After all: the pupils of Houdini

Ingenious ways of defecting.

It is almost 20 years since the Berlin Wall - the most sinister engineering creation of recent times - started crumbling.

I still remember crossing it on a train in both directions - some of the scariest recollections of my life. The very first crossing, in October 1988, was a truly unforgettable experience.

We arrived at Berlin Friedrichstrasse Station at 1am and shortly afterwards the whole platoon of East German frontier guards boarded our Moscow-Hook of Holland carriage. They were all young, grey-eyed, pimpled and had low foreheads, as if deliberately hand-picked for these particular features. They led snarling dogs straining at their leads. They carried screwdrivers, torches and portable ladders.

And the great search began. They scrutinised us endlessly with their blank piercing eyes while checking our passports. One of them stared at my face unblinkingly, comparing it with my passport photo, for such a long time that I started fidgeting nervously under his serial-killer stare and having doubts as to whether it was really me.

Then they began unscrewing everything that could be unscrewed and opening everything that could be opened.

One of them was shining his torch inside the toilet.

What were they looking for?

Finding nothing, all but one of them eventually got off the carriage as the train started crawling slowly towards the Wall. The one who had stayed (probably the most trusted guard, with the best party record) was peeping out of the window to make sure that nobody was riding outside, hanging on by the door rails. Once assured he jumped out.

Four years later, in October 1992, I went back to Berlin as a London-based columnist to cover the Queen's first visit to reunited Germany. The Berlin Wall was no more, and its tiny fragments were on sale as souvenirs (ten Deutschmarks a piece) near the Brandenburg Gate.

Inside the former Checkpoint Charlie, they had a small exhibition on the history of escapes across the Wall by the brave and at times foolhardy and desperate, people. Varying reports claim around 192 people were killed trying to cross and many more injured.

I was astounded by the sheer technological ingenuity of some of them.

A truck carrying a group of East Berliners simply crashed through the wall. The driver, though shot, kept going. He later died from his wounds.

One young woman in West Berlin made a US Army uniform. She got buttons and badges from officers by saying they were for a play. She then borrowed an American car, drove over to East Berlin and brought back two friends.

A team of young mechanics engineered a chain of folding ladders guided by pulleys and ropes. They scaled the electrified wall without touching it.

Two men used an archery bow to shoot a cable over the wall and onto a roof on the Western side. They attached pulleys to the cable and sailed across the Wall - 20m high - in 30 seconds.

One group took six months in 1964 to dig a 130m tunnel from the cellar of a former West Berlin bakery to an outhouse on the eastern side. They freed 57 East Berliners. The escape ended when East German soldiers sprayed the tunnel with machine-gun fire.

On 15 August, 1961, Conrad Schumann was the first East German border guard to escape by jumping the barbed wire to West Berlin.

Later, successful escape attempts included long tunnels, waiting for favourable winds and taking a hot air balloon, sliding along aerial wires, flying ultra-lights and, in one instance, simply driving a car at full speed through the basic, initial fortifications.

When a metal beam was placed at checkpoints to prevent this kind of escape, up to four escapees (two in the front and possibly two in the boot) drove under the bar in a sports car that had been modified to allow the roof and wind screen to come away when it made contact with the beam. The driver and passengers simply lay flat and kept driving forwards. This avenue of escape was closed by building zig-zagging roads at checkpoints.

Another airborne escape was by Thomas Kruger, who landed a Zlin Z-42M light aircraft of the Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik, an East German youth military training organisation, at RAF Gatow. His aircraft, registration DDR-WOH, was dismantled and returned to the East Germans by road, complete with humorous slogans painted on by RAF airmen such as "Wish you were here" and "Come back soon". DDR-WOH is still flying today, but under the registration D-EWOH.

Even soldiers escaped. On 15 August, 1961, the first member of the East German People's Army leaped to freedom.

After him, about 2,000 other soldiers fled to the West.

Escapes from the Soviet Union

We have all heard of the mutinous Soviet Navy frigate Storozhevoy that tried - unsuccessfully - to defect to Sweden and became a prototype for The Hunt for Red October.

We have also heard of a former Soviet military pilot and now an American aerospace engineer Victor Belenko who, on 6 September, 1976 successfully defected to the West, flying his MiG 25 'Foxbat' to Hakodate, Japan (this was the first time that Western experts were able to get a close look at the aircraft, and it revealed many secrets and surprises).

Yet very few people know of such real-life ingenious escapes as:

  • A sailor from Novorossiysk crossing the Black Sea to Istanbul on an inflatable mattress, with nothing but a plastic bag full of chocolate and vodka;
  • A man from Karelia (in the north west of Russia) escaping to Finland through a drainage tube, having covered his naked body with oil to facilitate the sliding (he kept his clothes in a rubber bag tied to his ankle);
  • A pilot of a Soviet cargo ship smuggling his wife to the West in a chest for dirty linen that he kept in his cabin.

There was also a case of an engineer from Leningrad who had managed to cross the border with Finland on skis, but instead of surrendering to the Finnish authorities, who tended to return all defectors to the USSR, he cleverly hiked undetected across the whole country to Sweden where he finally gave himself up.

Three cheers to the brave man's truly engineering spirit - and that, to my mind and as proved by the examples above, is made up of technological ingenuity, love of freedom and staunch refusal to comply with fences, barbed wire, concrete walls and other restrictive totalitarian divides.

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