Part 11 : Behind Soviet Lines

Berlin was behind Soviet lines and we were only able to be there courtesy of a political agreement that was always in the balance. Our presence in the city along with the American and French in their respective sectors was always a risk as the tensions between East and West developed. As in all international affairs sadly it was the leaders who were at fault ,whilst those of us at ordinary levels got on fine. It was just as well we did as we were over 100 miles from the nearest main occupation British forces in Germany.

In order to locate and retrieve the fallen in the Russian zone we had little trouble so long as we obeyed their rules. We had to prepare well in advance and even our names and the registration numbers of the vehicles had to be notified. Red army officers called on us to agree final details. They were confronted by sgt Ken Wildman our russian interpreter whilst Major Albert Lange would give them all his widest of smiles.

As soon as I came back from leave it was August 46 and back in Berlin I was in the thick of it. Sometimes we were away to the south of Berlin and sometimes to the west and east and never knowing quite what we would find. On one occasion we didn’t get away at all as the Soviets on the check point out of the city had noticed that a truck number was different. The intended truck had broken down and the CO had slipped in another hoping it wouldn’t be noticed.

There were times when we had to live from the trucks, one was for us and one for the deceased, but now and again we were able to stay in a local gasthof and the local soviet commander would know where we were of course and come and play “mein host”.

I had never eaten noodles before and never slept under a duvet and the music played russian tunes till we dropped. You had to unwind on a job like this and there was nothing funnier than seeing my little CO dancing the polka with the local Russian officer and toasting themselves repeatly. It was all a bit superficial but we had to get by.

The Soviets were very good at getting local labour to uncover the bodies in advance so thank goodness we didn’t have to do that job ourselves. Albert made us laugh as he told the ruskies through an interpreter, as we affectionately called them , how he had operated in North Africa in bad weather. Sometimes he said he had sorted out a nice piece of cemetary in perfect order and the next day a sand storm would come along and you couldn’t even find it anywhere and sometimes he said the opposite happened and you had to spend an extra day burying the poor fellows all over again as they had been left high and dry. We were not being disrespectful to our fallen comrades but having a mass wake so to speak and that joke certainly made our coarse Russian friends rock with laughter.

All the anti Soviet feeling where it existed specially between the local Germans and the occupiers was understandable in some ways, as the atrocities the Germans committed in their invasion of Poland and Russia were never made public, but many must have known about it. I could not condone the attitude that some Germans had when they spoke to us that we should be trying to throw the Soviets back with their help, Hadn’t they had enough of war even now!!? The whole idea was disgusting and didn’t they know we and Russia were allies and without their help we might never have beaten the worst criminals of the century.

I tried my best to not get involved in such discussions and treat every individual on their merits in Berlin and so one day when an old lady asked me near a cemetary in the Soviet zone if I could take a letter and post it to someone in Berlin I automatically took it meaning to do just that. She was arrested on the spot by our so called hosts and I had to give the letter back. It reminded me at once that I was not allowed to talk to civilians in the Russian zone and that they themselves were completely cut off from the rest of Germany.

As soon as we got back each time to our military cemetary in a wooded glade just off the Heer Strasse there was much work to be done for there out in the open I had to check out each individual and fill in a report with special reference to their teeth and then with a number on the report make quite sure that the same number tag was attached to the corresponding deceased. We were not like the Americans who put the fallen straight onto a flight to Paris where it was all done under cover in more hygenic conditions.

Then a small temporary white wooden cross was erected with the name to be followed by the lovely commonwealth war graves stone at a later date. Each time you were sure of an identity through the name tag and other means it was a source of great satisfaction with the knowledge that instead of someones loved one now being missing and presumed dead that individual was known to be dead and that the family could later visit the grave. For every day that I was in contact with a dead person I got a small supplement of about 20% of my salary.

I hope that this report will be read by younger people today who in their ignorance still actually worship wars. Those who enjoy re enacting battles and dressing up in the gear and buying weapons should remember it is the most negative stupid thing ever devised by human beings. Let them remember all the suffering and all the people who have to clear it up.

There were four teams of us on the go but at any given time only a couple were out and about and the others were doing the identity checks at base. You might find it hard to imagine but I never saw anyone depressed because we were here to enjoy life to the full aswell. There was a nice alsation dog probably left behind from a distroyed home and family and I took him out quite a lot. As soon as we got back we never had any other duties or had to go on guard as we had a few other lads to do that and the food amidst a starving city was super being brought in from Denmark as well as the UK.

We were earlier injected against cholera and other nasty things but I managed to put myself in hospital for a week with yellow jaundice and also at another time I got lice but otherwise I was never fitter thanks to lots of exercise and fresh air and also not smoking and seldom drinking.

Then with the fine weather that summer I got back to more canoeing and pony riding in the forest within the city limits. Late at night I would lie back on my real bed which was still a novelty and listen to Glen Miller and all the big brass bands from the american forces network on my recently liberated Blaupunkt radio. I had sent away for something to study to keep my brain going from a correspondence school at home and it nearly fell through because I could not understand it and concentrate enough and why I chose a subject called logic I just don’t know. I should have picked on something like accountancy.

I went to Hitlers olympic stadium which was only a mile away and started running the 400 and 800 distances where only 10 years previous in 1936 the qames had been held before Hitler. Some days it was just great to explore the city on the S Bahn and U Bahn systems and every time was different and most of the time like a lot of us I was quite happy on my own. We could go almost anywhere in the city limits and if you travelled on the circle line you passed through all 4 zones so it was like going through 4 countries one after the other. Having said that we didn’t go into the soviet sector itself for fear of running into trouble for it wasn’t just the reds that might grab us but many criminal gangs that could have picked on us.

I did not have a female interest in the summer and autumn of 46 partly due to my first local close encounter in May during my first visit to Berlin which had given me a shock, and partly because I wasn’t looking for a casual fling which would have been easy anytime in this city.

The Kaiserdamm was a fantastically long, wide and straight thoroughfare which was part of the East to West axis between the Heerstrasse and the Tiergarten and I used to love to stand right on the edge of the underground platform and bend over and watch the trains moving along miles away right up to Sophie Charlotteplatz and beyond because it was so straight.

It never ceased to amaze me how much english speech local girls had picked up in the few months since the British and Yanks had moved in from the applicants we had for our office work in the unit. They used to sit outside with their typewriters in the fine weather by the house and talk about the royal family as it was theirs as well.

My view was that they had been forced to learn it at school to help in taking over our country. There were always quite a lot of females on the streets in the evenings not because they were selling themselves but just because their lives in the dusty cellars and smashed up buildings must be hell and they needed a bit of open air in the warm evenings.

Young men like myself were indeed extremely vulnerable when we had so much to offer them in terms of a bit of friendship and a bar of chocolate. Not only that I had a tin of 50 extra cigarettes weekly due to my special duties which of course I never smoked

I always had the brakes on a bit not only because my previous long term english girlfriend had had a very high moral standard but because here I was now turned into an intelligence officer having had to report on several cases of war crimes where our dead were concerned. I had seen cases where the casualty had clearly been alive on descent by parachute and then had been hung. I had come to a decision that anyone older than myself was still an enemy and those younger were not involved in recent terrible events.

You could have seen hundreds of girls at that time and recent events had left them all looking as if you wouldn’t want to get involved in a million years; but suddenly I saw a young neat and tidy person come up to me on that platform and she asked me if I was a station official knowing full well I wasn’t. Oh! I thought the Germans have a sense of humour after all they had been through.

We went back to her mothers large flat near the law courts and I found she was called Felicitas Marcha. What a fantastic name I thought and she had a nice young brother about 12. I used to go there several evenings sitting on the balcony looking at life going on below and she used to get her young brother to queue for hours to get tickets so that we could go to the cinemas that were already showing British films like” The Lady in Black” with Audrey Hepburn I think it was. Well then I suddenly had my posting to go to Hamburg for nearly 2 months and she cried her eyes out and in the process told me someone else had made her pregnant before she knew me which really shocked me. I was glad to go away but felt sorry for her as in the aftermath of war many young girls were abused but I didn’t ask her the details.

When I got back I actually went round to her home to see how she was but not because I intended to start anything serious, but just out of the kindness of my heart, and to my amazement I was told by her mother that she had got another boyfriend in RAF who actually wanted to marry her!

I got a sharp lesson in the fickleness of the Berlin fraternization scene and as I said, I was not rushing into anything. Felicitas was able to contact me later and tell me she had married the RAF and become Mrs Clark in Devon with her young child. I was very happy about that and he must have been a very good man.

At the end of the autumn I felt on a real high as I was promoted to war substantiated Sgt and I moved to the sgts mess in a large executive residence near the cemetary and in a pleasant road lined with silver birch trees which just ended into the Grunwald about half a mile from the other houses.

I had never seen such a bathroom and hadn’t a clue what a bidet was, such was my lack of experience in my short life. I slept in a large front room with just one other member of the mess and out over the road through the trees I could just see where Fitzy was with a whole house to himself and a Romanian maid. All the officers now had female domestics and behind the scenes they were probably closer than that and who can blame them.

Fitzy my captain Fitzgerald was to be my close partner in crime for the rest of my life in Berlin and we got on so well that I nearly forgot to salute him more than once and he didn’t mind. When I left the unit he gave me such a good reference as to make me blush. Everyone called him Fitzy but not to his face of course. We had a lovely waitress in our mess called Chrystal and she became very close to Sgt Johanson from Liverpool and later married him and lived happily ever after. She is still alive and he has sadly recently passed on.

It’s a good time to mention that after some had been in Berlin for at least a year, many firm links were made with local girls, and contrary to expectations from people at home countless thousands of Anglo German weddings took place and several are still among my current friends. Hardly surprising then that in Sept the next year Ellen and I were amonst them.

Unfortunately for our children our marriage only lasted 10 years but I did my best. A good proportion of Anglo German have lasted until death do us part.

After another 10 day leave in October 46 I returned to the same house and was soon to enjoy my 2nd winter in Germany. The train journeys through the Russian zone of Germany were often full of incident. On this occasion I had been guard commander on the train and this meant patrolling the length of the train to make sure all was in order fully armed.The most common problem was when people actually lept onto the outside of a coach to hitch a lift when it was going very slowly and this actually happened to me and I had to put my rifle out of the window to shove them off and then fire a warning shot to their side. You had to be continually on the guard against a sabotaged track.

The black market was much in evidence now and every so often a man in a hat and a suitcase who looked like a gestapo agent would appear at our house and offer silk stockings and heaven knows what in exchange for cigarettes. I managed to get something more useful in the form of a pair of ex german army skis for the simple price of a tin of 50 players cigarettes. I didn’t have long to wait for the chance to try them out but the small hillocks in the nearby forest were quite enough for me to cope with. It turned out to be an even harder winter than 1939/40 at home in the UK and when I went on my next leave I took them with me and it was just amazing.

I got out of the train at Liverpool street station and did what I believe noone has ever done before. It was frozen solid and I glided along all the way to Victoria through central London to catch my train to Herne Bay. During my leave the sea was frozen and I walked with them about 100 yards out from the shore and succeeded in getting my self photographed for the local press.

Earlier on my 21st birthday Dec 16th 1946 I had been able to phone home to our neighbours phone by booking it up in advance for half a crown in a services club. It was my first international call. It felt good to be the youngest sgt in Berlin at that time but I really had no intention of making a career in army and then be on the retirement list when I was in my 40s

The hard frost meant that no graves could be dug and for many weeks all activity was suspended but we had lots of physical training and made the best of it and I can’t remember anyone getting into trouble. Except myself!! All sgts had to back in barracks for midnight and the other ranks 11pm. I was only a few minutes late but rather than look stupid I found I could get in the COS car and I fell asleep in it. As luck would have it, a jeep with two MPs came by and caught me just as I was walking the few yards to our front door at 0630 and charged me. They had to do something and so it went on my record that I was absent without leave for 6 and a half hours and it went on my permanent record I was severly repremanded. I told the CO he had left his car unlocked and it was just a formality as I had been just outside the building.

I found myself a Swedish girlfriend just before Xmas and the visits to her home were quite nice with a properly litup tree. Her family were neutral in the war but had been trapped in Germany but it was not something I really wanted to last.

I was often onto the creaky old 57 tram for the couple of miles from the house to the central city area but in the evenings I would walk back fast and feel really hot but fit even in January, and many a time I would have gone to a frozen tennis court to have a good skate. It was one evening in January that I went into a cafe after a skate and saw Ellen standing alone by the bar. She was trying to light a cigarette and I got up and lit it for her and she then said she had just been stood up by an airforce man and before that she had been given up by a soldier in the Northumberland Fusiliers called Norman Parker. She didn’t have much faith in men anymore it seemed so I took her out for a meal.

I was very close to her and asked her to marry me after only 6 weeks. I simply felt I could do more for her in the world than anyone I could meet at home. She was smart and well spoken in english and beautiful and lived with a little sick auntie who was her legal guardian whom we tried but failed to get to England in 1948 before she died. Ellen was out of work but I was able to get her a typing job with the military police. Perhaps it was she who had typed out the MP report about my so called stop out all night which could have made her feel very uneasy because I wasn’t with her!

Ellen had a younger brother living with her divorced mother in another part of the city and Ellen herself was in a place ironically called Wedding in the French sector. In the spring I moved back to one of the smaller houses where I had been before and I had a cosy little attic room where she would often come.

When my demobilisation was announced for June 1947 I signed on for another six months to give ourselves more time to plan things. I sent many letters and photos home about Ellen and all my family looked forward to her coming and she had a really good reception in Jan 48.
We had a splendid army wedding in the garrison church of St George on Sept 20 ’47 with many of the unit there and all her family came later at the cafe Hubertus.

I had noone but she must have been happy and my unit was like my family. We spent the time til I left for home in November in the married forces hostel and because of the Berlin situation we never had a proper honeymoon. During that time and for a while afterwards Ellen’s family were in contact with my unit colleagues who helped them a lot with food.

Not long after we were both back in the UK the Soviets blocked Berlin which was the one thing I had feared in case it had cut me off from Ellen. Many of you know about the story of the Berlin airbridge which saved the city from starvation but we had got away in time.

My married life is another story but it meant that one way or another I could never forget Berlin now, even though I was a single person for seven years from 1957 to 1964 and have enjoyed another successful marriage for 39 years after that. WHAT A LOT CAN HAPPEN TO A YOUNG LIFE IN ONLY EIGHT YEARS FROM 1939 TO 1947 OR SO IT SEEMS NOW 64 YEARS ON.

I would like to say a hearty “thank you” to all those who have read my little story and visited my website. Robin –You all deserve a medal.

These reports are dedicated to the memory of all the thousands of teenagers who made the greatest sacrifice in WW2 because they never survived to enjoy any adulthood.

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