The gripping story of how, in 1962, a bunch of scholars dug a tunnel beneath the Berlin Wall to assist 29 folks escape East Germany was was a nerve-jangling BBC podcast.
Now, drawing on interviews with these concerned and numerous pages of Stasi paperwork, the podcast’s creator has written a guide telling the total, extraordinary story of the bravery of those that risked every thing for freedom.
Engineering scholar Joachim Rudolph friends into the black gap in entrance of him. It’s a tunnel stretching 260ft from West to East Berlin. All he can see is darkness.
Two companions, Hasso and Uli, crouch beside him. They’re planning to guide 100 folks from the Communist-controlled East beneath the Berlin Wall to freedom within the West.
The opening of the tunnel in West Berlin is in a manufacturing unit and the passage results in a home within the East in a road known as Puderstrasse, the place, they hope, a bunch of males, ladies and kids will likely be ready to make the crawl to freedom.
Every of the trio have their very own causes for serving to the escapers. For months, they’ve been working in shifts, crawling and digging at the hours of darkness, all the time fearing that the passageway would possibly collapse, burying them.
Essentially the most harmful a part of the operation would be the ultimate push: crawling alongside the tunnel and smashing up into the home.
Joachim and his pals have armed themselves with two pistols, an previous machine-gun and a sawn-off shotgun. In the event that they’re caught, they’re not going to be taken alive.
Quite a few folks have been killed making an attempt to scale the Wall, which had been constructed to complement the 900-mile barbed-wire fence operating the size of East Germany. Initially the authorities let folks journey between East and West Berlin for work, or to see household and pals, however after the Wall was constructed, moms had develop into separated from their infants, brothers from sisters, pals and lovers separated and grandparents unable to see grandchildren.
East German border guards (VoPos) have been beneath orders to shoot all escapees. Gunter Litfin, a 24-year-old tailor, virtually made it to the opposite facet by swimming throughout the River Spree, however when he got here up for air he was shot at the back of the top.
Amongst these Joachim and his fellow diggers needed to rescue have been Peter and Evi Schmidt and their child, Annet. Peter had labored as a graphic artist in West Berlin however misplaced his job when the Wall was constructed and he was not allowed to cross the border.
Mates of the Schmidts, Italian artwork college students Mimmo Sesta and Gigi Spina, who have been allowed to cross the border, usually tried to persuade the couple to flee however Peter all the time stated no, it was too harmful. After being known as as much as be a part of the East German Military, Peter modified his thoughts.
However how might they escape with the Stasi – East Germany’s feared secret police – so decided to stem the tide of escapes that each citizen was beneath surveillance from a community of spies monitoring the complete nation?
The Stasi needed to know every thing: the place you labored, what you learn, who you have been married to, who you have been sleeping with. They’d break in to flats and conceal cameras and microphones in telephones and lightweight fittings to report each hour of individuals’s waking and sleeping life. Discover sufficient filth and they might take suspects to the Stasi HQ, generally known as The Home Of One Thousand Eyes, for interrogation and psychological torture.
Peter and Evi have been unaware that two of their neighbours have been Stasi informants who have been reporting on their guests from West Berlin. After discussing varied choices for his or her escape, Mimmo steered they tried to flee through a tunnel and, in October 1961, he visited Joachim at his college dormitory in West Berlin to ask him to assist dig.
Joachim realised he risked being killed. Solely just lately, a fellow West Berliner had been shot whereas serving to a lady escape by the barbed wire. He lay bleeding to dying as West Berlin and British police watched helplessly, afraid to trespass. In any case, in the event that they constructed a tunnel, what if it collapsed and Joachim was buried alive?
But he agreed to assist.
HOW do you dig a tunnel into the world’s most closely guarded nation? How do you discover someplace secure to dig from and someplace secure to dig to? First, the proprietor of a manufacturing unit on the Western facet of the Wall agreed to allow them to use his basement, hidden from the VoPos’ binoculars.
So simply earlier than midnight on Could 9, 1962, Mimmo, Gigi, Joachim and two others began digging. They dug for hours, till they have been 13ft down. Then they began digging horizontally.
After a number of days, that they had the beginnings of a tunnel. It was simply 3ft by 3ft. They lay flat on their backs. They must dig like this for the size of a soccer pitch. Others joined them, together with Hasso Herschel and engineer Uli Pfeifer.
Hasso needed to rescue his sister Anita and her household. Uli had escaped from the East by a sewer however his girlfriend had been caught and sentenced to seven years in jail. He needed revenge in opposition to East Germany.
They labored in shifts. After eight hours they have been exhausted, arms shaking, eyelashes clumped with mud, palms blistered. With their engineering ingenuity they put in respiration pipes, lighting and even telephones. However after two months of digging, catastrophe: a leak. The tunnel was filling with water. The escape couldn’t go forward.
Then they realized about one other tunnel – deserted and unfinished. As a way to guarantee it was on the right track, one tunneller crawled forward and caught a rod by the ceiling and into the air above so a colleague with binoculars might see the place it got here out.
They determined to proceed digging on this one.
The escape was deliberate for August 7, virtually a yr after the Wall was constructed. Crucially, they wanted somebody to make contact with the escapees in East Berlin to inform them when to be prepared.
Siegfried Uhse, a 21-year-old hairdresser, volunteered. Nevertheless, they didn’t realise he was a Stasi informant.
Caught smuggling cigarettes and alcohol into East Berlin, Siegfried had been interrogated by the Stasi, who realized that he was gay – an imprisonable offence.
Confronted with the selection of jail or turning into an informant, Siegfried made his resolution. He reported every thing to his Stasi handler.
AND so, when Joachim surfaced from the tunnel in the home within the East on Puderstrasse, the Stasi have been ready, positioned outdoors the window.
When Hasso and Uli climbed out, too, that they had no clue the Stasi have been able to pounce, with East German troopers inside the home, watching by a crack within the living-room door.
Simply because the troopers have been about to burst in, they heard one of many diggers say: ‘My pistol isn’t working. Go me the machine-gun.’
The Stasi guards paused. Their previous Soviet Kalashnikovs have been no match for Western machine-guns. Nevertheless, in the event that they waited for back-up, the diggers would possibly get away.
Immediately, the diggers’ walkie-talkie crackled.
‘Come again now! It’s over!’ their pals’ voices could possibly be heard, shouting from their vantage level in West Berlin the place they may see the Stasi and troopers.
The three tunnellers jumped down into the opening, crawling frantically again to West Berlin, dreading the second when the Stasi would face them and open fireplace. They scrabbled as quick as they may within the tiny, darkish area: crawling, crawling till finally they reached daylight.
Minutes later, the troopers’ reinforcements arrived. They have been too late. The tunnel was empty.
However because of informant Siegfried, they managed to spherical up 43 would-be escapees as they arrived in Puderstrasse, bundled them into vehicles and vans and took them off for interrogation.
Their biggest catch was Wolfdieter Sternheimer. He was a scholar who had been tasked with giving the escapees – together with his girlfriend Renate – particulars of when to get to the home. That achieved, he’d then headed for a border crossing, tingling with pleasure on the considered seeing Renate.
On the checkpoint, Wolfdieter gave his papers to 2 males in uniform. ‘Include us,’ the VoPos stated as they put him in a automotive.
His knees began to shake. Fifteen minutes later he arrived on the East Berlin police HQ and was handed to the Stasi.
After relentless interrogation and psychological torture, Wolfdieter was sentenced to seven years in jail. He’d be 29 when he was out. However what about his girlfriend, Renate?
A couple of weeks later he was taken again to courtroom. To his dismay, she was within the dock. Renate had managed to get away from the Stasi through the aborted tunnel escape – together with Peter and Evi Schmidt – however somebody gave her title to the key police.
With chilling vindictiveness, the Stasi had introduced Wolfdieter to courtroom to observe Renate being sentenced. She obtained three years.
Because the guards led Renate away, she put out her hand. Wolfdieter put out his, and for a number of seconds their fingers curled collectively, earlier than their palms have been ripped aside and Renate disappeared.
In the meantime, Wolfdieter had labored out that it was Siegfried Uhse who had betrayed them. However, now jailed, he had no technique of telling the remainder of the group.
That meant that when Joachim and the others determined to return to the unique tunnel to strive once more – the leak having been fastened – Siegfried duly knowledgeable his Stasi handler, though he didn’t know the precise location of this tunnel.
THE diggers feared they didn’t have lengthy earlier than the tunnel would possibly collapse. They’d both should abandon it or shortly begin digging upwards and emerge in another cellar, in Schonholzer Strasse. This could be a lot nearer the Wall, nearer to VoPos patrols and subsequently rather more dangerous and harmful.
Within the meantime, Mimmo and Gigi used their Italian nationality to legally cross the border on September 9 to inform their pals Evi and Peter of the brand new escape plan: ‘Prepare to depart in 5 days.’ With Wolfdieter in jail, one other messenger was wanted to alert the opposite escapees. However who would danger arrest, or dying?
Mimmo’s girlfriend Ellen, who had a West German passport, agreed to do it, though she had by no means been to East Berlin.
Mimmo gave her a map and recognized three pubs. In every, he instructed her, a handful of escapees can be ready. Largely households with younger youngsters. When Ellen walked in, she would give a coded sign that the tunnel was prepared.
Ellen memorised the map and Mimmo’s directions.
On the morning of September 14, Ellen lined her hanging pink hair in a cream headband. Her abdomen churning, she boarded a prepare for East Berlin whereas being filmed by a TV crew from the American broadcaster NBC, which had helped fund the tunnel in alternate for filming the escape on the West Berlin finish.
In East Berlin, Evi Schmidt obtained prepared to depart her residence for ever. She and husband Peter had managed to evade the Stasi through the earlier escape try, however others who’d been caught have been now in jail. If it went fallacious, Evi might lose her personal little daughter, Annet.
A brand new digger had joined the crew: Claus, a butcher, who instructed the others that he’d escaped from East Berlin months earlier however that his pregnant spouse, Inge, had been caught with their toddler, Kirsten.
Kirsten had been put in a youngsters’s residence and Inge despatched to jail however launched in time to offer start to their son, Uwe, whom Claus had by no means met. He supplied to assist dig if Inge and their youngsters could possibly be included within the escape.
The others have been suspicious – they nonetheless didn’t know who had betrayed them final time. However they wanted one other digger and his story checked out.
Within the tunnel, Hasso and Joachim began crawling. The moist clay squelched beneath them as they scrabbled beneath the Wall and into East Berlin. On the finish they stood up and seemed on the ceiling. Hasso climbed on to Joachim’s shoulders and drilled by the brick, then smashed it till the opening was large enough to climb by. They squeezed into the cellar.
The water within the tunnel was rising. They didn’t have a lot time. After checking that that they had the suitable home, Quantity 7, Joachim phoned the escapees: they have been in the suitable place.
The messages bounced from cellphone to walkie-talkie to cellphone, finally reaching the NBC cameraman in a constructing in West Berlin, excessive above the Wall. He flung a white sheet out of the window. On the opposite facet of the Wall, Ellen noticed this sign. They have been prepared. She set off to alert the escapers. Striding to a bar, she loudly requested for some matches. This was the sign, and he or she hoped the escapees had observed it. They’d. Others shortly adopted.
Ellen’s work was performed. She needed to get out of East Berlin, quick. However on the railway station, a policewoman stopped her. She was taken to a small room and stripped bare. The policewoman searched her however discovered nothing and let her go.
Terrified and humiliated, Ellen ran on to the prepare. Moments later she heard with reduction: ‘You are actually leaving East Berlin.’
At 6pm, Peter and Evi arrived on the home on Schonholzer Strasse and have been led down into the tunnel. A digger took little Annet from Evi. Evi began crawling by the darkness. Joachim watched. He needed to keep there, within the East, till everybody had crawled by.
A gentle stream of escapees had arrived, together with Hasso’s sister, Anita, together with her husband and toddler. On the different finish, within the West, the NBC crew have been ready on the high of the shaft that led into the tunnel, digital camera pointing on the gap. It was darkish. Nothing moved. Then a white purse appeared. Then a hand. An arm. A girl crawled out of the tunnel, lined in mud.
It had taken Evi 12 minutes to crawl by the filth and water. As she reached the highest of the ladder, she fainted and one of many TV crew caught her. Moments later, Mimmo appeared, holding Annet. She had misplaced her tiny footwear within the tunnel. Evi bundled her little one into her arms, rocking her forwards and backwards.
The NBC crew filmed everybody as they crawled out of the tunnel: eight-year-olds, 18-year-olds, 80-year-olds. Every emerged wetter than the final – the water was now midway up the tunnel.
Claus was the one digger nonetheless ready for somebody. He was shedding hope that his spouse Inge would come. At 11pm, a hand emerged from the tunnel, then a lady lined in mud. Claus didn’t recognise her.
A digger subsequent appeared, one thing white in his arms: a tiny child simply 4 months previous. Claus knew, in some way, instinctively, that the kid was his.
As he cradled his little one, Inge, too, realised that this mud-covered man was her husband. Claus and Inge moved in direction of one another.
Joachim had counted 29 folks into the tunnel. It was time for him to observe. The tunnel’s sides have been starting to fall in. He discovered a pair of kids’s footwear as he crawled alongside and picked them up.
His thoughts raced with recollections of the previous 4 months. The leaks. The mud. The blisters. The individuals who escaped. Realizing they have been all secure in West Berlin, he felt intense happiness.
DESPITE his efforts, Stasi informant Siegfried had been unable to find the situation of the tunnel.
4 days later, the story of 29 East Berliners fleeing by a 400ft tunnel was splashed on the entrance pages of newspapers throughout the Western world. The Stasi have been humiliated. On December 10, 1962, the NBC movie – The Tunnel – was broadcast.
The escapes continued, regardless of the Stasi’s efforts. Hasso and Uli dug different tunnels.
Wolfdieter was launched from jail after two years and married Renate. Evi and Peter’s marriage broke down, however she by no means forgot the person who helped her escape, Joachim Rudolph. Ten years later, they married. Joachim nonetheless has the footwear that Annet – now his stepdaughter – misplaced within the tunnel.
At the least 140 folks have been killed on the Berlin Wall earlier than it was pulled down in November 1989.
Even now, elsewhere, extra partitions are being constructed, dividing cities and international locations. As Joachim says: ‘Wherever there’s a wall, folks will attempt to recover from it. Or beneath it.’
© Vastly Ltd and BBC, 2021
Tunnel 29, by Helena Merriman, is printed by Hodder & Stoughton on August 5 at £20. To order a duplicate for £17.80, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or name 020 3308 9193 earlier than August 10. Free UK supply on orders over £20.