Yearly Archives: 2011

Cold War London. Part Two; Bunker Mentality

The spying that went on in London and other cities was all part of a vast, complex game; an exercise in which the two mighty superpowers strived to gain the upperhand over one another.

Thankfully (and amazingly) the conflict they anticpiated for some 40 years never came to fruition.

But what if the Cold War had suddenly become hot? 

Mushroom cloud graffiti in Bermondsey

 

Authorities in both the East and West made preparations for a predicted Third World War; a conflict which would have almost certainly led to the use of nuclear weapons and slain civilization as we know it.

The British government were under no illusion- in a global nuclear war, London would have been a primary target.

As such, covert preperations were made; plans which sought to protect the upper echelons of government and maintain command over whatever ruins were left.

Most of these plans were, of course, carried out in utter secrecy. However, if you know where to look, evidence of these candlestine preperations can still be seen in London today.

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‘Stompie’

First, let’s begin this tour with something a little out of the ordinary.

During the Cold War, East and West were locked in an arms race, both sides amassing vast stockpiles of the ultimate boys toys; everything from nuclear submarines to inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Thousands of tanks were also accumalated on each side of the divide; guns bristling and catterpillar tracks ready to rumble out in a head-to-head across the plains of Europe should war ever break out.

One such tank; a Soviet model, can be seen in London. Not in a museum as you might expect, but in a rather more unlikely setting…

The tank in question is a Russian ‘T34, and it can be found on the junction of Mandela Way and Pages Walk; backstreets off of the Old Kent Road.

Stompie in situ

 

The tank has quite a chequered history. It saw active service during the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, when it was rolled out to suppress peaceful protests against the leadership of the USSR.

Some 27 years later, the tank was put to more creative use when it was brought to London and employed as an extra on a film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III(starring Ian Mckellen and featuring scenes filmed at Battersea Power Station).

After its thespian role, the tank was purchased by Russell Gray; a property developer. The story goes that Southwark Council had refused Gray permission to build upon the land he owned, so, as a sort of spiteful protest, Gray took the tank and plonked it down on the empty plot, where it remains to this day.

Over the past few years, the tank has provided a canvas for various street-artists; each one creating their own fetching design for the old Cold War relic. The tank is also nicknamed ‘Stompie’, in honour of Stompie Seipei, the 14 year old South African youth who was brutally murdered in Soweto in 1989.

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‘The Kingsway Exchange’

Had the Cold War ever become hot, the reprucusions for the UK would have been grim to say the least.

As a small island, densely packed with cities and military instillations, sandwiched between the USA and the USSR, Britain would have been devastated in a nuclear war, the death toll running into tens of millions, with the less fortunate survivors suffering from horrendous burns, injuries and radiation sickness.

The authorities realised this of course, and many bunkers were constructed across the UK in preparation for a Third World War. The sole purpose of these deep-level shelters was to protect the machinery of government, both at a national and local level, and space in such strongholds was strictly reserved for a limited number of politicians and civil servants.

Having said that, the bureaucrats did have our interests at heart to some extent.

In 1980, they released a short booklet to the public, entitledProtect and Survive’. Priced at 50p, the pamphlet suggested ways in which to safeguard oneself against nuclear blast and radioactive fallout; mainly by utilizing doors, tea-chests and cushions- rather like a child building an indoor den on a wet weekend!

Building a fallout refuge: illustration from Protect & Survive

A series of videos were also produced. However, unlike the Protect and Survive booklet, these were never released to the public and were only intended to be shown during a period of international crisis in which war appeared inevitable.

If such an occasion arose, normal TV programing would have been suspended, replaced by the BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service in which the 20 videos would have been played on a constant loop. As you can see from the example below, they were grim, eerie and their unsettling electronic jingle, created by the BBC’s Radiophonic workshop (then based on Delaware Road, Maida Vale) would’ve done little to boost confidence. 

Please click below to view:

Whilst we above ground struggled with makeshift protection and dinky, ‘Playschool’ esque advice, the privileged few would have been tucked up in their deep shelters, ready to bear witness to the end of civilisation as we knew it.

Although the majority of fortifications (such as the vast ‘Burlington’ complex in Wiltshire) were built in the countryside, evidence of bunker building can be spotted in London today; perhaps the most well-known amongst bunker-buffs being the ‘Kingsway Exchange.’

The Kingsway dates back to that other rapid period of shelter building; World War Two. It is formed by a series of long tunnels, stretching beneath Holborn, roughly in sync, and running below the London Underground’s Central line (apparently, the bunker is actually connected to Chancery Lane tube station via a private stair-case).

Evidence of the bunker is revealed in these ventilation shafts, which quietly stand guard as commuters rush by.

Evidence of the Kingsway Exchange bunker; vents on Newgate Street (left) and Holborn (right)

The Kingsway exchange was originally constructed towards the end of WWII in order to house government staff- civil servants from the Ministry of Works and London Civil Defence controllers. Experts from the ‘Special Operations Executive (a branch of M16, set up to help Resistance fighters battling the Nazis), were also granted office space here.

The squirriling away of these workers beside a busy tube station was not unique; General Eisenhower had his protected head-quarters located in a shelter beside Goodge Street station (just off of Tottenham Court Road).

After WWII, and with the emerging Cold War threat of atomic attack, the Kingsway was expanded and beefed up. Ownership of the bunker was  transferred to the General Post Office (GPO) who, at that time, were also responsible for telecommunications.

A large telephone exchange was set-up deep within the complex and a large percentage of civilian calls made from London passed through here.

More covertly, the London terminal of ‘TAT 1’; a transatlantic telephone cable, linked to the United States was established in the secure tunnel. This came online in 1956.

Because of this important communication link, the Kingsway Exchange played a key part in providing the infamous ‘hotline’ which connected the White House to the Kremlin. 

At its height, some 200 people worked in the Kingsway Exchange and in order to cater for this large workforce, the bunker contained a canteen and a bar- which claimed to be the deepest in the UK.

The fortification below Holborn also boasted its own artesian well, and fuel tanks capable of holding 22,000 gallons which meant, in the event of a nuclear strike, it could be locked down and run for up to six weeks.

Map showing the approximate location of the Kingsway Exchange

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The GPO Tower

Back above ground, the GPO were also responsible for building a far more well-known London landmark- the ‘GPO Tower’ …. Otherwise known as the Post Office Tower or, as it’s called today… the B.T Tower.

For some 15 years, the GPO Tower was the tallest building in London (superseded by the NatWest Tower) and remains a famous site today, visible from many parts of the city.

The GPO Tower was celebrated for its revolving restaurant (run by holiday-camp giant ‘Butlins’ no less!), which made one complete revolution every 22 minutes.

A film depicting the restaurant as it appeared in 1966 can be viewed below:

Sadly, due to security concerns, the restaurant was closed in 1980 and the public have been refused access to the landmark ever since (with the exception of the annual Open House Weekend, when those wishing to visit must provide security details before entering a lottery-draw to win one of the coveted tickets).

The BT Tower today

Despite being firmly embedded as a household name and major London landmark towering over the city, there is something rather surprising about the GPO Tower….

Until 1993, it was classed as an official state secret!

This covert status meant that it was not allowed to appear on any map. Taking photographs was also a no-no, and its address on Maple Street in Fitzrovia, was classified. 

Why was this?

Well, the GPO Tower was in fact a key link in a system known as the ‘microwave network’ (nothing to do with the type of microwave you use at home to serve up a ready-made curry of course!)

Right up until the 1980s, the microwave network was responsible for transmitting television signals and other data- some of it military. The arrangement comprised of a link of transmitters, stretched across the UK from north to south; with towers similar to the London GPO erected in Birmingham (at Snow Hill) and Manchester (in Heaton Park).

Being extremely secure, the system was also known by the codename, ‘Backbone’ and, in the event of a nuclear attack, the resilient network would have provided vital communications for the government.

Quite how this would have worked, I’m not so sure- considering the searing heat and 500mph blast wave unleashed by a nuclear weapon, it is doubtful that any buildings (or indeed people) would have been left standing…

The route of London Underground’s Victoria Line (also constructed in the 1960s), runs considerably close beneath the BT Tower, and urban legends abound suggesting that it is secretly connected in some way. As is Buckingham Palace… but I suppose that’s another story altogether….

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‘Q- Whitehall’

Going back below ground, there is inevitabely a myriad of tunnels beneath Whitehall, the seat of government.

However, although the exsistence of such a complex is taken as red, the exact details on what exsists are a little shadier.

The most documented facility below Westminster is a series of tunnels known as ‘Q Whitehall.’

Like the Kingsway exchange, Q Whitehall began life in WW2, and was extended during the 1950s. Documents related to the Cold War extension are still classed as secret, and will not be made public until 2026.

Essentially though, the tunnels which make up the Q Whitehall network are service tunnels, carrying secure communication cables and connecting various government departments. It stretches all along Whitehall, right up to Trafalgar Square– in fact, one of the entry points to the system is rumoured to be via Craig’s Court; a tiny alleyway less than 200 feet away from the Square.

As the development of nuclear weapons progressed from atom bombs to hydrogen bombs, it began to dawn upon politicians that a major city centre would perhaps not be the safest place to be during a nuclear war. The main government war HQ was therefore established outside of London; moving to Corsham near Bath, where a truly vast bunker; a small, underground town, was established and was only declassified in 2004.

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Pear Tree House

Although central government would have fled the capital in the event of a nuclear war, local authorities were expected to stay behind and take care of their boroughs. Each council was required to provide their own shelter; most of which would have been rather makeshift affairs, hastily set up in the basements of town halls and civic centres.

If a Third World War ever did break out, plans were drawn up which would have involved the UK being divided into regional sectors; each forming a mini-kingdom of sorts, where the controller would have wielded total power.

London was designated as ‘Region 5’ and, due to its size, was sub-divided into four different sectors, each with its own purpose built bunker- one in Wanstead (North-East group), one in Southall (North-West group; the bunker being built beneath a school no less), one in Cheam (South-West group) and one at Crystal Palace (South-East group).

If you know where to look, the Crystal Palace bunker is still clearly visible and is one of the most unusual buildings in London…

Built in 1966, the bunker sits right in the middle of the large, Central Hill Estate… and right beneath a block of flats! The land upon which it sits was reclaimed from an old, WW2 bomb crater, created by one of Hitler’s ‘V2’ rockets; the prelude to the more advanced intercontinental missiles, which both the USA and USSR had poised at each other during the Cold War.

The bunker beneath Pear Tree House

The flat-block is called ‘Pear Tree House’, and can be found tucked away on the corner of Hawke Road and Lunham Road. Eight, two-bedroom flats sit above the nuclear shelter- although, of course, none of the residents living in them would have been allowed access had the four-minute warning ever sounded.

Due to its blatant location, Pear Tree House attracted much attention from anti-nuclear groups, and was picketed by CND during the early 1980s; their protest posters plastered over the heavy blast doors.

Slightly more innocuous view of Pear Tree House…

The bunker remained active right up until 1993 and, by all accounts, little has changed inside, with paperwork strewn everwhere, and large, ominous bomb-plotting maps still tacked to the walls. The bunker’s communication aerials are also still in place, clearly visible on the block’s roof.

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Kelvedon Hatch

Pear Tree House, along with the three other shelters located within the London region, would have been answerable to a much larger bunker, which lay some 20 miles outside the city, deep within an Essex wood.

This bunker was known as ‘Kelvedon Hatch, and was built to accommodate some 600 people. Constructed in the early 1950s, the bunker eventually became known as the ‘Sub-Regional Headquarters’ for London.

Essentially, this meant that if a nuclear war had ever struck the UK, Kelvedon Hatch would have been in charge of governing whatever was left of the Capital.

The entrance to Kelvedon Hatch…disguised as a harmless looking bungalow 

Once inside the ‘bungalow’, this is the long tunnel which would have led the fortunate few deep underground and into the safety of Kelvedon Hatch bunker

The fortified shelter (like other regional centres built around the UK), contained a fully kitted out BBC studio, from which the regional controller would have been able to broadcast instructions and information to survivors (although whether or not anyone above ground would have been alive to hear his words is debatable).

In the immediate hours following an attack, the broadcasts relayed from this subterranean BBC studio would have been pre-recorded and, in 2008, the National Archives declassified one such script. Taped in the 1970s, its words are chilling to say the least:

This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible…

Kelvedon Hatch BBC studio

We shall repeat this broadcast in two hours’ time. Stay tuned to this wavelength, but switch your radios off now to save your batteries until we come on the air again. That is the end of this broadcast.

A full audio recording recreated by the late Peter Donaldson– the trusted ‘Voice of Doom‘ who would’ve read the transcript for real- can be heard by clicking below:

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Safely stowed away in Kelvedon Hatch, the ‘Sub-Regional Commander (in peacetime, a high-ranking, local government councillor) would have been granted absolute power following a nuclear strike.

Emergency powers would have granted them the power to control food stockpiles (i.e withholding it from those who were ill or badly injured and therefore unable to work), rationing other commodities such as fuel, and organising survivors into conscripted work gangs. These workers would have been ordered to carry out all manner of tasks amongst the radioactive ruins; no doubt one of the jobs being the disposal of the countless dead.

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Due to the high number of fatalities expected, sites for the largest mass-burial sites in London since the 1666 plague were earmarked; one of them being identified in this leaflet from 1982 (which can be viewed in the Imperial War Museum):

Anti-nuclear leaflet on display at the Imperial War Museum, revealing plans for mass-graves on Clapham Common

The Commander would also have been granted full control over law and order and, if any unlucky survivors happened to be caught looting amongst the rubble of London, emergency powers would have permitted their execution by firing squad.

Kelvedon Hatch, along with the rest of the UK bunker infrastructure, remained active right up until the early 1990s, and regular exercises were held in the Essex stronghold, in which the chosen few would spend the odd weekend acting out dress-rehersals for WW3.

Today, Kelvedon Hatch (which is just outside the Essex commuter town of Brentwood) is open to the public as a museum. If you fancy a visit though, be warned… it is an exceptionally creepy place, not helped by the fact that many of its rooms and displays are peopled by rather disturbing mannequins!

Dummies in one of Kelvedon Hatch’s rooms… (image: Gordon Joly, Creative Commons Licence)

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Thankfully of course, none of these sites were ever used for their intended purpose, and they now sit quietly in the background, oblivious to most people.

I’ll end this piece though with a chilling montage of how things could have turned out…

The brief clip below is taken from a BBC documentary entitled A Guide to Armageddon.’  

Broadcast in 1982 as part of the scientific programme, QED’, the terrifying episode examined what would happen to London if a 1-megaton nuclear warhead was exploded above St Paul’s Cathedral.

Taken from the end credits and using WW2 photos and primitive (although convincing) special effects, the clip provides a chilling,  imagined view of a nuclear-destroyed London.

Please click to view. 

The full episode can be watched here.

Don’t have nightmares! 

Cold War London. Part One; The Spy Game

Secrets are a constant source of fascination for people, especially when undisclosed mysteries are lurking right there beneath your feet or nose.

Taking my previous post about the Berlin Wall into consideration, and with the big screen adaptation of John Le Carre’s espionage masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy currently playing in cinemas, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some sites in London which have a murky connection to the Cold War; a period in recent history which has always held a great fascination for me.

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Being one of the most important cities in the West, London played host to many spies during the Cold War and, in a such a vast, sprawling city, in the days before CCTV cameras sprouted up everywhere like a plague of mushrooms, London was a city very conducive for the execution of undercover activities….

In London, there were all manner of places where Soviet KGB spies would meet up with their contacts.

An important part of their shadowy network were the various ‘dead letter boxes’ (also known in spy circles by the abbreviation ‘DLB’); discreet locations where important packages could be left and collected.

The most well documented of these was set up in the Brompton Oratory; a famous Roman Catholic Church, five minutes’ walk away from Harrods.

As you walk in through the main entrance, there is a marble pillar to the right, and it is behind this that agents used to hide their top-secret notes and parcels.

Brompton Oratory, Knightsbridge

The fact that the Brompton Oratory DLB was situated so close to Harrods is no coincidence.

If an agent conducting his covert business at the church had reason to believe he was being followed, he simply headed for the world-famous department store and lost the tail. With Harrods spread over a five-acre site, composed of some 330 departments and with numerous entrances and exits, losing a would-be tracker was relatively simple…

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Another dead letter box was to be found in Bloomsbury; on Coram’s Fields, not far from Russell Square.

Coram’s Fields is noted for being child-friendly, especially considering its links to the ‘Foundling Hospital’ (an orphanage was established here in the 1700s) and its proximity to Great Ormond Street children’s hospital.

Coram’s Fields, Bloomsbury

In the early 1980s, Oleg Gordievsky (an undercover agent, based at the Soviet Embassy in London), took his young daughters to play in the park. Whilst there, he nipped over to the DLB and causally stowed away a brick amongst some shrubbery. It was no ordinary brick though for two reasons.

1-    It was a false brick and

2-    It contained a cool £8,000!

Oleg tucked this valuable hoard away so it could later be collected by a fellow agent who was in trouble and needed cash. 

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Not many people realise that, during the autumn of 1983, the world came the closest it’s been to WW3 since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A combination of events- including the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Airlines Flight 007, the deployment of cruise missiles in Western Europe (most famously at Greenham Common), a terrifying false alarm on the Soviet’s missile warning system (thankfully overridden by chronically overlooked hero, Stanislav Petrov) and a NATO war exercise codenamed ‘Abel-Archer 83’, which the Soviets feared was a prelude to a real attack, almost culminated in triggering a global nuclear war.

At the time, however, the public were oblivious to this, blissfully unaware of the politicking and lunacy which was going on behind the progressively absurd scenes.

In the months leading up to crisis, the ageing and increasingly paranoid Soviet leadership had convinced themselves that war was imminent.

Under the guidance of Yuri Andropov, they therefore initiated Operation Ryan; an intelligence gathering mission with the key aim of pin-pointing the exact date when the West were planning to launch their attack on the Soviet Union. Operation Ryan’s motto was stark, yet simple: “Don’t miss it.”

Your Andropov pictured in August 1983

Russian agents in London were instructed to monitor all sorts of bizarre activity. Were calls for blood donors on the increase? Was meat being stockpiled at Smithfield market?

The observation of key figures and buildings was also ordered… so, every evening during the operation, a KGB agent would lurk outside the Ministry of Defence on Whitehall.

His task?

To count the number of lights which remained shining through the huge building’s many windows.

The rather roundabout theory went that, if lights were on late at night, then that suggested the high honchos were still at work, burning the candle at both ends as they penned up their plans for the Third World War.

Funnily enough though, the KGB didn’t appear to stop and consider what was probably the true reason for the lights beaming in the the Ministry of Defence late at night:

The office cleaners were hard at work!

The Ministry of Defence at night in 2011… lights ablaze, just as they were in 1983, when KGB agents would stand outside counting them!

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Of course, one of the hazards of being a spy was the possibility of capture.

This is Wormwood Scrubs (names don’t get grimmer than that); one of London’s most notorious prisons:

Wormwood Scrubs Prison

In 1966, it was the scene of an audacious and successful prison-break.

A few years before, in 1961, a spy by the name of George Blake had been found guilty at the Old Bailey of breaching the Official Secrets Act. He’d betrayed dozens of British agents to the Soviets, a number of whom were believed executed as a result.

Blake was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment- a record at the time; being the longest sentence ever dished out in a British court.

Whilst in prison, Blake met Sean Bourke, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle; the latter two being passionate anti-nuclear protestors. Their sentences were far briefer and, once out, they conspired to free George Blake.

George Blake

A walkie-talkie was smuggled into Wormwood Scrubs, enabling the group to hatch a plan.

The plot was simple, but daring. One evening, whilst most of the inmates were watching their weekly movie, Blake sneaked off and squeezed through a large, gothic window at the end of the wing (a small pane having been previously been loosened for the purpose).

He then dropped 20 ft. and scrambled over the outer wall with the aid of ladder, which had been hurled over by his counterparts… the ladder, was extremely makeshift- its rungs made up from size 13 knitting needles. Must have been a pretty precarious scramble!

Once over the wall, he was met by Bourke, who sped him away in a getaway car. Blake had broken his wrist during the escape and, once in the car, he blacked out.

Blake spent the next few weeks being transferred between safe houses around London (one of the known places being an apartment on Willow Road in Hampstead), before being finally smuggled into Europe where, at an East German checkpoint, he entered the Soviet Union.

Sean Bourke died in 1982, but Michael Randle and Pat Pottle were tried for their part in the escape in 1991. They argued that, although they did not agree with Blake’s espionage activities, they found his lengthy sentence “inhumane.”

They were found not guilty on all counts.

To this day, George Blake still lives in Russia. In 2007, on the occasion of his 85th birthday (and long after the end of the Cold War), Blake was honoured by Vladimir Putin with a gala celebration, where he was awarded the Order of Friendship in thanks for his services to Russian intelligence!

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George Blake fled to the USSR.

Georgi Markov, however-a Bulgarian writer and dissident- did quite the opposite, defecting to the West in 1969; first to Italy, and then onto London in 1972.

Markov had been a fierce opponent of the Communist regime, his views expressed through novels such as A Portrait of my Doubleand ‘The Women of Warsaw.’ Because of his anti-communist sentiments, Markov’s works were banned throughout the East.

However, once in the West, Markov was free to pursue his critique of the regime.

Such actions ensured that Markov remained a major thorn in the side of the East and, by 1977, the leader of Bulgaria’s Communist party- Zhivkov Todor- had come to the stark conclusion that Markov needed silencing.

Georgi Markov; Bulgarian writer and dissident

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On the 7thSeptember 1978, Georgi Markov carried out his usual commuting routine; parking his car on London’s Southbank, before heading for Waterloo Bridge, where he would take a short bus ride to his BBC office in Bush House.

Whilst he waited at the north-bound bus stop on Waterloo Bridge, cars and commuters swarming past, Markov suddenly felt a sharp sting in his leg.

Looking up, he noticed a man nearby, picking up an umbrella from the pavement. The stranger made a hurried apology, before quickly flagging down a taxi and exiting the scene (you never do know why you’re going to pick up….)

The southern end of Waterloo Bridge; site of the bus-stop where Georgi Markov was stabbed with an improvised umbrella

By the time he arrived at work, Markov was in considerable pain, and a small red mark had appeared on his leg. By the evening, he’d developed a fever and was admitted to St James’s Hospital in Balham (a hospital which, like so many others, no longer exists, and has given way to a block of apartments).

Upon examination, doctors at St James’s discovered a tiny puncture wound- about 2mm in diameter- on Markov’s leg. Septicaemia was diagnosed and, three days later, Georgi Markov was dead, as was his voice of dissent. He was 49 years old.

When the post-mortem was carried out, the true culprit responsible for the writer’s death was discovered.

A tiny, metal sphere- no bigger than a pinhead- was located in Markov’s leg wound. Two minute holes were bored into the little pellet and, after being sent to the government’s chemical research centre at Porton Down, it was concluded that the tiny sphere had contained a lethal dose of ricin, slowly released into Georgi’s bloodstream after being injected by an improvised umbrella.

Sources speculate that Georgi Markov’s assassin was one Francesco Gullino; an agent who posed as an art-dealer and went by a very London-esque codename:

 Agent Piccadilly.’

‘Agent Piccadilly’ (Francesco Gullino) & the ricin pellet which some believe he was responsible for injecting into Georgi Makov on Waterloo Bridge in 1978

To be continued…

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Please click here for Part Two

 

The Wall

Section of the Berlin Wall, as seen in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum

I adore history, especially that of the modern kind and, every now and then, I’m lucky enough to meet someone in my taxi who has directly experienced the effects of recent history; people who have lived through certain eras, and have played witness to chaotic periods which shaped the course of the previous century.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting one such person.

I’d just dropped a gentleman off and, as he walked around to the window to pay, raindrops began to splash on the windscreen. Inclement weather is always good for business and, to a cabbie, raindrops really are pennies from heaven. When the skies open up, hands go up too as people strive to avoid a soaking.

Sure enough, before the passenger had even finished paying, a woman eagerly approached, enquiring if I would soon be free. I gave her an affirmative thumbs up.

St Pancras International, please!”

Despite the downpour, the new passenger was incredibly cheerful and bubbly. As I turned the cab around and snapped the wipers on, I asked whereabouts she was travelling to from St Pancras.

“Paris” she replied;  “not a holiday I’m afraid; I live there now, out in the suburbs.”

“That’s certainly not a French accent though” I smile.

“No; I’m from Berlin originally.”

I told my passenger that I’m hoping to take a short break to Berlin at some point in the next few months.

“Ah, you should. It’s a great city. Have you ever been to Germany before?”

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I have indeed been to Germany before, but I was very young at time. The last time I was there, Germany was still divided between West and East.

We spent one Christmas visiting my Grandfather, who then worked at Ramstein Air Base; an immense installation, its huge size firmly securing it as the headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe. Even today, Ramstein has the largest American community outside the US.

My main memory of the airbase is of its vast department store and the ‘Garfield’ merchandise which sat upon the well-stocked shelves (a sound indicator that we were on the Capitalist side of the Cold War; I doubt the Soviet bases readily made plush toys so readily available to their servicemen!)

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East and West,” muses my passenger, “ah; I remember those days well.”

Like so many Europeans I meet in the Taxi, the lady spoke perfect, fluent English.

“It must have been quite an experience to live through such times?”

“It was, yes. I was lucky; I was born and grew up in West Germany. My parents however were originally from the East. They defected.

You see, my parents were intellectuals and they wished to train to be teachers. However, in Eastern Germany, this was not so easy. Being Communist, the authorities liked to give university precedence to those from agricultural or industrial backgrounds.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing of course; it is good for all people to receive an education. However, the Communists simply flipped the situation around, favouring one group over another.

My parents realised that it would be very difficult to become teachers in the East. Even if they were accepted, they would have to bow to and promote Soviet ideology, and this is something they knew they would not be able to stomach.

Defecting was a very dangerous, very tense act to carry out. It was illegal of course, and the penalties if caught were severe.

It was also an awful decision to make and, even though those who loved them actively encouraged them to go, they knew that leaving family and friends behind would be very painful indeed.”

“So how did they manage to escape?”

“Well, they finally left in 1961; around the time construction on the Berlin Wall really began to get underway. When that started to go up, they knew they had to get out quickly.

They defected by train. It was still possible to travel between east and west in this way, but is was risky. Naturally my parents couldn’t take any possessions with them at all- to do so would have aroused immediate suspicion. They had to leave everything they owned behind. The only luggage they took was a small brief-case; carried by my father. They had to give the impression they were only making a short day trip.

Thankfully they made it safely to the West without the guards suspecting.

Once there though, my father received a huge shock- when he opened his case, he discovered lots of silver-wear in there; expensive cutlery and so on. My Granny had put it in there without him knowing! She meant well of course, but my father was furious! Can you imagine if he’d been searched? The game would truly have been over…

With nothing to their name, they moved into a one-room apartment. They’d left a nice house with a large garden behind in the east, all of their possessions and memories, friends and family.

But they were free.

When I was growing up, it was possible every now and then to travel into East Germany to visit family. However, it was like calling on them in prison.We were allowed to take small parcels of gifts, but the border guards would search these very thoroughly.”

“What was your main impression of the East?” I ask.

“Grey. It was all so very, very grey; devoid of colour. Especially by the late 1980s, the people looked very depressed and downtrodden indeed.

When we visited, I remember seeing other children the same age as me- waiting in long queues outside shops. They didn’t even know what they queuing for; their mothers would hear a rumour that something or other had appeared in a shop, and they would send their children out to fetch whatever it was, hoping it would be worth the long wait.

When the wall finally came down, that was one of the best days of our lives. I remember a group of our cousins running across a road towards us; their eyes wet with joy.”

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Sadly, we’ve reached out destination very quickly. As the gothic spires of St Pancras International loom into view, I find myself wanting to hear lots more about this Berliner’s family and experiences. This is the downside of meeting wonderful people in the cab; they’re gone all too soon.

I doubt she often has the opportunity to speak so openly about her parents’ experience, and it seems like our chat has sent many memories rushing to the surface. As we say our goodbyes, the woman lets out a melancholy sigh and shakes her head.

“Enclosing people with a big wall. Just imagine! What ever possessed them to do it?”

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The Berlin Wall was famously torn down in November 1989. Today, parts of it can be seen and touched right here in London.

The largest section is to be found in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. The slab boasts an excellent example of the type of graffiti which characterized the western side of the wall. This section of the wall was located near the Brandenburg Gate, and was acquired by the Museum in January 1991; not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A photo of the wall-section can be seen at the top of this post.

Inside the museum itself, there is a gallery dedicated to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.

Reconstruction of Berlin Wall guard post & model of the wall itself, as seen in the Imperial War Museum

Another piece of the Berlin Wall was introduced to London earlier this year, when a statue of President Ronald Reagan was unveiled on Grosvenor Square. Set in the statue’s plinth is a plaque, which contains a small block of the wall, along with a quote; Reagan’s plea to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

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