My most worrying incident occurred on the early morning of 26 December 1979. I had remained on duty at Teufelsberg until late evening on Christmas Day trying to make sense of a situation developing thousands of miles away to the east that would soon hit the world headlines. I didn't know it then but the unusual Soviet transport flights into Afghanistan that we were tracking turned out to be the start of the Soviet invasion. After a mere couple of hours sleep, I set out for the long drive back to my home in Lincolnshire to spend what was left of Christmas with my family. I left RAF Gatow at 4am, leaving my deputy in charge, and drove through empty streets to Checkpoint Bravo at the southern end of the American Sector of Berlin.
On arrival at Checkpoint Bravo my documentation was checked by the British Military Police detachment. Although I had already done the trip several times by day, I was given the standard briefing and I signed documents to confirm that I was familiar with the rules and knew what to do in the event of a breakdown or emergency. One of the most important elements of the standard briefing was that there was to be absolutely no interaction whatsoever with East German civilians or military. The reason for that was that the UK, US and French Governments did not recognise the East German state.
Above: This is one of the 'pootyovkas' I used for a trip through the corridor and back.
A few kilometres further on, after driving through the bleak no-man's land along the totally deserted road, I pulled into the Soviet Checkpoint on the East German border near Dreilinden. The vast floodlit area was empty and it really was very eerie. I came to a halt alongside a solitary Soviet soldier at the only one of the dozen traffic lanes that was open. I got out of my car, closed the door and locked it. The guard and I then formally saluted each other together, even though I was in civilian clothes. Rank and mode of dress was not important: the salutes were intended to be friendly gestures between Allies. Part of the protocol was that Allied vehicles (that is American, British, French and Soviet) in transit along the military corridors were not allowed to be searched.
I handed my papers to the soldier; he walked slowly around my car, checked that the registration number matched the details on my Pootyovka (Movement Order) and then handed the papers back to me. Not a word was spoken. We exchanged salutes once more and then he indicated that I should walk over to the small building about 200 metres away. Inside that building I pushed my documents through the familiar small hatchway. The window above the hatch was shuttered as usual but by bending down as I slid my papers through, as I always did, I could see that the normally very busy office beyond was almost empty - it was, after all, very early morning on Boxing Day! The person who took my papers was half standing so I couldn't see much of him other than his arms.
A TV was on in the corner of the waiting room, tuned to the main West Berlin channel which was showing a Christmassy music programme. A selection of English, French, German and Russian language magazines and newspapers lay on a table. Conscious of the CCTV camera staring down on me from high up in a corner of the room, I ignored the Russian literature, picked up an English magazine and sat down to wait. Normally, and even at busy times, travel documents came back through the hatch within a very few minutes, warm from the photocopier and authenticated with a Soviet stamp. On this occasion I was kept waiting for 10 minutes and I began to feel uneasy.
When my papers were eventually thrust back through the hatch, I could see that the person doing the pushing was wearing the uniform of a Soviet Army lieutenant colonel rather than the more usual corporal or sergeant. I am quite certain that the officer made sure I could see his rank, one higher than mine, because, quite unnecessarily, he leaned as far forward as the hatchway permitted. He said "Thank you, have a pleasant journey" in excellent English. I returned to my car and showed the documents once again to the guard. He checked that they had been stamped with the Soviet authority to proceed and then handed them back to me. We saluted each other again and I got back into my car.
I made a note of the time and then drove on into the German Democratic Republic. The time was important because I could not afford to arrive at the next Soviet checkpoint, 160 kms away, in less than two hours otherwise I would have exceeded the strict 80kph speed limit somewhere along the route - and that was a crime. Taking too long on the journey would also have raised suspicions because no stops, not even 'comfort' stops, were permitted along the route. Had my car broken down or if, for any other reason, I had to stop inside GDR territory, the protocol required me to remain in my vehicle, place the large Union Jack poster, which was always carried in the glove compartment by British travellers, in the windscreen and wait for British Military Police to arrive. The protocol also forbade us to speak to any German citizen if one should be so foolish as to approach our car (any that did, would very likely be defectors trying to escape to the West).
Those next two hours were a worrying time. It was the first time I had done the journey by night. It was an extremely dark night and there were no road lights! The road was single carriageway for most of the way, with many bends, and often passed through forests and occasionally through small villages which were also in darkness apart from a very occasional street light. I am sure I spent as much time watching my rear view mirror as I did watching the road in front but there was absolutely nothing to be seen and I saw no moving vehicles in either direction. Every few miles I noticed an East German police patrol car parked up in a lay-by with its lights on, or at a road junction seemingly waiting to cross; the crews were doubtless reporting my progress to someone.
It was easy to maintain the 80kph average speed through East Germany; I slowed down for the last 2 or 3 kms as I approached the border area just to make quite sure I would not be early. After 2 hours 5 minutes I pulled up at Soviet Checkpoint Alpha at Marienborn. The procedure was the same as at the Berlin end. After exchanging salutes, I handed my documents over to the Soviet border guard. I noticed that he was older than the average guard but I could see no badges of rank. He waved me over to the Soviet office without even bothering to check my documentation. Now that was very unusual! Inside the hut, my pootyovka was checked and stamped again in a very short space of time and with great relief I went back to my car.
This time, instead of coming out to stand alongside me at the front of my vehicle, the guard remained inside his sentry box. After we had exchanged salutes he held his hand out for my documents. I handed them over at full stretch. Without looking at them, he moved back a further couple of paces into his box and gestured me to move closer. I declined. He then spoke to me in colloquial Russian. "Have you something you wish to swap?" he asked. I believe that British servicemen sometimes handed over bars of chocolate or cigarettes as a gesture of Allied friendship, but that was strictly against the rules.
I ignored his question and said in English, "Please check my documents and let me pass." He persisted, always in Russian, for what seemed like ages but was probably only a couple of minutes. I assumed that there were hidden cameras and microphones and that 'they' were trying to get a photograph of me handing over something to the Soviet soldier. In the end I snapped at him and said curtly and loudly in English, "Check my documents and hand them back."
Suddenly a voice came over a loudspeaker inside the sentry box. The language was possibly Ukrainian or some other language similar to Russian: I could understand only a little of what was said. It was certainly an order to the guard. He came smartly out of his box, handed over my documents, still not having looked at them, and said "Thank you squadron leader, Happy Christmas" in English, and saluted. I returned his salute, got into my car in some relief, and drove on.
A few minutes later I was in the safety of the British Checkpoint at Helmstedt. Before leaving my car in the empty parking lot outside the NAAFI (closed for Christmas!), I checked that the black cotton I had stuck between the body of the car and the boot lid before leaving Gatow was unbroken and then went to book in. Travellers were required to report anything unusual that happened during their transit through East Germany and so I had to spend the next hour tediously making a written statement of my little adventure.
When I reached home in Lincolnshire later that same afternoon, the whole world was talking about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - and I had to pretend to be surprised.