Smokey Joe's - Operation Conflict
Following defeat of Nazi Germany, at the end of the Second World War in 1945, Austria was occupied by the then Allied armies and the country divided into the Russian, French, American and British zones. Vienna, the capital lay some 90 miles inside the Russian zone and was, in turn, divided between the victors. But, unlike Berlin, the various districts were scattered and not in single conglomerates.
In the autumn of 1948 a member of the Austrian Government informed the British occupying power that a telephone cable running under Aspanstrasse in the III District (British) was carrying a lot of Soviet military telephonic traffic as well as the international lines to Prague, Budapest, Sofia and Bucharest.
Armed with this information it was decided at the highest level to set up a telephone tapping post and the lot befell 291 Field Security Section (FSS) of the Int Corps under the command of Captain John Ham-Longman.
Opposite Aspang railway station (the goods station for Vienna, now demolished ), was a terrace of single storey warehouses with large cellars. Three of these were requisitioned, and from the cellar of the centre one (neighbours were unwelcome) a tunnel was dug by six sappers under the direction of a Royal Engineers officer.
During this stage of the operation 291 FSS carried the excavated soil to the large garden of another Intelligence Corps unit, 20 Field Security Section (FSS), on the other side of Vienna. The arrival of the soil aroused much interest and questions were asked but not answered. The cable under the middle of the road was exposed and, having completed their task, the Sappers were promptly posted to Singapore.
Specialists with the appropriate listening and recording equipment were sent from the UK by train - there being no other way sixty years ago. They were supposed to be taken off the train at Aspang Station but, due to a misunderstanding, 291 FSS received a telephone call telling them that they had alighted at a station called ‘Wien – Meidling' which then was in the Russian sector.
They were found standing forlornly on the platform in unfamiliar battledress (they were actually civilians) alongside the packing cases containing the equipment with pairs of Russian Military police walking up and down. There then followed what was possibly the fastest evacuation in the history of the British Army to extricate them from the station.
These specialists were able to break into the main cable and to connect their equipment up to four telephone boards covering all the lines which were located under the cellar. The experts assured the Intelligence Corps that ‘no-one would have noticed that interference was taking place’.
The Aspang listening post was disguised as a Railway Transport Office (RTO) store. The shifts were of 24 hours and all the personnel wore British Battledress but not Intelligence Corps flashes which was standard procedure in Austria at that time.
The shift comprised six men and the day rota was three hours on duty listening and recording and three hours off. During the night, because the telephone traffic was lighter, the shift was two hours on and four hours off. The traffic was recorded on Edisonphone wax cylinders. When a call was heard the recording device was activated, the line isolated and noted and the remainder of the lines transferred to one of the other boards. A note of the time of start and finish was made.
They always knew when a German Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) came on the line as they would always blow into their instruments as if there were a whistle at the other end. Unlike with the Soviet interceptors, there was no click when the British recording equipment was switched off.
When the next shift came on duty they would let themselves into the building via the street door. After having rung a bell the three men not on duty would move to the outer cellar separated by a wall of packing cases with the intervening ‘door’ faced with packing material so, when closed and locked from the inside, it appeared as a solid stack.
Two of them would take up positions behind packing cases with cocked Sten guns aimed at the steel door which was at ground level. The senior member would mount the wooden steps, look through the spy hole in the steel door and, if satisfied with the identity of the callers, unlock the door and swing it across himself.
The orders were to ’fire if in doubt’ as it could be one of our own men with a Russian gun in his back.
On one occasion they were going on shift and standing in front of the steel door which, in accordance with procedures, was opened from the inside. One of the men covering the doorway with his Sten gun inadvertently let off a burst (easily done with a Sten gun when the safety catch was off). They felt the slugs passing by. 24 hours later at the end of the shift and back in their flat for a shower and change of clothes one of them found to his horror that there were two bullet holes in the fold of his shirt.
Each morning the wax cylinders from the previous 24 hours recordings would be taken to Schonbrunn for analysis. One early success was the information that the AVO (Hungarian Secret Police) intended to prosecute Cardinal Mindszenty, the Hungarian Primate who was to be accused of working for the Americans.
By the summer of 1951, it became obvious that most of the Soviet traffic had been rerouted and in June 1951 the operation was closed down. Due to the high level of security and the small number of personnel involved this listening post was never discovered by the Soviets.
There were two other posts in Vienna – one of which, run by the Royal Military Police, was ‘blown’ by the double agent George Blake in the same way he had almost certainly exposed the Berlin Tunnel.
The location was called ‘Smoky Joes’ by those engaged in its operation because the only perks in that dank cellar were free chocolate and free cigarettes, but no ventilation.
The model in the museum was made by Captain (Retired) Bob Steers, who played a major part in this operation. The author was indebted to Bob for his help in telling this story.