The Berlin Airlift

The Football Match

In July 1948 the Berlin Blockade was at it's height and 2 Queens were a major part of the Allied presence in West Berlin. In truth that presence was token rather than a strong defence force, just three infantry battalions in the British Sector, one squadron of tanks from our old friends the 8th Hussars, a battery of 25 pdrs. and a squadron of Sappers. Similar token forces in the American and French Sectors. Berlin was besieged, with sometimes five and sometimes six East German Mechanised Divisions in a close ring around the city and outside them twenty -thirty Russian divisions. The only road contact for the British Sector was a single road corridor from Helmstedt used by small groups of vehicles, mainly Military Police vehicles "showing the flag".

The airlift was in full swing with hundreds of landings each day to fly in every single commodity needed for every aspect of all life in West Berlin, from coal for the power stations to milk for the babies. Look up and there was a constant stream of aircraft flying in from the West, one aircraft landing, one overhead and one on it's approach. Every variety of re-supply aircraft, even Sunderland flying boats landing on the Havel. Another air corridor slightly farther South for empty aircraft returning westwards to the Allied Zone. The Russians regularly exercised their right to enter the Allied Sectors, with a permanent ceremonial guard on the Russian War Memorial in the British Sector just inside the politically sensitive Brandenburg Gate. The memorial a Russian T34 tank mounted on a large granite plinth. There was also the prison guard on Rudolf Hess and other Nazi War Criminals in Spandau Prison, a guard that rotated weekly from the Americans to the French, to the Russians and to the British. Infrequently two or three Russian soldiers in plum-coloured uniform sight-seeing in the Kurfurstendam, or in the Tiergarten that they had so recently fought through, just as we infrequently passed through Check Point Charlie to visit the Berlin Museum or the Opera House.

The atmosphere was one of permanent tension; everyone both Allied and German aware that, if they chose, the Russians and East Germans could sweep through the city in five to six hours and that then there would be another war - would it be a nuclear war? Show the flag, maintain strict discipline and demonstrate our intention to protect and maintain West Berlin. Lt-General Sir Gerald Templar had become G.O.C. Rhine Army and his first act was to publish an order that any Officer or Other Rank involved in an international incident would be court-martialled immediately. I had been appointed Battalion Security officer by Lt. Col. Lance East., my duties mainly liaison within the Battalion to ensure that Internal Security training was thorough but also to take charge of small incidents and to keep close contact with HQ British Troops Berlin (BTB) on internal security matters, my immediate contacts the DAPNI and in particular Sgt. Sheppard of the Special Investigation Branch. Confrontations with Russian troops at the Brandenburg Gate and other places were not infrequent. armed Russian and British troops facing each other across twenty five - fifty yards for an hour or so until the Russians slowly withdrew, having achieved their aim of maintaining tension at the highest level.

Berlin Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium - Berlin 2009 (Wolfgang Staudt).

In late Spring the Allies and the German Kommandantura decide to give a fillip to civilian morale by staging a major civil event in the Olympic Stadium in the British Sector; a football match between Berlin and Hamburg in the great stadium holding 110,000 spectators where the Olympic Games had been held in 1936. It was hoped that up to 50,000 spectators would attend. The match was to commence at 1.30 p.m. on Saturday 18 July 1948: a day which found the Battalion on full stand-by. As Security Officer I had a Stand-by Platoon just inside the main entrance of the Stadium looking out across the Olympische Platz, the great parade ground leading in to the Stadium where, a few months later, we were to lay down arms as 2nd Battalion and take up arms as the 1st Battalion. Senior Officers, including Colonel Lance, and German civil dignitaries were seated on Hitler's balcony, which projected inwards from the top rim of the great bowl and could be seen from every seat in the Stadium. We also had an OP at the back of the Balcony where it could see both into the Stadium and out across Olympische Platz.

Lt Col L C East, General Sir George Giffard

Lt Col L C East, General Sir George Giffard and RSM B Noke..

 

Crowds started arriving from mid-day onwards and by 12.30 about 20,000 spectators were seated with a crowd of many thousands more streaming down Olympische Platz from the tramways and on foot from the City. A noisy crowd intent on celebrating the occasion. At 12.50 I received a call from the OP that there was a disturbance in the crowd in Olympische Platz, where a hostile crowd was gathering round two figures who appeared to be dressed in Russian uniform; Sunray required me to investigate. I took a Corporal and a Signaller from the Stand-By Platoon, both armed with rifles. I had a rather uninspiring .38 Smith & Wesson revolver in a holster on my belt and under my arm that most important badge of British military superiority my regimental cane. I gave the strictest instruction that neither of my escorts was to open fire under any circumstance without my personal order.

With loud shouts of "Raus, Raus" we hurried through the crowd, most of whom had heard the commotion and now wished to watch the confrontation between their Occupiers. The last yards through a shouting and jeering crowd, hundreds strong, surrounding two plum clad Russian officers standing back-to-back, one holding the crowd at bay with a pointed automatic pistol. The crowd quietened as I stepped into the circle and the automatic transferred it's aim to me. I knew that I must not provoke firing arid also that I must arrest the two officers, both for their own safety and to prevent the possibility of the crowd taking matters into their own hands. I adopted what I hoped was a friendly smile, placed my cane under my left arm and walked slowly towards the Russians, stopping just a yard away. The pistol touched my belt. I shook my head and held out my hand, palm uppermost. There was complete stillness for what seemed an age but could not have been ten seconds. Then the Russian quietly placed the loaded and cocked pistol in my outstretched hand and I said "Thankyou". We turned about and I led my little procession back the two hundred yards through the whistling crowd to the Guard Room in the Stadium. It seemed farther than that. There the Russians were seated in a corner and given tea and cigarettes while I reported to Sunray who told me to arrange for the two Russians to be collected by BTB. I spoke by telephone with the SIB. and within an hour I had received a signed receipt for two live bodies in Russian uniform one automatic pistol, two magazines and sixteen rounds of ammunition and was accompanying the party to HQ BTB. where I dictated and signed a lengthy report.

Extract from the back of the Guard Report for the Battalion

Extract from the back of the Guard Report for the Battalion Quarter Guard mounted at the Olympischer Stadion Guardroom 17th July 1948. Guard Commander, Sgt E G White.

Next morning I was required to report to BTB to be present as Arresting Officer at the handing back of the Russian Major and Captain to their own jurisdiction. A tall, exceedingly smart-young Russian Captain was in the DAPM's office. He asked me just one question through his interpreter "Did you use force to disarm them?" I replied that they were not threatened in any way, that my pistol had remained in it's holster, that I had merely held out my hand for the gun, which was placed, loaded and cocked, in my outstretched hand.

The two prisoners, hatless and beltless, were double marched into the room by a Russian NCO and halted in front of the DAPM.' s desk, who proffered the pistol across the desk towards the young Captain. The Major, whose pistol it had been, stretched out his hand to take it, only to receive the full force of the Captain's cane across his wrist. The two prisoners were then double-marched out, a receipt was signed for the two prisoners and I was again allowed back to the Battalion but was to report again next morning when my statement and the DAPM.' s report would have been considered.

At 10.45 next morning I again reported to Reichskanzler Platz where I was informed that the matter appeared to have been handled satisfactorily and that I had been very fortunate (I was not told why). I was to remain available in case further questions arose. Before departing I asked what was likely to happen to the Russian Officers. The DAPM.' s answer was that the Russians had already settled the matter; the two had been shot that morning for becoming involved in an incident and for allowing themselves to be disarmed. I returned once more to report to the CO thinking rather ruefully that perhaps General Templar's edict was not so hard after all.

Oh yes, the famous football match, I had not even seen a ball kicked but the Berliners were delighted, they had won 1-0.

The Late Major John Sutton

 

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