There was an asset, a Russian colonel, working for us deep inside East Germany and he had a package that we needed brought out. No, not in East Berlin but based outside Dresden. He could not get further than a meet in Dresden. It began to be not quite so simple. Dresden was a long way in.
It would have to be by car because the package, which in deference to Alfred Hitchcock I always called the McGuffin, would have to be concealed far from prying hands and eyes on the way out. Besides, there was another package for the asset which had to go in. So, a swap. One in and one out.
They knew I had a car, at that time a Triumph Vitesse, drophead convertible. Could they borrow it for a day or so? Of course.
The battery in the Vitesse was in the engine bay. It sat on a tray beside the left-hand engine wall. Two metal clips prevented it moving and a thick rubber pad prevented vibrations. The pad had been removed, slit open and a cavity created.
To get at the cavity one had to use a spanner to release the positive and negative leads, then undo the two retaining clips. Lift the battery out and place it to one side. Peel the rubber pad open and there was the fat wad of papers destined for the asset, and the cavity in which his reports (whatever they were I would never know) would ride out of the workers’ paradise.
I spent a day by the kerbside in the warm summer sun practising until I had it all down to less than thirty seconds. And there was more.
The ‘cover’ was a visit to the Albertinum Museum, East Germany’s cultural jewel, amazingly untouched by the Anglo-American bombing of February 1945 which had flattened most of the city. Graeco-Roman treasures were my new enthusiasm and there were books to study as if for an exam. Finally, it seemed I was ready to roll.
It was a long drive across France and West Germany to the East German border, but under the Four Power Agreement my British passport entitled me on to the autobahn running across East Germany to the enclave of West Berlin.
There were several conditions for the visa. A minimum sum in Deutschmarks had to be changed into worthless East Marks and this was duly done. On the East German autobahn south, there were specific filling stations where I was allowed to refuel. I had no doubt that if the Stasi were not going to tail me all the way, there would be checkpoints along the route at which the dark blue Triumph with British number plates would be ‘clocked’ and noted.
And there was just one hotel in Dresden where I was expected and where a reservation had been made.
I had not seen Checkpoint Charlie for ten years but it was much the same. Foreigners queued as usual by the checking sheds while mirrors on wheels were run under the chassis to scan for contraband.
The usual ‘bonnet up’ and ‘boot open’ orders, the usual nervous obedience, the usual tourist attempts to be light-hearted, the usual grim unsmiling response. The border guard assigned to me looked around the engine bay but touched nothing. The battery pad had passed its first test.
My small valise had been emptied and searched inside the shed and, that apart, the boot contained nothing so I was allowed to replace it and slam the lid shut. Then the final curt wave towards East Berlin, the barrier rising and the roll into Redland.
Then it was the open road, south into Saxony province and the city of Dresden, which I had never seen. The hotel was clearly marked on my street map and I was installed by mid-afternoon.
The car park was underground and this was before the all-seeing CCTV cameras. There seemed to be no one watching, though I had no doubt my room was bugged, telephone ditto, and that it would be searched while I was at dinner. So I left the McGuffin under the battery pad until the morning.
The meet was for two o’clock in a certain aisle between display cabinets inside the museum. I breakfasted at eight and checked out at nine, paying cash (no credit cards back then). But I explained I would be back for lunch, left my valise with the concierge and was assured my car could remain in the garage until I needed it. I was not told what else would happen — that my case would be searched again. Good, there was nothing in it.
At half past nine I ducked down into the garage, waited until another hotel guest drove out, clipped open the bonnet, removed the McGuffin, slipped it into my blazer pocket, replaced the battery, reconnected it and closed up. Then it was a leisurely walk with textbooks under the arm to the museum. At five to two I was in the aisle between the cabinets, engrossed in shards of pottery.
There were others there. Couples, threesomes, the inevitable guided groups of schoolchildren. I had my picture book open, comparing the photographs with the real artefacts behind the glass, occasionally looking out for a single man with a dark red tie and black stripes. A few seconds after two he turned into my aisle.
Germans usually do not have Slavic features; this one did. And the tie. I saw his glance settle upon my own: dark blue with white polka dots. No one else remotely like either of us. Then a wandering curator in uniform. Sometimes the simplest way is the best way.
“Entschuldigung (excuse me), where is the men’s room?”
He was politeness itself and pointed out the sign Herren above a door at the end of the gallery. No eye contact with ‘Chummy’ standing ten feet away. He should know the ‘meet’ would be in the toilet. So I wandered away towards it, entered, relieved myself and was washing my hands when he entered. Apart from us it was empty and all the stall doors were open. He too began to wash his hands. So two noisy streams of water. His turn. In German.
“Excuse me, did we not meet in Potsdam?”
“Yes, I was there last April.”
Enough. No one else was talking this garbage in Dresden that morning. I nodded to two adjacent stalls. He took one, I took the other. Under the cubicle partition came a fat package of paper. I took mine and slid it the other way.
Nothing happened. Chummy left the booth and I heard the outer door slam shut. I have never seen him since. I hope he is all right. There were still eighteen years of USSR to go, and the KGB had a very nasty procedure for traitors.
The visa expired at midnight and the way to the West was not via East Berlin but south to the Saale River Crossing Point, one of the few tourist-approved crossing points. South of Saale, in the town of Bayreuth, Philip (my handler) would be waiting.
Back at the hotel I collected my valise with assurances of having had a wonderful time in Dresden and copious compliments on the superb Albertinum Museum. Then down to the car park. But there was a large conference party checking in. Too many people. If I was seen waist-deep in my own engine bay, there might be offers of help, the last thing I needed. I kept the McGuffin in my breast pocket, got into the Triumph, which was already attracting curious glances, and drove out.
It was pitch dark when I saw the layby in the headlights and, as I had hoped, the road by night was almost empty. I eased to the right, slid up the shallow ramp until the pine trees enveloped me and stopped. Lights out. Wait, have a cigarette. Relax. Nearly there.
There was a small spanner in the glove compartment. Not enough to arouse suspicion but vital for the nuts on the battery leads. I got out, opened the bonnet and used my spanner to ease the first nut, the one on the negative battery lead. There was no need for a torch, the sickle moon was enough. At that moment the layby was flooded with a harsh white light.
Another car had cruised up the ramp behind me, its headlights undipped. I slipped the spanner into my trouser pocket and straightened up. The car behind was a Wartburg saloon and by its own lights I could see its livery: green and cream, the insignia of the Volkspolizei, the People’s Police, theVoPos. There were four of them climbing out.
They had clearly by then recognized the Triumph and the number plates as British. The reason they had come off the autobahn made itself plain when one of them faced the woods and unzipped his fly. A comfort break but that bursting bladder might prove to be their lucky night.
The senior of them was a top NCO (non-commissioned officer), what I took to be the Unteroffizier. The other two examined the Triumph curiously while their colleague urinated. The NCO held out his hand.
“Ausweis, bitte.” The ‘please’ was good news, still polite. I dropped into Bertie Wooster mode — the hapless, helpless, harmless English tourist, completely lost and very dim. Halting German, awful accent.
The NCO examined the passport page by page by the light of a torch from his pocket. He saw the East German visa.
“Why are you stopped here?”
“It just stopped, Officer. I don’t know why. Just motoring along and it starts to cough, then cut out. I had just enough speed to get here before it stopped.”
The Germans are probably the best engineers in the world but they know it and love to be told it. Even East German engineering was good enough for its degrees to be acknowledged in the West. So I laid the flattery on with a trowel.
“I cannot understand engines, Officer. So I do not know what to look for. And I have no torch. You Germans are so brilliant at this . . . I don’t suppose you could have a look?”
The senior NCO thought it over. Then he snapped an order at the one who had finished his ablutions and buttoned up his fly. In that crew he seemed to be the mechanic.
“Guck mal,” he said, gesturing towards the engine bay. “Have a look.”
The urinator took the torch and went into the engine bay. Inside my breast pocket the fat pack of papers was beginning to feel like a tombstone, which it could turn out to be if I was ordered to empty all pockets.
Then there was a shout of triumph and the engineer straightened up. He was holding up in his right hand the disconnected battery lead, illuminated in the torch beam.
“Hat sichgelöst,” he shouted. ‘It just shook itself off.’
Then it was all grins of pleasure. Point proved. Germans are better. I was handing round Rothmans, much appreciated. The disconnected lead was replaced and I was bidden to try the starter. It kicked at once into life.
An hour further on I did it again and this time was not disturbed. At half past eleven I rolled into the arc lights and customs sheds at the Saale Crossing.
And there it was thorough. Boot engine bay, high-powered flashlights into every crevice. Upholstery patted for hidden lumps, mirrors and lights rolled underneath.
Inside the custom shed, pocket and body search. I was the only crosser; I had their undivided attention and I suppose they were bored. Excess cash handed over, passport taken to a back room, muffled sounds of phone calls. Eventually, with expressions of disappointment on their faces, the curt nod. Proceed. Valise back in boot, climb in, start up. Roll.
Reprinted with permission from Penguin Random House
The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue
Author: Frederick Forsyth
Publisher: Penguin Random House