The Inner German Border
Secretary Colin Vooght delivered a presentation on his time as a member of HM forces Berlin 1971 (The Inner German Border (The Iron Curtain)
Colin regaled us with his exploits as a young British Army private during the early seventies in divided Berlin. He began by explaining that after the Second World War, with the partition of Germany into four Allied zones, the four former allies – Britain, the US, France and the USSR – set up ‘military liaison missions’.
These diplomatic organisations were designed to encourage dialogue and understanding between the powers now operating within Germany. In reality, they ended up providing the perfect opportunity to carry out intelligence-gathering missions in plain sight.
The British and Soviet missions, BRIXMIS and SOXMIS, were the first to be established with the Robertson-Malinin Agreement on 16th September 1946. (Officially, BRIXMIS was the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany, but that’s a bit more of a mouthful.)BRIXMIS and SOXMIS ‘legal spying’ on the front lines of the Cold War
To begin with, BRIXMIS and the other missions were involved in important post-war clean-up work, such as bringing prisoners-of-war home, hunting down war criminals and policing the black market. As these operations became less pressing, the missions shifted their focus to the activity that would characterise them for the rest of the Cold War: intelligence-gathering.
As part of the set-up of the military missions, members of each mission had special rights to cross the border and travel about – with very few restrictions on where they could go. Both BRIXMIS and SOXMIS took full advantage of these unusual privileges, regularly sending their highly-trained members on tours of the other side in specially-adapted diplomatic vehicles.
They would frequently push the limits of diplomacy, driving into restricted areas, photographing military installations, and taking careful notes of any troop or equpiment movements.
Although they did their best to keep their visits under wraps, both sides were obliged to display a special diplomatic license plate. That meant any opposing soldier could spot a BRIXMIS or SOXMIS crew where it shouldn’t be, and take appropriate action – if they could catch the vehicle before it fled back to safety.
Everyone had to tread carefully: the missions were based on a diplomatic agreement, and both sides valued the ability to travel around the other’s territory. And, of course, this all took place on the potentially volatile front lines of the Cold War. Mistakes and misunderstandings had to be avoided at all costs.
Showing an illustration of the formidable 43 kilometer wall, on which construction began, on 13th August 1961, Colin explained that the official purpose was to keep so-called Western “fascists” from entering east Germany and undermining the socialist state, but it primarily served the objective of stemming mass defections from East to West.
Colin took great delight to mention his travel on the British Military train. After leaving Charlottenburg station ‘The Berliner’ stopped in Potsdam and an East German Train Guard joined the train The first and last sections of a guide that was issued to passengers detailing what they would see and experience on their journey.Although passengers were encouraged to look out for certain landmarks, it was made clear that cameras and binoculars were not to be used. The journey would take about 4 hours to cover the distance of 145 miles (232km). Once the military train crossed into East German territory, the doors were locked. Armed British soldiers were on board as well as a Russian speaking NCO. However, said Colin, for members of the British forces, all food and drink onboard was free.
Prior to Harry Peters delivering a vote of thanks, many in the audience were prompted to contribute their own Berlin stories.