Sometimes, I think I’m the only one who’s ever heard of BRIXMIS. Often I talk to people who think they know a lot about covert operations and secret missions of the Cold War, but find they’ve never heard of it. It’s nice to know there is someone else, at least, out there who knows about it.
I suppose at this point I should explain, for the benefit of readers other than the one who posted the question, what BRIXMIS was and why it is one of the best stories of the Cold War that (almost) nobody knows.
As everybody does know, Germany was carved up between the Britain, France , the USA and the Soviet Union after the Second World. Whilst relationships between the western allies and the Soviet block were still relatively friendly, an agreement was reached whereby each party would be allowed a small military mission in the others territory. These missions would have quasi-diplomatic status, meaning they could move around unhindered by the military or civilian police.
The British mission, BRIXMIS, was set up first and was the largest. The other three were considerably smaller. The Soviet Union used their mission, SOXMIS, to run secret agents. The western allies also used their to spy, but did so very differently.
Being bigger, BRIXMIS ran three-man teams. The French and Americans used two man teams, which were less effective. They wore military uniforms and drove western cars, but were able to move freely around East Germany. There were, officially, some restrictions on where they could go, but they were usually ignored.
As a result BRIXMIS teams were able to see first hand the Warsaw Pact in action. When Soviet armoured divisions mobilised in radio silence and deployed on the West German border, BRIXMIS watched. When four Russian divisions were mobilised in four days to surround West Berlin, BRIXMIS was there.
They also did a lot more than just observe. By the 1980s a stand MO had been worked out for BRIXMIS. An Intelligence Corps Officer was in command, a Royal Corps of Transport driver was at the wheel, and the third person on the team was usually seconded from the SAS. Tours would last several days, with the teams sleeping in the woods, often in the middle of huge formations of Soviet troops.
(You see why this is such a great story? Everyone remembers the SAS in Malaya and Borneo and Oman and the Falklands, but who lists East Germany as one of their Cold War deployments?)
At the start of the eighties the teams drove Range Rovers or special four wheel drive Opel Senators, but by the end they were given Mercedes G Wagons. This was important because, as each BRIXMIS team deployed, it would be given a Stasi escort. However, the poor old secret police in their Trabants or Wartburgs had no chance against a RCT driver at the wheel of a high powered 4x4. Once free of their chaperone, the BRIXMIS teams could start their work. Usually this would mean getting out of the vehicle and having a scout around on foot to see what could be found.
The intelligence coups of BRXMIS were quite significant. Rooting around in a dustbin after a Warsaw Pact exercise one team uncovered a guide to all the Soviet weapon systems, with special mention of all their defects. On another occasion a key to the top hatch of a T-64 tank was fashioned from a photograph, and so when one of these brand new tanks was found parked up and unguarded the team were able to unlock it, pop inside and take some photos of a vehicle many Soviet officers didn’t even know existed.
Sometimes the team would take some trophies home with them. These included empty shell casing from the new AK-74 assault rifle, a sample of reactive armour, and even the radar and engines from a crashed Yak-28.
The BRIXMIS teams also got to observe the Soviet military in operation at close hand. If the Cold War turned hot the SAS would operate as stay-behind parties, sabotaging the Soviet logistics. The SAS who deployed with BRIXMIS were therefore interested to find that very few Warsaw Pact officers were ever given maps, and that the movement of Russian units depended on teams going out to put up road signs beforehand. The SAS were therefore briefed that these people would be a priority target in wartime.
Save to say the Soviet and East German authorities didn’t take too kindly to this sort of snooping. They couldn’t actually stop BRIXMIS without also losing SOXMIS, and that was too valuable for them to do this. Instead, they could make life as hard as possible, whilst arranging the occasional little ‘accident’.
Teams found where they shouldn’t be could be detained for a few hours. Anyone who went too far, like the American team which refused to stop at a checkpoint and ran over a Soviet guard, could be declared persona non grata and sent home.The ‘accidents’ though, were another matter. These usually involved lorries which swerved across the road to take out a BRIXMIS vehicle. The photo on the right shows what happened to a French team. One photo taken by BRIXMIS shows a heavy Soviet tractor unit, hastily detached from the pontoon it had been towing, charging like a raging bull towards them across a dusty plain, still training wires and other bits of bridge. Several missions vehicles were lost in this way, and others in more ordinary accidents.
Other ways of dealing with the missions were even more direct. BRIXMIS teams were sometimes shot at, but never hit. However, on 24 March 1985 Major Arthur ‘Nick’ Nicholson of American USMLM was shot by a guard at a Russian tank storage facility. Major Nicholson died several hours later after being refused medical attention. The resulting diplomatic freeze saw the US boycott a planned joint celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War.
But back to the original question, why doesn’t BRIXMIS get the recognition it deserves? I really have no idea. There is a good book on them, and it’s by Tony Geraghty whose Who Dares Wins was required reading for teenage boys when I was growing up. I’m surprised more people haven’t read his BRIXMIS.
I’m also surprised it doesn’t appear in more books about the SAS. I first learnt about BRIXMIS in Ken Connor’s book about the Regiment. However, Connor’s book is a factual account of the history of the SAS, whereas most books on the subject are mostly fiction. You can add imaginary firefights in Iraq quite easily, but I guess you couldn’t really get away with making up shootouts in Cold War East Germany.
This is all a pity because it’s a great story. This is Major General P G Williams CMG OBE, a BRIXMIS tour commander in the 1980s:
“It is already impossible to recreate a true impression of the fantastic atmosphere of professionalism, enthusiasm and camaraderie that characterised life in BRIXMIS. The job itself was exhilarating, not infrequently dangerous and undoubtedly addictive; it really was the ‘Great Game’ of the Cold War, played out in the forests and farmland of regions with evocative names like Mecklenburg, Brandenburg and Saxony.”
I suspect BRIXMIS will remain a secret until such a time as someone makes a film or a TV series about it. The story is there to be told, we just need someone to tell it.
Tony Geraghty (1996). Brixmis: The Untold Exploits of Britain's Most Daring Cold War Spy Mission
Major General P G Williams BRIXMIS in the 1980s: The Cold War's Great Game
There is a BRIXMIS Opel Senator in the Cold War Museum at RAF Cosford.