My first trip to compete in Berlin was before there was a Berlin Wall. I was competing in the triple jump in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) Championships in the Olympic stadium in Berlin in 1958. This is a picture of me wearing the uniform of the Gordon Highlanders which I swapped with corporal Williams (right), who was army javelin champion. We are standing outside our room in the athletes accommodation of the Berlin Olympic Stadium. The so-called Iron Curtain or Grenze between East and West Germany did exist then, however. It was a steel mesh fence inside the eastern side of the border with watchtowers patrolled by armed guards. The partition of Germany agreed between Western Powers and The Soviet Union had left West Berlin as an island of territory inside Russian controlled East Germany. During negotiations, the British government had made an agreement that all sporting championships of the BAOR should be held in the Berlin Olympic Stadium which Hitler had built for the 1936 Olympic Games and which happened to be in West Berlin. The only way to reach West Berlin from West Germany at that time was by air or by rail along three routes, one of which was from Hanover.
The train, which made one trip per day from Hanover to Charlottenburg in Berlin, crossed the Grenze at Helmstedt, known to us as “Checkpoint Charlie”. There, Russian guards would get on board. Only western military were allowed on the train but it stopped at various stations en route through East Germany for Russian guards to get on and off. East Germans were not allowed on the train. I had already done a Berlin train guard in 1957, so knew what to expect. Russian guards would get on the train whenever it stopped, and they would patrol the carriages to do their checks. We would have to show them our “Union Jack forms” so-called because they had the British flag at the top of them. These stops took ages and were designed to deliberately slow down the train and cause delays. Obviously the Russians wanted to make sure that no military takeover of Berlin was organised by the west using the trains to carry arms and extra troops. They also wanted to ensure that no East Germans boarded the train to try and reach the west via West Berlin. It was like travelling first class for us, with full meals provided on board. As I looked out of the windows, the East German villages and towns we passed through looked even more poverty stricken than the ones I had visited in West Germany.
In Berlin itself, soldiers could get a pass to allow us into the Russian sector where we came into contact with East Berliners. They all begged us for chocolate, butter, cigarettes, coffee, drinks, stockings and any items of clothing. There were even worse shortages of such items in east Berlin than on the western side. Even the Russian guards would ask us for these things. I found it difficult to understand why the Russian government had left the people of East Berlin in such deprivation. There seemed to have been no rebuilding of bombed out homes and infrastructure. Street lights were out at night and there was a curfew. No wonder the people wanted to escape into the western sectors of Berlin where the street lights were on and everyone was free to go out at any time of night. I always tried to help the people who asked for things, even though we were told not to do so. I broke orders because I felt sorry for them.
I had heard so much about Hitler and the Nazis and what had happened in the 1936 Olympics, that I was eager to visit the stadium. When I got there and explored it for the first time I was awestruck. I’d never seen anything like it and to this day have never seen any stadium to compare with it. All competitors were actually housed within the stadium itself. This was a fantastic idea. Training Stadiums were in walking distance of the main stadium as was the Pool and other sports facilities of a scale and scope I could never have imagined. It was a privilege to visit it but an even greater one to compete in it. I won the “hop step and jump” (triple jump) that year and also in 1959 and 1960.
During Easter of 1960, there was an unprecedented flood of refugees across the East German border into West Berlin. They were mainly small farmers who had been forced into collective farms by the communist government. This caused problems for West Germany as there were too many of them at once. It got so bad that the East Germans closed off the border into West Berlin with barbed wire and started to impose illegal restrictions on the city. Despite protests from western governments, the restrictions got worse and by August in 1961, the East Germans threw up a five foot high concrete wall topped with barbed wire and armed guards between East and West Berlin to stop the refugees pouring out of the East. We were on red alert, on 24 hour standby during this time. Our government had stated that British forces will travel from the West to Berlin through East Germany in order to give relief to West Berlin by air and rail. We had to attend weekly meetings of all ranks to express our opinions. We were all worried about another war breaking out and having to fight against Russia.
That year our regiment left BAOR and went back to England where I took part in my first United Kingdom Decathlon championship at Loughborough on the 11th and 12th August 1961. Our regimental “Crossbelts” magazine described me as “a really first class athlete” who “has distinguished himself both in BAOR and in England. Tpr Joseph, formerly of HQ Squadron and now in the Band, took four first places and one second place in the divisional championships and was then selected to take part in the UK Decathlon Championships….He came 10th out of the 16 who finished and stands a very good chance of being selected for further training in 1962.” I was hungry for success by then and was aiming to become an International decathlete.
I had done my PTI course in Sennelager and had joined the band by this point. If you want to read why I had made this move and how I went on to achieve my ambitions in sport, then click on the “follow” pop-up button at the bottom right hand corner of this page, and sign up. If you do you will be sent an automated email each time I make a new post to this blog.
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If you want to find out what happened in my later life when I returned to help develop my birth country Guyana in South America, then look for “The ElDorado Affair” by Jane Joseph ISBN 978-0-9932409-0-4 available in paperback on Amazon.co.uk, order it through your local book store or read it in Kindle format ISBN 978-0-9932409-1-1 available worldwide on Amazon.com