Cold War Front Lines: Memories From The Border With The German Democratic Republic, 1975

Written 18 October 2013.

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Above: Germany 1975: Adults suit up for a drive, while a young Chris Knowles inspects one of NATO’s military assets.

If you think we have it bad today, when I wer’ a lad things were much worse! (in the spirit of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen)

I am one of those people who can remember my very early childhood.  I once assumed that everyone was the same, but to my shock I found that not everyone could. Perhaps they are compensated with a better short term memory or something?  One of my earliest memories of a family holiday (I have many even earlier memories of other things!) related to a trip to Germany in 1975, when I was only three years old.

Life At The Barracks
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Above: From NATO heartland to the border of the Warsaw Pact: There and back again in a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. With young Chris Knowles at the controls!

We were staying south west of Hannover at Hobart Barracks in Detmold in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.  The 20th Armoured Brigade of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) was based at these barracks and this area could be described as one of the front line defensive positions in the Cold War.  We were staying with a family friend who was a serving soldier at the time.  We travelled through Belgium, Holland, and a good part of Germany in our yellow Volkswagen Beetle to get there.  We got to the continent via a Sealink ferry from Dover, and coincidently I remember Rod Stewart’s Sailing being played on the radio – my first remembrance of a specific piece of music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zW2-_01i48w#action=share).

 We stayed my at parents’ friends home   They lived in married quarters on the base and had a couple of kids of around my own age which added to the fun of my stay.  It was interesting to experience a military environment at such a young age and in a way had I to bear the brunt of military logic myself in my own small way.  At some point during my stay, I came down with a bad case of tonsillitis.  The camp doctor refused me penicillin, which was a real pain for me at the time.  Of course this refusal made sense from the perspective of a military doctor who would have to face a nightmare scenario in the event that antibiotics lost their general effectiveness through overuse on relatively trivial complaints.

“Inner German Border”

The border between East and West Germany was known as the “Inner German Border” (1).  It was along this line that opposing armies faced each other and watched for movement on the other side. In places like Detmold NATO forces stood poised, ready to repel the Soviet hordes at a moment’s notice and prevent their tanks from rolling into Western Europe.

While staying at the base my parents and their friends planned a trip to the Harz Mountains which formed the border with the East.  We were told in no uncertain terms to be careful and received some sound military advice.  We were warned not to wander in the woods at the border lest we inadvertently cross into the German Democratic Republic (GDR/East Germany).

There were no fences separating East and West but there were other hazards such as minefields but they were not the only thing to worry about.  We were told that East German snipers ensconced in the hills on the Eastern side of the border may let us cross into the GDR but might not be so obliging when we tried to cross back into West German territory. Concern about snipers, tanks, and minefields certainly provided the makings of a “fun” childhood holiday!

Though there were no fences in the Harz Mountains that separated East and West, the fences and obstacles elsewhere show how determined the Warsaw Pact was at preventing people escaping to the West.  The following illustration, that can be found at Wikipedia, provides a visual representation of what would be escapees would have to contend with:

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The description that accompanies the illustration at Wikipedia reads as follows:

“The border shown in the diagram cuts across a road which formerly linked east and west. Proceeding from west to east, the zonal border is marked on the western side by signposts saying “HALT HIER GRENZE” (“STOP HERE BORDER”). Just behind the border, there is a border marker pole with diagonal black, red and yellow stripes. A short distance after the zonal border, i.e. on the Eastern side, the road is dug up, so there is an anti-vehicle ditch across its whole width. Then follows a metal-mesh fence, with a double gate where the road is. To the left of the road, the metal-mesh fence forks to form a double fence; the area between the two fences is mined. Near the road, instead of a second metal-mesh fence, there is a concrete-faced anti-vehicle ditch. Next follows a flood-lit control strip; behind that, a guard patrol road running parallel to the border. After that comes a strip of open green territory containing various types of guard towers, a dog run and an observation bunker; this is delimited by a signal fence which has floodlights spaced at regular intervals. The signal fence curves around a village that is close to the border, excluding it from the border strip. Where it crosses the road, the signal fence has a gate, and further up the road, i.e. deeper in East German territory, the road is blocked by a horizontal barrier, beside which there is a little house.”

We could potentially have had a pretty nasty surprise if we had gone down to the woods that day!

Seven Days To The River Rhine

In 1979, four years after my holiday at the Barracks at Detmold, the Warsaw Pact came up with a military plan entitled “Seven Days to the River Rhine”.  This was a plan to penetrate Western Europe up to the River Rhine, following a Western nuclear first strike (2).

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Above: Warsaw Pact Battle Plans: Seven Days To The River Rhine

A rather alarming map complete with mushroom cloud graphics that relates to this plan can be found HERE (3).

The existence of such scenarios demonstrates quite clearly how, back in those days, even on days when you were enjoying a pleasant holiday in Germany, World War III could have broken out at any time.

Being present at a front line barracks in that war might not have made much difference, we were all under threat of immediate destruction wherever we were, even if we were hiding under our beds at home.

Perhaps the modern armageddon of global economic meltdown is not so bad when compared with being vaporised on your German holidays.

References:

(1) Inner German Border (Wikipedia)

(2) Poland risks Russia’s wrath with Soviet nuclear attack map. Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, 26/11/2005.

(3) What World War III Might Have Looked Like (The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the Twenty-First Century)

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