by James Kraus
As a light rain falls outside on a chilly and moonless night in Berlin, I find myself sitting in the front room of the Café Adler on the corner of Friedrichstrabe and Zimmerstrabe, just a few meters from what was once Checkpoint Charlie. Men and women crossing through this notorious portal once faced life-changing or indeed, life threatening circumstances. Visitors to the East sometimes found that they could check in but not check out.
I invite you to throw on your trench coat, turn the collar up and join me for a glass of Kirschwasser as I travel back in time to the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Philby Affair and the Portland Spy Ring.
While literary and cinematic secret agents of the West like James Bond and John Drake travelled in sleek and sporting Bentleys, Aston Martins, Sunbeam Alpines and Mercedes SL’s, real life undercover operatives mostly drove around in much more prosaic machinery more suitable to the fictional Harry Palmer and George Smiley.
Nowhere was this truer than in the Eastern Block where agents had to get by with vehicles generally several years behind their Western equivalents. Here is a sampling of the vehicles that were at their disposal.
Depending on the mission at hand, operatives of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) had a number of vehicles from which to choose. For light reconnaissance work or information gathering, a low level agent carrying little but a 7.62 Torkarev sidearm could utilize a light and manoeuverable Zaporoschez.
The Zaporoschez ZAZ G-200 was powered by a 750cc V4 air-cooled rear-engine, and was roughly the size of a Fiat 600.
If First Directorate Department IV and V operatives had to enter the West toting ricin pellets, umbrella guns and other tools of the trade, they would most likely rely on a roomier and more powerful Moskvitch or Volga to execute their mission.
The Moskvitch 400 Series were initially powered by 1220 and 1360 cc pushrod inline fours. In the late 1960’s, the 412 was introduced, powered by a 1500 cc engine with an overhead camshaft and pent-roof combustion chambers derived heavily from the design of the 1963 BMW 1500. The 400 series was one of the best known of the Eastern Bloc cars. In addition to being marketed in Western Europe, the 412 was entered into major international rallies, finishing 20th and 22nd in the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon and 12th in the 1970 London-Mexico World Cup Rally.
Because of its relative commonality in Western Europe, an agent driving a Moskvitch could easily rendezvous with deep-cover assets on long-term assignment from Directorate S (intelligence acquisition) or Directorate T (scientific and technical resource branch) without drawing undo attention.
A larger alternative to the Moskovitch was the 2.5 litre GAZ-21 M Volga.
If a small team of agents armed with PPSh-41’s with 35-round magazines was needed to carry out an assassination or other wet work and enough luggage space was needed to extract the evidence, they would likely requisition a larger GAZ-13 Chaika (Seagull) with its powerful 6.0 litre V8, pushbutton-controlled automatic transmission and enough luggage space to accommodate the remains of two or three ex-enemy agents.
The extravagantly baroque Chaika was also an appropriately flamboyant showcase vehicle with which to ferry agents in style to the Glienicke Bridge outside Berlin for high profile prisoner exchanges with the West.
A small number of mid-range GAZ 24’s were built specifically as KGB pursuit vehicles with a 5.5 litre version of the mighty Chaika V8 in lieu of their normal 2.5 four inherited from the 21 M.
East German Stasi
When Stasi (MfS) agents entered the West through the very crossing at which I now overlook, they often crossed the border behind the wheel of the infamous two-stroke Sachsenring Trabant with its bodywork constructed of Duraplast phenolic resin reinforced with strands of cotton fibre.
The acrid exhaust of the two-stroke engine would handily serve to keep following vehicles (usually Mercedes 180 Pontons, driven by West German BfV agents) at a far enough distance to easily miss a package tossed out the window at a secluded dead drop.
A step up was the Wartburg 311. The 311 had plenty of space for a couple of Karabiner S carbines or an SVD Dragunov sniper rifle with telescopic sight and extended stock. A three-cylinder 2-stroke engine powered the Wartburg, driving the front wheels. The chassis was well designed, with upper and lower A-arms in the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear combined with a rear anti-roll bar.
Stasi agents on a really tight time schedule would prefer carrying out operations in the more powerful Sachsenring P240.
The P240 was powered by the prewar Horch 2.4 six-cylinder engine.
Czechoslovakian Státní Bezpenost (StB)
The Tatra 603 was the most technically intriguing Communist Bloc vehicle. The Tatras were often used by high level StB controllers to travel from headquarters in Prague to rendezvous with field agents in Vienna while toting 7.65 Skorpion vz. 61 machine pistols and booby-trapped microfilm canisters.
The 603, with its 2.5 litre rear-mounted air-cooled V8 and all-independent suspension was a good choice to hustle along either highways or war-ravaged back roads.
If an agent wanted a more discreet vehicle, a variety of Škodas were available, like this 1963 1.2 litre twin-carburettor Octavia Touring Sport. Škodas were noteworthy among small front-engine rear-drive cars for featuring independent rear suspension.
Polish 2nd Directorate Wojskowa Stuzba Wewnetrzna (WSW)
Agents of the WSW shouldered 9 mm CZAK P-64 sidearms and slid into trusty FSO Warszawa 202 and 223 sedans to get the job done.
The 200-Series were powered by 2.1 litre 4 cylinder engines and were available in the original fastback (202) or later notchback (223) body styles.
If you are in the mood to immerse yourself into the gritty cold war milieu of the fifties and sixties, I can heartily recommend watching the aforementioned Funeral in Berlin along with The Ipcress File of 1965, both starring Michael Caine as agent Harry Palmer, a character created in the espionage books by Len Deighton. These films were produced by Harry Saltzman (of James Bond fame) and were meant to be a tougher and more realistic series of spy films. They were.
Two others bear mention: Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) with Richard Burton, based on the John le Carré novel and The Quiller Memorandum (1966) with George Segal and Alec Guinness, based on the book by Adam Hall. Porsche aficionados in particular will enjoy this one as Quiller (George Segal) spends a good bit of time driving around Berlin in a Ruby Red Porsche 356B T6 Cabriolet.