West Berlin, situated 100 miles inside the Iron Curtain, was an island of democracy that the Allied forces found invaluable when it came to keeping an eye on the Soviet Union and it’s communist allies. All manner of electronic surveilence and human intelligence was operated from West Berlin. In short, it was a hotbed of spies.

Image by Imparo on Flickr, used under a CC 2.0 Generic License

Berlin was divided between the four victorious powers at the end of the Second World War, as a means to distribute power in Germany at the very beginning of the Cold War. The British, Americans and French controlled sectors in West Berlin, and the Soviets controlled the whole of the East (they claimed a larger sector in accordance with the sacrifices the Soviets made in capturing Eastern Germany). Almost immediately after the end of the war, suspicions and secrets began taking hold in the city, and each of the powers brought in their intelligence services to spy on the enemy.

Field Station Berlin, Teufelsberg, Berlin. Image by extranoise on Flickr, used under a CC 2.0 Generic License

The Americans and British were quick to establish electronic surveilance sites through the city, and in the 1950’s established what turned out to be a coup in the spy world. On top of a hill created from the rubble of ruined buildings from the war, known as Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain), the Allies built Field Station Berlin, a mass of radio listening devices from which they could monitor Soviet and East German military radio. The Allies could now track all troop movements and other sensitive information around the important node of Berlin.

Other spying ventures were more daring and spectacular. Tunnels were dug underneath the Berlin Wall into the Soviet sector in order to tap phone lines that lead to important military and government centers. Many important people on both sides of the wall were approached to give away secrets, often using blackmail and other pressures. The Allies and the Soviets flew helicopter missions around the wall to photograph each other’s activities. These flights, if they strayed over the borders, were considered an act of aggression, and were then fired upon by soldiers on the ground.

This Cold War Great Game had it’s most spectacular expression in the Military Liasion Missions that were allowed to operate in enemy territory. As an agreement at the end of the Second World War, and it seems a rare gesture of goodwill on the part of the Allies and the Soviets, each side could send a team into the other’s sectors to observe military sites. These teams drove cars that were fitted with powerful engines, the chassis strengthened for off-road dashes, and fuel tanks that could carry the teams over 500 miles through enemy territory. The U.S. Military Liasion Mission (USMLM) and the British Mission to Soviet Forces in Germany (BRIXMIS) both were headquartered in West Berlin, where they began and ended missions.

BRIXMIS vehicle. Image by Jilmw on Flickr used under a CC 2.0 Generic License

Although they were meant to operate as observation-only teams, the teams brought back incredibly detailed photographs of enemy military hardware and movements, and on many occasions stole sensitive documents and equipment from their enemy. The teams were given free pass on public roads, however if the Mission cars were discovered in restricted areas (where they often went), enemy soldiers could open fire on them. A few members of the teams were killed in the line of duty, the last being American Major Arthur Nicholson in 1985. These incidents were kept very secret, the fear of public outcry leading to pressure on both sides to retaliate.

It is often portrayed as a deadly game of cat and mouse in the media, the spy missions that operated from West Berlin during the Cold War. But with historical hindsight, the surveillance and intelligence operations did more to keep the Cold War escalating to something more deadly. Each side understood the importance of keeping an eye on the other, and the policy of mutual containment held each side’s military at bay.