The gripping story of how, in 1962, a gaggle of scholars dug a tunnel below the Berlin Wall to assist 29 individuals escape East Germany was become 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 e book telling the complete, extraordinary story of the bravery of those that risked all the pieces 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 individuals from the Communist-controlled East below 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 referred to as Puderstrasse, the place, they hope, a gaggle of males, girls and kids can 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, at all times fearing that the passageway may collapse, burying them.
Essentially the most harmful a part of the operation would be the remaining push: crawling alongside the tunnel and smashing up into the home.
Joachim and his mates 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 individuals have been killed making an attempt to scale the Wall, which had been constructed to complement the 900-mile barbed-wire fence working the size of East Germany. Initially the authorities let individuals journey between East and West Berlin for work, or to see household and mates, however after the Wall was constructed, moms had turn into separated from their infants, brothers from sisters, mates and lovers separated and grandparents unable to see grandchildren.
East German border guards (VoPos) had been below 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 pinnacle.
Amongst these Joachim and his fellow diggers needed to rescue had 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.
Buddies of the Schmidts, Italian artwork college students Mimmo Sesta and Gigi Spina, who had been allowed to cross the border, usually tried to persuade the couple to flee however Peter at all times mentioned no, it was too harmful. After being referred to as as much as be a part of the East German Military, Peter modified his thoughts.
However how may they escape with the Stasi – East Germany’s feared secret police – so decided to stem the tide of escapes that each citizen was below surveillance from a community of spies monitoring your complete nation?
The Stasi needed to know all the pieces: the place you labored, what you learn, who you had been married to, who you had been sleeping with. They’d break in to residences and conceal cameras and microphones in telephones and lightweight fittings to document each hour of individuals’s waking and sleeping life. Discover sufficient grime and they might take suspects to the Stasi HQ, often called The Home Of One Thousand Eyes, for interrogation and psychological torture.
Peter and Evi had been unaware that two of their neighbours had been Stasi informants who had been reporting on their guests from West Berlin. After discussing varied choices for his or her escape, Mimmo prompt 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 not too long ago, a fellow West Berliner had been shot whereas serving to a girl 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 protected to dig from and someplace protected 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 had been 13ft down. Then they began digging horizontally.
After a couple 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 towards East Germany.
They labored in shifts. After eight hours they had 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 discovered about one other tunnel – deserted and unfinished. To be able 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 may see the place it got here out.
They determined to proceed digging on this one.
The escape was deliberate for August 7, virtually a 12 months 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 discovered that he was gay – an imprisonable offence.
Confronted with the selection of jail or turning into an informant, Siegfried made his determination. He reported all the pieces to his Stasi handler.
AND so, when Joachim surfaced from the tunnel in the home within the East on Puderstrasse, the Stasi had been ready, positioned outdoors the window.
When Hasso and Uli climbed out, too, that they had no clue the Stasi had been able to pounce, with East German troopers inside the home, watching by a crack within the living-room door.
Simply because the troopers had 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 had been no match for Western machine-guns. Nevertheless, in the event that they waited for back-up, the diggers may get away.
Abruptly, the diggers’ walkie-talkie crackled.
‘Come again now! It’s over!’ their mates’ voices may very well 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 house: crawling, crawling till ultimately they reached daylight.
Minutes later, the troopers’ reinforcements arrived. They had 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 mentioned as they put him in a automobile.
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 number of weeks later he was taken again to court docket. To his dismay, she was within the dock. Renate had managed to get away from the Stasi in the course of 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 court docket to look at Renate being sentenced. She received three years.
Because the guards led Renate away, she put out her hand. Wolfdieter put out his, and for a couple of seconds their fingers curled collectively, earlier than their palms had 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 attempt once more – the leak having been mounted – 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 may collapse. They’d both should abandon it or shortly begin digging upwards and emerge in another cellar, in Schonholzer Strasse. This is able to be a lot nearer the Wall, nearer to VoPos patrols and subsequently way 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 mates Evi and Peter of the brand new escape plan: ‘Prepare to go away in 5 days.’ With Wolfdieter in jail, one other messenger was wanted to alert the opposite escapees. However who would threat arrest, or dying?
Mimmo’s girlfriend Ellen, who had a West German passport, agreed to do it, regardless that she had by no means been to East Berlin.
Mimmo gave her a map and recognized three pubs. In every, he informed her, a handful of escapees could 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 putting crimson hair in a cream scarf. Her abdomen churning, she boarded a practice 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 received prepared to go away her dwelling for ever. She and husband Peter had managed to evade the Stasi in the course of the earlier escape try, however others who’d been caught had been now in jail. If it went flawed, Evi may lose her personal little daughter, Annet.
A brand new digger had joined the workforce: Claus, a butcher, who informed 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 dwelling and Inge despatched to jail however launched in time to provide beginning to their son, Uwe, whom Claus had by no means met. He supplied to assist dig if Inge and their youngsters may very well be included within the escape.
The others had 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 below them as they scrabbled below the Wall and into East Berlin. On the finish they stood up and appeared on the ceiling. Hasso climbed on to Joachim’s shoulders and drilled by the brick, then smashed it till the opening was sufficiently big 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 fitting home, Quantity 7, Joachim phoned the escapees: they had been in the fitting place.
The messages bounced from telephone to walkie-talkie to telephone, ultimately 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 had 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 carried out. 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 practice. Moments later she heard with aid: ‘You are actually leaving East Berlin.’
At 6pm, Peter and Evi arrived on the home on Schonholzer Strasse and had 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 gradual 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 had 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 grime 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 baby 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 girl 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, someway, instinctively, that the kid was his.
As he cradled his baby, Inge, too, realised that this mud-covered man was her husband. Claus and Inge moved in direction of one another.
Joachim had counted 29 individuals into the tunnel. It was time for him to observe. The tunnel’s sides had 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. Figuring out they had been all protected 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 had 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.
Not less than 140 individuals had 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, individuals will attempt to recover from it. Or below it.’
© Massively Ltd and BBC, 2021
lTunnel 29, by Helena Merriman, is revealed 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.