As a driver on 317 Motor Transport Squadron one of our jobs was to take equipment to and from the RAF Base at RAF Gatow in Berlin. The majority of trips were planned to arrive on a Friday afternoon so that the drivers had a weekend in the city and a chance to visit the sites ready to return to Bruggen on the Monday morning. There was an extra excitement when driving to Berlin as you had to pass through the Russian sector of Germany otherwise known as the DDR (Deutche Demokratische Republic).
As members of the NATO alliance we did not recognise the Soldiers or police of the DDR and were only allowed to negotiate with the Russian authorities, and should we for any reason be stopped by the Vopo`s or the Volksarmee we were to request the presence of a Russian officer.
But first we had to load our vehicle and leave Bruggen for our first overnight stop Guttersloh with the obligatory stop at the Windmill cafe on the Autobahn for toast and Bovril. It was run by the YMCA and was situated on a rise on the Autobahn some hours drive away from Guttersloh and was an opportunity to meet up with other drivers of 317 either coming back from Gatow, Guttersloh, or going to Hamm with scrap. Leaving Guttersloh the next stop would be Helmstedt where we would report to the Army camp there before going on to the border check point. Arriving at the border Checkpoint you would find an office with military police from three nations, British, American and French, we would be briefed by an English military policeman on the route, the time we should take, and be given a folder with illustrations of the Autobahn junctions near Berlin where we would have to change autobahns in order to enter the British sector of Berlin. On route we were ordered to note the movement of any Russian troops or transport and note the colour and numbers of the registrations and report them to the checkpoint in Berlin when we arrived. The next step was to proceed to the Russian Checkpoint and hand in our papers for inspection. You entered a small cabin with whitewashed windows and handed your papers into a small opening beneath one of the windows where you could barely see the Russian behind it. A Russian soldier would want to inspect the vehicle but was not allowed to open the tailgate, and in order for him to look into the vehicle there were small circular inspection holes about 4 inches in diameter cut into the tailgate. Once the vehicle had been inspected the papers were stamped with a time stamp and you them had 1hour and 30 minutes to reach the next checkpoint in Berlin. If you reached it sooner than 1 hour and 30 minutes you were accused of speeding, and if you took longer than the delegated time you had to explain the delay.
The journey through East Germany was usually fairly tedious and the Autobahn was not in the best repair. There were often propaganda posters erected along the route denigrating the policies of the western powers and praising the policies of the east. Any traffic you saw usually consisted of either West German transport heading for Berlin or local freight transport with the occasional Trabi or Warthburg private car. There were two Raststatte on the way to Berlin, Magdeburg and one just before Berlin which I no longer remember the name of and they both had Eurostop shops where you could buy east German goods for west German marks, and the most common thing bought by the drivers was Krimsekt and kind of Russian Champagne, (usually on the return trip).
On reaching the Russian checkpoint near Berlin you were checked again and then allowed to proceed to the Military checkpoint where you handed in the folder given to you at Helmstedt and as long as you answered in the negative to the question about seeing Russian vehicles or troops you were allowed to continue on to Gatow. Driving between the Russian and the Military checkpoints at the Berlin end of the journey you could see up to the side of the Autobahn on a plinth a Russian Tank as you drove along. (once the wall went down in `89 this was replaced by a JCB).
On arrival at Gatow the vehicle would be parked at the MT section and you would take your bedroll with you to the transit billet and get yourself ready for a trip into town. This meant changing into civvies and getting an “Umsteiger” ticket on the bus from Gatow to Heer strasse where you changed busses and got off at ReichKanzler Platz, (now called Ernst Reuter Platz) Where the British had a large NAAFI and hotel.(now a block of Flats) There was a bar, a dance hall, and a reading room amongst other things. Another haunt that was not far away up a side street was a bar called OSSI`s Funkeck where there was loud music and videos played onto a large screen in one corner.
Saturdays were a repeat of Friday night or you could travel into the centre of Berlin to the Kurfurstendamm or travel to the Brandenburg Gate to see the ruins of the Reichtag or travel a bit down the Strasse 17te Juli to see the Russian war memorial and the Russian soldiers guarding it.
I drove to Berlin several times and saw quite a bit of Berlin and it was when I went to Berlin once with Frank Quinn that we both ended up in the NAFFI at Reichkanzler platz and met two German girls that were there for the Saturday dance. Our German was not very good and neither was their Englaish but we passed a pleasant evening together and I walked one of the girls home. We struck up a friendship and I would meet her whenever I was in Berlin, the friendship blossomed and we became engaged.
It was one Saturday evening in 1961 when I was at her families house that her mother came into our room and said that there was a british policeman outside wanting to speak to me, (we were on the second floor of a block of flats and she wouldn’t let him in). I went to the window and there was a redcap outside with a Volkswagen with blue light flashing saying that I had to return to Gatow at once. I asked why but was told it was a security matter and I would be told more once I returned. My fiancÚ and her mother were naturally concerned but I told them not to worry I would phone them from the camp.
Once in the Volkswagen the Redcap asked me where my co-driver was, I said I thought he was in the NAAFI in town so we drove there but didn’t find him so returned to Gatow. Once there I reported to the guardroom and was told that I had to return to Bruggen at once, and when I said we still had to unload on Monday I was told that the vehicle had been unloaded reloaded and refuelled and was ready to leave once they found my co driver, (whose name I cant remember) He was eventually found asleep in the transit billet and once we had our things together, changed into uniform, and reported back to the guardroom we were ready to leave. I asked to be allowed to phone my fiancÚ as she would want to know what was going on , I was told I could phone her but only to say we had been suddenly recalled to Bruggen. This I did and then we left for the checkpoint. We had been told the Russians knew we were coming and that we would not be checked but let through directly. We were to refuel at Gutersloh but then had to continue on to Bruggen without an overnight stop. I was not sure that the Russians would let us through without stopping and said so but the police assured me that they had arranged for our vehicle to pass through both the Berlin and the Helmstedt checkpoints without having to stop at the Russian barrier, so I asked the police to drive in front of us to the first checkpoint so that if there was a problem they would be there to sort it out, but my apprehension was allayed when the barrier rose on our approach and we were waved through. The same procedure occurred at Helmstedt and we motored on to Gutersloh where we refuelled had some food and continued on to Bruggen where we arrived early Sunday morning to the amazement of Cpl Frost who was on gate duty at the 317 compound.
We had been told at Gatow that we had to get to Bruggen as soon as possible as there would be a plane waiting for our cargo, but when we repeated the story to Cpl Frost he said that the plane was not expected to arrive before Monday morning.
WE never did find out what we had been carrying but suspected it was something that the Russians were not allowed to see, because otherwise it could have been loaded at Gatow onto an aircraft, but then the Russians or the east Germans could have watched as the airfield was practically right next to the border between east and west Berlin.
On another occasion troop movements were seen en route along the Autobahn in east Germany , but when we arrived at the Berlin military check point and mentioned it we were told that if we made a report the military police would have to write it all down and we could be there for a long time, and as the policeman was due to go off duty in an hour he suggested that we had seen nothing. We saw his point and agreed we must have been mistaken.
I was also leaving Berlin when the EastGeman Authorities stared to build the dividing wall around west Berlin, which we reported on arrival in Helmstedt. The American military police got quite excited as we were reporting it and were on the phone to one of their HQ`s repeating everything we said.
I went to Berlin several times after that and in June 1962 took leave and went to Berlin to get married to my Fiance, brought her back to Roermond where I had rented a flat for the last six months of my tour with 317 MT Squadron.
I have been back to Berlin many times as a civilian and have even met my wifes relations in East Germany before and after the wall went down.
As a civilian I drove trucks to Berlin as part of my job from 1975 to 1984 and often chatted with the Vopos on the checkpoints, or Grenzers as they were known, and they were friendly enough, and would often try to read the west German papers over your shoulder. They were not so different from us in many ways, just doing their job.
Mike Whittington, ex-317MT Sqdn driver (1960-63)
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