“If I were you, I wouldn’t leave Berlin this weekend. . . .” This cryptic advice from Horst Sendermann (an East German mid-level bureaucrat) rang in British journalist Adam Kellett-Long’s ears as he slipped out of another tedious press conference at the Volkskammer, the “People’s Chamber” in East Berlin. Another voice echoed in his brain, that of his informant from a government factory fighting group (Betriebskampfgruppe —armed government militia), who confided he wouldn’t be able to see Kellett-Long in the next few days. Shouldering a full pack, rations, and a rifle, the informant had announced that he would be “going on exercise.” Kellet-Long wondered what exactly that meant.
Back at his apartment, the journalist sat down at his typewriter and started to file his story. “Berlin is . . . holding its breath. . . .” That same afternoon, in the House of Ministries, the leader of the GDR, First Secretary Walter Ulbricht, informed his party security secretary, Erich Honecker, that Moscow had finally given the go-ahead for a long-awaited action. As the tactician and coordinator of the coming operation, he handed over the necessary authorization with a flourish and wished Honecker good luck. East Berlin was its usual subdued self despite the warmth of the evening of Saturday, August 12, 1961. The crowds were out in the west of the city, though, enjoying the bright lights that attracted so many of the British, American, and French occupying troops. The streets and parks buzzed; the bars were full. But the fate of the city was sealed.
At 1:11 a.m. on Sunday, August 13, the East German radio service interrupted their Night-time Melodies show for a special announcement: “The government of the States of the Warsaw Pact appeal to the parliament and government of the GDR and suggest that they ensure that the subversion against the countries of the Socialist Bloc is effectively barred and a reliable guard is set up around the whole area of Berlin.” The message was clear, but many in the West didn’t hear it, as tuning into East German radio programs for enjoyment was unheard of.
The East Germans’ first act was to extinguish the floodlights on the city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate. The Berliners living nearest to the demarcation lines would then be stirred from their beds by the rising sound of trucks, boots, drilling, and hammering. More citizens were stranded coming home from a late night out as the S-Bahn was gradually closed and passengers were turned out of trains with nowhere to go. A barbed-wire barrier began to zigzag through key points on Bernauer Straße, Friedrichstraße, and Potsdamer Platz, and around the Brandenburg Gate. It even bisected cemeteries. General Peter Williams, who would serve with British Military Intelligence in Berlin during the 1970s, remembered, “At my [prep] school, for days afterwards, we discussed with both fear and incredulity, how could one possibly take a city the size of Berlin, which had existed since the days of Charlemagne, and simply park a wall through it?”
American military police watched the Volkspolizei at work from their positions at what would become Checkpoint Charlie, where they were on duty monitoring activity in East Berlin. The East German workers used giant jackhammers to break up the road and install the first fence posts. As American military police from the 287th studied their progress through binoculars, they discussed what would happen if anyone attempted this back home, in New York for instance. “A wall straight down Park Avenue?” questioned one MP. “It was a bizarre sight.”
The US military’s security hut was located at the exact spot where the world’s two dominant political and economic systems now collided. When they reported back into their command center, the order came back: “Do nothing!” Feldwebel Eduard Schram watched, too, from the other side of the divide. His role within the East German border police was ostensibly to protect the workers, and to deal with any immediate trouble from the Americans.
Along with five fellow border guards and a plainclothes Soviet officer, Schram scanned Friedrichstraße for sudden movement as his comrade Hagen Koch and his team went to work with their brushes and buckets of paint, marking the six-inch-wide white line that would come to define the frontier between East and West. It was a defining moment for Schram. “Hagen Koch was doing his duty. The task he performed that day was significant. There he was, at the fault line between our two systems—capitalist and socialist—with his pot of white paint, drawing the demarcation line. Like he was astride tectonic plates. I envied his role.
“In my opinion, the barrier was a means to keep the peace and quiet in Berlin. Since I was stationed at the border, I saw the problems of West Berlin with my own eyes. It wasn’t just the incredible flow of people fleeing our country to the capitalists, but also the disparity of what the West offered to workers from my half of the city. Many of them were over there earning the more valuable currency, which bought three times more in our own East Berlin shops and markets. It would ultimately destabilize the country. Everyone could see that. I personally did not want a war. We wanted peaceful coexistence.”
Schram and his fellow noncommissioned officers had known nothing of the buildup to this adventure. He was merely a cog in the machine. At noon the previous day, all units had been placed on high alert by the Ministry of Security. He was ordered to report to his unit outside the city by lunchtime. From there they were transported by truck into the Mitte district, where operations at the heart of the city would commence. Here they waited quietly in a large barrack-style office block. At 6 p.m. they were addressed by their commanding officer. “It was then that we realized something very big was about to happen. The older men in my company talked about the uprising of 1953. We all hoped it wouldn’t be the same.”
They tried to calm their nerves with cigarettes or by discussing what they had planned for that Sunday. Anything to distract them from what they perceived as imminent conflict. The authorities had put every East Berlin hospital on readiness for casualties. Dozens of civilians had died in the 1953 uprising. At 8 p.m., city commanders were given permission to open their sealed orders. Senior officers within the Berlin police and People’s Army, at the commander in chief’s Strausberg HQ, had already been briefed on the key details. The communiqué was then passed down
the chain of command. Battalion commanders were briefed via telephone at 9 p.m. The plan had been printed in great secrecy the week before, at a Stasi-owned press near Potsdam. Drafted and approved by Ulbricht and Honecker, it stated, “In order to prevent the enemy activities of the vengeful and militaristic powers of West Germany and West Berlin, controls will be introduced on the borders of the German Democratic Republic, including the border of the Western sector of Greater Berlin.”
Schram’s unit was called for their briefing just before midnight. “Our commander stood before us and made a grand show of ripping open his orders. There was a long silence while he reviewed it and then he smiled and waved the letter. ‘We seal the border tonight.’ Without much fanfare we were ordered out into the night to board the trucks that would take us to our area.” Despite his elation, Schram and his platoon still harbored some doubts. “We openly expressed our main fear amid the noise of the diesel engines so the officers couldn’t hear us: ‘What will the Americans do?’ ” By midnight, Honecker sat back at his base on Keibelstraße and basked in the revolutionary role he believed this to be. He gave the order over the phone: “You know the assignment. March!”
The 8th Motorized Artillery Division, comprising just fewer than four thousand men, one hundred battle tanks, and one hundred and twenty armored personnel carriers, drove straight to the center of East Berlin and took up their position at Friedrichsfelde. A further four thousand soldiers of the 1st Motorized Division, in one hundred and forty tanks and two hundred personnel carriers, departed their base in Potsdam to ring-fence the West Berlin boundary. Honecker gave detailed instructions to both sets of troops. They were to position themselves over one thousand meters (three thousand feet) behind their sector borders. Their role was to prevent by force any mass breakout attempts once news of the activity spread. There would be no repeat of 1953. Police units would then work with the construction gangs to build the barrier undisturbed. The twenty-five thousand men of the fighting factory units would be in reserve, should East Berliners resist.
The day-to-day traffic across the border would be the responsibility of the East Berlin People’s Police, supported by almost ten thousand men of the 1st Brigade of Readiness (Riot) Police. Their role would be to quickly seal off all designated routes for civilians from East to West Berlin. Just after midnight, with the Brandenburg Gate and nearby Potsdamer Platz now shrouded in darkness and transport crippled, Operation Rose kicked off in earnest.
Eduard Schram’s detachment had now reached their destination at Friedrichstraße. From this jumping-off point, all official traffic between the Cold War adversaries was documented, reported, and spied upon. “Dismounting from our vehicles, we were marched down Unter den Linden, and gradually units tailed off from the column as our commanders gave out orders for which group would be stationed where, each unit comprising two squads of six men. We then began double-timing down to the border, with the troops in their trucks already appearing. One of my comrades guessed our destination was the official Allied crossing point into our city, Checkpoint Charlie. We could make out the bright lights of the US Army post in the distance. Despite all the bodies of men and equipment on the move, it felt eerily quiet.”
Speed was of the essence. Honecker had to catch the city unawares in order to prevent serious opposition. The majority of East Berliners were asleep in bed, and that’s where Honecker wished them to stay. Schram’s unit took up positions that West Berlin security monitors would observe later, in daylight. The troops and police turned their backs on the actual border in order to protect the construction workers—from their own people. This was a sealing-in operation, not an invasion.
As Schram’s unit was closing down Friedrichstraße, Adam Kellett- Long was motoring toward the Brandenburg Gate. At 1:11 a.m. an anonymous voice had called out of the blue to advise him not to go to bed that night, and then the radio announcement had been aired. His office teletype suddenly spluttered into life as it received the GDR’s official declaration of border closure. He pored over the type as it spilled out, taking in key phrases: the Warsaw Pact member states offering a “safeguard” to the territory of West Berlin and reassuring NATO Allies that
West Berlin’s routes of access would not be touched. The scoop was on. He needed to witness this.
His route took him through a deserted city until he came to the roadblock at the Brandenburg Gate, the giant columns of the monument eerily clothed in darkness as the sounds of men digging echoed in the distance. The East German guards waved him away abruptly: “Die Grenze ist geschlossen!” (“The border is closed!”). He turned down Unter den Linden, where he was again halted as more trucks roared past him. He raced back to his office and filed the first report to the world. “The East-West border was closed early today. . . .” It was 2:30 a.m.
Half an hour earlier, the military police commander at Friedrichstraße had been growing increasingly anxious. He watched several soldiers position themselves some eight hundred yards back from the Soviet control zone. He could tell by the way they carried themselves that they were not Vopos—nor were they Soviets, as their uniforms looked new. What concerned the Americans most was that whoever these troops were, they were armed with a heavy machine gun, which was now set up on the corner where Zimmerstraße intersected with Friedrichstraße. These soldiers were clearly following a plan, but the Americans couldn’t ascertain whether the Communists meant it for them, or something else going on inside the East German border.
Operation Rose was an immense logistical undertaking. Eightyone crossing points were reduced to thirteen. The twelve underground (U-Bahn) and overground (S-Bahn) city lines were to be severed at the sector border. The main target for clearance and shutting down travel by
the authorities was Friedrichstraße, a key railway hub where the majority of refugees and international travelers aimed to cross from East to West Berlin. Finally, and essentially, all 193 streets across the border sector were to be closed off. No detail had been left to chance by Honecker’s team. Honecker even drove himself around Berlin all through the night, dropping in on various local units to judge their progress and encouraging his commanders on the ground.
Just outside the city boundary, the surprise was again total. At 00:30 hours the two-man Royal Military Police border patrol —“Bravo 3”— commanded by Corporal Michael Blakey was halfway through its normal twenty-mile route where the old Berlin-Hamburg Route 5 departed from the outer perimeter of the British Sector. They had already encountered the homeward bound patrol, who had nothing unusual to report, and then been greeted at the checkpoints manned by West Berlin police and customs officers. All seemed as it should be. Blakey and his partner, Lance Corporal Bray, drove up to the British Sector border with the French. They reported that all was well and began the circular route that would take them back to headquarters.
Halfway back to base, their night turned upside down. The scene they witnessed had transformed from quiet countryside, hamlets, and train crossings to one of frenetic activity on the East German side. Coming toward the border crossing at Staaken station, they immediately noticed that the lights had been mysteriously turned off up ahead. The headlights of their vehicle now started picking out figures stumbling along in the darkness. They were Berliners who said they had been passengers on the train up ahead, which had been stopped and ordered emptied by heavily armed East German and Soviet soldiers. More worryingly for the MPs, the terrified passengers ominously told of seeing many Soviet tanks hidden by the bridge. Corporal Blakey immediately decided he needed to directly contact his commanding officer, Assistant Provost Marshal Richards. Roused from his slumber and briefed by Blakey, Richards immediately got dressed, jumped into his staff car, and roared off toward Staaken, covering the eight miles in a matter of minutes.
While they waited for his arrival, the two British NCOs quietly moved toward the Staaken bridge, using the border demarcation line as their guide to find their way in the darkness. They could now hear a great deal of noise: engines turning over and many voices of men—fighting men. Suddenly, the whole site was illuminated as the station’s lights were switched back on again, revealing hundreds of heavily armed Soviet troops and East German border police, three of whom were standing just yards away from the British military policemen, submachine guns pointed in their direction. As Blakey stared in shock at the sight before him, wondering what the hell he was going to do now with a Russian submachine gun pointing at his chest, he was reassured by the familiar sound of a British bullet going into the chamber from the magazine of his partner’s automatic pistol. Both sets of men stared at one another in the glow of the station. What now? Their fears eased as they heard the distant rumbling of their CO’s staff car speeding toward them, its headlights picking out yet more Soviet troops massing on the border line. Was this an invasion? It didn’t seem like one to Richards.
As Richards was briefed on the spot by a very relieved Blakey, more armored vehicles and trucks hove into the arc of light from the station — disgorging not only more East German guards but also civilian workers who busied themselves unloading barbed wire, concrete posts, slabs, and building equipment. The British watched in shocked fascination as the barriers started to be assembled. Richards got on the radio – telephone to speak with the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Major General Delacombe, who agreed the RMPs should now move back toward the Brandenburg Gate and monitor what was going on there. It was 2 a.m. and the British car quickly covered the fifteen miles into the heart of the city.
During the night, the West Berlin police force would mobilize thirteen thousand of its officers under the orders of Chief Superintendent Hermann Beck. Reports of military trucks and armed Vopos at the Brandenburg Gate and elsewhere, plus the S-Bahn being closed, had caused panic at his headquarters at Tempelhofer Damm. Initially struggling to comprehend the unfolding situation, Beck deliberated with his subordinates whether he should open the envelope from the safe containing instructions that would set in motion the official “Defense of Berlin” and thus send panic throughout the governments of the West. But on hearing that the East German movements were all within their own territory, he decided to scale down the alarm. “At first, we thought they were going to overrun us and march into West Berlin, but they remained precisely within one centimeter inside the
Adolf Knackstedt’s team was also alerted. Very early in the morning, the telephone rang in his bedroom. “With a very stern voice, the duty officer told me to report to the office immediately. First, I thought it was a routine monthly training exercise drill. I got dressed and leisurely drove down Argentinische Allee in the direction of Mexikoplatz, enjoying the beautiful balmy summer morning with its blue sky and beautiful sunrise. I played around with the radio looking for the Armed Forces radio station [AFN], but it seemed to be off the air. Just then, a buddy of mine, Henry Otten, came roaring up from behind, honking his horn and giving me hand signals to speed it up. That was the moment I started to realize this was not a routine exercise drill. I sped up and followed Henry’s car until we got to the office. We opened the main door to the villa and stopped in our tracks. Our offices were converted to a military command-and-control center and everyone in there seemed to know what they had to do. Captain Stewart then briefed us on the situation at the border during the night.”
Knackstedt was informed that the East German military was in the process of systematically sealing off the east sector to West Berlin and the zonal border to the Federal Republic of Germany. Streetcars, subways, regular rail, and public traffic had all been halted in both directions; telephone lines had been severed; and sector border foot crossings had been sealed off. All German and foreign national border crossers were being aggressively denied transit by East German border guards and auxiliary forces. Only Allied occupation forces (American, British, and French) weren’t hindered in their movements within all sectors of Berlin. Captain Stewart issued orders to the team. Knackstedt remembered, “I was tasked to scout the American Sector border and furnish situation reports to my unit. For the next few days I was to roam along the border and intermingle with the Germans, acting as if I was one of them.”
Like the Americans on the ground in Berlin, the British and their French counterparts tried to react with calm, find out what was going on, and relay what information they could gather back to their respective governments in Paris and London. The British minister to Berlin, Geoffrey McDermott, phoned his ambassador to West Germany in Bonn, knowing full well the Stasi would be eavesdropping, and then dispatched cables to the Foreign Office. Meanwhile, at the US Berlin Mission, junior officer Richard Smyser received orders from his duty officer, George Muller, to drive out into the city and “take a look around” to see what was going on. Smyser then alerted his fellow junior officer, Frank Trinka, and together they made their way out into the night in an open-topped Mercedes. They arrived at Potsdamer Platz, where trucks were parked, men scampered everywhere in the half-light, and coils of barbed wire and other obstacles were already in place. Smyser got out and walked toward the crossing and was stopped by a young, spotty-faced Volkspolizist who asked for his identification. The American pointed to his car’s registration plates, denoting he had diplomatic status and thus free access. The young policeman shined his flashlight toward the car, studied the plates, frowned, and told Smyser and Trinka to wait where they were while he marched across to his officer by a nearby truck. Smyser couldn’t hear what they were saying above the noise of hammers and drills, but the boy returned and gestured for them to drive through, pulling the coils of barbed wire back to allow the car access.
The pair then spent the next few hours driving in and around the East-West checkpoints, noticing various Volkspolizisten and factory fighting units everywhere. They witnessed hundreds of civilians, including women and children, many in tears, attempting to gain access to the U-Bahn stations and being forcibly ushered back. As they continued, they encountered side streets jammed with armored cars and trucks carrying more barbed wire and concrete posts. Two things both diplomats noted: the East Germans hadn’t brought artillery or heavy weapons with them, and where were the Russians?
Meanwhile, Assistant Provost Richards watched the ever-increasing buildup of forces at the Brandenburg Gate area and the increase of Berlin civilians angrily demanding to know what was going on. He decided he had to find out more. “I reported back to the GOC and political adviser that I was about to enter the Soviet Sector and would radio brief observation reports if possible.” He would be taking a risk, for a foreigner using a radio in East Berlin was strictly forbidden, but Richards was keen to establish Soviet intentions in order to give London a clear picture of what was happening. The threat of conflict breaking out was uppermost in his mind. After much debate with East German guards at the crossing point, where he argued the case of free access as part of the Four Power Agreement, Richards and his driver started touring the Soviet sector.
“It was a scene of intense activity and great tension,” he recalled, “with uniformed men everywhere, all heavily armed; everybody seemed to be involved—the Nationale Volksarmee [NVA], the Volkspolizei, the Grenzpolizei, the Betriebskampfgruppen [factory fighting units]; even the Freie Deutsche Jugend [Free German Youth, FDJ] movement were seen to be in command of armored vehicles.” Richards noticed that the vast majority of East Berliners seemed as scared and confused as the civilians in the British Sector. But though he was still unsure of what the actual intention of all this activity meant for West Berlin, he came to the conclusion it didn’t mean an invasion. “Had they wished to do so, they could have rolled straight in at two o’clock that morning.” He radioed his conclusions directly to GOC and made one further tour of the area opposite the British Sector.
As he dodged Volkspolizisten chasing him through the side streets back toward the British border, Richards found himself coming out onto the main boulevard to the Brandenburg Gate and driving past the East German Ministry of the Interior. He eyed the mass of people milling around hoping to get to the Eastern border to see for themselves what was going on. He spotted members of the FDJ handing out pamphlets to passersby and ordered his driver out to get one and bring it to him. Studying the official proclamation of an “anti-fascist barrier being constructed to protect the GDR,” he realized that in his hand he had all the information necessary to comprehend what they were witnessing, and what it meant for the city, the people, and the Allies. The East Germans were constructing a fifty-mile barrier to encircle the East Berliners themselves, cutting the dozens of crossing points to a handful. What they had witnessed at Staaken station was the actual encirclement sealing the whole city in, more than 130 miles of barbed wire. This evaluation from Richards was immediately dispatched to the Foreign Office in London, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was reading it hours before the American commander on the ground in West Berlin had even woken up.
The previous evening the staff at the Marienfelde Reception Centre had drawn up their total number of refugees from East Berlin for the day: 2,662, the second-highest figure the center had ever recorded.
How many would there be the following day? The mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, had relaxed with a drink on the train shuttling him around West Germany on the campaign trail as he sought to be elected chancellor in that year’s national elections. He reviewed the day’s activities.
The election campaign, which had Brandt facing his wily, veteran opponent, Konrad Adenauer, had for both men been a tough one of mudslinging and vicious arguments. But it was almost at an end, and Brandt mulled over the speech he was about to give in Kiel, on the Baltic coast. Nikita Khrushchev had been preparing for that October’s party conference at his luxurious resort in Sochi, along the shores of the Black Sea. President Kennedy was himself spending a few days at the family’s summer residence in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. He had planned to take his wife, Jackie, and their children sailing on Nantucket Sound that weekend.
But for the 3.3 million Berliners waking up on that sunny Sunday morning, things would never be the same. “Die Grenze ist geschlossen” — “The border is closed” — was about to become an all too familiar mantra.
The first stage of sealing off the border had been achieved without a shot being fired, or the East German population protesting to stop it. Surprise had been on Honecker’s side. He turned to his weary staff and smiled. “Now we can go home.”
Robert Lochner, head of RIAS, the US-sponsored radio station in West Berlin, heard the very first announcements. “I was alerted at one minute past midnight that the East Berlin radio, which of course RIAS monitored, had started to announce not the Wall as such, but that communications within the city were cut.” He instructed his staff to overhaul the weekend’s programming of rock ’n’ roll music in order to provide regular news updates. RIAS owned the largest transmitter in Europe, so it would be to their station that the world would tune for news. “We carried [bulletins] every fifteen minutes.” As the next day dawned, “we could hear jackhammers tearing up the street and see the construction crew members, each with a soldier with a gun behind him to prevent him from defecting, laying these rolls of barbed wire. On the other side, one yard away, hundreds, if not thousands, of frustrated West Berliners were shouting their outrage and demanding that the wire be removed.”
Lochner needed to be out in the streets of East Berlin to see what the security forces were up to. His State Department plates would afford him access to the border crossings, and, he hoped, some protection, too. “It was a very warm summer night, but because we didn’t know what reception we would get, I hid a tape recorder under a coat. There was nothing heroic about it; at worst they would have turned us back . . . [but] when they saw the license plate, they waved us through.” RIAS had the lead on every European radio station that night. Lochner’s recording of the human misery he encountered alerted the listening world to the city’s desperate plight.
Walter Ulbricht, meanwhile, was content that the initial phase had been successful. Troops had shown little appetite to interfere with Rose in the American, French, and British Sectors. Just as significantly, their respective governments had also said little. Like many of his comrades in the 287th Military Police, one young officer at the time was left incredulous at his superiors’ inaction. “We had passed down the line in our reports of what was happening on the ground days before they sprang into action. Now we had Vopos, border police, and their regular army out in front of us, building a barrier. We did nothing in response. Our command didn’t even issue a protest letter. I was continually upbraided by the locals for staying inside my hut. It was demoralizing—for both them and us.”
That didn’t mean the garrison was not ready to repel and protect the city. Private First Class Wayne Daniels from California spoke for many ordinary Allied soldiers when he said he believed the whole command was ready for action. “We had obviously had practice alerts. But on the morning of the 13th of August, the alarm went off in our barracks for an alert, and we were moaning: ‘Oh, we just had one of those the other day. We don’t want to do this!’ And then our company commander burst in. ‘This is no drill. I repeat: no drill. Fall out, and full combat gear!’ We were looking at each other in shock. The term was always: ‘If the balloon goes up, start fighting.’ And we did feel ready to go. The morale of the American soldiers that I worked with in the 287th Military Police company, the patriotism, and the feelings about the war—we were ready
to protect the German people, period.”