The 9th November 2014 marked 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down.
With that in mind, LFOF member, Dick Muskett, has provided a guest blog for us on his time serving in Berlin.
The recent press coverage of the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall was particularly poignant for old squaddies who had spent part of their youth in that city, at a time when it was very different to how it is now. When I enlisted in the KRRC (2nd Green Jackets) in 1962 I found the regiment was about to move from Northern Ireland to Berlin, just a year since the wall had been built to divide the city. But the training Serjeant came by and said the 43rd & 52nd (the 1st Green Jackets) was about to sail for Malaya and they were looking for extra riflemen to bring some companies up to strength.
Put yourself in our shoes – Berlin sounded cold and war-battered, whereas Penang suggested palm trees and tropical adventures. No contest! I reckon 80% of that training platoon ‘re-badged’ to what had been the old Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, even though most of us had never been to either of those historic counties. But history catches up with you and after two and a half years of jungle bashing in one of those end of empire small wars that everyone’s forgotten except for those who were there (plus some tropical adventures), we found ourselves in Berlin anyway, in the late winter of 1965.
It was cold and it was still war-battered, and there was the pervading knowledge that the Soviet Red Army had fought their way over every inch of ground into the city and that the experience of those last few weeks of the War twenty years before had been grim for Berliners and in particular the women of the city had experienced a nightmare. From the start it felt quite surreal and the curtain went up on that surreal experience when on arrival, the regiment were assembled in the camp cinema for a talk by Brigade Intelligence. We were warned that Berlin was the most spy-infested city in the world and that by the time our time in the town was finished something like 60% of us would have come into contact with the intelligence services in some way.
I was in Recce Platoon and that meant that we were already part of that 60%. Our job was to patrol the wall every day and every night, although in the British sector there was little wall in the conventional sense and instead a lot of wire, with observation towers and carefully raked sandy strips where would-be defectors from the east had to gamble on the possibility of mines. Our barracks in Kladow sat squarely on the border between east and west and at the bottom end of the camp you could step over a strip of hazard tape and were technically in East Berlin, though the barbed wire fencing and flood-lights were another 200 metres on, beyond derelict barrack blocks, complete with Wehrmacht signs.
Under the agreement between the then allies in 1945 that divided Berlin between Russians, Americans, British and French, uniformed personnel could pass freely in and out of any of the sectors, and all parties exercised that right of access constantly. So when we weren’t driving Ferret scout cars along the track on our side of the wire, we would put on pressed no.2 uniforms, drive a military through one of the official crossing points and hang around outside Russian barracks, taking down the details from the number plates of Soviet vehicles. I don’t think anyone did anything with the pages of numbers we collected, and we suspected we did it to prove a point and annoy the Russians.
Surreal activities including guard duties at Spandau prison where Rudolf Hess remained the sole prisoner – it was forbidden to talk to the prisoner and Hess knew this so he’d try to strike up a conversation with the patrolling sentries to get them into trouble. We also guarded the Russian soldiers who were guarding the Soviet War memorial in our sector, near the Brandenburg Gate. We weren’t sure what we were guarding them from, and we knew they didn’t really need guarding – when we finished patrols on the Wall at weekends or over holiday periods, we would drop a sitrep off in Brigade Headquarters on our way back to barracks, and we were all familiar with the map in the Intelligence office, showing Soviet troop deployment. As they had around a division for every Nato platoon, it was pretty clear that if they chose to, they could walk in any time.
But the news stories on the anniversary of the Wall coming down did clear up one thing that had been puzzling me for nearly fifty years. Now and again when going out on night patrols, we were told that at a certain time in a certain section of the Wall, the searchlights would go out. We were to park up, turn our lights off and do nothing, and ignore any cars with dimmed lights that briefly stopped. Then normality would resume – though it was a funny sort of normality. We speculated what was happening, and guessed that it might be an exchange of spies or something cloak and daggerish anyway.
But one recent newspaper story made it clear. It seems that if you had money in East Berlin, then you didn’t have to risk your life in trying to scale the wire whilst being fired at by the border guards – you could just buy your passage to freedom. And to avoid further lowering the morale of the population in East Berlin by letting their prosperous defectors carry their suitcases through one of the official crossing points in broad daylight, a deal was struck where at pre-arranged times, the searchlights went off, and the reluctant East Berliners were delivered though one of the small gates that could be found at various points along the wire. Serving in Berlin in the Cold War made you cynical and that story confirmed that we had every reason to feel that way.
Credit to Mississippi State University Library for the featured image.