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The Cold War: A Look At The Myths And Reality Of Berlin
I will take you on a fascinating journey through a time where the World was completely different to the one of today, a journey that I hope you enjoy.
10. Access to West Berlin.
During the Cold War Berlin was divided into four sectors. The West was controlled by the French, British and Americans and the East was controlled by the Soviets. Sat in the heart of East Germany West Berlin was connected to West Germany by three main supply routes. The Berlin transit corridor was an autobahn that ran from Checkpoint Alpha in Helmstedt, West Germany to Checkpoint Bravo on the East German/West Berlin border. The Berlin railway network – The British train ran to and from Braunschweig. The French train ran to and from Paris and the American Train ran to and from Frankfurt. Finally there were the Berlin air corridors.
Travelling along the Berlin transit corridor was fascinating. Approaching the border was like something out of a science fiction film. Row after row of high-powered lights lit up no-mans land and the sentry towers. The Soviet manned checkpoints were an opportunity for me as a child to spot the rank, unit and sporting medals worn by the Soviet sentries. The Berlin travel document contained all names of those travelling in the vehicle. It was written in English, French, German and Russian. The only two places that Allied soldier’s and their families were allowed to stop in East Germany was at the Soviet controlled checkpoints.
9. The Berliner Fernsehturm.
The Berlin TV tower is an iconic sight that sits just inside East Berlin. The Soviet/East German propaganda machine was always in play and the story of this building was no exemption. Construction started in 1965 and was completed in 1969. It stood at 356 metres and registered as the fourth highest free standing building in Europe. An old cold war tale suggests that Pope Paul VI gave millions of dollars to the East German Government in order to build churches. The East German Government was lead by Walter Ulbricht. Ulbricht decided that the money should be spent on a TV tower instead.
So when construction on the tower was completed in 1969, 3 million turned out to see it. When the sun shines on the steel dome at the top of the tower a cross appears in the reflection. Rumour has it that the planners were not aware of this ingenious creation. The citizens of Berlin nicknamed the tower the ‘Popes Revenge’.
The Berliner Fernsehturm is still going strong today giving tourist an opportunity a bird’s eye view of a magnificent city. At the top sits a café, which rotates twice in the hour and sits just below the viewing platform. This is not a place to eat for those with a fear of heights.
8. The BRIXMIS & SOXMIS.
The British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany and The Soviet Exercise Mission were in a nutshell ‘authorised spies’. The BRIXMIS were made up of officers and NCO’s who were trained in identifying different types of Soviet armour and units. They worked out of their HQ in Potsdam, East Germany. Travelling around in small teams generally in Range Rovers or Opel Senators, these were known as ‘Tour Cars’. Tour Cars were marked up with a yellow number plate, a number and a Union Flag.
Tours took BRIXMIS teams across East Germany to the training areas of the Warsaw pact forces. Often crossing the line of duty, BRIXMIS operators would go that extra yard to get a close up photograph of a new piece of Soviet armour.
The SOXMIS ran in a similar format, operating out of black Lada cars in West Germany and West Berlin, somewhat less luxurious of their British counterparts. British soldiers and their families were encouraged to report Soviet tour cars. If I remember rightly the number was Herford military 2222.
The French and Unites States military also ran missions in the East. If you are interested in Cold War history there are numerous books worth reading on the subjects. The missions literally took part in a game of Cold War hide and seek.
7. The Stasi.
The East German Secret Police were ruthless and feared. Approximately 13 million residents lived in East Germany and around 900,000 were employed by the Stasi is some form or another. This was a big case ‘Big Brother’ and paranoia.
The Stasi developed out of the internal security and police apparatus established in the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany after World War II. The law establishing the ministry, whose forerunner was the Kommissariat 5 (modeled along the lines of the Soviet KGB), was passed by the East German legislature on February 8, 1950, four months after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic. The Stasi, whose formal role was not defined in the legislation, was responsible for both domestic political surveillance and foreign espionage, and it was overseen by the ruling Socialist Unity Party. Its staff was at first quite small, and its chief responsibilities were counterintelligence against Western agents and the suppression of the last vestiges of Nazism. Soon, however, the Stasi became known for kidnapping former East German officials who had fled the country; many of those who were forcibly returned were executed. Source Britannica Encyclopidia
Any telephone call made by a resident was automatically recorded if the call was over a certain distance. Residential flats were bugged and generally at least one flat belonged to the Stasi and was used as an intelligence cell.
It was encouraged to report any suspicious activity undertaken by your neighbour, failing to do so could result in a prison sentence.
Millions of files were produced by the Stasi on its citizens. To date almost 2 million people have looked at records that were kept on them. What is ironic about this organization is that it was still active less than 25 years ago. The chilling Stasi museum was opened to the public and can be found in Berlin.
8. Intelligence gathering.
Intelligence agencies will go to any lengths to gather information. In this list you will be interested to know that they were given information for free.
Due to the fact that East Germany was a communist country, Westerners including Allied troops and their families enjoyed cheap shopping in East Berlin. Porcelain could be bought at giveaway prices. Such was the value of dining in East Berlin, social function were often organised by British soldiers wives committees.
The wives would travel across into East Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie and enjoy cheap dining and alcohol. It is rumoured that the Stasi and KGB bugged waiters, tables and restrooms for purposes of intelligence gathering. Wives would often have ‘lose lip’ syndrome after a few glasses of wine. In turn snippets of information would be leaked, intercepted and analysed by specialists. Even the smallest amounts of information were priceless. What seemed as an innocent social function turned into an information gold mine for Eastern intelligence services. I am sure that any of the good lady wives that are reading this will laugh about this today, at the time it was a serious matter. I never did like East German restaurant food, especially the cheap imitation black fizzy soda.
7. Soviets In The West.
I have already touched on the SOXMIS. Despite having control of East Berlin, the Soviets also had a permanent location in the West of the city. The Brandenburg gate is one of the most iconic buildings in the World and lies in between the Reichstag and where checkpoint Charlie used to stand. During the time of a divided city, the Brandenburg gate sat in the East a few hundred yards away from the Berlin Wall.
From the West you could drive slowly up to the Berlin Wall and approach the Brandenburg gate. On the left where two Soviet tanks from the Second World War which formed a monument for all the Soviet soldier’s who lost their lives in street to street fighting in 1945. Guarding those tanks were two ceremonial Soviet sentries.
It is rumoured that a vehicle once stopped and the Soviet sentries were photographed. Remember this is a time where digital photography had not been invented. As a result stopping in a vehicle was completely forbidden.
The Soviet memorial in the West was another reminder of the cities dark past and a reality check that there was indeed a ‘Phoney War’ taking place. As a child I remember my parents driving around the sights of Berlin. As I was sitting in the back of the car looking at two Soviet sentries I often wondered who they were. The were probably thinking about being stood inside the warmth.
6. The Teuflesberg.
Situated in the Charlottenberg district of West Berlin, the Teufelsberg or Devil’s Hill was man made. In 1945 Berlin was just a sea of broken buildings. Millions of tons of rubble were moved and a lot of it ended up in the spot that is now known as the Teufelsberg.
Its origin does not in itself make Teufelsberg unique, as there are many similar man-made rubble mounds in Germany (see Schuttberg) and other war-torn cities of Europe. The curiousness begins with what is buried underneath the hill: the never completed Nazi military-technical college (Wehrtechnische Fakultät) designed by Albert Speer. The Allies tried using explosives to demolish the school, but it was so sturdy that covering it with debris turned out to be easier. In June 1950 the West Berlin Magistrate decided to open a new rubble disposal on that site. The disposal was planned for 12,000,000 m3 (16,000,000 cu yd). Wikipedia
The Teuflesberg had two main functions, it was a recreational area for the public and it was also the eyes and the ears of Western intelligence. In 1961 Allied intelligence agencies ran operations from the top of the hill. They listened in on Warsaw Pact radio traffic. Such was its suitability it was decided to build a permanent sight there. The field station was manned 24 hours a day and I recall a neighbour of ours worked there as an operator in the Royal Signals. I would love to bump into him now and chat about some of the intelligence that he was privileged to have handled.
What was once at the heart of the Cold War now lies in ruins. Vandalised and covered in graffiti, the famous land-mark can still be visited by tourists.
5. The Iron Curtain.
The thousands of miles of barbed wire, watch towers and lights were given the name the Iron Curtain by Sir Winston Churchill in his famous speech. Even today the sight of the heavily manned border that divided Western and Eastern ways of life still are still fresh in the memory.
People talk about light pollution, unless you actually crossed the border at night you have never seen light pollution. Evenly spaced out watchtowers dominated the skyline, they overlooked no-mans land to their front and beyond into the West.
Attack dogs roamed in areas between the huge fences, a deterrent to any would be escapee. Reports have recently suggest that the attack dogs were pretty docile. Either way, I would not have like to have taken any chances.
East German border troops where paired up according to their marital status. Two single border guards where not posted together for fear of one of them trying to escape themselves.
German civilians who had been granted authority to travel from the West to the East or vice versa where subject to strict vehicle searches, even to the point of having their fuel tanks dipped. I will come on to escape attempts later on.
For those that never had the chance to see the East-West divide, imagine a prison but only on an enormous scale. That was what the ‘Iron Curtain’ looked like.
4. The threat of war.
The Allied troops in West Berlin were simply there as a token effort. Britain had just 16 tanks stationed there. Some 40 miles to the North West of Allied controlled West Berlin was a Soviet garrison that housed some 15,000 troops. Vogelsang was a ghost town that was home to armour, howitzers and infantry fighting troops.
In parts of RAF Gatow the only thing that separated it from the might of the Soviet Army was a 12-foot fence. The Allied Forces stationed in West Berlin were little more than a token effort of force. It is hard to say how long they would have lasted in the event of an all out war.
Both Allied and Soviet powers paraded their military machines through the streets of West and East Berlin respectively on an annual show of strength.
The British often ran an Exercise known to the troops and families as the ‘Rocker’. Exercise Rocking Horse and later Exercise Berlin Bear Defender was a crash out test. Troops were called into their respective garrisons in response to a ‘notional Soviet attack. There were often wagers between friends on when the next ‘Rocker’would be called by the Brigade Commander.
3. Checkpoint Charlie and the escape attempts.
Some 24 years after the Berlin Wall was declared ‘Open” Checkpoint Charlie still holds a vivid image for me. The checkpoint was the main crossing point between West and East Berlin. Plenty of myth and legend surrounds the famous land-mark. Bizarrely it has been moved from its original location along the Berlin Wall.
East German guards would occupy the controlled crossing point and would demand to see an individual’s passport from page one all the way through to the back page.
The Checkpoint Charlie museum paid homage to those that had escaped from across the border to West Berlin or West Germany. One such escape attempt involved an East German athlete hurdling the checkpoint barriers and leaping for safety into West Berlin.
Another audacious attempt involved a pilot flying a light aircraft underneath East German radar and over the border into West Berlin.
Arguably the most famous escape attempt was depicted in the film ‘The Crossing’. Two families made a hot air balloon of a period of months. The piloted the balloon from East Germany across the Irion Curtain into the West.
West German officials often returned some successful escapees to the East. They were not the lucky ones; interrogation normally proceeded a long stint in the Siberian salt mines.
2. Life in tow cities.
A city of enormous proportions, the residents of West Berlin went about their daily business just like any other populous in Western Europe. The only disruption came during the Berlin Blockade, which will be covered in my final list. Public transport was what you would expect of any normal German city, first class, reliable and punctual. Shops were always well stocked and showed no signs that it lay in the heart of communist East Germany.
The City often hosted the biggest rock concerts. Artists such as Michael Jackson performed in the West. His ‘Bad’ tour in 1988 attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. Concerts where often held on 17 Juni Strasse near to the Brandenberg Gate. This was a propaganda stunt designed to show the East what they were missing.
In the East, the residents lived a completely different life. Paranoia, empty shelves, poor housing and low wages where typical of any communist state. There was a very long waiting list for the East German car the Trabant. Made from fibre glass with a two stroke engine, the cars often looked like patch work duvets. In late 1988 advances were made on the cars, they came fitted with a sun roof. I remember walking along the streets of East Berlin on our monthly visits, locals would literally stand and stare at you the ‘Westerner’. It was surreal.
1. The Berlin Blockade.
It was arguably one of the most iconic events in Cold War history, along with the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the 24th June 1948 until 12th May 1949, the Soviet Union blocked the rail, air, road and canal routes into West Berlin.
The Berlin Blockade resulted in a massive operation undertaken by the Royal Air Force, United States Air Force, Royal New Zealand Air Force and South African Air Force. Fuel and food was flown into West Berlin in wave after wave of logistical resupply sorties. Over 200,000 flights were flown.
The Allied powers never gave up on West Berlin and eventually the Soviet’s lifted the blockade. Their plan had failed and brought about the berth of two new states of power.
In 1949 East and West Germany were born as a result of the Berlin Blockade. The separate German states would remain for another 50 years.
On 5 April, a Soviet Air Force Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter collided with a British European Airways Vickers Viking 1B airliner near RAF Gatow airfield, killing all aboard both aircraft. The Gatow Air Disaster exacerbated tensions between the Soviets and the other allied powers. Internal Soviet reports in April stated that “Our control and restrictive measures have dealt a strong blow to the prestige of the Americans and British in Germany” and that the Americans have “admitted” that the idea of an airlift would be too expensive.
On 9 April, Soviet officials demanded that American military personnel maintaining communication equipment in the Eastern zone must withdraw, thus preventing the use of navigation beacons to mark air routes On 20 April, the Soviets demanded that all barges obtain clearance before entering the Soviet zone. Wikipedia
Looking back, living in Berlin, the history and the situation at the time almost seems mythical. It wasn’t, it was very real but it felt very surreal. Even after all these years talking about those Cold War days still make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I recently sat down for a discussion with my uncle who served in Berlin as a British Soldier. He visited a Soviet camp shortly after the German unification. He talked about the large number of Soviet vehicles that were just static lumps of rusted steel and iron. It makes you wonder, had the balloon gone up, would the Soviets have been in any shape to put up a fight against the Western Allies?
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