No 26 Signals Unit, at RAF Gatow and on top of Teufelsberg - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

Go to content

Main menu:

No 26 Signals Unit, at RAF Gatow and on top of Teufelsberg

After saying farewell to RAF North Luffenham, I went to the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham and the Ministry of Defence in London for further briefings. On 29 December 1977 I drove to Harwich and joined the overnight car ferry to Bremerhaven. After spending a comfortable night in a cabin, I drove south about 300 kms through Bremen and Hanover to Helmstedt, near Braunschweig. There I had to report in at the British Checkpoint Alpha where I was given a detailed briefing on the protocol for using the road corridor from the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland - BRD) across the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik - DDR aka East Germany) to West Berlin.

Above: I took this picture of Teufelsberg from the top of a nearby domestic radio transmitter
As someone who had spent much of his flying career in the V Bomber Force when the Soviet Union was treated as the main enemy, it seemed quite unreal, and vaguely alarming, that I was expected to drive myself unescorted through Soviet-controlled East Germany. It was a considerable relief when I reached the eastern end of the corridor without incident and booked in, first at the Soviet checkpoint at Dreilinden, and a few miles further on at Checkpoint Bravo at the southern end of the American Sector of West Berlin. (There is a more detailed account of the military road corridor protocols in a later page.)

For those not familiar with the Berlin situation in the late-1970s I should explain that from the end of World War II the city had been governed, not by the Germans, but by the four military powers: France, UK, USA and the Soviet Union. Each of the four Allied Powers had been allocated their own sector when the city was carved up. The American, the British, and the French Sectors were collectively known as West Berlin; the Soviet Sector was more usually referred to simply as East Berlin. The Germans were left out in the cold - which explains why the capital of West Germany was located in Bonn and not Berlin between 1949 and 1991. (Although after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the government was not fully operational in Berlin's reconstructed Reichstag until 1999.) The city of Berlin, all four sectors, was entirely located inside East Germany. The Soviet Sector of Berlin, as well as being known as East Berlin, was the de facto capital of the DDR, although I believe only the East Germans and the Soviets officially acknowledged that.

Allied military and civilian air access to West Berlin was permitted only via one of three air corridors controlled by the Berlin Air Safety Centre (BASC) located in a splendid pre-war building in down-town West Berlin. BASC was a four-power organisation established soon after the end of the 1939-45 war. The air corridors were each 20 nautical miles wide fanning out from West Berlin and were still in force during my time in Berlin. The northern air corridor started at Tegel airfield in the French Sector for aircraft heading to and from the Hamburg area; the central air corridor, the shortest of the three, started at RAF Gatow in the British Sector for aircraft going to and from Hanover; the southern air corridor started at Tempelhof airport in the American Sector and ended near Frankfurt. Each of the four Allies took it in turn to be in command of BASC. Because of the nature of my work I was supposed to conceal the fact that I could speak Russian from anyone who did not need to know that. I and all personnel at 26SU were prohibited from visiting BASC and East Berlin.

Above: The boundary between east and west was not always a wall! I took this pic from inside my car using a long telephoto lens; it was only later that I saw on the transparency what was almost certainly a guard post on the Soviet side lurking under the undergrowth (halfway down on the left hand side of the pic).
During the years of the Nazi regime, Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich, had designed and built a military technical college in the western suburbs of Berlin on the banks of the Havel River in the lush Grunewald (Green Forest). After the end of the war the college was deliberately blown up by the Allies and the resultant rubble was piled up where the college had been. Over subsequent years another 25 million cubic metres of rubble from the rest of devastated Berlin were added to create the artificial hill which was eventually named Teufelsberg (Devil's Mountain).

On top of Teufelsberg was a US Army signals intelligence facility (the domes on the image at the top of this page) and the RAF's No 26 Signals Unit where I would be working for the next 2½ years. Within 26SU's accommodation at Teufelsberg there was a small UK Royal Signals Corps detachment; what they did was none of my concern and I will not mention them again.

As a reminder of RAF Gatow's importance during the Berlin Airlift in the late-1940s, the Station motto was 'pons heri, pons hodie': 'A bridge yesterday, a bridge today.' The airbase was located at the western edge of West Berlin right on the East German border. In fact, the western edge of the perimeter track around the airfield actually marked the border but there was no border crossing point there - the nearest was a few kilometres away at Staaken. Every night and day East German and Soviet border guards kept watch on Gatow airfield; the Air Traffic Control tower on the airfield also gave an excellent view across into East Germany.

/continued here or click here to go back to the top of this page

Back to content | Back to main menu