Contemporary History

Operation Fürstenberg

Years before the Cuban Missile Crisis the Soviets secretly deployed medium-range missiles on foreign soil. Without informing their East German Army allies, they stationed nuclear weapons in the GDR.

In January 1959 Agent 9771 reported amazing things to his Federal Intelligence Service (BND) liaison officer in West Berlin. On the railway from Lychen to Fürstenberg, 80 kilometers north of Berlin, a Soviet Army unit had arrived and, on an open stretch of track, had used caterpillar tractors to unload "very large bombs." Then, using only back roads, the consignment was moved to a Soviet weapons depot.

The agent had observed correctly: the Soviets were busy stationing nuclear missiles on GDR territory. Two mobile launchers for six R-5M missiles—NATO designator SS-3—were stationed at a military barracks in the vicinity of Fürstenberg, situated along the Havel River in Brandenburg, not far from the former Ravensbrück concentration camp. An equal number was deployed at another Soviet base to the southeast, in Vogelsang. The two corresponding missile units had been transferred from the USSR to East Germany using cover designators; they belonged to the 72nd Engineer Brigade, an elite unit directly subordinate to the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee.

In this way, Khrushchev’s dream of being able to threaten London and Paris with medium-range missiles began to take form. A further missile base in Albania rounded out the Soviet strategy: Rome and NATO’s Southern Command in Naples were targeted from the Albanian port city of Vlore.

The deployment of the SS-3s was carried out in such secrecy that not even the Soviets’ East German allies were informed. Former GDR Defense Minister Heinz Kessler, at the time the Chief of the East German Air Force, maintains to this day that he "had no knowledge of any such action." Even later on, Kessler claims he was never briefed about this nuclear mission by the Warsaw Pact Supreme Command.

For forty years the files on this operation remained classified. Now, for the first time, Moscow’s military has allowed a Western historian access to accounts of how this policy action was implemented. Matthias Uhl, a 29-year old member of the East European History Department at Martin Luther University in Halle/Wittenberg, was able to interview eyewitnesses and review pertinent documents.

In one of the documents evaluated by Uhl, an internal 72nd Engineer Brigade commemorative publication, a certain Vladimirskiy, the Fürstenberg base’s repair officer at that time, who later rose to the rank of major general, reminisced that Operation Fürstenberg was the onset of a period of "uneasy waiting to see how the events in West Berlin would unfold." This was a clear indication that the Soviets had planned to use the missile deployment as part of the crisis developing over Berlin.

Unlike the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, during which Khrushchev publicly used missiles not yet operational to pressure Great Britain and France, this time the Soviets had at their disposal a genuine potential threat. The Soviets, fearing a U.S. nuclear first strike, also used this nuclear picket line to further redress the balance of terror.

The documents released prove that the GDR was the first foreign country into which Soviet medium-range missiles were deployed, not Cuba, as military historians had assumed until now.

The clandestine deployment into East Germany proceeded in a manner similar to that followed during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviets secretly set up their nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island, thereby menacing Washington and New York. But whereas President John F. Kennedy forced Moscow to withdraw its weapons from Cuba by threatening a world war, his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, evidently chose a subtler course, employing a mixture of secret diplomacy and counterforce.

This Cold War political thriller actually got its start at the beginning of the Fifties. From 1952 on, Hitler’s rocket specialists, whom the Soviets had spirited eastwards at the conclusion of World War II, began leaving the USSR. Their legacy: the effective serial production of the R-1 missile, based entirely upon German rocket technician Wernher von Braun’s V-2. Moscow’s missile program began with the R-1.

The R-5M, which could deliver a 30-kiloton nuclear payload 20 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb to a range of 1,200 kilometers, marked the acquisition by the Russians of a qualitatively new deterrent weapon system. According to Soviet missile pioneer Boris Chertok, the R-5M, also known by its NATO code name "Shyster," was the "very first nuclear weapons delivery vehicle in the history of military missile technology." From 1956 onward 28 such missiles were deployed by Soviet forces.

On 26 March 1955 Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev ordered Defense Minister Marshal Georgiy Zhukov to station missiles in the GDR, Bulgaria, the Caucasus, and the Far East. The units being deployed were to be brought to full combat strength by 1 July 1956, Khrushchev instructed. Accordingly, secret decree 589-365 SS mandated that the personnel strength of these units was to be beefed up to 5,500 men.

However, it proved impossible to meet this deadline. It wasn’t until early 1957 that Major General Putsik, the officer responsible for deploying the missiles, arrived in the GDR. For reasons of confidentiality, Putsik was not allowed to prepare any notes on his inspection tour of this allied country. The precision maps of the planned bases were drafted in the Soviet General Staff Operations Department only after the General’s return to the USSR.

The unit chosen to carry out the secret operation already had experience operating in Germany. Formed in Thuringia in 1946, the 72nd Engineer Brigade test fired the V-2 in Berka, near Sondershausen, on Stalin’s orders. The purpose was to carry out practical "horizontal tests" of a good dozen V-2 rockets assembled from captured parts. Beginning in December 1958, the staff and two missile batteries of the Brigade departed their interim quarters in Astrakhan for East Germany, where they commenced offloading the missiles. The "very large bombs" Agent 9771 happened to see were undoubtedly components of the R-5M, which measured 20.8 meters in length with its warhead attached; the missiles were shipped pre-assembled to their deployment areas. The nuclear warheads arrived in April 1959. They were flown heavily guarded into Templin airfield, from where they were distributed during the following nights to the bunkers in Vogelsang and Fürstenberg.

A serious incident evidently took place on 29 April 1959, during the course of transporting the warheads. Though the documents released to date give no further details, it is known that the officer in charge of the transport, Lt. Colonel Nesterov, was both relieved of his command on the spot and demoted—the latter action came at the instructions of Lt. General Mikhail Nikolskiy, who shortly thereafter became Chief of Staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces.

There were also technical difficulties to be addressed: liquid oxygen, the most important fuel component, evaporated within 30 days. It was necessary to produce and store enormous quantities of replacement liquid oxygen. Uhl believes the fuel must have come from the East German chemical works in Leuna, since the laborious transport from the USSR involved unacceptably high losses from the tanker cars.

There were also instances of the alcohol used in the firing system "evaporating," as the files testify. Some soldiers replaced the 92-percent pure ethanol, which eager tipplers coveted as a beverage known as "Blue Danube," thanks to the added blue dye, with yellow-hued methanol. A deluge of disciplinary actions followed.

To avoid the regular American reconnaissance overflights, the Soviet rocket troops drilled only at night. In time they reduced the simulated launch time from 30 hours down to five. Only at that time, as Dmitriev, a local commander who later rose to the rank of major general, did it become "possible to achieve the prescribed degree of readiness required for combat." Translated into civilian terms, this meant that the Brigade was ready to "conduct missile launches."

The masters of the Kremlin were immediately informed of this development. In May 1959 Marshal Matvey Sakharov, Chief of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, personally informed Khrushchev of the missiles’ operational readiness. In case of war, the order to fire was the exclusive prerogative of the Kremlin supreme commander.

Four missiles were aimed at Great Britain. If necessary, four nuclear strikes were to destroy the first British "Thor" missile positions in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. These Soviet missiles also threatened the West European bases that U.S. nuclear bombers would use in case of war. Soviet military strategists also perceived a third option: cutting the U.S. off from its West European partners by destroying the Atlantic ports.

However, the enemy seemed by now to have been warned, and not just thanks to the attentive BND spy. As the future Major General Vladimirskiy of Brigade staff noted, the "intelligence facilities of the Western Allies had, through shadowing our every move," gotten wind of the Soviet operations, "because there were simply too many revealing indicators."

Since 1958 the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) had practiced a new readiness regime, whereby combat-ready bombers remained airborne for 24 hours at a time. As SAC Commander General Thomas Power put it, "we have to make an impression on Mr. Khrushchev." This evidently had the desired effect.

What is known is that in August and September 1959 the 72nd Engineer Brigade unexpectedly abandoned its positions in the GDR. Not six months after they had been declared ready for action, the missiles were transferred to Kaliningrad on Soviet territory. According to General Putsik the base on home soil was "safer and more economical"—it probably made more sense militarily as well. For in the meantime new medium-range missiles with ranges of over 2,000 kilometers were being deployed, missiles that, according to Putsik, could "carry out the same missions from our national territory."

The true reasons for the sudden withdrawal will remain in the dark, as long as Americans and Russians alike keep the details classified. One important factor, researcher Uhl believes, may ensue from the Berlin crisis: the Soviets did not want an escalation that might ultimately lead to war, a war that NATO was prepared to fight if necessary.

The NATO "Live Oak" Staff, specifically created to safeguard the Western Allies’ rights in Berlin, envisioned a crisis scenario featuring an increasingly escalating military situation, ranging from U.S. combat units punching their way across the GDR to Berlin, all the way up to an exchange of nuclear counterstrikes. However, since Khrushchev was "betting on bluff, not on war," Uhl believes, "the continued deployment of Soviet missiles in the GDR had become pointless."

The thawing of political tensions may also have played a roll. In the spring of 1959 the Geneva Foreign Ministers Conference, which dealt with disarmament questions as well as the Soviet ultimatums over Berlin, adjourned without success. Nevertheless, the U.S. reached out to the Soviet Union. On 12 July Deputy Undersecretary of State Robert Murphy delivered to the Russians President Eisenhower’s invitation to Khrushchev.

Only days later the Geneva negotiations resumed. Fearing a softening of the Allied position, the Germans protested. The German Foreign Minister at that time, Heinrich von Bretano, claimed negotiations were being conducted over the Germans’ heads "without the slightest concession on the Soviets’ part." However, there may indeed have been one concession: the withdrawal of the missiles.

When Khrushchev kicked off his visit to America on 15 September 1959, it wasn’t just that the Fürstenberg missile positions had already been evacuated. Eisenhower’s warm reception of the Soviet leader–he even gave his guest one of his own Angus cattle–brought concrete results. The normally so outspoken Khrushchev withdrew his ultimatums, becoming an advocate of further disarmament.

The intelligence gatherers at the BND also took note of the consequences of the temporary change of heart, which lasted until the East-West confrontation escalated again with the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. On 10 September 1959 Agent 9771 reported from Fürstenberg in Brandenburg the arrival of a "new Soviet unit," this one also wearing artillery insignia, as had the withdrawn missile specialists.

However there was one key difference. During the months the missiles were deployed in the GDR the Russians kept themselves strictly isolated from the Germans, who were not even allowed into the restricted inner sancta of the barracks to read the electric meters. By September the non-fraternization policy seemed to have eased. The sentries, as the BND’s observer on the ground reported, were now trying to sell their German neighbors "watches from Moscow."

Wolfgang Bayer