That fear of annihilation motivated the United States and Britain to dig a tunnel from the American sector of Berlin into the Soviet sector, where the allies could tap into key telephone lines that ran close to the border and overhear the plans of Russian military and intelligence officers. Richard Helms, later the CIA director, called it “the most elaborate and costly secret operation ever undertaken within Soviet-occupied territory.” Costly and risky, but the stakes were enormous. As Vogel writes, “The Berlin tunnel was born of . . . desperation.”
The Soviets were equally desperate. Their goal was to counteract Western power and pressure, and they had a secret weapon — not a missile but a man, a highly placed British intelligence officer named George Blake who had turned against his country years before and was assigned to take minutes at a top-secret meeting that outlined the tunnel project. He gave his Soviet handlers a copy of those minutes and a “simple sketch” of the tunnel’s route.
Here is the supreme irony at the core of this tale: The Russians heard about the tunnel before it began, yet did nothing to stop it. So few people were in the know that if Moscow tipped its hand, Blake would have immediately fallen under suspicion, and he was too valuable to risk exposure. “In essence,” writes Vogel, “the KGB foreign intelligence directorate was sacrificing Soviet military, political, and scientific secrets to protect its own secret — George Blake.”
The tunnel operated for 11 months before the Soviets decided that Blake was safe and they could score a propaganda victory by disclosing the excavation while their new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was visiting London in April 1956. But in fact, as the Post editorialized, the Russians made a “grievous mistake” by revealing the tunnel, which provided clear “evidence that the tradition of Yankee resourcefulness and ingenuity is not a myth after all.” Moreover, the information gleaned from the wiretaps about Soviet strengths and strategy “remained valuable for a decade and more,” noted Helms.
This is a fascinating, fast-paced narrative, and Vogel is particularly well-suited to write it. A former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, he was born in Berlin in 1960, the son of a CIA agent, and “the city always held a mystique for me,” he writes. For good reason. Cold War Berlin was a divided city symbolizing a divided country, a divided continent and really, a divided world. And the political and military rivals that faced off there didn’t build bridges of understanding. They built a tunnel, and later a wall, which only aggravated their animosities instead of easing them.
If Berlin was a divided city, Blake was a divided personality, who spent his whole life seeking a clear identity and never quite finding it. His father, Albert Behar, was a Turkish Jew who earned British citizenship by fighting with the Brits in World War I. His mother was a Dutch Protestant, and he was raised a Christian in Rotterdam, but after his father’s death, 13-year-old George was sent to live with rich relatives in Cairo. He returned to Holland at the outbreak of World War II, became a courier for the Dutch resistance, escaped through France and Spain to England where his mother had changed the family name to Blake, and enlisted in the British navy. His commander then “took a fateful step” and recommended Blake to the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. In 1948 he was assigned to the Korean capital, Seoul, and on July 2, 1950, he was captured by North Korean soldiers and spent three years as a prisoner of war. While in captivity he embraced the communist cause and offered to spy for the Soviet Union.
Why? The man who had once considered the priesthood had lost his faith, “so there was a vacuum in my mind,” he later said. That vacuum was not just religious but political and personal. Was he Behar or Blake? Jew or Christian? Dutch or British or Turkish? He was an officer in the “hallowed SIS,” but “he deeply resented the class consciousness and snobbery he encountered” in British society, especially from the family of a girlfriend who objected to their romance. For Blake, writes Vogel, “declaring allegiance to communism was akin to a religious conversion.” A man without a country or a cause had found a creed that filled the hole in his soul. “To betray, you first have to belong,” he once said. “I never belonged.”
Blake was eventually arrested in 1961 and after a brief trial was sentenced to 42 years in prison, “the longest sentence imposed in modern British history, going back 150 years.” But on Oct. 22, 1966, he managed to escape with the help of three confederates who tossed a rope ladder over the prison wall. He eventually made his way to Berlin and from there the KGB flew him to Moscow, where he lives today at age 96.
“George never has any regrets,” his cousin insisted, but this reader is not convinced. His wife and children left him, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the communist dream died. Berlin has been united for many years now, but Blake remains a man who never quite belonged anywhere and still doesn’t.
The True Story of the Cold War's Most Audacious Espionage Operation
By Steve Vogel
Custom House. 530 pp. $29.99