The Wagner Blog
Development Notes, News and Trivia

Subscribe to "The Wagner Blog" in Radio UserLand.

Click to see the XML version of this web page.

Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.


If it had not been for 15 minutes... Chapter 7

You are on Chapter 7. You can read chapter 6 here.

Continuing with the story of how my mother and I became de-facto spies and participated in the biggest defection case in the 50 year history of the former East-Germany......

You may ask what about this business of encoded messages? How is that done? 

Each message that was transmitted by the West Germany included a note of when to expect the next message. It didn't matter if there was any actual content in a given message. If there was nothing to be passed on the announcer of the transmission would merely say " zero columns " and indicate when the next transmission was to happen.

The messages themselves consistet of columns of numbers. Usually five digits to one group or column. One aspect of this entire message business has always struck me as funny. When we first began moving the radio's station selector button across the short wave band it was very hard to figure out if the station that was transmitting at a given pint was actually the one we needed. For whatever reason, hardware related or perhaps signal strength related, the station would not exactly line up with its supposed location on the dial.

To make matter worse, there were 2 German espionage channels right next to one another. Both at similar signal strengths, both using women announcers and both transmitting a steady stream of numbers: "5,7,0,1,9 break 14,87, 23, 12, 78 break ..."

I don't know why they were located in this manner. Perhaps it was someone's idea of a joke. So as the time for the first transmission drew near, Mother and I hunted up and down the dial in an attempt to isolate the correct station. If we missed the first couple of sentences in the transmission we would not know if it was addressed to us or someone else, and hence we might miss the entire thing along with the indicator of when the next message is to come. Talk about stress. Finally we thought we found it and just as we were getting ready to relax I noticed how the lady announcer pronounced  the number five. In German it sounds something like " Fuenf ". Short and to the point. However, this particular announcer called it "Fuennef" - drawing out the word and almost adding its own ending to it. This pronounciation was distinct to a dialect found in East Germany. Quickly in great panic we switched to the other German language station next to it - just in time to hear the announcer say "The next message is for our friend 8754. It consists of 35 groups of type Z. The message starts now: 87,34,12,13,30 ,12 break ......."  I don't recall the exact numbers.

Once the transmission had ended we would make a clean copy of all the number groups and break out the appropriate package of cypher keys on microfilm. The West German package that had been so skillfully hidden in the dead letter drop included several sets of cypher microfilms. Now mind you this was not one of those microfilms that you can commonly find in a library. The strips of film that had been sent to us were approximately .25 in tall and 3 in. wide.

This decyphering system itself was quite ingenious. The code combinations were "throw away" cyphers based on some algorithm that allowed for a large number of key combinations. A single "pack" of cyphers for each transmission consisted of 2 or 3 small lengthy strips of micro film.

With the clean set of number groupings in hand we looked for the appropriate key strip - for example "Z" and place it underneath the number columns. Starting at the left of the micro strip we would copy yet another set of numbers onto the pad. Next the numbers were added which gave us yet a third set of columns. At this point we placed the second microfilm underneath these groups to find letters that corresponded to the numbers . The whole thing when done looked something like this:

87    0     12    13    30     0      12    12   16     5    8    3    0    99    21    0    55    76

11    0     10    10      9     0      12     12    9     9    8    5    0      1    45    0      5    10


98    0      22    23    39     0     24     24   25   14   16  8    0    100  65    0   60   86


N       E     X      T        M     E      S      S    G      N     O   V    E       M     B      E       R     1    


The beauty of a system of this type is the fact that both the first and second set of values can be changed by the crypto generator and only the combination of both will result in a legible message. At the same time as far as I recall, individual transmissions would rarely use the same code in successive messages.

A Park in Berlin Below is a picture of a Russian / East-German Air Traffic and Radio Monitoring Array located on top of the highest mountain in East-Germany (Brocken Moutain in the Harz range is 3,300 ft high). This array is the most likely tool used by the STASI to monitor the message traffic directed at agents working on behalf of West Germany and Western Europe.

For a bit of history, the Brocken is located about 10-20 miles East of the border with West Germany. It is the highest mountain in an area of several hundred square miles and therefore became a logical obervation post, first for the Soviet Army in 1948 and later for the East German government. At its busiest time this location was staffed with over 100 technicians.


Continue to Chapter 8

Click here to visit the Radio UserLand website. © Copyright 2004 Thomas Wagner.
Last update: 5/2/2004; 7:24:18 PM.
This theme is based on the SoundWaves (blue) Manila theme.