Inside The Berlin Wall

Inside The Berlin Wall 1980s Excitement

One of the most interesting parts of my career was the period from 1984 to 1988 when I lived inside the Berlin Wall.

This is just part of my story…….

History of the Wall

Up Goes The WallAt 1.05am on Sunday 13 August 1961, East German border guards along with army combat soldiers assumed posts on the USSR/USA occupied sector borderline, on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate, in what is now central Berlin. All along the allied(France, US and UK) military occupation border line, dividing the two halves of the city, all the paving stones were ripped up to be immediately replaced with strains of barbed wire, adorning heavy concrete posts. By breakfast time that Sunday morning, only twelve of eighty-one streets, which had previously crossed between the allied and Russian military sectors, remained open to passage, with five of those cut soon afterwards. It was now possible to say that one was inside the Berlin Wall.

The evidence is that the appearance of the wall actually came as a welcome The Dividerelief to the allied powers; it had been expected, and was taken as confirmation that no imminent move would be initiated by the Soviet Union and GDR to retake the allied sectors of Berlin; West Berlin, to their relief was therefore considered safe.

As early as 1952, The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) had put in place a ‘hard border’ between themselves and The Federal Republic (West Germany). However, the border which ran through Berlin, which was governed by the four occupying powers, remained, to all intents and purposes an open frontier.

This had the unintended consequence of creating a key route for East Germans to escape the strictures of GDR state socialism, which they did in numbers, to pursue the ‘economic miracle’ taking place across West Germany. By 1961, in excess of 3.5 million GDR Germans, which accounted for twenty percent of the population, had exited, with many having crossed in Berlin.

Inside The Berlin WallEmigration slowed eventually to no more than a trickle, with the establishment of the wall. Five thousand people are estimated to have made a successful escape across the wall; on a sadder note, the number who died attempting escape, though disputed, is officially confirmed at 136 deaths, the last victim being shot in February 1989, only nine months before the wall came down. The GDR had always intended to keep people inside the Berlin Wall.

The 112km ring, surrounding West Berlin and separating it from the GDR consisted mainly of wire fencing. The structure we know as Berlin Wall was the 43km of rampart fortification that ran between east and west Berlin. This was eventually developed into a complex fortification which featured twin concrete barriers separated by the control or ‘death’ strip running down the middle of them. It was well floodlit, and heavily protected and augmented by electric fences, anti vehicle trenches, wire-guided dog patrols, observation towers, ‘defensive’ bunkers and armed GDR border guards.

My Reason For Being Inside The Berlin Wall

In the summer of I984 I was a young British Army Captain in the Royal Corps of Signals and I was training recruits taking them through basic training (boot 1936 Stadiumcamp) in Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire, England, when my orders arrived for my new post. I was instructed to report to West Berlin to the British Sector Headquarters in October 1984 to assume the position as second in command of the UK Berlin Infantry Brigade Signal Squadron (229 Signal Squadron).

2020 Stadium

I was to be billeted in the Officers Mess of Stadium Barracks, (circled in red) which was the
Olympic Village connected to the iconic 1936 Berlin Olympic Stadium. My Office would be in the old sports university (No6) which was at the centre of the Stadium Complex.

To get there I had to drive from Yorkshire to the east Coast of England take a ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge in Belgium, From there I would drive the 600km through Belgium into Germany and head North West to Helmstedt to then cross into East Germany to drive 200km up ‘the corridor’ through East Germany, from Checkpoint Alpha to Checkpoint Bravo, where I would enter West Berlin and drive the last 15 or so kilometres to my new barracks.

There was a strict protocol to be followed In order to navigate this corridor. CP AlphaCivilians went through one process and allied soldiers (FR,US,UK) through another process in order to make their way to Berlin.

As a British Officer I would report to the allied Checkpoint Alpha and present my orders and travel documents to the Military Police (there was a separate desk for each nationality) then armed with my Berlin Travel Document (BTD) I would be taken to a room and be given a folder to read which was the orders for the corridor transit. My time out from Alpha was recorded and I had exactly 2 hours to arrive at Checkpoint Bravo.

Stopping anywhere other than for emergencies was absolutely forbidden and arriving too quickly would result in an MP speeding ticket. Inside the briefing folder which accompanied the driver on the journey, which had written on it in both German and Russian, I am a British Soldier of the Allied Forces I request the presence of a Russian Officer. This was only to be used in the event of an emergency. We were not to leave the vehicle or move away from the road until recovered by an MP patrol.

After leaving checkpoint Alpha the traveller would drive to a Russian checkpointCP Bravo where they would be stopped by a Russian soldier. The traveller would leave the car, salute the soldier (whether in uniform or not) and go into a small shack manned by a Russian Officer. The officer would take the BTD and the travellers service ID card and stamp the BTD, having written the details in a ledger.

The traveller would then return to the car salute the Russian sentry who would raise the barriers and the traveller was then on a non-stop, no deviation, trip to checkpoint Bravo, where the whole procedure would be done again in reverse order, starting with the Russian checkpoint and then booking in and handing in the travel folder at the allied MP checkpoint Bravo,

I had arrived inside the Berlin Wall……

How I Lived

Berlin in the mid to late 80s was like no other place that I had ever been to in my life before. For a start I parked my car in the garage and just about they only time that I would use it after that was to transit down the corridor to get to West Germany, which was infrequently.

Public transport around Berlin was amazing with light railway and buses well-connected and running everywhere. If you were a serviceman in uniform you travelled for free.

3rdSAWe worked and played hard; there was an ever present realisation, that at no notice, the Warsaw Pact 3rd shock Army would come past, not through Berlin, because they would just encircle us, keep us locked in, and move on to the North German Plain to take on the NATO formations waiting for them, where I had spent 2 years also waiting for them, 4 years before arriving in Berlin, in another German posting near Hanover.

Besides the normal training for whatever might happen, there were constant rounds of tripartite cooperation meetings between the French US and UK powers who ostensibly were still the occupying powers in West Berlin with the Russians being the fourth and in control of East Berlin. This was a situation that existed until the formal handover of power to a reunified Germany in 1990 and the subsequent move of the Bonn Government back to its historical and rightful place in the newly unified City of Berlin

QBPDiplomacy was also important and there was and endless round of galas, cocktail parties, military tattoos etc. The big flag waving exercise for the British Sector was the annual Queens Birhtday Parade held on the Maifeld Sports Fields, a part of the original sports university and 1936 Olympic Village and venue.

Each year a very grand parade, with representation of all the UK force unitsHM
based in Berlin, was mounted and a representative of the Sovereign would come and be the reviewing dignitary. In my time there I saw the Queen, The Prince of Wales and Princess Margaret come to fulfill that role, and was lucky enough to be presented to the Queen and Prince of Wales at the Garden party that would always follow. Sadly Princess Margaret took ill the night before the Parade and the Commanding general of the British Sector took the parade on her behalf, so I never had that particular honour.

There were grand Sector Balls with each nationality keen to eclipse their colleague nations and Berlin was a city that never slept. It was vibrant exciting and there was something happening in a club, bar or theatre, 24 hours a day 7 days a week, some of it often a bit off colour but tracing its history right back to the Berlin cabaret era of the twenties, captured so well in the Lisa Minnelli movie of the same name.

BrunchOne of my favourite activities was Sunday morning Brunch when we would go to a cafe in one of the suburbs and read the newspapers, listen to live jazz music and eat brunch spending 2-3 hours just gently socialising.

In many ways my appreciation for some of the finer things in life came from this period of my career in Berlin.

Although I was inside the Berlin Wall, as one of the occupying powers I was able to travel to East Berlin and I would frequently attend restaurants, the opera and the ballet as well as go shopping in East Berlin for famous pottery and cut glass

History Happening Around Me

The obvious historic happening in regard to the wall, other than its appearance, was of course it’s coming down, and I will deal with that briefly in the next section. I left Berlin 11 months before this actually happened and there were indications then, that all was not right in Eastern Europe, and that some of the Soviet satellites were losing the support of Gorbachev, as he pursued his manifesto of Glasnost and Perestroika

But History was happening all around me. On a lighter theme I attended concertsDS performed by artists then at the height of their creative talents, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, the Dire Straits Brothers in Arms Tour, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and many, many others. I always remember the support act for Tina Turner being the group Berlin who were singing their hugely famous ‘Take my Breath Away’ the love theme from the Movie Top Gun starring Tom Cruise, which of course I had watched in the US Sector Cinema only weeks before the concert.

On a more serious note we saw the sad death of attempted escapees across theHess wall, the last one coinciding with my departure from Berlin just 11 months before the madness was ended. An American Officer on duty in East Berlin was shot by a Russian soldier who then refused medical treatment because he was confused about his orders. The officer subsequently sadly died.  Rudolf Hess, the last remaining Nazi Prisoner held in Spandau Prison, died, the autopsy citing suicide by hanging, he was 93 and had spent 40 years in imprisonment.

ReaganOn 12 June 1987, I stood 100m in front of President Ronald Reagan, on the Western side of the Brandenburg gate when he uttered the now famous words, “Mr Gorbachev tear down this wall”. Just over two years later the wall came down…..

The Wall Comes Down

The fall of the wall took place with epic speed. Following a long summer of civil unrest, that was to precipitate unforeseen historical change, right across the whole of eastern Europe, mass demonstrations took place in the GDR in the September of 1989 (only 11 months after I had left the city). In October1989, the country’s leader, Erich Honecker, who had been the GDR leader for 18 years, resigned.Wall Comes Down

The GDR East German politburo, on the 9thNovember 1989, lifted all border controls to the west. Included in this provision were private journeys to west Berlin, effective from 17 November. The official who famously made the announcement this, Günter Schabowski, made a mistake and, announced that it was effective with immediate effect. The rest is history there followed some well-known historic scenes of GDR citizens crossing and standing on top of the wall on what was an extraordinary night. Germany was formally reunified 11 months later after 28 years of separation. No one else would ever have to live inside the Berlin Wall again.

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14 thoughts on “Inside The Berlin Wall 1980s Excitement”

  1. Great story baby boomer. I also travelled the corridor between West Berlin on a bus in 1977 but I think in the opposite direction.
    My English Aunt was visiting her German penpal and finished up on the wrong side when the Wall was started. It apparently took her several weeks to get out and travel home from Berlin.
    Fascinating experience and an interesting read.

    • Thanks John, lovely to have you come by and make a comment. Berlin was some of the most exciting times of my military career, though as I have indicated I often did not realise that at the time. I am glad you got some joy from the article thanks


  2. Dear Hamish, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your Article. I still Live in Berlin. You wouldnt recognize it now. I came to live here in 1982. So went through most of what you experienced. Only Difference I was a Civy , but worked in the Naafi at that time. Remember the wall coming down all too well. Our paths must have crossed at some time. regards to you From Berlin

  3. Great story – this was my first posting and I was 229 and the 29 and a swimmer ! Corps champs each year ! Great times and I haven’t been back since I left in 89. A lot of great stories from train guards to flag tours to restaurant visits to the east. Happy days – best posting of my 36 year military career.

  4. Some stories, aspects I’d forgotten (or put away in my dusty, cobwebbed memory) and enjoyed the same Posting a few years earlier. Some day those stories I can add may surface. Fantastically interesting times back then; and an amazing city to have lived in during that unique time. I always held a deep respect for West Berliners who lived their whole lives there, though you do realise why they made the most of life and their time, under the political circumstances.

  5. Hamish,

    The US Mission lost an officer who was shot in East Germany, Hamish, – not East Berlin itself. The French Military Mission also lost an officer.

    • Thanks Ian, for the correction, I read a piece from a former BRIXMIS officer recently who recalled the US Officer but not the French one. What were the circumstances surrounding that one?


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