Operation Gold

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This article is about the joint CIA/SIS operation. For the Australian Defence Force unit, see Joint Task Force Gold.
Soviet officer inside the tunnel.

Operation Gold (also known as Operation Stopwatch by the British) was a joint operation conducted by the American CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service in the 1950s to tap into landline communication of the Soviet Army headquarters in Berlin using a tunnel into the Soviet-occupied zone. This was a much more complex variation of the earlier Operation Silver project in Vienna. Soviet authorities were informed about Operation Gold from the very beginning by their mole George Blake and "discovered" the tunnel in 1956.

Details of the project are still classified - especially by the British - and whatever authoritative information can be found is scant. This is primarily because the then-Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles ordered "as little as possible" be "reduced to writing" when the project was authorized.


After the Red Army followed the Soviet diplomatic department, and transferred its most secure communications from radio to telephone landline, the post-WW2 Western Allies lost a major Cold War source of information. Operation Gold was hence at least the third tunnel built to aid intelligence in the Cold War period post the end of World War 2. From 1948 onwards under Operation Silver, British SIS had undertaken a number of such operations in then still occupied Vienna, the information from which enabled the restoration of Austrian sovereignty in 1955. The KGB later commissioned the Red Army to construct a tunnel to tap into a cable that served the major US Army garrison for Berlin.

Operational agreement[edit]

In early 1951, the CIA undertook an assessment process for replacing their lost radio communications intelligence. Revealing their plans to the British, the SIS having read the report which included the idea of tapping Soviet telephone lines, revealed the existence of Operation Silver in Vienna.[1]

Hence on reassignment of CIA agent Bill Harvey to Berlin to explore the available options, Reinhard Gehlen, the head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, alerted the CIA to the location of a crucial telephone junction, less than 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) underground, where three cables came together close to the border of the American sector of West Berlin.[1] Operation Gold was planned jointly by the SIS and the CIA. Initial planning meetings were held at No.2 Carlton Gardens, London, from which the West Germany government were excluded, due to the "highly infiltrated nature" of their service. The resultant agreement was that the Americans would supply most of the financing and construct the tunnel (as the closest access point was in their sector), whilst the British would use their expertise from Operation Silver to tap the cables and provide the required electronic communications equipment.

One of those who attended the early meetings was George Blake, a mole in the British intelligence apparatus. Blake apparently alerted the KGB immediately, for two of Gehlen's agents were caught trying to get a potential tapping wire across a Berlin canal. The KGB decided to let Operation Gold go on since in order to attack the tunnel, the Soviets would have to compromise Blake and they found it preferable to sacrifice some information rather than their valuable agent. The KGB did not inform anyone in Germany, including the East Germans or the Soviet users of the cable lines, about the taps.


In December 1953 the operation was placed under the direction of William King Harvey, a former FBI official who transferred to the CIA. Capt. Williamson of the United States Army Corps of Engineers was placed in charge of construction.

The first project was the construction of a "warehouse", which acted as a disguise for a US Army ELINT station. The warehouse, in the Neukölln/Rudow district of the American Sector of Berlin, had an unconventionally deep basement at 7 metres (23 ft) to serve as the staging area for the tunnel.[2] Digging the initial vertical shaft for the tunnel began on 2 September, 1954[3] and was completed on 25 February the following year.

The covert construction of the 450 metres (1,480 ft) tunnel under the world’s most heavily patrolled border to intersect a series of cable less than 47 centimetres (19 in) below a busy street was an exceptional engineering challenge. Using a shield method of construction, which pushed forward on hydraulic rams, the resultant space was lined by sand and 1,700 cast-iron lining plates. A wooden railway track acted as a guide for the rubber-wheeled construction vehicles, which by end of construction had removed 3,000 tonnes (3,000 long tons; 3,300 short tons) of material. This included a number of evacuations, including when the diggers broke through into an undocumented pre-WW2 cesspool and resultantly flooded the tunnel. Throughout all stages of construction and in operational use, the entire tunnel was rigged with explosives, designed to ensure its complete destruction. Once complete, the tunnel ran into the Treptow/Altglienicke, where British Army Captain Peter Lunn - a former actually alpine skier, who was actually the head of the SIS in Berlin - personally undertook the tapping of the three cables. The British also installed most of the electronic handling equipment in the tunnel, which was manufactured and badged as British made.

The final cost of the completed tunnel was over US$6.5M, or equivalent to the final procurement cost of two Lockheed U-2 spy planes.


The British and the Americans listened and recorded messages flowing to and from Soviet military headquarters in Zossen, near Berlin; conversations between Moscow and the Soviet embassy in East Berlin; and conversations between East German and Soviet officials.

It appears the West was unable to break the Soviet encryption at this time. Instead they took advantage of a faint electronic echo produced by the Soviet communications equipment to read the traffic in plain text.

In Washington, DC, a team of CIA translators and analysts worked constantly on the vast amount of intercepts, ranging from high-level talk to barracks gossip. During the tunnel's brief lifespan of eleven months and eleven days, about half a million calls were recorded in 50,000 tapes. To evaluate this deluge the work of mining Operation Gold continued until September 1958. The KGB, forced to keep the flow of information as normal as possible, would occasionally let authentic sounding communications get through; the CIA may still have obtained some valuable information.[4]

Discovery by the Soviets[edit]

The tapped telephone wires are presented to the press.

When Blake received a transfer in 1955, the Soviets were free to "discover" the tunnel. On 21 April 1956, eleven months after the tunnel went into operation, Soviet and East German soldiers broke into the eastern end of the tunnel; calling it a "breach of the norms of international law" and "a gangster act." Newspapers around the world ran photographs of the underground partition of the tunnel directly under the inter-German frontier. The wall had a sign in German and Russian reading "Entry is Forbidden by the Commanding General."[5]

In the planning phase, the CIA and SIS had estimated that the Soviets would cover-up any discovery of the tunnel, through embarrassment and any potential repercussions. However, the media portrayal of the tunnel project enabled a great deal of glory on to the CIA. In part, this was because the tunnel was discovered during Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev's state visit to the United Kingdom, and specifically the day before a state banquet with HM Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. It has hence been concluded that the Soviets and British agreed to silence in the media coverage the British participation in the project, even though the equipment shown in most photographs is British built and clearly labelled as such.[6]

Not only was Allen Dulles affected by the tunnel raid, but also his brother John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State, and his sister Eleanor Lansing Dulles, the State Department's desk officer for Berlin.

Only in 1961, when Blake was arrested, tried and convicted, did Western officials realize that the tunnel had been compromised long before construction had begun. Although Allen Dulles has publicly celebrated the success of Operation Gold, CIA analysts have argued about the overall worth of the intelligence that they had gathered. By one assessment, the Soviets had allowed ordinary military communications to flow through the cables to project the illusion[citation needed] that the Soviets had no aggressive intent against West Berlin.

In later fiction[edit]

Operation Gold forms the background to the novels The Innocent by Ian McEwan, Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary by T.H.E. Hill and to the film The Innocent by John Schlesinger.


  • William Durie, " The United States Garrison Berlin 1945-1994", (Mission Accomplished, Aug 2014 ISBN 978-1-63068-540-9 (English).
  • British Garrison Berlin 1945 -1994, "No where to go", W. Durie ISBN 978-3-86408-068-5
  • Stafford, David. Spies Beneath Berlin – the Extraordinary Story of Operation Stopwatch/Gold, the CIA's Spy Tunnel Under the Russian Sector of Cold War Berlin Overlook Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58567-361-7
  • David E. Murphy, Sergei A. Kondrashev, George Bailey. Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-07233-3


  1. ^ a b David E. Murphy, Sergei A. Kondrashev & George Bailey. Battleground Berlin: CIA vs KGB in the Cold War, Yale University Press, 1997. p. 208
  2. ^ Caryn E. Neumann, Berlin Tunnel, Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security, retrieved 29 August 2009
  3. ^ Battleground Berlin, p.220
  4. ^ Christian Habbe, Als die CIA ihren Tunnel-Coup verpatzte, einestages.de, 27 August 2009. (German)
  5. ^ Spies Beneath Berlin, p.112
  6. ^ Spies Beneath Berlin, p.12

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°24′44″N 13°31′42″E / 52.41222°N 13.52833°E / 52.41222; 13.52833