It was 10:30 am when the old Volkswagen Kombi van arrived at Helmstedt to join a long line of trucks waiting to enter the land corridor to West Berlin. The van had come from near Hannover that morning with a large tent, cooking gear and baggage on the roof, and seven young people inside. The German export license plates and bright reflective tape on the front and back indicated the travelers were not German. As the line of trucks moved slowly towards the Grenzübergang Helmstedt-Marienborn (named Checkpoint Alpha by the Allies) everyone in the van was quiet. They did not have papers to enter East Germany but had been advised to tell the border guards they were visiting British military family in West Berlin. There was no accommodation for visitors in Berlin, only for military personnel, but they had been assured there would be rooms at the RAF Gatow air base in the British Sector if they were able to get past border control.
It was fourteen years after World War II and ten years since the end of the Berlin Airlift. The reconstruction of West Germany was well underway but the vacant blocks, damaged and derelict buildings, piles of rubble and the lack of young men were stark reminders of the war. Germany was divided into four zones, each controlled by one of the Allied countries, USA, England, France and the Soviet Union. Berlin was a Four Power controlled city about 170 kilometers from the West German border, in the middle of the Russian zone. Helsmstedt, with its old temporary wooden buildings, was on the demarcation line between the British and Soviet sectors. It was the most important checkpoint between West and East Germany as the majority of goods to Berlin and East Germans fleeing to the west moved through there. In early 1959, Nikita Khrushchev had issued an ultimatum to the three western powers to turn West Berlin into a “demilitarized free city” within six months or Russia would unilaterally sign a peace treaty with East Germany. The old van arrived at Checkpoint Alpha two months after the ultimatum had expired when tensions between the West and East were high.
Travel to Berlin from the West was discouraged so there were few non-military visitors. Once there, travel from the American, British and French zones to the Russian sector in East Berlin was possible by U-Bahn or car. Returning was more difficult due to the security controls. In 1959, 144,000 East Germans crossed into the west with a one-way ticket and 199,000 more were to cross in 1960. In August 1961, determined to stop the exit of its people to the west, the East Germans erected a barbed wire fence around the Soviet sector. The fence was later replaced by a high concrete wall with barbed wire and manned watch towers. To escape to West Berlin determined East Germans built tunnels under the fence, smuggled themselves on board the U-Bahn, hid in and underneath cars and trucks, and launched themselves into the air with home-made balloons and airplanes.
The old van slowly approached the West German and British Control points at Checkpoint Alpha where a polite British Frontier Services Officer asked how long the passengers were staying in Berlin and if they were carrying any firearms. After a short discussion the firearms were handed over to the British for safekeeping until the van returned from Berlin. The soldiers lifted the barrier and the van moved slowly on to the second checkpoint manned by surly East German
Grenzpolizei supervised by two Russian soldiers. One of the Russians had been carefully studying the progress of the van through binoculars. It was apparent that the van and its passengers were not welcome in East Germany and everyone was directed to a hut for questioning, passport inspection and to complete forms for a transit visa. The questioning was harsh and intimidating but the determined travellers insisted they were visiting family in the British military and would be there only for a week before returning to West Germany. The East German police reluctantly agreed to issue ten day transit visas and a permit for the van to travel to and from Berlin. After a thorough search of the van and its contents the barrier was raised for the van to move on with stern advice from the police not to stop or leave the autobahn until it reached Berlin. The whole process had taken two hours and all of the other traffic had long departed. After another checkpoint the van joined the autobahn to Berlin. The East Germans would be more interested in the van on the return journey to make sure its passengers were the same ones who left Helmstedt for Berlin.
The autobahn was in poor condition and the journey was slow. There was no traffic and no one working in the fields beside the road. The only sounds were from the engine of the old van and the traffic heading west towards Helmstedt, hidden from view by the trees separating the two roads. It was quiet inside the van. Two hours later, after one urgent stop beside the road to relieve the tension, the van passed through the heavily wooded two-mile Russian Zone around Berlin, at Dreilinden, and arrived at the East German checkpoint. The first sign that it was approaching Berlin was a Russian tank on a large concrete block with its gun facing the incoming traffic. A little further along the autobahn the van passed a large brown bear on a concrete pedestal symbolising Berlin, and a welcome sign “You are now entering US sector of Berlin”. After stopping at the Grenzübergangsstelle Drewitz-Dreilinden for passport checks by the East German police the van moved on to the US Military Checkpoint Bravo. With a broad smile and accent the soldier waved the van through with directions to the RAF Gatow air base. There was a little noise inside the van as everyone quietly said: “We made it!”
The joy of finally arriving in Berlin was soon replaced by a feeling of sorrow as the van moved through the suburbs of Berlin past vacant lots and building rubble overgrown with grass. There were few people in the streets or cars on the road. The traffic was mostly military vehicles and buses. As the van moved slowly through the deserted streets the ruins of a large building was spotted on the distant skyline. It had an eerie feel about it so the van headed towards the ruins. The remainder of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtnis-Kirke (Memorial Church) had been left there, on the Kurfurstendamm, as a reminder of the war. After a brief stop, the van headed west along Heerstrasse to Spandau and Gatow in south-western Berlin. Flughafen Gatow was an air force college before the war and then a Luftwaffe training ground. In April 1945 it was captured by the Russian Army before being handed over to the British in exchange for West Staaken. Gatow was an important airfield during the Berlin Airlift and afterwards it served as an airfield for the British Army’s Berlin Infantry Brigade. In 1959 it was being used for covert photographic reconnaissance flights over Berlin and areas of East Germany. Safely inside RAF Gatow the travellers were escorted to rooms in the barracks and then the bar to meet the RAF and British Army officers stationed in Berlin. It was to become their home for the next five days.