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Blast From the Past: Famous Exchange of Spies at Glienicker Bridge During the Cold War

Updated on July 24, 2020
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A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.


There are two things that a man probably remembers in his later years. The first is a torrid love affair with a beautiful girl and second a hair raising tale of adventure. In the early 60s, a hair raising tale of adventure did take place when two spies were exchanged by the then superpowers the Soviet Union and the United States at the Glienecker bridge in Berlin. This bridge is a small steel structure that crosses the Havel River and links Berlin with Potsdam. This was an appropriate place for the exchange as during World War II the Americans and the Russians had met on this bridge.

The Cold War is now history, but at one time it had the attention of the world as a monolithic Soviet Empire faced the Western World led by the USA. The Cold War was an inevitable part of world history and now one can shrug it off but at that time it was something very real with a tinge of macabre excitement all around.

Cold war

The Cold War almost commenced after the surrender of Germany. The Soviet leader Josef Stalin had taken on his shoulders the task of spreading the theory of Marx and communism all over the globe. The Americans could not allow this to happen unchallenged and they set up a number of military pacts and bases to ring the Soviet Union. One of the pacts was South- East Asian Treaty Organisation(SEATO). At that time Pakistan threw its lot with the USA and handed the Air Force Base at Peshawar for use by the CIA. General Ayub Khan was keen to ally with America and thus the CIA had operational control over the Peshawar airbase.

The CIA positioned the U2 long-distance spy plane at Peshawar. The plane flew at altitudes above 60,000 feet and had the endurance to take it from Peshawar to Norway across the Soviet Union. The plane was also fitted with sophisticated long-range cameras that could photograph the Soviet countryside and military installations. General Eisenhower, the President authorized these flights over the Soviet Union. The Russians were aware of these flights but they could not do anything as they did not have missile technology to hit a moving aircraft at a height of 60,000 feet. Nikita Khrushchev the Soviet leader exhorted the Russian engineers to produce a surface to air missile that could hit the U2. One of the pilots who had joined the CIA was Francis Gary Powers. He made many flights from Peshawar to Norway over the Soviet Union and a wealth of information in terms of photographs of Russian military installations was developed by the CIA. He was earlier a captain in the USAF.

Rudolf Abel

The Russians were not sitting idle and had infiltrated a number of secret agents into the United States of America. One of them was Colonel Rudolf Abel. His real name was Vilayam Fisher and he was born in England to Russian parents in 1903. Fisher's father was a Bolshevik and he had fled Russia in 1896 as he feared arrest and imprisonment. After the victory of Lenin in the 1917 revolution, the Fisher family moved back to Moscow. He joined the Russian army and for some time was with the NKVD, the Russian secret police.

He was dismissed from the NKVD in 1938. It is not clear what happened at that time but he escaped the purge. In 1946 he rejoined the NKVD. Later he was seconded to the espionage wing. The NKVD dispatched Fischer to America with a forged identity. He entered the United States from Quebec. During this period he made contact with two Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and was a conduit for passing secret documents sketches and plans of the American nuclear project to Moscow.

Fisher had many aliases and passports and assumed different identities at various times as he traveled to and fro in the USA. The value of the information provided by Abel has never been assessed, but in 1949 Russia was able to test a nuclear device, which came in handy as a deterrent during the Korean war( 1950-53). Fisher had left his daughter and wife behind in the Soviet Union and he was very keen to go back and meet them.

Spying activities

Rudolph Abel operated in the USA for 9 years and despite the best efforts of the CIA and FBI, he was not caught. He built up a network of spies and contacts and for years the Americans never knew that a Russian spy was in their midst.

Time ran out for Abel when Lt Colonel Reino Hayhanen of the Soviet secret police ( KGB) defected to the West at Paris in 1957. Colonel Hayhanen was being recalled to Russia on the recommendation of Colonel Abel as he spent much of the grant given to him by the KGB on prostitutes and drink. He feared going back to Russia where he expected to be imprisoned or even executed and while in Paris after coming over from the United States, walked into the American embassy and asked for political asylum.

He revealed important information about Colonel Abel and the FBI could then arrest the Colonel. The CIA and FBI had started keeping Colonel Abel under surveillance. When they were convinced that he was a spy he was arrested but the information of his arrest was kept secret for weeks in an effort to break him.

Colonel Abel turned out to be a tough nut to crack and he refused to talk. The FBI/CIA had realized the importance of the R Abel and they arrested him. They were keen that he should work for them. They asked him to defect and join the Americans as a double agent. They also offered him an American girl as a wife and have children, a double identity, and a place to vanish in America. The Russian however refused and after that, he was formally arrested. He was put on trial and the general feeling in America was that this man deserved a death sentence. The New York Bar Association was asked to detail a lawyer to defend Colonel Abel. No American lawyer was prepared to defend him.

The chairman of the Bar Association then approached James Donovan(1916-70) to defend the Russian spy. He was a practicing lawyer and had earlier served in the US Navy in the office of scientific research and development. Despite the opposition of his family and James Donovan made up his mind to defend Rudolf Abel to the best of his ability. He was of the view that not defending Abel would be a blot on the American system of justice.

The trial commenced and during the trial, James Donovan made a very important point. He told the judge not to award the death penalty because at some later stage there may come a time when an American would be captured by the Russians and at that time the United States may have to exchange someone. These were prophetic words as just four years later Abel was exchanged in a prisoner swap with Francis Gary Powers. The Colonel was sentenced to 30 years in prison and escaped the death penalty. Donovan was not a man to rest and put up the case to the Supreme Court to set aside the prison sentence. He catalogued many inconsistencies in the trial. The Supreme Court in a 5-4 verdict upheld the sentence. The fact that four judges voted in favor of Abel is a point that must be noted.

The action of James Donovan was not liked in America and he began to receive hate mail. His children were also taunted in school. His wife was extremely unhappy with him. But James Donovan had done a great service to the USA as future events unfolded.

At the other end of the spectrum, the CIA was continuing its secret flights over the Soviet Union to gather information. The planes would take off from Peshawar ( Pakistan) and fly across the Soviet Union and land in Norway. Peshawar had become a CIA base. Nikita Khrushchev the Soviet leader was at his wit's end. The Soviets however developed a surface-to-air missile that made the U-2 flights vulnerable.

The flights continued for 2 years and one of the veteran pilots was Francis Gary Powers. He was earlier a USAF pilot before he was recruited by the CIA. On 1 May 1960 the single-seat aircraft, flown by Powers, was hit by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) surface-to-air missile and crashed near Sverdlovsk (today's Yekaterinburg). Powers parachuted safely and was captured. Gary Powers was to self destruct the plane, but he failed to press the self-destruction button and bailed out. He was also given a "dollar with poison" with a pin to kill himself. He was 1200 miles inside Russia and when he landed he was arrested by the KGB. Powers was taken to Moscow and put on trial as a spy. He was given a prison sentence of 10 years of hard labor.

When news of the crash came the Americans were sure that Powers would have been killed and the plane destroyed. A statement was issued that due to lack of oxygen and bad weather the plane had strayed into Soviet airspace. Nikita Khruschev sprang a surprise when he announced that the plane had been shot down and the pilot had been captured. At that time the American prestige reached its nadir and the American president had to cut a sorry figure as a liar.

The Exchange.

The arrest of Powers had political implications. A summit had been planned between the Western leaders and Nikita Khrushchev in Paris. The Soviet leader came to Paris but refused to attend the meeting and demanded an apology from the American president which General Eisenhower refused.

Powers was sentenced to 10 years in prison including hard labor. The loss of the plane and capture of Powers harmed US prestige and the CIA was keen to get its hands on Powers. They wanted to know what he had told the Soviet secret police.

They were keen to get him back. A proposal was mooted to the American government which was now headed by John Kennedy who was a man with a different vision and mind. His brother Robert Kennedy was the attorney general at that time and he approved the plan. The plan was to exchange Powers for the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. The question arose as to how this could be done because Khruschev the Soviet leader was breathing fire.

Senior CIA functionaries approached James Donovan and requested him to be the intermediary between the Soviet and US government and ask for a prisoner swap. Donovan realizing how he had saved the life of Abel readily agreed and he began to make secret trips to East Berlin. He did not even tell his wife as sometimes when he was in England he would tell her that he's going to Scotland but he would go to East Berlin. James Donovan began long and tortuous negotiation for a prisoner swap. It is a tribute to the skill of James Donovan that he could convince the Russians to exchange Powers for Abel. During this period another name cropped up and this was of a research scholar Fredric Pryor(1933-2019) who had been arrested by the East Germans as a spy. He had been in East German custody for six months and Donovan came to know about it. He added his name to the swap list and it was specified that first the boy would be released and after that, the exchange would be carried out.

Finally, on 10 February 1962, the exchange took place on the bridge that was the border between East and West Berlin. Abel was brought from the state prison at Atlanta by a USAF plane and taken to Berlin. The exchange took place well after midnight. It was the first-ever exchange of spies by the superpowers and remains a landmark in espionage history.

Last word

Readers will be interested to know what happened to the two main protagonists of this drama. Col Abel went back to his wife and daughter. He started giving lectures to school students. He died at the age of 69 of lung cancer. Powers returned to the USA but was cold-shouldered by the CIA. He was not reinstated and was left to fend for himself. He died in 1978 in a helicopter crash. But decades later Gary Powers was reinstated as a war hero and given a burial at the famous Arlington cemetery. The Russians also issued a stamp in honor of Colonel Rudolph Abel. This remains a thrilling episode in espionage history and one that even now does not fail to thrill.


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