Dave Butler at the Polish border during the Cold War (Picture: BRIXMIS Association).
Dave Butler BEM is a former Army officer who served with the British Military Liaison Mission (BRIXMIS) in Berlin from 1986 until 1989. He has shared his experiences of the mission, how important that time was to him and how it felt to revisit the past during the making of the BRIXMIS documentary, 30 years later.
By Dave Butler
BRIXMIS was a unit of the British Army set up at the end of the Second World War as a liaison mission between the wartime allies: Britain, France, America, and The Soviet Union.
The term BRIXMIS itself stands for the 'British Commander-in-Chief’s Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany'.
However, BRIXMIS rapidly became, in common with United States (USMLM) and French Allied Military Liaison Missions (FMLM), something quite different.
The seemingly benign concept of liaison evolved very rapidly into an undefined and undeclared synonym for highly professional intelligence collection patrolling in East Germany.
As a former member of BRIXMIS, I was thrilled to be contacted by Forces News to be asked if I would be prepared to assist in the making of a documentary about the mission.
The concept for the documentary was to conduct a series of interviews with former mission members and also tell the story of some of the exploits, successes and impact our results had on the intelligence community.
I served in the mission from 1986 until 1989, which was regarded by many as the 'heyday' in terms of the amount of new Soviet military equipment being deployed into the German Democratic Republic (GDR, also known as East Germany) and our ability, capability and capacity to gather intelligence.
What is important to remember is during the Cold War the Soviet Union was a complete unknown for the average British citizen because it was hard to travel there, and most Soviet citizens were not permitted to leave the country.
In that context, for British soldiers to be allowed to roam in and out of East Germany as BRIXMIS did and regularly liaise with enemy forces was distinctly unusual.
During conversations about my own experiences, it was decided to focus on two main events as good examples of what the mission could achieve in terms of intelligence gathering, and the Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) used to achieve it.
The first was the planning and recovery of a T-80 tank Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) box, which was the most important intelligence requirement of 1987, the year I recovered it.
The second incident was the time I and a colleague were out of our vehicle photographing a specialist Soviet military vehicle at the Elster Gallin river crossing site, and we got separated from our vehicle for around 12 hours.
East Germany was a fascinating place to observe the Soviet Army, which had around 380,000 troops garrisoned there throughout the Cold War.
This also presented us with a unique opportunity to study their equipment, capabilities, and tactics and recover elements of kit and equipment for further analysis by the intelligence community.
The film crew and I spent four days in Berlin and surrounding areas filming at the actual locations where these events took place.
It was a tremendous privilege to be able to go back, recount, re-enact and re-live moments that occurred some 32 years earlier.
In many ways it was almost surreal to be stood in the same spot, on the now-defunct but still there Lieberose Soviet Tank Range in the former GDR, demonstrating how I recovered the ERA box.
Similarly, being able to re-visit and meet the wife of the publican who gave shelter to myself and a colleague from the Stasi (East German State Security) when we were on the run behind enemy lines was both exciting and emotional.
Although the Gaststätte(public house) was no longer open to the public, the landlord’s wife had preserved the inside of the house exactly as it was 32 years ago which took me completely by surprise and provided a real déjà vu moment.
Coincidentally, the first Allied Mission Reunion Conference (USMLM, FMLM, and BRIXMIS) was taking place in Potsdam to explain the role of the missions, how intelligence was gathered and the value of the output to the International Intelligence community.
The audience was made up of the general public and former mission personnel, providing an opportunity to reunite with former colleagues, talk over old times and more importantly conduct some interviews for the documentary.
My role in BRIXMIS was as a tour NCO whose main tasks were to navigate the vehicle, plus to recognise and record on a dictaphone around 5,000 different pieces of Soviet military equipment, including armoured vehicles, aircraft, helicopters, naval vessels, radars and antenna and all their associated armaments.
It was also my responsibility to provide the tour officer with the opportunity to take photographs of all of this by guiding the driver of the vehicle into the right place.
Once back in Berlin my job was to draft the tour report based on the photographs which could amount to some 36 rolls of film each containing 36 pictures, totaling 1,296 images.
During filming with Forces News I was able to reflect on some similarities with my time in the mission as I found myself part of a three-person crew, navigating us to the right locations, providing the opportunity for the cameraman to take his film and also have the chance to review some of the footage afterward.
I completed 32 years of military service as teeth arm Armoured Corps Soldier/Officer.
During that time I served in the Airborne Forces with the Parachute Squadron Royal Armoured Corps as part of a four-man training team in Brunei and as an officer instructor at the Defence CBRN Centre at Winterbourne Gunner.
In that time, I served on six operational tours of duty in Northern Ireland and in Cyprus during the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974.
However, the highlight of my career was, without doubt, the time I served in BRIXMIS.
After all, where else would you be given the opportunity to legally break all the road speed limits and laws, ignore the police and other authorities when necessary, in order to gather intelligence?
Although not regarded as an operational tour of duty, I believe it was in every sense operational, as every day in the GDR was spent gathering intelligence in one form or another against the enemy, the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG).
The risk of being killed or seriously injured by the 386,000 Soviet or 250,000 East German troops in the Soviet-Occupied Zone (SOZ) was very high, and in fact cost the lives of two members of the Allied Missions, one French and one American.
However, we felt the rewards always outweighed the risks.
The sense of personal satisfaction from knowing that a piece of intelligence or equipment you had acquired could provide such an advantage to the UK in countering the enemy’s ability to defeat us in battle is difficult to articulate.
Suffice to say that the positive feedback from the intelligence community was proof enough of the importance of the mission’s work and output.