Military Misdemeanours

Corruption, incompetence, lust and downright stupidity

by Terry Crowdy

The One about the Cat

Viewers of the long-running hit TV series M*A*S*H will no doubt remember the outrageous antics of Klinger, the corporal who dressed in women’s clothes in order to gain a psychiatric discharge. Such desperate measures have been known throughout the ages in order to avoid the call of the drum. Perhaps the most extreme – the most awful and shocking – is found in the memoirs of the French general Baron d’Hastrel. Dating from the War of the French Revolution, the piece tells of Klinger’s 18th-century French equivalent: a man whose fetish so scandalized the commissioners of a discharge board that they ejected him from the army immediately. Lovers of feline-kind may prefer not to read the account.

We were confined with the 3rd battalion of Ain, in which there was a soldier who ate live animals. He called himself Kerrere, and he was born at Tarare, in the department of Saône-et-Loire; he was only twenty-two years old. He was presented at a hearing, and, in the presence of the commissars charged with examining the men put up for discharge, was given a live cat. He seized it by the neck and the four legs and gnawed the claws, the feet and the legs. After this preliminary operation, he bit off the lower jaw, and then the upper, swallowing it all. Then, grabbing his victim by the head and by the rear, he started on its back with an appetite which disgusted the assistants, and they dismissed him. But he did not want to give up his prey; he put it in his bag, promising to finish it for his supper.

Fools’ Gold

As plans go, Operation Gold was brilliant.To prevent an enemy eavesdropping on their wireless traffic, armies try to send their communications through secure land lines. So in August 1954, the CIA and British secret service started to dig a tunnel into Soviet-controlled East Berlin to tap into the underground cables used by the Soviet military to communicate from its Eastern Bloc bases to Moscow.

The tunnel was an amazing feat of ingenuity. It ran for 1,476 feet, was about 12 feet below the surface, and 6½ feet in diameter. More than 3,000 tons of earth were excavated during its construction, all of which had to be disposed of secretly. The actual taps were another major achievement. The Soviet cables were pressurized with nitrogen to protect the wires from moisture. When the taps were inserted there was a danger the nitrogen would leak out and register a loss of pressure that could be detected by the Soviets. Therefore, placing the 295 individual taps had to be performed extremely quickly without the slightest room for error. Amplifiers were then placed inside the tunnel to boost the signal enough for it to reach the end of the tunnel. The messages were recorded on 600 tape recorders using 800 reels of tape per day. As a final touch the tunnel was packed with enough plastic explosives to collapse it if the Soviets found out.

There was so much activity underground that when Berlin received a light dusting of winter snow, the heat rose up through the ground and melted the snow above the tunnel. Embarrassed spy chiefs quickly installed air conditioning inside the tunnel to reduce the ambient temperature to avoid such mistakes in future. Seemingly they had thought of everything ... the only trouble with the plan was that the Russians knew all about it from the start.

To understand why Operation Gold was fatally flawed we must first cast ourselves back into the Second World War. George Blake was born with the surname Behar in Holland to a Dutch mother and a Jewish father from Constantinople; he then became a naturalized British subject. With his dual nationality, during the Second World War Blake was recruited by the secret British sabotage organization Special Operations Executive, or SOE. He then joined the Secret Intelligence Service and after the war went on to serve in Korea, where he was captured.

At some time during his three years of captivity at the hands of the North Koreans, Blake was recruited as a Soviet spy. Why he switched sides has long remained a mystery. Blake claimed that it was a genuine conversion to the ideals of communism. Many others believe that he was brainwashed.

Brainwashing was a Chinese-inspired technique. By inflicting physical and psychological stress through incarceration, isolation and sleep-deprivation, the captive would slowly have his views and beliefs washed away by a steady stream of communist propaganda, lectures and debates. The process was slow and succeeded because the dog-tired victim finally persuaded himself that he had made the conversion to communism himself. If Blake was subjected to such a regime he would have been convinced that his conversion to communism was entirely his choice.

When Blake was released from North Korean captivity in 1953, he continued to work with MI6. When the subject of Operation Gold came up, he took the minutes of the meeting and passed all the details over to his Soviet handlers before a shovel was raised.

Although the Soviets knew what they were looking for it took them months of painstaking searches using heat-seeking equipment to discover the exact location of the tunnel. All the time it is believed they ran a deception operation, pumping countless hours’ worth of mostly useless information into the 440,000 telephone calls that were recorded during the 11 months the tunnel was active.

The Soviets’ prime concern was not to expose Blake’s treachery. They therefore waited until the night of 22 April 1956, when a party of KGB intelligence officers posing as telecom workers ‘accidentally’ discovered the tunnel. In order to avoid an even bigger scene, the Americans chose not to detonate the explosives and the tunnel was exposed to the world. It then became a tourist attraction to curious East Berliners.

George Blake was eventually exposed as a spy by a Polish defector in 1959 and was sentenced to 42 years in prison. Strangely enough he managed to break out of jail five years later and escape to the Soviet Union.

The Myth of the Flying Cow

On a somewhat lighter note, in 1997 a bizarre story appeared in the Hamburger Morgenpost in Germany. It revealed a confidential report by the German embassy in Moscow to the Foreign Ministry in Bonn.

Apparently, the crew of a Japanese fishing boat had been arrested after being rescued by a Russian patrol boat. The shaken crew claimed that a cow had fallen out of the sky and had struck their wooden vessel with such force that it shattered the hull and caused them to sink. With this laughable excuse the Japanese were arrested and put in prison.

Several weeks later the Russian authorities checked the story and found that it was true – an air force source revealed that the crew of an Ilyushin cargo plane had stolen some cows as they wandered round the edge of a Siberian airfield. The cows were forced into the hold of the aircraft, which then took off.

Mid-flight the unsecured cows went berserk in the cargo hold and threatened to destabilize the aircraft. In a fit of desperation the pilot opened the tailboard and the crew shoved the cows out of the back of aircraft as they flew over the Ochotskische Sea near Sachalin Island at an altitude of 30,000 feet.

Credence was added to the story when it was confirmed by the German embassy to Reuter’s news agency. However, journalist Susanne Höll reported from Moscow that she believed the story bore all the hallmarks of a well-perpetuated myth.

Höll pointed out similarities between the incident and a Russian film Peculiarities of the National Hunt in which a cow is stolen and hidden in a military jet. The story may also have had its origins in a communist-era joke about a Russian fisherman who was sent to a psychiatric hospital after reporting the loss of his boat due to a falling cow.

It appears the story reached the German embassy from the US embassy, which had told the story as a joke. A German diplomat had put the story on the info-net also as a joke, but before long it was being reported as verbatim.

A spokesman for the Russian Defence Ministry appeared to confirm Höll’s findings. Vladimir Uvatenko commented: ‘This is sheer nonsense. Not a single word is true.’