were in bed.’” Philby may have had his own ax to grind, but accounts of Harvey’s heavy drinking are numerous.
His habits aside, Harvey was able to persuade the CIA to attempt the tunnel project, despite its obvious difficulties. “Was it indeed possible to dig a tunnel of this magnitude … clandestinely, considering the fact that the border at this point was heavily and constantly patrolled by the East Germans, and hit the targets?” the CIA history asked. “In retrospect the first question, ‘Could the tunnel be dug?’, was never really a debatable one—those concerned more or less decided that given sufficient money and personnel the job could be done. (This judgment fortunately proved sound.)”
Following the Carlton Gardens meeting, the operation’s duties were divided between Americans and British. The CIA would procure the site, dig the tunnel to a point beneath the cables, and be responsible for recording the signals and processing the telegraphic material. The British would drive the vertical shaft from the tunnel to the cables, make the taps, send the signals to the American end of the tunnel, and process the voice recordings from the site.
The British enlisted their post office to take care of technical matters. Head of the post office’s technical department was John Taylor, who had been a communications officer for General Montgomery during the war. He worked out of cramped basement headquarters at Dollis Hill, a Victorian building in North London. “The rooms were dark and overcrowded, and thoroughly unsuitable for the work that was being attempted inside,” remembered Peter Wright in his 1987 book Spycatcher .
One important challenge would be inserting the taps without alerting the Soviets that their cables had been compromised. The cables were pressurized with nitrogen—a standard technique to keep moisture out—and any break would be given away by a pressure drop. Anyone monitoring them at the time the taps were inserted would note a sharp change. It was an unavoidable risk, and to minimize it, the taps would have to be placed quickly and efficiently. After the taps were in place, amplifiers would be placed in the chamber to boost the signal enough to send it to the tunnel’s end. According to the CIA report, “the lead-away cables were constructed of the best available materials, sheathed in lead, and handled in accordance with the highest telephone company standards.”
In the summer of 1954, while Taylor’s department worked on developing the taps, the CIA and MI6 dug practice tunnels. The British even went to the length of having blind people walk on the ground above to see if they could detect the activity beneath them.
How to keep the operation secret from the Soviets? It would be impossible to pretend that nothing was going on in Rudow; instead the CIA decided to fool the Soviets into thinking the project was a radar station to monitor traffic at the nearby airport. The agency built a large warehouse (meant as an obvious cover for the radar-spying operation) and placed antennas on its roof. The warehouse also provided a solution for disposing of the dirt- all 3,100 tons of it—that would be removed during the digging. Since carting it all away would be sure to tip off the Soviets, the tunnelers dug an extra-large basement for the warehouse and gradually filled in the basement and the warehouse itself with the excavated soil. The Americans also delivered supplies to the warehouse in large boxes, which were filled with dirt on the return journey.
The next problem was making sure the tunnel reached its target. “The lack of an adequate base line made the surveying problem especially difficult,” says the CIA history. “The engineers decided at one point that an object of known size in the East Zone would be useful as a reference point, so a baseball game was organized with the objective of knocking a baseball as far into the East Zone as possible. This scheme was frustrated by the friendliness of the East German guards who kept returning the baseball. Nonetheless, the engineers expressed confidence that they knew their position when the tunnel was completed to a point which could be contained in a six-inch cube. They were correct.” Their measurements were made easier when a pair of CIA agents in Army uniforms, making a regular patrol through the eastern sector, had a prearranged flat tire at the target location and left behind a tiny radio reflector.
The digging began in August 1954. First the engineers sank a vertical shaft in the warehouse basement eighteen feet in diameter to a depth of twenty feet below ground level. A steel ring was lowered into the shaft and braced against steel pilings. With shovels and picks, workers cleared away a couple inches of soil in front of it; then they pushed the ring forward with hydraulic jacks braced against the piling. When the ring was jacked ahead one foot, a circular section of steel liner, coated with rubber to reduce noise, was bolted into place behind it, and the process began again. Mortar injected through holes in the metal section shored up the soil around the tunnel and kept it from settling.
For long months the tunneling proceeded along its slow, laborious course: dig, jack the front ring forward, drop in a new section of liner, dig some more. The need to work in silence made the task even harder. “Careful visual observation was maintained and tunneling operations stopped each time the German guards walked over the tunnel on their regular patrols,” the CIA reported. The tunnel’s course had been planned to avoid a cemetery; unfortunately, it didn’t miss the warehouse’s own septic system. Once the tunnel reached the point directly beneath the cables, the British took over and dug the vertical shaft. They used a large cylinder with a series of slats at the top. The soil above the cylinder was removed slat by slat, and then the whole unit was pushed up.
The tap chamber had to be large enough to accommodate the crew working inside it yet strong enough to support traffic on the road above. It also had to be carefully insulated, so the traffic passing immediately overhead wouldn’t make it reverberate like a huge drum. (Nonetheless, “In spite of the insulation, it was a weird sensation to be in the chamber when a iron-shod horse trotted across it,” the CIA report noted.) To protect the chamber from excess humidity, it was sealed off from the rest of the tunnel with vapor barriers and a heavy steel-and-concrete door. The CIA report said: “This door bore the following inscription neatly lettered in German and Cyrillic: ‘Entry is forbidden by order of the Commanding General.’ It was reasoned that this sign might give pause to Soviet and/or German officials and gain time. As a matter of fact, there were those Communist individuals who considered the posting of this sign as one of the most audacious aspects of the entire undertaking.”
In February of 1955, a year after the planning meeting in London, everything was ready for the taps to be installed. All the equipment for capturing, amplifying, and transmitting the signals was in place. Some six hundred tape recorders stood ready to capture the purloined transmissions. (A few spymasters worried that the installation would noticeably affect the world market for recording tape.) John Wyke, an MI6 agent who had taken part in Peter Lunn’s Vienna operation, carefully placed the taps, no doubt hoping that no one monitoring the cables at that instant would notice the sharp spike in nitrogen pressure as the taps went home. “The tap was the riskiest moment of the entire venture,” wrote David Martin in a superb account of the operation contained in his 1980 book Wilderness of Mirrors .
Almost immediately the operation was flooded with information. A small group of workers processed data right at the site from circuits considered “hot.” Their daily briefings were sent to Washington for analysis. Voice recordings went to London, where 250 Russian émigrés working out of an office near Regent’s Park translated them. Telegraphic and other material went each week to Washington, where it was studied at the “Hosiery Mill,” in one of the temporary buildings set up along the Reflecting Pool during World War II. There a buzzing device nicknamed the “bumblebee” separated the clear text from the coded messages and printed it out for the translators and analysts.
The sheer mass of material was staggering. Richard Bissell, who would later replace Dulles as CIA director, thought it was too much. “I was tempted to issue a ration to the German station of the number of words they could transmit in a month, because I was convinced that this flow of words into Washington was probably counterproductive.” The analysts ignored his suggestions.
The tunnel remained in operation for eleven months and eleven days. There were a few scares, such as the foggy morning when technicians heard a series of dull thuds from just above the tap chamber. “After the sun burned away the fog, visual observation showed that the East German police had set up a temporary automobile checkpoint directly over the chamber. The ‘thuds’ the microphone picked up were caused by the police officer in charge stomping his feet on the road surface to keep warm.”
William Hood recalls another time when it snowed in Berlin. “It was just a light dusting,” he says. “It never snows very much in Berlin. But as they say, ‘the grass is always greener over the cesspool,’ and there was a straight line of melted snow from one end of the tunnel to the other.” Air-conditioning equipment was hastily installed in the tunnel.
The operation came to a sudden end on April 21, 1956, when East German technicians searching for a fault in one of the cables discovered the taps. One of the cables had been in poor condition from the start, and CIA analysts assumed that water had gotten into it after a period of heavy rainfall. Moisture had always been the operation’s enemy, and great care had been taken to prevent water from entering the cables, to the point where the tap chamber would be evacuated and dehumidified if the technicians’ breath and perspiration created too much moisture.
Not everybody believed the discovery had been an accident. “After it happened, Bill Harvey said it was definitely the result of treason, betrayal,” recalls one CIA agent. “At the time I didn’t think so. There was constant trouble with the phone lines. The conditions were difficult. There was a lot of water, dampness, cold. Lines went out. Lines lost their effect. They were laid out in segments so you could isolate defective cables by testing parts of them. If you began to have trouble, you could narrow it down. That was an ever-present threat to the operation.”
Before proceeding with the tunnel, the CIA had discussed likely Soviet reactions to its discovery and decided that they would be too embarrassed to go public. It was wrong. On April 23 Col. Ivan A. Kotsyuba, acting commandant of the Soviet military garrison in East Berlin, held a press conference for members of the Western press and then took them on a tour of the tunnel. “The chamber near the Soviet sector end of the tunnel looked like the communications center of a battleship,” said The New York Times . At least one American official said Soviet charges of U.S. involvement were “ridiculous,” but the evidence indicated otherwise. “The tunnel was kept dry by pumps bearing the insignia of the Gould Pump Company of Seneca Falls, N.Y.,” the Times reported.
For a while the Eastern end of the tunnel became a tourist attraction, and a refreshment stand there did a brisk business. But although the Eastern press heartily condemned the tunnel, Western papers tended to look at it as something of a lark. The Washington Post wrote, “The probable result of all this has been to give the anti-Communist resistance in East Germany a good deal of amusement and encouragement.” For Time magazine it was a “Wonderful Tunnel” and (in the words of a Berlin journalist interviewed for the story) “the best publicity the U.S. has had in Berlin for a long time.”
For the CIA’s analysts, work continued on the huge backlog of data. Not until September of 1958—two and a half years after the tunnel’s discovery—did they finish with all the material that had been collected. The British were still translating their material in the early 1960s.
And what kind of material was it? “Whether it was sexy, hold-your-breath data, I tend to doubt it,” says one topranked CIA officer from the era. Supposedly the tunnel provided much valuable data about the Soviet Union’s order of battle—its military readiness. It may have alerted the West that the railroads in Eastern Europe were in much worse shape than they had known. And a lot of it seems to have been gossip: that the wife of a general was smuggling Oriental rugs back to the USSR or that another general was about to become a father. If the tunnel was responsible for any great intelligence coups, nobody has yet revealed them.
There was a reason why the Soviets did not send any important data over the tapped lines. According to George Blake, the MI6 officer who took the minutes at the planning meeting in London, “the full details of the tunnel operation had been known to the Soviet authorities before even the first spade had been put in the ground.” Blake was in a position to know. He told them.
Blake was born George Behar in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1922. His father was a Jew from Constantinople; his mother was Dutch. Blake’s father had served with the British army in World War I and become a naturalized British citizen; he named his son George after the king. During World War II Blake was successively a courier in the Dutch underground, an officer in the British navy, and a member of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). He stayed with the SIS after the war and was stationed in Korea when war broke out in that country. After being captured by North Korean forces, he spent three years as their prisoner.
During his imprisonment Blake decided to turn traitor, which made many suspect that he had been brainwashed. In his 1990 book No Other Choice Blake asserts that his decision was based on purely altruistic motives. “I joined because of ideals,” he says, adding that his interest in communism had been piqued by a briefing manual prepared for British intelligence officers. In any event, when Blake returned to Britain in 1953, he had switched sides.
Two days after the meeting at Carlton Gardens, Blake met with his Soviet contact. “I handed to him film of the minutes taken at the meetings together with the accompanying sketches and plans which I had been able to photograph in my office during lunchtime the previous day,” he wrote. “My Soviet opposite number was much impressed with the audacity of the scheme and its magnitude and asked me to meet him again soon so that we could discuss it in more detail and I could keep him informed of any fresh developments.”
Blake continued to spy for the Soviet Union until 1961, when information provided by a British contact in the Polish intelligence service placed him under suspicion. During his interrogation Blake confessed. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to forty-two years in prison, but he escaped after serving only five and a half. He was smuggled out of Britain and resurfaced in Moscow. He still lives in Russia.
Blake’s arrest must have led to a reappraisal of the tunnel’s value. At the very least his betrayal raised the possibility that the Soviets had used the tunnel to spread false intelligence —disinformation—to the West.
During the tunnel project Richard Helms was the number-two man in the Directorate for Plans, the CIA branch responsible for covert operations. Although he says his memory is hazy on details of the tunnel, he doubts that the Soviets used it for disinformation. After Blake’s arrest, “there’s no question that another look was taken at it,” he says, but “nobody picked up anything. The Russians are not necessarily ten feet tall. They were trying to work through the military and in this case I’m not sure the KGB was willing to take that one on. It takes quite a lot of work to do that [run a disinformation campaign]. Maybe they did, but if so, it was of no significance.
“With all the betrayal associated with it,” Helms says, “the operation did turn out to be an amazing technical achievement. And it worked. That’s the main thing.”
Another high-ranking CIA officer from the time also dismisses the idea that the intelligence was tainted. “The notion the Russians were using it to deceive us is poppycock,” he says. “There was too much of it.” In any event the Americans had kept the secret of Carl Nelson’s “echo” to themselves, so Blake couldn’t have alerted the Soviets that the Americans were reading their encrypted messages.
But in that case why did the Soviets allow the operation to run as long as it did? “There was endless speculation about that,” one CIA agent says. “None of us can explain it.” The Soviets would have been concerned, of course, about exposing Blake. If the discovery appeared to be an accident, Blake would remain safe. Perhaps their motive was nothing more elaborate than tying up large numbers of Western spy personnel on something of no value.
As for Bill Harvey, on the day the tunnel was discovered, someone in the Berlin station placed a black wreath on his door. In 1960 he left Berlin and returned to the United States, where he was put in charge of the CIA end of Operation Mongoose, the attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. But the often abrasive Harvey rubbed the Kennedys the wrong way. (In one oftrepeated tale he tore a teletype printout from Robert Kennedy’s hands when the Attorney General tried to take it out of the room.) His drinking began to catch up with him, and after an unsuccessful posting as head of station in Rome, Harvey was summoned back to the United States and retirement. At his farewell party in Rome, he reportedly wandered down the street to urinate on the U.S. Embassy. He died in 1976.
After their vain attempt to exploit the tunnel for propaganda purposes, the Soviets tore the sections on the East Berlin side out of the ground. Reportedly the Americans plugged their end with concrete: “After all, it was a route both ways,” says one ex-CIA man. When Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond and thus a man who knew a good spy story when he heard one, visited Berlin several years later, he found that the tunnel had become a part of local lore. One story involved the farmer who owned the fields under which the tunnel ran. Upset that Operation Gold had ruined his land (or knowing an opportunity when he saw one), he tried to sue the United States. For good measure, he tried to sue the Soviet Union too.