King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Espionage during the Cold War

Unrenowned Contributions of Intelligence Workers

Due to the classified nature of espionage work, the contributions made by agents are never fully appreciated until much later. It is only with the declassification of archival sources that the central role of intelligence work is revealed.

Firebar Incident

A in flight picture of a Soviet Yakovlev Yak- 28, nicknamed a Firebar, flying over rural landscapeSoviet Yakovlev Yak-28, Firebar The Firebar Incident of 1966 is one of the greatest espionage triumphs that the West has undertaken. The Firebar was a nickname given to a technologically advanced combat aircraft developed and used by the Soviet Union, originally called the Yakovlev Yak-28.

The West possessed no blueprints or knowledge of the capabilities of the craft, having only photos of the jet. The jet was identified to have an advanced radar capability, and the West was desperate to identify what made its system so exceptional.

The plane soon became a top priority for intelligence officers seeking to gather any and all intelligence on this advanced aircraft.

Fortune favoured the West.  On April 6th 1966, a Soviet fighter jet, identified from the aircraft’s tail to be a Firebar plane, experienced a flame out and crashed into the Havelsee, a lake located in the British sector of Berlin.

The British immediately mounted a salvage operation of the craft, rushing to corner off the site from any Soviet intervention. The British were successful in this regard and, after having promised to return the plane to the Soviets, arranged for a barge to be set up around it, of which only the tail was visible above the water.

During this process, the operation was under constant watch by the Soviet military from behind the assembled barricade set up by the British, meaning that a surface extraction and examination of the plane would be heavily scrutinized by the Soviets; instead an alternative plan was hatched.

Hours after the area had been cordoned off, Squadron Leader Maurice Taylor rowed to the wreckage.

Unbeknownst to the ever-observant Soviets was that beneath the water, divers were carefully dissecting the plane, extracting pieces and swimming to a bank, in order to have these parts hastily shipped back to the UK for examination.

By the second day the radar system had been extracted and shipped, but a vital component of the radar - the dish - was still buried in the mud within the plane’s nose cone. Piece by piece, the plane’s parts were removed and attached by line to barges which successfully moved heavy fragments under water until the nose cone was accessible.

On midnight April 13th, the Firebar plane had been successfully examined by the British and was reassembled in preparation for its return to the Soviets.

It is reported that, as the engines were handed over to Soviet General Vladimir Bulanov, there were clear marks where the tips of the rotor blades had been sawn off. Major Geoffrey Stephenson, the British personnel present at the handover reports that,

“He didn’t say a word, he simply looked at me and shrugged, as if to say; ‘I’ve been screwed,’ and of course he had.”

Able Archer Exercise

Map highlighting in red the Soviet and East German forces that were placed on high alert in the lead up to the 1983 NATO exercise code named 'Able Archer'Soviet and East German Forces on High Alert during 'Able Archer' The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) conducted yearly military exercises during the Cold War in order to flex the military muscle of the Western alliance in the face of the Soviet Union and its allied countries of the Warsaw pact.

NATO’s 1983 exercise - code named Able Archer - was dramatically altered in comparison to its precursor tests, making it increasingly realistic and enigmatic to those states not involved in the exercise. The exercise was focused around an enemy, code named ORANGE, and introduced newly-coded methods of communication, while encouraging the participation of heads of governments of states within the alliance.

The Soviet Union believed that this advanced exercise was a preparation for a Western invasion of the Warsaw pact.

In response to this, the Soviet Union placed its forces on high military alert, mobilising their nuclear forces in front-line states such as East Germany and Poland. The Soviet Union issued a directive to its espionage workers to actively seek out early signs of nuclear attack as NATO began its exercise.

A Soviet first strike of its nuclear weapons in response to the exercise was averted through the work of such spies as Rainer Rupp and Oleg Gordievsky. Intelligence workers informed NATO of the anxiety of the Soviet government officials. NATO in turn were able to take effective steps to lower the tensions of the Soviet Union with the exercise.

Intelligence workers within NATO working on behalf of the Soviet Union were also able to report that the West had no desire to invade the Soviet Union during this exercise. Ultimately nuclear war was avoided because of the efforts of espionage workers.

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