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Monday, November 09, 2009
Berlin...! (Part 1)
The train gasped and panted like an old asthmatic patient. One could hardly imagine that this monster would be capable of taking us anywhere, and - after all we had heard and been taught about our destination, one wondered why it would even want to take us there - to Berlin!
Prussian capital, with a charged history, going back much further than Napoleon's occupation, but more recently the capital of a more sinister group - the NDSP - also known as the "Nazi" party. The Capital was currently split into 4 zones, American, British, French and - the largest - Russian.
Sounds so simple, 4 zones, just like four counties or Federal States - but it wasn't quite like that.
There was a construction built to fulfill an impossible function - split a country completely in two. Hadrian had tried it centuries before and it hadn't worked - Chinese Emperors had tried it even longer ago, and it hadn't worked, now something called Communism was trying it, and it could only be assumed that it wouldn't work, but it meant that we were here, standing in front of this puffing monster, awaiting instructions to "embark"!
No - not politicians, not diplomats - just little lads in uniform from all over Britain, more interested in what Manchester United or Chelsea were doing than in Berlin, East or West!
We were going there because "they" had told us to go there!
This was the original Military Express Braunschweig - Berlin!
A train only for British Military and their dependants, which chuffed, daily - back and fro' - through the occupied territory of Eastern Germany, to finally arrive in West Berlin, another piece of occupied territory, just occupied by a different set of "Military powers that be".
This was a novelty trip for most of the young defenders of liberty!
It would probably be the first and last time they would be seated in a railway dining car, being served by German waiters, albeit being served the same "composite" rations they got on manoeuvres in the wild countryside of Western Germany, but somehow - different!
Being served was the difference, the novelty, even when the food was of "doubtful" origins. After all, what else could you do for the 6 hours needed for the journey over 180 kilometers but eat? That's why the "powers that be" had put on the service!
If you added to the length of the journey the fact that after only 15 minutes or so after starting, the train stopped, and strange noises were heard from outside the carriages. We were at the East-West Germany Border Control point of Helmstedt/Marienborn, and the East German guards, together with their Russian allies and friends, were busily covering up ALL windows of the train with "elderly" pieces of boarding, making the light inside the train even more sinister, adding to the atmosphere of "gloom and doom".
We were in the middle of the "Cold War" of the early 60's, and we weren't allowed to see any of the boringly flat and empty East German countryside as it passed by.
This "boarding" would only come off when we reached the West German or "Allied" border point of West Berlin, at a place called "Drei Linden"- just 15 minutes from our endstop, the Charlottenburg Railway Station, West Berlin, Military Express platform, where the lights and hustle-bustle of a modern Western city, exagerated to "show off" against the Eastern poverty, blinded us on our arrival - but we soon got used to the good life!
So - we ate and ate, but - not having the good luck to be in the French Army, no wine! Cups and cups, and mugs and mugs of tea - "char" - a "brew up", in British Army tradition, but unbeleivably boring.
Our purpose....? Well - obviously to protect "freedom" in the West, but rather more (like the other 3 powers in Berlin) just to show presence - "we're here - so watch out!"
We were officially to guard a gentleman called Rudolph Hess, sitting almost on his own in a prison called "Spandau Gefaengnis" - situated on West Berlin territory, and upheld as a result of the Nurnberg War Criminal trials, even if only 2 of the original prisoners were still held, in a prison built for over 150 prisoners! and to ocasionally patrol that famous impractical thing called "THE WALL".
The "Allied Forces" (which included the Russians) had an arrangement whereby they each took a period of 3 months "guard duty", before handing over to the next "ally"!
Everybody did it. The Russians because it was their one and only entry authorised to Western Territory, the French because they could play revolutionary music to the Communists to upset them, the Americans because they could smother the prisoners with Lucky Strikes or Camels and Hamburgers, chewing gum and all the rest, and obtain their wished for impression of "being loved" by the prisoners.
The British did it basically because the prison was in their "zone", and they didn't want to spoil the party.
All did it as well because West Berlin was a wonderful place to be stationed in. Everything was laid on, at generally no price, gratis, free!
Sure - it was a hard life, guarding two elderly men from Hitler's Regime, and sitting in landrovers buzzing around the wall perimeter, rather like a City Sightseeing Tour, but somehow, we managed!
We played golf, free of charge, we played cricket (when we could get our balls back from the Russian guards), we played football, and invariably beat the Russian team.....the Bars, restaurants, clubs, cafés, brothels, shops, were open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day - Berlin was special.
We had access to our "NAAFI" products, including tax free cigarettes, alcohols, beers and all the rest, so money was never a real problem - 3 liter bottles of vodka, whisky, cognac etc...etc... changed hands at reasonable profits and although we were payed our sold (army wages) in things called "BAFFS" (British Army replacement bank notes - exchangable or usable only in British Army places) these were exchangable in various "dark" places for German D-Marks, and of course the bottles and cigarettes changed hands at the same time for more D-Marks!
All probably highly illegal, but everyone did it - EVERYONE!
West D-Marks of course, it was only later in civilian life that I discovered the novelty of exchanging (equally illegally) West D-marks for East D-marks at the rate of 1 West for 20 East!
(Read some stories about Army Life in Germany here:)
In part 2 : I'll be telling you about the happenings in West and East Berlin later in life, as a "Civilian" in the Overseas Civil Service,
iwmpop(mr le Marquis) copyright November 2009.