AN ESTONIAN’S ‘LIFE AS A SPY’
A contribution received thanks to Gordon
Peacock which shows the ‘other side’ at work.
The 86th Independent Radio Technical Regiment Osnaz
The call-up (povestka)was for 27 November 1963, when I was to
second year in my studies at the English philology department in
the Faculty of History, “ report to the Voyenkomat (voyenny
komissariat), the local conscription office in the
Estonian university town of Tartu”. I had completed the first
year and attended classes for the first two and a half months of
I had been a keen linguist since secondary school, where I had
avidly read adapted English books ever since I started learning
the language in Form Eight. But 1 soon felt I was ready for a
more serious challenge and, probably influenced by Cuba
joining the Soviet bloc in 1959, searched libraries in my native
town of Viljandi for material to start learning Spanish. The search brought up
only an elementary school book and after literally reading it
through and with nothing else to go on, German soon took my
fancy. I taught myself the language with the assistance of a
pre-war serial publication, diligently doing all the grammar
exercises and learning the peculiarities of Plusquamperfekt.
Preparing for my school-leaving exams I decided I should try
take the exams in English and German and was awarded an
“excellent” mark (5) in English and a “good” one (4) in German.
My school Russian was poor at the time although we had had the
subject since Form Two. Russian was not a popular subject in
Estonian schools in those times, so when preparing for entrance
exams to the university I consulted my Russian secondary school
teacher. However, there was too little time and so my efforts in
Russian were only valued with a “satisfactory” mark (3) at the
exam. As I got a “three” also for my Estonian essay, in which I
compared the Ten Commandments with the Moral Code of the Builder
of Communism, finding that there was much in common between
them, I feel that my enrolment may have partly due to my extra
mark in German.
At the university I immediately enrolled in an optional class of
Spanish. But as the classes took place only once a week 1 soon
found the progress was too slow. So when browsing the shelves at
the Tartu Teadus bookshop I came upon a slim East German volume
entitled “Wir lernen Spanisch sprechen” (Spanish self-taught), I
quickly decided to buy it - after all, it only cost a few
kopecks. I read the book from cover to cover within perhaps a
month and then went and bought the next two books in the series,
Italian and French.
Meanwhile I had signed myself into a once-weekly class of Arabic
at the university’s Oriental Studies Room but there, too,
progress was slow and I barely managed to learn to read the
script and acquire some set phrases, such as “There's no God but
Allah and Mohammad is his prophet.” Contrary to how this looks, the class,
given by the now prominent poet and political writer Jaan Kaplinski, had nothing
to do with Islamic propaganda.
So by the time of my conscription I had acquired shallow
background knowledge of quite a number of languages (I had even
had a go at Kiswahili) and filling in my conscription
questionnaire I naturally entered all my newly acquired
linguistic skills in the appropriate box. I presume this rather
impressive although boastful list may have decided my fate for
the next three years. Nevertheless, I had no idea on 27 November what
kind of service was in store for me and visualised the horrors of three years in the
infantry, a construction battalion (stroibat),
the strategic missile forces or worse still, in the navy, where
the term of service was four years.
I was taken with dozens of other young men sharing my fate by
train under escort (konvoi) from Tartu to Liepaja in Latvia,
with stops at transfer points (peresylochnie punkty) at Hiiu in Tallinn
and in Riga.
At a certain point during the konvoi all conscripts had their hair cropped.
Arriving in Liepaja I was bunked in a huge barracks hall, perhaps 40 metres long by
30 wide, filled with double-deck bunks. Our
uniforms were issued to us immediately on arrival. We were taken
to a sauna, left our own clothes
there and emerged dressed in khaki. Daily working uniform
included an overcoat (shinel’).
This was rolled up and carried over the shoulder on guard duty
as well as during exercises, when we also had to carry a gas
mask. The overcoat was a nuisance to carry but good to use as a
blanket whenever there was a chance to take a nap.
The regime was rigorous. When the alarm sounded everyone had to
be in line within a minute, in trousers, boots and long-sleeved
shirt. Those who didn’t manage this in time were punished,
usually by assigning them to “dva/tri
naryada vne ocheredi” (two or three extra details).
On the order “Left turn!” we were marched out in single file to
fall in outside the front door for morning exercises. This
happened in any kind of weather and usually involved some
warming up, then a run round the block, a distance of about one
and a half kilometres.
The barracks, probably purpose-built in the late 19th or early
20th century, stood perhaps half a kilometre from the city centre
at the corner of Apsu (Wasp) and Darza (Garden) Streets.
When I arrived at the end of 1963 both
the streets were open to the public but within about a year a
fence was put up around the area, enclosing the barracks, the
lorry park across Apsu and the club, sports ground and infirmary
exercises some time was set aside for washing and shaving (with
cold water), polishing boots and copper belt buckles (blyakha)
as well as sewing a strip of white cotton cloth as a collar to
the army jacket (gimnastyorka).
In the line-up for breakfast the sergeant carefully checked the
results and discovery of yesterday's collar or an insufficiently
brilliant belt buckle necessarily brought punishment.
40 Metre March to the Mess Hall
in the mess hall downstairs. We were not allowed to walk there
independently but lined up in column of threes in front of the
door, given the order “Right turn!”
and marched the 40 metres to the door to the mess hall, where
there were further orders were given to get us to enter the mess
hall in single file. We were even ordered to sit down, and after
eating to stand up. The meal consisted of a few slices of black
and white bread, mashed potato or porridge (wheat, buckwheat or
millet), washed down with tea. For lunch there was kisel (a starchy sweet fruit drink), also soup and
sometimes, perhaps once a week, a minced meat burger (kotleta).
We sat ten men to a table and the meal was served by one of the
chaps in the middle (razvodyashchy) with a ladle from large metal pots (bachok)
and passed round. The “cutlery” was limited to aluminium
The conscripts were mainly from the Baltic countries, including
several called up after graduation from the university. This was
because military instruction at universities had recently been
discontinued and university graduates who had not had any
military training were to be called up for two years, given
special instruction and released with the rank of junior
lieutenant. Apart from myself there were others whose university
studies had been interrupted by conscription while most had a
secondary education. Later another batch of young men came from
Ukraine, as well as a few from Georgia, but they didn’t
end up serving in my company (rota).
Drill and Classes
For the first two months most of the day was spent on marching
drill and classes (zanyatiya)
including weapons training. Each recruit was issued with an AK (Kalashnikov)
automatic rifle, and these were kept in special locked cupboards
along the barracks walls.
Special attention was paid to the speed of disassembling
and reassembling the rifle as well as cleaning it after use.
Other instruction included ZOMP (zashchita
ot oruzhiya massovogo porozheniya - protection from
weapons of mass destruction), physical training - there were
parallel bars, a horizontal bar, a buck and a pommel horse in
the barracks and soldiers were encouraged to exercise on them in
their free moments - service manuals, political education (held
in the Lenin Room - Lenkomnata), special skills, such as Morse
code, referred to in military jargon as SES (stantsionno-ekspluatatsionnaya
sluzhba), and the basics of radio engineering (radiotekhnika).
During that stage I learned the American GI’s phonetic alphabet
Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, etc., and will probably remember
it to my dying day. The Lenkomnata perhaps needs a little
explanation. It had of course a bust of Lenin, and nearly all
the walls of the room were covered with various political
posters, notices with the soldiers’ performance results and a
board of honour with the portraits of exemplary soldiers, but it
also had a billiard table, chess and draughts tables as well as
a TV set.
Apart from political classes, it was the place where Komsomol meetings
took place and where the men spent most of their free time.
Towards the end of the initial training period the young
soldiers were taken to a shooting range outside the city where
we were to demonstrate our marksmanship with our personal AKs.
My performance was average, although I had done better shooting
with an air rifle at secondary school military training classes.
The recruit period ended with all conscripts taking the oath of
allegiance to the Soviet Union, upon which we were assigned to
our combat units and real service began.
My service boiled down to six-hour shifts at the regiment’s position (pozitsiya)
on the outskirts of Liepaja. It was quite a large fenced territory consisting of a
reception centre or PTs (priyomny tsentr), garages for military vehicles, the fuel
depot (sklad GSM - goryuche-smazochnykh materialov), direction finding
equipment, the unit’s pig farm, some potato plots and
last but not least the guard room.
I spent most of the time during the rest of my service of two years and nine months either at the PTs or
on guard duty. We normally worked six hours and then had 12,
sometimes 18 or more hours off before another six-hour shift at
the PTs. When there was a detail manned from our company and I
was not included, which was quite often, we worked six hours at
the PTs, were driven back to the barracks, had our meal and
climbed into our bunks to get some sleep before we were woken up
in time for the next six-hour shift. This kind of arrangement
was called six by six (shest’ po shest’).
The PTs was a single-storey building filled with radio
receivers. It had a long corridor, a command room, a room for
technicians and another for radio monitors. There were four
shifts in 24 hours, starting at 09.00, 15.00, 21.00 and 03.00
hours. Shifts began with instruction by the duty officer for
those posted for duty for the next six hours, including DF
operators. The combat (boyevoi)
nature of the service was often underlined. The actual work
consisted of monitoring certain
frequencies and putting down all the communications we could
My duty was to monitor voice and teletype (TTY) communications
between stations in the North Atlantic and North Sea navigation network.
It had stations from Germany (DML) to Norway (JXP, JXS, JXT – if I remember
correctly JXT was situated on Jan Mayen), the Faeroe Islands (OUN),
Iceland (NMS2) and Greenland (VDB, VDB2). OUN was the main station, which called the others
for radio checks every hour on the hour.
The network operated on two short-wave frequencies on SSB
(single side band) and it was quite difficult at first
to catch what was being said in this slightly garbled
high-pitched English, often mixed with static. After all, I had
had little chance of hearing real native English speakers
communicating with each other during my studies, as all our
teachers at the university had been Estonian. But eventually my
ears got used to the peculiarities of the signal.
For TTY there was a different frequency and when we heard a
station calling another, saying it had a TTY message, I was
supposed to quickly tune one of the two receivers to the TTY
frequency and switch on the TTY printer. All communications were
recorded in pencil on A4 sheets and handed over to the command
room at the end of the shift. To help us out there was an army
tape recorder, Zvuk-1,
at the desk. During my whole service I only remember one
incident when there was free
voice communication between two stations of the OUN network. It
happened between DML in Sylt, Germany, and VDB2 in Greenland.
There was a new man at VDB2 and calling DML he enquired about
life there and spoke about his own experiences, including
meetings with polar bears in the neighbourhood. Although
interesting, the conversation was evidently of no value to the
officers who were trying to crack the code the network was using
in its TTY messages.
Work on post (boyevoi post) was actually quite interesting.
Towards the end of my service I even started to think that it would be great to
have a job like this on Civvy Street. We were supposed to keep
only one of the two receivers on the OUN frequency and
were encouraged to search for stations of military relevance on
the other one. I remember that only once I chanced upon open
communications between units involved in war games in West Germany.
In my own interests I regularly used the other receiver to
listen to various English-speaking stations, mainly the BBC and
Voice of America, and to print news from news agencies - above
all AFP, but also Reuters, UPI, the Italian ANSA and others. The
teletype signal was easy to recognise and assess in terms of
printing quality and so we had easy access to news no Soviet
news channel would ever carry. I managed to smuggle out some of
these news reports and I still have them stacked away somewhere
in my bookcase.
The valve receivers were large heavy boxes but their technical
performance was great,
as far as I could judge. The old-type KROT receiver had the
short wave divided up into l2 frequency bands with two tuning
controls, one for rough and the other for fine tuning. Using
these controls it only took a few seconds to find the desired
frequency. Instead of the KROTs we later came to have R250Ms
which, if I remember correctly, had 24 frequency bands from
about 200 metres to cover the whole short-wave band. This
machine was even more impressive in its performance. The TTY
printer made a lot of noise despite its wooden casing but when
the signal was loud and clear it produced faultless text,
although only in lower case. The tape recorder was also far
better than similar civilian machines at the time. Towards the
end of my period of service officers of our company were testing
mnogokratka, a teletype machine that was supposed to
be able to receive four different texts from one signal, but my
service ended before they could get it into operation.
Apart from searching the bands and listening to news I sometimes
tuned in to music stations - to listen to the British Top
Twenty, German Schlager or Italian canzoni, although this was
strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, we obtained our own tapes and
later smuggled them out of the unit with recordings of Western
music. Yet another way of whiling away the long night hours was
to take an English book on shift in the leg of my army boot.
Often I managed to read it through in six hours. Night shifts
were particularly suitable for this as there was next to no fear
of any officer suddenly turning up in the
monitoring room. It was a good thing we were permitted to use
dictionaries during the shift, as a detective story could easily
be slid under the dictionary in case of trouble. Although no
reading matter was allowed during the shift, some officers
closed their eyes to such misconduct. Books could be borrowed
from fellow-soldiers, all of whom had a small stock, but later
we discovered a better source - an officer from our regiment who
had served for a few years in Cuba and had brought back several suitcases full of American
paperbacks. Most were detective stories but there were some
Steinbecks among them. Often I worked on my
teach-yourself books during the shift.
There assignments for those manning other desks included
monitoring coded messages sent by US B-47
aircraft on their regular reconnaissance flights
up the Baltic over international waters. As soon as a signal was
picked up orders were given to the DF operators sitting at radar
screens in their lorries in the Liepaja pozitsiya as well as to posts in Kaliningrad
, Ventspils farther up the coast and Kuressaare (then Kingissepa) in Estonia.
If the tracks happened to be closer to shore than usual a Vozdukh! alarm was
given. The idea was probably to raise the soldiers’ vigilance,
as no real attack could naturally be expected from a routine
Although I kept my OUN assignment all through my service at
certain times most other regular duties were abandoned and all
efforts were switched to the US space programme. That was a time when the Soviets and Americans
were running neck and neck in the space race and the 86th
Independent Radiotechnical Regiment also apparently wanted to do
its bit. We were sometimes given additional duties of monitoring
US satellite tracking stations as far away as Kano and Mauritius
and the aerial system was even improved to intercept remote
radio communications. On launch days, however, we were put on
combat duty (boyevaya zadacha) to receive the press agencies and
listen to the Voice of America.
The UPI or AFP flash messages from the Cape Canaveral launch
pad went immediately to the command room.
It must have been in my third year of services that a university
course mate of mine arrived in our unit.
While majoring in English he devoted a lot
of time to learning Swedish and must have acquired quite a good
knowledge of the language in two years. He had been conscripted
one year after me and sent to a unit in Riga that had similar duties to ours.
Wearing naval uniform he was put aboard a navy ship in Liepaja for
the purpose of intercepting communications between Swedish
aircraft and ground stations as well as between naval ships. I
no longer remember exactly, but I have the impression his
mission lasted about a month. Later he told us how Swedish and
other aircraft had flown low over their ship. He then returned
to his unit in Riga and I only saw him again during my third year at university.
After graduation he got a job at Radio Estonia’s Swedish service
and was one of the compilers of the first post-war Swedish-Estonian dictionary.
After one year of service a new batch of conscripts came to the
unit. Some of the new recruits came from Central Asia
and communication with them was a really difficult because of
their extremely poor command of Russian. But among the new men
in our platoon was a chap called Tom (with Russified
patronymic), as I could read from his service i/d (voyenny
bilet). Born of Latvian parents and brought up in Canada, he had lived in
Riga from the age of 14 when his parents had decided to return to
their native country. I never understood the reasons why the
family had left the free world to live in Soviet-occupied Latvia,
and Tom was either unwilling to explain or didn’t know.
Although not very intellectual, he was a native speaker of English, the first
I had personal contact with, apart from my optional Spanish teacher at Tartu
University, Arthur Hone, who had arrived in Estonia shortly before the
outbreak of World War II to marry the writer Aira Kaal and never
had the chance to return to England. Later my lecturer on
English and American literature, he lies buried in Tartu’s
Raadi cemetery, with a modest memorial erected by his
students. When I had a chance of improving my English at Surrey University
in 1986, I visited his sister in Wimbledon and later met her son
at my lodgings in Guildford.
Tom was a nice sort and I was lucky to be bunked next to him. I put this
opportunity to advantage, speaking English with him as often as
I could. At the time there was a craze among the radio
monitoring group of copying the lyrics of popular songs, which
were often quite difficult to decipher. Here Tom came to our
help with the trickier bits, such as “slide rule” in Sam Cooke’s
“What a Wonderful World” and many others. But the biggest bonus
from bunking next to Tom for the next 21 months was that when I
re-enrolled in the university after my service I could speak
English more or less fluently at colloquial level, although with
an American accent.
Sitting in the PTs listening in to conversations somewhere thousands of miles
away was not the only aspect of the service. There was a more
military side to it as well - details, 24-hour duties in the
barracks, at the pozitsiya, the unit headquarters or in the mess hall.
The details rotated from company to company and provided a
certain change from the daily routine, although it was certainly
much nicer to sit in the PTs than walk around the GSM storage
area for two-hour shifts
with your AK slung over your shoulder, or to wash dishes in the
mess hall, actually
in a room next to the kitchen. All those assigned for a detail
were permitted a few hours sleep after lunch and had to
be ready for the detail instruction (razvod)
later in the afternoon. The razvod actually boiled down to little more than a
check whether the men had clean white collars, shining belt
buckles and boots and whether their hair was properly cropped.
The mess detail was regarded as, and in fact was, the most onerous one:
there were the tables to be cleared, the dishes of about three
to four hundred men to be washed - aluminium bowls (miska)
and enamel-lined but badly chipped metal mugs (kruzhka),
large metal serving pots along with the aluminium table spoons -
and the food to be laid out for the next meal. It was hard work,
particularly if you were unfamiliar with it and didn’t know the
tricks that made it much easier. For example, fat could easily
be washed off if some mustard powder were added to the water.
Otherwise the fat could only be removed in very hot water that
made you hands red and burn all over. I remember going to sleep
in the small hours after the evening meal and asking the orderly
(dnevalny) to wake me at half past five or six so as to have breakfast
ready in time.
Orderly service was much easier. You stood at a small box (tumbochka)
guarding the entrance to the barracks. The orderly was also
responsible for order in the barracks, among other things
checking that the bunks, and particularly the stripes on the
blankets, were all in line. On the arrival of an officer he had
to shout “Attention!” and call out the duty sergeant who was in
charge of the orderly detail. A less pleasant aspect was the
orderly’s duty to clean the toilet.
Finally there was guard duty, carried out at two different locations within
the regiment and occasionally at the garrison detention cells. A
guard consisted of three men for each post, and the duty was in
three shifts of two hours each - one on the post, one staying
alert in the guard room and one resting. In summer it was a real
pleasure to walk around the post and watch the neighbourhood,
but with bitter cold in winter in was not so pleasant. To keep
warm in winter guards wore large sheepskin coats (tulup).
The worst location was guard No 1, the headquarters of the unit in the
beach area of the city. Post 1 on that guard duty during a
weekday meant that you had to stand for two hours next to the
regimental flag, closed in a glass case, and if an officer
passed, which happened every few minutes, you had to pull
yourself to attention.
Guard duty at the pozitsiya was much more pleasant, particularly if you
were assigned to post No 2 or 3 in summer. These two posts were
only a few hundred metres from the sea and there were no
buildings between them and the beach. The beach in Liepaja is
soft, sandy and wide, a holidaymaker’s paradise, and although
there was no way we could get to the actual seashore while on
duty there was a certain sense of freedom in the scenery that
made you forget your automatic rifle and dream of the time when
you would eventually be free to return home.
On a Pass
As service progressed and I moved on from the first year to the second and
from the second to the third, I was allowed out more often on a
Sunday pass. The old part of the town is very nice. At the time
when I served there the barracks was situated in an area of
mainly wooden one-family houses lined along the streets. There
are several churches - one, as I learned later, was where a
Finnish infantry company had had its services during
World War I. A funny little tram ran through the old town,
single track for some of the distance, so that a tram
approaching the point where the tracks merged had to wait for
the other tram to pass before it could continue. The city centre
had a teacher training college, a theatre and a department store
as well as a municipal library. I remember spending a lot
of time there reading various foreign papers and magazines.
Naturally, they mostly came from socialist countries, but there was also an
Italian left-wing magazine, Vie Nuove, and I went there to read it whenever I had
Being Estonian I knew very well that Russian soldiers were not welcome in a
Latvian city. On my earlier visits to Latvia I had been ignored by Latvians
when attempting to approach them in Russian, for example to ask the way.
So I asked one of my Latvian fellow-soldiers to teach
me some Latvian, which he was quite pleased to do. The words and
expressions he taught me proved quite useful in the city and
raised my self-confidence.
I even bought a Latvian-Russian and Russian-Latvian dictionary
(still have it on my shelf) and attempted to read Latvian
newspapers, although not very successfully, as other languages,
mainly English, but also Italian, were my priority.
I had got married shortly before being conscripted to give my
girl friend confidence that we would continue to live together
after my service, and I was lucky enough to see her several times
during my years of service. She often came to Liepaja during the three years.
This was something even the officers
understood and so I didn’t have to plead with them too much to
give me a pass to spend time with her. These were naturally the
best hours and days of my stay in Liepaja and probably another of the
reasons why I do not look back at the three years as wasted time.
By the time I graduated from university I had received three
more years of military training (one day a week was reserved for
it). After completion of fourth year studies at the university
we were taken to Klooga for a two-month
training camp and commissioned as junior lieutenants of
motorised infantry. By 1986 I had been promoted senior
lieutenant of the reserve and transferred to the category of
political officer - all without any initiative of my own.
That year I was called up for 25 days’ Spetspropaganda training.
One of those called up with me is now the Estonian Ambassador to NATO.
The purpose of this Spetspropaganda training was to give us an
idea how to publish newspapers in English and German for the
local population in countries where the Spetspropaganda unit
would be stationed.
The rather primitive presses for printing the papers were mounted on army trucks.
Very little imagination is required to understand the
circumstances in which this could have happened! This may give
you an idea of what Soviet military doctrine was about even in Gorbachev's time!
MERCURY GRASS AND ALL THAT – A 70 YEAR OLD’S
Jeremy Wheeler’s notes on life at JSSL, Crail,
Maresfield, Birgelen and RAF Gatow – in West Berlin during the
approx. period from June 1956 to end January 1958.
I successfully completed my 28th Intake Russian
Translator's course at JSSL Crail early in 1957. I had been an
average student with some moderate abilities as a linguist
having taken French and German at "A" level with Latin and Greek
at "O" level and had
passed all of the regular Russian examinations to which we were
subjected every two weeks with something - but not a lot - to
spare. I cannot say that I strained myself that much and could
probably have done a little better had I spent more time
learning my Russian vocabulary and less time in the bars of the
various local licensed premises.
The first among these was the East Neuk in Crail - owned
by Duncan Jardine – where I regularly played dominos with Cpl.
Jim Hopper, a red-headed solicitor, who wore smart Scottish
regimental tartan trews with a fancy bonnet to match and who had
a Law degree from Edinburgh together with his fellow Scot a
Glasgow University man called Alick Holland, a Cameronian. Other
regular ports of call were the Pitmilly House Hotel and the
Royal Hotel in St Andrews.
My regular pursuit of a
number of ladies at University at the Union dances, and my playing rugby and squash, when I
should have been revising, also took their toll on my
I did not realise when playing rugby at Crail that our standoff half - a
certain RAF man called Eddie George - would one day be Governor
of the Bank of England. The scrum-half Naval Coder David Parry-
Jones was also quite useful. Neither of them, however, could
compare in the eyes of C.P.O. Pearce, our Crail rugby coach,
with Carwyn James, who had been at Bodmin and later played for
Wales and became a legendary coach of the British Lions. Rugby at Crail did also mean obtaining tickets for internationals at
Murrayfield. I recall with pleasure those wonderful Edinburgh Rose
Street and finishing up extremely drunk at a dance at the Herriot Watt Engineering College later that night.
As a somewhat laid back
19-year-old, in the early stages of the Crail Russian Course I
had been no match for the super brains like Messrs. Dan
Salbstein from Epsom School, Michael Gale a Law graduate from
Kings College Cambridge, David Wiggins with a First in Greats
from Brasenose, Oxford who had come top in The Civil Service
Exam for the whole of UK and David Storey from Westminster
School, who were all amongst others whisked off to Cambridge to
do the Interpreter's Course, about which much has already been
written by others.
One unfortunate fellow - a smallish fair-haired chap, whose name
escapes me - had also scored high marks in the first major
examination, which would have meant normally that he would have
gone to Cambridge with the others. He was, however, deemed a security risk by some
obscure powers that be apparently, so he told me, because it had
been discovered that his father had once met Mr Harry Pollit
–the British Communist Party leader- and so he was returned to
his unit almost immediately. Furthermore, he was one of the few
that had actually studied Russian before going to Crail, which
was perhaps also not a good thing to have done in the eyes of
those mysterious powers that be!
My one lasting achievement at Crail seems to have been that I managed
to coin the nickname of Sorok Odeen (41 in Russian) for that
rather sinister and pale-faced instructor, who used to teach us
endless strings of codes and numerals using a microphone and
tape recorder. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Peter
Duskin on Intake 32 (2 after me) that later kursanty long after
my time also called him that.
Following my seven months at Crail, along with most - though not all - of my
fellow army kursanty from 28th Intake, I attended a
course on Russian Radio Voice Intercept at Benhall, out on the
Gloucester Road, which was part of the GCHQ Complex in Cheltenham.
Those wooden huts were until quite recently still there, though
they have probably now gone since the new multi-million GCHQ
centre was constructed.
3-month course, we lived in Cheltenham's
Milverton Hotel, an impressive looking building which is now (or
was anyway until recently) the Headquarters of the International
food company Kraft Jacobs Suchar. In 1957, the Milverton was
owned or managed by a Mr Runciman and we lucky National Service
privates lived there and worked in civilian clothes, with most
weekends free, whilst we were still in the Army. This for those
who know anything about National Service in general was a quite
genuinely bizarre situation. Mind you, the Milverton Hotel,
despite its imposing colonnaded front, was not luxurious by any
means, but we did have our meals served to us in the hotel
dining room by waitresses with clean cloths on the tables, which
were properly laid, with water jugs, etc.
Most of us lived in the Hotel's Annexe in Parabola Road, overlooking the
famously upmarket and expensive Cheltenham Ladies College, which
was something of a diversion that stirred the minds of not a few
of us, whose encounters with the opposite sex had for the most
part been limited to a few "gropes" with well brought-up girls
at St Andrews University or nurses on holiday in St Andrews for
the "Glasgow holiday fortnight"
In 1957, coffee bars were still in vogue and there were quite a few in
Cheltenham. After dinner at the Milverton, we used to repair to one called
The Black Tulip in the Parade for a cappuccino or espresso. Our
favoured drinking spot was a place further up the hill near the
Queens Hotel in Montpellier Street called "The Buttery Bar" kept
by a dark somewhat Italianate-looking Welshman called Tony,
where they sold Wm Younger's No. 3 on draught, which was a
favoured tipple of the more hardened drinkers amongst us led by
the late and much lamented Huw Lloyd Williams – already by that
time an articled solicitor from Wrexham. He and my pals Roger
Beasley, who died in Brazil a few years ago and Eric Pusey a Modern Language Graduate from
Exeter University and Michael Goldsmid, ex Haileybury took our beer rather
seriously - much as people these days view wine. MacEwans and
Younger's beers both being found in and around Crail had
remained our favourites.
Cheltenham was really quite a pleasant town, and was still in those days
peopled by lots of retired military and civil service officers
and outwardly a bastion of gentility. However - like many towns-
it did have its rougher spots particularly in a place at the
bottom end of the Promenade known as Dingle Dell where some of
the town's hard men gathered. The Town Hall had dances on
Saturday nights which were fairly lively. It had, I recall, an
upstairs balcony from where one could look down on the dance
An amusing diversion at Cheltenham was - just to show how relaxed things
were and how far we had drifted away from the reality of army
life- that Mike Goldsmid, being a fairly affluent young
18-year-old, decided that the Milverton Hotel annexe wasn't
perhaps quite good enough and he and I went looking for rooms in
an annexe to the Irving Hotel owned by Mr Charles Irving -
actually the Local Conservative MP and sometime Mayor of
Cheltenham. He was somewhat amazed, bemused and possibly even
"taken" with the idea that a couple of army National Service
privates should consider renting his white-carpeted apartment!
The mind boggles, but we decided against it in the end.
As for the voice intercept course given by Major Thomas - a somewhat odd,
humourless and rather ill-dressed middle–aged individual with
darns in his shirts and socks, who's Russian was not very good -
it taught us the rudiments of listening to Russian radio
communications. "Moofta Ya Beriosa. Kak Schlieshete Menya?
Shlieshoo Vas Horosho" "Mojno Oonishtojit Tanki Protivnika?" "Da
Ogon." Other call-sign exchanges that remain in my head from
GCHQ are "Vremochka Ya Donoschik" and "Baraban Ya Ikrenka "
In the Russian military vernacular there seemed to be a
tendency to exaggerate certain words or actions and the word
"Oonishtojit", which means "to annihilate" or
"destroy", was always used in the military sense to mean
"attack" as opposed to the normal word for attack which is
"Napadat" which did not seem to be used very often as it
possibly might mean that whatever or whoever was being attacked
might not be "annihilated".
Thomas used to constantly refer to "tanks coming over Cleeve Hill", which
sometimes gave the impression that he was maybe a bit mad – poor
old chap! He was assisted by the affable Corporal O'Sullivan,
whom he used to treat like a bit of dirt. The most important
thing about the day's work at Benhall seemed to be - in the eyes
of Thomas - the destruction of the "secret waste", which had to
be burned in a special incinerator. Most of us National
Servicemen actually found all of this quite hard to take very
The final memory of Cheltenham was a talk given to us by certain Colonel Clutterbuck- a name so
unlikely that it must surely have been pseudonym - about
Operation Stopwatch /Gold which readers may recall was the
codename for the Allied operation when they dug that famous
tunnel into a Russian telephone exchange in Berlin.
"Clutterbuck" had evidently been involved in this or so he
seemed to imply, though his name does not appear in Davis
Stafford's book "Spies beneath Berlin" about this extraordinary operation that had taken place in 1955
– some 2 years earlier.
Maresfield Intelligence Corps Centre
Following the completion of our GCHQ course in Cheltenham, some of us
endured a nasty shock to our systems in the form of a few weeks
at Maresfield in Sussex, the headquarters of the Intelligence
Corps - the regiment that we were now due to join since becoming
fully qualified "spies of the airways". Up until that point, we
had all retained our membership and rank from our first
regiments, presumably on the basis that in the event of our
committing any serious misdemeanours or failing to pass
examinations, we could be sent back from whence we came with a
minimum of military bureaucratic fuss. Whilst we mostly remained
with the rank of Private, we were considered to be "Tradesmen"
with quite a large number of stars (5 or something) which did
improve our pay rates a little bit.
After our "cushy number" at Crail and then the even more luxurious living
in Cheltenham we were given at Maresfield a sharp reminder that we were
actually still National Service Privates in the Army, though
fortunately this did not last too long.
Maresfield, despite being in an attractive part of the Sussex
countryside near Piltdown where the famous hoax prehistoric man
had been "found", was an appalling place seemingly staffed by
people on the road to nowhere. I had to endure a few weeks of
extreme boredom at this depot where we were given occasional
pieces of Russian to read and translate from magazines and spent
the rest of the time doing fatigues, including shovelling coal
all day, the grime from which was nearly impossible to remove
from one's skin in the primitive washing facilities of those
appalling huts. I recall with great displeasure that decomposing
camp being in a partially wooded area where there were a few
pieces of Russian military hardware scattered around including
some extremely outdated looking field guns amongst the trees,
the design of which looked as though they had come from the
First World War or possibly even earlier!
Mercifully my posting to BAOR came through fairly quickly and with my new
cap badge and green shoulder flashes it was as a member of the
Intelligence Corps that I set off with other fortunate
colleagues by train to Colchester and then from Harwich to the
Hook of Holland onboard a total dump of a troopship to arrive
eventually in Germany at Birgelen near Moenchen Gladbach.
Fortunately, our North Sea crossing was calm and there was in my
case no occurrence of the appalling sea sickness that some
unfortunate soldiers often experienced huddled in bunks below
deck in quite dreadfully cramped conditions.
Birgelen No. 1 Wireless Regiment
Thus in the summer of 1957, I duly arrived at the quite smart, modern, white-painted
Mercury Barracks of No. 1. Wireless Regiment Headquarters at
Birgelen near Moenchen Gladback. This was situated right on the
Dutch-German border near a crossing point called Vlodrop and was
in a pleasantly forested area. It is now a golf course as I
discovered when passing by a few years ago.
Birgelin itself was a smallish village with one largish and fairly
primitive, but not unpleasant, "Gaststaette". There was also a
rather nice place called the "Dalheimer Muehle" to which one
could walk through the forest, where I used to eat "Rueissche
Eier", which I considered appropriate for a man of my status as
a Russian linguist. A bit further afield was the pleasant,
modern and quite prosperous town of Heinzberg where there was a nice open air swimming pool, where we could
"eye the local totty".
With due military precision, the first thing that happened upon my arrival in Birgelen was
the removal of my newly-acquired I- Corps green shoulder flashes
and their replacement with blue Royal Signals flashes – the
second change of regimental identity I had endured, having
initially been in the Royal Artillery and trained as a
"Predictor Operator" on Heavy Anti-Aircraft guns.
Of course at Birgelen there were a number of earlier JSSL kursanty around
from 26 Intake including Truss Hurran the fair-haired Wadham
College graduate and the inventor of what became the universally
used description of all things military as being related to "The
Cloth". Hence the food in the canteen became known as "The Cloth
Load". Another guy called Marshall from 26th intake was also involved with a German
NAAFI girl whose bosom was certainly larger and firmer than
anything we had ever seen in England. We heard from the members of 26th Intake about the
Regiment's various listening outposts at Dannenberg, Langeleben
and Berlin and I was pleased when it was announced that I was to go to
Berlin which sounded culturally a lot more interesting than the other
two desolate spots on the East German border in the middle of
nowhere. It subsequently appears, however, that most people
enjoyed all three detachment locations and I understand the
local females were particularly cooperative in Dannenberg
according to my late friend Roger Beasley. Unfortunately, I
cannot really remember who amongst my colleagues went where. The
somewhat "camp" Norman Henderson from Mill Hill School, with
whom I later shared a flat in London, was certainly at
Langeleben, as I believe were Mike Frank Bentley,
Frank Wheeler- my namesake - and possibly Mike Hallett.
By way of private "cultural" excursions from Birgelen, prior to my
departure for Berlin, l accompanied various kursanty friends on several weekend visits
to exciting European cities like Amsterdam, Roermond,
Eindhoven, Duesseldorf and Cologne.
I also visited Rheindahlen the NATO HQ to sign the Nato Secrets
Declaration as an addition to the UK Official Secrets Act that
we had signed earlier prior to doing our Cheltenham course.
One further piece of military stupidity arose in Birgelen, when we were
ordered to go to Hoehne Barracks on the Luneburger Heide near Celle
to take an "A" Level Russian exam. Not having opened a set book
or even knowing in advance what the books were, our chances of
passing "A" level" were nil. Still, we did visit Belsen
concentration camp when we were there. Hoehne was the HQ for
British Tank and Guards regiments where I committed the sin of
saluting a Warrant Officer in the Royal Tank Regiment, as with
his sun glasses and superior quality uniform and peaked cap, he
looked really like an officer! A far cry from the sort of NCO's
whom we had come across in basic training in the Royal
Artillery. I received an embarrassing but fortunately fairly mild bollocking.
Several of us lucky "voice ops" from 1 Wireless Regiment then flew in the
summer of 1957 in a Hastings aircraft of Transport Command from
RAF Wildenrath directly into Gatow, which was to be my base for
the next 7 months.
I returned once more for a brief stay to Birgelen from
Berlin via the same RAF "Hastings" and Wildenrath route at Christmas
time 1957. That Christmas period was notable for quite serious
amounts of drinking by certain sections of the community, which
culminated in a 3-ton truck being driven round the square at
high speed on Christmas Eve until it turned over. The truck was
still lying there on its side when we had our Christmas lunch in
the canteen accompanied by recordings played over the
loudspeaker of Jimmy Shand and his Band compèred by the RSM..
Also back in Birgelin, we had the chance then to meet up
once more with friends, who had returned also from Langeleben
and Dannenberg. I later finished up sharing a flat in London with two of them.
I Wireless Regiment, Royal Signals Detachment at R.A.F. Gatow, Summer to
mid December 1957.
Berlin - the City in 1957
My time in
Berlin, which had once been one of the world's most impressive
cities until its semi-destruction in 1944/5 by the relentless
allied bombing raids and the final bitter street-by-street
battles between the Wehrmacht and the advancing Red Army, was
undoubtedly the highlight of my late teens and an essential part
of my entry into adulthood.
It was only 12 years since the end of the World War II and the division of
the city into its 4 zones as decided upon at the Potsdam
Conference of 1945 was still in place. The Berlin Wall was still
3 years away and the city centre was a free zone and its
citizens and the troops of the occupying powers were in theory
free to travel where they liked, within the confines of the
city, where there were, however, distinct contrasts in living
standards between the various occupied zones of the city.
As members of the occupying forces, we were permitted to go to the Russian
sector, but were supposed to wear uniform if we did so and for
obvious reasons, in view of our involvement in - for want of
better words - a form of espionage, such visits were not
encouraged by our superiors.
In 1957, much of the city was still in ruins and the earlier destruction
was epitomised by the shattered shell of the spire of the
so-called Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche church that stood in
a stark and somehow eloquent outline at the end of the Western
showpiece of the Kürfürstendamm near the entrance to the Zoo
U-Bahn, which was effectively the heart of West Berlin. Opposite
it was the new Europa shopping centre, which far outshone
anything that we had even seen in drab 1950s Britain.
The streets in the Western sector were filled with a good
selection of new Mercedes and Opel cars as well as the
ubiquitous VW beetles. However despite these brash showings of
modernity, an atmosphere of ruin and decadence remained to some
extent in the air that almost tended to overshadow the strenuous
efforts that had been made to rebuild the devastated parts of
the city in the British and American zones. Mournful hit records
still bemoaned the state of the world. "Heimatlos sind viele aus
der Welt" was sung by Peter Alexander in one of his great hits
together with his other popular smash "In der Taverne von Santa
Marie". However, if you have ever heard a record by the great
Marlene Dietrich entitled "In the Ruins of Berlin" then that
best sums up the underlying atmosphere of the city that could
still be to some extent perceived when I was there. A fine piece
of writing that also describes this very well is Ian McEwan's
novel "The Innocent" about a young English Post Office
technician recruited to work in Berlin on the telephone tunnel operation in 1955.
In 1957, Harold Macmillan was telling the British that they "had never
had it so good", the Russians had launched Sputnik and their dog
Laika had also gone into space, Althea Gibson had been the first
black lady to win Wimbledon, Derek Ibbotson had recaptured the
world mile record at 3 minutes 52.7 seconds, Sibelius had died
and the Queen visited Eisenhower at the White House.
Berlin however, remained a Western democratic island in the midst of
the solid Soviet red sea that was East Germany US nuclear missile bases were established in
Facing the West behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Germany was a vast and highly mobile
Red Army kept in a state of readiness to sweep across the
Northern European plains. In Berlin we were part of what was little more than a token occupying
force with little chance of withstanding any Russian advance
into the Western Sectors of the City. There was talk of the
US having "atomic cannons" but that I fear was just pie in the sky.
Thus, the main activity in Berlin was that of spying on the Russians and of them spying on us. In
this activity as we soon discovered, we young Russian speaking graduates of JSSL and GCHQ in Gatow were actually right in the
Berliners over the years had developed a sophisticated indifference and
thick-skinned attitude to what was going on around them aided by
a sometimes grotesque sense of humour and taste for things that
could be occasionally seem quite bizarre to us young Englishmen.
There were still traces of the 1930's world of Christopher
Isherwood and of the (admittedly later) musical Cabaret about
life in Berlin.
Having gone through such appalling experiences, Berliners were
very determined to survive, to live on their wits and thrived on
their catchphrase that said: "Der Berliner hat eine grosse
Schnautze" meaning that " Berliners have a big nose", though
there is a good deal more to its meaning than that.
The British and US Zones covered the better remaining and best rebuilt parts
In contrast, the once splendid "Unter Den Linden" or
"Stalinallee" as it was later called on the other side of the
Brandenburger Tor was really very drab. Although the Russian
sector did have the better Opera House of the two in Berlin there was little to attract one to that part of town. The ruins
of the old Reichstag destroyed by a mysterious fire in 1933 were
still there but apart from the awful monolithic Russian War
memorial with its goose-stepping guards, there was not much of
interest, although we were told by more enterprising older hands
that the Soviet sector was the place to pick up great bargains
on Zeiss optical equipment and Leica cameras.
One place that seemed to be a magnet for many impressionable young
servicemen was the Maison de France bookshop in the Europa
Centre that sold green-coloured paperback books in English of an
explicit sexual nature quite unlike anything that we had ever
read in UK where " Forever Amber" or even the novels of Dennis
Wheatley had probably been the closest to a pornographic book
that any of us had ever been.
In Berlin we saw really modern departmental stores and buildings for the
first time in our lives with the splendid new Ka De Weh, the
flash Kempinsky Hotel in the Ku-damm and the remarkable
strangely-shaped new Kongresshalle. A total revelation for me
and others was the first large fast food joint I had ever seen
called Huhne Hugos, where one could buy half a chicken and eat
it in one's fingers on the spot at high tables standing up at a
remarkably cheap cost. Some of us thought that this would have
been the way to make money in UK, but then never had the ultimate enterprise or resources to carry
it through. For us eating half a chicken or even a whole leg in
austere Britain where we had grown up and where chicken was still a luxury item
was almost unthinkable.
Our presence in Berlin was very much welcomed by the Berliners, as the
Western allies had kept the city dwellers from starving during
the fantastic Berlin Airlift operations a few years earlier when
the land borders had been closed off by the Russians. Gatow
airfield had also been a vital part of that supply line.
The local "Berlinerdeutsch" dialect was mercifully quite easy for the
English to understand compared to some other German dialects,
with its somewhat clipped delivery method and pronunciation of
Ich (I in English) as Ick. People tell me even today that I
speak German has a discernable Berlin accent.
A subject that was of course dear to the hearts of most national
servicemen was the local beer. In Berlinthe most popular breweries were Schultheiss and Berliner Kindl.
These were both "Weisse" beers being brewed with a mixture of
wheat and barley. Another drink which was sometimes called a
"Berliner Weisse" was a fairly revolting mixture of beer and
strawberry juice. There was a wide selection of beers available
from other areas of West Germany including Dortmund's Union, Kronen and
Hansa beers and the Munich Loewenbrau and Koenig brands, though
these were more expensive than the local Schultheiss. The brand
from Duisberg, which was also popular and which was the
advertising man's dream was Bittburger Pils ("Bitte ein Bit"
being their slogan – well it would have to have been wouldn't
it?). Oddly enough, even today I think too that "Trink Coca-Cola
– eiskalt" still has a pretty good ring to it.
As for the local food, we all became quite fond of the "Schnitzel" styles
of cooking pork and veal, which was a rarity in England(as it still is today) being quite new for us. Goose was quite
often found on the menus with "Gänzebraten" being a popular Berlin speciality.
Prostitution was by no means an underground occupation in Berlin and at the top end of the market flashily dressed blondes would
cruise along the Kürfürstendamm in smart Mercedes 240 SL Sports
cars and similar exotic machines. I was with someone once who
called one of these ladies of the night over and she drew up
with a white poodle sitting in the passenger seat. When my
"voice op" colleague learned that her price was some 200 Marks
he then asked her the price for the dog as an alternative, which
did not cause much amusement from her side. Ah the joys of
In Berlin being as it was a major city, there were any number of
diversions for us by way of bars, cafés, night clubs, dancehalls
and other delights and we sampled the offerings in numerous
establishments and other places of entertainment. One of the
small drawbacks to this was that we were a small group and as we
worked on shift duties one could not always go out with friends
as we were not all free at the same time and so excursions
sometimes had often to be made on one's own.
The ubiquitous availability of "Bratwurst" or "Bockwurst" (or
"Fooking Brockworst"as the British squaddies called it) stalls
or "Imbisses" where one could sample at little cost various
forms of sausages was also something unusual.
Starting with the most basic or lowest forms of entertainment, the two
most popular places to drink for the infantry squaddies (Black
Watch at that time I think?, who would not often venture into
places in the city where they might be outnumbered by the
locals, were "Steffs" (The Stephanie Bar) and the "Funk Eck" in
Spandau, which catered almost exclusively for British other
ranks. Fights and excessive drunkenness were not infrequent in
these two places that were kept under fairly close scrutiny by
the Military Police. I only ventured once into "Steffs" - more
to observe the scene than to actually enjoy myself - as such
places tended to be not much more than extensions of the NAAFI,
except for not actually being on military premises.
An interesting spot to visit for what seemed to us dazzlingly
brilliant food, wines and a great selection of liqueurs was the
French Forces NAAFI, which was more like a proper restaurant. It
was amazingly cheap and we could actually pay in the local
forces money called SCRIPT. Not unsurprisingly, no French forces
ever came to dine in the British NAAFI!
Travel around Berlin unless one owned a car, as some of the NCOs did such as John
Mallam, was usually by 3 methods: the Strassenbahn or trams and the two train systems of
the U-Bahn and S-Bahn. The latter, which was partly above
ground, covered mostly the Soviet sector so was only used rather
infrequently. To get from Gatow into the first main part of the city centre, one went
initially by tram along the Heerstrasse for several miles as far
as Reichskanzlerplatz (now called Theodor Heuss Platz), where
there was a British Forces Centre complete with RVS ladies and a
Cinema that showed British films called I recall "The Jerboa"
(or Desert Rat). At one stage, some of us went there to learn
how to Rock and Roll though personally I did not last long at
Not far from Reichskanzlerplatz, I discovered a rather refined and well
furnished bar called "Miniatura" where we drank beer and
Steinhäger and smoked white clay pipes in a friendly atmosphere
and where the patrons seemed to be quite sophisticated
Berliners. The place had a slightly odd atmosphere, though I
never detected anything untoward going on there even though I
went there fairly frequently.
We visited a couple of bars in Berlin out of curiosity having been told that they were "interesting".
The first one with a name that I have forgotten was what would
nowadays be called a "gay" bar where we went to observe the
antics of the queer waiters. In those days, Germany still had its law no. 175 against homosexuals or
"hundertfunfundsiebisgers" as they were known, but the owners of
this particular establishment obviously paid the police well.
From amongst my fellow National Servicemen, there were a few who
were possibly repressed "gays" but in those days no-one would
have dared to openly admit to being "queer" and a sound
heterosexual attitude was the only one that was permissible.
Even more exotic was Das Zwilicht Bar - a lesbian establishment - where
the waiters wearing starched shirts and tails with very
masculine looks were all women as were most of the clientele. Many of the night clubs one of which I recall was the
San Francisco in Kantstrasse had quite sophisticated satirical shows in addition
to the usual run of acrobats, magicians and strippers. None of
us had ever seen such places in the UK,
where most of our socialising had been in local pubs or at rugby
and cricket clubs or University Unions.
I think the Berliners actually expected young men from the occupying
military to visit such places out of curiosity and there was no
resentment of our presence there in either places. We were
nearly always in civilian clothes in West Berlin unless on duty.
Another quite interesting place not far from the Zoo U-Bahn station was
the "Rheinsiche Winzerstube" , a charming, but newly-built and
quite large place designed to look like a wine cellar where a
man played the Zither (that instrument made famous by the
wonderful Carol Reed directed film The Third Man based upon a
Graham Greene story). One could eat or just drink Rhine or Mosel wine or beer there in a pleasant atmosphere. By means of special
effects, a view over the River Rhine was created on one wall and
sunshine followed by a violent thunderstorm was simulated in a
very realistic manner.
Berlin was also famous for its telephone "Tanz Bars", where one could
talk to ladies by phone on other tables. The most famous of
these was the large "Rezi Bar" in the area known as Sud Stern in
the American Sector, where there was a good big band.
Jazz lovers, like me, as a former visitor in England to "Humph's" club above
Macs Restaurant at 100 Oxford Street and Cy Laurie's in Great
windmill Street, were well catered for in Berlin by the
"Eierschale" and "Badewanne" clubs where - particularly at the
latter - one could hear visiting seriously good visiting
American jazzmen. I saw Wild Bill Davidson there. The
Eierschalle was the more downmarket of the two, but was
frequented by students from the Freie Universitaet of Berlinmany of whom were from the East so it was interesting to get to
Major indoor sporting events were held at the Sports Palast and soccer matches and
other open air events took place in the Olympic Stadium in Spandau not far from the famous prison where some of the former Nazis
who had not been executed or committed suicide following the
Nurnberg Trials - including Rudolf Hess - were still held. I had
the pleasure- and it was as it turned out a very special one -
of going to the Olympic Stadium to watch the all-conquering
Busby Babes of Manchester United convincingly defeat the local
Eintract Berlin. This was prior to the decimation of that great team in the
Munich air crash.
Another place of interest I discovered was the Dahlem Museum in a prosperously pleasant and leafy part of
Berlin in the American Sector. The most notable exhibit there at that
time was the famous and beautiful head of Nefertiti.
Finally for fresh air lovers there was a large wooded area called the
Grünewald and the large Hafel Lake.
Parts of the Grünewald were used, as has been recorded by
others, for military exercises by the Western occupying forces.
Despite the wide range of places to go, entertainments to be enjoyed and the
large size of the city, we still felt that our life was a little
claustrophobic there. There was the autobahn along which road
traffic could travel to the West and there was the train link to
Berlin from Helmstedt. Every night when cruising the shortwave bands,
we would pick up the train radios: "Hemstedt this is Berlin.
We knew our lifeline and way out of that place was still up and
The more enterprising people amongst us used to make profitable use of
our cigarette allowances collecting these from non-smokers and
selling supplies of cigarettes at good prices to Berliners. The
cigarettes in question – non-filter tipped of course- were all
of excellent quality and purchased in beautifully fresh in tins.
The Red and White and Black and White Sobranies were excellent
quality and some of us also smoked the exotic Black Russian
brand and the even more outlandish flat Turkish Passing Clouds
in their turquoise coloured packs. I have long given up smoking and was never a serious
smoker anyway except when having a few beers, but I was pleased
to note that my former Berlin "Midty" colleague and nowadays eminent London
literary agent Gillon Aitken still smokes Senior Service without
The Gatow Airfield was one of Berlin's original four main airfields and located in the British sector
of the 4-part divided city out on its Western extremity with its
perimeter right next to the Russian Zone, which started at
Kladow to the North of Potsdam. Its runways were used for a
limited amount of British military air traffic only and it was
located not far along the Heerstrasse from the British SIS
(Secret Intelligence Services) HQ, which was then established at
the Hitler-built 1936 Olympic Stadium in Spandau.
Berlin's 3 other airfields were:
in the US Sector, on the south side of the city, which was also
used for civilian flights and was comparatively close to the
city centre, though as I recall only then used for flights to
other West German cities, as Berlin was not a normal
international flight destination at that time. Tempelhof was
also the location of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
HQ, with whom we were involved in our joint intelligence
- Tegel in the French Sector, which was only used by the French military
- Schoenefeld, to the South West of the city, used in those days
solely by the Russians and for flights to other East European
destinations. This airport is now - some 50-odd years later -
destined to become Berlin's main airport and Templehof and Tegel are likely to close.
The Gatow base as an RAF station was mainly staffed and guarded by the
RAF, with the armed defence such as it was being provided by the
RAF Regiment or Rockapes as they were affectionately known. Like
many air stations, Gatow's facilities were quite widely spread
out and there was a lengthy walk from the main gatehouse to our
quarters and from our quarters to the radio signals intercept
rooms. The canteen and NAAFI were also quite a long way from
where we were billeted.
Security was quite tight as befitted a base for covert activities within such
close proximity to our potential enemies, although I never felt
that it was too overwhelming or much of a real inhibiting
factor. The Russians watched us closely with binoculars from
watch-towers on the far side of the perimeter fence and their
proximity was reportedly quite unnerving for some RAF signals
staff (I was thankfully not amongst them), who spent night
watches out on their own in the nearby small DF station. With
the forest of aerials of all shapes and sizes sprouting from the
roof of our operations area, there could hardly have been any
doubts harboured about the real purpose of the building. The story goes that some of our Russian counterparts
actually wished "a Happy Christmas to all our listeners in Gatow"
over the airways, though I personally have no proof of this.
From the overall comfort viewpoint, however, Gatow was an Alpha Plus
location as it had been a former Luftwaffe officers training
base and the comfortable, double-glazed and parquet floored
upstairs rooms that we occupied with generous locker and room
spaces and modern washing facilities were a far cry from the
ones I had earlier been forced to endure in places like Oswestry,
Tonfanau, Shoeburyness and Maresfield.
Amongst the camp's facilities was a splendidly large and usually deserted
indoor pool that I frequently used. I also played a few games of Rugby for the station, but cannot remember much about my fellow players.
During the quite lengthy walk to and from the canteen for meals, we passed
through a small wooded area with our "eating irons" in our hands
and I gradually became an expert knife-thrower and even with my
blunt and ill-weighted army-issue knife, I could hit any
selected spots in the pine trees encountered en route. It's
amazing what practise does to make perfection!
The guardhouse at Gatow staffed by Rockapes, who always behaved
impeccably, used to check on whether one was FFI or Free from
Infection. In the event of having had any form of sexual
intercourse with the local populus, one was expected to dip
one's member in a jar of disinfectant, something which I
fortunately never had to experience.
The Rockapes equipped with Sten guns also guarded the entrance to our
communications room which was up a staircase. A second guard was
located halfway up stairway as well. On occasions when I had to
take copies of our logs over to Templehof – the CIA HQ-, I was accompanied by an armed Rockape.
We voice-ops were always unarmed, in sharp contrast to our US counterparts, who, when one met them, appeared to be walking
arsenals with grenades hanging from their lapels, plus a
bayonet, knife, machine pistol and Colt revolver at the hip.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but it seemed a bit like that in contrast
to our total defencelessness.
During my stay, I was involved in a rather unusual escapade at Gatow. A
couple of us voice- of the plane looking out of the window to
try and identify any military activities ops were asked (it was
asked and not ordered) to go up in a Vickers Varsity plane that
had arrived in Gatow and would be doing a series of "circuits
and bumps" ostensively to "test the station's radar". We sat on
crates in the fuselage or tank movements, etc taking place
within the area. Never having been trained for any observation
work and not having any cameras or binoculars or maps, etc.
at our disposal, the exercise was a completely fruitless
one. However the experience of taking-off and landing and
taking-off again about 6 times without any "fasten seatbelt
"signs or indeed any seats - let alone belts - was a novel one
for a couple of army blokes.
Aside from that, after we made our final landing, this escapade turned out
to have had a more serious side than we thought. Apparently, the
Russians had been so incensed at this British plane that was
encroaching further and further out into their jealously guarded
airspace that they had sent a message to the Americans to the
effect that they were about to scramble a MIG to shoot down our
plane if it did not immediately return to land at Gatow. Thus ended the only episode during my National Service
when my life was actually in real danger of being abruptly
terminated. Needless to say we had no parachutes! Actually I
believe were sent up to provoke some Russian radio traffic for
the RAF listeners to pick up in the event that a fighter was
scrambled – but who knows?
The Signals Detachment at Gatow in 1957 was under the command of an I. Corps
W.O.II - the splendid Scot Ron Cooper- a genuinely nice, but
strict, capable and well-disciplined chap, who I believe had the
respect of most of those under him. I suppose there must have
been an Officer in charge in view of the supposedly extreme
importance of the work we undertook at Gatow and the high
emphasis it was given not only by GCHQ, but also by our US allies. I for one, however, never met any Intelligence officers
in Berlin, which even today I find strange. The whole of the voice
intercept work seemed to rest in the hands of us few young
National Service privates! Somebody please tell me that I've got
We of course had Royal Signals staff with us, who handled the Morse code
traffic and were also responsible for the technical equipment
and radio receivers that we used, some of which latterly became
quite advanced compared to the old grey British Army sets that
we first used. There were also RAF Russian Linguists at Gatow,
but we didn't really mix much with them in the same way that we
had at Crail and they worked in a different place and I believe
on different airways traffic to us. Most RAF linguists I have
spoken to seem to only have worked on air traffic which was, I
gather, fairly boring routine stuff.
In contrast to that, we in our small detachment became involved in a rather more
exciting type of radio voice traffic, which was codenamed
"Mercury Grass". Whether other units were also involved in this
I do not really know, but when I mention this codename to most
former kursanty, I am usually met with a stare of
incomprehension. I recall this as being a Red Army radio telephone system for
communicating with Moscow,
on which there was voice, morse and teleprinter traffic all
seemingly on top of one another and it appeared that the
Russians thought that this was jammed so that nobody could
listen to it on a normal radio receiver. This assumption
fortunately turned out to be incorrect and we could hear it all
loud and clear via certain American descrambling machines and
our state of the art radio sets. In addition, we had an
absolutely vast high-speed steel cased tape recorder, which was
the size of a tea-chest, the large tape spools of which had to
be changed over quite frequently because they ran at quite high
I recall we worked 3 daily "round the clock", 7/7 shifts, which finished
with 2 nights of the 11-7 midnight shift or "Midty" as it was
known, followed by 2 days off, which gave us a fair amount of
free time, although on the first day I was usually pretty tired
and sleep was often hard to get.
When I first arrived in Berlin, we concentrated on mostly tank
movement-related traffic, but I believe most of that was being
picked up by other stations anyway and it was really only with
Mercury Grass that life grew a bit more exciting when we could
listen to Podpolkovnik (Lt. Colonel in English) Dobrov talking
to one of his fellow officers or even to his wife. Whether or
not the traffic from Mercury Grass was in the end of value after
all the analyses had been made is perhaps open to question, but
it was undoubtedly at that time thought to be the " bee's
The ultimately funny outcome of Mercury Grass occurred when on the
BFN/BBC linked request programme "Forces Favourites", which was
widely listened to in those days on Sundays at lunchtime, some
ex Gatow voice ops, who had left the service, sent a request
through for "the boys in Gatow" which was for the Inkspots'
recording of "Whispering Grass." This was seen apparently as a
serious breach of security!
Ideally we should have been taught proper Russian shorthand, (Russian
shorthand – think about that!) but in our frantic attempts to
record conversations in writing we did become pretty fast
writers of rather imperfect and badly scribbled Cyrillic Russian
script. Certainly by the end of 1957 I could write Russian much
faster than I have ever written English and even today, when my
knowledge of Russian has almost disappeared, or is anyway
dormant, I still experience an insane desire to start logging it
whenever I hear it spoken on the radio.
During my time in Gatow, we received considerable attention from our US allies and in fact one of their operatives was sent over to join
our day shifts to see what we did. His grasp of Russian appeared
fairly minimal, though he seemed at nice chap. We also
participated in a "competition" with them with our logs over a
couple of weeks being compared with those of our US counterparts, who were receiving the same traffic. We were told
that we won this contest hands down, though we had no way of
knowing whether that was just bullshit to raise our morale, but
I think that it was probably true. It was rumoured that few of
the American listeners-in could actually identify Russian let
alone understand it. Perhaps that was also just British-inspired
rumour, but we will never know anyway.
We had, as I said earlier, some genuine Royal Signals staff, who also worked
in our Gatow ops room, though they really had little to do with
us or indeed we with them, being as we were totally ignorant of
the subtleties of Morse Code and they knowing no Russian.
Oddly I was the 4th member of my family to be involved in "sigint".
My sister was a Bletchley Park-trained expert on signals codes
during World War II who served in Colombo on Mountbatten's Far East Command staff in the WRNS. Two of my
sisters-in-law also worked at Bletchley Park,
so perhaps all members of our family were somehow considered as
ideal material for such work.
I feel that I and most others were, despite our outward disdain of all
matters related to the "cloth" or services, pretty conscientious
in our dial twiddling activities to the extent that we were
completely washed out at the end of a night shift. Of course, we
used to listen by way of a rest and diversion to AFN (American
Forces Network) Berlin's
programmes: "This is PFC George Hurd here bringing you Music in
the Air with the Orchestra of Hugo Winterhalter" etc. Popular hit songs of the time were Pat Boon's "Love
Letters in the Sand", Pressley's "All Shook Up" and "Teddy
Bear". Elvis was actually in Germany at that time and some kusantys even claimed to have seen him in
Rheindahlen. Katerina Valenti was a popular and very good German
singer as was Peter Alexander. AFN also played requests from
Germans: in the immortal words of PFC George Schultz "and now
for Uschi and Guta down there in Wilmersdorf" etc…Odd how the
mind plays tricks.
Having all those aforementioned aerials on the roof (folded dipoles and
birdcages, etc) we had the capability of picking up radio
traffic from many far flung places and occasionally changes in
the weather affected the ways in which the ionospheric radio
waves bounced, allowed us to hear some pretty strange traffic.
In this respect, one Sunday morning there in Berlin I listened
loud and clear to the Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars
talking to one another.
Berlin: Dramatis Personae
This is now the hardest part because my memory of people is sometimes not as
good as it is for places and events.
I know there will be people that I will omit and they may
have even been close friends, which makes it even more
unforgivable, but I can do little about that.
I have already mentioned our fearless leader WO II Ron Cooper and under
him there were:
1. Staff Sgt. Adams affectionately known as "Slug",
2. Sgt. John Mallam, who came I think from Tonbridge in Kent. John was the owner of a rather smart Mercedes, whose attractive wife had been a
P.T.I. in the WRAC.
I believe the above three were actually Intelligence Corps staff.
3. Cpl. "Wiff" Smith. A friendly, dark well-built chap.
4. Cpl. Roots. Smallish with glasses.
5. Johnnie Guy. A smallish signalman, who nearly wore himself
out with a seemingly insatiable German girl that he met, who was camping down
by the Wannsee. Johnnie spent many long hours of exhaustingly physical amorous
endeavour in that tent or so he told us.
6. Tudgy. A small dark and friendly signalman.
7. Terry Worley. Tallish, dark slim and good-looking East Ender,
who worked in civilian life in an undertaking business, where he
used to lay out the "stiffs". Good and amusing company.
All of the above were genuine Royal Signals guys.
The kursanty "voice –ops" were:
8. Eric Pusey. JSSL 28th Intake Fair-haired chap of
medium height with a M.L. Degree from Exeter University. Now lives in Northants like me.
9. Steve Whitelaw. Ex Cranleigh School. Small, dark and amusingly eccentric guy, who was I believe also
on 28th Intake.
10.Harry Beckett. ML graduate from Fitzwilliam Cambridge who
hailed from Sheffield. Charming, quiet and fairly studious chap, of medium height with
a slightly chubby face. I think that Harry was from 30th Intake.
11. Rod James. Welshman who had been educated at Marlborough College.
Shortish, dark fellow, with a quick wit. Was also from 30th
Intake I think.
12. Mike Jackman. Quite well built fresh-faced chap from Dulwich College.
Mike was quite religious but always friendly and smiling. He was
known by some as "Jovial Joe". He was on 28th intake
13. Gillon Aitken. Ex Charterhouse School.
30th intake. Tall, slim and rather distinguished
-looking with a razor sharp wit. I have remained in occasional touch with
Gillon over the years. Nowadays he is a well-known literary
agent in London and has in addition published several translations of Russian
14. Michael Goldsmid ex Haileybury College.
Darkish hair of medium build with a generous nature. Good sense of humour. Michael was one of
our more affluent members, though he tells me that is no longer
the case! His parents lived in London NW1 as I vaguely recall.
Mike was a keen cricketer and rugby player. I am delighted to
say that I have just re-established contact with him after some
48 or so years.
I cannot actually remember whether Alec MacShane was also in Berlin or not but think he was.
As for me, I am a farmer's son from Stowe near Buckingham and
went to school at Lancing College Sussex.I didn't bother with university and decided to try to start
earning money immediately after National Service. Nowadays, I am working as a Freelance Translator of German,
French and Italian – don't do Russian – too much like hard work
- to supplement inadequate pensions! Initially I trained as a
banker in the City of London followed with a spell in an Advertising Agency and then I had a
career selling tractors, earthmoving machinery, cars and trucks
around the world for some 35 years. I lived at various times in
Belgium, Italy and Switzerland and travelled the world on business.
I now live in rural South Northants in a village called Byfield.
I have met a few fellow Crail kursanty over the years, but alas
very few of members of my own intake or fellow Gatow voice ops.
It's all a bit late now and some of us are even dropping off our
perches. But I would like to hear from any colleagues or others
with common experiences from those far off days of some 50 years
A little more on Mercury Grass - Mike Bulmer
It was used on the 70 Meg band and was mainly voice
transmissions. At times they would go into speech privacy
(scrambled) and all we could do was record it.
Callsigns were always 3 figure calls which equated to either to
a person, station or a relay station. Intercept Ops had to have
a knowledge of Russian (thanks to Benhall) as the number
callsigns in Russian, having either masculine or feminine
endings (look up your grammar for this,) enabled you to say
whether the callsign being called was either a person or a
station.One notable system was what
we called the “Berlin Ring”.
This was a ring of stations encircling Berlin, which we happily intercepted at
Langy. Hope this helps you out.
I SERVED WITH THE 3RD SHOCK ARMY WATCHING THE BRITISH
I am Konstantin Viktorovich Semyonov, born in Novosibirsk in 1966.
I passed out Novosibirsk Officers’ School in 1987.
I served in GSFG from 1987 to 1992.
In 1992 I was transferred to the Siberian Military District and left the Army.
In 1993 I attended the International Management Academy.
I worked in local companies and for international firms.
At the current time I am involved in building materials.
My interests are history, mountain walking.
My service in GSFG (WGF) 1987-1992.
3 “Order of the Red Banner” Combined Arms (Shock) Army (Magdeburg)
10 “ Ural-L’vov, Order of the October Revolution, Orders of
Suvorov and Kutuzov, Red Banner volunteer, named after Marshal
of the Soviet Union R.A. Malinovsky” Guards Tank Division (Altengrabow).
61 “Sverdlovsk-L’vov, Red Banner, Orders of Suvorov, Kutuzov,
and B. Khmel’nitsky” Guards Tank Regiment (Altengrabow)
112 Independent Reconnaissance Battalion (Halberstadt).
3 Combined Arms Army (Magdeburg), from 1992 20 Guards Combined Arms Red Banner Army
47 “Lower Dnepr, Red Banner, Order of B. Khmel’nikov” Guards
Tank Division (Hillersleben).
197 “Vapnyarsko-Warsaw, Order of Lenin, Red Banner, Orders of
Suvorov and Kutuzov” Tank Regiment (Halberstadt)
with the affection those who I served with. I would especially
like to find my comrades from the 112 IRB, the Coy. 2IC Sen.-Lt.
Roman Abolinsh, the German interpreter Snr. Lt. Arkadiy
Gritskeevich, the commander of the Signals Coy, 197 TR, Capt.
Kiyevskiy, the Pl. Cmdrs. Snr. Lt. Ivanov, WO Fomenko, the
Signals Coy. Sgt.-Major, the commander of the “Palytch” radio station.
2 Germanys(part 1)
This story as
compared to the above in that it combines more archive
documentation rather than literary-artistic form, the story uses
many sources, including personal.
Not so long
ago I stood in the ranks together with my comrades at the
passing-out parade at the military academy and we received our
commissions. That very day I had received my posting to the
Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG). The posting order told
me to present myself at the transit post in the town of
Frankfurt an der Oder. This was not my first trip abroad,
I had gone on holiday with my parents in 1981 to Czechoslovakia.
Having arrived at the transit post I handed in my posting order
to the duty officer and on the next day I was told that they
were sending me to HQ 3 Shock Army in Magdeburg (in the western
part of East Germany). The 3rd Army was considered the
best-trained and most effective army in GSFG, and despite being
titled a “combined arms” army, all it’s divisions were, in fact,
tank divisions. Our group consisted of five officers, of which
two were women. They were sent to Army HQ, to the Intelligence
Department as interpreters, and for this reason, a minibus was
sent to fetch us from Army HQ.
We drove along the autobahn, not one pot-hole,
the surface was smooth, like a mirror. Large multicoloured
lorries sped past, like in a picture.
It felt as if we had landed in another world. About another
three hours to Magdeburg. Army HQ at last.
I report to a member of the military council, Maj.-Gen.
Stolyarov to receive further instructions regarding my posting.
Entering his office I announce “Comrade Major-General,
Lieutenant Semyonov reporting for duty”.
- Take a seat, Lieutenant, I welcome you. You will be serving
with the 1st Motor-Rifle Company of the 61st Tank
Regiment, I also started off there as an officer.”
From the other officers I knew that Altengrabow was about 70
kilometres from Magdeburg and was on a training area.
You think, that’s life and you can’t
do anything about it. I got on to a train which looked like a
two-car tram and travel to Altengrabow. Altengrabow is a small
village with a terminal station. The garrison is not far from
the station, I called into the unit and presented myself to the
Company Commander: “Comrade Captain, Lieutenant Semyonov, new
arrival, reporting for duty as Company Second-in-Command.” The
eyes of the officers in the office showed pleasure.
At last another officer in the company.
Good! Of the three platoon officers there were only two, the
other was counted on the strength, but in fact was serving on
attachment at Group HQ.
In my motor-rifle company there were around 110 soldiers, not
more than ten of them were Russian, the rest represented Central
Asia and rarely the Caucasus. Some of them couldn’t even
speak Russian at the start of their service.
The Company Commander had been in Afghanistan, and had experience
of fighting in Kandahar, such men were valued in the Group.
Additionally, there were two Warrant Officers in the company,
the Sergeant-Major and the QM Tech. The Regimental Commander was
Lt.-Col. Ashurov, now a famous General, who took part in
operations in Chechnya.Military life
was fairly hard, got on the nerves. On the
ranges, on duty, drilling, preparations for a visit by the
Minister of Defence. Our unit was used for
demonstrations, the training area was next door and that’s why
they all came to us to see beauty, order and military skills.
But I wanted to learn about the intellectual side of military
service and see Germany. In this unit the majority of officers during their time did
not look outside their service. I decided not to join with their
outlook. In winter I had my first leave, and fetched my family,
they had allocated me two rooms of a three-room flat, under the
proviso that I renovate it, together with the other Lieutenant.
My neighbour called Sergey enthusiastically set about the
decoration of the flat, which had been left to us for two
families by the signals centre.
So we arrived from duty and straight to the construction
of the century, there was neither sanitation nor doors,
everything was decaying. I arrive with my wife Natalya and son
Vitalik. Natasha was glad that here everything for the child was
obtainable, whereas in Russia you couldn’t get anything.
In 1988 I had already served a year in the GDR on the
Altengrabow Training Area and I was offered a transfer to 112
Independent Reconnaissance Battalion. Without much hesitation I
agreed. There were several reasons why I wanted to transfer to
Halberstadt: - firstly, the reconnaissance units are elite
units, where the best soldiers and officers serve. Here, it is
not unusual to extend the knowledge and study of foreign
languages. For the knowledge of a language there was a monthly
extra payment, it is true, you didn’t always manage to enjoy
this, as the examination necessary for this was held once a year
at HQ GSFG by a special commission of the General Staff.
-secondly, this battalion was stationed in the town of Halberstadt,
from where I returned to Russiain 1992.
In Altengrabow a huge number of Soviet troops
was stationed, while Altengrabow
itself was a large village. In Halberstadt there were only two
units – the reconnaissance battalion and 197 Tank Regiment of 47
Tank Division, in which I finished my service. Later, after
German re-unification, the battalion was no longer required at
it’s location and returned to
Altengrabow, closer to Div HQ, but I didn’t want to leave that
lovely town. Halberstadt is a large-ish town according to German
conceptions. It stands in a picturesque location in the foreland
of the Harz mountains. The town celebrated 1000 years in 1989.
After arriving there
and after my first walk through the town I fell in love with the
place. During the 2nd World War the town was captured by the US
Army, and after 18 May 1945 was occupied by the British, which
is why the inhabitants never saw Soviet troops during the war,
only after Germany had been divided into zones of occupation.
Then our troops arrived in this area, crossing to the other bank of the Elbe
and moving westwards. Basically, along the border between the
two Germanys(FRG and GDR) were deployed mainly reconnaissance units and a
small amount of first echelon troops covering the border. The
task of the former was to carry out reconnaissance in time of
peace and war against the troops of the 1st Corps of the British
Army of the Rhine. The latter was to carry out military operations in a war
situation. Their mission was to hold up the probable enemy for a
defined length of time to allow for the mobilisation of the
remaining Regiments, Divisions and Armies, which were located at
the greatest distance from the border. Halberstadt is 40
kilometres from the former border, and much less, as the crow
I enjoyed serving in this unit, as after service in the infantry
this was a new experience. It was a small unit, around 60
Officers and Warrant Officers and around 200 men, of which most
were Russian, around 30% had passed the first or second course
at the military institute. I was given a flat in the garrison,
in an old German house, in which Luftwaffe officers had lived
during the war. For me this was very unusual, as I had hitherto
not lived in such old German housing. The flat was in the
mansard roof of the house, which was heated by a stove burning
brown coal briquets. After a while I moved my family here from
Altengrabow. Natasha found work after a short time in the Café
Roland-Eck (one of the best cafes in the town). The Security
Service was suspicious and watched officers’ wives who worked
for German organisations. Next to my house
was stationed 20 “Martin Hoop” Border Guard Regiment, HQ
and three battalions.
1 battalion stationed in Hessen
2 bns in Ilsenburg, not more that 5 km from the border.
Across the road from the garrison was stationed the 7 “Martin
Hoop” Border Guard Training Regiment. Both regiments were
subordinate to the Border Command “North” with HQ in Stendal.
The years 1989-1990 were an unusual time, as against the
background of democratic reforms there remained a great obstacle
in the attitude of officials and military commanders, who did
not want to be deprived of what they saw as the benefits of
socialism, and therefore our standing as allies of the GDR
gradually began to be seen as a situation within a state
belonging to NATO. In the army the rules became
more strict, as did the shadowing of
the enemy both on the border and inside Germany.
At the time of demonstrations around the Berlin Wall, our forces
were on full alert. General Snetkov (then C-in-C WGF) was
prepared to lend “friendly assistance” to the regime, as he
expressed it in a conversation with Egon Krenz. However,
Gorbachev told him not to interfere in internal affairs taking
place at that time in the GDR, not wanting to repeat the events
of 1953, when GSFG took part in putting down the uprising caused
by the raising of workers’ norms in State industries.
After these events the USSR, under pressure from Great Britain,
was obliged in 1955 to sign an agreement on non-interference
in the internal affairs of the GDR. At the beginning of 1989 our
unit had taken over military duties on the border between
Schöningen (FRG) and Hötensleben (GDR) with the aim of observing
the movement of US and British troops and equipment in the area
of the border and also to listen in to communications. After the
end of World War II the former allies quickly became our enemies.
consisted of HQ and two recce companies, assault-recce
company, a radio and radar
reconnaissance company, a visual surveillance platoon, and
logistical support platoons. The assault-recce company and the
radio and radar reconnaissance company are worthy of special
attention, as every motor-rifle and tank company has a recce
company, but there is only one assault-recce company per
division and it’s tasks in war include long-range recce and
disruption in the enemy’s rear areas. We often went with this
company to the assault-recce sub-units’ concentration, with all
the other companies from the Divisions in the Army and the
Army’s own Special Forces Company (Spetsnaz). At that time such
sub-units were individual and not talked about.
As far as the radio and radar reconnaissance companies go, these
were also unique sub-units in their own way within the division,
consisting of three radio-reconnaissance platoons, carrying out
intercept of the enemy’s wireless spectrum, and a radar
intercept platoon. In this sub-unit there were around 20
highly-qualified officers and Warrant Officers. The sections
were commanded by Warrant Officers. Their equipment included the
“Rama” intercept complex, later this was replaced by the more
modern “Taran”. A basic knowledge of English was the minimum
requirement for the military specialists.
In the radio and radar reconnaissance company there were even
civilian radio officers who spoke English and German. At this
time British and US intelligence carried out surveillance inside the GDR, widely
using the Foreign Liaison Missions. These liaison officers,
enjoyed diplomatic immunity in permitted areas. However, often
they entered prohibited areas to photograph our troop movements
and equipments which had recently entered service. As a rule,
they appeared suddenly in their jeeps and just as suddenly
disappeared, so that to detain them in a prohibited area was
practically impossible. The Group of Soviet Forces, Germany
(later Western Group of Forces) was the largest and most
powerful formation maintained by the USSR in the countries of
the Socialist Bloc. In line with Soviet
military doctrine, the Western Group of Forces, stationed on the
territory of the central European strategic region of the
Western military-strategic bridgehead had to control this area
along six lines of advance:
First – The coastal region of the Netherlands and Germany.
Second – The Netherlands and Belgium.
Luxemburg and part of Belgium.
Fourth - Bavaria.
Fifth – The Alps.
Jutland (Denmark and northern Germany).
The Western Group of Forces was the first echelon of the Western Front.
We owe a debt of thanks to John Richardson for translating this. Ed.