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Saturday, January 15, 2011
Once upon a time in...West Berlin......
Edited and republished January 2011.
So there it was, lying on my desk in front of me.
15 months or so had passed, mainly quite quickly on looking back, I was over a year older, but in experiences - I had aged by 50 years.
Just a piece of paper, called a Posting Order, which I had seen many a time in my services to Queen and Country.
This one though, was different.
Although it had the very welcome news that I was to proceed on dis and em-barkation leave of 2 months, and then report for duty in the Legion Barracks at Castelnaudary in Southern France, from where I would eventually return to the Barracks in Larzac (La Cavalerie), it still meant saying bye-bye to Berlin, and that, I must say, was difficult.
However it had to be done, and my problem was immediate.
Due to all sorts of Security orders, which controlled WHO was invitable WHERE in Berlin, I had figured out that a lot of the people I would like to invite for the binge-up of the century, would not, in all probability, be allowed to come.
There were French soldiers, who had been very useful over the 15 months for obtaining French food, often free of charge, or in exchange for something from the British side, and due to my French capabilities, these contacts also led to many of us being invited to the French quarter for wonderful weekends.
The same thing applied to the US Sector, less for the food than for the booze and cigs!
Even certain Dutch and Belgian units (very small) had participated in a great 15 months.
Amazingly, the Russians too had contributed, with specialities exchanged with them on their 3 monthly tours.
One couldn't, of course, invite a load of Russians, and in any case, I had arranged my "do" when they were on duty at the prison.
This enabled, or would enable all the others to come.
If only I could organize a suitable reunion.
The NAAFI premises in Smuts Barracks at the time(1967) were installed on the attic floor of the REME building, which was next to the Barracks entry, with it's Guard Posts.
To pass these guards was no problem for Western soldiers, in uniform and with valid ID Cards, soldiers of all Nationalities. For German Civilians, however, a special pass was required, and this was not easy to obtain, and certainly not for a group of some 15-20 people!
Have no fear - the Marquis is here!
Which brings me back to the opening of this article, CRICKET. I happened to know that the Major commanding, was a sports fan, particularly of Cricket, also of Rugby, but we didn't play Rugby, so he had become a "limited" fan of football.
(Must have something to do in the winter!)
As the Squadron clerk, I had no problems to see him daily, get him to sign a lot of things he didn't recognize, being in German or French etc, and anyway, he was one of the biggest profiteers of MY contacts all over Berlin.
God, I had even been able to get him FREE pony stuff from the US lads, for his Polo Pony. (Polo was played regularly - by the Officers - on the Maifeld next to the Olympic Stadium)
Taking the bull by the horns, I simply wrote out a demand for military transport (one of those green buses) for 25 civilian persons, with security passes for 48hrs (I didn't know how long the binge would go on for, but Friday night to Sunday night seemed reasonable to me!) and transport back to the departure point, The Berliner Zoogarten (in the centre of West Berlin). These civilians were required for "administration purposes". The Major, suspecting something, asked (stupidly) what "admin purposes" were concerned, and would he be required.
I told him, quite honestly, that it all had to do with the arranging of Cricket and Football (and other sports) fixtures for the following period, and that I was using the occasion to hand over my organizing to the replacement clerk, so that everybody knew everybody, and the events could continue without hitch.
His presence (said I) was not imperative, but that was up to him, since it would probably all take the form of a social occasion, being held in one of the private NAAFI rooms.
(He wasn't allowed in there, as a serving Commissioned Officer, without an invitation from what is called an "other rank" soldier.
He knew this, and his interest had been aroused.
I suggested there would be no problem in finding such an invitation for him, should he so desire, and, of course, if he signed the demand, otherwise there would be no point, 'cos there wouldn't be anyone there, and there wouldn't be any sports fixtures the following seasons, either!
I got everything under way, a regular sort of Sgt Bilko I was, at the time, and even the Russians turned up to take over in the Prison! (As though they wouldn't!)
I'm not going into the details of this weekend here!
Ask me, if and when you see me again, and if you've got a couple of weeks time, I'll tell you the lot!
What I will say, is that all had a great time, even the Major, who, upon arrival, and seeing the enormous feast from everybody in West Berlin's ration stores, let out an enormous shriek, "Sergeeeeeeeant Mitchell, get over here!"
Slamming my foot into attention, I was informed that I was a scoundrel, a shame to the British Army, a thief, I would probably end up in Prison, together with him, and ................ was that REAL caviar he saw surrounded by blinis?
Where the hell had I got hold of so much of the stuff? (I preferred not to tell him that the Russians loved our Whisky and his cigars)!
During the course of the Saturday night, we even got a telephone call from the prison next door, and (much to the dismay of the Major - still present- who saw a major without a crown on his shoulder, and a major international incident in his pocket) we agreed to a 3 man platoon visit from the Russian troops, to "clarify" the situation,regarding the noise coming from the British Barracks!
The 3 men stayed a couple of hours, had brought various sorts of Russian goodies, and finally parted with all sorts of British goodies.
No - we didn't play football in no man's land, or sing Christmas Carols together, but we communicated!
Everything went off well, the only hitch being when the coach left with the German civilians, when a Guard Sentry said he required the ID Cards of all of them to "note down their particulars".
He was rapidly taken aside by a rather wackly Major, who didn't want the slightest chance of the International Incident becoming fact!
So - that was that, and my last voyage, as a Military person from W. Berlin commenced.
I came back with my wife some years later, as I have already mentioned, but somehow it was different as a "Squaddie".
My last journey -
Well, I had been looking forward to it anyway!
This voyage was by train, the one and only "waiter serviced" British Military Train. Berlin-Braunchweig (Brunswick), daily, there and back.
A daylight service, which allowed one to see the Eastern German countryside and the poor buggars living in it, whilst drinking tea and dunking biscuits served by immaculate waiters in bow-ties. God alone knows why this existed.
It was a throw back to some of the Military trains I saw, but never experienced,in Singapore.
I think it was , for a lot of the Eastend of London lads, probably the one and only time they experienced such "Imperial" standards in their whole life.
Enough said, it was thoroughly enjoyable, and if the East German or Russian guards didn't put up wooden boards at the window (which signified the passage of some eastern important person, or a new "secret" something or other) one could almost imagine oneself on the Oriental Express!
The Brits had this one, the USA had, at the time,another one to Frankfurt-on-Main, the French had one going to Strasbourg, via Trier/Mainz, so if one had the contacts, and the time, one could pass a most agreeable touring holiday - free of charge!
I only went as far as Braunschweig, and then had to take a lowly 2nd class normal German Bundesbahn (train) to Detmold, where the Regiment was still stationed, collect my posting papers, my leave pass, my travel warrants, my money, my cache of tobaco, spirits, my military equipment (I was, after all, a Soldier!).
I also wanted to try and "pop-in" to say hello and goodbye to the Colonel of the Regiment (not something normally done, but he hated me as the only "bearded" soldier under his command, and did his best to ensure that I was away from the Regiment the maximum of time possible, and I NEVER was to show my "garnished face" on ANY parade!!
This, of course, suited me down to the ground, and I always tried to show my gratitude, when I was in town!
After all, he always insisted that he was "second father" to all his Regimental soldiers.
All I wanted to do was say, "bye-bye Dad!"
He must have known I was coming, and was off seeing the Queen or something!
They promised to pass on my salutes to him, together with my latest, bearded, photo!
(For the Regimental Journal, I thought!!)
And that was it!
Berlin finished, even Germany finished, for I was to spend the next few years in France, before leaving the Army completely. And I never did get to see the Colonel again!