Berlin 1970-72 – A Young Officer’s Tale - Flag Tours

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Berlin 1970-72

1st Battalion The Queen’s Regiment
Berlin 1970-72 – A Young Officer’s Tale - Flag Tours
By Lieutenant Colonel Roger Gancz

The Battalion took over from The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in July 1970 and was soon into the regular routines, together with the other Berlin units, of: guarding Hess in Spandau Prison, border patrols, the British Military Train and Flag Tours. Like so many things in Berlin, these activities grew out of the Potsdam Agreement between the USA, UK and USSR in 1945. This included free access to all sectors for the Allied governing powers. The Agreement was subsequently complicated by the Soviet blockade in 1948-49 and the closing-off of East Berlin, the Soviet sector, in 1961 with the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Flag Tours were one of the ways in which this freedom of movement within the city was exercised. After the wall was built, access to East Berlin was restricted to Checkpoint Charlie in the American sector. These tours were conducted most days of the year, day and night, often by several units at the same time. They could last for many hours and, as I was to discover, could end very abruptly after a few minutes.

As a young officer, I would admit to a certain excitement at the opportunity to do these tours. For most soldiers, it is unusual to have the opportunity to cross formalised boundaries to ‘walk’ some of your enemy’s ground. Berlin also had all the ingredients for the very best spy novels because it was real and at the centre of the Cold War. Flag Tours they may have been called, but apart from exercising the rite of passage, they were also low level information gathering patrols. I have no idea how much the information gathered contributed to the grand scheme of things, but you would have had to have been particularly inert not to have got some sense of playing a tiny part in Cold War history.

The battalion intelligence officer, Capt Steve Dowse followed by Capt Mike Jarrett, ran our roster. Once nominated for a tour, you would report to brigade headquarters for a short briefing from the intelligence people on: the area to be covered; any specific tasks, such as troop movements and military equipment, and any activity of note. Documents were provided for entry and exit through Checkpoint Charlie. These were for the Russians only because East German jurisdiction was not recognised in the Soviet sector by the Western Allies. Once through Checkpoint Charlie, reality could be very different. The VoPo (Volkspolizei – Peoples Police), an unpleasant paramilitary organisation with substantial military resources was very much in evidence. Numerous stories existed about tour cars being boxed-in for long periods and worse, but most tours were relatively uneventful. Reports, and sometimes debriefs, were done after completion.

The British tour cars were army-green Austin 1300s suitably adorned with Berlin Infantry Brigade and Union Jack stickers. Its diminutive size seemed to lack the presence that one might have expected for exercising the British right of passage, but it did have a military radio for communication with brigade headquarters and specially trained drivers were provided by 62 Transport and Movement Squadron Royal Corps of Transport.. No weapons were carried. However, in spite of its appearance, I was to become an admirer of this little car’s agility and robustness.

Crossing through Checkpoint Charlie for the first time was an exciting experience. On the east side, it was heavily fortified with concrete chicanes, a watch tower and lifting barriers. Papers were handed over to the Russians and you set off along Friedrich Strasse in the direction of the Unter den Linden. The contrast with West Berlin was immediate. The West had all the trappings of a flourishing, affluent society. Much of the East had changed little since the end of WW 2, except for the new centre around the area of the Brandenburg Gate, the Palace of the Republic, the Rathause and Alexanderplatz. War damage could be seen everywhere. Buildings were still derelict and many were covered in shrapnel and bullet marks, a testimony to the bitter fighting before the Russians finally took the city. There were few cars and even fewer shops with little in them to buy. People looked poor. The famous Berliner Dom Cathedral at the eastern end of the Unter den Linden was still a bombed ruin. Away from the centre, there was an eeriness about this half of the city that was both fascinating and sinister.

‘Targets’ were invariably barracks. Surrounded by high walls, there was little to be seen from the outside, so waiting near the gates was often the only option. In the middle of the night, this could be a boring and fruitless activity. The desire to ‘tweak the tiger’s tail’ could sometimes be irresistible. Leaving the driver in the car with the engine running, I would walk towards the sentry to see how far I could get before he recognised the British military uniform and reacted. When the guard was called-out, it was time to leave.

May Day parades were periods of high military activity on both sides. In East Berlin, military equipment was frequently on the move and parade rehearsals took place, all of which the Western Allies wanted to keep an eye on. In 1971, I was tasked to tour the city centre where the rehearsals and the parade the following day were to pass. This was on the east side of the Spree close to the Palace of the Republic, the red brick Rathause, the Berliner Fernsehturm (TV tower) and Alexanderplatz. It was to be a night rehearsal, so, together with Sgts ‘Whisky’ Walker and ‘Bluey’ Hedges, we crossed over early in the evening before the centre was sealed off. Once through Checkpoint Charlie, an unmarked BMW tail car came up behind us. This was not an unusual occurrence, particularly prior to a big event. We had a few attempts to lose it, but Austin 1300s were no match for BMWs! I decided to park up in the centre on Karl Liebknecht Strasse and wait for the rehearsal to start. Our tail car parked up about 20 metres away. We got out to stretch our legs and had a brief chat with our East German minders and gave them some fags. Time was dragging on past midnight; when was the rehearsal going to start? Suddenly, we saw our minders jump into their car and drive off. I spotted two Gaz 69 jeeps speeding towards us from the direction of the Unter den Linden. I had no desire to be a long stay guest of the German Democratic Republic; time to leave. I shouted a warning and jumping into our car, we set off for Checkpoint Charlie. The road system in those days required us first to travel east up Karl Liebknecht Strasse to a large roundabout at Alexanderplatz. Approaching the roundabout, a VoPo, in a Wartburg police car, came up alongside brandishing a pistol out of the car window. This was getting serious. With tyres screeching and adrenalin pumping, I told my driver to go around the roundabout a second time to make some distance on the VoPo, which we achieved. Travelling west now along Karl Liebknecht Strasse, we crossed the Spree; sped past the Dom Cathedral into the Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate. My driver was doing a fantastic job nearly driving the wheels off our little car, but the Wartburg was gaining on us. The Unter den Linden was a wide dual carriage way and, travelling west, it was not possible to turn directly into Friedrich Strasse to get to Checkpoint Charlie. We had to go to Wilhelm Strasse, a few hundred metres from the Brandenburg Gate and double back on the opposite carriage way. Flat out and with my guidance, the driver was weaving the car down the Unter den Linden to prevent our not so friendly VoPo from overtaking us. Just before the carriage way crossover, I spotted a large ‘No Parking’ sign on a concrete base planted on the edge of our carriage way with the centre reservation. We lured the VoPo to come up on our left side and at the critical moment I shouted, “Swerve left”. Instinctively, the VoPo swerved left too with the inevitable result. I caught a glimpse of the disintegrating ‘No Parking’ sign and the Wartburg was gone. Through now to the other carriage way and going east towards our right turn into Friedrich Strasse. But, there at the junction were about five or six military clad men forming a human barrier across the road. They must have been the crews of the two Gaz 69s who, unable to keep up, had stopped and run across the Unter den Linden to block us. I clearly remember saying to my driver, “Don’t stop, but for God’s sake don’t kill anyone”. Reflecting on this instruction after 48 years, I have no idea what he made of it. Suffice to say, he barely lifted off the throttle as we turned into Friedrich Strasse. I was aware of khaki clad bodies leaping to safety and a large, wooden truncheon striking the windscreen right in front of my face. Luckily it held and we were off again, with the car’s engine screaming, towards Checkpoint Charlie about a kilometre away. With barely time to draw breath, there suddenly appeared on our left side a large, unmarked Volga car which rammed us. Again, I told my driver to keep going as fast as possible, keep the car on the road and force the Volga to go around the left side of the two U-Bahn entrances in the middle of the road before the checkpoint; then park the car with the bonnet up against the barrier at Checkpoint Charlie. And so we progressed down Friedrich Strasse at breakneck speed with the Volga trying to knock us off the road. While all this was going on, I was giving periodic sitreps over the radio. I recall thinking that I must try to sound calm and collected; I probably overdid it!
We beat the Volga to Checkpoint Charlie, albeit on the east side, where, for a moment, we had time to reflect on what had happened, but not for long. A BTR 152 armoured lorry pulled up behind us and two men holding an enormous hook on the end of a winch cable were trying to find somewhere to attach it to our car. The only things you could easily attach to the back of an Austin 1300 were a few stickers! They eventually gave up and drove away. Meanwhile, I was sending more sitreps and was told that negotiations were being held and that we would soon be released. It was reassuring to know this, but it also amused us to hear an American voice telling us that, “We now have you under observation”. We eventually spotted a loan GI standing on the top of a building, a rifle slung over his shoulder, holding a pair of binoculars. After about half an hour, the negotiators had done their stuff; the barrier suddenly lifted and we were out.

May Day 1972 was nearly a repeat performance. Capt Richard Graham and I went over for the night rehearsal. My card was obviously marked. Within 15 minutes a Gaz 69 deliberately rammed us hard. It was time to leave again. A couple of days later, I went back in with Sgt Bowes-Crick and L/Cpl Gurr. We latched on to an East German military convoy returning to its barracks in broad daylight. As the barrack gates swung open and the vehicles started to enter, the military policemen directing the traffic suddenly spotted us. Pandemonium ensued; the VoPo rushed around shouting orders, but not knowing whether or not to get all the vehicles into the barracks before shutting the gates. We had a good laugh, but I decided it was time to leave before they started getting aggressive. We cruised around till nightfall trying not to attract attention to what we had planned to do next. As midnight approached, in totally deserted streets, we made our way back to Checkpoint Charlie via a pre-recced stand of red and East German flags. Flags were quickly liberated from their poles, which Colin Bowes-Crick and I still have as reminders of our Berlin Flag Tours.