Title COLD WAR BERLIN. AN INTERVIEW WITH GODFREY ORRELL Description
Interview conducted by Louise Hayes and Pippa Carr
How did you come to be in the Army in the first place?
I was one of the last National Servicemen. Put in context ? I broke my ankle playing football two months before I should have started national service after leaving school. And so they wanted to defer me for six months so I asked them if I could have deferment for three years and went to university first. That meant I was quite old for a National Serviceman and I don?t know anyone else who graduated at the same time as I did who went. So I really was one of the last.
What was the unit that you served with?
In Berlin it was 62 Squadron, Royal Army Service Corps as it then was.
What responsibilities did you have?
I was in charge of a Platoon within the Company but, as with all things in Berlin, nothing was the same as it was anywhere else. So, although I was in charge of the platoon, I had one English sergeant and two English corporals and all the rest of the platoon were German. We only had tipper trucks which would not have been engaged in hostilities had there been any. They were purely for civilian use.
,br> Where did you serve in Germany?
In Berlin and then a short period in Dusseldorf.
What kind of things were involved?
What did I do? In terms of the platoon, I was only there because it was a requirement to have a British officer in charge of the platoon. All the staff were German ? I don?t think any of them spoke English. The sergeant who was immediately under me was a fluent German speaker because he had a German wife and he did all the organization but it was almost entirely a civilian organization. They had their own foreman, they had their own little groups and they more-or-less organized themselves. When I say they organized themselves, it was more that everything worked on a daily basis. So, unless we went out on exercises, I was very much a figurehead. Different things could happen and one was given a load of ancillary jobs as well. It wasn?t very exciting!
What were these exercises?
The only exercises we did in Berlin was the call-out procedure. Other than that, we took all the vehicles down into the zone to do the exercises on training grounds there. I mean Western Germany as it used to be. We went onto training areas there and we performed general transport exercises rather than exercises specifically relevant to Berlin.
I believe you also despatched sometimes from Berlin to the west?
That was one of the ?funnies? because Berlin was funded on the Bonn Budget. All the costs of maintaining the garrisons in Berlin were paid for by the German Federal Government so it wasn?t a British Army cost. That meant that all our vehicles were German. We didn?t have any British vehicles at all because the Germans provided the vehicles for us. Also, the corridor through the zone, through the Russian zone, was also German-funded. You?ve probably heard of Checkpoint Charlie which was the one established between East Berlin and West Berlin. Prior to that there were Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo and Alpha was at Helmstedt, which is on the border between West and East Germany, and Bravo was where you entered Berlin from the eastern zone and those two points were also funded out of the German budget. The Berlin end was no problem because we just drove straight down there as required but the one at Helmstedt was a different ball game because we had to take their supplies down to them. So that meant that every four weeks or so, somebody had to go down there with the fuel ? liquid fuel, solid fuel ? and also certain other things as well. That was when the trips came and you actually knew you were still in Berlin.
What were the events in West Berlin leading up to the Wall being built?
Nothing! It just came out of the blue. I was actually the Orderly Officer for the barracks that weekend. Looking back on it, it was strange, almost eerie, because I knew from the radio that the Wall was being built and there was activity down there so I was actually quite prepared ? for a change we?re actually going to be called out to go to stations and it will mean something ? but they didn?t call us out and we sat there ? we knew the Wall was going up ? but we didn?t take any action at all. I think the Americans did. The French didn?t and we didn?t. But the Americans didn?t do anything. They just watched them build the Wall. What would have happened if the Americans had chosen to trample over it in those first few hours I don?t know ? nobody knows. You could say that if the Americans had just gone those extra two hundred yards and driven a couple of tanks over the Wall then it would never have been built but they didn?t do it, possibly because, if you look at it another way, it would have been an act of aggression and just the excuse the Russians needed. But there was no build-up at all. Certainly, as far as I was concerned, the hierarchy might have known that something was afoot but at my level it just came out of the blue.
Which years were you in Berlin?
Sixty and sixty-one. The Wall went up in August 1961 so I was only there for two months while the Wall was up. Most of my service in Berlin was pre-Wall. Not that it made a great difference to daily routine. The routine continued as it had before.
I believe part of your duties involved taking patrols into the Russian Sector?
I didn?t take patrols as such. After the Wall went up, they decided that everyday at least one junior officer would go into the eastern sector i.e. the eastern half of Berlin and we had to go for three things ? they would say, ?Can you go to this area and report on troop movements and the forces there etc?? The ridiculous thing about this was that we had to go in a military vehicle and we had to travel in full dress uniform. In other words, you couldn?t go in combat gear so there was no way we were going to be inconspicuous. Therefore, it was absolutely useless to go in the back way, so to speak, and peer through hedges and everything else. I?m afraid I took the view that they know we?re there so I drove up to the ?front door?, had a look and went away. I was never tackled or anything.
But you were spying?
Yes, I was in a way. In those days I knew what the Russian TAC signs were and I knew what the East German TAC signs were so I could identify which unit was in which location. So, to that extent, I was putting information back into Headquarters. It was an almost surreal situation because we were going in, we were collecting information ? intelligence information ? but because we were doing it in uniform, in military vehicles, there was no point in being secretive about it. It was obvious who we were and what we were going to do. This was all a bit ?Cold War-ish?. The Cold War was ? at the level I was at ? almost a bit of a game. It was obviously rather more serious at a higher level but at our level it was artificial, even to the extent that when we took vehicles down through the corridor, the white Russian officers, not the oriental ones, if we were going to be held up for six, eight hours or whatever, they would tell us, ?You?ll be waiting eight hours today? and that was it.
Were these deliberately obstructive tactics?
Yes. The checkpoints were always manned by Soviets and not by East Germans. Whether they would have told a more senior officer that he was going to be held up for eight hours, I doubt, but with a junior officer, they were quite open about it. And if you had the tankers down there was a lot of checking and they would take every last piece of kit off the tanker, dismantling everything and laying it out on the ground, checking it all over meticulously. They were the worst ones ? it could take three hours to check all the kit on a tanker. They would stop us and search us even when we were in ordinary soft-sided vehicles ? if they were feeling that way.
What was your view of the Soviets?
Other than meeting them at the checkpoints, we had nothing to do with them. On a purely informal basis, the white Russians were quite friendly with us. The chaps who came from further east generally speaking weren?t as friendly. The only time we met them was at the checkpoints. They were a bit more abrupt at Checkpoint Charlie ? more abrupt and off-hand than at Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo. I think as a transport unit we were going through Alpha and Bravo far more regularly. An infantry unit would only go through those checkpoints when they were going to an exercise and tanks would never go through. So we saw them more than most.
Did the Soviets also send patrols into the western zone?
Not that we were aware of. There were these marvellous institutions called BRIXMIS and SOXMIS. BRIXMIS was the British Mission to East Germany and SOXMIS was the Soviet Mission to the west. SOXMIS had these cars and we knew they were there and it was a constant threat. We were warned about SOXMIS cars because they could travel anywhere and I don?t know how they were kitted out but BRIXMIS cars were Opel Kapitans ? the biggest saloon they did. These were replaced every six months and they absolutely bristled with cameras, listening devices and everything else and they went into East Germany purely with the intention of gaining intelligence information. And I suspect the SOXMIS were floating about the streets of West Berlin with exactly the same intention. I twice saw a SOXMIS car but never when I was actually posted in Berlin but afterwards when I was in the TA (Territorial Army). Everyone knew what they were ? they had to have very large plates on them identifying what they were ? the same for the British. It was just part of the game.
What did the border between the zones look like before the Wall went up?
Before the Wall went up you only knew you had gone into East Berlin because the architecture changed. There was no sign saying you are now entering East Berlin. There were signs on the boundary of West Berlin and the zone ? ?You are about to leave the British Zone? ? but there were no signs saying you were going into East Berlin. Until the Wall went up you could just drive around East Berlin. You had to go in uniform; you weren?t allowed to go into the east in civilian clothes. As long as we put our uniform on, we could go where we liked and by private car as well. Prior the Wall, you knew you were in East Berlin because the atmosphere changed. The gaudy advertising hoardings disappeared and the people were of a different way of thinking and the Russian-inspired architecture.
Did you like the atmosphere of East Berlin?
No, I can?t say I liked it. It was different and we did go into the east quite a lot, especially on Sunday afternoons, purely because the east had more countryside than the west and there was quite a large area on the eastern extremities of Berlin which was pure countryside. There wasn?t any real equivalent to that within West Berlin ? so about once a month on a Sunday afternoon I would get in the car and disappear and drive around . The only danger was then that you had to have a reasonable navigator because what you mustn?t do was drive over the border and there were no signs whatsoever between East Germany and East Berlin. While we were perfectly free to move within East Berlin, in no way were we allowed into East Germany. Had we strayed over that border, it would have been straight down to Potsdam (ed : Soviet military Headquarters in Berlin). We were pretty careful on that side.
Before the Wall went up, were there checkpoints then?
There were only Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo. Checkpoint Charlie was part of the Wall. There had been a checkpoint there but you didn?t have to use it ? it was a box in the middle of the road and that was it.
Didn?t they put barbed wire up between the zones?
Initially, it was a few breeze blocks and a few coils of barbed wire on top of them. That initial day, when they first went up, was no more than four-foot high breeze block with barbed wire on top. But by the time they continued to construct the rest of it, I believe it was about two-feet thick. Topped with wire and glass, not to mention the watch-towers and Vopos etc. (ed: Volkspolizei ? East German Police). It went up overnight ?only that initial phase. They started at the key points, like the Brandenburg Gate and built the Wall around the Brandenburg Gate but only to a very elementary level ? and similarly on the other main roads. There was none of the blocking-up of windows in the side streets and that kind of thing ? that only came later. Having got it erected, they just kept building it and building it. It went up overnight but they worked on it for months, if not years afterwards to bring it to the level it was finally at.
One thing I thought you might ask was the atmosphere within Berlin which was an isolated city, obviously. We had had the Berlin Airlift to keep it supplied. From a personal point of view, it was a strange feeling just going into Berlin because you knew you were cut off from the outside but once I?d done a trip down to the zone, through the checkpoints to Helmstedt and back, I forgot about that and one just continued a life in Berlin. Within Berlin, I think the only thing you noticed was a lack of fresh milk. There were no farms within Berlin at all but there were allotments and vegetables came up on the barges. You didn?t have fresh milk so whenever you had tea or anything at all, it was always evaporated milk. It stays with you for a long time. And that was the other thing ? most of the supplies for Berlin came up the river on barges. All the solid fuel, all the liquid fuel came up the river and was unloaded at the docks.
The other thing was that, although it was called the Berlin Infantry Brigade Group, it wasn?t a Brigade Group at all. It was a collection of military geared to Berlin. I said earlier, our transport squadron would normally have been four platoons of twenty vehicles which were general load-carrying but we only had one platoon like that. My platoon was tippers which dealt with the supply of solid fuel to various installations. The Third Platoon was purely coaches for taking children to school and that kind of thing and they had about six Volkswagen which anybody within the garrison would use as taxi-cabs. The fourth one was purely staff cars and the BRIXMIS cars. So we were very unusual in that situation. We only had one infantry regiment instead of three, we?d only got a troop of tanks instead of a squadron and it was just accepted that, if anything happened, if the Berlin Garrison lasted 24 hours, we would have done extremely well. We were a sacrificial lamb and it was accepted that we would be completely over-run but we had to keep the presence there ? to maintain the British influence within Berlin itself. We were expendable ? to have lasted 24 hours would have been miraculous. They would have had to have attacked us as a starting point. But we knew that ? so when we had a callout we only took out the normal military vehicles. We didn?t take out the tippers, the coaches or the staff cars ? none of those went out. The only vehicles we would actually have used if anything happened would have been the normal military vehicles.
Did you visit Berlin after your national service?
I?ve been back twice. I left the Army after national service, thinking, ?That?s good, that?s the end of that. I can go back to normal civilian life.? That lasted for all of four months because I went into London to stay over the weekend with an ex-school friend and he dragged me down to Trafalgar Square to a CND (ed: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) march and I looked round and thought, ?Well, if they can afford the time to be in the CND, I can afford the time to be in the TA.? So I went back home and joined the TA and, from that point on, I served for another thirty-odd years in uniform and was able to get back to Berlin while I was still serving.
Did you feel it was different each time you went back?
All my visits back were in the sixties. I?ve not been back since. In the sixties, it hadn?t changed a great deal ? the Wall was still up. I think if you went back now, it would be unrecognisable because the Olympic Stadium ? you?ve no doubt seen on television what the Olympic Stadium is like now ? left over from 1936, was purely a horseshoe of concrete terracing and a vast area of grass and concrete which we, in fact, used for parades and that kind of thing. Whereas now, if you went out there, the Brigade Headquarters was in the area at the edge of the Olympic Stadium but now it?s a modern athletics facility. So, vast changes there and, of course, the east will be totally different since 1989. I think I ought to go back! When I did go back, I still knew people there which was an extra incentive. I knew the staff in the Mess and I knew a couple of Germans who ran restaurants. I?m not now in contact with them but I was in contact during that period so when I went back, it was quite nostalgic in a way. Also, I had an open sports car in those days which made me feel even better! And the Russians didn?t try to hold me up in that!
Was it your experience that Berliners were a different kind of Germans than found elsewhere in the country?
Yes. The British were always more accepted in Berlin than anywhere else because they knew that, if we went, then anyone could walk in. But they also have their own peculiar accent. Even I ? I don?t actually speak any German now ? whilst I was out there, I apparently had a Berlin accent. And when I went out into the zone and spoke in a restaurant or hotel, I could be recognised as having come from Berlin!
Keywords National service; Royal Army Service Corps, Checkpoints Charlie, Alpha and Bravo; Berlin wall, Soviets; 1936 Olympic stadium Collection Overseas Battle Fronts Place Berlin Year 1960s Conflict 1960 File type html Record ID number 181
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