Before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, East Germany was a den of spies. American, British, French, Soviets, and German officers - East and West - chased each other through darkened streets and nearby forests. The East German government wasn’t officially recognized in the West, so it was a free-for-all for Western spies like Britain’s Dave Butler. Lock picking? Speeding? Smashing vehicles? It was all part of the adventure in the no-rules, cat-and-mouse spy game in Cold War Berlin. That is, until Butler found himself stranded behind enemy lines.
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True Spies Episode 63: Catch Me if You Can

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would YOU do in their position? 

This is True Spies Episode 63: Catch Me if You Can.

DAVE BUTLER: In the heat of the moment, picture yourself rushing through a wood doing about 60 miles an hour down a wooded track. And you're trying to map read, telling the driver when to turn left, when it was a bit like rally driving in really close proximity. if we had been shot at, we wouldn't have heard it. I mean, you never hear the bullet that kills you. 

NARRATOR: East Germany, February 1987. The man being chased through dense forest is the British former Cold War spy Dave Butler... 

DAVE BUTLER: I served in Brixmis - the British Commander in Chief's mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany from 1986 to 1989.

NARRATOR: … And chasing him are Soviet troops.

DAVE BUTLER: Our immediate concern then was them finding us with cameras and recording equipment and we would be almost bang to rights as spies. 

NARRATOR: He’s trying to get reconnaissance on what kind of fire-power and technology the Russians have ahead of the anticipated Third World War. This was the mission of Brixmis - a virtually unknown clandestine faction operating behind enemy lines in the years after the Berlin Wall went up.

DAVE BUTLER: So, in East Germany during the Cold War, there was the Soviet Army and there was the East German Nationale Volksarmee, or the NBA, as they were called. In the three years I was there, there were 386,000 Soviet troops based in the eastern half of Germany and 280,000 [pieces of] equipment - whether it was air artillery, ground-based equipment - so, and although East Germany is quite a big area, to have that amount of concentrated military in that area, almost everywhere you went, every corner you turn around, you bumped into something military. So, from an intelligence-gathering perspective, it was a real honeypot for us to swirl around in.

NARRATOR: Brixmis was a deliberately boring name disguising a bizarre arrangement. That arrangement allowed both East and West to gather military intelligence in each other’s territory, by pretending - for more than 40 years - that the Second World War had only just finished. 

DAVE BUTLER: The British government basically didn't recognize the East German government. So, therefore, that meant we - in a diplomatic role - could basically go where we want, to do what we want in our vehicles, and we could basically break all those speed limits, ignore the police, and never stop for an East German or anybody in authority. And so, yes, it was a rather unique position in that we could actually break all the laws. We could steal things - and with Her Majesty's government's blessing.

NARRATOR: Sounds like fun.

DAVE BUTLER: We weren't just a load of hooligans out there, just stealing everything in sight because we could. Everything was targeted and it was all to do with gathering intelligence. So it was all thoroughly military-orientated.

NARRATOR: Although they were technically allowed to be there under a diplomatic agreement, that didn’t necessarily mean the Soviet soldiers wanted them snooping around. So they’d keep a close watch on the Brixmis vehicles, chasing them down.

DAVE BUTLER: The other aim of the Soviet Forces was not only to detain vehicles but actually to get inside them. And, of course, under law, our vehicles were a little mini-UK going around. And so, we had all the diplomatic status. So as long as the doors were locked on the vehicle, the Soviets were not allowed to attempt to open it. So a technique that they developed was, of course, to ram the vehicle and turn it over. And, of course, if they managed to ram the vehicle and turn it over, they would then justifiably say afterward - and they smashed all the windows - that they were reaching in to recover the crew and give them first aid.
But, of course, they very much ignored the crew and tried to recover all of the intelligence-gathering equipment - cameras, recording devices, anything else we were carrying - and so when it came before the authorities, they were justifiably saying: "Well, we're very sorry we were chasing them at high speed. The vehicle couldn't brake in time. They braked suddenly and we knocked them off the road.
NARRATOR: It was a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse behind the Iron Curtain. You had to be able to keep a cool head.

DAVE BUTLER: Our drivers were extremely skilled and they all did fast driving courses here in the UK before we went so they knew how. Like you see in the films now, you could reverse at 50 miles an hour and do what we call a J-turn using a handbrake. And so it was all really good James Bond stuff on the driving side to avoid being rammed.

NARRATOR: And that’s all the more impressive when you consider what they were driving - there were no nippy sports cars for the boys in Brixmis.

DAVE BUTLER: Our latest vehicle back then was the Mercedes G-Wagen, Gelandewagen, which I have to say is an outstanding piece of equipment, and I would own one now if I could afford it.

NARRATOR: Each Brixmis mission vehicle - a matte-olive heavy car - had a team of three; a James Bond driver at the wheel and two tour officers.

DAVE BUTLER: So of the three of us, one of us spoke German and the other spoke Russian.

NARRATOR: But you needed more than language skills to be selected for Brixmis.

DAVE BUTLER: There was a six-week course called a Special Duties Course. And the main thrust of that was learning how to identify every single piece of Soviet and East German military equipment - and not just recognize it, as you say, up close and personal - but maybe just being able to recognize a front headlamp or a roadway or something. There were, I guess, more than 5,000 different pieces of equipment. But then there were some other things, anti-surveillance techniques, what we used to call lovingly in the mission ‘de-narking’ because whenever we went about in East Germany, we would be followed by the state security. Surveillance training... photography was the other thing that we spent a lot of time learning, and how to pick locks and all things that you would never normally have done.

NARRATOR: A job breaking into enemy bunkers and stealing secret documents and equipment was the kind of job that appealed to the then 35-year-old Dave.

And when he was assigned the Brixmis mission in 1986, he and his wife and children relocated from the UK to Berlin. The German capital was the epicenter of the Cold War - divided by a four-meter high concrete wall topped with barbed wire, watchtowers, and guards. To the west of the wall - where Dave lived - was a cosmopolitan city of bars, cafés, theaters, and restaurants administered by France, the UK, and the US.

DAVE BUTLER: West Berlin was very much a showpiece, if you like, of the West, deep inside, behind the Iron Curtain. And so the Western powers - the Americans, the French and the British who occupied Berlin - did their very best to showcase what life was like in the West, knowing full well that, of course, Berlin was like a sieve. It was riddled with spies, watching everything and seeing how life was, and doing their very best to stop anybody in the rest of East Germany from seeing what it was like. So it was very much a showcase. The Western powers pumped enormous amounts of money into West Berlin.

NARRATOR: Allied spies and soldiers made the most of the capitalist playground. But to the east of the Wall - the frontline of the Soviet bloc - life was very different. People who remember life in East Germany under a Communist regime recall shortages of almost everything. Personal freedoms were restricted, as well as freedom of movement. Those who tried to escape over the wall were shot. The other thing they distinctly remember is surveillance. East Germany had an infamously oppressive state security system. The secret police, the Stasi, prided themselves on knowing everything that was going on. They had spies all over.

DAVE BUTLER: It was very much a surreal atmosphere. Like turning the clock back 70 years was going into East Germany because part of what the Soviets had done to punish the Germans after the Second World War for the number of Soviet soldiers that were killed - I mean, they lost over a million just trying to take Berlin itself. And so they did very little restoration at all.

NARRATOR: In the 1980s, Germany was a powder keg waiting to explode into a Third World War between the communist regime to the east, and the Allied forces to the west. The world waited on tenterhooks for the first shots to be fired - and the first bombs to be dropped. It was Dave’s mission to find out what the Allies would be up against. They were sent deep into East Germany on missions to collect photographs, recordings, documents, and artifacts to give the Allies some insight into what technology the Russians had. If you’ve seen any Cold War movie, you will be familiar with the Glienicke Bridge. Crossing the Havel River, it connects the Wannsee district of Berlin with Potsdam - the capital of Brandenberg - and takes you out into what was then East Germany. It was the location at which captured spies were exchanged during the Cold War. It was given the moniker ‘Bridge of Spies’. Dave knew this crossing very well.

DAVE BUTLER: The military missions - our exit and entry into Berlin - was different than for normal military units or anybody else leaving Berlin. They either went out through Checkpoint Charlie or Checkpoint Alpha to go down the corridor to go back to the west. But we were specifically the only ones allowed to cross the Glienicke Bridge - or the Bridge of Spies - where the famous Gary Powers was exchanged back in the ‘60s.

NARRATOR: It wasn’t just the Soviets keeping track of Brixmis movements. The Stasi became like shadows, moving with them. You can’t really steal intelligence when you’ve got the enemy on your tail. Luckily, Brixmis agents had a few techniques up their sleeves.

DAVE BUTLER: It was not uncommon for one tour vehicle to have up to 10 Stasi vehicles tailing it. In their mind, this was how surveillance was done. What we started to do, of course, was to record all their number plates. And we had actually had what we call a ‘knock list’ with us. So if we were being followed or we passed a vehicle, the best way of 'de-narking' - as we used to call it - was to drive down a road for a couple of kilometers and then turn around for no reason and just drive straight back up the road again. And as soon as the car that was following you - because they wouldn't have a chance to do anything - they always put their hands up to their faces because they thought you were going to photograph them. And the worst thing you could do to a nark would be to take his picture or her picture, because what that basically did was strike them off from them ever working undercover in the West. They would consider that we would pass those photographs back to our own intelligence communities, and then if they tried to come into West Germany, or wherever they would be, their covers were blown. And it was always a favorite trick of ours to point a camera at a vehicle and see them go into panic mode. And even if you were on foot they would just absolutely panic if you pointed a camera at them.

NARRATOR: But what if you really can’t shake them?

DAVE BUTLER: The vehicles were very well set up in that we could isolate the brake lights, all the indicators at any time, by flicking a switch. So, if we were being chased at high speed by the Soviets or by the narks and you went around a particular hairpin bend, then what we do is flick the brake lights - which is our driver would brake hard - but, of course, the vehicle following us wouldn't see any bright lights coming on. So they would think that they could take the corner at the same speed because they couldn't judge. And very often you'd see the vehicle go flying off into the undergrowth because the corners they should have braked on they didn't because they couldn't see our brake lights working. I suppose that was a fun thing to do as well.

NARRATOR: But it wasn’t all fun and games. There was real work to be done. One mission saw Dave assigned to break into a Russian military bunker to see what he could find inside. Step 1: Check the coast is clear. Step 2: Pick the lock.

DAVE BUTLER: On the television, you'll see that crooks have a little set of light prongs and things that they stick into interlocks and - while it's illegal, unless you're a locksmith, to own a set of these things - six of them were available to us should we need to use them.

NARRATOR: You’re inside! Step 3: Grab what you can. You and your comrade need to be in and out as fast as possible. You start searching for secret technology, confidential documents, then you spot it.

DAVE BUTLER: Inside was a brand spanking new piece of equipment that was about to be installed in the bunker. And this was basically to make the bunker nuclear proof, and chemical and biological proof. It basically filtered the air coming in. And anything to do with chemical, biological, or nuclear was always a high-collection priority intelligence-wise. So I said to the tour officer: “We're going to take this away.” Because this huge filter, which I knew would be of immense intelligence because it was brand new, hadn't been used. And he looked at me rather bemused as to how I was going to get this huge thing inside the vehicle. And I not only took the filter, I took all the accompanying pipework and everything. And he said to me as we were leaving: "Do you not think they'll miss this, Dave?" And I said to him: "No, my estimate is that when the Soviet quartermaster, who would have delivered it there, comes back and sees it missing, he'll be so frightened of retribution from his own people for losing it he'll just put another one in its place." And, it wasn't until many years later, talking to an ex-Soviet intelligence guy, that my estimate was absolutely right. He said: "That's exactly what they would have done." So we were able to steal this piece of equipment, which is very immense intelligence.

NARRATOR: Soviet fear of their own authorities played into the hands of the Allied spies but his kind of trespass was still dangerous. Intelligence-gathering activities in East Germany were part of an authorized and reciprocal military liaison mission between the British and the Soviet forces, but mutual distrust and constant fear of nuclear war led to paranoia and suspicion.

DAVE BUTLER: If you were seen by them, they would do their utmost to detain you by one means or another. Of course the Soviets, as opposed to us, always carried live ammunition around with them. So if you couple that with the fact that they really wanted to get hold of you - because it would get them a Brownie point with their masters if they caught a mission - so they were really determined, and we were just as determined not to be caught. So in those situations, things get very tense, very quickly. 

NARRATOR: Only a couple of years earlier an American spy - Arthur Nicholson who was working for the American equivalent of Brixmis - had been shot dead by a Soviet soldier.

DAVE BUTLER: Two of our Allied mission comrades were actually killed. One was shot and the other was crushed and so that brought it all home to you.

NARRATOR: Brixmis spies worked around the clock, 365 days a year, and missions could last for days at a time. The Brixmis spies weren’t allowed to have any written information or classified material on them. Everything they needed had to be memorized in case their car was detained and ransacked.

DAVE BUTLER: One of the biggest risk elements to the whole touring aspect of the mission was that when we deployed into East Germany, we had no communications. So, we were out there for three to five days on our own, making our own decisions, which in itself was a high-stress thing. We were basically living on our wits for the whole time and making, in some cases, life or death decisions on the spot without being able to run it past anybody else.

NARRATOR: As Dave said, it all sounds very James Bond - the car chases and the secrecy - but, in truth, the day-to-day realities of clandestine spy missions is somewhat less glamorous.

DAVE BUTLER: Sometimes you'd get a bit dirty and filthy.

NARRATOR: The three men literally ate, slept, and lived inside this vehicle. And they never left a trace.

DAVE BUTLER: We had hot water on the vehicle as well. And if you needed to go into the woods for a poo, then you have to pick it up and bring it back because if you buried it the animals would come and dig it up. It's a well-known fact that pigs and wild animals can smell that thing a mile away. And, of course, we used toilet paper and the beasties didn't. And so if we buried it and it got dug up, then the Stasi, the secret police, would know where we've been sleeping. And being creatures of habit, we might come back. So, therefore, they could actually then wire that area for sound or whatever. So if a tour came back to that area, they could gather intelligence on us.

NARRATOR: Generally speaking missions ran pretty smoothly for Dave. That is until...

DAVE BUTLER: What we call the Elster Gallin incident.

NARRATOR: It was February 1987 in the forests surrounding the Elbe River that runs through the heart of East Germany.

DAVE BUTLER: One of the particular missions that I was tasked with was to do with a piece of Soviet equipment, which was a high-intelligence collection priority.

NARRATOR: Dave and his tour partner were trying to get reconnaissance on a Soviet aqua-vehicle. You see, most Soviet vehicles could swim.

DAVE BUTLER: They all had to swim because obviously, at some point, if they were coming west. They would have to cross the Rhine. So they used to practice quite intensely how to cross the River Rhine.

NARRATOR: But obviously, a 70-ton tank can’t swim and you’re going to need some of those if you’re starting an invasion. So this vehicle would scan the bottom of the river to see if it was possible for a tank to drive across.

DAVE BUTLER: They’d fit their snorkel tubes and then they would physically drive across the riverbed.

NARRATOR: Pretty neat, huh?

DAVE BUTLER: We knew that the Soviets were there and they were doing driver training around the wooded areas. And so we decided to go in and set up an OP, an observation post, in order to have a look.

NARRATOR: The driver took them into the woods, and parked in the thicket. Dave and his partner jumped out to get a little closer to the river on foot - so as not to draw attention to themselves. They would crawl over to the river’s edge, get some photographs and recordings, and hot-foot it back to their waiting car.

DAVE BUTLER: That was the plan. 

NARRATOR: Except things didn’t go to plan. They rarely do.

DAVE BUTLER: We went and found a spot on the edge of the woods, overlooking this thing and, lo and behold, a couple of vehicles came around and then, sure enough, this vehicle came along. So we took some pictures of it and the commander of the vehicle stood up. And I don't know what it is about people. When you're looking at somebody for some unknown reason - known only to them - they seem to stare right at you. And he seemed to look at us and we thought he'd seen us, but he actually hadn't.

NARRATOR: But he had seen something - their getaway car waiting in the woods.

DAVE BUTLER: He shouted something at a speed. What then appeared was what we call a UAZ-469 - a Soviet equivalent of a Land Rover jeep - smashing through the woods along the tracks. He was going for our vehicle. We then heard our vehicle do a high reverse down the wooded area, a J-turn at the end, and drive off. And, of course, all the Soviet vehicles chased him. So there was me and the tour officer then alone. We felt sure that they'd seen us. So we were expecting at any moment Soviet troops to come through the woods and capture us. So our immediate concern then was them finding us with cameras and recording equipment and we would be almost bang to rights as spies.

NARRATOR: Remember, everyone knows the Allies are spying in the East and the communists are spying in the West - it’s part of the game - but the rules of engagement change if they get caught.

DAVE BUTLER: Had Soviet troops come in and captured us, there were all sorts of examples [of what they could do]... tie you to a tree, bound you, in some instances. Mission people were assaulted because again, as I say, at that moment, the blood is up and meeting some guy from the sticks in Russia who couldn't speak... There were like 27 dialects of Russian being spoken. So half of them couldn't even understand what each other was saying, let alone the dialect our tour officers were talking. [That] sometimes meant that they couldn't understand. So we were expecting that might happen. 

NARRATOR: Stop. Imagine. You’re stuck in the middle of a forest behind enemy lines. It’s deep winter, three feet of snow, and you’re surrounded by Russian soldiers. And these guys are tough.

DAVE BUTLER: They were extremely hardy. I mean, they never wore socks. They just used to wear pull-on nylon stockings in their boots. They never had a sleeping bag. And sometimes the temperatures would get down to as low as -25, -30. So they would have been a formidable adversary.

NARRATOR: Your only ticket out of there is long gone. There’s nowhere to hide and you have incriminating evidence on you that proves you’re a spy. Your adversaries are just meters away and they know you’re out there somewhere. What are you going to do? Think fast - 3, 2, 1...

DAVE BUTLER: We took the film out of the camera unexposed and put it into our underpants because mission people… You might be beaten up but they very rarely stripped you. It was actually February and so heavy snow was on the ground. And after we put the film inside our underpants, we then buried the cameras and the recording device in the snow because it was fairly deep, even inside the wood. 

NARRATOR: If you’re thinking like a spy, you might be thinking that snow means footprints that your enemy could follow but Dave had a plan for that too.

DAVE BUTLER: We always wore East German boots so that if anybody was trying to look at our footprints, they couldn't distinguish them because Western military boots have a very familiar pattern. And so, we immediately moved away from the area using twigs to conceal our footprints so that anybody who came in, if we were then captured, wouldn't necessarily go back and find the camera equipment. The film was the important bit that we wanted anyway.

But you’re not out of the woods yet, and you’re starting to get cold.

DAVE BUTLER: At that time of the year it was not uncommon for temperatures to fall below -25 and below. And so, in those sorts of conditions, you had to take other measures to protect your health, in particular, in those temperatures. You wouldn't dream of drinking a hot cup of coffee or tea because if you've been sleeping outside all night - where your body temperature got lower than the temperature outside - drinking a hot cup of coffee at that moment could actually shatter your teeth. It was that cold. But of course, we expected to be reunited with our vehicle very shortly afterward or within a couple of hours.

NARRATOR: But one hour turns into two, and then three. There’s a rustling in the thicket ahead of you. You remember you’ve got no gun, no weapons. If it’s the Soviet soldiers, what training have you been given to protect yourself?

DAVE BUTLER: We would immediately put our hands up in the surrender mode and we would smile.

NARRATOR: Is that what you were thinking?

DAVE BUTLER: We always were taught that that was a great way of disarming people because even if someone is pointing a gun at you, if you smile at them, it's an uncommon thing to do. Most people would be trembling. We were taught to smile.

NARRATOR: False alarm, it’s just a bird. But the Soviets aren’t the only ones to watch out for. The Stasi are all around as well.

DAVE BUTLER: We had to be very careful because it was still daylight, although it was getting in toward early evening at that stage. But it was still daylight. We still couldn't move freely because the local population was all around. And of course, they would have told the Stasi immediately if they saw two Western military people walking about.

NARRATOR: Unbeknown to Dave at the time, during the chase, their driver had crashed into a ditch and burst the tires.

DAVE BUTLER: He'd been shot at as he tried to escape and he'd been detained.

NARRATOR: The local Soviet commander was brought to question the Brixmis driver and he was eventually escorted back to Potsdam, to ensure that the rest of the team - Dave and the other tour officer - were left behind.

DAVE BUTLER: In the meantime, it got dark. We had fallen in the Elster Gallin area. So I myself and the tour officer then thought: “Okay, he's not coming back any time soon.” It got to about, I don't know, 8 pm, 9 pm. So we thought: “Okay, we better make a phone call.” Part of the preparation for going out into this was intense ‘map appreciation’, as we used to call it. So both I and the tour officer knew the area in our minds. We didn't have any maps with us. So we knew that if we went out onto the road in the dark, most of the roads in Germany have drainage ditches by the side. So as we were walking from village to village, any vehicles that came along, we were able to dive into the ditch and not be seen. And of course, the stars were out. It was a clear night because it was so cold. And so we were able to navigate. We knew where north was, or south, east, or west. So we were able to navigate quite easily and we knew where all the RV points were.

NARRATOR: That’s the rendezvous points - the designated places for Brixmis spies to go if they get separated from their driver and need to get picked up again. After a while navigating the dark roads, they came across a village with a designated RV point

DAVE BUTLER: It was a bit like something out of a John le Carré movie because, in East Germany, everything died at about 9 pm. Once darkness fell, there weren't discotheques or things like that. The East German population did everything behind closed doors. So we saw a pub and we knocked on the door. And it was very much like the old open slit. And we said in our very best German that we were liaison officers and that we needed to make a phone call.

NARRATOR: This was a risky move.

DAVE BUTLER: We were not banking on anybody letting us in anywhere. And we knew damn well that in all probability they would report because they had a Stasi hotline that they would ring - a bit like 999 - and then they would say: “We've got two military Allied missions.” The local population wouldn't try to detain you. Their main task was to just report you. It was the Stasi and others who would come along and do the strong-arm stuff.

NARRATOR: They waited. Then the door unbolted and a rush of warmth hit. The landlord let them in but it was risky for him too.

DAVE BUTLER: Bearing in mind he was under severe penalty of not reporting us - imprisonment, interrogation, hard interrogation - so against this backdrop, he very much let us into his pub and let us make a phone call. So we phoned the British Embassy in East Berlin and said that we were two British officers and we became separated from our vehicle. And could they ring the mission house in Potsdam and alert them? And again, something else we found out categorically was that within 30 minutes of us making that phone call, the village that we were in was completely swarming with narks, with the Stasi. And so, clearly they had been monitoring the British embassy because they were alerted that a phone call had come from this particular area, the Elster Gallin area, and get down there and find these two men who were on the run.

NARRATOR: In the midst of all this, the German landlord showed them even more kindness.

DAVE BUTLER: After we'd made the call, he did give us a drink. And we gratefully accepted a drink. The landlord and his family were taking immense risks in helping but it's this old thing that's funny. Human beings always seem to go for the underdogs. And of course, at that time, we were, very much. I mean, after being outside we were cold and hungry. I guess when he undid that door and he saw our eyes he took pity on us.

NARRATOR: The Stasi were crawling outside, so to avoid putting the pub in danger, Dave and his tour officer snuck out and hid in a bus shelter on the outskirts of the village where eventually a rescue vehicle came and picked them up. Oh hang on, what about the camera you buried Dave?

DAVE BUTLER: We kept the film in our underpants and then, three months later, I was tasked with going back to the area to recover the camera equipment and the recording device. And, of course, three months later, it was March, April, May time. Of course, all the snow had gone. And so, when I went back into the wooded area to the point, there sitting for everybody to see were two Nikon cameras as large as life. I took it back and if ever there was an advert for Nikon cameras... Our special section, who were responsible for looking after the maintenance for the cameras, he just took it - where it had been buried in snow for three months and exposed the elements - put a film in it and it worked perfectly. And we did get some good imagery of different parts of this particular vehicle, so, yeah, happy ending.

NARRATOR: Dave stayed in Germany until the summer of 1989. He remembers when the Iron Curtain collapsed, the communist regime falling with it. In the months after the Berlin Wall came down on the 9th of November, he went back to Berlin with his family to see what was left.

DAVE BUTLER: The wall was still up, but it had been broken in pieces. And I remember walking through what we used to call the 'death zone' because there were two walls. There was one on the west side, and then there was another one on the east side. And I remember walking through to collect my pieces of the Berlin Wall, which I wanted to keep as a souvenir, and meeting face-to-face with an East German Nationale Volksarmee soldier in the death zone. And we just looked at each other. He had a pistol and I was just completely in civilian clothes. And we just looked at each other and suddenly I remembered my Brixmis training. I smiled. And he was a bit unsure about that. And then I put my hand out to shake his hand and he thought about it for what seemed like an eternity. But it was only like a few seconds. He shook my hand and we both shook hands in the death zone. And then I walked back with my piece of the Berlin Wall, which I wanted to recover, and that was it. But it was a very surreal moment that for 40 odd years we've been arch enemies and here we were in this no man's land shaking hands. It was very good.

NARRATOR: After his days in Brixmis, Dave continued his career in the military. In 2019, he retraced his steps in Elster Gallin where they’d been stranded and found his way back to the pub that had taken him in on that cold February night in 1987. It turned out the same family still owned the pub over 30 years on. The landlord had sadly passed away but his wife greeted Dave with open arms.

DAVE BUTLER: What she'd done, she had preserved the front room exactly the same as the pub was all those years ago. And I have to say, there are not many times in my life when I've walked into somewhere, a room or whatever, and had one of those, what you call ‘flashbacks’. And it was laid out exactly the same with the trestle table, the chairs. And I even went through into the room where the phone was in the corner. And of course, 30 odd years later - it was a slightly different phone, it was now a digital phone - but where we made the call from. And so it was a very emotional reunion.

NARRATOR: Today, Dave’s life is as enigmatic as it was 30 years ago. He’s a specialist dealing with chemical, biological, and nuclear threats. But his days in Brixmis remain the best of his career.

DAVE BUTLER: The idea of roaming around behind enemy lines, basically having free will to do whatever you want - steal, photograph, break all the rules in the name of gathering intelligence - was just a fantastic opportunity, and one that not many people get the chance to do.

NARRATOR: Dave Butler. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another liaison with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Dave Butler, awarded the British Empire Medal for meritorious service, is a former Army officer who served with the British Military Liaison Mission (Brixmis) in Berlin from 1986 until 1989. The mission was set up at the end of the Second World War to liaise between the wartime allies: Britain, France, America, and the Soviet Union. It quickly turned into an elite intelligence unit.

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