The technology of escapes

E&T chronicles some truly ingenious escapes over, through, across and underneath the world's most sinister engineering structure - the Berlin Wall.

 Fifteenth August, 1961 was something of a big day for 19-year-old East German soldier Conrad Schumann, standing guard at the corner of Ruppiner Straße and Bernauer Straße in east Berlin. It was a mere three days after the start of construction of the Berlin Wall and, thus far, the results had been unimpressive. The Wall, which would become a universal symbol of the lengths to which the Soviets would go to contain and oppress, was still nothing but a stretch of barbed wire. Armed soldiers of the National People's Army (NVA) and the Combat Group of the Working Class (KdA) lined the fence of roughly 140km brandishing machine guns; their orders were to shoot all who dared cross.

Following the Second World War, to those in the Soviet-controlled East, Allied West Germany was something of a paradise; up until the early 1960s, westward emigration accounted for a 9 per cent drop in the East German population of working age, most of whom were members of the intelligentsia (professional engineers, teachers, scientists). Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known crossing point between the east and the west, was a gateway to freedom and, despite the erection of the Wall and the checkpoint's subsequent reinforcement, escapes continued with renewed ambition and ingenuity. Virtually every avenue was used: there were those who would try to fly over the Wall, those who would dig under it, and those who would attempt to cross it directly, inside a specially designed gadget, in disguise, or with brute force.

Force and counterforce

Conrad Schumann was not an intellectual: neither an engineer nor a teacher. Stationed at the would-be Wall, which was still a fence, in 1961, he required no tools, only the courage and animus to jump several feet to clear the barbed wire, and then...

"Komm rüber!" cried voices only hundreds of feet away in West Germany, an altogether different world. West Germans urged the soldier to "Come over!" and Conrad Schumann willingly obliged, vaulting over the fence, finding quick refuge in a West German police car and thus starting the long toll of escapees - as opposed to emigrants - from the communist regime in East Germany.

Schumann's decision was spontaneous and life threatening - and its long-term effect weighty, widespread and absolute. It would serve as a reminder to Soviet officials that escape was not only desirable (even for soldiers serving under a red flag) but also possible. It was also inspiring, for it would spur a scared populace into action, into besting increasingly complex Soviet obstacles and engineering escapes.

Accordant with Newton's Third Law of Motion, action begets reaction. For every layer of defence added to the Wall, a despondent public would respond with more fervour, a deeper sense of adamancy. Similarly, with each new display of escapist ingenuity, the Soviets would further tighten the noose by making the Wall even more imposing and more impregnable. The dividing totalitarian structure would go through four consecutive engineering revisions: the simple wire fence built in 1961 was strengthened and improved in the years following Schumann's escape until it was replaced by a proper concrete wall supported by steel girders in 1965. This lasted until the mid-1970s, when the Berlin Wall received its final overhaul and was turned into a 4m-tall concrete monstrosity with a steel pipe running along the top.

However, each improvement, each added gun tower would prove an additional challenge for fearless refugees.

Deadly experiments

Some simply scaled the Wall: clambering hand over fist, seeking holes in the barbed wire fence and momentary lapses in the guards' patrol. Peter Fechter was one such escapee, who, at only 17 years old, rushed past the guards and hoisted himself onto the last remaining thing standing between him and the West - a 2m-tall barbed wire fence. It was a moment when the surroundings eschewed subtlety or metaphor - Fechter sat on a wall separating old from new, oppression from freedom, East from West. He reached for his goal as an East German bullet ripped through his pelvis and sent him tumbling down to the cold dirt below. East Germany subsequently imposed restrictions on selling twine and rope, which were viewed as tools for escape.

Others took to the skies: the desperate who would lift themselves up and over barbed wire in shaky makeshift hot-air balloons, or in home-made flying machines. In 1979, two families, the Wetzels and Strlzycks, who knew nothing of aerodynamics, were struck with the idea and, having experimented with various fabrics and fuels, began purchasing lightweight nylon cloth over a period of time (so as not to attract attention). When patched together, hot air could be blown into the nylon balloon - nothing less than a bona-fide hot-air balloon and the largest ever built in Europe at a height of 28m! When they flew close to the border, three powerful searchlights were lit from the ground and they had to climb to 2,600m. After a 28-minute flight they finally landed in West Germany, 40km away from their take-off point in the East.

After this successful escape, East German authorities imposed restrictions on selling nylon and on open-air markets in general.

Dangerous flights

On 4 August 1984, 24-year-old Czechoslovakian student Ivo Zdarsky escaped across the Wall to Austria in a makeshift flying machine made up of various spare parts: its engine was taken from an old East German Trabant, while the rest, including the tank, the wheels and the propeller, were self-designed. The 3m wings could be folded and transported on the roof of a small car. Ivo put the whole contraption together in his tiny communal flat room measuring 3.5m by 4.10m.

Another airborne escapee was 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.

One clever 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 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 in 30 seconds.

At a blind spot between two checkpoints, people could swim across a small river and climb to freedom. British soldiers hung a rope ladder to help escapees.

One entrepreneurial Berliner hid with his wife and young son in a toilet of a government building close to the border. When darkness fell, he climbed onto the roof and threw a hammer with a rope attached to it across the Wall. A makeshift 'chair-lift' was quickly attached to it and all three promptly slid to the West. The border guards only discovered the contraption the following morning.

What lies beneath

Those who couldn't venture into the skies tried to escape beneath the Wall: working their way through dirt, their stained fingers clawing at soil, brick and rock, digging tunnels. The longest was 145m and accounted for the greatest mass escape in 1964. It went 12m underground, its entrance located in a toilet hut of an East German backyard and its exit in the cellar of a West German bakery. Fifty-seven east Berliners were freed. That escape ended when East German soldiers sprayed the tunnel with machine-gun fire.

Another tunnel began in a graveyard, where the escapees would indeed end up in the ground, finding themselves in a better place (after a little crawling). Some used existing sewer lines: the repulsion of crawling through excrement and refuse paled in comparison to living in East Germany.

'Isetta' - a tiny East German car from the infamous Trabant family, was so minuscule that it was exempt from thorough searches (with torches, measuring rods and underside mirrors) at the border: carrying an escapee in it appeared totally impossible. Yet it was in a car of that make that 18 people managed to escape to the West in 1964 - one at a time. A fugitive would be hidden inside the engine in a specially-engineered compartment in place of the battery and heating system.

The less technically savvy runaways would push through the Wall with sheer force: 'the armoured spearhead' comprised of sports cars and trucks. One fugitive discovered that a particular make of sports car was sitting low enough to the ground (save for the windshield, which was detachable) that it would clear a checkpoints barrier. He, his fiancé, and mother-in-law (the latter two would hide in the boot and behind the driver's seat) were able to whoosh under the barrier, past East German guards, and arrive safely in the West. The installation of vertical bars on the checkpoint barriers followed… yet 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 windscreen to come away when it made contact with the beam. They simply lay flat and kept driving forwards. This issue was rectified with zig-zagging roads at checkpoints.

Failing that, it was discovered that up to four people at a time could fit into a hollowed-out cable drum (although this was not always successful - the trick worked only twice). Another noteworthy escapee used a bicycle motor to power a makeshift submarine, covering 25km of the Baltic until reaching Denmark (the man later found employment in an industrial engineering firm).

East Germany's totalitarian rulers forgot the simple truth: in the face of absolute terror people start acting beyond themselves; they breathe deeper, they move and think faster, they all become engineers of sorts…

During the Wall's existence there were around 5,000 successful escapes. Varying reports claim around 192 people were killed and many more injured. The youngest of those was an 11-year-old girl. The oldest, an 86-year-old woman.

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