The untold story of the US Army unit that surveilled the East/West German border before the collapse of the Wall

Here is a small glimpse into part of an untold story of the Cold War.

25 years ago the Berlin Wall came down.

Tom Demerly was a Scout Observer for Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU), a small unit which conducted surveillance along the East/West German border just before the collapse of the wall.

To celebrate the anniversary, Demerly shared on his blog an interesting and insightful account about the “stay-behind surveillance” special operations his LRSU counducted in Eastern Europe, along the Warsaw Pact/NATO dividing line, where the U.S. Army unit was ready to infiltrate deep behind the wall, to watch things or installing Seismic Intrusion Devices to monitor the movements of Soviet armored vehicles and aircraft.

Here below you can read the whole story that Demerly has allowed us to share with you on this blog.

Watching the Berlin Wall

by Tom Demerly

25 years ago my phone rang at home. “Are you seeing this?”

“What?” I asked. “You better turn on your TV.” The Berlin wall was coming down. We won.

During my brief and very non-illustrious military “career” (if you could call it that) part of what my unit did was trained to conduct “stay-behind surveillance” on Eastern Europe, mostly along the Warsaw Pact/NATO dividing line. Especially East and West Germany. And the Berlin Wall.

We were a special operations long-range surveillance unit. Our unit trained to infiltrate deep behind the wall and watch things. Counting. Observing. Classifying. Reading. Installing sensors called “SID” or Seismic Intrusion Devices to monitor the movement of armored vehicles along key roads, aircraft movement and anything else the Warsaw Pact was doing. Then, if all went well, we would enter the intelligence into a device we called a “dumb-dog” or Digital Message Device Group (DMDG) attached to our radios and send a burst transmission with our S.A.L.U.T.E. report, a kind of outline that classifies Size, Activity, Location, Uniforms (or Unit), Time and Equipment. After that we’d quickly change positions to another hide site since the Soviets and East Germans had a nasty habit of calling in air and artillery strikes when they detected a burst radio transmission, knowing that they were being spied on in their own back yard.

Every year we participated in an operation called REFORGER or “REturn of FORces to GERmany”. Part of our unit would go to England to cross-train with the British Special Air Service, another part would go to Germany to their special Long Range Surveillance School, and a third part would go to REFORGER.

At REFORGER, business was serious.

We flew on a C-130 from Selfridge ANGB in Mt. Clemens, Michigan to Lajes, Portugal. In Portugal we landed to refuel, stretch our legs, and receive a briefing that, once in Germany, we were “at war”. Equipment was changed. Uniforms were sterilized of insignia that identified our unit. And we were given a yellow “get out of jail free” card to hand to friendly forces when our own units captured us and they had no idea who or what we were. We, of course, were not allowed to say a thing to them. Only, “Call the number on the card”.

During the time we were deployed to Europe near the East/West German border espionage was the national industry. A briefing told us “1 in 8 East Germans are involved in some form of espionage”. “While inside West Germany you will be under constant East German surveillance.” There was no way to shake it. And the East Germans weren’t subtle about it. An apartment building across the street from the former WWII German barracks we lived in constantly had observers in the window. They took our photos as we came and went. We went through ridiculous rituals to evade surveillance. Following one incident we were forbidden to wear uniforms off post.

The place we were staying was built before WWII and it hadn’t been updated since. Especially the plumbing. It was build out of quant stone and concrete and had low ceilings and iron bars. The basement, really a dungeon, was where our equipment masters kept our armory. Drawing your equipment down there was like a scene from a Bond movie or “Where Eagles Dare”. The only thing missing was “Q”, and we didn’t have any Aston-Martins. Or fancy suits. Or watches that shot missiles.

Our surveillance patrols consisted of six-man teams, sometimes less, sometimes more depending on what we were doing. Sometimes other members of different services, and even different countries joined us.

I was our team’s “Scout Observer”, the guy who looked at stuff. I had to be able to identify things. Part of the reason I landed this job was I had an encyclopedic knowledge of military equipment, theirs and ours. Especially aircraft. Another reason is because I had graduated as honor graduate from my schooling at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

The Berlin Wall was different in different places depending on where you were along its length. Sometimes it was simply a bricked-up building booby-trapped with mines. Other times it was a brightly lit open expanse, the “kill zone”, with mines and dog runs on each side of the wall. Where we visited this day it was actually a series of barriers; a barbed wire topped, chain link fence, a carefully raked pea-gravel kill-zone with anti-personnel mines and interlocking fields of sniper fire, the wall itself- a tall, concrete affair with what looked like a horizontal row of large diameter pipe on top of it. The sinister thing was, if a person lived crossing the minefield and the sniper kill zone, and actually managed to scale the wall itself, they were greeted on top by these rotating cylinders. They would simply spin backwards under your desperate grasp until a sniper’s bullet found you. In this spot, many people had tried to get across. None made it.

We were observing an interesting phenomenon. The East Germans had closed a factory near the wall and taken it over as an observation post to look on our side of the wall. The OP was located atop a high smoke stack that used to be part of the now abandoned factory. At the top of the smoke stack was an East German observer.

The intel we had was that this observer would change at regular intervals. It was freezing up there in the smoke stack observation point, and the poor East German border guard, or whoever he was, must have been miserable. He surveiled our side of the border through rifle scopes and powerful binoculars.

But he was not entirely without creature comforts.

One day a rickety-looking Lada compact jitney of a car pulled up near the base of Red Smokestack OP. It jerked to a halt. Oddly, a woman dressed in a huge, poofy white fur coat climbed out, carrying a cylinder from which steam was rising. Nerve gas? Radioactive isotope? It was soup to be delivered to the man in the tower. Two border guards accepted the soup canister and one appeared to try to make progress with the woman in the fur coat. He failed, she returned to her decrepit little car, reversed away from the kill zone and left. One of the guards spent the next few minutes carrying the large thermos of soup up to the top of the guard tower.

We later learned that observation assignment to the guard tower OP was a kind of “punishment detail”. That the border guards who watched from the tower got there because they had screwed something up, been late to report to duty, etc. It must have been miserable up there in the freezing wind. And it is no wonder East German morale among their supposedly “elite” border guard units was reported to be poor just before the wall came down.

While observing the wall, I learned a profound and sad lesson about humankind. Ducks had flown into a river on the NATO (free) side of the border. They paddled around as ducks do. But then, in complete contravention to all official doctrine surrounding border activity, the ducks took to wing, flew a brief circle over the pond on the West German side, and then flew directly over the Berlin Wall into East Germany. The ducks crossed the border without a thought or a care. No clearance, no identification, no checkpoint, no shooting. They just flew across the border.

My concept of freedom was forever altered in that moment. My respect for the wisdom of man was also. The ducks could come and go. We built artificial barriers to separate ideas and ideals.

Of course, The Wall didn’t work. And one day my phone rang. And the war that never started, a war that Tom Clancy wrote was, “A war with no battles, no monuments… only casualties” was over. And while I always stop short of declaring a “winner” in any war, I was quietly pleased to see that the cause of freedom and liberty had won the day the wall came down.

Wall USArmy

Image credit: U.S. Army

Our unit was one of the smallest and least known of the entire U.S. arsenal. To this day, even its modest Wikipedia page is short and light on details. In the records of units who participated in REFORGER, our unit is buried deep inside another. That I know of, there is not a single photo of us in Germany. An unofficial unit insignia we made had the inscription, “Around The World, Unseen.” We were, as my Patrol Leader was fond of saying, “Like smoke in a hurricane”.

What we learned from the Cold War and the Berlin Wall coming down served us well. In the first Gulf War Long Range Surveillance Teams, now part of a new secret U.S. Army Special Forces unit, penetrated deep into Iraq to survey routes for armored invasions, find Scud missiles and direct airstrikes and rescue downed U.S. airmen. Long Range Surveillance and its value was more than proven. Again, as it was by the reconnaissance teams before us, the LRRPs in Vietnam and recon and intelligence units in WWII.

Tom Demerly is a writer, endurance athlete and industry journalist. He consults to military supplier Tactical Performance, Inc. and writes for a number of media outlets. Demerly lives in Michigan in the U.S. where he also works in the triathlon industry.

Top image: Left: Tom Demerly at a training exercise in Northern Michigan with Co. “F”, 425 INF (AIRBORNE) Long Range Surveillance Unit. Right: My “Get Out of Jail Free” card for REFORGER (credit T. Demerly).

 

About David Cenciotti 4418 Articles
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

7 Comments

  1. Tom Demerly: The ducks also flew freely over all the territory during World War ll while below, the Germans committed unspeakable multiple atrocities against millions of people outside their murderous boundaries. That only East Germany suffered later under the Soviet Union communists while the western part was rebuilt by Germany’s former victims is another unacknowledged, unadmitted failure of post war period.

  2. I know this is old but I am going to respond anyway. I’m retired Army and served 4 1/2 years on the inner/intra German Border with the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, 1st Regiment of Dragoons. We fell under the 2nd ACR BOSOP, our Camp was Pittman and we augmented 2nd ACR when needed and they augmented us when needed. Berlin was not the East-West German Border. I served in Border Camps, Pittman, Gates, Reed, May, Lee and Hof conducting Patrols, Relay, GSR Security, Primary and Secondary Combat Element, Joint US-BGS Patrols, OP’s, Border Ops in the Ops cells and a lot of other things. I know what happened when someone was captured or defected, and they didnt hand anyone a card. We had our own operations, worked with 10th SFG out of Bad Tolz who were responsible for escorting intelligence officers in and out, BGS, BBP, Military and Civilian Intelligence Agencies. The Inner German Border from east Germany to the Trizonal Point and along the Czechoslovakian Frontier was over 800 miles long.

    I have lots of friends who served in the Regiments and Squadrons, in the Military and Civilian Intel agencies, 10th SFG, German Organizations, Air Attack Troops, GSR Teams and it was GSR Teams, Ground Surveillance Radar, who were responsible for picking up Seismic Movement, which would then be sent in Flash Precedence in order to blow out a Patrol, OP, RF, or one of the Combat Elements, and in the Berlin Brigade and a few who were USMLM.

    No Offense to the writer, but at no time did I ever see that card. You did not tell the East Germans or Czech’s what to do when they captured an American, if the Czech’s captured an American they were turned over to the East Germans, the reason for that was the U.S. Government and Military did not negotiate with the East Germans because we did not recognize them as a legitimate separate nation from the rest of Germany. They would get U.S. captured or defectors and they would be moved to either East Berlin or Potsdam. They were blindfolded, stripped of everything, and the East Germans would attempt to negotiate, the US Military issued directives to the East Germans but negotiations were done by third neutral parties.

    No REFORGER Units from the States ever operated in our sectors that I saw. The reason for that was no troops, except us, our direct support, intel agencies, the 10th SFG and augmentee units were allowed in the 5K, 1K and 50 meter zones. Those were operational areas. And no units moved, on either side of the Border without the Regimental Operations Cells knowing about it. They held the highest direct responsibility for the 5K, 1K and 50 meter zones.

    Again, no offense, but if the writer had participated in these type operations, he should know that it required a S or TS Security Clearance to even be in the 1K zone, much less conducting cross border ops, to conduct those operations and everyone was briefed after and before and on final out were briefed and had to sign papers saying they would never discuss it, and the guys I know who I know for a fact that did conduct cross border and intel operations do not discuss them even now, 27 years later. There were certifications, tests, an extreme level of required knowledge on the Soviets, East Germans and Czechs, Operations Cell’s Briefings and debriefings, Intel Briefings and a ton of other things.

    I am not saying this did not occur, but I am saying based on my knowledge the story does not make sense to me (ME). Nearly no one knows what in fact occurred on the Inner and Intra German Border except those who served there. Very little has been written about it. If you did serve there and in East Germany through Berlin then there is a ton of information that person would be privy to, and I do hold the Security Clearance to know it. I am not acusing the writer of anything, but would be interested to find out the aspects of these particular operations I have never heard of.

    • I was the S-2 and Troop XO in the 1/2 Cav from 72 to 75. I bet we have many common experiences

    • Ronny: From 1983 to 1987, I served with Demerly’s unit, Company F (Ranger) 425th Infantry of the Michigan Army National Guard. It was ably commanded by then Capt. Robert Wangen who commented earlier on this story. I deployed with the unit to West Germany for REFORGER in October 1984 and Certain Sentinel in January 1986. Co F. was a first-rate Guard unit, with Ranger-qualified officers and NCOs in most leadership posts. We also had many NCOs with Vietnam combat experience who served with the 101st Airborne, 173rd Airborne and other units. That said, let me be clear: our time in Germany counted as annual training. We were there as a National Guard unit in National Guard status; we had not been ordered to active duty and placed under federal control. As such, we conducted training exercises and were not given “real life” missions such as those the regular Army carried out. Do I think we could have successfully achieved such missions? Yes — we were exceptionally well-led, well-trained, well-conditioned and well-equipped. We were paratroopers and I believe our readiness rivaled that of many active units. Even so, we were only in country for 2-3 weeks and then returned to our families and civilian lives in Michigan. So, to suggest we played a formal role in daily operations along the border is a stretch, in my opinion.

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