The partition of Germany after the Second World War, and the relationships between the four major powers, is well documented. However, little is known of the relationship between the members of the Allied Kommandatura – the military governments set up to rule over what had been the German capital of Berlin.
One of the terms of the Yalta agreement between Great Britain, the United States of America, the Soviet Union and France, was that Berlin was to be non-political in that it would have its status as the capital of Germany removed. The Western countries designated Bonn as the capital of what became the Federal German Republic whilst the Soviet Union designated Potsdam.
However, once the war was won and Germany was divided between the three regions in the West and the Soviet controlled eastern area, it was announced by the Soviet authorities that East Berlin was to be the capital of the newly formed German Democratic Republic. Protests were ignored and so it remained that capital until shortly after the demolition of the Berlin wall in 1989.
My story, however, begins a few years before the demolition of that Wall, when I was a member of the British Army posted to a department of the British Military Government. Despite its title, the BMG was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office run organisation, staffed mainly by civil servants though headed by the British Military Governor, a Major General. His deputy was a political appointment and was known as Her Majesty’s Minister in Berlin and he was also the deputy to the British Ambassador located in Bonn.
Because of the Soviet politicisation of East Berlin and the construction of both the ‘iron curtain’ and the Berlin Wall, the Western Governments had an agreement with the West German authorities that their armed forces would remain in Berlin and have some say in the protection and security of it. This agreement was based to some extent, on the fear of a repeat of the blockade of Berlin by the Soviet authorities in 1947, possibly followed by an invasion by GDR troops to ‘liberate’ the remainder of their capital.
To maintain the status quo, it was necessary to have frequent contact and liaison between the four nations. The military governments of the French, American and British met on a regular basis, both officially and socially, with staff of all ranks making friends with their foreign counterparts. With the Soviet authorities, it was a different matter. Naturally, or traditionally, being a combination of suspicious, paranoid and mistrusting, meetings with members of the Soviet Military Government were either at formal conferences or meetings or, very rarely, at ‘official’ social functions held under very controlled circumstances. With the British, French and Americans, certain Senior Non Commissioned Officers were often invited to these functions through only Soviet officers of at least Major rank were allowed to attend.
It was at one of these functions when I found myself in a group containing three Soviet officers – they very rarely were allowed in pairs and never ever alone in case they tried to claim political asylum or offered to sell secrets (I did say they were paranoid, suspicious and mistrusting). It was normal Soviet policy that one of the three officers would not be known to either of the other two, thereby enhancing the suspicion that he was there to keep an eye on his colleagues, who may also be there to keep an eye on him!
For obvious reasons, politics was a taboo subject at these functions and we spoke of our relative countries, towns and cities we had visited, sport and even German beer. One of the Russian officers, who I shall call Major Orlov and who I knew to be an officer of the KGB, the Soviet State Security Service, mentioned that he missed the dark Russian beer he used to drink at home as it was very difficult to get hold of in East Germany, even through ‘unofficial’ channels. During this conversation I happened to mention that my home town was on the North East coast of England and the officer mentioned that his family lived in the north east sector of Moscow (very few Soviet officers were allowed to bring their families with them on postings outside Russia).
I thought no more about this until I attended a social function in the run up to Christmas where I again spoke to Major Orlov who gave me a bottle of Russian Stolychnaya vodka, which had a very high proof rating of 40%. He smiled as he told me as a good communist, he could not celebrate a religious festival such as Christmas but there was surely a Russian festival around the same time we could celebrate, in which the exchanging of gifts was a part,. I felt rather cheap as I gave him a selection of American Country and Western cassette tapes – something highly prized amongst the Soviet military, partly because they can sell them on for quite high sums when back in Russia.
Still feeling guilty over the quality of my present, I felt I could do better and remembered his earlier comment about missing the dark beer he liked so much. I realised I could not lay my hands on that particular drink but my home town produces a dark beer all of its own.
There are many famous beers brewed in the north of England, from Newcastle Brown Ale and Exhibition down to Yorkshire’s Theakston’s Old Perculiar. Less well known than it should be, is Camerons Strongarm, a dark, deliciously malty flavoured, bitter, brewed in my home town of Hartlepool since 1865. My aim, therefore was to obtain a box of 24 bottles of Camerons Strongarm for the next Kommandatura meeting in 3 months time, though how to do it was a problem.
I was not allowed to write a letter using my civilian Berlin address as this may entail the letter going through the East German postal authorities so my military address, using the British Forces Post Office, had to be used. Unfortunately, I did not have the address of the brewery so could not write to them direct as there was a possibility of the letter going astray.
What I did was write to my father, who lived in Hartlepool, explained what I wanted to do and enclosed a letter to the Manager of Camerons Brewery asking if I could either buy Camerons Strongarm in Berlin or West Germany through a local distributor or whether it would be possible to have some shipped to me and what the cost would be.
My father always said that he was no one special but I had known for some time that, through his skill at Lawn Bowls, he had made the acquaintances of a wide variety of people. A letter from him mentioned that he played bowls with one of the managers of the brewery, would call down and see him at his work and see what could be done. I should have known!
A further week later, I received a letter from Camerons brewery and what it contained renewed my faith in human nature, the respect that residents of the north east have for the military, and the influence my father, ‘who is no one special’, has on people. A box of 24 bottles could be shipped and trucked, through normal channels to a military postal sorting office in Hannover where it would then be sent by road to the British Forces Post Office headquarters in Berlin. All I had to do was collect it. The cost? The brewery would use this as a possible future transportation project and the only cost to me would be what I would pay for it in UK. The letter added that as my father had agreed to give a bowls lesson to the manager’s son, I could consider the beer paid for.
At the next meeting of the Allied Kommandatura it was with great pleasure that I was able to present a box of 24 bottles of Camerons Strongarm to a KGB spy. I never met Major Orlov again but word did filter down that he had asked the Military Commission of the Russian embassy in London if someone could travel to a small town on the north east coast of England on a shopping trip. Whether this was true or not, or whether he was successful, I have no idea.
And so it was that I had the privilege of giving a Russian spy some Camerons Strongarm.
A slight twist in the tale was that when I went to collect the box, I found that there were two! In the documents was a letter recognising the fact that trying to arrange this shipment must be thirsty work! I wonder if my Dad had to give a second lesson?
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