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

Nov 10 2014 - 15 Comments

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).


  • Frank Midlil

    I’m sorry but this guy is hallucinating. He may have seen East Germany but he didn’t go further. The 425th is a non-entity. National Guard? Wow. Dreaming. and this is a non-story.

  • Bruno von Haas

    I think I met this guy at the Russian Officer
    ‘s club near Alexanderplatz.We were having Simba Bier that some Cuban paratrooper brought back from Angola, fighting the Portuguese near Südwest Afrika border.

  • Dave_in_MA

    From the article, “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”.

  • Gringao

    That guard tower looks not unlike the ones that were across the fence from where we went to see the border near Fulda. It was surreal.

  • guaman

    Reforger was a war games held by NATO forces during the cold war. The card is what one would have when “playing” in the war games. The war games were readiness exercises for when the Soviets (remember – communists are out to liberate the proletariat worldwide) embarked on liberating Western Europe from the capitalists. Anyway, Reforger saw many units come to Germany to practice with other allied nations. We saw the 101st Airborne come over, complete with helicopters. We saw CEFIRM Leader come over (a comint asset that had extremely effective offensive capability), and of course the other NATO members participated. This guy simply tells of his unit’s mission and how they practiced. The US had folks that were nuclear demolition specialists that were to close strategic passes with big booms. None of these assets had to be used. The brought victory because they were an effective deterrent until President Reagan challenged the USSR to outspend us militarily. They tried and went bankrupt. This guy did his bit as did literally millions of American and NATO servicemen & women.
    There were agents of the USSR and NATO on the other side of the walls. We had SMLM, Soviet Military Liaison Mission vehicles visit our ops site. Apparently at the conclusion of WW II there was an agreement that allowed each side to monitor the other to see how they administered their half of the defeated. If memory serves me a US Major in a “mission vehicle” was killed by the communists at one time. Mission vehicles were functionally spying efforts, for both sides.

  • montana83

    I was stationed in Germany in the 1960’s. I was in ASA in the US ARMY which was really a branch of NSA. I had (3) MOS: Czech/Slovak Linguist, Radio Intercept Operator and Transcriber. Pretty obvious what I did, but I would add there were West Germans working for the East Germans at the time. Lots of them. This guy was right on there.

    Part of our outfit were people attached to Embassies behind the Iron Curtain doing what this guy did – collecting information on the Warsaw Pact, so if you think we weren’t doing this stuff you are dead wrong.

    The Czechs knew what we were doing and where we were doing it. They would “talk to us” and tell us openly they were going to kill us on their militray radio transmissions. They often had practice nuclear missiles attacks and would tell us 5 minutes after practicing firing a nuke missile at us that we were obliterated. Not very funny at the time, actually.

    I also did triangulation where we would pinpoint where one of their units were by having three 3/4 ton trucks tens of miles apart with radar aimed toward a military unit, tank battalion, etc, So, you really didn’t need to see them with your eyes. You could do it with your ears so to speak.

    Wow, can’t believe that was almost 50 years ago. Now you just look at Google Earth and see what you want. Crazy.

    Oh, one last thing. The Warsaw Pact officers including Soviet officers used to drive by our listening post and the French and West German posts just past ours on top of a mountain on the German border with Czechoslovakia. That always seemed weird.

  • Um, the Berlin Wall was what separated West Berlin from East Germany. If what I’ve read so far is about the national border between West Germany and East Germany, calling it the “Berlin Wall” is incorrect.

    It’s been called the Iron Curtain…

  • I was a young jarhead “remington raider” and gunner on a CH46 helicopter. The NATO mission of my Marine Brigade was to either (if we had no “warning”) was to either hold the Kiel Canal so the FRG’s frigates in the Baltic could escape and to prevent Sov para’s from taking it OR, if there was strategic warning to help the pitiful Norwegian army hold northern Norway…essentially, we expected to be obliterated in a few days to a few weeks fighting…
    What this guy did, was hugely important…he’s the guy who would have given us real-time warnings of Sov intentions…what he did takes big brass balls. Sir, my hat is off to you!

  • Misanthrope

    Thank you, Mr. Demerly, for your service.
    I’m very surprised the “Get Out Of Jail” card would have had any effect. The spelling and grammatical mistakes make it hard to credit as an official document.

  • Very nice read, its always very fascinating to read about all of the declassified ops and units from the cold war.

  • Crinedel

    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.

  • Dan Russell

    Interesting,I was assigned to F Co. from 1986-88 and none of us remember this dude.

    • Michael Ramos

      I was in from 82-91. I know and remember Tom.

  • Ronny

    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.

    • texastommy

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