Secret American Commandos Hid Out in Cold War Berlin
Special troops would have spied on the Soviets
For almost three decades during the Cold War, a detachment of American Special Force hid inside the main U.S. Army contingent in Berlin. The specialized troops would have helped keep tabs on the Soviets in the event the Red Army overran the then-divided city.
In January, a small group of Army veterans gathered at Fort Bragg in North Carolina to commemorate the unit’s secret work.
The “detachment in Berlin was highly classified,” military historian and former Special Forces soldier Gordon Rottman told War Is Boring. The element’s mission was “mainly to collect and report [intelligence] info.”
After World War II, the Western Allies and the Soviet Union had divided Germany into separate occupation zones. They also divvied up Berlin, which otherwise lay deep inside the main Soviet zone. Germany split into two countries—East and West, aligned with the Soviets and NATO, respectively.
American commanders worried about what would happen to the western half of Berlin if the Cold War ever turned hot.
So in 1956, the Army sent six Special Forces teams from Bad Tölz in West Germany—home of the 10th Special Forces Group—to the divided city. At the time, the detachments were supposed to have 15 men each, according to an official unit organization document War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The troops were supposed to get an impressive array of gear including sniper rifles, rocket launchers, demolition kits and radios. But in practice, the Berlin element’s actual size and equipment probably differed significantly from the official structure.
The force “was a unique and diversified, unconventional classified unit,” an official Army news story notes. The first soldiers even traveled across the Communist East secretly, in private cars.
The “members were hand-picked and had to become very fluent in German,” said Rottman, the author of The Berlin Wall and the Intra-German Border. “They were provided a clothing allowance for appropriate German civilian clothing.”
The Army did its best to keep the unit hidden from the enemy—and the public—with a series of cover names. These monikers included Security Platoon, 6th Infantry Regiment and Detachment A, Berlin Brigade.
Nearly 10 years after the first Special Forces soldiers arrived in the German capital, the unit finally got its official name—the 39th Special Forces Detachment. But the ground combat branch refused to issue any “colors”—an official unit flag—because no one could admit the detachment even existed.
Eventually, the troops got a pennant for the Detachment A cover nomenclature. However, the banner was traditional infantry blue instead of the Special Forces’ preferred green—to help keep up the ruse.
The element bulked up into a company-size unit—between 100 and 200 soldiers—in 1972. This fluctuation in the force’s actual size had no effect on the naming schemes.
By the 1980s, the unit had become known as the U.S. Army Europe Operational Security Detachment. The group apparently still had a penchant for civilian vehicles.
The detachment had acquired two BMW vans and stuffed them full of communications equipment. “They had German plates and one was light blue, the other yellow,” said Rottman, who worked with members of the unit during an exercise in 1983. “The idea was simply for them to blend in with German vehicles.”
We don’t know the exact specifications, but the comms gear would probably have been useful for reporting the Soviets’ movements or intercepting their transmissions.
The special operators may have actually used the vehicles and other tools to spy on troops in East Germany. “Detachment A deployed from [Berlin] in order to conduct their highly dangerous missions deep into East Germany,” according to the Army.
Just how well that sort of thing would have worked during an actual shooting war is open for debate. “The Soviets and [East] Germans knew who … [the trucks] belonged to,” Rottman said.
In the end, no one ever got to see how the unique detachment would perform in combat. The Army did away with the unit in 1984, and five years later the Berlin Wall came crashing down.
In an interesting epilogue, the Army brought the 39th Special Forces Detachment back around a decade ago. The element, now in South Korea, is the only numbered Special Forces detachment active today.