It had been set up on 16 September 1946 to establish a reciprocal exchange of liaison missions between British and Soviet Forces in Germany during the occupation. The French and Americans had similar organizations, and the Russian equivalent was called ‘SOXMIS’. This situation continued until 2 October 1990 when all the missions were de-activated.
BRIXMIS became known as the Cold War’s ‘Great Game’, in which each side did its utmost to learn anything it could about the other’s military secrets, while overtly carrying out purely liaison duties. The British players had to learn Russian of course, and also become skilled in equipment recognition, photography, reconnaissance, bluff and what was termed ‘touring tradecraft’. They then travelled round the Soviet sector trying to shake off the inevitable Soviet ‘tails’ and at the same time pick up any useful information they could, preferably without getting caught. It was challenging and exciting work, and was carried out by Regular officers and NCOs seconded to BRIXMIS for around three years.
One of the top players on our side was acknowledged to be Captain Peter Williams of the Coldstream Guards, who did two tours, 1981–1983 and 1987–1989. He enjoyed it and also excelled at it, so much so that his performance was respectfully recognized by the Russians themselves. Indeed on one occasion when the British team were entertaining their Soviet opposite numbers at a party, the British Commander suggested that the Russians might like to watch the latest James Bond film. To which his counterpart replied, with a smile, “Thank you, Brigadier, but no. We have enough of your own James Bond, Captain Williams.”
The abbreviation for “British Commander-in-Chief’s Military Mission to the Soviet Forces.” Brixmis consisted of three-man teams of soldiers who patrolled the Soviet zone of Germany under the terms of the Quadripartite Agreement, which allowed the four armies of occupation to reconnoiter each others’ sectors, until it was dissolved in December 1990. The teams, based at a headquarters located at the Olympic Stadium compound, were drawn from 30 men who served in the unit on secondment, supported by about 200 other personnel, among them technicians, photographic processors, and weapons analysts. The Brixmis teams underwent training at the Templer Barracks, Ashford, and were required to be proficient in the recognition of nearly a thousand Warsaw Pact weapons, ranging from the latest model of the AK-37 assault rifle to the Soviet-made T-82 tank. Deployed in vehicles equipped with cameras but not radios, they were allowed to visit anywhere in the Soviet zone apart from preagreed permanent exclusion areas.
In Europe, throughout the forty-four years of the Cold War, a team unconnected with the wartime freemasonry founded by Gubbins and Stirling operated across the front line alongside the agent-running arm of SIS. It was known as Brixmis, or the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany. It answered to the intelligence secretariat of the Ministry of Defence and unlike the Foreign Office (vide Philby) or CIA (vide Aldrich Ames) it was never penetrated by the KGB. Its intelligence product was sent to Washington, sometimes before it reached London.
The key role for these military personnel at the time was patrolling the other side’s territory as part of a bilateral liaison system that was designed to provide mutual reassurance. Such activities kept a lid on tensions but were not without risk, as former members of the British Commander-in-Chief’s Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany – Brixmis for short. “They were our eyes and ears about what the Russians were up to and that helped keep a level playing field,” the Iain MacGregor continued. “These guys were going out and feeding back information on weaponry and new technology so we could adapt and make sure we were a match. “But what they did was incredibly dangerous. The method the Stasi had of letting you know they were there was to try and kill you via a `road accident’ – that happened several times. “That’s why the Brixmis vehicles were so heavily armoured – in case they got cornered and had to smash their way out and escape.
From 1947 two similar, smaller missions worked alongside Brixmis. These were the U.S. Military Liaison Mission, which included Major Arthur Nicholson, and the French MLM.
Major Arthur D. (“Nick”) Nicholson
At around 1600 hrs on 24 March 1985, Major Arthur D. (“Nick”) Nicholson, Jr., a U.S. Army intelligence officer, became the last professional, regular soldier to die in the “bloodless” conflict known as the Cold War, an affair that was anything but bloodless on surrogate battlegrounds around much of Africa and Asia. What made Nicholson’s case unique was that his death occurred on the well-prepared battlefield of postwar Germany, where massive tank and artillery divisions confronted one another for forty years, preparing for a nuclear Armageddon.
The manner of Nicholson’s death and its political consequences are a textbook illustration of the inherent instability of Special Forces operations as well as their intrinsic importance. Uncertainty about the outcome, indeed, is a staple element of SF warfare, in which the most important decisions are usually taken on the hoof, without a fallback position if the worst happens.
Nicholson was no cowboy. Aged 37, happily married with a nine-year-old daughter, he held a degree in philosophy and a master’s in Soviet studies. He spoke fluent Russian. After service in Korea he had worked in military intelligence on friendly territory in Frankfurt and Munich. At the time of his death he had made more than a hundred trips into hostile Communist East Germany.
He was one of a 14-strong espionage team implausibly identified—perhaps “moustached” or “barbouzed” would be more appropriate—as a military liaison mission to the Group of Soviet Forces, Germany. The organization, following an earlier, larger U.K. group known as Brixmis, emerged from the ashes of 1945. Its ostensible purpose in life was diplomatic, representing the wartime allies at commemorations of what the Russians styled “The Great Patriotic War” in spite of their earlier alliance with Hitler and shared invasion of Poland in 1939. There were also mundane, bread-and-butter matters such as the treatment of deserters from East to West or sometimes in the other direction.
In practice, both British and U.S. missions, often traveling off-road in specially equipped vehicles, stalked the Red Army on maneuvers, logged the movement of Soviet supplies, and, occasionally, pulled off an espionage coup. On May Day 1981, for example, Captain Hugh McLeod, a British officer, insinuated himself into Russia’s latest tank (a T-64) using a forged turret key and spent an hour photographing and drawing diagrams of the interior. (The key was the work of British intelligence based on a photograph of the tank turret taken at a Red Army Day parade in Moscow.) The Soviet regiment that owned this beast was preoccupied with serious drinking on this, its public holiday. At one point in his exploration, McLeod dropped his distinctive British army flashlight. It clattered deep into the tank’s interior. Haunted by the thought that the flashlight would be discovered during a routine maintenance check in Omsk, he spent another nightmarish half-hour recovering the device as his sergeant impatiently kept watch. As McLeod emerged, the sergeant wiped his boot marks from the hull of the T-64.
Some of the missions’ research methods were not for the squeamish. As each phase of an exercise ended, the Russians, being provident, peasant folk, converted secret instructions into toilet paper. The missions, suitably protected, came along afterward, dug up the debris, and carried it back to West Berlin, where one wing of their headquarters (formerly part of the 1936 Hitler Olympics building, memorable for Jesse Owens’s victories) was used to sanitize the documents. The system, known to the British as Tamarisk operations, yielded vital intelligence. The trick was later reinvented by the Vietcong.
Neither the Russians nor their East German clients accepted that the West was playing within the rules of cricket, or baseball, or Ivan’s equivalent code of ethics. Mission vehicles, identified by U.S. and U.K. symbols “accidentally” camouflaged by good German mud, were regularly driven off the road by heavy Soviet trucks causing injury and death, events that were officially designated as accidents. The Russians often declared a formerly open exercise area out of bounds, regardless of their own published advice, and arrested mission teams for 24 hours or more. Mission vehicles, unless they were locked, were ransacked. At other times they were pursued at breakneck speed by the East German secret police, the Stasi. Some Western crews, in turn, took steps to ensure that Stasi vehicles crashed during such encounters, particularly after dark. One of the mission’s favorite tricks was to disconnect brake-stop lights on their vehicles, enhancing the likelihood of a Stasi road crash. If this was not a hot war, it got uncomfortably warm at times. In the surreal world of diplomacy, the mission crews, nursing their bruises, were sometimes hosted by their Russian adversaries at parties where the toasts were to Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, and the same film—The Sound of Music—was screened yet again.
Four years after Hugh McLeod’s illegal entry into a T-64, Nicholson went hunting the next generation of Moscow’s armor, the 46-ton T-80. A classified official U.S. Army report makes the unlikely claim that Nicholson, with his driver, Staff Sergeant Jesse Schatz, was merely following fresh tank tracks in a training area known as Ludwigslust 475 without anything special in mind. The team approached the target—a shed where tanks were laagered—cautiously. Satisfied that all was well, Nicholson moved stealthily forward on foot, avoiding dried twigs or any other trap, to take photographs of training aids posted on a board alongside the shed. It was now late afternoon in the woods of Ludwigslust, but the light was good enough for Nicholson’s Nikon L35 autofocus camera…and for the iron gunsight on an AK-47 brought to bear on the Americans by a young Soviet sergeant identified as Aleksandr Ryabtsev in a watch tower a mere 75 meters away.
Schatz, Nicholson’s lookout, standing on the driver’s seat, head and shoulders above the open sun roof, spotted Ryabtsev and shouted to his officer, “Sir! Get in the car!” Too late. The first round missed Schatz’s head by inches. He “felt the whizzing of a bullet passing close to his head.” Nicholson ran toward their jeep, a Mercedes Geländewagen. Schatz, back in the driver’s seat, revved the engine and reversed toward Nicholson, unlocking the passenger door as he did so for the officer to make a getaway. Again, too late. A second shot brought Nicholson down. “As Schatz rolled his window down, Major Nicholson looked up at him and said, ‘Jesse, I’ve been shot’.” Another bullet hit Nicholson. “He then dropped his head into the dirt and twitched convulsively.”
What followed was a sinister reminder of the lingering deaths of East Germans who were unwise enough to try to escape to West Berlin across the shooting gallery that separated the two parts of the city at that time. Schatz, carrying a first aid bag, exited the vehicle to aid his stricken officer. By now, Ryabtsev had closed to within a few feet and waved Schatz away. As Schatz hesitated, Ryabtsev brought his rifle up to his shoulder, pointed it at Schatz’s head and curled his finger round the trigger. Schatz retreated. Nicholson died some time later from multiple abdominal wounds.
A diplomatic rumpus ensued, but there were larger stakes involved for Washington and Moscow than the killing—described by the Pentagon as murder—of a single Special Forces officer. A new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was steering his country toward a rapprochement with the West. A few months after Nicholson’s death, Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan met in Geneva and established a working relationship. One commentator suggested: “The Reagan administration’s response to this crime has been to treat it like a traffic accident covered by no-fault insurance.” When Reagan himself was baited by a reporter about the incident, he replied: “Lack of outrage? You can’t print what I am thinking.”
Yet Nicholson’s death was not an empty sacrifice in a boys’ own game of cowboys and Indians. Special Forces operations are supremely about strategic impact achieved by a small elite, or they are nothing. As the Cold War finally spluttered to its close, a veteran of the U.K.’s Brixmis mission revealed: “Preserving the peace in Europe in the 20th century was sometimes a damned close-run thing. It happened sometimes that all our nine Indicators of Hostilities”—intelligence measures by which the West would predict a preemptive Soviet attack—“read positive. We checked the situation on the ground, looked down their gun barrels, made sure there could be no surprise attack, no war by accident. That was our major contribution.” It was, essentially, a victory so low-profile, so discreet as to be invisible, but nonetheless real. In that, it resembled many successful non-violent Green Beret operations in Vietnam. It prevented Armageddon more than once, thanks to the magical substance provided by SF teams known to the intelligence community as “ground truth.”
Tony Geraghty: BRIXMIS—The Untold Exploits of Britain’s Most Daring Cold War Spy Mission—HarperCollins London 1996.