Today we present an article written by retired US armor officer MAJ James M. Warford about US efforts to gather intelligence on Soviet armor during the Cold War involving the US Military Liaison Misison. This article originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2011 issue of ARMOR magazine in edited form. Mr. Warford has provided us with the original and unedited version for your reading pleasure.
The United States Military Liaison Mission, its Tri-Mission Partners and the Quest for the “Holy Grail”
By James M. Warford
“His weapons are stealth and discretion. He knows that successful collection is a deliberate and persistent endeavor which reveals the correct picture about his opponent from an emerging mosaic of separate information. Upon his individual judgment, initiative and courage, the success of USMLM is built.”
Randall A. Greenwalt, Colonel, GS
Chief of Mission (1982)
The United States Military Liaison Mission, or USMLM for short, was officially established by the Huebner-Malinin Agreement, in April 1947. The agreement authorized the exchange of military liaison teams or “missions” as there we commonly called, between US and Soviet military headquarters’ in Germany. USMLM’s primary (official) mission was to, “carry out responsibilities for liaison between CINCUSAREUR, on behalf of the US Commander in Chief Europe, and CINCGSFG (Group of Soviet Forces, Germany).”1 It was, however, in USMLM’s secondary and until the end of the Cold War, secret role where its contributions can truly be measured. Its secret role was to “exploit its liaison status and attendant access for the collection of intelligence information in the German Democratic Republic.”2 This meant that throughout its 44 year history, members of USMLM were able to spy on and gather critical intelligence information concerning the Soviet Forces deployed in East Germany.
Of all their real-life missions, many of which rival the most daring exploits described in best-selling spy novels, the task of getting up-close and personal with the brand new Soviet T-64 MBT (later confirmed to be the T-64A), and obtaining metallic scrapings of the tanks armor, ranks as one of the most daring and critically important they ever conducted. The desire to touch the enemy’s truly revolutionary new tank (the best the Soviets had to offer), represented more than just a high-priority mission; it was in fact, the quest for the “Holy Grail.”
While in many ways, USMLM’s intelligence experts and linguists were an elite team, they were not unique. At Yalta in 1945, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and Central Committee Secretary Stalin agreed that post-World War II Germany (and Berlin) would be reorganized into zones of occupation. Ultimately, this reorganization would include four zones; the American, the British, the Soviet and the French. Each zone was granted a liaison mission. The British mission was known as BRIXMIS, the Soviet mission was known as the SMLM (often abbreviated even further by American military forces to “smell ’em”) and the French mission know as the FMLM. The official headquarters’ for the three western missions were set-up in the city of Potsdam. Once established, the American, British and French missions were able to use their quasi-diplomatic status to observe, track and appraise Soviet military forces as they “toured” through East Germany. These “tours” normally consisted of two or three mission team members in a modified civilian sedan or (more recently) small SUVs. They would drive through East Germany both on and (more often than not), off-road. In many cases, the mission tours included tense stake-outs while hidden in the East German countryside for days at a time. If they were spotted by the Stasi (the East German State Security Police) or Soviet military forces, the chase was on. Tour members would do everything they could to avoid being detained (or “clobbered”) by their pursuers; including dangerous high-speed chases and escape and evasion maneuvers.
In spite of their status, USMLM tour members were not officially authorized to literally go wherever they wanted. The established mission agreements included the well-used provision of allowing the occupying military forces to designate large areas of land as either Permanent or Temporary Restricted Areas (PRAs and TRAs). In most cases, GSFG-designated PRAs and TRAs were delineated by their surrounding road networks which were actually considered to be inside the PRA/TRA. The result was that these numerous PRAs and TRAs greatly restricted the authorized travel available to the various mission tours. GSFG TRAs were normally imposed to support Soviet military exercises for a given period of time. PRAs, on the other hand, were just that – permanent. They were normally established around high priority activities, installations and training areas. A mission tour inside a PRA required high-level permission from the US, British or French military chain-of-command and was considered very risky. Soviet and East German responses to these unauthorized incursions was unpredictable at best and could result in the USMLM, BRIXMIS or FMLM tour members being detained or even shot by Soviet forces or the East German Stasi. While PRAs were pretty constant, TRA locations and in-effect dates changed with each exercise or event, so they were delineated on maps that were made available to the various missions. “At one point during the Cold War, 40% of East Germany was under PRA.”3
The various tour vehicles used by the missions over the years are an interesting story in themselves. In 1964, for example, USMLM used powerful Ford Galaxies or Customs in the police-interceptor version. According to one former mission member, “the East German villagers would gasp in awe as we emerged at high speed from the woods in these low-slung, mud spattered green monsters.”4 In 1976, a combination of Ford Broncos and Opel Admirals were used and in 1985 the vehicles used were primarily Mercedes-Benz 280 GE, four-wheel drive “G-Wagons.” When a new tour vehicle arrived it was normally modified to make it more suitable for the unique tasks it was about to perform. Factory standard springs were replaced with more heavy duty sets, improved shock-absorbers were fitted and fuel tanks were enlarged to carry more fuel. In some cases, the undersides of the cars were fitted with steel plates to help protect vital components during high-speed cross-country driving. Each tour vehicle was then painted a flat olive-drab color everywhere except the windows. To help prevent any unwanted glare from potentially giving away a tour vehicle’s position to Soviet forces, the cars were fitted with curtains which could be drawn when necessary. Finally, each mission vehicle was fitted with official and very obvious license plates that clearly identified the car as a USMLM vehicle. The front and back plates were yellow and included the vehicle’s two-digit accredited mission number, a large US flag (in color), and the words, “American Military Liaison Mission” written in Russian.
Just one example of how successful the “Tri-Mission” (US, British and French) efforts were over the years, and the true depths that these dedicated and courageous team members would go to gather intelligence, can be seen in their response to the Soviet Army practice of “litter-bugging.” It seems that the Soviets were notorious for throwing away valuable documents and paperwork and leaving them in un-secure trash dumps when they moved from one location to another. Going through these trash dumps had been part of USMLM operations for some time but it wasn’t until 1976 that a more formalized and intensified effort was launched. It wasn’t long before these efforts were coordinated under a program called SANDDUNE. SANDDUNE produced a wide variety of intelligence including Soviet Army unit training schedules, tank firing tables, vehicle maintenance manuals, troop rotation plans, radio call-signs and frequencies and new equipment technical documentation, to name a few. BRIXMIS had a very similar program to SANDDUNE called Operation Tamarisk. Tamarisk was equally successful and published accounts describe BRIXMIS team members not only digging through trash dumps but also through retired latrines and sites used for medical waste disposal. The examination of medical waste sites understandably proved to be challenging for mission members. “It was an extreme strain on the boys to do that job. But it did produce what might be called surgical memorabilia which linked the stuff to (Soviet) battle wounds.”5
Perhaps the most significant find to result from SANDDUNE and Tamarisk efforts over the years was made near a Soviet Army barracks at Neustrelitz, in Northern East Germany in 1981. A Tamarisk operation conducted by three BRIXMIS team members “under the noses of sleeping (Soviet) sentries,”6 produced a personal logbook. The logbook was written in Russian and included technical drawings. According to a British Military Intelligence Officer who had knowledge of what the logbook contained and who subsequently debriefed the team that discovered it, “it was (at the time) the most important thing we have had from any source for ten years.”7 The logbook contained top-secret information detailing the composition of the armor and the strengths and weaknesses of the new Soviet T-64A. The logbook also contained the same type of information regarding the even newer and more mysterious T-80B MBT. This detailed description of Soviet tank armor contained in the Neustrelitz logbook launched a crash program to develop new and more powerful ammunition for the British Chieftain MBT. The new British L23 120mm Armor Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) ammunition (which included a newly designed, longer dart-like armor penetrator and was fielded in 1983/84), may have been designed for the sole purpose of defeating the Soviet tank armor described in the Neustrelitz logbook.
As mentioned previously, mission tours in and around GSFG PRAs and TRAs were considered very risky. The risks were accepted, however, since it was USMLM’s task (as well as that of the other Tri-Mission teams), to gather intelligence on Soviet and East German military forces. So, incidents between these adversaries occurred frequently and were considered part of the job. The seriousness of these incidents ranged from relatively routine detentions of mission members to much more violent Soviet and East German responses. Here are a few examples:
- August 1978: a USMLM tour was fired on by Soviet troops while collecting unit designation markings from train-mounted T-64As. Four rounds of ammunition struck the USMLM vehicle.8
- March 1979: a tour vehicle was caught in a well planned trap when it was deliberately broadsided by a Soviet Army truck near a radar site. This violent attack forced the USMLM vehicle off the road where it turned over twice. The tour officer was seriously injured and was incapacitated for four weeks.9
- June 1980: a USMLM vehicle was deliberately rammed by a Soviet Army truck as team members observed Soviet military equipment near a rail siding.10
- January 1984: while a USMLM vehicle passed a Soviet Army road work crew, a Soviet Officer unexpectedly stepped toward the moving USMLM vehicle and swung a long-handled shovel through the vehicle’s windshield.11
Easily the worst of these incidents to occur throughout the history of USMLM, was the shooting and death of Major Arthur D. “Nick” Nicholson on March 24, 1985. The official USMLM account of this tragedy is as follows:
“Major Nicholson was shot at 1545 (hours) outside tank sheds located on Ludwigslust Sub-caliber range 475, where he had dismounted from the tour vehicle to check for the possible presence of (Soviet) armored vehicles. This facility served the Independent Tank Regiment of the (Soviet) 2nd Guards Tank Army. Known to be frequently guarded under normal conditions, it had a varied history of occasionally violent reactions. Thus, the tour had entered the area with considerable caution, stopping in the forest to watch and listen at intervals as they did so. The tour then approached the sheds and photographed signboards displayed nearby, and positioned the vehicle to permit the tour NCO to pull security while the tour officer (Major Nicholson) checked for armor. Unknown to the tour and despite its best efforts at observation, a (Soviet) sentry remained undetected, concealed in the adjacent woods. SSG Schatz (the tour NCO) noticed him just before he opened fire. The sentry’s first shot whizzed narrowly over the heads of the tour; it was not a warning, but a miss. And one of the two remaining rounds fired, struck Major Nicholson, by this time running back to the tour vehicle, near his center of mass: his upper abdomen. The tour NCO sprang from tour vehicle to administer first aid but the sentry refused to let him do so. The sentry, who had held SSG Schatz at gunpoint the entire time, shouldered his AK-47, took aim at SSG Schatz’s head and motioned him back into the vehicle. Seeing the futility of further action and the hopelessness of the situation, SSG Schatz complied. Over the next three hours, many Soviet officers and soldiers arrived to secure the area, collect data and investigate the situation. Yet no one, including the obvious medical personnel rendered even rudimentary first aid (to Major Nicholson). The protracted failure to provide or permit any medical attention at all ensured that the wound proved fatal.”12
At a memorial service for the posthumously promoted Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, Secretary of Defense Weinberger referred to him as “consistently the most productive officer” in USMLM.13 In a letter to General Secretary Gorbachev dated April 4, 1985, President Reagan included, “I and all Americans were appalled recently at the senseless killing of Major Nicholson in East Germany. In addition to the personal tragedy of this brave officer, this act seems to many in our country to be only the latest example of a Soviet military action which threatens to undo our best efforts to fashion a sustainable, more constructive relationship for the long term. I want you to know it is also a matter of personal importance to me that we take steps to prevent the reoccurrence of this tragedy and I hope you will do all in your power to prevent such actions in the future.”14 Finally, in 1988 Soviet Defense Minister Yazov formally apologized for the death of Major Nicholson to Secretary of Defense Carlucci at a summit conference in Moscow.
To this day, there are still unresolved issues surrounding the shooting of Major Nicholson. Unconfirmed reports suggest that he may in-fact have been murdered as an act of planned retaliation for an unprecedented intelligence coup for the United States that took place very early in 1984. In the early morning of January 1, 1984, a USMLM tour managed to gain access to a T-64B MBT shed for 24 hours where they examined and took interior photographs of the new tank. According to the available information Major Nicholson was on the tour that conducted this famous USMLM event. In the years following, well-known Cold War spy James W. Hall, a former US Army Intelligence Analyst who was convicted of espionage in 1989, confessed to providing his Soviet and East German “handlers” the details regarding Major Nicholson’s intelligence coup with the T-64B. Clearly, the Soviets knew the story of the incident and the names of the USMLM team members who were responsible. It’s likely that Hall’s information to the Soviets ensured that the sentries at Ludwigslust 475 were very aware of whom they were dealing with on March 24, 1985. It’s important to keep in mind that USMLM team members were never armed and relied solely on the standard equipment issue of a powerful NIKON camera with multiple lenses, a video camera (in more recent years), a tape recorder and a note pad, to conduct their dangerous missions. Finally, the relevant Soviet PRA map confirms that the Ludwigslust 475 facility although close to the PRA’s perimeter, is clearly outside the PRA.15 Today the site includes a commemorative marker placed by USMLM team members memorializing their fallen comrade.
Another unresolved issue related to the death of Major Nicholson concerns the target of his tour’s intelligence gathering efforts on that fatal day. Most available sources report that before the shooting, he had or was in the process of photographing T-80B tanks at the site. While the Ludwigslust 475 facility is located in the 2nd Guards Tank Army area of operations which was equipped with T-64A and T-64B tanks, the established Soviet tank deployment pattern had started to change. In 1984 USMLM observed a T-80B apparently belonging to a Soviet tank division that was normally equipped with T-64s. This development changed the status-quo and USMLM was concerned. “What happened to the neat deployment pattern of T-64A and T-64B in the north and T-80B in the south?”16 The confirmed presence of a T-80B in the 2nd Guards Tank Army (belonging to the 16th Guards Tank Division), in 1988,17 not only confirmed that the Soviets were upgrading T-64-equipped units with new T-80Bs, but also the tanks that Major Nicholson had been photographing at Ludwigslust 475 could have been T-80Bs, not the T-64A or T-64B as expected. It’s likely that the Soviets had made the decision not to allow a repeat of Major Nicholson’s T-64B incident the previous year, with the even newer T-80B in 1985.
Of all the important and in many cases, even amazing intelligence gathering efforts conducted by USMLM and its mission partners, those that targeted the T-64A and T-64B truly stand above the rest. Perhaps most important of all was the campaign to get up-close and personal with the T-64A as quickly as possible following its initial deployment to the GSFG in 1976, and acquire metallic samples of the tank’s armor. The first photographs of the new tank were taken by a BRIXMIS flight (probably using their “Chipmunk” two-seat trainer aircraft and powerful cameras), at Bernau. Reportedly, the BRIXMIS member didn’t recognize the prize he has photographed and sent the film through routine processing. Later that same day, a USMLM flight over the same area photographed the new tanks and its crew realized that they had seen something special. This USMLM flight crew thus claimed the “scoop” of being the first to photograph the new tank. Interestingly enough, the new Soviet tanks were initially identified as T-72 MBTs because the US, British and French missions were only aware of a new Soviet tank called the T-72. It wasn’t until the Soviet Military Parade in Red Square on November 7, 1977 that the missions learned that there were in fact two new Soviet tanks; the T-72 and the T-64. The new tanks identified in East Germany were actually T-64As.
The first observations of the T-64A from the air by both BRIXMIS and USMLM on the same day launched what could be described as a friendly competition between the two missions. The challenge was to gather as much intelligence as possible on the T-64A and if you were able to “scoop” your Tri-Mission partners in doing so, all the better. Here are a few examples of the officially reported T-64 sightings by USMLM from those years:
- September 14, 1976: the first ground observation of the T-64A at the Neustrelitz rail siding.18
- March 9, 1977: the first ground level color photography of the T-64A.19
- June 1978: extensive reporting of the introduction of the T-64A into the 10th Guards Tank Division and the accompanying withdrawal of the division’s (older) T-62 MBTs.20
- August 1, 1978: technical quality color photography of the T-64A optical sights.21
Observations like these by USMLM and similar achievements by BRIXMIS and the FMLM, although significant, still fell short of what was really needed; someone had to be the first to lay their hands on a T-64A and actually bring back metallic samples of the tank. Prior to the discovery of the Neustrelitz logbook, this was truly the “Holy Grail” for the Tri-Mission teams. The Tri-Mission members knew that this would be no easy task to accomplish. BRIXMIS was issued some new equipment that would hopefully enable their tour members to measure the thickness of the T-64A’s frontal armor if actually placed on the tank. The problem, according to one BRIXMIS member was that “Whitehall did not always appreciate that we were perhaps not in a position to rush on a T-64 to stick a gadget into it.”22
The Tri-Mission teams were up to the task with the only question being who would be the first. This effort focused on the T-64A would prove to be one of the very few cases where Tri-Mission reporting and “credit” claims regarding who was first to accomplish something important, were actually contradictory. Up until that time each Tri-Mission team would normally give credit where credit was due. USMLM reporting for example consistently gave BRIXMIS and the FMLM credit for many significant discoveries and observations, including descriptions like “painstaking effort” or “determined vigilance.” This apparently changed as the tour members began closing in on the T-64A in 1981/1982. The first photo of the interior of a T-64A to be included in an official USMLM history appeared in 1982. The short caption credited “an unusual developed exploitation” for the source. The next T-64A interior photo to be included appeared in the 1983 USMLM history. In this case, the credit was given to a USMLM tour for gaining access to the tank and providing excellent close up photos of the tank’s interior. This reporting, however, contradicts British accounts regarding who was first. These British accounts clearly state that they were in-fact the first to obtain interior photos of the tank. On May 1, 1981, after observing an apparently unguarded tank shed and the surrounding area on a Soviet Army tank gunnery range for an hour, a BRIXMIS tour made its move. Tour members broke into the locked building and discovered five T-64As and a tank crew turret trainer. They extensively photographed one of these T-64As inside and out. It’s likely that one of these BRIXMIS photographs was the one included in the 1982 USMLM history.
In 1985, the USMLM history included the report everyone was waiting for; the Tri-Mission’s “Holy Grail” was at hand. The brief report in the history is as follows:
“23 January: Serial numbers and metallic scrapings were obtained from the front glacis of a T-64A. This data, provided exclusively by USMLM supplemented similar information obtained in 1984, thus providing analysts with additional information on Soviet tank production and metallurgy.”23
This is all the more interesting when it is compared to the available information concerning BRIXMIS achievements in 1981. During one famous eighteen-hour tour in 1981, a BRIXMIS team managed to achieve two very important intelligence coups. The first was the discovery and grab of a small quantity of live 5.45mm ammunition fired by the new Soviet AK-74 Assault Rifle. They were reportedly left on the ground of a firing range after the Soviet unit had departed the area. The second coup was even more significant since it was all about the T-64A. A lone tank covered by a tarp was spotted loaded on a railroad flatcar and was apparently only “guarded” by a railroad signalman. Their plan was to get close enough to the T-64A to obtain metallic scrapings from the tank’s glacis and turret armor. They were carrying a specialized tool designed for this unique purpose. The tool used was a “super-hard tungsten-tipped ‘pen’ which, when scratched on the surface of metal, collected a sample on the cutting edge.”24 Using this tool and some ingenuity with a hacksaw, the tour members quietly cut through the tank’s tarp and obtained scrapings from both the glacis and turret armor without being noticed.
Clearly, the USMLM and BRIXMIS accounts contradict each other. It is possible that the 1985 USMLM report was actually referring to a different incident involving a different variant of the T-64. The T-64B had been the victim of more than one visit by Tri-Mission tour members including the famous January 1, 1984 24-hour examination provided by Major Nicholson and other USMLM team members. Perhaps the official reporting of acquired metallic scrapings referred to something grabbed from Major Nicholson’s T-64B that was considered to highly classified to be included in the Confidential 1984 USMLM history. It could have been decided to wait a year, until the publication of the 1985 USMLM history, to include the information regarding the metallic scrapings from the tank’s armor. Another possible reason for the contradiction could be as simple as the reporting of a very similar incident to the BRIXMIS incident, this time involving USMLM and a different T-64A. Finally, the contradiction in reporting could be based on the first-time acquisition of both T-64A serial numbers and metallic scrapings from the same tank acquired by USMLM; thus tying a specific armor sample to a specific Soviet tank. In any case, this friendly disagreement remains intact to this day leaving the assignment of credit for this significant and heroic Cold War achievement unresolved. Unfortunately, this is about all of the unclassified information that is available regarding this first grab of metallic scrapings from the T-64A. By August, 1985 things seemed to be back to normal with USMLM officially giving credit to BRIXMIS for close-up photography of the T-80B highlighting the tank’s glacis. The FMLM was also officially given credit for the first sighting of the T-80B fitted with mounted reactive armor in September/October 1985.
The real world and hands-on intelligence information gathered and provided by USMLM and the other Tri-Mission teams proved invaluable during the Cold War. Their unprecedented proximity and access to the Soviet Army’s latest weapons provided a unique ground-level viewpoint. These were not the weapons shown annually during military parades in Red Square; they were in fact, the weapons and capabilities the Soviet Army would use to fight World War III. The shared intelligence gathered by the Tri-Mission teams would prove to benefit all the countries arrayed against the might of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies in Europe. The detailed information regarding the almost fully exploited T-64A, for example, was distributed in many classified documents over the years including the now unclassified USAREUR Intelligence Study, “Warsaw Pact Tanks in the Forward Area” (December 1983). According to the British Ministry of Defense, the T-64 intelligence gathered by BRIXMIS was so important that NATO would not have been able to defend Europe without it. Fortunately, disagreements like the one concerning who deserved the credit for being the first to achieve the Tri-Mission’s “Holy Grail” were few and far between. They were never allowed to interfere with what was truly most important, the rock-solid and united front represented by USMLM and the other Tri-Mission teams against the Soviet military forces in East Germany.
- Unit History, United States Military Liaison Mission to the Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany; 1982 (Unclassified).
- USMLM History – 1982.
- BRIXMIS – The Untold Exploits of Britain’s Most Daring Cold War Spy Mission; Tony Geraghty – 1996.
- Air Team – USMLM: The Berlin Island Association; Paul Nikulla – 2005.
- BRIXMIS – Tony Geraghty – 1996.
- BRIXMIS – Tony Geraghty – 1996.
- BRIXMIS – Tony Geraghty – 1996.
- Unit History, United States Military Liaison Mission to the Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany; 1978 (Unclassified).
- Unit History, United States Military Liaison Mission to the Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany; 1979 (Unclassified).
- Unit History, United States Military Liaison Mission to the Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany; 1980 (Unclassified).
- Unit History, United States Military Liaison Mission to the Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany; 1984 (Unclassified).
- Unit History, United States Military Liaison Mission to the Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany; 1985 (Unclassified).
- Our Last Cold War Casualty; John J. Miller, National Review, April 5, 2004.
- Letter from President Ronald Reagan to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, April 4, 1985.
- Gunshots in Techentin – Mission Accomplished: The Military Liaison Missions of the Western Forces in Potsdam from 1946-1990; The Allied Museum, Berlin – Date Unknown.
- USMLM History – 1984.
- Unit History, United States Military Liaison Mission to the Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany; 1988 (Unclassified).
- Unit History, United States Military Liaison Mission to the Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany; 1976 (Unclassified).
- Unit History, United States Military Liaison Mission to the Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany; 1977 (Unclassified).
- USMLM History – 1978.
- USMLM History – 1978.
- BRIXMIS – Tony Geraghty – 1996.
- USMLM History – 1985.
- BRIXMIS – Tony Geraghty – 1996.