A Cold War Incident

David Webb-Carter

A British Army officer and a defector, in the dark days of the Cold War.
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It was the usual grey and cold day in Cold War Berlin,  November 1973, with the first really cold east winds sweeping in across the flat plains of Eastern Europe that stretch as far as the Urals in the Soviet Union.  Thinking about nothing in particular, and about to go home for lunch with my recently married wife, I was irritated to hear the phone ring as I prepared to leave the office. Cold War Defector

The author, between Leonid Brezhnev (left) and Erich Honecker, in 1973.

A typically toneless voice told me he was the Military Police Duty NCO and that he had been contacted by the German Police to say that a “Russian individual” had presented himself at the Charlottenburg Police station, and he could not speak German but seemed to want to apply for asylum. I was well aware that the Russian forces in East Berlin regularly sent their soldiers across the wall for what they described as “cultural” visits. This did not present any real problem as we also sent people into the East, but the West Berliners were never comfortable with seeing Russian uniforms in the Allied Sectors. All the foreign forces in Berlin came under the post war Potsdam Agreement, so any Russian in the Western sectors became the responsibility of the appropriate power for that Sector. I soon found that we had a Russian speaker NCO on hand, and he was instructed to go to the Charlottenburg Palace Revier, as the police stations were called.

I heard soon that the “individual” was indeed Russian, but he was also an officer in uniform, armed with a pistol, and was a member of the KGB. He was quickly brought to the Olympic Stadium area where the Headquarters maintained a “safe flat” within the perimeter. There was some difficulty because the man, who identified himself as Captain Aleksei Myagkov, wanted not to come to the British, but to the Americans! By this time my deputy, Julian Lawrie (who spoke decent Russian), was able to join the Russian in the flat and explain the niceties of the Potsdam Agreement and that he would be staying with us whilst we worked out how to proceed. The difficulty was West Berlin was, to an extent, an island in the middle of the Soviet controlled DDR. The only safe exit would be by air but to achieve this authority had to be sought at a much higher level, who would consider whether Myagkov was sufficiently important to justify the risk. This would take time and the Russian was already very nervous. Whilst Julian Lawrie attempted to calm him down, the decision how to proceed was passed to London.  This took a few hours, during which Myagkkov became increasingly restless saying the KGB would kill him, and if the flat TV was turned on they would be able to hack into it to see where he was. Julian was very calm and soothing, and my wife who was a former professional cook, made a Russian meal as he had not eaten, and this was provided to him. Maybe the ingredients were not as served on the other side of the Wall, but Myagkov, in his nervous state, was quite unable to eat.

Darkness fell and we heard that London confirmed that he qualified to be evacuated to the West. The next problem was to arrange an aeroplane to fly up from Hannover to take Myagkov back down the 20-mile-wide air corridor where, due to requirements of the allied agreements, could only fly below 10,000 feet. All flights had to be cleared by the Russian, American, French and British Berlin Air Safety Centre, so it was pretty apparent what we were up to.

The airport where the flight would land was at Gatow on the western edge of the city limits but still in the British Sector, although six miles from the safe flat. The transfer would not be easy, given that the presence of Myagkov was well and truly blown, and reports of unusual Russian entries to the Western Sectors were coming in. A plan was made to make the transfer by helicopter, but there were still concerns that the Russians might take any action to recapture their officer. Myagkov was still in uniform so it was decided that it would be better if he changed into civilian clothes and some ill-fitting garments were produced.

At the same time, my next-door neighbour, who was a Brigadier commanding the Military Mission to the Russian Forces, told me his opposite number was coming to his house to discuss the matter and request Myagkov’s return as he was a “wanted criminal”.

Accordingly, we decided that we would walk with Myagkov the hundred-odd yards to the helicopter and he would be flown to Gatow. For the Russians to attempt to shoot down a British helicopter in the Western Sectors would be a very serious diplomatic incident.

Myagkov in 1977

We decided that Julian would accompany Myagkov in the aeroplane to Dusseldorf where he would be handed over the civilian authorities for de-briefing. As this was my first sight of the Russian, I introduced myself and shook his trembling hand but received hardly any reaction. He was a diminutive figure, ashen faced, and clearly terrified, his eyes darting here and there, even inside the building. I accompanied Myagkov in a close group to the helicopter, a very uncomfortable moment, not helped by the Russian’s obvious fear, as we considered it very possible he could be taken down by a sniper. He was bundled into the aircraft, Julian jumped in on the other side and the helicopter took off.

By this time the Brigadier’s wife was cooking bacon and eggs for his Russian counterparts, but stupidly we had not realised that the helicopter flight path was right over their house.  What had been a relatively cordial event turned sour as the unusual night noise of the helicopter reverberated round the house. The Russians left abruptly.

At Gatow, Myagkov and Julian rapidly transferred to the aircraft that immediately took off to fly down the corridor to Hannover.  There was a tense 45 minutes in the Operations Room whilst the aeroplane transited East Germany escorted by two RAF fighters. Even this was not easy because the aircraft that was used in the corridor was quite old and could only manage about 300mph.  At last, the aircraft was clear of the Soviet Zone, and Myagkov was flown down to Dusseldorf and his new life that did, happily, take him to America.  Neither Julian nor I ever saw or heard of him again.

Brigadier David Webb-Carter MC OBE worked in military intelligence in Berlin during the Cold War.

Aleksei Myagkov later published his autobiography, Inside the KGB in which he describes the above incident, but of course was ice cool throughout.