The Game: KGB against CIA and SIS in the Baltic States 1945-1956

On 1940 Soviet Union occupied and annexed three Baltic States- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. On 1941 Nazi Germany marched in setup their own occupation. During the battles of 1944-1945 Soviets returned to Baltic States. German army continued to resist Soviets till May 9th 1945 in the Courland pocket, trapped and surrounded. As the World war ended in the Baltic States, a new war begun – National Partisan war against Soviet occupation. It was carried out by Baltic national partisans – young men and women who opposed the Soviet power. Some of them had combat experience in Latvian Waffen-SS Legion, others were simple people who saw Soviets as the supreme evil and wanted to avenge the repressions made against their people. Commonly, national partisans believed that United States and United Kingdom will eventually start a war against Soviet Union and Baltic States will regain its independence with the help of the Western powers.

Latvian National Partisans posing behind flag of Latvia 1950

And indeed the Western powers were interested in their armed struggle. However, their plan was to use anti-Soviet resistance as a tool for espionage inside Soviet Union. Western intelligence agencies CIA and SIS aimed to send agents to aid these resistance groups, gain valuable intelligence information and contribute to destabilization of the Soviet Union. Such operations were not just carried out in Baltic States, but also in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania and China. Decades later these operations were recognized as one of the most ultimate failures of the western intelligence and one of the greatest victories for the Soviet KGB.

For KGB it was Game – a game of luring and capturing Western agents and fooling the western agencies for many years. KGB openly boated about their success on 1967 a movie in Latvian language portrayed the events with fictional characters where foreign agent sent to made contacts with Latvian partisans and was followed from the start and captured along with the partisan group. In the end its revealed that agent is forced to send radio message back to his masters in UK to report his mission is continuing to misinform about his capture. Indeed KGB from the early start of the game got hold of CIA and SIS radio communications, its equipment and codes so it can establish rogue communications with the western agencies. In result more western agents were lured into Latvia and arrested along with national partisans they were supposed to help. On 1988 Latvian Soviet TV made documentary called Game where the head of the counterintelligence operation KGB Major-General Jānis Lukašēvičs revealed the events to the public in detail for the first time. A special archive case on operation codenamed “Lursens-S” was made for the movie script. The movie started with agent sending Morse code and the agent on the other side writing down the message. The use of coded radio messages between West and Soviet-occupied Latvia was crucial to this operation and these messages were under Soviet control from the start. Here we will reveal the story of this “Game” between SIS and KGB and how radio messages were used in the operation. Basing on CIA and Soviet documents. This event now is mostly forgotten, but its one of the most defining and interesting events in the Western-Soviet secret service struggle and also serves as warning while new spy games are played over Baltic States.

Baltic States in many ways were ideal target for espionage. About 160 000 people from Latvia alone emigrated to Western countries and some of them could serve as recruits for spy agencies. There were emigres who during the war served in Latvian Waffen-SS Legion and had combat experience and required anti-soviet stance. During 1944-1945 Nazi Germany also tried to train Latvian undercover diversion groups that would serve behind Soviet lines. They were called Jagdverband  Ost  Soviets managed to detain these men as early as late 1945 as despite being trained by SS they could not organize a effective underground operation. However, soon in in all regions of Latvia, also in Estonia and in large numbers in Lithuania a armed groups of national partisans started armed underground resistance. Latvians called them Mežabrāļi The Forest Brothers as their base of operations were forests. Their usual tactics were assaults on Soviet convoys, attacks on Soviet authorities and collaborators. There were many armed groups about the size of 20 000 men all around Latvia, that  lacked unified command and had issues with communication lines. Despite Soviets trying to keep this a secret publicly describing these men as simple bandits Western agencies soon became interested in these men as window for espionage inside Soviet Union.

US CIA and British SIS was concerned that they have lost their espionage net inside Soviet Union. Soviets had arrested all Western agents who had infiltrated the German Secret service within Soviet Union, two of them were arrested in Latvia. The armed resistance in Baltic States, Western Belarus and Ukraine seemed as opportunity for them to establish connections and use them for espionage. The idea was brought forward by Alexander ‘Sandy” McKibbin, a SIS agent with specialty in the Baltic States who first made contact with Lithuanian and Estonian national resistance who looked for foreign support. The idea was supported by Harry Carr responsible for SIS operations in North Europe. On March 1945 he supplied radio transmission equipment to two Latvians Artūrs Arnītis and Rihards Zande members of the Latvian Central Council a anti-nazi resistance group that was crushed by Germans before May 1945. SIS and LCC made deal that part of information gathered by them would be handed to SIS. Also Swedish secret service was involved as it had to allow the boat traffic between Sweden and Latvia.

First attempt to sneak into Soviet Union was made in October 15 1945. In the night time the boat boarded by Jānis Šmits, Eduards Andersons and Laimonis Pētersons. The boat capsized near the coast. The agents soon were arrested and the radio and coding equipment was discovered washed ashore by Soviet border guard.  However, the local partisans learned rumors that the “English” group has arrived. KGB knew this and decided to use this as method to combat both the partisans and the Western agencies. The plan was made by talented Soviet Latvian officer Jānis Lukašēvičs who ordered to use the capturing coding materials to establish contacts with operational center in Stockholm, Sweden. After few months Stockholm did respond to radio transmissions sent by KGB agent codename DRUG (Friend). His real name was Augusts Bergmanis who served in Latvian Waffen SS Legion during the war and also served as radio operator for Latvian Central Council. After his capture he was convinced to work as double agent for the KGB.  A game of radio communications had started. SIS failed to determine that DRUG is a KGB agent and decided to send a new operative group to found out what happened to the first group.

SIS operative Zande. Picture taken in KGB captivity as imitation of him sending radio message
SIS operative Rihards Zande. Picture taken in KGB captivity as imitation of him sending radio message

This tactic was nothing new. From 1921 to 1926 Soviets carried out Operation Trust that convinced that there is a organized anti-Soviet resistance movement within Soviet Union that requires Western help. It resulted into capture of many well known SIS spies as Sydney Reilly. British, however, had forgotten about these lessons and had no suspicion into these messages. On August 6 1946 Rihards Zande and Ēriks Tomsons landed on the shores of Latvia and started operations. Rihards Zande at first could not establish communications with Stockholm, meanwhile he managed to avoid KGB capture. KGB tried to determine his locations by his transmissions, but failed. The DRUG was ordered to establish connection with Zande and he convinced Stockholm to give paroles and addresses to  contact Zande directly. It turned out to be successful and for a year Zande was under KGB surveillance. He tried to flee Latvia two times and on second attempt he was captured along with Tomsons.

Meanwhile, Latvian resistance groups were aware of the SIS operation, but were not aware that all of them are arrested. KGB used this to fool key resistance leaders that there will be a meeting in Riga between representatives of the “Latvian government in exile” and members of the British intelligence. Fourteen prominent members of the Latvian resistance walked into trap on October 13 1947 and were arrested.

CIA and SIS were still blindfolded: instead, they decided to intensify the operation to support the national partisans. On 1948 SIS issued Operation Jungle, while CIA commenced Operation Tilestone. CIA created a training facility for Baltic recruits in Kaufbeuren, West Germany. The training also included Morse code use and there are open CIA documents from 1952 that show Latvian recruits were tested for Morse code. Alfrēds Riekstiņš passed Morse code training in “Good” mark, learned printing, receiving at the speed of 12 WPM and sending at 10 WPM. However, his results in radio maintenance and reduced distance circuits were mediocre. Another one, Nikolajs Balodis showed similar results in test. Earlier 1947 CIA document shows that agent codenamed Tilestone  is set to head to Poland to meet senior Lithuanian resistance leaders and deliver radio crystals and code set for an expected monthly radio contact. Another document describes in detail agent is sending  elaborate cipher code furnished him by the Swedes.  The code is a numerical cipher similar to that used by the Russians in broadcasts from Lithuania to Moscow. It is based on a Lithuanian book, a copy of which Tilestone had in Stockholm. Transmissions would have been be made from Sweden once a week and it was expected that answers would have been received twice a month from Lithuania. CIA public archives contain dozens of files describing US involvement in aiding Baltic mainly Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance.

CIA recruit Alfrēds Riekstiņš radio operation test evaluation document
CIA recruit Alfrēds Riekstiņš radio operation test evaluation document

CIA and SIS did not know that one of their top employees Kim Philby was a Soviet mole who was liaison officer between SIS and CIA. Obviously he sent all information he could get to the Soviets. Now it was again Jānis Lukašēvičs turn to strike on SIS. On October 11, 1948 he sent his agent Vidvuds Šveics (code name Apogs)  to Sweden. Šveics was former officer of Waffen-SS and member of  Jagdverband Ost who defected to Soviets. He kept contacts with unsuspecting members of national resistance and one of his contactees Alfrēds Launags  managed to escape to Sweden by boat in 1945. Šveics used him to establish contacts with SIS and CIA associated Latvians. Latvians trusted him as former Latvian Legion officer. He requested them to write ciphered recommendation letter where he stated that he plans to escape Soviet Union to establish ties with Western agencies, but may return to Latvia and continue underground operations. SIS enlisted him for operation on May 1 1949 where he, along with three Lithuanian SIS agents, and two Estonians, traveled in a speedboat. As the crew emerged near Palanga, Lithuania, Šveics departed from the group and made contacts with KGB. Three members of the group were shot on spot. Šveics continued his operations and lured many Latvian partisan leaders into trap using his “Swedish SIS connections”.

Mastermind of the KGB counter intelligence operation Jānis Lukašēvičs (in the middle) and SIS double agent Kim Philby (right) . Riga November 1987
Mastermind of the KGB counter intelligence operation Jānis Lukašēvičs (in the middle) and SIS double agent Kim Philby (right) .
Riga November 1987

Tragedy continued on November 1 1949 when two more Latvians entered Latvia by speedboat, unrecognized by Soviet border guard. However, Šveics gave them coordinates to residential addresses of his KGB colleagues. There KGB learned that SIS is planning to send more agents and the goal of Vitolds Berķis and Andrejs Galdiņš was to gather enough information for agents who would come afterwards. KGB determined that future SIS agents are needed to be lured into fake national partisan groups made out of KGB members. There was a reason why fake groups were needed on March 25 1949 Soviets carried massive deportation to Siberia forcibly moving 42 000 people. This was done to significantly weaken the national resistance and purge resistance to collectivization.  National partisans, already being weakened, could not stop the deportation and surviving ones had gone in deep underground. However, western allies still considered that despite seriously suppressed the Baltic resistance need support and can still fight.

So a fake national partisan groups were made to lure SIS agents into trap. Special groups were made from ex partisans defected to USSR and they hosted the SIS agents who had arrived to assist them. SIS trusted these fake groups until 1953 when they begun to suspect that these groups are entirely made up by KGB or are in their full control. In 1952 three SIS Latvian agents parachuted in to Latvia and were caught. One committed suicide, another surrendered, while third escaped. Instead of informing SIS that national partisan movement in Latvia is beaten and KGB under control of whole operation; he found his old girlfriend and spend all his time and resources entertaining her while not reporting any substantial information to SIS and CIA. The operation could continue.  More agents were captured Leonīds Zariņš from CIA was captured on May 14, 1954 and sent to prison camp in Siberia where he died. His family who believed he was working in Bell Telephone was told he died in a crash in Austria. In daring attempt KGB sent another fake partisan to London code name Edmundas who managed to get 3.5 million rubles for national partisans and bring them back to let KGB get British taxpayers money.

By 1954 SIS had figured out what is happening. First SIS was suspicious that only those SIS agents who did not met fake resistance members were not repressed. They also were spooked by SIS agent V Berķis who was allowed to go back to UK. Berķis may have informed SIS about the real situation as he never again was sent back to Latvia. Finally SIS was aware that intelligence information sent by fake partisan groups were mostly generic that could be easily obtained by home based SIS departments. So SIS sent a request to get sample of water from Tobol river near location of nuclear reactor that produced plutonium for Soviet nuclear bombs. Tobol river located in Central Siberia thousands of kilometers from Baltic States seemed as obviously impossible task for a simple national partisan being constantly in underground. Instead, KGB got diligent sent a sample of highly irradiated water with such lethal dose of radioactivity that it could only originate from the core of a nuclear reactor. SIS was finally convinced that they have been deceived for all this time.

On 1956 the final Morse code message concluded the game:

“We can no longer help you. Will be sending no further physical or material help. All safe houses are blown… This is is our last message until better times. We will listen to you until 30 June. There after God Help You”

1988 Latvian KGB document summarized the game:

13 SIS spies captured. From them confiscated  22 portable radio transmitters, 17 radio beacons, 38 frequency lists, 165 pieces of cipher bloknots (one time pads) and many other operational equipment including firearns and ammunition.  Overall the British, US and Swedish agencies sent at at least forty two Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians to their homelands. Most of them died in Soviet captivity and only a few survived. Many more CIA and SIS agents were involved in similar failed missions in Eastern Europe, China and North Korea. About 2422 Latvian national partisans had died, 7342 had been captured. By 1956 the partisan war had ceased. Last Latvian partisan Jānis Pīnups came out of the forest in 1995. He had been hiding in forests for fifty years until seventy year old man finally came out when last Russian soldier left the country.

Baltic States today are one of the hotpots of rivalry between NATO and Russia. While many details of this rivalry will be known in detail many decades later, this event has gone down in history as one of the striking examples of Russian art of deception. The deception that Russia still uses day in its undeclared war against the West in Ukraine, Baltic States and Middle East. Let this 60 year old event of misfortune serve as reminder how to fight and how not to fight the Russian adversaries.

Selected Sources:

CIA FOIA Operation Tilestone documents:

KGB Archive Case Lursens-S (in Latvian)

Jansons, Ritvars. (2016) LPSR drošības iestāžu darbība 1944-1956. (Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic Interior Security 1944-1956). Riga. VDK Zinātniskās izpētes komiteja.

Lucas, Edward. (2012) Deception. Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West. London.Bloomsbury

Weiner, Tim. (2007) Legacy of Ashes. The History of the CIA. London. Penguin Books. 

Spēle (The Game) 1988 Latvian SSR Television. All scenes from this movie are used in this article for educational purposes. 

Uz spēles Latvija. (Latvia is on the Game) 2015 Latvijas Filma. All scenes from this movie are used in this article for educational purposes.