The spy who came in from the Cold War

The Red Army toilet-raiding realities of spying certainly exhilarated Steve Gibson, but the fall of the Berlin Wall brought doubt, too.

Bill Durodié

Topics Books

From the end of the Second World War through to the end of the Cold War, a little-known unit of British special forces conducted spying missions behind the Iron Curtain – that is, right from the heart of Soviet-occupied East Germany.

Called the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Group Soviet Forces of Occupation in Germany, or BRIXMIS for short, it was part of an officially sanctioned exchange of observers between the Red Army and the British Army established by the victorious Allied powers and the USSR through the Robertson-Malinin agreement in 1946. Its ostensible purpose was to improve communication and relations between them.

In addition to BRIXMIS – and their French and American counterparts in the East – the Red Army also conducted similar operations through a unit in West Germany. But, diplomatic liaison and translation duties aside, the real purpose of these units soon became clear: to find out what each other was up to by heading out into those areas where they had been specifically told not to go.

My friend and former UK Defence Academy colleague Steve Gibson led many of these ‘tours’ just as the Cold War was coming to an end. Live and Let Spy is his gripping recollection of these episodes. Although originally published in 1997 as The Last Mission: Behind the Iron Curtain, it has now been republished and augmented some 15 years later with a significant additional chapter written with the hindsight gained during his subsequent academic career.

Steve Gibson (far right) meets East German counterparts in November 1989.
He noted from their mood how it seemed the regime’s days were numbered.

Much of the espionage involved gathering evidence about the weaponry available to the Red Army. Accordingly, it typically required lying in wait on a bridge over a railway line at three o’clock in the morning in the middle of a forest in winter. With temperatures dipping to around minus-30 degrees celsius, the objective was to photograph all the kit that passed by on a train underneath. Alternatively, they might record the rate of fire from Russian guns from the safety of their locked vehicle in the sweltering 40 degree heat of summer.

Sent back to the Defence Intelligence Staff in Whitehall, this information allowed specialists to determine troop and equipment levels, as well as whether a new bolt on a gun or aerial on a tank might allow it to fire or communicate further than previously estimated – and if so, whether this would necessitate the complete re-evaluation of NATO’s Cold War battle plans.

Of course, the operations required meticulous planning to identify suitably concealed observation posts, as well as efficient access and escape routes. This planning was usually conducted during the day. For those so disposed, there are sufficient ‘tradecraft’ details here to sustain interest. For me, however, the real gem is the lesson identified early in the book – to be as conspicuous as possible by waving at everyone.

This waving tactic disoriented many into believing that the Mercedes G-Class (Geländewagen) passing by with three individuals in army fatigues in it was legitimate. And even if observers suspected something, the fact that nearby children would invariably wave back – raising the possibility that those inside were known to them – would add further confusion or delay. Those who did smell a rat usually did so too late.

A car full of Stasi ‘narks’ point to the camera position.

It was not just a jolly jaunt. Over the years, a number of tour personnel lost their lives or suffered serious injury through being shot at or having Russian tanks ram their vehicles. East German ‘narks’ were also always on the look-out for anyone in the wrong place and would report these to the relevant authorities. It is noted, though, that many local ‘Easties’ were keen to help the agents.

Given the challenging circumstances, selection and training were intense and severe. It required individuals who could think quickly on their feet and not just expect to follow rules. It also meant having the ability to complete advanced courses in Russian and German, photography and navigation in next to no time, and to memorise the look and sound of countless pieces of Soviet military equipment, as well as remain calm – yet sharp – when tired or provoked.

For anyone who imagines that spying is glamorous, or somehow akin to being in a Bond movie, they will be disabused by Gibson’s chapter on document-gathering from dumps (literally). It had been recognised for some time that, when they went on manoeuvres in East Germany, the Soviet forces were not supplied with any toilet paper. They would use whatever came to hand – a copy of Pravda, a letter from a loved one, or even their mission papers. And after they were done, it was then that Her Majesty’s specially trained and equipped Cold War warriors really came into their own…

The book is a tour de force of teeth-clenching tension that will keep most readers gripped from beginning to end. But while the first nine chapters retain the action-packed core of the original narrative, filled with the escapades of small teams of rather special individuals trying to find out what the Soviets were up to, the real substance – for those of a more political disposition – is a chapter titled ‘Reflections’.

As a professor of political science at the University of Warwick, Robert Aldrich, notes in the new foreword, Gibson is now clearly of the mind that ‘much of what [he] was led to believe [during the Cold War], and some of what he was told, was simply wrong!’

It is testimony to the author’s strength of character that – unlike others – he neither chose to dwell in the past nor fell prone to the ‘invention of illness’. This latter problem, he himself notes, affected many of his one-time colleagues once their personal and moral frameworks disintegrated with the end of the old, Cold War world order.

Gibson’s resolute clearsightedness is to be admired. So despite having been caught up in the exhilaration of it all as a young man, despite devoting the prime of his life to the East-West conflict, he refuses to lie to himself. ‘The Cold War’, he notes, ‘was a giant historical cul-de-sac where all enlightened efforts at producing a good society were suspended’.

Watching the enemy

Aldrich astutely summarises a key argument of Live and Let Spy: ‘while Cold War warriors fought a tyrannical and ruthless version of Communism abroad, they remained ignorant of – and lost – an ideological battle at home’. He then adds accusingly: ‘Western politicians now offer a watered-down version of the interfering, intolerant, controlling and authoritarian government that they were initially set against rather than anything freer.’

In this, he takes his lead from Gibson, who rails against the erosion of ‘moral values, community spirit and sense of purpose’ that now pervades Western political elites. They are ‘pessimistic and misanthropic’, Gibson argues, while ‘suffering from an acute lack of confidence in their own projects’. This lack of authority, this social pessimism, they now effectively impose on others through a ‘moralising intervention into every aspect of private life’. But while the description of this new period will, no doubt, connect with many, Gibson – possibly by trying to cover too much, including passing references to Aristotle, Kant and Bentham for good measure – fails to provide a convincing explanation of why this all came about.

Taking his lead from the BBC documentary film producer Adam Curtis, Gibson identifies how the computer modelling of behaviour – and even more bizarrely, of intentions – came to dominate an intelligence world increasingly devoid of purpose or principle. But, as he himself notes, the intelligence community’s embrace of behaviour modelling is just as likely to be an expression of a broader ‘loss of faith in humans’ as the driver of social processes. Today, that loss of faith – and an obsession with risk management – comes to be expressed through the failure to put eyes and ears on the ground, as Gibson’s once were (a job for which he was awarded an MBE), and thereby a failure to verify theory through practice.

In addition, this final chapter makes three significant and unique contributions to improving our understanding and application of intelligence.

Firstly, he argues that the most useful role of intelligence today is to understand the context correctly, without which ‘purpose is equally misguided’. Secondly, and drawing on his most important academic contribution, Gibson notes that, ‘the use of single-source intelligence-reporting drawn from individuals selected principally for their willingness to share secrets…is not the best way to analyse contemporary challenges’, as the illusions about Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ ably demonstrated.

Whether these new challenges are, as he suggests, those so-called non-traditional security threats, such as climate change, energy supply and food provision, is open to debate. Possibly, it is the ‘dismissal of free will’ and ‘decline into mediocrity’ that he identifies elsewhere that are the real problems. And it is these problems that have turned the essentially technical issues of climate change or food provision into all-consuming sources of uncertainty and insecurity.

The naked power of the long lens:
A couple captured using a
2,000mm lens at a distance of
one kilometre

Finally, and significantly for one who has made the pursuit of freedom and autonomy central to his existence, Gibson notes the loss of any sense of fun in a politically correct world without an ‘enlightened purposeful ideology around which to cohere’. (This comes from a man who knows something about fun having, in his youth, gatecrashed an international beauty pageant pretending to be Miss Austria’s personal bodyguard.)

Advocates of the ‘purposeless pragmatism’ and ‘bureaucratic regulation’ he now views as the real barrier to achieving ‘prosperity and progress for all’ would no doubt disapprove of Gibson’s youthful antics. It is unlikely, for instance, that they would appreciate the photographs of naked lovers taken from over one kilometre away that he and his colleagues once sent back to Ministry of Defence analysts to show that their equipment was working and that they were maintaining their skills. But, he notes, it is precisely intolerance towards the criticism – and in this case, the mockery – of widely held beliefs that precludes the effective determination of the truth.

Richard Aldrich concludes how ‘Gibson reflects that it takes the passage of time to recognise that one is misled by power’. For those who feel that after the fact is too late and who still hope to shape history rather than merely be carried along by it, it is only through a constantly evolving analysis of present circumstances that such historical cul-de-sacs can avoided.

This book – while not pretending to be any more than a personal memoir of some hitherto less disclosed aspects of the Cold War – serves to remind us of how far we have come since. After it all ended, Gibson concludes that ‘the somewhat hasty, undignified and testy disintegration of the Mission was intrinsically due to the absence of mission itself’.

This may well explain why – as was revealed from Kremlin minutes released some 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down – Western leaders were so keen at the time to remind the Soviet Union’s then-president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that they really did not want a re-unified Germany. Despite their pro-freedom stance and rhetoric, a unified Germany would, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security’.

Indeed, the Cold War may well have been the last time that Britain and the other Western powers could even pretend to have had a clear and positive sense of mission.

(All photos courtesy of the History Press)

Dr Bill Durodié was formerly a senior lecturer at the UK Defence Academy, Cranfield University, where he worked with Steve Gibson. He is currently adjunct professor at the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong in Shanghai, as well as Adjunct Senior Fellow of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, and an associate fellow at Chatham House.

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Topics Books


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