INTERVIEW WITH JIM ATWOOD-17.7.96
INTERVIEWER: This interview with Colonel Jim Atwood and it's on the seventeenth of July 1996 in Berlin and the roll is 10272. Mr. Atwood, just at the beginning, I would like you to describe the atmosphere in Berlin in August 1961 and also to kind of give us a bit of an impression of how much people actually knew what was going on and what was going to happen.
JIM ATWOOD: Berlin in 1961 was a fantastic place to be from the standpoint of a career military officer, in that the, as people frequently say, the sidewalks were vibrating and in Berlin it was a rather tense situation in that at the time, the refugees were coming through the wall at a rate of five thousand, seven thousand, building up to as high as twelve to thirteen thousand a day, processing through the Marienfelder Refugee Centre. And it was a rather disconcerting period, in that one felt total sympathy with these people, who were making every attempt possible to come through the processing centre and you mentioned - let me back off - you said in August '61 the period of activity military-wise was every day increasing, it was like... it was building to a crescendo. And when the wall went up in Berlin on thirteen August of '61, we had absolutely no idea that a wall would go up and of course it didn't start as a wall in 1961 in the thirteenth of August. It began as a strand of barbed wire and it later became a daily a stronger fortification more difficult to penetrate. But the peak of activity with the allied military in Berlin was tense, it was electrifying, we felt that certainly something was going to happen, that the DDR regime would respond in some way to stem this flow of refugees, because they were losing their young men, they were losing their draft age soldiers, they were losing their technicians, their doctors, and it was a mass exodus out of the East. The facilities were very strained in Marienfelder. The processing was such that they were coming in such droves that it was like the people in the East anticipated that perhaps something was going to happen and it became a pace that was almost incomprehensible to believe that so many people were leaving. But it became a period of a looming crisis, yet no one knew what the crisis would be or when it would come.
INT: Berlin was, at that time, very much a centre of intelligence, it was kind of described by the people in the East as a kind of viper's nest. What were the information you could actually gather what the Soviet Union-East German intentions were and why didn't the West foresee anything happening?
JA: I think given that Berlin had always been the centre of intelligence for the Cold War, the number of East Germans spying against the West, the number of Soviets involved, the number of Warsaw Pact espionage agents in Berlin, vis a vis the allied intelligence agencies, it was almost like a training ground for intelligence agents, in addition to being the centre of activity. I don't think that from the level that I'm able to speak from, that there was any strong indicators that the stop-gap methods that were going to be placed in effect on thirteen August of '61 I think it was kept at the very highest level and when it came down, it came down instantaneously like a thunder bolt. The first indication that I had was on the thirteenth of August, there was a report and I was called into my office that there was a ring of Soviet forces blocking the access many kilometres away from Berlin, there was a ring of Soviet forces, a ring of GFSG group of Soviet forces in Germany, had gone into position and they were blocking the flow and the movement of traffic coming into Berlin. And this was a late afternoon report that came in from the US Military Liaison Mission. Later, on Sunday night, I was called in again and we were told that the East German police were digging up railroad tracks, they were stringing barbed wire across the numerous checkpoints around Berlin, they had stopped S-Bahn traffic coming in, they had made every effort that they could to impede the flow of DDR citizens coming into Berlin. And this came as a rather total surprise. Again, we anticipated that something might happen, but we never dreamed of it as a wall. And I would like to point out again, it wasn't a wall overnight, we didn't call it the Berlin Wall until sometime later, when the building blocks started to go in. The elements of blocking the traffic were instituted universally around Berlin, it was extremely effective, it wasn't happenstance or poorly organised, it was great organisation and it did catch the Western forces totally by surprise. There was no anticipation, there was no intelligence pre-warning that this was coming down and I don't think that it was leaked in any levels on the other side that would have given much forewarning to the Western allies that it was about to happen.
INT: Isn't that rather surprising in a place where there's so many people kind of working in intelligence? What was your explanation for that? Did you have one?
JA: It is surprising that somewhere there wasn't a defector or there wasn't a penetration by our intelligence agencies into some level that would have enabled us to have had some forewarning. I don't think it was a failure of intelligence, as much as it was a absolute effective control by the DDR and the Soviets and it is surprising, yes, that a activity as extensive as this particular operation was could come down like a thunder bolt and I don't think it was any fault of the Western intelligence agencies that they didn't detect it. It's much easier, of course, to Monday-morning quarterback these events and look back and say, someone was at fault or surely someone should have known about it or surely someone should have leaked this. But I'm of the opinion that it was extremely well covered and it was a very rapid movement that took place without very little time for warning from the other side.
INT: You made the differentiation between the wall and actually the barbed wire. Would you say that there was a notion of knowing that the border would be closed, not...
JA: (Interrupts) Yes, it was... We looked upon it then as a border closing. There were in excess of a hundred crossing points around the Berlin sectors, and when this began to happen, it happened universally around all and that's why so many of the escapes began to be successful in the beginning, because at some points, the closing of the borders was effective, but there are always stop-gap measures to do it, but there are failures in the system. Therefore people were leaping from apartment windows and there was a period of several days where the effectiveness of the measures to close the border were more penetrable by the citizens of the DDR and that's why the escapes became more desperate and less successful the longer the time frame elapsed from the time that they closed the border until they had effective measures in place. For example, at Checkpoint Charlie, at Friedrichstrasse, they blockaded with various almost like a gate, almost like a steel fence and part of this, someone ran a car through it, so they put in a very strong pole and barricaded it in order to prevent a car from crashing through and a very ingenious DDR citizen took a convertible, he sped up to Checkpoint Charlie and as he approached the barrier, which was probably maybe two metres high, he dropped his windshield, ducked his head and rolled underneath it. So the next day, the DDR side put a double barrier up and lowered it down, so it was a touch and go situation, where people learned through experience what was penetrable and what wasn't penetrable and on the effectiveness of the measures that were set up, how to stop it and make it effectively.
INT: I would like to ask you on a very kind of personal basis, how did you kind of hear about the things and how they were actually in the time schedule of twelfth and thirteenth, what happened and what telephone calls you got, how you became aware of what the Soviets and East Germans were up to?
JA: Well, it happened on a Sunday, on a weekend, and I've always said that (un) point of the Western system, if tever plan an attack, they should be clever enough to make sure that it happens on a Saturday or Sunday, the same as Pearl Harbour did, which the Japanese, when they planned their attacks in 1941, it's the Western way of life, particularly the American way of life that our forces are standing down, that people are on leave, they're out on the golf course or recovering from a tough night out on Saturday night and the efficiency is considerably decreased on a weekend. So this was a very effective thought that someone - I'm sure it wasn't by accident that it occurred on the weekend. And my first indication was when I was called to my office to read this report that had come in from the United States Military Liaison Mission, that the Soviets had totally formed a ring around Berlin, many, many kilometres outside, and they had in effect stopped the flow of traffic coming into Berlin. This within itself was interesting, it certainly aroused the curiosity of the Western forces, but it wasn't until perhaps four or five hours later, when the West Berlin police reports started filtering into our headquarters, through all of the allied sectors, the British, the French and the American, that unilaterally they were closing all of the crossing points and no traffic was allowed to flow from the East into the West. They did not impede the flow of traffic from the West back into the East and this made a very considerable difference in that the situation would have been much more threatening had they stopped the flow of Western allies or Western traffic going into the East. This of course was guaranteed by the Potsdam Agreement, by the four powers, and this is one of the factors that indicates the possible imminence of hostilities, was the cessation of the flow of traffic of the allies to and from Berlin and they didn't touch the allies, they didn't touch the military, it was only their own citizens that were attempting to come into the West.
INT: At that first stage, when the barbed wire went up, did the Americans consider removing the barbed wire by force?
JA: I think there were a lot of things that went through the minds of the powers who were controlling the situation. It was such a massive movement - it wasn't just Checkpoint Charlie or it wasn't just the major British point. It always takes diplomats, as well as military commanders, time to react and Berlin being a military situation; it was still a diplomatic political situation. So everyone goes into a quarterback huddle, they start trying to reach people back in Washington or in London or in Paris to get some form of guidance and the people who were directing it at the higher State Department level and military level, were waiting to try and evaluate what was actually transpiring. But I don't think that anyone ever thought of tearing it down at the time, that didn't occur. This was a case of reacting to a positive action that had been done by the opposition or the opposite side and I don't think it ever entered anyone's mind at that time. It was a total surprise. It was a stunning, absolute, unbelievable act that caught everyone by surprise, to the point that we didn't even know what was coming next.