Exactly 48 years ago, on February 10, 1962, at opposite ends of the bridge connecting East and West Berlin stood: the pilot of an American spy plane shot down over the USSR and a KGB agent caught in the US. The powers exchanged prisoners at exactly 8:52 a.m., when they crossed – at the same moment – the border line.
The Cold War arms race and the state of permanent rivalry between the two political camps, centered around the U.S. and the Soviet Union, required the work of vast numbers of spies and informants of various sorts. They acquired and passed on to foreign intelligence agencies often top-secret information helpful in a possible conflict, which – fortunately – never broke out.
A lousy agent slips in an intelligence ace
One of the Russian agents operating in the USA was KGB colonel Reino Häyhänen, a Russian of Finnish origin. During his five-year stay in America, however, he did no service to his homeland and did not gain any information of interest to the secret service. In 1957, he was even ordered to return to the USSR. Sensing that his superiors would want to take consequences for his ineffective service, he decided to go over to the side of the Americans. He reported to the US embassy in Paris, where CIA agents there turned him over to the FBI.
Even if he wanted to, Häyhänen could not tell the Americans about the KGB network in the United States, because the individual agents did not know the names and home addresses of the other spies, in case of a possible slip-up. The colonel’s only contact with the KGB was his superior – known as “Mark”. Häyhänen revealed how he was once taken by him to a certain warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. FBI agents discovered that the warehouse was rented by a certain Emil Goldfus, an artist and photographer.
A spy’s costly mistake
Emil Goldfus’ real name was Rudolf Ivanovich Abel and he was an excellent KGB agent who spoke five languages fluently. He began his career in the Soviet intelligence services during World War II. After it ended, he continued to be an active agent. Under a false name, he entered a refugee camp in East Germany, from where he emigrated to Canada. In 1948, he made his way to the USA, where he later began to establish a network of agents, then still NKVD.
Information about Häyhänen’s betrayal quickly reached Abel, who decided to disappear for a time. After six months in hiding in Florida, he decided it was safe to go to New York. This was a mistake. On June 21, 1957, he was completely surprised when FBI agents burst into the hotel room where he was staying. In his apartment they found, among other things. A hollow pencil in which messages were hidden; a shaving brush hiding microfilm inside, or a radio and code book. Abel was proven guilty of three counts of espionage and sentenced to 30 years in late 1957. Only through the efforts of his defense attorney, James Donovan, did he not end up on death row. For Donovan managed to convince the judge that Abel might be a source of vital information or could one day be traded for an American spy. His hunch was accurate.
Mission over the USSR
Less than three years after Abel was incarcerated in a prison in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 1, 1960, an ultra-modern, stratospheric U-2 reconnaissance jet took off from an airport in Peshawar, Pakistan. At the controls was Francis Gary Powers, employed by the CIA. Its task was to fly over 3,000 km over the Soviet Union, gather intelligence and land in the Norwegian base of Bodo. After completing half the route, near Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), the aircraft was hit by an S-75 missile. Due to their technical inadequacies, the Russians fired as many as 14 missiles, incidentally shooting down one of the American Mig-19s tracking the aircraft. Powers managed to catapult himself and land safely. He fell into the hands of Soviet soldiers.
Be sure to watch what the world looks like from the deck of a U-2
(James May, known from the program “Top Gear”, experienced it flying the training version – a two-seater TU-2)
The world learned about the event on May 5, 1960, from the mouth of Nikita Khrushchev. The Americans did not confirm until two days later that the U-2 had been in Soviet airspace, but denied that it had conducted a spy mission. The downing of the plane caused a very serious crisis between Moscow and Washington. During the four-party talks between the authorities of the US, USSR, Great Britain and France on May 16, 1960. in Paris on the future of Germany, President Eisenhower refused to apologize to Khrushchev for the incident. The latter in retaliation revoked Eisenhower’s invitation to visit the USSR.
Powers, on the other hand, confessed in a Soviet court in August 1960 that he had conducted an intelligence mission. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, three of which he was to serve in prison and the rest of the sentence in a labor camp.
An exchange between two powers
Despite Powers’ conviction, U.S. authorities did not cease talks on his release. The long-lasting negotiations were completed in February 1962, when the Russians decided to exchange Powers for Rudolf Abel. The Americans agreed, because Abel, who had been in prison for five years, had not revealed any secrets to them.
The place chosen for the exchange was Berlin, specifically the Glienicke Bridge, later known as the “Bridge of Spies” because it was there that agents of hostile powers were exchanged on numerous occasions during the Cold War. On the morning of 10 February 1962, Rudolf Abel stood at the end of the bridge in East Berlin and Francis Gary Powers stood at the opposite end. American and Russian negotiators stood in the middle of the bridge, by the white line marking the national border. Among them was Abel’s attorney, James Donovan, who was actively involved in the talks about his client’s exchange. At the signal of those in the middle of the bridge, Abel and Powers took off. They passed each other at exactly 8.52 when they both crossed the white line in an instant. From that moment on, they were free to go.
Two different endings
After returning to the U.S., Powers was cleared by the CIA and the Senate of making any mistakes during the U-2 flight over the Soviet Union. He wrote down his memories in a book – Operation Overflight. He died in 1970 during a helicopter crash of one of the local television stations in Los Angeles, where he worked as a reporter.
Rudolf Abel, on the other hand, was forced to retire after returning to the USSR. The KGB feared that he might have crossed over to the American side during his five-year incarceration. In 1968, he published a book that chronicled his life. He died three years later.