The Chamber: Russia’s Assassination Laboratory, Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts I’m publishing, covering Russian-government-backed assassinations using a variety of poisons and radioactive weapons going back more than one hundred years. Spanning the Bolshevik, Soviet, and modern Russian Federation governments, these assassins and their peculiar set of weapons reached across Asia, Europe, and beyond. There is no risk the Russian government is unwilling to take in order to further their goals, and end the lives of turncoats, defectors, activists, dissidents, journalists, and accused traitors to Mother Russia. To read part three, click HERE.

Introduction

Nikolai Evgenievich Khokhlov was a Soviet war hero and capable MVD agent when he was selected for a dangerous mission outside of the USSR: find and kill a Russian dissident in Frankfurt, West Germany named Gregory Okolovich.  Khokhlov went to Frankfurt as ordered, but his actions there shocked his superiors in Moscow, and opened a new chapter in the Cold War.

In the Name of the Soviet Union

Khokhlov had proven his worth at a young age, both before and during World War II. Prior to the German invasion he had been a member of the Young Communist League, and had aspirations to become an actor, with a few small roles in several Soviet films. When hostilities began, he was initially rejected for military service due to his poor eyesight; however, as the situation became more desperate for the Soviet Union once Germany invaded, Khokhlov was recruited as an NKVD asset. An older member of the vaudeville union where Khokhlov was working spotted and assessed him as having the potential for intelligence work and recommended him for recruitment. The 19-year-old Khokhlov was already assigned to a paramilitary Demolitions Battalion within Moscow but was released to the NKVD from that assignment.

At this time, the Soviet government was sacrificing millions of bodies in an effort to overwhelm the Germans, and Khokhlov had no desire to be one of them.  His own father and stepfather had already died in the war. His father served as a battalion commander in the Soviet army until he had made an errant comment to one of his soldiers that Stalin was as responsible as Hitler for the Soviet Union’s recent losses. This was enough to get him reassigned to a penal battalion given the most dangerous missions of all; he was quickly killed in fighting. Likewise, Khokhlov’s stepfather had taken up arms against the invading Germans, but as a lawyer with no real martial capabilities, he too died almost immediately.

Once Moscow was under siege by German forces, Khokhlov was selected for a near-suicide mission against high-ranking German officers during the Battle for Moscow. With the city primed to fall before the invading German army, a last-ditch effort was mounted to target and kill officers while their guard was down. Khokhlov and three other NKVD agents operated undercover as a vaudeville quartet that would entertain the Germans as they celebrated their successful occupation of the enemy capital. Khokhlov himself was an accomplished whistler, which had gotten him accepted into the vaudeville union in the first place, and this talent would be his cover for action. Once the German officers were gathered in an audience for the vaudeville show, the performers would instead attack and kill as many as possible.

The team made Khokhlov’s deceased stepfather’s apartment their base of operations. While awaiting the arrival of the German Army in Moscow, they received training in explosives and small arms until they were reasonably proficient. Afterwards they moved on to training in tradecraft and even international etiquette; the customs and mannerisms they would need if interacting with high-ranking German officers at a formal celebratory dinner.

Fortunately for Khokhlov, the operation was canceled when the German army failed to fully take Moscow by the end of 1941. The young Khokhlov breathed a sigh of relief as he had been certain the plan would have ended with all four agents quickly killed. But his role thus far had brought him to the attention of none other than Pavel Sudoplatov, the NKVD’s chief of wet work. Sudoplatov came to Khokhlov’s apartment on New Year’s Day, 1942, and disbanded the quartet while offering Khokhlov an opportunity to further serve Russia, this time in Germany itself. Khokhlov eagerly accepted, and afterwards was known by the code name Whistler in future operations with the NKVD and MVD.

Khokhlov’s first task was to travel to Ankara, Turkey and take on the identity of a real German citizen with whom he bore a near-identical likeness. From there he would travel on the other man’s documents into Berlin. However, Khokhlov fell ill with typhus just before the mission was to begin, and it was canceled. Although Khokhlov wasn’t briefed on his mission before arriving, documents late reveal the NKVD had designated him to assassinate Franz Von Papen in Turkey. Von Papen served as Adolf Hitler’s Vice-Chancellor from 1932-1934 and was the German Ambassador to Turkey through 1944.

Later in 1943, Khokhlov was sent to a POW camp for German officers inside of Russia. There he and another agent codenamed “Karl” spent 30 days posing as captured Germans, to perfect the mannerisms of Germans and validate his command of the language. The POW camp was a perfect testing ground as his discovery there by other POWs would happen under circumstances controlled by the NKVD. Although he had a few close calls in the prison camp, such as accidentally speaking Russian upon waking up early one morning, Khokhlov and Karl remained undiscovered by their fellow POWs. In fact, he was so successful at blending in that a separate Soviet counterintelligence team attempted to recruit him during interviews at the camp. These agents were not briefed on Khokhlov’s mission and had no idea of his true identity.

With this final hurdle passed, Khokhlov and Karl flew into Belarus in the dead of night, wearing the uniforms of a German First Lieutenant and Corporal. Their mission was the assassination of Reichskommissar Wilhelm Kube, the senior German leader for occupied Belarus. Linking up with partisans on the ground, they were able to make their way from the landing field to a nearby town where they hitched rides in German troop trucks to Minsk to carry out their mission. Once on the ground in Minsk, Khokhlov looked for ways to carry out the mission but found that Kube had excellent protective measures in place. A public killing would be extremely difficult to carry out, as would infiltrating the house where Kube resided. In the end, Khokhlov made contact with Yelena Mazanik, Kube’s housekeeper. She had remained neutral in the conflict thus far but armed with the knowledge of her husband’s past collaboration with the NKVD, Khokhlov was able to coopt her for the mission. On September 22nd, Mazanik, was able to plant a time bomb under Kube’s bed, which detonated at 1:20am while he slept, killing him instantly.  Khokhlov and Mazanik both successfully escaped in the aftermath of the assassination, but the Nazis killed more than 1,000 locals as retaliation for Kube’s death.

For the next year, Khokhlov fought side by side with the partisans in Belarus, slowly pushing out the occupying German Army. Moving towards Western Europe, Khokhlov marveled at the far better standard of living in areas outside of the Soviet Union. Here he first began to wonder if communism and the Soviet system were truly best for the people. The seeds of doubt had been planted.

In the Name of the People

Near the end of World War II, Khokhlov was sent next to Romania, where he lived as a sleeper agent under the alias of Stanislaw Levandowski, a Polish immigrant who ran a small electronics shop. While there he did not take part in any significant intelligence operations, just worked to fully immerse himself into the local community until such a time as he was needed. Khokhlov parroted pro-democracy talking points to build the trust of the locals over the next several years, but gradually found himself becoming increasingly convinced as to their validity. He felt more and more separated from the Party and communist ideology in general.

In 1949 he sent a letter back to General Sudoplatov at the MVD, requesting to return to Moscow and be released from his intelligence career after eight years. He returned to Moscow and initially was allowed to attend a university program while continuing to work for the MVD. But even this was eventually taken away from him and his request to resign was denied. Instead, he was ordered on another liquidation mission, this time to Paris. A Russian émigré there named Alexander Kerensky was speaking out against the Soviet Union and had thereby earned the ire of the MVD. Khokhlov was to be issued a pair of Parker fountain pens converted into single shot pistols; one for the émigré, and one for his friend who had reported on him to the Soviet government. Khokhlov would take care of the problem and the witness on the same trip.

Khokhlov refused the mission.

General Sudoplatov was shocked, and even drove directly to Khokhlov’s apartment to discuss it with him personally. In the end he decided to assign the mission to another operative. Khokhlov lived for months in apprehension that he would be arrested or even executed. Eventually the tension passed although he was well aware that to refuse any further assignments would put him in mortal danger. His survival and continued work with the MVD probably came down to his indispensable skill set and experience. Despite his suspicious refusal to carry out his orders, Khokhlov was one of only 13 agents under Sudoplatov’s command who had the training and experience to operate in foreign countries as illegal agents. In fact, his wartime exploits were so highly regarded that the 1947 Soviet film “Secret Agent” is a fictionalized version of Khokhlov’s work during the war.  It was the highest grossing film in the Soviet Union that year, and one of the first of a series of films in the burgeoning Soviet espionage drama genre.

The 1947 Soviet film Secret Agent, a fictionalized version of Khokhlov’s wartime exploits.

Unbeknownst to Khokhlov for many years was what had occurred in the immediate aftermath of his refusal to assassinate Kerensky. Stalin himself had ordered the hit, and General Sudoplatov took an almost unbelievable risk when he reported to Stalin that the assassination could not be carried out; he claimed that there was a problem with Khokhlov’s fake Austrian passport which prevented him from traveling to Paris for the mission. Had Sudoplatov reported the truth, Khokhlov would almost certainly have been killed for this breach of trust with the MVD.

Khokhlov’s next assignment took him to the Soviet sector of Berlin in 1952. There he worked at Field Post Number 62076, the cover organization for the MVD’s headquarters in Germany. His work there was primarily administrative in nature, but it put him into contact with two reliable subagents on the Soviet payroll.  Kurt Weber, aka “Franz” was a devout German communist who had fought in Spain and France against the German Army. He’d been recruited by the Soviets in France but was now working as a lowly police clerk near Berlin, a man adrift in post-war Europe.

In France, agent Franz had worked with another man, Hans Kukovich, aka “Felix”. The men made an excellent team, and Franz had even rescued Felix after he was captured by the Nazis and sentenced to death.  Franz bribed a German prison guard to have Felix transferred to a hospital for an examination. Then Franz appeared at the hospital in a German Army uniform with forged papers to transport Felix elsewhere for interrogation. The two escaped and rejoined the fight against the Nazis. As of 1952 both men were on the MVD payroll but being held in “special reserve” for when they were needed for a key mission. That mission soon appeared, with Khokhlov at the helm.

Operation Rhine

By October 1953, the Soviets were working furiously to spread influence (and intimidation) throughout the rest of Europe. Defectors and vocal dissidents outside the borders of the Soviet Union were always at the top of their lists for liquidation. Khokhlov, now 31 years old was ordered to prepare for a critical mission across the border in West Germany. He would supervise agents Franz and Felix in the liquidation of a high-profile target. His new mission was the hunt for Georgiy Okolovich. Okolovich was the chairman of a group of anti-communist Russian emigres based in Europe known as the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists. This alliance was ramping up its efforts to subvert Soviet rule with increasingly drastic methods. They were known to have smuggled anti-Soviet pamphlets across the border using balloons and operated a program of subversion by approaching Soviet sailors in foreign ports who were on temporary shore leave. They also published a newspaper called Possev (“The Sowing”) filled with anti-Soviet articles.

A team of three German MVD agents had already attempted to kidnap Okolovich in 1951. But the mission failed when they could not locate him in West Germany, and two of the team members subsequently defected now that they were outside of the Eastern Bloc. Most crucially, after the failed kidnapping, the 10-year-old daughter of one of the defectors disappeared from Moscow. Khokhlov believed that the girl had been smuggled out of the country by the Solidarists in order to be reunited with her father. Another senior leader named Dr. Alexander Trushnovich based in West Berlin was successfully located and forcibly kidnapped from his apartment by a different team just two weeks before Khokhlov’s mission went forward. Trushnovich’s kidnappers accidentally killed him when he suffocated on a rag stuffed into his mouth, a fact that was not revealed by the Russian government until 1992.

The German agents were activated and traveled to Moscow, spending months in training for the mission, including jiujitsu, marksmanship, evasive driving, surveillance, and countersurveillance. Khokhlov himself focused on the planning and logistics of the operation, much as he had ten years previously for the assassination of Kube. He traveled to West Germany and brought back a number of small items to use as possible concealment for unique weapons, including cigarette cases, handbags, and wallets. He visited Laboratory Number 12, as the Chamber was called at that time, to personally oversee the fabrication of the unique, silent weapons being developed for this mission. He also arranged for false Austrian passports for the mission participants, as the MVD had an agent inside the Austrian passport office in Vienna at that time. After the weapons were delivered, the team practiced with them until a fatal first shot was all but guaranteed. Live-fire tests against wooden barriers, and even a leg of lamb, proved the weapons possessed both the kinetic energy and the silent ignition that was necessary for a deniable assassination. They also did full-scale rehearsals of a variety of scenarios, including shooting Okolovich from the window of a moving vehicle, or staging a car accident with him, and then shooting him as they went to “check on” the driver of the other car.

With the team and weapons poised in Austria for the go-ahead, Khokhlov once again traveled to Frankfurt on his own, in the first phase of Operation Rhine. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Khokhlov had prepared an encoded paper record containing many details of his work with the MVD and the personnel there, leaving it in a safe deposit box in Switzerland before traveling on to Austria and West Germany.

In the Name of Conscience

Once in West Germany, Khokhlov diverted from his assigned mission in the most stunning way imaginable. Rather than facilitate the assassination, Khokhlov instead approached Okolovich at his apartment one night. When Okolovich opened the door, Khokhlov greeted him first in German, then switched to Russian, saying, “Georgiy Sergeyevich, I have come to you from Moscow. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has ordered your assassination. The murder is entrusted to my group… I can’t let this murder happen.” A long and startling conversation ensued, but Okolovich believed him almost from the start.

Khokhlov was greatly saddened to realize that the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists did not possess the means to spirit his family out of the Soviet Union, now that he was willing to defect.  He would need to find another way to get the Soviet government to release his family.

Okolovich facilitated an introduction to the US government on February 19th, 1954. Khokhlov presented himself as a defector seeking political asylum.  Over the course of several tense meetings at Okolovich’s apartment and elsewhere, the US agents gradually began to believe the story Khokhlov was telling. He reported that a courier had smuggled weapons for the team to Augsburg, Germany, from where Franz and Felix brought them to Frankfurt and hid them inside a car battery in the baggage room at the railway station. The pistols were in sealed plastic boxes inside the container filled with sulphuric acid, as a virtual guarantee that no unsuspecting person would stumble upon them. A few days later at a scheduled meeting with Franz and Felix, the pair were detained by the US agents and brought in for interrogation. Khokhlov arranged for both of them to be offered asylum and no criminal charges if they cooperated fully with the counterintelligence personnel. Both immediately agreed and defected as well.

The Press Conference

For the next three months Khokhlov was debriefed first at Camp King just outside of Frankfurt, and later at a remote hunting lodge by counterintelligence agents. They eventually compiled a dossier based on his interviews approximately four feet thick. He was also escorted to Switzerland where he retrieved the encoded papers he had left there in a safe deposit box and turned over to the Americans.

Once the agents had determined the veracity of his claims, a decision was made to use Khokhlov against the Soviet Union in the most public way possible. It was the best chance they had to reveal to the world the cold-bloodedness of the Soviet intelligence apparatus, as well as prevent any consequence to his family still residing in Moscow. In May 1954, Khokhlov was the star of a shocking press conference in which he presented his story to a room packed with more than 200 reporters. The tools provided to him by the Chamber were on full display. Most famously, Khokhlov had been issued four firearms quite unlike anything else the world had ever seen.

Two of the four pistols were equipped with three single-shot .25 caliber barrels loaded with hollow point bullets filled with potassium cyanide. These poisoned rounds held a mixture of two-thirds potassium cyanide and one-third gum binder, to seal it in the hollow point of the bullet. Each round contained approximately half a gram of poison, more than 100 times a lethal dose. The rounds were locked together in a unique triple-pack that was loaded into the breach of the pistols from the top. The barrel length was negligible, so the shooter had to be very close to the target to fire. Death was virtually assured if you were struck by one of these rounds.

Perhaps more shockingly for 1954, the pistols used both an electronic ignition system powered by flashlight batteries and captive-piston ammunition; possibly the first experiment into this highly successful realm. When fired, these cartridges are nearly silent because all of the expanding gasses are captured behind a piston, which drives the bullet forward while simultaneously sealing the cartridge shut. According to Khokhlov, the sound of firing was no louder than a finger snap virtually undetectable in most environments and situations.

The other two firearms were disguised as cigarette cases, intended for a close-range attack. Khokhlov described them as “weapon blocks” which is more accurate than pistols, as they in no way resembled conventional handguns.  With the case lid open, real tobacco-filled cigarette tips were visible inside, concealing the weapon’s barrel and an expansion chamber that functioned as a sound suppressor. The case lid itself functioned as a safety to prevent an accidental or negligent discharge until the target was present. One cigarette case held two barrels, and the other four barrels. The trigger mechanism was a button on top of the case, exactly where the thumb naturally rested when holding a cigarette pack. The leather covering for the cigarette case had been shaved down on the underside to allow the assassin’s thumb to easily find the button, while hiding it from view. With no sighting mechanism, the assassin had to be right in front of the intended target. A cigarette case was the perfect tool as the assassin could approach the target with the case held out in front of him, as if to offer a cigarette.  A gesture like this would be dismissed as harmless by both the target and any witnesses present.

The weapon blocks concealed in a cigarette case.

This is the only documented deployment of these particular weapons, and only because the assassin willingly presented them to the world. Although Khokhlov describes these weapons as designed and fabricated specifically for this mission, one is left to wonder just how many times weapons like these were used by the Soviets to liquidate a target without the world ever knowing.

Besides the fiendishly clever weapons developed and provided by the Chamber, Khokhlov told a story that deliberately tugged on the heartstrings. He held up photos of his wife and children back in Moscow, and worried as to what would become of them now that his defection was public. He described his wife Yanina as his moral center, and the person who had convinced him that it was wrong to go through with the murder of Okolovich, no matter the consequences.

The discussion of his wife and child were in actuality part of a complex plan to smuggle them out of the country. Khokhlov’s US handlers had worked out a scheme to have US embassy personnel in Moscow arrive at his apartment just moments after the broadcast began, along with members of the international press. They would entreat Yanina to bring the baby to the US embassy to hear her husband’s broadcast, which was repeating every hour. This would be the pretext to get her out of the clutches of a vengeful Soviet government. But in the end, for reasons that are still unclear to this day, no one from the embassy actually went to her apartment as planned. Khokhlov felt betrayed, and Yana and the baby were sent to a labor camp for more than a year after his defection, and never allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. They would not be reunited for decades to come.

Khokhlov likely had a far more practical reason for defecting rather than a simple change of heart. His mission had been planned and initiated amidst the background of great changes at the highest levels of the Soviet government. Stalin had passed away in in the spring of 1953 and was succeeded by Lavrentiy Beria, the former chief of the NKVD, and one of the most cold-blooded men imaginable next to Stalin himself. Barely four months later, Beria himself was deposed by Nikita Khrushchev in a preplanned coup d’état. With Khrushchev working to de-Stalinize the USSR, Khokhlov’s position was far from certain once he returned home from this mission. Two of Khokhlov’s former chiefs at the MVD, Generals Leonid Eitengon and Pavel Sudoplatov had also been purged. It’s likely that he chose to risk everything in a bid to escape whatever fate awaited him back home, even if he successfully completed his assignment.

The Soviet Empire Strikes Back

For a time, everything went well for Khokhlov as he resettled in the United States. But the Soviets never forget a traitor.  Over the coming decades they would prove this again and again, but Khokhlov would be the first of whom they made an example. In September 1957 while back in Frankfurt as a guest speaker at the annual Possev conference at the Botanical Gardens, Khokhlov suddenly took violently ill after drinking a cup of coffee.  He was treated first at Frankfurt Hospital, and later by US Army doctors who believed he had been poisoned with thallium, an ingredient in rat poisons and ant killers at the time. However, they were initially baffled by his symptoms, including severe gastritis, which did not respond to conventional treatments for thallium poisoning. Khokhlov developed bizarre red stripes all over his skin, liquid oozed from his eyes, and clumps of hair fell off his head at the slightest disturbance.

Khokhlov participated in interviews and speaking engagements for more than three years after his defection.

Eventually they realized Khokhlov was slowly dying of radiation sickness. After doctors changed his treatment to reflect the new information, which included repeated blood transfusions, he slowly recovered. Their final diagnosis was that the thallium he had ingested had also been irradiated before it was deployed. Years later, KGB defectors reported he had been poisoned with polonium-210, just as in the Alexander Litvinenko case which occurred in 2006. Litvinenko was also initially diagnosed as suffering from thallium poisoning.

The attempt on his life left him scarred, both physically and emotionally. As he wrote in his 1958 autobiography, “I, too, was an exhibit of the achievements of Soviet science. Totally bald, so disfigured by scars and spots that those who had known me did not at first recognize me, confined to a rigid diet, I was nevertheless also living proof that Soviet science, the science of killing, is not omnipotent.” Khokhlov also later reported that there was a second assassination attempt against him during the same period. While working on his autobiography in Paris in the spring of 1957, he befriended a group of Russian emigres there, including an elderly woman named Khristina Pavlovna. Unbeknownst to him, she was a Soviet agent, and began to gradually poison him, leaving him with severe gastritis for the duration of his time in Paris. But it had not yet proven fatal by the time he departed the city, and his symptoms disappeared upon leaving. Pavlovna would later be involved in the assassination of Soviet defector Victor Kravchenko, who was long believed to have committed suicide in February 1966.

Turning a New Leaf

After recovering fully and returning to the United States, Khokhlov studied at Duke University, majoring in psychology. While there, in yet another twist in his amazing life, Khokhlov became involved in the study of extra-sensory perception (ESP) and remote viewing. Working under the tutelage of Dr. J.B. Rhine at Duke’s Institute of Parapsychology, he authored a paper in 1966 titled, “The Relationship of Parapsychology to Communism,” in which he revealed previous Soviet experiments in the field to which he was knowledgeable before his defection. The Institute of Parapsychology at Duke University would later inspire early scenes in the 1984 film “Ghostbusters”, where Dr. Peter Venkman tests students’ ESP abilities.

Khokhlov went on to become a professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino from 1968 until his retirement in 1992. He continued his studies into parapsychology, offering workshops and authoring papers on the subject. Although not documented anywhere in open-source media, it is extremely likely that the CIA made use of their connection with Khokhlov during their own studies of remote viewing during the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1992, he was officially pardoned by Russian president Boris Yeltsin.  Despite their best efforts, Khokhlov outlived the Soviet Union itself.  He was eventually able to return to Russia and reunite with his wife Yanina, and even met a son he had never known existed, born after he departed for his fateful mission. Yanina and his children suffered greatly as a consequence of his defection and were never able to join him in the West. But when they were finally together again, nearly forty years after their last meeting, Yana told him, ““Why are you so worried about the past? Everything was done right. And, as you can see, everything turned out well.”

In 2006 Khokhlov gave an interview stating he’d traveled to South Vietnam in 1958 at the invitation of President Ngo Dinh Diem, to consult on how to counter aggression from North Vietnam. As a highly experienced partisan and communist agent, Khokhlov’s advice was considered of great value to the South Vietnamese President.

Khokhlov passed away in 2007 from a heart attack at age 85. One can’t help but wonder, with the advances in poison attacks since the two attempts on his life fifty years previously, whether the Chamber had anything to do with his final moments.  Regardless of his cause of death, Nikolai Evgenievich Khokhlov passed away at the end of a long and incredible life at the forefront of the Cold War.

 

References:

Sudoplatov, Pavel. Special Tasks. 1994. Little, Brown, and Company.

Khokhlov, Nikolai. In the Name of Conscience. 1959. Van Rees Press.

Kovacevik, Filip. 2020. Russian Online Magazine: An Interview with Nikolay Khokhlov, KGB Defector Who Survived Poisoning Twice. The Chekist Monitor. https://thechekistmonitor.blogspot.com/2020/08/kgb-defector-khokhlov-interview-poison.html

Wright, Andy. 2017. The Russian Spy Who Convinced America to Take ESP Seriously. Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/nikolai-khokhlov-kgb-paranormal

Associated Press. 1954. Foreign News: The Whistler. Time Magazine. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,890887-1,00.html

Associated Press. 1954. Soviet Cigarette Cases and Toy Pistols Prove to Be Silent Arms for Assassin. The New York Times. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,890887-1,00.html

Synovitz, Ron. 2020. Name Your Poison: Exotic Toxins Fell Kremlin Foes. Radio Free Europe. https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-skripal-kremlin-foes-exotic-toxins/29083216.html

Handler, M.S. 1954. Another Russian Defects to West; Bars Slayer Role. The New York Times.  https://www.nytimes.com/1954/04/23/archives/another-russian-defects-to-west-bars-slayer-role-secret-police.html?searchResultPosition=1

Raffensperger, Todd Avery. 2016. The Deadly Defector from the USSR. Warfare History Network. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2016/05/25/the-deadly-defector-from-the-ussr/

The question I am asked most frequently (besides “are you in the CIA?”) is what books I recommend for further reading on the topics I write about. There are a trove of fascinating true tales of espionage out there, and I find myself diving into book after book on my never-ending quest to uncover the greatest stories of spycraft and espionage in world history.  I have shelves full of books which are one of my many resources for the deeply-researched anecdotes I post here and elsewhere. I’ve already covered eight other books that have been great sources of information for me. Now, months later, I want to share with you eight more books that are sure to hold your interest and take you down new paths.

7. Blind Man’s Bluff by Sherry Sontag

Easily the best book in maritime spying, Blind Man’s Bluff is an exciting, epic story of adventure, ingenuity, courage, and disaster beneath the sea. This New York Times bestseller reveals previously unknown dramas, such as the mission to send submarines wired with self-destruct charges into the heart of Soviet seas to tap crucial underwater telephone cables. Other fascinating stories include how the Navy’s own negligence may have been responsible for the loss of the USS Scorpion, a submarine that disappeared, all hands lost, in 1968, as well as the bitter war between the CIA and the Navy and how it threatened to sabotage one of America’s most important undersea missions.

There is also a chapter on the audacious attempt to steal a Soviet submarine with the help of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, and how it was doomed from the start, which I have previously covered in other posts. This book is a frequent go-to for me whenever I want to dive more deeply into the US Navy’s enormous contributions to espionage during the Cold War.

 

6. KGB: The Inside Story by Oleg Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew

Coauthored by KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, who famously defected to the United States after decades with Soviet intelligence, KGB: The Inside Story is the most enthralling, the most riveting, and the most thorough history ever written about Soviet intelligence and espionage activities.  Together with Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew, Gordievsky provides a vivid analysis of the Soviet’s espionage operations, success, and failures from Lenin to Gorbachev.  Packed with fascinating stories and dozens of larger-than-life characters, it’s an important nonfiction book that reads like a bestselling espionage novel.

Gordievsky reveals some incredible secrets here, including the first-ever revelation of the long-sought identity of the fifth British traitor, and why he was considered so valuable to the KGB.  There are also numerous details on the liquidatioin of various KGB targets from Leon Trotsky to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.  There is also a great section on the murder of Georgi Markov in London in 1978, which I have covered in a previous post. This book is not to be missed by fans of Cold War history.

5. Spy Vs. Spy by Ronald Kessler

Spy Vs. Spy has some tremendous insights to offer into the work of FBI counterintelligence agents on the hunt for Soviet Spies in the Washington DC area in the 1980s.  Written by Ronald Kessler who spent years researching, interviewing sources, and writing this book, it delves into the difficult investigative work that comprises counterintelligence investigations. There are successes and failures to be seen, such as the successful capture of Yevgeniy Barmyanstev, caught while servicing a dead drop in rural Maryland; as well as the failures associated with Karl Koecher’s work as a Czech spy who went undetected in the United States for years.  An excellent addition to any collection of espionage books.

 

4. Special Tasks by Pavel and Anatoli Sudoplatov

According to KGB archives, Pavel Sudoplatov directed the secretive Administration for Special Tasks. This department was responsible for kidnapping, assassination, sabotage, and guerrilla warfare during World War II, it also set up illegal networks in the United States and Western Europe, and, most crucially, carried out atomic espionage in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. Sudoplatov served the KGB for over fifty years, at one point controlling more than twenty thousand guerrillas, moles, and spies.

But his involvement with the most nefarious Soviet activities– and the rulers who ordered them– made Sudoplatov an unwanted witness, and he was arrested in 1953 after Beria’s fall. Despite torture and solitary confinement he refused to “confess”, disavowing any criminal actions. He spent fifteen years in prison, then struggled two decades more for rehabilitation.

“Special Tasks” is an astonishing memoir and a singular historical document of a man who knew and did too much for the Soviet empire. Some of Sudoplatov’s insights have already made it into my other posts, particularly those about the Chamber, Russia’s assassination laboratory. We rarely get such an incredible peak behind the Iron Curtain as we do with Sudoplatov’s seminal autobiography.

3. Rise and Kill First by Ronen Bergman

In this page-turning, eye-opening book, journalist and military analyst Ronen Bergman offers a riveting inside account of the targeted killing programs: their successes, their failures, and the moral and political price exacted on the men and women who approved and carried out the missions.

Bergman has gained the exceedingly rare cooperation of many current and former members of the Israeli government, including Prime Ministers Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as high-level figures in the country’s military and intelligence services: the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), the Mossad (the world’s most feared intelligence agency), Caesarea (a “Mossad within the Mossad” that carries out attacks on the highest-value targets), and the Shin Bet (an internal security service that implemented the largest targeted assassination campaign ever, in order to stop what had once appeared to be unstoppable: suicide terrorism).

Including never-before-reported, behind-the-curtain accounts of key operations, and based on hundreds of on-the-record interviews and thousands of files to which Bergman has gotten exclusive access over his decades of reporting, Rise and Kill First brings us deep into the heart of Israel’s most secret activities. Bergman traces, from statehood to the present, the gripping events and thorny ethical questions underlying Israel’s targeted killing campaign, which has shaped the Israeli nation, the Middle East, and the entire world.

2. Secret Warriors by Steven Emerson

An award-winning investigative journalist tells the explosive inside story of the covert “black” operations conducted by the military during the Reagan administration.  Based on Steven Emerson’s exclusive access to unpublished documents and hundreds of interviews with intelligence agents and officials from the Pentagon, CIA, NSC, NSA, White House, Justice Department, and State Department, Secret Warriors is the story of how the Pentagon, disgusted at the failure of the 1980 Iran hostage rescue attempt, decided it could no longer trust the capabilities of the CIA and instead set up a “miniature CIA” within it’s own walls.

With names like Delta, Yellow Fruit, Seaspray, Task Force 160, Quick Reaction Team, the Intelligence Support Activity, and the Special Operations Division, its clandestine units fanned out around the globe, gathering intelligence and conducting undercover operations, often without Congress ever knowing.

Secret Warriors has been an outstanding reference for several of my recent posts, and I have other posts planned in the future based on what I read here. A must-read book for fans of my blog.

1. The Secret History of the CIA by Joseph J. Trento

Joseph J. Trento’s character-driven history of the flawed and often desctructive Central Intelligence Agency profiles the men and women who have run the agency from its inception through the late 1990s. Using his formidable reporting skills, Trento dissects the agency’s most important successes and failures, from its role as opponent of the Soviet Empire to its work during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War.  As the facts pile up, the CIA proves itself to be an organization plagued by alcoholism, bitter antagonism, and stifling bureaucracy.

The result of more than a decade of research and hundreds of interviews with spies and double agents, The Secret History of the CIA penetrates the carefully orchestrated culture of secrecy that has allowed the agency to suffer from the weaknesses of its highest members, away from the media’s scrutiny.  Reaching conclusions that are as astonishing as they are impossible to dismiss, this is a fascinating examination of some of the most colorful and deceitful personalities in the history of our nation, and one that will forever alter our awareness not just of our intelligence services but of recent American history.

Introduction

At the onset of the Second World War, the British Special Operations Executive formed several different research and development branches spread throughout the country. One branch, Station IX, was located at the Frythe estate near Welwyn Gardens in Herefordshire. The Frythe, as it is called, has history dating back to the 13th Century, and the main estate building was constructed in 1846. When Station IX moved in, they quickly built numerous temporary buildings around the estate as well as occupying the entire main building and several pre-existing outbuildings.

An enormous variety of devices, gadgets, and weapons were developed at Station IX. These included radios for resistance fighters, time pencil delayed detonators, magnetic limpet mines for sabotaging ships in harbor, and possibly even chemical and biological weapons. Those concepts that were considered successful designs were then built either at Station XII nearby or contracted out to private companies for large-scale manufacture.

Engineers at Station IX took to naming many of their projects with the prefix “Wel” as a tribute to the station’s location. These include the Welbike (a collapsible motorcycle meant to be air-dropped), and the Welfreighter (a submarine that could clandestinely transport up to a ton of cargo). There is no question that Station IX left an indelible mark on sabotage and espionage operations in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. Here I will cover five different firearms developed at Station IX.

 

Welwyn Estate in modern times – courtesy of the Welwyn Hatfield Times

The Welgun

A Welgun prototype. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The Welgun is a prototype submachine gun developed by Station IX beginning in the summer of 1942. It was envisioned as a replacement for the Sten Mk IIs currently in service at the time. Chambered in 9mm Parabellum, it fired from a 32-round Sten gun magazine at a rate of 500 rounds per minute. During testing it could reliably feed 9mm ammunition produced in American, British, or German factories, a valuable advantage when operating behind enemy lines when resupply could be unpredictable at best. The Welgun is notable for its lack of a charging handle. The user cocked the weapon by gripping the serrations on both sides of the bolt and pulling it to the rear. The weapon fired from an open bolt, like many of the submachine guns of that era.

Six prototypes were produced at Station IX by August 1942. Three were then sent to the Ordnance Board, and three to the Small Arms School for testing and evaluation. The Welgun performed reliably and scored well against the Sten Mk II and Mk IV. The Birmingham Small Arms company also evaluated the Welgun and were willing to produce it in large quantities. They estimated they could begin producing Welguns by April 1943 at a rate of 5,000 per month. An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 were required for the war effort.

Welgun with stock folded.

However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, it was not adopted by the Ordnance Board, who decided to continue with the production and deployment of the Sten submachine gun.  The Ordnance Board did recommend that the Welgun’s folding stock, foregrip, and overall balance be adapted to other future designs, as it had scored very highly in these categories during testing.

Although the Welgun was never adopted in large numbers, the six prototypes remained in the SOE’s inventory. At least one of them saw action during the war. SOE operative Peter Kemp carried a Welgun and a Colt 1911 on his mission into Albania in July 1943. Kemp used it during the ambush of a lone German staff car traveling on an empty country road. After the initial barrage which killed three of the car’s four occupants, the Welgun jammed and Kemp transitioned to his 1911. He had given the Welgun to an SOE armorer just prior to deployment and thought the armorer had incorrectly adjusted the tolerances.

The SOE team, codenamed Stepmother, used locally procured mules for transport. Kemp’s Welgun was eventually lost when the mule caravan was discovered by a German patrol and the mules abandoned as the team members escaped. One wonders if it is rusting away somewhere in Albania right now.

The Normgun

Norm Gun PrototypeThe Norm Gun was an early experiment by Station IX to produce a 9mm submachine gun which could replace the Sten SMGs currently in service. It was designed by Eric Norman, who named it after himself. This was the only weapon to come from Station IX which did not bear the “Wel” prefix, possibly because it did not make it very far in initial development trials. Only two prototypes of the Norm Gun are known to exist. One is held by the National Firearms Centre in Leeds, England. The other is at the Imperial War Museum. Neither is currently on display, leading to a dearth of pictures of the Norm Gun.

Like the Welgun, the Norm Gun fired from an open bolt and utilized 32-round Sten magazines. But from there it differed drastically. The bolt housing on top of the receiver resembled a modern pistol slide, and when pulled to the rear left an astonishingly large gap into the action, approximately four inches. This easily allowed dirt and debris to enter the action during normal field use and would have been a major detriment had the weapon moved forward in trials. The wire stock mounted at the bottom of the pistol grip could be removed but not folded. The Norm Gun was equipped with a selector for switching to fully automatic fire but did not have a traditional safety.

Norm Gun right side. Courtesy of The Firearms Blog TV.

The Norm Gun’s most unique feature is inarguably the wooden foregrip mounted horizontally on the right side of the barrel, next to the muzzle. The apparent intended use was for a right-handed shooter to reach under the barrel with his left hand and hold the foregrip during firing. Some reporting indicates this resulted in excellent stability during fully automatic firing, but it represents a major departure from the handling of nearly all other weapons during that era and would have required additional training and familiarization.

Unlike the subsequent Welgun, the Norm Gun was not selected to proceed to additional trials by the Ordnance Board or the Birmingham Small Arms Company. Although initial reports were that the weapon was reliable, it was made with milled components which were significantly more expensive and time-consuming to mass-produce. It has now been relegated to history as one of many unique experiments in the world of firearms development.

The Sleeve Gun

The Sleeve Gun as it appears in the SOE catalogue.

The official SOE catalog referred to this as a “short length, silent, murder weapon”. The sleeve gun was a variant of the better-known Welrod pistol; it was a simple suppressor tube with a single .32 ACP caliber round loaded into the breech before concealing up the user’s sleeve. A hole at the rear of the gun allowed a lanyard to be attached. The lanyard could be looped around the elbow kept the sleeve gun concealed until it was needed. With a rubber band providing tension, the Sleeve Gun would disappear back up the user’s sleeve as soon as they let go of it after firing.

Rather than a conventional trigger there was a simple knurled switch that was pushed forward and then back again with the thumb to fire the round. What appears in the photo to be front and rear sights is actually the firing switch and trigger mechanism housing. The firing switch is at the very front of the weapon, and the housing runs to the rear to impact the primer. The firing switch acted as a safety to prevent accidental or negligent discharge while still concealed up the sleeve. The intended use was simply to press the sleeve gun directly up against the target and fire the round. The suppressor muted the shot, and the lack of an ejector mechanism meant the spent casing remained in the weapon, leaving little evidence of what had transpired in the immediate moments afterwards. The thick rubber baffles inside the suppressor created an extremely tight seal around the bullet but would need to be replaced after every 15 rounds or so due to damage occurring during firing.

The weapon is extremely slow to reload and was never intended to provide a multi-shot capability during a single engagement. Due to its heft and weight, as well as its single-shot capability, the Sleeve Gun could also function as a truncheon if necessary.

Demonstration of a Sleeve Gun’s intended use.

SOE produced MKI and MKII variants, with the primary difference being the placement of the cocking lever on the MKII, which was lower-profile and reduced the potential for snagging inside the agent’s sleeve. The sleeve guns were manufactured by the Birmingham Small Arms company, which had a close working relationship with SOE throughout the war. The Sleeve Gun appeared as item number 254 in the Top Secret classified catalog “Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies”, published in 1945 by the War Branch.

Unlike the better-known Welrod, it is unclear if or when any of the sleeve guns were used in action. Only three examples are currently known to exist. One is in a museum in Norway, and two others are at the National Firearms Centre in Leeds, England.

For more information on the Sleeve Gun, see Anders Thygesen’s outstanding research at http://www.timelapse.dk.

The Welrod

Welrod Mark I 9mm

Easily the best-known of all of Station IX’s firearms is the Welrod suppressed pistol, also referred to in official documentation as the Hand Firing Device.  Produced in several variants in the .32ACP and 9mm Parabellum calibers, it saw extensive deployment and use in the European theater during World War II.  After the Welrod was developed at Station IX it was manufactured by the Birmingham Small Arms company (BSA), and possibly other manufacturers as well. Due to its covert nature, paper records were deliberately kept to a minimum, and to this day, BSA cannot confirm exactly how many Welrods they produced for the Special Operations Executive. Serial numbers exist up into the 14,000 range, but it is not clear if they were all sequentially manufactured.

From the outset, the Welrod was both designed for and intended to be used as a contact-distance weapon. The official manual described the .32ACP version as accurate up to 25 yards the 9mm version up to 30 yards. But the pistol’s nose cap is hollow to specifically facilitate contact-distance use. Ideally the operative would get close enough to the target to press the muzzle directly into them before pulling the trigger.

The Welrod was designed by Major Hugh Quentin Alleyne Reeves, one of Station IX’s most talented and creative engineers. He is also credited with designing the original Sten gun’s suppressor, and development of the “Sleeping Beauty” one-man submersible canoe. On a side note, Major Reeve’s work in noise suppression continued after World War II, until he met a tragic end in 1955. Working to suppress the noise generated by jet engines, he was sucked into the intake of a Hawker Hunter jet engine while performing tests on the ground and killed.

The Mk I prototype that would become the Welrod was radically different than the finished product many of us are familiar with today. It featured a traditional external bolt handle, and an internal magazine that was loaded with five rounds from the top down, similar to a Mauser C96 pistol.  The trigger was not in the traditional location below the barrel, but instead on the left side of the breech, intended to be pushed forward by the right thumb. By June 1943, significant redesigns led to the more recognizable Mk II and Mk IIa .32 ACP pistols. The redesigned Welrods had a detachable magazine adapted from Colt 1903 pistol magazines and sheathed with rubber to function as the pistol grip. The trigger was moved back underneath the breech in a more conventional design, and the bolt handle was replaced by a knurled knob at the rear of the breach which could be pulled backwards, rotated 90 degrees, and then pushed forward again to eject the spent round, load the next round, and cock the firing pin. This resulted in a greatly reduced profile with easier concealment, while still being fast to reload for a manually cycled weapon.

The Mk I 9mm Parabellum Welrods featured two notable differences from the .32ACP versions.  A trigger guard was installed which allowed the pistol to be more safely concealed. The .32ACP version could not be tucked into a waistband while loaded for obvious reasons. The 9mm Welrod also featured a detachable suppressor, which again allowed for much easier concealment leading up to an operational act. The pistol could be fired without the suppressor if necessary, but there were far better handguns available for unsuppressed fire.

A Welrod is visible in the foreground of this photo of target practice near Frodeslund, Denmark after liberation from the German Army. Courtesy of timielapse.dk.

Welrods were used operationally in Denmark on many occasions, according to research conducted by Anders Thygesen. It was used by the Danish resistance primarily in the killing of informants among the Danish population who were working for the Nazis.

In December 1943, the Welrod was used by SOE agent Svend Nielsen to dispatch a German sentry on duty at the Kastrup Airport. Nielsen’s mission was to infiltrate the airport and steal a newly developed bombsight from a parked German aircraft. Nielsen was discovered but was able to escape, although his partner on the mission was killed.

On January 3rd, 1944, a Nazi collaborator named Mr. Nordahl was attacked in his home by Danish Resistance members carrying Welrods. Two men pinned him to the floor and shot him in the head. The pistol was so quiet that his wife did not hear the commotion from the next room over. Nordahl died in the hospital three days later without ever regaining consciousness.

On September 17th, 1944, Mrs. Frederikke Rungager was killed while recuperating in Aarhus County Hospital. A nurse entered her private ward that day to find her dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The killer was never identified.

Even the Nazis themselves took to using captured Welrods against the Danish resistance members. At the direction of the legendary Otto Skorzeny, a group of SS officers known as the Peter Group (after their leader’s alias) carried out assassination missions against prominent Danes as retribution for attacks by the Resistance.  Between February 1944 and January 1945, the Peter Group assassins killed at least three Danes and wounded another in targeted assassinations.  These included a newspaper editor, a Parliament member, and a prominent attorney.

Welrods were also provided by SOE to a few US personnel on Jedburg teams. The OSS received at least two Welrods for testing and found it to be an excellent weapon overall. However, they continued to stick with the Hi Standard Model HD MS .22 pistol as their primary silenced pistol throughout the war and beyond.

After World War II the Welrod remained in a number of inventories and popped up occasionally around the world.

 

Mitchell Werbell demonstrating the Welrod to a South Vietnamese Army General. Courtesy of Timelapse.dk.

In the late 1950s (and likely beyond), the US Army Special Forces Detachment Berlin was issued Welrods and US-made High Standard Model HD MS suppressed pistols. On one occasion they were given a mission to perform a vulnerability assessment on West Berlin’s firebrand Mayor Willy Brandt (who would later serve as the Chancellor of West Germany). Tasked to come up with methods that communist infiltrators might use to assassinate Brandt, the detachment surreptitiously tailed him for several weeks. They eventually presented four likely scenarios for assassinating him. One of these involved using a Welrod pistol with the magazine removed and rolled up inside of a newspaper in order to get close enough for a killing shot. The Detachment also carried the Welrod on missions up to the Berlin Wall beginning in the early 1960s, in case it was necessary to dispatch an East German sentry or guard dog.

There is some evidence that it was used by British forces in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and during the Falkland Islands war against Argentina.  The US Central Intelligence Agency maintained a number of 9mm Welrods in their arsenal through at least 1965 and possibly beyond.  The commandos of Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group used Welrods in Vietnam, along with several other suppressed weapons.  And it may have even been issued as late as 1991 during the Gulf War against Iraq.

To this day the Welrod garners attention through its appearance in video games and film. Despite its archaic design and appearance, few weapons have surpassed its capabilities as a close-in tool for assassinations.

For more information on the Welrod, see Anders Thygesen’s outstanding research at http://www.timelapse.dk.

 

The Remote Control Pistol

Remote Control Pistol apparatus. Photo courtesy of timelapse.dk.

The final weapon from Station IX is not a new firearm design in the strictest sense. Instead, it is a novel method for carrying and firing a Colt 1903 pistol from concealment. The creative nature of this concept marks it as a signature weapon from Welwyn. The Remote Control Pistol was developed as a last-ditch defensive measure for agents operating behind enemy lines.

Mounted on the waist, and pointed forward, a cable went from the trigger up the sleeve to an actuator attached to a finger ring. The Mk II variant featured a bulky cover plate which hampered concealment but provided a more stable brace for the pistol when fired. The circular cuts at the bottom of the cover plate allowed for easier reloading of the pistol without removing the harness.

On December 27th, 1941, as part of Operation Chilblain, Karl Bruhn and Mogens Hammer parachuted into Denmark to establish SOE’s initial presence and operational cell in Denmark. Unfortunately, Bruhn’s parachute failed to open when the snap hook on the static line inside the aircraft detached. He plummeted to the ground and died on impact. German forces occupying Denmark found his body and equipment and were shocked to find this Mk I Remote Control Pistol in one of his bags.

At the time, Danish and German police standard procedure for effecting an arrest was to lay a hand on the shoulder of the suspect while ordering them to put their hands in the air. In a situation like this, the RCP was a perfect weapon to counter any attempted arrest. Police forces in both countries changed their procedures after the discovery of the RCP.

Demonstration of the RCP after its discovery following Operation Chilblain.

 

Approximately 40-50 RCPs were produced under contract by the Wilkes Brothers gun shop in London for the SOE. An SOE document from near the end of World War II lists the inventors of the Remote Control Pistol as J.R.V. Dolphin (the commander of Station IX) and E. Norman (inventor of the Norm Gun).

It is believed that Czech agents were also issued at least one RCP for use during Operation Anthropoid in Prague, Czechoslovakia. .32 ACP caliber shells were found in the aftermath of the attack on the target of the operation, SS Officer Reinhard Heydrich, although it is unknown how they were fired exactly.

The US Office of Strategic Services also developed a system similar to the Remote Control Pistol. The OSS version used a Colt .25 ACP pistol mounted high up under the operative’s arm. A device looped around the wearer’s upper chest and triggered the weapon to fire when the user took an intentionally deep breath. The OSS version never made it out of the development stage. This SOE version was a substantially better design in almost all respects.

Conclusion

With the end of hostilities in mid-1945, Station IX’s work came to a close. The Special Operations Executive was officially dissolved in January 1946. The Frythe estate near Welwyn was eventually used as a research facility by Unilever and later GlaxoSmithKline. It has now been converted into a housing development in the modern era.

While many SOE personnel returned to the civilian occupations they had held before the war began, nearly 300 personnel were brought into the Special Operations Branch of MI6.  MI6 was particularly interested in those personnel involved in research and development, so many of the Station IX engineers, scientists, and technicians found a second calling, developing tools and weapons for a new generation of operatives in the years that followed, as the Iron Curtain slammed down across Europe and the Cold War began.

 

References:

Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. https://www.warmuseum.ca/collections/

Imperial War Museum, United Kingdom. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30029480

The Firearms Blog TV. 26 April 2017. Top Secret WWII Machine Guns: The Norm and Welgun. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWfvixdbHgk

Kemp, Peter 1958. No Colours or Crest. Mystery Grove Publishing, Inc.

Thygesen, Anders. http://www.timelapse.dk/

Lewis, Alex. 26 April 2017. New Era for Welwyn’s Former Commando Gadget Lab. Welwyn Hatfield Times. https://www.whtimes.co.uk/news/new-era-for-welwyn-s-former-commando-gadget-lab-1-4976306

Stejskal, James. December 2017. Cold War Warriors: The Men of Special Forces Detachment Berlin. American Rifleman Magazine. https://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/2017/11/27/cold-war-warriors-the-men-and-guns-of-special-forces-berlin/

Weaponsandwarfare.com. October 4th, 2016. Welgun and Welrod. http://www.weaponsandwarfare.com.

Among intelligence agencies and clandestine organizations, the High Standard Model HD Military Silencer (MS) is the standard for suppressed pistols by which all others are judged. First adopted by the famed Office of Strategic Services in early 1944, it saw service in all theaters of World War II.  The pistol was so effective that it remained in the inventory of the Central Intelligence Agency as late as the 1990s and possibly beyond.

 

An original prototype based on the Colt Woodsman, from Dr. John Brunner’s book “OSS Weapons 2nd Edition”.

Throughout its short lifespan, the OSS worked tirelessly to develop the best possible silent weapons for field use.  A variety of initiatives were implemented, ranging from the creative to the downright bizarre.  Among these were the Bigot system, which was a conversion of the standard government issue 1911 to allow it to fire a heavy steel dart using a captive .25ACP blank round.

Several crossbows were developed as well, most famously the Little Joe, which made its way into the hands of the Alamo Scouts in the Pacific Theater for operational testing.  There was even a CO2 dart gun known as the SAC-46 Flying Dragon, which was envisioned with poison-tipped darts for instantaneous takedowns of sentries or assassination targets.

But none of these amazing projects offered a significant advantage over the High Standard Model HD MS (sometimes written as HDM/S).  Lightweight, reliable, quiet, and accurate, it was hard to beat.

During development, a number of unique methods for reducing the sound of both the report and the mechanical action of the pistol. OSS engineers experimented with gold and tungsten .22lr bullets because the denser metals lowered the overall projectile velocity. Eventually a change in the pattern and number of holes drilled into the barrel created the ideal mix of velocity, recoil, and reliability. With the integrated suppressor and proper ammunition, the pistol produced a mere 77 decibels of sound, approximately the same noise level as a person’s muffled cough.  The famous Welrod pistol in service with the British SOE was tested at the same time and produced sound in the 74 – 82 decibel range.

Stanley Lovell, the head of research and development for the OSS, reported in his biography that Wild Bill Donovan smuggled a Model HD MS into the Oval Office in 1942 and fired it into a sandbag while President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke on the phone, oblivious to what was occurring just a few feet away. Lovell’s penchant for hyperbole must be taken into account here, and the story is likely apocryphal. But the Model HD MS was without question a quiet and effective killing tool.

Prototypes and Variants

A single prototype .380 ACP caliber model was built, known as the P-380.  It was both louder and heavier than the .22 long caliber Model HD MS, but these were initially considered acceptable compromises considering the much-improved ballistic performance of the .380 ACP round. Production of the P-380 was initially halted in October 1943 when Colt refused to manufacture barrels in either .32 or .380 caliber. Negotiations eventually moved forward and a manufacturing run of 1,000 pistols was scheduled to begin in August 1945.

However, delays led to the date being pushed back to September 15th, 1945, and by that time the war was over, and the contract was canceled. Only one suppressed .380 ACP High Standard Model P-380 was ever delivered to the OSS.

 

P-380 Prototype, from the High Standard Collectors’ Association

 

A .25 ACP caliber variant was also tested by High Standard in the early 1940s, but information on this prototype is extremely limited.

In 1944, the Infantry Board conducted tests on the HD MS which included the manufacture and use of a folding wire shoulder stock.  The stock was a simplistic design. A 0.4” steel wire with a single bend and an adaptor for quick attachment and detachment from the base of the pistol grip.  The stock provided an improvement in overall stability when firing but was far from ideal.  There was no cheek rest, and the rear sights were just 9” from the shooter’s face. When the slide recoiled during firing it tended to induce a flinch reflex during testing. The Infantry Board’s report published in December 1944 did not recommend adoption of the Model HD MS with wire stock as a useful weapon for infantry units.

 

From Dr. John Brunner’s book, “OSS Weapons 2nd Edition”.

 

From Dr. John Brunner’s book “OSS Weapons 2nd Edition”.

 

The OSS initially requisitioned 500 of the wire stocks, but eventually backtracked because the pistols they’d already issued had made their way to various field locations around the world, and mating the stocks with the pistols would prove to be a challenging logistical issue.

However, years later the Office of Technical Services within the CIA would test and adapt shoulder stocks for the Model HD MS once again. Army Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Parr worked as an engineer for OTS in the 1950s and 1960s.  In his interview for Robert Wallace’s book “Spycraft” he recalled that OTS worked with U-2 pilots to determine the best way for them to carry a Model HD MS with shoulder stock and holster in the cockpit.  OTS engineers even converted some Model HD MS pistols to fully automatic fire. They were capable of firing 10 rounds in less than 1.5 seconds, after modification to the sear and magazine spring.  Unfortunately, no photos of the CIA’s shoulder stocks are currently known to exist.

Service During World War II

By July 1944 nearly 1,400 Model HD MS pistols had been delivered to the European, Mediterranean, and Far East Theaters of Operation. The British Special Operations Executive also issued them to their own operatives. Several of the new pistols were presented to high-ranking OSS officials and other dignitaries, including Admiral Chester Nimitz. This led to the inadvertent leak of the weapon’s existence and deployment when a photograph of Admiral Nimitz and his son Chester Jr. firing the pistol was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper on November 12th, 1944.

 

From the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 12th, 1944.

 

In the Pacific Theater of Operations, six Model HD MS pistols made their way into the hands of the famed Alamo Scouts. They used it primarily for the killing of sentries and foraging for food during long missions with little chance of resupply.

It was also supplied to guerilla organizations such as the French Resistance, who needed to be able to execute enemy troops and quickly disappear into the population at large without being detected or captured. In urban operations, the Model HD MS also proved valuable for surreptitiously disabling streetlights to provide the cover of darkness.

In the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, OSS Captain Lewis Allison reported that the HD MS was receiving high praise and were used constantly. The modus operandi there was to use the pistol for close-range sniping from windows, and against sentries as well. A 1945 report cited seven specific instances of successful use of the Model HD MS in field operations.

 

The Model HD MS as it was shipped by the OSS during World War II. From Dr. Brunner’s book OSS Weapons 2nd Edition.

 

After the end of World War II (and the end of the OSS as well), High Standard pistols were transferred into the inventory of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA began issuing the Model HD MS with an additional .22 Short magazine as well as the standard .22 Long Rifle magazine. Once again it would find itself in the far-flung reaches of the world.

Francis Gary Powers’ Model HD MS on display in the former KGB HQ in Lubyanka, Moscow.

May Day, 1960

The Model HD MS’s greatest claim to fame (or infamy) is its fateful journey on May 1st, 1960 as the sidearm of choice for CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers on his doomed reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union.  Powers was piloting a high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft at the time, photographing suspected Soviet nuclear testing facilities. When the Soviets detected his aircraft on radar they sent aloft a barrage of SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. Powers’ aircraft was hit, as was a Soviet MiG-21 that was pursuing him.  Powers survived the crash, parachuting to the earth. He was immediately surrounded by unarmed Russian civilians who were drawn by the spectacle of the crash and downed pilot.

When Russian authorities arrived and detained him, his survival kit proved to be a treasure trove of intelligence and publicity value to the Soviets. Not only was he carrying the suppressed High Standard, but also a silver dollar coin on a necklace. The coin held a hidden needle coated in saxitoxin, which Powers had been provided as a suicide implement if he feared for his life.

Now, more than 60 years later, that Model HD MS, serial no. 120046, resides in the KGB’s official museum in Lubyanka, home to their infamous headquarters which served as an interrogation and execution facility as well.

 

Service in Vietnam

The Model HD MS also saw service in Vietnam with several organizations. Pilots employed by Air America, the CIA’s clandestine airline were often equipped with the High Standard in shoulder holsters. It was equally popular with the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam. ’s Studies and Observations Group, or MACV-SOG.

MACV-SOG warriors carried an incredible variety of both US-manufactured and foreign weapons on their covert missions, and the High Standard was a mainstay of their arsenal.

 

Some of MACV-SOG’s suppressed weapons, including the iconic Model HD MS. Photo by Ed Wolcoff.

 

One of the most difficult but valuable mission sets belonging to MACV-SOG was prisoner snatches. The exact methodology was a subject of endless debate among the teams, and constant experimentation on real-world missions. One tactic the team used was to identify a VC or NVA courier with a formation of bodyguards and set an ambush. The ambush would be initiated by deliberately wounding the courier with the Model HD MS, while the rest of the squad was killed. The wounded courier could then be interrogated on site or extracted back to base.

In the fall of 1969, a Vietnamese agent of the Central Intelligence Agency used a Model HD MS to assassinate a People’s Minister of Mobilization in a public park in broad daylight. The suppressor was so effective that witnesses did not realize that the Minister had been killed initially and thought that he had died of a sudden heart attack. The assassin was able to slip away in the confusion unnoticed.

The following year, a combined team of Army Special Forces Soldiers, CIA personnel, and South Vietnamese partners were able to capture a Viet Cong general officer by silently killing his security detail as the general slept in a remote plantation house. He was then awoken and informed of his own capture by the South Vietnamese.

Excerpt from a New York Times article published on April 4th, 1971.

One use of the Model HD MS led to a major scandal which played out in the American news media in 1971. Two years prior, eight Army Special Forces Soldiers led by Captain Robert Marasco had identified a double agent among their Vietnamese partners. Thai Khac Chuyen was being paid by the CIA to develop a network inside Cambodia but was also working at the behest of General Duong Van Minh, who himself was working with communist forces to unify South and North Vietnam.

Chuyen’s betrayal of his US partners was uncovered when a Viet Cong camp was raided, and the ensuing site exploitation turned up a photograph of Chuyen with a high-ranking Viet Cong official.

Captain Marasco claimed he had received oblique instructions from his CIA partners to eliminate Chuyen “with extreme prejudice”. The eight Soldiers told Chuyen they had another mission for him, but detained and interrogated him using sodium pentothal, which elicited a confession. They then took him on a boat out into the South China Sea and killed him with a Model HD MS. His body was never recovered.

Although the eight Soldiers were eventually charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they were never arrested or convicted due to an (unsurprising) lack of cooperation from the Central Intelligence Agency.

On at least one occasion in Vietnam, the Model HD MS was used for a purpose for which it was completely unsuited. Army Green Beret Robert Castillo was on a five-day reconnaissance mission in 1971 deep inside enemy territory. Overnight he rested with his back against a tree and the Model HD MS in his lap.  In the middle of the night he was approached by a tiger smelling a potential meal. Castillo remained silent for as long as possible until the tiger was just a few feet away. He then raised the .22 pistol and emptied the magazine directly into the tiger, certain he was about to be eaten. The .22 rounds were not enough to kill the massive predator immediately but drove it away, and Castillo survived to complete the mission.

 

A Christmas tree in Afghanistan, December 2001. Photo by Billy Waugh.

Conclusion

It is difficult to say where most of the approximately 2,600 original High Standard Model HD MS pistols are now, more 75 years after they first appeared. A few are in private collections, a few more in various museums. Some were certainly lost, or deliberately destroyed. As late as the year 2000, the USMC 1st Force Reconnaissance Company had ten Model HD MS pistols in their armory. And a few more are undoubtedly in the inventory of some clandestine organization, or buried in a secret cache, awaiting their return to action.

In November 2001, legendary CIA Special Activities Division operative Billy Waugh arrived in Afghanistan at age 71. A veteran of more than 40-years of open and clandestine warfare by that point, he was still in the fight. While celebrating Christmas with other members of the Special Activities Division and Army Special Forces troops, Billy put together a Christmas tree under which went all the team’s “presents”: a rocket launcher, suppressed submachine gun, a 40mm grenade launcher, night vision goggles… and the immortal Model HD MS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A James Bond film wouldn’t be complete without a flashy sports car loaded with hidden weapons and gadgets. Although the real world of spycraft features very few high-speed car chases, there’s no question that espionage occasionally requires unique forms of transportation. Whether flying through the skies, traveling over land, or silently running under the water’s surface, the world’s intelligence agencies have developed some incredible vehicles over the past seventy years. Here are seven amazing spy vehicles to rival 007’s rides.

7. Welbike – British Special Operations Executive

Welbike ready to be air-dropped into the field.

 

The Welbike was designed by the British Special Operations Executive’s Station IX, also known as the Inter Services Research Bureau, and intended to be airdropped to SOE agents behind enemy lines for use in escape and evasion operations. It was small enough to fit inside a standard parachute drop container – 51″ long, 15″ high, and 12″ wide.

The handlebars and seat were collapsible, and all other parts including the gas tank and wheels were designed as small as possible. It had no suspension, no lights, and only a single brake on the rear wheel. The one gallon fuel tank gave it a range of 90 miles. It was designed to be ready to ride just eleven seconds after opening the container.

More than 3,500 Welbikes were produced during the war. Several of the Welbikes were also used as bribes to Chinese officials during Operation Remorse in 1943-1944, which was aimed at maintaining the economic independence of Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of China.

 

6. Infrared Surveillance Trabant – East German Stasi

A Stasi Trabant on display, with a cutaway panel revealing the infrared flashes hidden in the door.

 

Infrared camera flashes hidden in the door of an East German Trabant. The Stasi secret police commissioned the Zeiss optics company to produce a revolutionary vehicle-mounted camera system for surveillance operations. The car door’s outer metal panel was removed and replaced with a plexiglass shield painted to blend in perfectly with the rest of the car. Twelve large infrared flashes and a camera system were mounted in the door frame. The camera was equipped with a cutting-edge laser rangefinder and autofocus capability. The laser rangefinder sent an audio signal to an earpiece-equipped surveillance operative inside the car when a person passed in front of the camera. The operative could then trigger the camera to capture photos in complete darkness with no visible flash to alert the target.

The system cost 215,000 Marks at the time, and the Stasi purchased 25 of them. In their efforts to keep nearly all of East Germany under constant surveillance, no price was too high to pay. This system is now on display at the Stasi museum in Berlin, Germany. The museum is inside the former Stasi headquarters which was overrun by the citizenry when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Fortunately they preserved much of the technology discovered within for future generations to learn about.

Read more about the Stasi in one of the definitive books, found here:

 

5. Volga Sedan – Soviet KGB

The KGB’s Volga 24-24

 

The KGB’s dreaded black Volgas were feared by Russian drivers and American CIA case officers alike. The GAZ 24-24 was a special model manufactured as a security escort or pursuit vehicle. One hundred cars per year were manufactured, and the vast majority went straight to the KGB. A rare few went to high-ranking party officials. The cars were described by one former KGB driver as terrible in turns but incredibly fast and powerful on the straightaways.

The KGB’s Volgas had a few modifications intended to lower its profile out on the street. The cars had automatic transmissions but used a standard gear-shifter to blend in. They were also fitted with a fake clutch pedal on the floor. The 24-24 variant had a 195HP V8 engine with a top speed of 105mph, which allowed it to easily outclass virtually any other car on the road at that time. Those few citizens who could afford a car often had 50hp or fewer to call on. The Volgas also had upgraded shocks, springs, and brakes. Ballast weight was added in the trunk compartment to offset the increased weight of the V8 engine over the standard four-cylinder. 24-24s rode lower on the springs due to the heavier load, and also had a dual exhaust system which merged to a single pipe at the rear of the vehicle to further lower its profile.

CIA case officers at Moscow Station were trained extensively in countersurveillance. The black Volgas were easily recognized due to their rarity. But when the KGB used other, more common models for surveillance, there were a couple of indicators to look for. The KGB had access to power washing equipment, and often kept their vehicles significantly cleaner and shinier than the average Muscovite. KGB cars were also equipped with windshield wipers, a luxury item in the USSR at that time. Wipers were so valued that they were often stolen from parked cars; something no one would dare try with the KGB.

For more information on the KGB, check out the incredible work, “The Sword and the Shield”, here:

 

4. “Sleeping Beauty” – British Special Operations Executive

 

“Sleeping Beauty”, forerunner of modern Swimmer Delivery Vehicles.

 

The Special Operations Executive’s “Sleeping Beauty” motorized submersible canoe (or MSC), designed for sabotage and recon missions in enemy harbors during WWII. The submersible canoe could transport a single frogman deep into an enemy harbor to attach limpet mines to enemy ships. The pilot navigated by briefly surfacing just long enough to get his bearings, then submerging again to continue on the correct path.

It was used by a special operations unit known as Z Force, staffed by commandos and sailors from the Australian, New Zealand, and British armed forces. In 1943 an incredibly successful mission known as Operation Jaywick succeeded in sinking or heavily damaging seven Japanese ships in port in Singapore Harbor. Just six men infiltrated the harbor in kayaks and canoes, and made it out with zero casualties.

The MSCs were intended for exactly this type of operation. In August 1944, another near-identical mission was planned, called Operation Rimau. Fifteen MSCs along with four other folding assault boats were transported to the area on the British mine-laying submarine Porpoise, then transferred to a small junk called the Mustika. There the 24 men picked for the operation departed for Singapore Harbor.

Unfortunately, disaster struck just one hour before they were scheduled to depart the Mustika for their underwater run into Singapore Harbor. A local patrol boat approached the Mustika closely enough that the Z Force commandos were forced to open fire. Most of the patrol boat crew was killed but at least one survived to call in the incident. The Mustika and the MSCs were scuttled with explosives as they were still top-secret at the time. The men were all eventually killed in battle with Japanese forces, or captured and executed.

The MSCs were far from perfect but were an important starting point for future swimmer delivery vehicles by special operations forces.

The book “Slaughter in Singapore details the incredible Operation Rimau by Z Force.

The Quiet One – 1972

3. “The Quiet One” – Central Intelligence Agency

The CIA’s original silent helicopter flew into North Vietnam in 1972. Beginning in 1968 the CIA sought a long-range, nearly silent helicopter for covert infiltration and exfiltration. The result was a heavily modified Hughes 500P (P for Penetrator) known as “The Quiet One”. By adding one additional main rotor blade and two more tail rotor blades, rotor noise was substantially mitigated. An enormous muffler below the tail and numerous other small internal modifications further reduced the sound generated during flight. A next-generation FLIR camera was installed that was significantly more advanced than anything else available to the US military at the time. When the modified helicopter was demonstrated for CIA director Richard Helms in 1971, he was unable to hear the aircraft as it passed 500 feet overhead, even knowing it was coming.

Two such helicopters were completed for one special mission; a covert penetration of North Vietnam to tap a phone line used by NVA high command. With the Paris peace talks beginning, the phone tap would allow US diplomats to gain the upper hand in peace negotiations.

The mission went ahead on December 5th, 1972. The Quiet One, piloted by two volunteers from Air America, dropped two highly-trained Laotian commandos into the mountains, next to the carefully selected telephone pole away from known NVA patrol routes. The commandos scrambled up the concrete pole and emplaced the bugging equipment, while the pilots moved a distance away to drop a spider relay. The solar-powered relay was similar to a spider’s web that caught in the high branches of a tree, nearly invisible from the ground.

The plan worked perfectly. The infiltration went undetected and the wiretap provided valuable intelligence for the next several months, giving Henry Kissinger’s State Department an advantage in the peace talks. The helicopter was quietly exfiltrated out of Laos with no one the wiser.

Authors Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton cover The Quiet One in one of my favorite espionage books of all time; Spycraft:

 

2. Custom Ford Galaxie – US Military Liaison Mission

A USMLM Galaxie on patrol near Potsdam.

 

A real all-American Cold War spymobile. Soldiers of the US Military Liaison Mission based in Potsdam during the Cold War played a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the Soviet KGB and East German Stasi for more than 40 years. They pushed the limits of international accords to openly spy on each other, using overpowered American muscle cars to easily evade the enemy agents surveilling them. Every vehicle was customized by the Army’s Berlin Brigade Quartermasters, including this 1967 Ford Fairlane, equipped with a 390 cubic inch V8.

In a typical retrofit, the springs were replaced with heavy duty ambulance springs, Koni shock absorbers were installed, and a 44 gallon fuel tank replaced the original. Quarter-inch steel plates were welded to the undercarriage and German-style tow hooks welded to the bumpers. Halogen headlights replaced the stock sealed beams. The electrical switches were modified to permit the horn, headlights, parking lights, turn signal, and tail lights to be turned off individually or all at once. Michelin all-terrain radial tires replaced factory street tires. The whole vehicle was then painted olive drab. Over the course of 40 years, many different vehicle models were utilized, including Ford Galaxie police interceptors, Ford Broncos, Jeep Wagoneers, and Mercedes G-wagens.

A vehicle like this could easily outrun the East German Trabants arrayed against it, and then cut down tank trails in the hills and valleys of Soviet training cantonments. MLM members stocked the vehicles with food, water, camping gear, and surveillance equipment for multi-day missions, never knowing how long it would take them to get back home from a tour.

Thomas Wyckoff’s memoir, “Mission”, tells the story of the US Military Liaison Mission from the perspective of one of it’s own members.

 

The inflatable airplane, designed and built with the help of the Goodyear Tire Company.

1. Inflatable Airplane – Central Intelligence Agency

In May 1958, CIA pilot Allen Pope was shot down and captured during a covert bombing raid against the Indonesian Navy while flying a Douglas B-26 Invader during the Indonesian Crisis. After learning that Pope was being held on house arrest at a jungle resort, and had some freedom of movement outside, the CIA’s Technical Services Staff came up with a plan to air-drop an inflatable airplane to him, so he could rescue himself. Working with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, they developed a packable aircraft filled with chemical pellets inside. When Pope reached the aircraft, all he would need to do was pour water into the reservoir, which would react with the chemical pellets, quickly filling the rubber fuselage with an inert gas. Pope could then fly himself to safety.

The prototype was tested but the rescue operation was ultimately canceled for unknown reasons. Pope remained under house arrest until 1962, when two paramilitary CIA officers were inserted nearby via submarine, made contact with him, and assisted him in escaping through the jungle to safety. Pope returned to service with the CIA afterwards as a pilot on covert missions.

Years later when another mission offered the potential of using the inflatable airplane, CIA technicians pulled it from the warehouse only to discover that the rubber was dried up and cracked due to lack of maintenance. The prototype was discarded, never to be used again.

The true story of the Inflatable Airplane and the rescue of Allen Pope is covered in “Spycraft”, one of my all-time favorite espionage books.

Authors Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton cover The Quiet One in one of my favorite espionage books of all time; Spycraft:

Female spies, saboteurs, and double agents have been overlooked and underestimated throughout history. But time and time again they’ve proven their mettle. Some have used their looks to effectively charm, disarm, and co-opt men who really should have known better. Others have acted just as bravely in the face of incredible danger as any man. Here are nine of the most famous (and infamous) female spies, saboteurs, and double agents of all time.

9. Donna Geiger – US Navy

US Navy Lieutenant (and double agent) Donna Geiger was recruited by the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service for a very special mission, which she performed spectacularly. In December 1986 she boarded a Soviet research vessel in port in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Talking with the Soviet captain and first mate, she played the role of a disgruntled Navy officer who needed money for her sick mother and to prop up her husband’s business.

A few months later a letter arrived in the mail for her, initiating a relationship with an agent eventually identified as Canadian citizen Stephen Ratkai, who had lived in Hungaria for several years in the mid-1980s, and was likely recruited and trained by the KGB there. Ratkai was a valuable asset to the KGB due to his Canadian citizenship. Ratkai soon tasked her with gathering intelligence on the Navy’s SOSUS system, which allowed underwater tracking of Soviet subs, and was consequently one of their highest collection priorities.

After a year-long operation consisting of several meetings with Ratkai, a final, fateful meeting took place in a hotel room that NCIS and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had wired with cameras and microphones. Ratkai departed the hotel room with several real classified documents, and was immediately arrested in the hallway outside. He pled guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Geiger returned to her original role in the Navy with an incredibly successful counterespionage operation under her belt.

 

8. Kay Marshall – Australian Security Intelligence Organisation

Kay Marshall displays the “all clear” signal and awaits contact by the KGB.

In the early 1960s the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation undertook an operation against Ivan Skripov, a Russian diplomat and KGB agent assigned to the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. Skripov had approached Kay Marshall, an employee of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. Marshall reported the contact to security personnel and they decided to gather more information about Skripov’s activities. Marshall later moved to Australia to work with ASIO and Skripov made her recruitment for the KGB a top priority.

Over the course of 17 meetings Skripov tested her, gradually escalating her taskings. She was instructed where to find booby-trapped message containers and taught the chemical process to read messages written in invisible ink. Marshall eventually received a hair dryer as a Christmas gift from Skripov. The hair dryer contained a high-tech transmitter which could compress a long radio message into a short burst, undetectable by Australian signals intelligence.

Marshall’s final mission was to pass this burst transmitter to another agent at a rendezvous. But the mystery KGB asset never arrived for reasons unknown at the time. Skripov asked her to return the burst transmitter to him but by this point ASIO had had enough. Skripov was declared persona non grata from Australia and left the country. The story broke in the press and inflamed public passions during the Cold War with the tale of the beautiful double agent and the devious Russian spy. For decades, questions lingered as to why the mystery agent never arrived at the final meeting with Marshall.

In the spring of 2020, researchers finally identified the agent as a Polish immigrant to Australia named Stanislaw Kilanski, who arrived across the street posing as a wedding photographer for a nearby event. He appeared to notice the ASIO surveillance agents and fled the scene. Three days later he was found dead, apparently from suicide by hanging at an Adelaide golf course. The connection between the missed meeting and suicide was not made until 2020. The 1961 autopsy revealed bruising to Kilanski’s jaw, a possible indicator that the suicide was not exactly voluntary. With Skripov forced to flee the country, the KGB could have been tying up loose ends among their assets. Kilanski was likely an additional cutout for Horace Allen Pile, a fervent communist who worked on the fringes of the Weapons Research Establishment, home to a ballistic missile testing range.

 

7. Katya Mayorova – Miss KGB 1990

Katya Mayorova, Miss KGB 1990.

In a belated attempt to improve their public image, the Soviet KGB announced in October 1990 that they held a secret beauty pageant and crowned an employee as Miss KGB. No information was provided as to when the pageant took place, or how many contestants had participated. But 23-year-old secretary Katya Mayorova was declared the winner and was paraded through the media in the ensuing months.

Photos were distributed of her relaxing at home or smiling in front of the Kremlin, and alternately participating in martial arts training and pistol marksmanship. Pravda gushed that she wore her bulletproof vest “with an exquisite softness, like a Pierre Cardin model”, and that she was trained to deliver a karate kick “to her enemy’s head.” Katya appeared on Moscow television broadcasts, providing news updates about the KGB. She was even interviewed by David Remnick, Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, “We’d like people to think that we’re not monsters working here,” she told him. The accuracy of this statement is debatable.

However, this jarring shift in strategy for the KGB was a case of too little, too late. By the time she was crowned as beauty queen, mass protests were taking place all over Moscow, supported in part by an increasing number of public figures. The KGB had lost a great deal of its control over the Muskovite population and stood by to observe the toppling of statues and construction of monuments to the millions who died in Stalin’s purges.

What happened to Katya after the Soviet Union finally crumbled in December 1991 is unknown. She disappeared from the history books. Perhaps she joined the newly-formed FSB as so many KGB employees did.

 

6. Violetta Seina – the KGB Honeytrap

Badge photo of the mysterious Violetta Sienna, a low-level employee at the US embassy in Moscow.

In 1984, US Marine Sergeant Clayton Lonetree, assigned as an embassy guard in Moscow, began dating a 25-year-old Russian woman named Violetta Seina, who was employed as a translator at the embassy. Violetta was 5’9″ tall, had striking grey eyes, and dressed very fashionably. Lonetree quickly fell in love with the manipulative and ruinous woman, in keeping with Marine Corps tradition. She soon introduced him to her “Uncle Sasha”, who built a relationship with Sergeant Lonetree and soon began asking him more and more pointed questions about the embassy facilities and staff. Lonetree quickly realized that Uncle Sasha was a KGB officer, but later claimed he had felt in way over his head, and was still in love with Violetta. He soon began providing classified information to Uncle Sasha, including blueprints of the embassy and the identities of CIA case officers assigned there.

Eventually overcome with guilt, Lonetree confessed his actions to the CIA station chief, and was arrested and tried for espionage in Quantico, VA. He served nine years in prison for his crimes. Another Marine, Corporal Arnold Bracy, was initially implicated in the scandal, but was later exonerated and went on to have a career with the Protective Services Police department in Washington DC.

Violetta is said to have written letters to Sergeant Lonetree while he was in prison, but she soon disappeared from the limelight. She is reported to have worked at the Irish embassy in Moscow after leaving the US embassy, but little else is known about her. Her current whereabouts and identity are unknown. Violetta’s story features prominently in “Moscow Station”, available here:

 

5. Martha Peterson – CIA Case Officer

Martha Peterson, the CIA case officer the KGB never anticipated.

Arriving at Moscow Station in 1975, CIA case officer Martha Peterson successfully flew under the KGB’s radar for the next two years. The KGB couldn’t imagine that the slender young woman was with the CIA, as they had previously only identified male case officers in the city. She was the first female case officer assigned to Moscow Station. Her husband had been a CIA case officer as well, but died in Laos in 1972 when his helicopter was shot down by the NVA.

Peterson was arrested servicing a dead drop for agent TRIGON, aka Alexandr Ogorodnik in 1977. She was captured placing a hollowed-out rock inside a nook in a railroad bridge crossing the Moscow River. In addition to being a highly-trained case officer fluent in Russian, Peterson was also a green belt in tae kwon do. As the KGB roughly frisked her, finding a hidden surveillance detection system, she was able to deliver a swift kick to the groin of one of the arresting agents, resulting in his hospitalization. The following day, she was the subject of a press conference for Soviet media (picture 3) before she was turned back over to the US embassy and deported from the USSR, never to return.

Unbeknownst to Peterson or anyone else at the CIA, TRIGON had already been dead for more than a month at the time if her dramatic arrest. He was betrayed by a mole inside the CIA who was working as a translator. His identity was passed to the KGB, who arrested Ogorodnik. He was able to bite down on a suicide pill that the CIA had passed to him and died on the spot, before he could be thoroughly interrogated.

After leaving Moscow Station, Peterson continued her career with the CIA, retiring in 2003 after nearly 30 years with the Agency. Her autobiography “The Widow Spy” can be found here:

 

4. Anna Montez – DIA Analyst and Cuban Spy

DIA analyst (and Cuban spy) Ana Montes, receiving an award from CIA director George Tenet. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

One of Cuba’s top spies in the US government received an award from the director of the CIA in 1997. Ana Montes worked as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1985 until her arrest in 2001. Unbeknownst to them, she had been scouted by Cuban intelligence for her anti-authoritarian views while attending graduate school, and later recruited while working in a clerical position with the Department of Justice. The year following her recruitment by Cuba she applied for an analyst position with DIA and eventually rose to a senior position. She was considered the agency’s top expert on Cuba. Little did they know how right they were.

Montes’ tradecraft was impeccable. She never removed documents from the office, or made excessive photocopies of sensitive information. Instead she took her taskings from a Cuban numbers station, received on a Sony ICF-2010 short wave radio and simply memorized key pieces of information while at work. She sent her messages via a Toshiba laptop at home using an encryption program.

Montes’ eventual downfall began in the mid-1990s as the FBI wrapped up the Cuban’s Miami-based Wasp Network (subject of a recent Netflix film). The members had become careless with their spycraft, using crypto codes for long periods of time without changing them. This lead the FBI and NSA to eventually decrypt older recorded messages that had been archived, gradually tightening the noose on Montes. She was arrested on September 21st, 2001, to no media fanfare due to the non-stop coverage of the 9/11 attacks which took place just the week prior. To this day Montes remains one of the most damaging spies in US history, and is completely unrepentant. She is scheduled for release from prison in 2023.

Read all about Ana Montes here:

 

3. Anna Chapman – KGB Illegal Agent

Anna Chapman was not a particularly effective spy, but became quite famous nevertheless, for obvious reasons.

Anna Chapman is the most famous member of the famous “Russian Ten” spy ring operating out of New Jersey, which was rolled up by the FBI in 2010. The spy ring consisted of ten illegal agents plus a handler who primarily stayed outside of the US. The ten members were all highly trained prior to moving to the United States, where they attempted to lead seemingly normal, quiet lives, infiltrating American society.

Despite their sensational arrest in 2010, the spies uncovered very little information of significant value to the Russian government. They were found to be in possession of covert communications gear and one-time cypher pads, but rarely used them to communicate. All ten spies allegedly faced great difficulties in speaking unaccented English and were never able to fully immerse themselves or convince anyone they were anything other than Russian emigres.

Chapman ran a small real estate company in Manhattan, and had moved to the US after gaining British citizenship by marrying Englishman Alex Chapman. She was able to build relationships with a few journalists and financiers but never made significant inroads with US politicians or lawmakers as was her apparent mission and intent.

The ten spies were quickly traded back to Russia in exchange for four incarcerated Russians who the US wanted. Their handler, Christopher Metsos, was able to escape capture in Cyprus and remains at large to this day. Among the four returned spies was Sergei Skripal, who would later settle in England and eventually be poisoned by GRU agents using Novichok poison hidden in a perfume bottle in 2018.

Since her return to Russia, Chapman has worked as a fashion model and television personality, and has been seen publicly in the company of Vladimir Putin. Her story is covered in the outstanding book “Russians Among Us”. Find it here:

 

2. Jonna Mendez – CIA Case Officer

Jonna Mendez in disguise, meeting with President George H. W. Bush in the Oval Office. Photo courtesy of the International Spy Museum.

Jonna Mendez, née Hiestand was the CIA’s Chief of Disguise, and one of its most legendary operatives. Recruited into the agency in 1966, she served for more than 25 years in a variety of positions, most with the Office of Technical services. There, she met her husband, Antonio ‘Tony’ Mendez. The Mendezes became two of the most talented personnel to ever work on the CIA. Both were artists first and foremost. Tony was a painter who became a forgery artist after joining the Agency. He worked diligently to create perfect foreign passports, visas, and entry/exit stamps to allow CIA personnel to pass through foreign countries without raising suspicions.

Jonna became an expert photographer, eventually teaching agents how to use some of the miniature cameras the CIA produced, such as the T-100. After working across Asia as a specialist in disguise, identity transformation, and clandestine photography, Jonna was promoted to a position in Denied Area Operations. There, she put her skills to the test in some of the most dangerous operating environments in the world; including Havana, East Berlin, and Moscow.

Jonna’s most famous exploit by far was her meeting with President George H. W. Bush in the White House. She wore an ultra-realistic disguise — code-named Dagger — to the meeting and sat just three feet away from him. She discussed the CIA’s disguise capabilities with him and he had no idea she was wearing one herself at the time. When she revealed she was in disguise herself and dramatically removed it inside the Oval Office, the President was astounded.

Jonna has written several books about her work with the CIA, and now works closely with the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Find her book “Moscow Rules” here:

 

1. Virginia Hall – British SOE, American OSS, and American CIA

SOE agent, OSS operative, and CIA case officer Virginia Hall – photo courtesy of NPR

Virginia Hall was one of the most capable, and most hunted spies of World War II. After studying French, German, and Italian in school, Virginia joined the US State Department in the 1930s and served throughout Europe. A hunting accident in 1933 resulted in her left leg being amputated below the knee, and she used a heavy wooden prosthesis for the rest of her life.

When France fell to the German army in May 1940, Virginia escaped by walking more than 50 miles in three days (on a wooden leg) to Spain, and eventually made her way to England. There she was soon recruited by the British Special Operations Executive and was back in France, building a source network and running sabotage operations with the Frence Resistance. She was so busy and so effective that at times she would go through four disguise changes and false identities in a single day, always staying one step ahead of the Gestapo and French Vichy police. She soon attracted the attention of Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon.

After another evacuation to England in 1942, SOE no longer wanted to send Virginia into occupied Europe, considering it far too dangerous for her. So she joined the Office of Strategic Services, and returned to the fight in 1944, organizing guerilla forces in France to prepare to support the D-Day landings. With the invasion of Europe her forces swung into pitched battle with the Nazis, and in August 1944 she and her fighters accepted the surrender of the German southern command in Le Chambon. At war’s end Virginia received the Distinguished Service Cross from Wild Bill Donovan, and continued serving with the CIA as an operations officer until 1966.

Virginia’s story is told in the incredible “A Woman of No Importance”, available here: