One of my jobs was to escort visiting VIPs who were unfamiliar with Berlin - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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One of my jobs was to escort visiting VIPs who were unfamiliar with Berlin

One of my regular 'additional tasks' was escorting visiting British VIPs - and there were many of them because West Berlin was a popular place to visit. Such visits were known as protocol visits: the VIPs were invariably officially sponsored because the Government was very keen that senior officials should see for themselves how West Berlin operated. Most of the VIPs I hosted were from either GCHQ or MoD. Some came on working visits because they were employed in departments that had responsibilities for, or an official interest in, what 26 SU did. One or two visitors I had to escort did not tell me why they were in Berlin.

Above: This is a view of the once notorious Glienicke Bridge across the Havel River connecting the extreme south-western edge of West  Berlin with Potsdam in West Germany. It was not an approved crossing, in either direction, for military personnel but it was often used during the Cold War to exchange spies from one jurisdiction to the other. I never ventured here when escorting VIPs.
I tailored my visits according to the wishes of the VIPs and the time available. Certain locations I always included: the famous or infamous, depending on your viewpoint, Checkpoint Charlie where the US Sector met East Berlin in the centre of the city and the Reichstag, the former seat of the Berlin Government, only a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate. When time permitted, I included a drive to the northern limit of the French Sector because in the late 1970s that was the most picturesque and unspoilt part of West Berlin. Depending on the time available, I used to include the 'preserved' ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, the magnificent church all but destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1943, and the superb shopping areas along the Kurfürstendamm, both in the British Sector. (That was the area where the devastating terrorist attack of 19 December 2016 took place during the Christmas Market.)

There was a policy during my time that military visitors and their escort should wear uniform on protocol tours by day and appropriate civilian dress for evening events. When a VIP tour included an evening visit to a restaurant, the escort was required to let the restaurant know in advance the status of the visitor (the number of ranking stars he had) so that the Maître D' could ensure that appropriate compliments were paid on arrival and throughout the meal. I quickly learned that Le pavillon du lac, beautifully located in the Tegel district at the northern end of the French Sector, was by far the best place in Berlin to dine elegantly when you wanted to impress VIPs. Fortunately, I was authorised to sign the bill for both the VIP and me and the restaurant presumably sent it off somewhere for payment.

I almost always did the driving myself in an RAF Staff Car so that, if it was appropriate, we could have classified conversations as I pointed out various places of military as well as civilian interest. (The car was checked in advance for ‘bugs’.) Certain VIPs were allowed to cross the Wall for an official tour of East Berlin, something denied to me and most servicemen at 26 SU. When I asked why the VIPs could go on a conducted tour of the East and I could not, I was informed that there was a mutual agreement between the four Allied Powers that star-ranking visitors would not be interfered with when visiting each other's sectors of Berlin. It was such a gentlemanly cold war!

One day I was asked to do one of my West Berlin tours for a visiting air vice-marshal (2-star). I checked his security level and special clearances before I met him. It was necessary to do that with all visitors, however high their rank or status, to avoid inadvertently giving classified information to those not entitled, and to avoid patronising those whose clearances were higher than mine. The air vice-marshal told me to remove the two-star plates, to which he was entitled, from the front and back of the car because he didn't want to attract undue attention to himself. I refrained from pointing out that the Soviets and East Germans almost certainly already knew who he was, where he was from, and why he was in Berlin - which was more than I knew.

The air vice-marshal chose to sit alongside me in the right-hand passenger seat. “It will make it easier to talk to each other” he said. Towards the end of the tour the air vice-marshal asked to be taken to Marienfelde, at the southernmost end of the American Sector, to take a look at a United States Air Force facility close to the DDR border. I stopped the car, keeping the engine running, at a slightly elevated spot I had used several times before, and pointed out things of particular interest to my guest. Although I occasionally visited the USAF base at Marienfelde as part of my normal duties, I couldn't take a senior officer into the station without having arranged a visit with the Americans well in advance. There was no reason to conceal ourselves because we were doing nothing illegal but, after chatting for a few minutes, I drew my guest's attention to the watch-tower barely a couple of hundred metres away on the other side of the East German border. Before I could stop him, the air marshal put his cap on and got out of the car to get a better view and to take some photographs.

I called out to my guest through the open car window that if he looked carefully, but casually, at the East German watch-tower, he would see that there were now at least two guards inside watching him through binoculars. I added that one of the other guards would certainly be taking photographs of us through a telephoto lens because they always did. On hearing that, my visitor reached into the car and quickly swapped his RAF cap for mine. The air vice-marshal's cap had a double row of gold braid (aka scrambled egg) denoting his air officer rank; mine was a standard RAF officer's cap without any gold braid. "I don't want to be recognised," he said by way of explanation, forgetting that my cap on his head was not consistent with the prominent rank stripes he had on his tunic sleeves. When I pointed that out, he quickly got back into the car and told me to drive off.

Somewhere, Soviet intelligence agents must have mulled over the photographs they had taken showing a squadron leader staff car driver wearing an air officer's cap, and someone in air vice-marshal uniform wearing an ordinary officer's cap. I have often wondered what they made of those photographs - and I wish I had copies!

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