Prologue PROLOGUE October 1961
It would be the first time the young British officer had traveled to West Berlin. Lieutenant Robert Corbett of the Irish Guards looked out the door of the guards’ railcar that brought up the rear of the twenty-wagon military supply train. His afternoon had become stressful at the railway loading yard in Hanover as he anxiously watched final preparations being made by West German civilian crews, loading the wagons with essential supplies of fuel oil, ammunition, and foodstuffs, all heading for the British garrison now isolated in West Berlin, though only 177 kilometers (about a hundred miles) away.
He knew there would be ample time wasted at the Inner German border crossing at Helmstedt, but he was confident they would still get the train through without a fuss. By October 1961 the East Germans and the Soviets had successfully split the city in two with what would become the Berlin Wall, and the Allies were anxious that the three border crossings into East Germany with access to Berlin should be maintained at all costs. “My orders were very clear,” Corbett recalled. “Under no circumstances was I to permit the train’s contents to be pilfered, or physically interfered with.” Corbett had a small, handpicked reconnaissance platoon—eleven men and his platoon sergeant. With night drawing near, the British troops felt the first sharp bite of an autumn chill as the wind picked up. To keep warm, they quickly withdrew into the central section of the train where the guard stove was situated.
As the train pulled into Helmstedt to cross into the German Democratic Republic at Marienborn,
where Checkpoint Alpha was situated, Corbett adjusted his eyes to the arc lights illuminating the scene. This major crossing point was a set of simple, flimsy huts that marked out the actual border between East and West Germany. The cheery Allied border control officers bade the British troops farewell as they quickly processed the train through their side of the border at Helmstedt. Any feeling of optimism for the journey ended abruptly within a hundred yards, as the train came to a sudden halt, the engine letting out a powerful jet of steam when the brakes were applied.
Out of the gloom came at least a dozen East German Transport Police—Trapos
—to carry out the inspection of the train, check identification of any non-Allied personnel aboard, and search for stowaways.
East German border guards—Grenztruppen
—armed with submachine guns slung loosely across their shoulders maintained a watchful eye as they chatted and smoked cheap cigarettes. As he scanned the borders of the darkness, Corbett could hear dogs barking ferociously in the distance. The buggers are no doubt sniffing the air for any would-be escapees
, he thought to himself. The border crossing was a shabby, dismal place lit up with the glaring arc lamps, which were placed high above guard towers crisscrossed with barbed wire. Corbett couldn’t wait to leave and get going on to Berlin.
Within a few minutes three Soviet border guards joined the Trapos
and came marching to the rear of the guards’ wagon in order to take the British officers’ transportation papers back to their commandant’s office on the station platform. The driver and train guard from Hanover would depart when the paperwork had been cleared, as East German personnel took the train on from here. For want of anything better to do, the rest of Corbett’s platoon quickly disembarked to stretch their legs, have a smoke, and see if they could start a conversation with the Russian conscripts standing near the train’s platform. Corbett had been warned that the Communists would stretch out the border checks, and that once in the GDR the train would have to deal with other delays, like the terrible state of the track, which brought speeds down to forty-three miles per hour. When he returned to the guards’ wagon, he discovered on his bunk a beautiful Russian leather belt, with a great big brass buckle decorated with the hammer and sickle. Next to it was a red packet of Russian cigarettes with a Soviet design. He turned suspiciously to his men.
“Oh, sir,” one of them said, “we thought you’d like it and so we’ve been doing a bit of swapping.”
“What did you swap it for?” He frowned.
“Well, a few half packs of cards!” said another guardsman with a laugh. Soldiers never change
, Corbett thought. They’re all the same
. It broke the tension that had been building inside him, and he leaned out of the guards’ wagon window to watch the train crew starting to warm up the engine for travel. He studied the Russian border guards as they went about their business, and he admired their evident discipline. They had offered no opposition or signs of aggression. So long as the paperwork was in order, he had a right to travel to West Berlin, and they efficiently waved him and the train through into East German territory. The young officer had no idea that his problems were about to begin.
“Once we’d got through into East Germany,” he later recalled, “our new East German driver was determined that he would cause us as much difficulty as possible. He kept on stopping and starting all the time, and as a result we were up all night long. Going through Magdeburg in the early hours of the morning, we could see the great tank workshops there, the arc welding and engineering going on at that time of day, so this was obviously a twenty-four-hour operation.
“Shortly after first light, east of Magdeburg, the train was stopped, and whenever it stopped, I had been told that I had to patrol it to prevent people perhaps who might want to get on it to get into West Berlin, or who might have been wanting to loot the goods we were transporting.
“The train was halted, and very shortly before that we had gone past a party of about twelve very heavily armed People’s Police—Volkspolizei
—on the railway line, carrying those nasty little Russian submachine guns with vented barrels. It was here that I made a mistake.”
As the train’s brakes hissed, Corbett took his platoon sergeant up to the front end of the column to see what the issue was—keenly aware he couldn’t afford further delays. Almost immediately, the train started off with a mighty hissing of steam, and a loud shunting as the wagons crashed forward. Dancing out of the way of the boiling steam, Corbett anxiously looked back down the train. “I could see one of my guardsmen, a man called Guardsman Kelly—immensely strong but whose intellect did not necessarily match his strength. He was violently grappling with two Volkspolizisten
who were trying to arrest him, and they were certainly coming off the worse for it as he knocked both to the ground.”
Lieutenant Corbett spun around and, hand on his sidearm, sprinted back up the length of the train, bellowing above the noise of the hissing brakes. The train came to an abrupt stop. Someone had pulled the emergency brake cord, thank goodness. Reaching the guards’ railcar, lungs bursting, Corbett and his sergeant jumped up onto the platform at the back and barked at the eleven-man platoon to get aboard in short order. They caught sight of a scrum of men double-timing toward them out of the darkness, the sound of boots crunching on gravel growing louder. The East Germans fanned out across the concourse, blocking the railway line. A stern-looking Volkspolizei
officer stood a few yards away, pointing at Guardsman Kelly, shouting, “This man is trespassing on the sovereign territory of the German Democratic Republic and you will hand this man over to us, now!”
Corbett stood his ground, stared into the face of the Vopo
, and quickly came to a decision. He wasn’t going to back down. “We will not!” he barked back in German, and his sergeant gestured for his men to bring their rifles to bear. Instantly, several Soviet submachine guns were cocked and raised in the British contingent’s direction. “In my mind, I could see myself as a young officer sowing the seeds of the Third World War,” Corbett recalled. Both sides stood motionless for what seemed like an eternity. Perhaps sensing the futility of escalating the conflict, the men of the Volkspolizei
slowly lowered their weapons and backed off, cursing the guardsmen as they made their way down the line, their burly shapes melting into the gloom, encouraged along their way by some choice Irish Guards sentiment.
Although relieved, Corbett cursed his luck as the train guard now informed him that pulling the emergency brake had come at a price: They would be delayed a few more precious hours in order for the mechanic to bleed the air out of the train’s braking system.
As the dawn broke next morning, the train finally arrived in West Berlin—chugging through the great marshaling yards at Spandau to unload its precious cargo. Corbett dreaded that he was now in trouble—they were very late, and he had caused what he thought was probably close to an international incident.
“Once I had billeted my men, I then went to see the brigade commander in Berlin [Brigadier R. Whitworth] and report myself arrived. I thought I was going to be court-martialed. And I told him exactly what had happened and said, ‘I’m very sorry, sir, if I’ve done the wrong thing here.’ He said, ‘No, you’ve done exactly right. Don’t worry, Corbett, we’re going to look after you.’?”
The garrison then arranged for Corbett and his men to see West Berlin and specifically the first preliminary building of the wall on the horseshoe under the Brandenburg Gate. Corbett was keen to see for himself what the world had only begun to see on television or read in the newspapers. He was intrigued by the immensity of the undertaking to sever a whole city through the center with a barrier.
He walked through the Tiergarten, past the Soviet War Memorial and toward the semi-derelict husk that had once been the Reichstag—the grand German center of government. After climbing the vast flights of stairs to the main chamber—up which the Soviet 79th Rifle Corps had famously stormed in May 1945, before planting the Red Flag atop the roof—Corbett managed to find a pathway into the ruins of the Reichstag’s upper floors. He marveled at the numerous bullet holes and shrapnel scars in the huge stone columns, symbols of the fierce firefight that had taken place here sixteen years before. Cyrillic graffiti decorated many of the walls—a reminder of who had won. Finally, he neared the highest section made safe by British engineers in the roof of the ruins. Corbett climbed up a long steel ladder to the observation post that had been established by the British Army. A sense of history filled his mind.
Using his binoculars, he took in the broad sweep of the entire center of the city: the stunning monument that was still the Brandenburg Gate, with the beautiful boulevard of Unter den Linden
(“Under the Lime Trees”) stretching off into the distance toward Museum Island and the tops of grand buildings such as the Berlin Cathedral. Where the beginnings of the Wall now wormed their way around the Gate, he could see trucks, cranes, and dozens of workmen all building the next phase of the barrier, turning barbed-wire fencing into a wall of cement blocks. In the middle distance the boulevard was dotted with people making their way to and from work and the odd vehicle driving toward Friedrichstraße and the crossing point. He spotted Volkspolizei
on sentry duty along the Wall, stopping every now and then to scan across the no-man’s-land to the British Sector. “For the first time,” he recalled, “I saw that abomination of a barrier, and how dramatic the impact on the city was.”
Lieutenant Robert Corbett of the Irish Guards would leave Berlin in late 1961 and go on to enjoy a brilliant career in the British Army, commanding elite units of the Parachute Brigade and becoming chief of staff of the Falklands garrison and later the commander of the Guards’ division. He would rise through the ranks over the next two and a half decades until—as a major general—he was offered the position of commandant of the British Sector, Berlin, in January 1989. Major General Corbett would be the twenty-first, and last, man to hold this pivotal role. Unwittingly, he would find himself at the epicenter of historic events that would bring the Berlin Wall crumbling down, the Cold War to a sudden end, and the divided Germany to reunification. All without a shot being fired.
This narrative is not a grand sweep of historical analysis. Rather, it tells many stories about the Berlin Wall, from a variety of perspectives and voices: of the city’s people, of the armies that guarded or imprisoned them—depending on which side you were on—and of the many incidents that shaped the history of the Wall, all enriched by the recollections of a unique group of participants. Be they civilians, journalists, artists, soldiers, spies, politicians, or law enforcement officers, their lives have all been touched by the Wall, and they each have a story to tell—of working near, soldiering by, living close to, spying on, or escaping through Checkpoint Charlie.