Postwar Berlin-Spandau - Adventure, Danger & Friendship
Adventure, danger and friendship in Spandau-Berlin
This photograph shows my dad - he's second from the left - probably taken in winter 1945 near Berlin. I think he was just twenty one years old.
The long and fierce Second World War had at last ended and my father had been sent from North Africa, where he had been serving, to Germany - to the war-torn, bombed at battered city of Berlin.
He wasn't a war hero or anything of that nature. He was a humble private and didn't really think of himself as a soldier. He had been a mechanic in civilian life and that was his job in the army too.
He recalls that there were very few able-bodied men in the city in those days. He was put in charge of a motor workshop because he was the only qualified mechanic available. Many of the people who worked for him were German. The photograph was taken when a bunch of them went to a local beauty spot for a touch of R & R. I suspect that the man on the left of the photograph was a man called Herman Bergman, or 'Lofty' as his mates in the workshop called him.
Photographs from the collection of Eric Jackson and currently in my possession. The letter from Herman is also in my possession and the images you see are direct scans.
Lofty had been a textile salesman before the war and had worked in England so he had a good command of the language. He and my dad became pals. He had escaped from the Russian section of the divided city but confided that his father was still trapped there. Together, the two hatched a plan.
My dad, still a young lad really, was crazy about motorbikes. Army bikes were often brought to the workshop for repair or inspection so he took it upon himself to have the 'arduous' task of road-testing them. There was some rough ground near the workshop where he used to practice fancy motorbike tricks. This land was right next to the wire that divided the Russian section from the British...
THE ADVENTURE DEVELOPS
Lofty said he could arrange for his father to enter the area via a concrete drain that was about three feet wide and ran from the Russian sector through to the bike-testing area. As far as the pair knew, the Russian guards who patrolled the area weren't aware of the existence of the pipe.
In my dad's own words
"Obviously I couldn't go out in the darkness to test a motorbike, that would have been far too suspicious, so the rescue had to take place during daylight - more or less right under the noses of the armed Russian guards.
For several days I rode a motor cycle round the track to get the guard to realize that I was just a local mechanic test-driving the bikes..."
"One day I cheekily waved to them. This attracted their attention and they gestured to me. It seemed that the gentlemen wanted a word with me. I approached them very slowly and got off the bike.
This was going to be fun - I didn't know a word of Russian and, I discovered, they knew no English. I said 'Mechanic. I am a mechanic'. I had no idea if they understood so I mimed tightening up some bolts. 'Fix' I said 'Fix bikes. Test, test bikes'. They looked at each other and seemed to understand."
"Lofty and I agreed that I would meet his father and put him on the flat metal pillion of the bike and bring him back to safety. So we arranged a time in bright sunlight in the middle of the day and sure enough there were two of our Russian friends, both with their guns.
I rode around on the bike watching the end of the drainpipe - but trying hard not to be seen to do so. It seemed like ages - I rode round and round, glancing anxiously at the mouth of the drainpipe every few seconds.
Where was he? Had something gone wrong at the other end? Had this frail old man not been able to make it through the drain? Eventually, with one eye carefully watching the Russian guards, I caught a glimpse of a small movement by the drain.
The story continues
"Yes, it was Lofty's father - he had made it through. When I got to him and he emerged from the pipe he was in a hell of a state and it took me ages to get him on to the motorcycle. I'd maneuvered the bike so that it was behind some sparse bushes.
This wasn't a great hiding place but it was better than nothing. Lofty's father was all wet through and stinking and in a very weakened state but he spoke good English so understood what I was telling him to do. He too knew that the Russian guards could spot us at any minute.
In his poor physical condition, he couldn't just hop onto the bike. I had to put it on its stand to get him on and straighten the bike with him on it. Fortunately the bushes were still just about hiding us from the Russians, however they were a damned sight nearer than I had first thought.
I started the bike up but it had taken time to get my passenger aboard. I heard what I had been dreading, a shout of warning in Russian. I realized that the Russian soldiers had spotted me but luckily this happened just as the old man got onto the motorbike. I told him to hang on tight and the bike roared as we set off.
Of course, the Russians had seen me earlier and now they could see that I had a passenger. It was obvious to them now that I wasn't just testing a motorbike at all and that I had a completely different mission in mind. Russian guards were not noted for being diplomatic - they both unhitched their guns and when I was maybe a hundred and fifty yards or so away they opened fire at me.
Fortunately the terrain was up and down, up and down, and they didn't get a good aim but they did chop the top off some bushes that I was passing and those bullets were close - they frightened me to death. I got the old boy back and he and Lofty had a grand reunion."
Back to England
I don't know exactly when my dad returned to the UK but he and Mum were married in March of 1947. He didn't forget Lofty though.
When Mum died a few years ago, I found a faded old letter from Lofty, Herman Bergman, when I was going through her things. It is dated just after Christmas, 1948.
Letter dated 1948 from Spandau Berlin
Being Christians we should act accordingly
It seems that Lofty might still have been working in the motor pool as it was located in the Spandau area of Berlin. (Note that in the letter he refers to 'Brooks' calling them in to receive their parcels. I don't think he would have referred to him by name unless this was someone my dad knew - plus, my dad had known the address to send the parcels to - presumably the auto repair shop). Depending on your age, Spandau may suggest a New Romantics group from the 70s. Or you may think of the German prison where Rufolf Hess was detained, among other war criminals. Yes, the motor workshop was at that Spandau.
I don't know about you but that letter makes my eyes water.
'More or less we are all alike, and being Christians, should act accordingly'.
Just a few years previously, had these two young men met on the battlefield, they would have been trying to kill each other. Yet now, my old man was sending Christmas gifts. I wonder what he sent?
As you know that year, in the summer, the Soviets had prevented goods, including essentials such as food, being taken into West Berlin. Did he send a care package with Christmas treats? I imagine that it included items that we wouldn't see as luxuries at all these days. Maybe a can of instant coffee, a bar of chocolate, a jar of fruit ... maybe even practicalities like soap and toothpaste? Because he'd been in Berlin so recently, I suppose my dad knew which items were in short supply and made up a package accordingly.
5a Kloster Strasse, Spandau - Berlin
According to Google Earth, this is the place today. In December 1948 did Herman sit in one of these rooms writing a letter to his old pal back in England? A letter that I have in my possession today, here in Florida?
Looking at that building - then the letter right in front of me on my desk .... well, it gives me goosebumps.
Photograph is a screenshot from Google Earth.
Read more about Berlin during and after the war. My dad says that he was astonished by the devastation when he arrived there. The roads had been cleared but the rubble had just been bulldozed to the sides. The Germans who worked with him were paid in coupons so that they could buy food at the British store; the currency was worthless. So much so that they would offer the equivalent of a week's wages just for one cigarette. Cigarettes were a form of currency; soldiers received two hundred free cigarettes every week and those who didn't smoke would barter them.
Another item that everyone wanted was coffee. Coffee beans were now freely available back in England so when soldiers received food parcels from home, their coffee was worth a fortune. Eric Jackson has written his autobiography which includes his wartime experiences.