In the early years of the Cold War, the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service came up with a plan to tap into Soviet military communication.
The Berlin Tunnel Operation, also known as Operation Gold, was a project to build a secret quarter-mile-long underground tunnel from the U.S. Sector to the Soviet Sector of Berlin, Germany, providing access to military phone lines.
Robert G. Williamson, 87, of Richmond Hill, was the Army captain in charge of engineering the tunnel.
“You tap the telephone lines and you can listen to the conversations of Soviet military personnel, whether they’re talking about the condition of the troops or planning moves,” he explained. “It’s essentially putting a spy in their backyard.”
The West Point graduate had been on assignment in Washington, D.C., in 1953 when he was called to the Pentagon for a meeting.
“They said, ‘we got a job for you, but we can’t tell you what it is or where it is.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
Williamson, an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, was in charge of recruiting soldiers to dig and build the tunnel.
“We wanted welders, sheet metal workers, a variety of typical engineer skills, but they had to have secret clearance … they wanted us to go immediately,” said Williamson.
Armed with crates of steel and a tunneling machine, the elite group began their work in September, 1954.
“Now, how do you dig a tunnel with the Russians and Germans sitting over there looking at you? You’ve got 2,000 tons of dirt to get rid of,” said Williamson. “So what they did is they built a big, two-story warehouse and it was supposed to be an electronics station … some alleged military purpose that they advertised it as.”
The warehouse served as a cover for the operation in every sense. In addition to being a decoy, it sat over the tunnel shaft. When dirt was removed from the tunnel, it was “stored” in the huge building.
Williamson and his team faced a number of challenges, one of which was figuring out how far to dig. The engineers, who were skilled at land surveying, came up with an idea.
“They had somebody travel the road adjacent to the telephone lines and stop and pretend they had a flat tire. They were able to use the surveying instruments to get a measurement of the distance from the start of the tunnel to wherever the guy stopped,” Williamson explained.
Digging the tunnel took roughly five months. Intelligence from the tapped lines was collected for just under a year, until the Soviets discovered the tunnel.
“The Soviets had a spy in the British government. They knew we were digging it,” said Williamson. “The conclusion as to why the let us keep digging is, if they indicate that they know about it, you immediately start looking for the spy.”
Williamson said he’s proud to have been a part of the project.
“We had a first-class crew of engineer soldiers and … they managed the project without giving it away on our end. I think the success of it was attributed to the skills and dedication of the group of soldiers that we had.”
Sections of the tunnel that Williamson and his team built are in a handful of museums around the world, including the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
To learn more, check out online resources such as www.coldwar.org or search “Operation Gold.”