Operation Tamarisk

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Operation Tamarisk was a Cold War-era operation run by the military intelligence services of the U.S., U.K., and France through their military liaison missions in East Germany, that gathered discarded paper, letters, and garbage from Soviet trash bins and military maneuvers, including used toilet paper.


As described in The Hidden Hand by Richard Aldrich on page 414, Soviet troops were not issued toilet paper in the field. This led them to use official documents as toilet paper. The US, UK and France then used their spies to retrieve the documents as the paper was not soluble and was put into bins. The spies actually complained to their handlers that they had to go through the bins that contained fecal matter and even amputated limbs, in the case of hospital rubbish bins. When the spies told their handlers this, the handlers immediately asked them to bring back the limbs as well so they could study what type of shrapnel the Soviets were using.

According to Tony Geraghty, tamarisk was BRIXMIS jargon for "sifting through the detritus of military exercises".[1] This included extracting shrapnel from tissue disposal sites at hospitals and salvaging documents used as toilet paper where no actual toilet paper had been issued, but also less disgusting finds such as a discarded personal notebook containing technical drawings.[2]

Steve Gibson describes [3] Operational Tamarisk as "not a tri-mission task and results were not always disseminated to them. Operation Tomahawk was an exceptionally successful and closely guarded secret and yet it was a stunningly obvious undertaking." He suggests (p.112) that the name was changed from TAMARISK to TOMAHAWK "at the whim of Spandau [HQ], usually because someone outside the 'need-to-know' circle was brief about it and we didn't trust them to keep their mouth shut" and the slang changed to calling it a "Tommy". He describes it more generally as searching dumps because "In large towns and cities the disposal of rubbish was crudely organised....The Soviets were no exception to this carefree disposal of waste, quite often simply dumping their rubbish outside the back door of their barracks." Thus Gibson's claim is that this was a wider operation, not simply about a shortage of toilet paper, although he does (p.116) note that troops on exercise often used military paperwork as toilet paper and this was recovered. On the topic of limbs Gibson says: (p.114) that in 1981 "the Mission [Brixmiss] had learnt that Soviet soldiers with chemical warfare injuries among other horrific wounds from the war in Afghanistan were being evacuated back to East Germany for treatment. Brixmiss was tasked to recover evidence for further medical examination. It was presumed that they were being recovered to the DDR in order to receive the best possible treatment the Warsaw Pact could offer.....There followed some of the most harrowing work ever undertaken by the Mission.". This suggests a more specific reason why limbs were recovered. Gibson also notes that so much of what was in the dumps was never recovered, as the volumes were too great and the opportunities too few, which had the effect that it was unlikely anything could have been planted for them to find. The intelligence thus gathered was regarded as less contaminated (in an intelligence sense, even if physically soiled) than other sources.

Leslie Woodhead was told that it was one of the most successful espionage operations in the entire cold war.[4]


  1. ^ Geraghty, T (1996). Beyond the frontline, page 208. HarperCollins.
  2. ^ Geraghty, T (1996). Beyond the frontline, page 209. HarperCollins.
  3. ^ Gibson, S (1997). BRIXMISS: The last cold war mission, page 109 et seq. The History Press. ISBN 9780750987721
  4. ^ Radio Netherlands mp3 (at 30m50s)