Daring Secret Mission Reaps Soviet Gold
Betrayal in Berlin: The True Story of the Cold War’s Most Audacious Espionage Operation. Steve Vogel. Custom House. 530 pages. $36.99
By Rick Maze, Editor in Chief
Presented as a true-life spy story recounting the damage done by notorious British traitor George Blake, a new book by historian and former Washington Post reporter Steve Vogel provides new details about Operation Gold, a Cold War mission undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Signal Corps to tunnel from the American sector of divided Berlin into the Soviet sector to tap communications lines.
Betrayal in Berlin: The True Story of the Cold War’s Most Audacious Espionage Operation recounts that Operation Gold was a success as the U.S. and Britain received mountains of intelligence over an 11-month, 11-day period thanks to the ingenuity of American and British engineers who dug by hand a more than 1,400-foot tunnel that ended up exactly under a cable junction.
Undertaken as a secret mission by the U.S. Army, the rub in the story is the tunnel and monitoring of phone lines weren’t a secret to Soviet intelligence. They knew about it before the first shovel of sandy soil was removed, but they kept quiet—not even telling senior Soviet officers whose calls were clandestinely transcribed for American and British intelligence agencies—because they wanted to protect Blake, their well-placed spy whose job in the British Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, made him valuable. Blake was one of the few people aware of the tunnel plans, and the KGB feared he’d come under immediate suspicion if efforts were made to interfere with the bold initiative.
Vogel’s story benefits from interviews with Blake, now a 96-year-old KGB pensioner living in Moscow, but for an Army audience, it also benefits from Vogel talking with retired U.S. Army Col. Keith Comstock, one of the Corps of Engineers officers who oversaw the digging of the tunnel (he was a captain at the time), and reading the papers of former Army Capt. Robert Williamson, another engineer who promised an interview but died before it could be scheduled.
The Army digging unit formed beginning in May 1954, known as the 8598th Engineer Support Team, consisted of three officers and 15 enlisted soldiers picked in part because they already had secret security clearances in a bid to avoid any delays or extra attention. They later re-formed as the 9539th Technical Service Unit, part of the Signal Corps, to deceive their true purpose.
The digging of what ended up being the more than 1,400-foot tunnel began on Sept. 2, 1954, from inside a warehouse built in a farmer’s field. They hit water after a few feet, an unexpected development that delayed work for a month while they came up with new plans to create a 6-foot-diameter tunnel 16 feet below the surface that would end at a critical junction box where phone lines would be tapped. The tunnel was dug mostly using the Army entrenching tool because it was suitable for working in small spaces.
Working eight-hour shifts, with officers often digging alongside the enlisted members, the team reached the border to the Soviet Zone in November. They reached the critical spot to tap the communications line by the end of February, and British soldiers stepped in to dig up to the cable lines and tap them. On May 11, 1955, they tapped the first of three cables, each carrying 98 telephone or telegraph circuits. Signal Corps soldiers began the process of recording communications and sending them off for translation. They were designated the 22nd Army Security Agency Detachment, 7222nd Defense Unit.
Much of the information was gossip, but there were also details about equipment shortages, budget problems and Soviet politics.
The tapping continued for 11 months and 11 days, ending when Soviet officials determined their spy, Blake, wouldn’t be uncovered and after heavy flooding caused shorts in the communications lines, giving them an excuse to go looking for the communications leak. On April 22, 1956, the tunnel was “discovered,” with U.S. Army soldiers told to retreat to American-held territory but take no actions that might start a war.
Discovery of the tunnel created an international incident, with American soldiers sworn to secrecy. Soviet authorities tried to give the U.S. a black eye for engaging in espionage. But this didn’t work exactly as planned, as news reports described in wonder the expertise shown in the construction of the tunnel and praised the daring U.S. effort. On May 3, 1956, the tunnel was opened to visitors. Some sections of the tunnel remain on display in the Allied Museum in Berlin.
Vogel writes that the officers, including Comstock and Williamson, received Legion of Merit medals and the enlisted engineer soldiers who dug the tunnel received Army Commendation Medals while also being sworn to secrecy. The end of the Cold War led to the declassification of the tunnel project.
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WWII Leaders Intent on Bettering Themselves
Generals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their Peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II. Benjamin Runkle. Stackpole Books. $34.95
By Maj. Joe Byerly
When we think about Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton Jr., we remember them as the great commanders they were during World War II. We tend to forget that they were once lieutenants, captains and majors. We forget their destiny was not preordained, and there were institutions, people, events and experiences that prepared them for their wartime leadership.
In his latest book, Generals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their Peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II, Benjamin Runkle examines the careers of several World War II commanders to discover what influenced them to successfully lead the men and women of “the greatest generation.”
Runkle uses the current Army leader development model as the holistic lens through which to view their careers. This model takes into account the institutional, operational and self-development domains.
The institutional domain includes professional military education and the promotion process. The operational domain includes specific assignments in units. Finally, the self-development domain includes the investment the individuals make in themselves by absorbing lessons from books and mentors and by reflecting on their own experiences.
By using the Army’s leader development model as the framework for Generals in the Making, Runkle makes three important contributions to the profession of arms. First, he helps us better understand how American World War II leaders developed into successful wartime commanders. Second, he validates the Army’s leader development model by showing how the influences of all three domains are important in the development of operational and strategic leaders. Finally, he points out that of the three domains, it’s the self-development domain that sets these leaders apart from others: “In the end, variables that today would be classified as falling within the ‘self-development domain’ appear to have been the most significant for America’s World War II generals.”
This book is not a heavy academic tome; Runkle is a great narrator. His description of events is easily readable, and he moves beyond military experiences to also show how real-life experiences—divorce, the loss of children and other personal setbacks—shaped the leaders. He spends a significant amount of time covering the role that Maj. Gen. Fox Conner played in their lives, and how Conner set Eisenhower on a course to be Supreme Allied Commander.
Runkle also does an excellent job of illuminating the Army officer networks that were present before the outbreak of war that proved critical to the United States’ success during the war. They created a foundation of trust that is necessary during conflict. For example, Gens. Omar N. Bradley, Walter Bedell Smith, J. Lawton Collins and Maxwell D. Taylor all worked for Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George C. Marshall during pre-war mobilization. Eisenhower served in MacArthur’s front office in multiple assignments, and the friendship Eisenhower and Patton developed while serving together as field grade officers proved vital in keeping Patton in position during the war.
I recommend this book not only for World War II history buffs, but more importantly, also for company and field grade officers. Too often, officers rely on the lessons they learn and skills they develop in the operational and institutional domains, putting little effort in the self-development domain.
In reading Generals in the Making, military leaders will see the important role the nontangible aspects of the profession play in leader development: the time we spend reflecting, the books we read and the mentors we listen to.
Maj. Joe Byerly is an armor officer and recently served as a special adviser with the U.S. Special Operations Command. He is a Non-Resident Fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute and is the founder of the website From the Green Notebook.
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Allies Pull Off Massive Drop, But at a Cost
Four Hours of Fury: The Untold Story of World War II’s Largest Airborne Invasion and the Final Push into Nazi Germany. James M. Fenelon. Simon & Schuster. 448 pages. $30
By Col. Cole C. Kingseed, U.S. Army retired
Of the major airborne operations in the European Theater in World War II, none has received less attention than Operation Varsity on March 24, 1945. This is surprising since the Allied offensive to secure a bridgehead east of the Rhine River in Germany was the largest single-day airborne assault of the war. James M. Fenelon hopes to correct this imbalance with his first book, Four Hours of Fury: The Untold Story of World War II’s Largest Airborne Invasion and the Final Push into Nazi Germany.
Fenelon is an amateur historian who served in the military for 12 years and graduated from the U.S. Army Airborne, Jumpmaster and Pathfinder schools. A frequent contributor to World War II and FlyPast magazines, Fenelon brings his personal experience as a paratrooper to bear in analyzing airborne operations in the 20th century’s greatest conflict. Clear and numerous maps sprinkled throughout the text and explanatory notes enhance the reader’s comprehension.
Readers will delight in Fenelon’s description of William “Bud” Miley’s career. It was then-Maj. Miley, the future commander of the 17th Airborne Division, who in 1940 organized a group of over 400 volunteers into the Army’s first formal parachute unit, the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion. With an ex-paratrooper’s pride, Fenelon explores Miley’s contribution in developing the airborne trooper’s distinctive personal equipment and uniform modifications, such as the parachutist qualification badge and trousers bloused into jump boots.
Using unit histories, operational reports and firsthand accounts, Fenelon divides his narrative into two sections: the buildup to the Rhine crossing and the execution of Operation Varsity. Command of the airborne contingent of British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery’s offensive fell on Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, commander of the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps. Although the British 6th Airborne Division played a significant role in Ridgway’s operation, Fenelon focuses almost exclusively on the pivotal contribution of the U.S. 17th Airborne Division.
As envisioned, Operation Varsity was based on four principles. Drawing on the lessons of D-Day as well as Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, Montgomery insisted that the airborne drop consist of a single lift of aircraft, versus repeated sorties from England. Second, the airborne operation must coincide with the Rhine River crossing by the ground troops. Next, all drop zones must be in range of Allied artillery support. Finally, it was mandatory that the air and ground troops link up as soon as possible.
The mission of Miley’s 17th Airborne Division was to capture the high ground of the Diersfordt Forest 4 miles east of the Rhine, then seize 10 bridges over the Issel River and the Issel Canal. Within a day, the paratroopers secured their objectives. By March 25, 1945, Montgomery received reports that organized resistance had ceased.
Casualties were excessive, but Montgomery cabled that Varsity had been a success. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower concurred, declaring that Varsity was the “most successful airborne operation carried out to date.”
Miley’s 17th Airborne Division was deactivated on Sept. 16, 1945. It was credited with 66 days of combat in three campaigns: the Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe. Casualties numbered 1,382 killed, 4,713 wounded and 420 missing.
In the final analysis, Fenelon has compiled a compelling story of Operation Varsity and the 17th Airborne Division. Though Four Hours of Fury may not be an “untold story” of World War II’s largest airborne invasion, it is most certainly a riveting account of an airborne division at war.
Col. Cole C. Kingseed, U.S. Army retired, a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, is a writer and leadership consultant. He has a doctorate from Ohio State University.
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Authors Share Approaches to Defeat Militants
Hunting the Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell. Dana J.H. Pittard and Wes J. Bryant. Post Hill Press. 352 pages. $27
By Lt. Col. Daniel P. Sukman
There is an abundance of literature on the rise and expansion of the Islamic State group, but a dearth of writing on how the U.S. military fought ensuing battles against it.
In Hunting the Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell, retired Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard and retired Air Force Master Sgt. Wes J. Bryant provide a firsthand account of America’s fight in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
The book alternates between the perspectives and voices of Pittard and Bryant. Pittard offers the operational-level view from his headquarters in Baghdad, while Bryant offers on-the-ground perspective from inside a strike cell—a “war room” for remotely directing close-air support. Strike cells became the most important tool in the campaign against ISIS.
After a quick introduction and outline of Pittard’s and Bryant’s backgrounds, the time frame of the book spans the formation of Joint Force Land Component Command-Iraq in 2014 and the stand-up of strike cells in that country. The book then carries the reader through to events in 2018 as the U.S. and its coalition partners expanded the war into Syria.
Pittard served as the Joint Force Land Component Commander-Iraq. With his operational perspective, he details how he formed relationships with those in Iraqi military leadership and higher U.S. headquarters. His discussions on the difficulties of coalition warfare and combined operations paint a picture of the patience and diplomacy required from senior leaders to achieve operational and strategic objectives. Indeed, Pittard describes his efforts to convince Iraqi military leadership to coordinate their actions with their rivals (the Kurds, for example) to attain the broader goal of destroying the Islamic State group.
Bryant served as the senior Joint Terminal Attack Controller in Special Operations Task Force-Iraq. Focusing on the tactical side of the story, Bryant offers details of how he coordinated fires to kill ISIS members over the course of his deployment. He describes the obstacles he faced, from an initial lack of resources to the intricacies of a JTAC controlling fires from coalition aircraft. For example, Bryant had to overcome language barriers and gain an understanding of rules of engagement each nation’s pilots operated under.
The book has weaknesses. The authors disparage what they see as overly burdensome rules of engagement. However, they also describe incidents where the rules of engagement prevented incidents of friendly fire, saving scores of lives. This contradiction arises throughout the book and is never addressed.
Further, there is little mention of the information-operations campaign of ISIS and coalition efforts to counter its propaganda. Instead, the authors strictly focus on the kinetic actions of the war.
Overall, the book is an enjoyable and engaging story of two men called to action to lead a fight against a ruthless and determined enemy. They provide a case study of how the U.S. military engaged ISIS and rescued a beleaguered Iraqi government, and how leaders can solve problems through engagement and personality.
Hopefully, this book is the beginning of more memoirs and chronicles of our war against the Islamic State group.
Lt. Col. Daniel Sukman is a strategist and member of the military faculty at the Joint Forces Staff College, Norfolk, Virginia. He served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Shedding Light on Patton’s Complex Personality
Blood, Guts, and Grease: George S. Patton in World War I. Jon B. Mikolashek. University Press of Kentucky (An AUSA Title). 184 pages. $45
By Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired
In Blood, Guts, and Grease: George S. Patton in World War I, Jon B. Mikolashek argues that while there is no lack of biographies of Gen. George S. Patton Jr., none have deeply explored how the Great War may have influenced his thinking. Patton’s experiences in World War I led to the tactical and operational success he later enjoyed as a corps commander and while in command of Seventh Army in Sicily and Third Army in Western Europe through V-E Day in May 1945.
Blood, Guts, and Grease illuminates Patton’s maturation in World War I, from a long-serving but relatively naive junior officer to a competent tactical commander who was able to develop, train and employ a new formation based on the embryonic tanks of the time. The author makes plain the influence of both Gen. John J. Pershing as a mentor and the more direct role of Brig. Gen. Samuel D. Rockenbach, known as the father of the U.S. Army Tank Corps, in developing and reining in Patton.
Rockenbach tolerated the sometimes churlish, often mean-spirited and occasionally disobedient and unnecessary stunts of the man who helped build the Tank Corps and commanded the Army’s only tank brigade in combat.
There was a dark side to Patton. Despite his reputation, he was no visionary of armored combat and was a reluctant tanker. He sought service in what became the Tank Corps to advance his career—and it did. At the end of the war, he returned quickly to the cavalry as soon as the Tank Corps no longer served his needs.
The author’s father, like Patton before him, commanded Third Army in combat. In the foreword, retired Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek argues convincingly that Patton’s greatest moment came during World War II. Early in the Bulge campaign, Patton pivoted a corps and ultimately Third Army northward. Three days after the Germans attacked on Dec. 19, 1944, Patton claimed he could attack northward into the southern shoulder of the penetration with three divisions. Although skeptical, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed. Patton did as he claimed.
During World War I, Patton proved himself an effective combat leader, an outstanding trainer and courageous in combat. The author demonstrates that much of what Patton became and achieved in World War II stemmed from his experiences in World War I.
Blood, Guts, and Grease deserves to be read for this reason and because it sheds light on the complex personality that has been, in many ways, masked by the legend that emerged during World War II and has grown since.
Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired, commanded a tank battalion in Operation Desert Storm and an armor brigade in Bosnia. A former director of the School of Advanced Military Studies, his latest book, Loss and Redemption at St. Vith: The Seventh Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge, is scheduled for release in November.
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They Served Without a Peep—or a Woof
War Animals: The Unsung Heroes of World War II. Robin Hutton. Regnery. 466 pages. $29.99
By Alan Axelrod
Even those only casually interested in military history know that World War I, barely into the 20th century and barely on the cusp of mechanization, saw the use of many war animals—some 16 million. Eight million horses and mules were killed in action between 1914 and 1918. Most of us, however, assume that World War II, fought roughly 20 years later, was so thoroughly mechanized that war animals were pretty much a thing of the past.
War Animals: The Unsung Heroes of World War II corrects this assumption. Germany used some 2.75 million horses in World War II, the Soviet Union 3.5 million and the United States about 52,000.
But author Robin Hutton does not dwell on numbers. Instead, she tells stories of individual animals, beginning with dogs of war and moving on to war birds (carrier and reconnaissance pigeons), horses and mules. She focuses on heroic animals, especially those awarded a Dickin Medal by the British-based People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. The institution has recognized a few exceptional U.S. military animals, among them a dog named Chips and GI Joe, a homing pigeon in the U.S. Army Pigeon Service.
As millions of American families yielded their sons and daughters to military service, thousands also gave their beloved dogs in a “Dogs for Defense” program. Among them was Edward J. Wren of Pleasantville, New York, who parted with Chips, a collie-German shepherd-husky mix. Trained by the Army as a sentry dog, Chips served with the 3rd Infantry Division in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. He stood watch at the 1943 Casablanca Conference between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; a few months later, during the invasion of Sicily, Chips and his handler were pinned down by Italian machine-gunners. Chips broke from his handler, leaped into the pillbox and sent four gunners fleeing in surrender to U.S. troops.
Later that day, despite a scalp wound and powder burns, Chips helped capture 10 Italian soldiers. He was nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross and awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart—but they were subsequently revoked in accordance with Army regulations barring commendation of animals.
GI Joe is credited with saving the people of Calvi Vecchia, Italy, and British troops of the 169th (London) Infantry Brigade who occupied it on Oct. 18, 1943. Before the 169th took it, the village was held by the Germans. An Allied air attack, requested earlier, was about to launch; with normal communications not yet established, the only hope of averting a friendly fire catastrophe was a message sent via GI Joe. He flew 20 miles in 20 minutes, arriving at the Allied airfield as aircraft were preparing to take off.
Whether your interest is in military history, animals, or both, you will find much to relish in this book. Entertaining, it is also highly moving without getting lost in sentimentality. As William T. Sherman noted, “War is cruelty.” Yet war may also occasion the noblest acts of which human beings are capable.
Hutton observes, “The King James Bible appears to anticipate by two thousand years the spirit of the Congressional Medal of Honor.” She quotes John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
War Animals demonstrates that this “greater love” extends beyond Homo sapiens. War brought it out in those beings to whom she dedicates her book: “Those who had no voice or choice” but served selflessly nonetheless.
Alan Axelrod is the author of How America Won World War I: The U.S. Military in the Great War—The Causes, the Course, and the Consequences; Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps; and Lost Destiny: Joe Kennedy Jr. and the Doomed WWII Mission to Save London.
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Overlooked Heroics Still Heroic
Valor of Many Stripes: Remarkable Americans in World War II. Scott Baron. McFarland & Co. 224 pages. $29.95
By Col. David D. Haught, U.S. Army retired
In Valor of Many Stripes: Remarkable Americans in World War II, Scott Baron offers a moving collection of lesser-known stories of valor during World War II. The tales are about soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, spies, prisoners of war, men and women, a chaplain, the son of a U.S. president and even a dog.
Baron compiles 27 accounts of valorous actions ranging from the last horse cavalry charge in U.S. military history, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines in January 1942, to the story of Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro, the only Coast Guardsman to receive the Medal of Honor. An author or co-author of 11 other books, Baron succinctly provides the background and skillfully tells these tales.
Take, for instance, the story of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son Maj. James P. Roosevelt, who was executive officer of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. In one of the earliest offensive operations in the Pacific, elements of that battalion led a raid on Makin Island that featured the first commando operation launched from a submarine. Or consider the narrative of Demas T. Craw and Pierpont M. Hamilton during Operation Torch. They were the only aviators during World War II who were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions not involving air combat.
Baron describes two stories he attributes as an inspiration for the famed Steven Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan. He tells the story of the Niland brothers, in which Sgt. Frederick Niland’s three brothers went missing or were killed after the Normandy invasion on D-Day and he was ordered home by Roosevelt.
Similarly, Baron discusses the Borgstrom brothers, whose parents, Alben and Gunda Borgstrom, proudly displayed their service banner—complete with five blue stars. Tragically, four siblings would not return as they died in different theaters of battle.
Continuing a theme of families, Baron relates the story of the Stokes twins. Claude and Clyde Stokes, originally from Dierks, Arkansas, joined the Army in January 1943. As a presidentially approved exception to the sole survivor policy, the Stokes twins served together in the same unit and on the same M10 tank destroyer. It was their actions at the Salerno, Italy, beachhead in September 1943 that prevented a breakthrough by the Germans. For these actions, the twins were each awarded the Silver Star.
The twins continued their service together, spending 133 continuous days in combat and earning Bronze Star medals with V device and three Purple Hearts.
The stories Baron tells are motivating and awe-inspiring, replete with commitment to country, mission and fellow servicemen. They run the gamut of the war, from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, to the Philippines, to the closing battles of the war in Europe. It is not, however, the stories per se that make this book a must-read for current and future members of the profession of arms; it is the valor they reveal. We should all understand and aspire to the conduct of these heroes.
Col. David D. Haught, U.S. Army retired, is an assistant professor in the Department of Tactics, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Belvoir (Virginia) Satellite Campus. He served over 29 years in the Army as a field artillery officer.