Book Review – Spies Under Berlin by David Stafford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a very well put together story of the Berlin spy tunnel, and some of the context that lead up to it being dug. It looks at the contemporary views and also re-evaluates the impact of the tunnel and whether or not it could be considered a success.
The tale is an interesting one, because the existence of the tunnel was betrayed to the Soviets before it was even dug. Blake took the minutes of meeting that decided to build it, and told his Soviet handler about it. Despite this the KGB didn’t share the information as they wanted to protect Blake as a source, so they couldn’t stop the tunnel until there was a reasonable excuse from another source. For two years the British and Americans taped all the traffic on the cables they’d tapped (it was a joint operation, but the US took the entire blame when it was discovered because Kruschev was on a state visit to the UK at the time).
At the time the tunnel was seen as a great US success, which was changed to a dramatic defeat when Blake finally got caught. There was a feeling that the KGB had used it for strategic deception. This belied the point that the purpose of the tunnel, as with all espionage at the time, was to ensure that there were no surprises leading to a nuclear war. In that respect it had succeeded, whether or not the KGB fed disinformation.
Looking back with fifty years of hindsight, the Cold War ended, and much of the intelligence declassified (at least on the US and Soviet parts if not by the British) it is clear that the information gained by the tunnel was real. The KGB were too scared of giving away Blake to be able to do anything to manage the information. It also took them some time to work out a way of finding the tunnel that wouldn’t lead to Blake as the source. It was only heavy rain and flooding that allowed them to arrange a systematic check along the cables for a damaged section. Once this was triggered there was still no guarantee the tunnel would be found as the KGB had deliberately not briefed anyone about what to look for.