Berlin, The Cold War Years – A Hot War in reality. Part 1.

At the end of World War 2, what remained of pre-war Germany was divided into four zones of occupation. Each of the Allied powers; the United Kingdom, United States, France and Russia, controlled one of them.

The capital of Germany, Berlin, was also divided into four sectors. The consequence being, that the three Western Allied powers now controlled territory deep within the Soviet Union Zone of Germany.

Berlin Sectors

Over time, the tensions between the four Allied powers increased, eventually resulting in the Berlin blockade in 1948, when the Soviets attempted to starve West Berlin into submission and force the other three Allied powers out. This failed and the Soviets eventually relented, but an ever-increasing number of East Germans fled to the West; between 150,000 and 300,000 a year during 1951-1953. As a consequence, restrictions were placed on movement between the divided country. From 1961, the border was closed and Berlin was completely encircled, first by barbed wire, then bricks and finally a concrete wall, along with the infamous ‘death strip’.

Wall

Remains of the Berlin Wall and ‘Death Strip’ –February 2012

During my time in Berlin in the 80’s, I was one member of a small army intelligence unit that had the task of monitoring Soviet and East German activity in the Eastern Sector of Berlin. In February 2012, I returned to Berlin again, after a gap of 25 years; I would like to share with you some of my experiences.

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Brandenburg Gate 2

Brandenburg Gate –February 2012

As you can see from these recent photographs of the Brandenberg Gate, the general public now has free access to both sides of this unique monument. On the day I took these photographs a protest was in progress right next to it, unheard of back in the 80’s. By the way, West Berliners don’t normally dress as Monks and wear white face masks.

Brandenburg Gate 3

Brandenburg Gate -­‐ 1983

As this photograph, from the early 80’s, shows access to the monument was prohibited and the Berlin Wall is in plain view.

During the Cold War, there was very much a dark side to East Berlin. Although I had seen the Soviet Special Camp and Ministry of State Security (Stasi) Remand Prison from the outside in the 80’s, on my recent visit I was able to see it from the inside.

Stasi Prison

Outside the walls of the Stasi Prison, Genslerstrasse, Berlin – February 2012

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Blocked in by VOPO’s, early 80’s

Although we endeavoured to gain access to all areas, we were often boxed in by the VOPO’s, Volkspolizei, who frequently tried to detain us and often blocked us in, sometimes covering our vehicle in blankets.

Stasi Water

Stasi Prison-­‐water torture cell – February 2012

For this particular site, the Stasi Prison, it was obvious why they didn’t want us near it. The above photograph shows the instrument used for water torture.

Stasi Van

Vehicle used to transport and disorientate Stasi prisoners –February 2012

When arrested, they were driven around Berlin in a sealed vehicle for up to 4 hours to disorientate them. Bear in mind the prisoners were on Remand and had not, as yet, been convicted. They were basically held until such times as they signed a confession, then taken to court and sentenced.

Stasi Cell

Padded cell for isolating the prisoners – February 2012

In the padded isolation cells, as above, the prisoners were held incommunicado. There was even a traffic light system in the corridor to ensure prisoners never met.

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Russian T-­‐62 tank, East Berlin -­‐ 1982

When monitoring Soviet troop movements such as these, the reaction was often far more violent. On one occasion, our vehicle rammed side on, so hard and pushed along sideways, that the tyres were ripped off the wheels. And on one occasion, I was personally dragged out of my vehicle and beaten up by Soviet and KGB troops.

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Russian BMP-­‐1, East Berlin – 1982

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Photographs are copyrighted to Harvey Black

General Erich Von Manstein, Part 2.

During the battles around southern Leningrad, in October and November 1941, in temperatures reaching -40 degrees, the 3rd Fallschirmjager Regiment, FJR3, 7th Flieger Division, commanded by General Student, was dispatched to defend parts of the River Neva and repulse any Russian attempts at creating a bridgehead. They were used in battalion-sized units in a fire-fighting role and consequently some elements suffered up to 75% casualties. The setting for my third novel, Devils with Wings: Frozen Sun

This unit was just a small piece of the jigsaw of Army Group North’s push through the Balkans during Operation Barbarossa, launched by Hitler on Sunday, 22nd June 1941.

General Manstein’s WW2 career started as the Chief of Staff of Heeresgruppe Süd, Army Group South, coordinating the three subordinate armies during the initial invasion of the West, the infamous Blitzkrieg, and rapidly defeating Poland in its wake.

After only a matter of weeks after the fall of Poland, the General was given the operations order, Fall Gelb, Case Yellow, the plan for the attack on the Anglo-French Allies. The initial plan was for the focal point, using Heeresgruppe B, to be on the right flank in Belgium and Heeresgruppe A, with two armies and a single panzer division, making a supporting attack through the Ardennes.

Manstein quickly identified weaknesses in this approach, advocating that the allies would expect an attack through Belgium and the German Army would be unable to fulfil the new concept of encirclement. With Rundstedt behind him, Manstein wrote to the German High Command, OKH, suggesting that the main push, with Heeresgruppe A, should be through the Ardennes, with four panzer divisions, pushing across the River Meuse, followed by a ‘Sickle-cut’ deep into the allied lines to reach the Channel coast.

His preferences were not welcomed however, and many of his memos were blocked and did not reach Hitler. However, some of Manstein’s supporters managed to leak his ideas to Hitler and on the 17th February 1940, along with other senior commanders, he was invited to breakfast with the Führer himself. Taken aside and asked for his opinion, Hitler adopted this new approach and Heeresgruppe A was increased from 24 to 44 divisions, including the newly formed Panzergruppe Kleist, consisting of five panzer divisions, totalling some 1,200 tanks.

Manstein, although the father of the attack plan, had little involvement in the early stages. Eventually his XXXVIII Armeekorps was involved and was part of a multi-corps assault across the River Somme on the 5th June, eventually pushing the French forces back to the River Loire.

The rest is history, with the invasion of the west being launched on the 10th May 1940, the main allied force being quickly defeated and the remaining French forces defeated by a second Blitzkrieg, ending with the signing of the armistice on the 22 June.

Manstein’s involvement in the Campaign, although short, was successful and he was awarded the Ritterkreuz der Eisernen Kreuzes, Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, and made General of the Infantry. Although there were a number of contributors to the final plan, it was Manstein’s model that ensured German’s greatest military victory.

With Operation Sea lion, the Invasion of Britain cancelled, Hitler’s eyes were already turning east. Manstein was to prove his worth yet again in one of the largest battles ever…

WARNING – GRAPHIC PHOTOS – WARNING

During 1979/80, I served with Task Force Bravo, later known as 22nd Armoured Brigade, based in Northern West Germany. I took this as an opportunity to visit the Nazis concentration camp that was right on our doorstep. Unlike my previous Post on Auschwitz, the colour photographs were taken in 1979, and the quality wasn’t up to the standard of the Digital ones we’re used to today.

Again, it is not my intention to write the history of this notorious site, that has already been done, and by much better writers than me. I would just like to share some of my photography with you.

Bergen-Belsen, southwest of the town of Bergen near Celle. – 1979

 Very little remains there today, part from the mass graves  and a small covered area where photographs of the original site were displayed. I don’t know if it is still there.

One of the barrack rooms after the camp was liberated. – 1945

From 1941 t0 1945, almost 20,000 Russian prisoners of war and over 50,000 other inmates died there. Many of them dying of typhus.

I think, this was roughly at the centre of the site. – 1979

The camp was liberated on the 15th April, 1945 by the British 11th Armoured Division. They discovered 53,000 prisoners inside, half starved and seriously ill, along with over 10,000 corpses.

The British soldiers had the unenviable task of clearing the dead bodies, but necessary to stop the spread of disease. – 1945

They were buried in Mass Graves, this one being Number 3. – 1945

One of the Mass Graves, Bergen-Belsen – 2,500 dead. – 1979

The site felt quite eerie. There were no birds singing and there seemed to be a deathly silence. The ground seemed barren and apart from a few trees and poor quality grass, little else was visible.

Site of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. – 1979

I believe that in in 2007, a redesigned memorial site was opened. It now has a large new Documentation Centre and a permanent exhibition.  The structure and the layout of the camp can now also be traced. I must return there one day.

As indicated at the beginning, my intention was just to share a few photographs with you and not do a write up on the background to the camp and the atrocities linked to it. It was a fascinating, yet horrific, time in our Worlds history and I sometimes wonder if all the lessons from it have been learnt.

Colour photographs copyrighted to Harvey Black

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The Invasion of Crete, WW2.

This would be the first ever airborne invasion in military history. The Fallschirmjager, supported by the famous Gebirgsjager mountain troops, are up against 40,000 allied soldiers – who will fight to the bitter end to protect Crete.

Before dawn on the 20th May 1941, the JU-52’s, “Tante Ju’s”, warmed up their engines on the Greek airfields of Corinth, Megara and Tanagra ready to undertake the first full scale invasion of a country from the air. They were to attack the 160 mile long Island of Crete.

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Loading a weapons canister into a JU-52.

Within minutes of the first few taking off, carrying their loads of paratroopers towards their objectives, a dust storm had been created by the backdraft from the three engined Junkers, playing havoc with the German’s carefully planned schedule. Eventually, waiting for the clouds of dust to settle, all were launched.

Ju-52’s and towed DFS-230 gliders on route to Crete.

On Day 1, the glider companies landed successfully on their targets, capturing the bridge over the Tavronitis and securing an area on the outskirts of Maleme airfield. The 3rd battalion, Luftlande Sturmregiment, started their drop landing directly on top of two New Zealand battalions. The 2nd battalion landed east of Spilia and the 4th battalion west of Travonitis. Once Generalmajor Meindl had secured his HQ, and dug in on the outskirts of the airfield, he sent two companies to take Hill 107, a key position overlooking Maleme airfield. Major Koch, of Eben Emael fame, the commander of  the 1st battalion, received a head wound while helping to take Hill 107.

Fallschirmjager, paratroopers, dropping onto Crete. 

The second major drop that day was around the town of Chania. A second wave of aircraft dropped more paratroopers in the afternoon, along with further gliders containing heavy assault troops. Rethymnon was attacked at 1615 hours, Heraklion at 1730. The Fallschirmjager suffered heavy casualties that day.

Day 2

The Fallschirmjager took advantage of the New Zealand forces withdrawing from Hill 107, this eventually giving the Germans control of Maleme airfield, enabling them to land aircraft and reinforce the units on the ground.

Fallschirmjager in Crete, their distinctive helmets and combat smocks clearly visible.

Before midnight, Rear Admiral Glennie’s Force D, three light cruisers and four destroyers, intercepted a water born landing by German reinforcements. Out of the 2,000 strong German force, over 1,000 managed to escape.

Warships berthed close to the Island – Crete 1941

The Germans now had a foothold on Crete and with Maleme airfield in their possession, they flew units of the 5th Gebirgsjager, Mountain, Division in to join in the attack.

A bitter battle was fought – destroyed British light Mark VI,  tanks, 1941.

It was an exhaustive battle for the Fallschirmjager

But after 10 days of battle they had their victory march – Crete 1941.

But they suffered heavy casualties and it was the last major jump completed by the Fallschirmjager in WW2

The following are pictures from my visit to Crete while writing Devils with Wings: Silk Drop. The visit helped me with my descriptions of the environment they fought in.

When you read about Max and a certain incident, this is the plant I was describing

2010

1941

This exciting fictionalised retelling of the invasion of Crete is written by an author with extensive experience in army intelligence. It’s the follow up to Devils With Wings, and continues the wartime adventures of Fallschirmjager paratrooper Paul Brand and his Feldwebel Max Grun. On a high after their successful subjugation of Fort Eben Emael, Paul Brand, now in command of his own company, and Feldwebel Max Grun, are parachuted into Greece to help capture the bridge spanning the Corinth Canal. Tough times are ahead when the German High Command decide to invade the Island of Crete. This will be the first ever airborne invasion in military history. The Fallschirmjager, supported by the famous Gebirgsjager mountain troops, are up against 40,000 allied soldiers – who will fight to the bitter end to protect Crete. Operating behind enemy lines, Paul Brand and Max Grun will face challenges that not only tests their fortitude but strains the close bond between them. Silk Drop is a thrilling sequel to Devils With Wings and is based on a factual episode.

Photographs copyrighted to Harvey Black