What Faced NATO in East Germany?

1953 – Demonstrations and riots in East Berlin – Soviet occupation Troops go into action against civilians.

On 9 July 1945, the Group of Soviet Occupation Forces Germany (GSOFG) was formed from elements of the 1st and 2nd Belorussian fronts, becoming an Army of Occupation. These occupation forces were subsequently maintained at close to wartime levels, soon considerably outnumbering the combined Western forces facing them. In 1949 they were renamed the ‘Group of Soviet Forces in Germany’ (GSFG), which remained in being until 1 June 1989 when they became the Western Group of Forces (WGF) as the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe began to unravel. This formation stayed in Germany until 1994 when the total withdrawal of Russian forces was completed. These forces were huge, supplemented until 1990 by the GDR’s own military services.

At the height of the Cold War, GSFG could muster 21 Tank and Motor Rifle (armoured infantry) Divisions grouped into 5 armies and a single front that each possessed its own subordinate units. In total they consisted of nearly 500,000 personnel with some 6,100 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), 8,000 armoured vehicles, 4,300 artillery pieces which included 600 multiple rocket launchers and 200 surface-to-surface missile systems, 1,200 air defence systems (including surface-to-air missile systems), 310 attack helicopters and 350 transport and utility helicopters. The 24 (later 16) Tactical Air Army provided fixed-wing air support to GSFG. Helicopter units were usually subordinated to the relevant Army-level formation, except for one regiment that was a front-level asset. The Tactical Air Army possessed around 610 fighter aircraft, 320 fighter-bombers, 50 attack and 120 transport helicopters.

The huge Soviet presence was supplemented by the GDR’s forces, consisting of the East German Army – the National Volksarmee (NVA). The NVA had six Tank and Motor Rifle Divisions grouped into two Military Districts (MD) and the Ministry of National Defence (MND), each of which had directly subordinate units of its own. There were also five reserve Motor Rifle Divisions. These forces consisted of 180,000 personnel and operated around 2,700 MBTs, 5,400 armoured vehicles, 1,700 artillery pieces (including 200 multi-barrel-rocket-launchers (MBRL)) and 700 air defence systems, including SAM systems. There were also some 40 attack and 110 transport helicopters. The East German Air Force consisted of two Air Divisions and could muster around 450 fighter aircraft, 90 fighter-bombers, 50 attack and 120 transport helicopters. The East German Navy was composed of three flotillas based on the Baltic coast. It was predominantly a coastal force but did have a considerable amphibious warfare capability plus three squadrons of helicopters.

The four Border Guard (Grenz Truppen) commands were in essence another Military District but without heavy armour and self-propelled artillery. The Border Guard had around 47,000 personnel and besides small arms they also operated some obsolescent armoured vehicles and artillery pieces.

The Soviets and East Germans occupied nearly 900 installations at some 400 locations in the GDR. These included over 55 airfields and 150 major training areas and ranges. About 40 per cent of these locations lay either directly beneath or adjacent to (up to 20 miles outside) the Corridors and BCZ. There were also other locations that could be seen from the air along the Baltic Coast of the GDR and near the German–Czechoslovakian border. The installations in the GDR that could be viewed from the Corridors, BCZ and their immediate environs are listed in the appendix. Beyond any doubt this was an intelligence ‘target rich environment’ and for the next forty years both sides conducted an intelligence battle across the IGB using all means at their disposal.
Intelligence Resources

Both sides possessed a formidable array of assets in Germany to acquire the intelligence sought by national governments, military staffs and Germany-based commands. The Western Allies’ assets included HUMINT: the division of Germany presented many opportunities for HUMINT exploitation. West Germans could travel to visit families in the GDR, although reciprocal trips were not possible. Such movements of people provided one source of information. Civilian employees of the Allied forces were required to report any visits to the GDR and on their return were usually debriefed by military or civil security authorities. There was also a constant flow of refugees from the East as well as defectors and controlled sources (spies).

A key and very successful resource was the unique presence of the Allied Military Liaison Missions (AMLMs) created after Allied occupation of Germany by the wartime Allies.

Allied Military Liaison Missions

Because the GDR was diplomatically unrecognised, there were no Western military attachés based there. Their nearest equivalents were the three Allied Military Liaison Missions (AMLMs), which were far more valuable. Established in 1946 and 1947 under individual agreements between the respective Western Commanders-in-Chief and the Soviet Commander-in-Chief, they were accredited with a quasi-diplomatic status. The British Mission’s full title was the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet forces in Germany, mercifully shortened to ‘BRIXMIS’ or ‘The Mission’. The British, Americans and French had Mission Houses in Potsdam, also the home of the Soviet military headquarters until it moved to Zossen-Wünsdorf. The houses were where all Mission touring activity started and generally finished. Although the Mission houses were ‘sovereign’ territory, like an embassy, the locally employed East German staff reported the comings and goings at the houses. Mission members’ activities, both official and personal, were closely monitored and reported, and communications were believed to have been monitored and intercepted and were accordingly regarded as insecure. The AMLMs’ close proximity to Berlin meant that they also maintained HQs co-located with their own national headquarters in West Berlin, which gave them much more security, freedom and flexibility.
Reciprocal Soviet Military Liaison Missions were located in each of the three Western Zones. The Soviet presence in the British Zone was known as ‘the Soviet Commander-in-Chief’s Military Liaison Mission to the Commander-in-Chief British Army of the Rhine’, shortened to ‘SOXMIS’. During its existence SOXMIS was located in Bad Salzuflen, Lübbecke and Bünde in special compounds but these were never sufficiently close to the GDR for them to have a separate HQ like the Allies in Berlin, so they were always rather more isolated in their operations.

BRIXMIS’s primary official purpose was, according to the agreements, to maintain liason between the staff of the two Commanders-in-Chief and their military governments in the Zones to prevent incidents or events escalating to higher levels. Although emphasis quickly shifted onto intelligence collection the liaison function remained a core task throughout the Mission’s existence. Because of this liaison function, and some of the personal relationships created, serious incidents, including the detention of Mission staff, could often be resolved without involving respective Commanders-in-Chief, diplomats or politicians.

BRIXMIS’s intelligence collection included military and civil targets. To carry out these intelligence-gathering tasks BRIXMIS personnel were always unarmed, in working, not combat, uniform, and ‘toured’ throughout the GDR in specially marked military cars. They compiled visual, written and photographic reports on the activities they observed. Up to thirty-one British military personnel, referred to as being ‘on pass’, could be accredited to the GSFG Headquarters as being with BRIXMIS at any one time. They had relative freedom of movement within the GDR and their vehicles were regarded as being ‘sovereign’ territory and, in theory at least, inviolable. However, access was far from unfettered. The Missions were forbidden from penetrating designated ‘Permanent Restricted Areas’ (PRA), which theoretically placed the area out of bounds. Unsurprisingly, PRAs protected the high-value intelligence targets, including many of the Soviet and East German garrisons, airfields, major logistics facilities and training areas. PRAs were detailed on published maps. There were also designated Temporary Restricted Area (TRA) that were time limited, usually created to cover major military exercises or troop movements, often linking PRAs together. Unofficial ‘Mission Restricted’ signs, planted in the German countryside, were generally ignored by the Missions because they had no agreed official status and frequently became treasured souvenirs for Mission members. All these restrictions nevertheless inhibited Mission activities. However, the Soviets managed the imposition of PRAs and TRAs carefully because overuse ran the risk of provoking tit-for-tat restrictions on the Soviet Missions in the FRG.

The Missions deployed into the GDR every day, including Christmas Day, to observe activities, equipment and personnel. They recorded details, took photographs and sometimes returned with items of equipment and even, on a few occasions, pieces of ordnance. They had to be experts in military equipment recognition, learn Russian or German to a required standard and develop good photographic and later video skills. The aim was to get as close as possible to the opposition by stealth or using bluster and trickery to obtain the information they sought. For many Mission personnel this posting was often regarded retrospectively as a highlight in their military careers. Some experienced difficulty in returning to ‘regular’ soldiering afterwards. It was certainly a high-stress posting for many. In the early 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when East–West relations were particularly sour, Mission work became particularly dangerous. During this time there were two fatalities. Adjutant Chef Mariotti of the MMFL was killed in a deliberately engineered traffic accident in 1984, and in 1985 Major Nicholson of United States Military Liaison Mission (USMLM) was shot and killed by a Soviet guard close to a military installation at Ludwigslust. Throughout the Missions’ existence there were many incidents of Soviet and East German forces causing physical injury to Mission members by administering beatings if they compromised an observation point, or during the detention of a ‘Tour’.

The Mission’s exploits were truly remarkable and are too numerous to describe in detail, though mention of a few of their intelligence ‘scoops’ gives an idea of what they achieved.
In 1966, BRIXMIS personnel liaised with Soviet military personnel who were trying to access the wreckage of a Yak-28 Firebar aircraft that had crashed into the British part of the Havelsee Lake in Berlin. Officially this meant keeping the Soviets away from the crash site until it and the crew’s bodies could be recovered and returned by British forces. Unofficially, they were co-ordinating the underwater removal of parts, including its then state-of-the-art radar, which were quickly spirited away to the UK for scientific examination. BRIXMIS successfully managed to stop the incident from becoming anything more than a very tense stand-off and illustrates BRIXMIS’s liaison function in an exemplary fashion.

BRIXMIS members were expected to use their initiative and daring to gather intelligence. One Tour came upon a stationary train carrying BMP-2 armoured infantry combat vehicles (AICVs). A ‘current priority intelligence requirement’ was to discover the main armaments’ calibre. A Tour member sneaked onto the train and pushed an apple into the weapon’s muzzle before the train moved off, or he was shot at by a Soviet sentry. In 1987 the British Army tactic of ‘acquisition’ came into play when a Tour ‘acquired’ a sample of Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) – ‘it came off in me and Sir’ – removed from a stationary Soviet T-80 MBT when no one was close by. At the time the composition and operation of ERA was a very high priority technical intelligence target.

The BCZ also gave BRIXMIS the opportunity to use the RAF Gatow-based Chipmunk aircraft for airborne observation and photography. There are several books about BRIXMIS and its operations that give comprehensive insights into their activities and modus operandi and they are highly recommended. They include works by Tony Geraghty, Steve Gibson and Major General Peter Williams.

SIGINT: British, French and US forces engaged in significant SIGINT collection activities in Germany and Berlin. They utilised a network of ground-based listening posts, overlooking GDR territory. British airborne SIGINT assets operated peripheral flights mainly from the UK, where the necessary infrastructure existed to process the information collected. The French airborne effort originally flew from Germany before switching to Metz-Frescaty in 1966 when France withdrew from NATO. They too maintained ground-based listening stations. The US effort was largest of all with a major network of monitoring facilities and air assets. Most US airborne SIGINT assets were located in Germany, but they were frequently detached for periods of temporary duty across continental Europe from 1946 until 1974. From then most operations were undertaken by UK-based aircraft.

PHOTINT/IMINT: The existence of the Corridors and BCZ gave the Allies a unique situation that could be used to their advantage for the collection of PHOTINT/IMINT. The Corridors were internationally agreed and controlled airspace. Its rules allowed access to Berlin for some of the Western Allies’ military and civilian aircraft. Aircraft using the Corridors and BCZ belonged to units on the published ORBAT and generally carried unit markings, flown by uniformed crews in airspace they were perfectly entitled to use. Whilst the risks to manned overflights of Soviet territory grew, Corridors and BCZ flights could be executed at comparatively low physical and political risk.

Being able to fly close along the IGB and through an important portion of East German airspace along the Corridors and around Berlin meant airborne intelligence gathering was an irresistible activity. All three Allies mounted their own airborne intelligence-gathering operations of varying scale and scope. The technical aspects of mounting equipment in a suitable aircraft and flying the missions could be difficult enough, but they were relatively straightforward when compared to the sensitive political risks attached to such activities elsewhere. To be at their most effective these flights required proper preparation, co-ordination and integration into the normal transport and training traffic going about its lawful occasions in the Corridors and BCZ.

Thus the stage was set for the execution of some of the most audacious ICFs of the Cold War that provided almost daily surveillance of installations in the GDR.


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