Perhaps the world’s most famous double agent, George Blake, died a few days ago. He is particularly notorious in Berlin due to his role in a major operation involving three of the world’s dominant powers, two sides of the future Berlin Wall and one very secret tunnel.
The years following WWII in Europe might be considered the golden age of spying. There wasn’t an internet to hack into, so clandestine meetings and wiretaps were the only options. In the early post-war years, much of Europe’s espionage centred around a divided Vienna, with the city being split amongst the four victorious powers. The British had great success with a small under-street tunnel, a wiretap and a surprisingly successful tweed shop in a project code-named “Operation Silver”.
In 1955, Austria reverted to self-rule, the occupying forces left and there was no longer a need for the Operation Silver project under the streets of Vienna. There would still be a need for information, however, as the Soviets had moved their important communication away from radio transmissions to telephone landline. In 1951 the CIA looked for ways to replace the information lost due to this change and shared an idea with the British SIS to tap Soviet telephone lines. The British then revealed the existence of Operation Silver and a new, significantly larger joint operation would be born in Berlin. The CIA, perhaps flexing, perhaps just seeing the funny side, named the project Operation Gold. The British, missing the joke, called it Operation Stopwatch.
The whole project was to dig a tunnel in Berlin, significantly larger than the one in Vienna, cutting underneath the border between East and West Berlin, to tap into a telephone junction that was 450 metres from West Berlin and less than 50 centimetres below an East Berlin street. The Americans would handle the construction of the tunnel, the British would handle the wiretap. The meetings to plan the operation took place in London, and deliberately avoided bringing the West German authorities in on the plan as their ranks were considered highly likely to have been infiltrated by the Communists.
Unbeknownst to anyone, however, one of the British spies, a man whose job it was to recruit Soviets to be double agents for the British, was in fact a double agent himself. George Blake, who attended many of the early meetings in the planning stage of the tunnel, was all the while relaying this information back to the KGB. The KGB meanwhile, was so concerned with keeping their man on the inside safe, they kept this information to themselves and did not even inform other agencies within the Soviet Bloc. They simply let the tunnel go ahead, waiting for the strategically best time to “discover” it.
The construction phase of the tunnel began in September 1954 and was completed early the following year. It was an incredible feat of espionage and engineering to covertly create a 450-metre long tunnel, under one of the world’s most heavily patrolled borders to intersect a telephone exchange cable lying just underneath a street. The tunnel itself moved around three thousand tonnes of earth and was not without challenges as higher than expected water tables and undocumented cesspools created delays. By the time it was done the project has cost roughly the same as two Lockheed U-2 spy planes (or about $52 million, adjusted for inflation).
The British and American agencies listened to the transmissions gathered from the tunnel for around eleven months. When George Blake was transferred away from Berlin in early 1956, the KGB saw this as the opportunity to safely “discover” the tunnel, which they did on the 21st April 1956, a date the KGB chose to coincide with a state visit of Nikita Krushchev to the UK. The Soviets called the wiretap “a gangster act” and a “breach of the norms of international law” but the press loved the ingenuity and brilliance of the operation. The Soviets hoped this would disrupt the American-British allegiance when everything was blamed on the Americans but in the end, the CIA and SIS probably gained more from the discovery than the Soviets did.
It was only five years later, when George Blake was arrested, that the Western agencies realised the Operation had been compromised from day one. Blake himself would be sentenced to forty-two years in the Wormwood Scrubs prison, however, he escaped in 1966 and fled to the Soviet Union. He retired outside of Moscow as a hero of Russia, lived until his late nineties before his death on Boxing Day, 2020.
A remaining section of the Operation Gold tunnel was preserved and is displayed in the Allied Museum in south-west Berlin. There are also sections displayed in the CIA Museum and the International Spy Museum in Washington.