Smoky Joes

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by Paul Croxson

Going round the Museum it is easy to miss the model of ‘Smoky Joes’. The story of how it came into being is well-worth reciting; a story that Joyce is always happy to tell.

Unless you served with No. 12 Sqn Royal Signals or the name Brannenburg means something to you, it is sometimes easy to forget the role played by Austria in both World Wars.

Following defeat of Nazi Germany, at the end of world War II 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 FSS unit of the Int Corps at the time under the command of Capt. John Ham-Longman. ‘Alost’, 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, ( as one could do in those days), and from the cellar of the centre one (neighbours were unwelcome) a tunnel was dug by six sappers under the direction of an R.E. officer. During this stage of the operation FSS 291 carried the excavated soil to the large garden of another Int Corps unit 20FSS on the other side of Vienna. The arrival of all this 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, then a much desired posting, under all sorts of threats and so security was 100%. Specialists with the appropriate listening and recording equipment were sent from the UK by train – there being no other way sixty odd years ago. They were supposed to be taken off the train at Aspang Station by the RTO but due to a cock-up, 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 and probably scared stiff on the platform in unfamiliar battledress (they were actually civilians) alongside the packing cases containing the equipment with pairs of Russian MP’s walking up and down! There then followed what was possibly the fastest evacuation in the history of the British Army in extricating 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 Int Corps that ‘no-one would have noticed that interference was taking place’.

The Aspang listening post was disguised as a RTO (Railway Transport Office) store. The shifts were of 24 hours and all the personnel wore British Battledress but not I. Corps flashes which was standard procedure in Austria at that time. Those who not on duty would return to Sebastianplatz for meals. 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 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 and 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 to those issued with the sten guns were to ’fire if in doubt’ as it could be one of our own men with a Russian gun in his back. The three men behind the door were also armed with sten guns.

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. Words such as “what a silly boy you are” were exchanged. 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 bulletholes in the fold of his shirt! They did occasionally wonder that, should there have been a raid by Soviet intelligence during the change of shift, if there would have been a very good chance of being shot in the back by their Soviet adversaries and by their own colleagues in the front.

There were several scares, the most memorable was when one Sunday morning ’ thump thump’ was heard on the road outside. Looking out, there were two Austrian workmen digging in a depression in the cobble-stoned surface of the road directly above the tunnel; clearly heavy goods traffic had left its impression. They immediately picked up the ‘panic’ phone and within an hour, the GOC Austria arrived with the Austrian minister responsible for telecommunications.

GOC “tell him that this is what we are going and that he is to go back to his office and call them off immediately and if he opens his mouth he will be in dead trouble” This was immediately beautifully translated so the Minister was left in no doubt. “Halt den maul sonst unter eine stunde werden sie tot sein”. The Cold War was at its most bitter and it was seen as being a delicate and possibly explosive situation.

It 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. During the early hours, between 0100 and 0430 when the traffic was light they used to listen to the female operators in Vienna talking to their counterparts in Prague, Budapest, Sofia and Bucharest; their conversations frequently involved the intimate side of their private lives. The horizons of several I. Corps members were considerably broadened as a result!

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 re-routed 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 RMP, was ‘blown’ by the double agent George Blake in the same way he had almost certainly done with the Berlin Tunnel.

As far as I know this story has not been told outside of a book by Bob Steers of the Int Corps who played a leading role in this operation and to whom I am endebted for the story. I hope that I have done it justice.

Paul Croxson