Cold War memories: Driving Ivan’s Autobahn

Crossing the inner German border remained possible throughout the Cold War. It was never entirely sealed, though there were severe restrictions on the movement of East German citizens. The post-war agreements on the governance of Berlin specified that the Western Allies were to have access to the city via defined air, road, rail and river links. This was mostly respected by the Soviets and East Germans, albeit with periodic interruptions and harassment of travellers. Even during the Berlin Blockade of 1948, supplies could be brought in by air – the famous Berlin Airlift – and Allied military convoys could pass through East Germany en route to Berlin. Photo taken ca. 1954 by Verne Kindschi.

Crossing the inner German border remained possible throughout the Cold War. It was never entirely sealed, though there were severe restrictions on the movement of East German citizens. The post-war agreements on the governance of Berlin specified that the Western Allies were to have access to the city via defined air, road, rail and river links. This was mostly respected by the Soviets and East Germans, albeit with periodic interruptions and harassment of travellers. Even during the Berlin Blockade of 1948, supplies could be brought in by air – the famous Berlin Airlift – and Allied military convoys could pass through East Germany en route to Berlin. Photo taken ca. 1954 by Verne Kindschi.

by Bruce E. Kipp

During my Army career, I served three tours of duty (1972-74, 1975-77, and 1980-83) with the U.S. Army Security Agency’s Field Station Berlin in the American Sector in what was then West Berlin. At the time I was there, the city of Berlin, 110 miles inside communist East Germany, had special status. It was still occupied by the four Allied powers. The Soviet Sector encompassed the eastern half of the city forming East Berlin. West Berlin consisted of the French Sector in the north, the British Sector in the west and, the American Sector in the south.

 

Allied Access

When the East Germans erected the Berlin Wall in August 1961, they also erected a security zone around West Berlin, isolating it from East Germany. The US did not recognize East German authority over Allied access to West Berlin and declared that only the Soviet Union had that authority. A 1972 agreement confirmed the Allies rights of access to and from West Berlin under the control of the Soviets.

By agreement, Allied military personnel were restricted to using the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn (officially East German Autobahn A2). The Soviets set up checkpoints at Drewitz and Marienborn to process Allied personnel for travel through East Germany. The Western Allies set up their own checkpoints on the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn. Allied Checkpoint Bravo was at Dreilinden in the American Sector of West Berlin opposite the Soviet checkpoint at Drewitz. At the far end, Allied Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt in West Germany was opposite the Soviet checkpoint at Marienborn.

During my first tour of duty, military intelligence personnel with security clearances were not allowed to use the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn. During my second tour, however, the rules had relaxed slightly so that military intelligence personnel could use the autobahn—but only in daylight and only if escorted by another vehicle driven by someone who did not have a security clearance who agreed beforehand to act as your escort. By my third tour of duty, we had the same autobahn travel privilege as everyone else stationed in West Berlin.

 

Obverse of Flag Orders for a round trip on the Berlin-Helmstedt Autobahn. Stamps for the outbound trip (West Berlin - Helmstedt) include: Allied Checkpoint Bravo; Soviet Checkpoint Nowawes; Soviet Checkpoint Marienborn; and Allied Checkpoint Alpha.

Obverse of Flag Orders for a round trip on the Berlin-Helmstedt Autobahn. Stamps for the outbound trip (West Berlin – Helmstedt) include: Allied Checkpoint Bravo; Soviet Checkpoint Nowawes; Soviet Checkpoint Marienborn; and Allied Checkpoint Alpha.

Documents Needed To Travel The Autobahn

Allied military personnel to drive the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn had to have a military ID card, valid vehicle registration and/ or license plates, and official travel orders or leave form. Most importantly, you also had to have “Flag Orders.”

Flag Orders were special travel documents printed in English, French, and Russian with the flag of the appropriate Allied nation at the top. Flag Orders were official permission to travel the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn.

It listed the name of the traveler, nationality, ID card number, date(s) of travel, license number of the vehicle, direction of travel, the signature of the issuing official and official stamp. The back of the Flag Orders had your name and rank, and a statement that you were officially stationed in Berlin and the signature block of the issuing official.

Flag Orders had to be letter perfect and perfectly match your ID. They were closely scrutinized by the Military Police at the Allied checkpoints. An unduly worn or damaged ID was a reason for being turned back. The photo had to match your appearance. If you grew a mustache after your ID photo was taken you would be turned back unless you shaved it off at the Allied checkpoint.

Absolutely no typographical errors or corrections were permitted. For example, if your ID card had dashes and your Flag Orders did not, you would be turned back. Same for the dash on your vehicle license plate or a comma between your last and first name. If you had been promoted and your Flag Orders listed your new rank, but you hadn’t updated your ID, you would be turned back. If the Allied MPs missed something and allowed you to proceed and the error was caught at a Soviet checkpoint, you would be turned back.

 

Checkpoint Bravo at Dreilinden

Allied travelers leaving West Berlin on the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn were required to stop at Allied Check Point Bravo at Dreilinden in the American Sector. The checkpoint was manned seven days a week and 24 hours a day by military police of the three Western Allied nations. You presented your documents to the appropriate MP. Assuming all was in order, the MP paper-clipped your ID to the top of your Flag Orders on which he had placed the Checkpoint Bravo rubber stamp with your time of departure written on it and returned them to you.

 

After the end of WWII, Allied forces occupied West Berlin. This occupation lasted throughout the Cold War. The Berlin Brigade was the brigade-sized garrison of British and American forces based there. The French Army also had units in Berlin, called Forces Françaises à Berlin.

After the end of WWII, Allied forces occupied West Berlin. This occupation lasted throughout the Cold War. The Berlin Brigade was the brigade-sized garrison of British and American forces based there. The French Army also had units in Berlin, called Forces Françaises à Berlin.

Soviet Checkpoint (Nowawes/Drewitz)

After processing at Checkpoint Bravo you returned to your vehicle and got back on the autobahn. About two miles down the road, you entered East Germany at the Drewitz border crossing (Grenzübergangsstelle).

An access road marked for Allied traffic split off from the autobahn and led to the Soviet Checkpoint. Technically, the Soviet Checkpoint was at Drewitz, however, they continued to use the old location of Nowawes on their rubber stamps. Here, your paperwork was inspected, logged, the checkpoint’s stamp affixed and time written on it. They were then returned to you. You drove to the end of the checkpoint then back onto the autobahn through East Germany.

 

Soviet Checkpoint Marienborn

Arriving at the East German/West German border about two and a half hours later, you stopped at the Soviet Checkpoint at Marienborn. The layout of the checkpoint and the procedure there were identical to those at the Soviet Checkpoint at Drewitz (Nowawes): Your Flag Orders were inspected and logged, the checkpoint stamp affixed, and the time written on it. Departing the Soviet Checkpoint you followed the lane marked for Allied traffic until you crossed into West Germany at Helmstedt.

 

Allied Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt

The final stop for Allied travelers on the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn from West Berlin was Allied Checkpoint Alpha in Helmstedt, West Germany. You were required to check in with them so they could log your arrival. After processing, the MP affixed Checkpoint Alpha’s rubber stamp on the flag orders with the arrival time noted and returned them to you. You were then “free” to continue into West Germany.

 

 

 

 

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