The Teenage Spy Who Saved FDR, Churchill, and Stalin

The Teenage Spy Who Saved FDR, Churchill, and Stalin

Khalid Elhassan - September 17, 2018

The Tehran Conference, November 28th to December 1st, 1943 was the first meeting of World War II’s “Big Three” Allied leaders, FDR, Stalin, and Churchill. Over the course of multiple sessions major issues of common strategy were hammered out. Chief among them was a solid commitment by Roosevelt and Churchill to open a major second front against Germany by invading France in 1944. Also addressed were the envisaged postwar settlement, and smaller issues such as operations in Yugoslavia, relations with Iran and Turkey, plus Japan. All in all, it was a successful conference that bore fruit and advanced the Allies’ cause.

It almost ended in disaster. The Germans got wind of the planned conference, and put their extensive intelligence network in Iran to report on security measures for protecting the Allied leaders. German agents were parachuted into Iran to lay the groundwork for a commando strike led by Otto Skorzeny, Germany’s premier special forces operative, to take out the Big Three. It did not happen, because the Nazis’ plans were foiled by a teenage Soviet spying prodigy, Gevork Vartanian (1924 – 2012).

The Teenage Spy Who Saved FDR, Churchill, and Stalin
Gevork Vatranian in his youth. Nashenasledie

The Teenage Spy

Gevork Vartanian was born in 1924 to Armenian parents near Rostov, in southern Russia. His father worked for the NKVD – predecessor of the KGB and today’s FSB and SVR. In 1930, Gevork’s family moved to Iran, where his father, under the guise of an Armenian businessman, spent the next 23 years working as a Soviet intelligence agent. The son followed in his father’s footsteps, and in 1940, 16 year old Gevork was recruited by the senior Vartanian into the NKVD. Gevork started off as a recruiter, signing up Iranians and foreign residents as Soviet agents and assets. He proved an excellent recruiter, notwithstanding his youth.

In 1941, the USSR was thrust into WWII when the Germans launched a devastating surprise attack, Operation Barbarossa, that came close to completely overwhelming the Soviet Union. The Red Air Force was all but annihilated in the opening days of the onslaught, and Red Army formations along the USSR’s western border were shattered or bypassed, to be encircled and mopped up later. Within weeks, German armored columns had penetrated hundreds of miles into Soviet territory, and Soviets casualties rapidly rose into the millions.

Soon, the Soviets were hanging on by the skin of their teeth, at the brink of collapse at any moment. In that dire summer of 1941, running low on everything as their stockpiles were destroyed and their factories overrun or hurriedly evacuated to keep them out of German hands, the Soviets were in desperate need of any assistance. It was against that backdrop that Iran, on the USSR’s southern border, took on special importance as a secure route through which to funnel supplies to the hard pressed Soviets. Accordingly, the Soviets and British jointly invaded Iran in August of 1941 to secure its oilfields, and ensure that an Allied supply route to the USSR through Iranian territory was kept open. The invaders deposed the Iranian ruler, or Shah, and replaced him with his more pliant son. Iran was then divided between the British and Soviets.

The Teenage Spy Who Saved FDR, Churchill, and Stalin
‘The Big Three’ of Stalin, FDR, and Churchill, at the Tehran Conference. Pintrest

Understandably, the invasion and occupation did not sit well with a majority of Iranians, and the affections of many gravitated towards Germany, the enemy of the foreigners occupying their country. German intelligence had a field day recruiting in Iran, as the numbers of German sympathizers exploded. Gevork Vartanian’s workload increased, and his assignments were expanded from recruitment to include counterintelligence as well.

The teenager proved himself a counterintelligence prodigy, and a veritable Pac Man at sniffing out and busting enemy spooks. By early 1942, Gevork’s team of seven intelligence operatives had identified over 400 German agents in the Soviet zone, all of whom were then rounded up by Soviet troops and security personnel. In 1943, Gevork was given a new assignment: ensure the security of the upcoming Tehran Conference by identifying and nipping in the bud any enemy plans to disrupt the Big Three’s meeting.

The Teenage Spy Who Saved FDR, Churchill, and Stalin
Hitler walking between SS general Ernst Kaltenbrunner, left, and Otto Skorzeny. Media Drum World

Operation Long Jump: The German Plan to Assassinate ‘The Big Three’

There was good cause for worry about the security of the planned Tehran Conference. The Germans’ intelligence presence in Iran had mushroomed after the country was occupied by the British and Soviets, and it was reasonable to expect that they would do what they could to derail the conference if they got wind of it. The Germans got wind of it after their military intelligence, the Abwehr, cracked a US Navy code, and discovered that a major conference was to be held in Tehran, tentatively scheduled for October of 1943.

The information was passed on to Hitler, along with recommendations to disrupt the planned Allied meeting with a commando attack. The result was Operation Long Jump, which aimed to definitively derail the Tehran Conference by assassinating the Big Three leaders. Operational control was passed to SS general Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office), the Nazis’ intelligence arm, combining the SS intelligence service and the interior ministry’s security police.

To carry out Long Jump, Kaltenbrunner utilized Germany’s prize undercover agent in the Middle East, the Albanian Elyesa Bazna (codename “Cicero”), to lay the groundwork. To carry out the actual attack, Kaltenbrunner turned to SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny. By 1943 Skorzeny, a former bodyguard of Hitler who had gone into special operations work, had solidified his status as Germany’s premier commando. That September, he had successfully carried out a daring airborne raid that rescued deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from captivity in a mountaintop ski resort. He then personally piloted a small plane that flew the freed leader to safety. In short, Skorzeny was a highly capable, and highly dangerous, operative.

The Teenage Spy Who Saved FDR, Churchill, and Stalin
Otto Skorzeny, center with binoculars, posing with Benito Mussolini after rescuing the Italian dictator. Wikimedia

Fortunately, the Allies got wind of the German scheme when a Soviet intelligence agent, posing as a Wehrmacht officer in Nazi occupied Ukraine, came across an SS officer who was prone to blabbing when in his cups. The Soviet operative got the SS man drunk, and the inebriated Nazi started boasting about his access and insider knowledge. Among the nuggets he let slip was that a “big” operation was in the works, that was to take place in Iran, and which was expected to strike the Allies a serious blow by assassinating their leaders.

The drunk SS man did not give specific dates, but he gave enough clues that when followed up and cross checked with information gathered from other sources, confirmed that the Germans knew of the Big Three’s planned meeting in Tehran. Soviet resources and assets in Iran were marshaled to counter the threat, and Gevork Vartanian and his team were put on the trail of the German agents.

The Teenage Spy Who Saved FDR, Churchill, and Stalin
Gevork Vatranian in later years, in uniform. Upmonitor

Foiling the Nazis

In 1943, German intelligence parachuted an advance party of six radio operators near the Iranian city of Qum, about 40 miles from Tehran. Their immediate task was to link up with other German cells and assets in and around the Iranian capital. They were then to coordinate the activities of various agents on the ground, and reconnoiter routes to and from their targets’ expected locations. Once the advance team laid the groundwork, they would be joined by Otto Skorzeny, who had visited Tehran on a different mission and been tailed by Gevork’s team in 1942.

In the fall of 1943, Gevork Vartanian found out about the Germans who had parachuted into Qum. The teenage spy then followed up on their trail, which took him to a villa in Tehran, where Operation Long Jump’s advance team had moved in with an existing Abwehr cell. From that base, the Germans radioed intelligence reports back to Berlin. Unbeknownst to the Germans, their transmissions were intercepted and decoded by the NKVD. The intercepts revealed that Skorzeny was scheduled to arrive in mid October, along with the actual kill team.

The Soviets raided the German spy nest and arrested all its occupants. The NKVD then sought to turn the radio operators into double agents, and forced them to continue transmitting to their handlers in Berlin, but now under Soviet supervision. It was an ambitious plan, that sought among other things to lure the Nazis’ star special forces operative into a trap that would have made for a great propaganda coup. It was derailed, however, when one of the Germans managed to slip a prearranged code in one of his transmissions, alerting Berlin that the messages were being sent under duress. Operation Long Jump was cancelled, and Skorzeny never returned to Tehran.

After the war, Ernst Kaltenbrunner became the highest ranking SS member to face justice at the Nuremberg trial. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, sentenced to death, and hanged in 1946. Otto Skorzeny carried out special missions for the Nazis’ until war’s end. He was captured, but escaped from an internment camp in 1948, went on the lam for a few years, and finally settled in Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain. He spent time in Argentina, as an advisor to president Juan Peron, and as a bodyguard to his wife, Eva Peron. Versatile, he also worked as a military and security consultant for various Arab regimes, and performed the occasional gig for the Israeli Mossad. He died of lung cancer in Madrid, in 1975.

The Teenage Spy Who Saved FDR, Churchill, and Stalin
Vatranian and wife in later years. News-1 TV Armenia

As to Gevork Vartanian, he received his country’s highest award, Hero of the Soviet Union, in recognition of his services. He met and married another NKVD agent, and the duo spent more than three decades after the war working for Soviet intelligence, as it evolved from NKVD to MGB to KGB to SVR. The couple got married several times during their career as part of their cover. Gevork retired from the SVR in 1992, after which he trained young agents. His identity was kept secret until 2000, when his role in foiling Operation Long Jump was finally revealed. He died in 2012, aged 87. His funeral was attended by Russia’s then prime minister, and former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev described Vartanian as: “a legendary intelligence agent, a genuine patriot of his country, a bright and extraordinary person… He took part in splendid operations, which went down in the history of the Russian foreign intelligence service” .


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Association for Iranian Studies – Gevork Vartanian and Tehran 43: What Do We Know About the Legendary Soviet Spy?

BBC, January 11th, 2012 – Soviet Spying Legend Gevork Vartanian Dies at 87

Independent, The, January 14th, 2012 – Gevork Vartanian: Spy Who Helped Foil Churchill Death Plot

War History Online – A Soviet Spy Who Saved the ‘Big Three’ at the Tehran Conference Was 19 Years Old at the Time

Wikipedia – Gevork Vartanian