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How a group of recklessly brave students dug a tunnel under the Berlin Wall

The gripping story of how, in 1962, a group of students dug a tunnel under the Berlin Wall to assist 29 folks escape East Germany was changed into a nerve-jangling BBC podcast. 

Now, drawing on interviews with these concerned and numerous pages of Stasi paperwork, the podcast’s creator has written a e-book telling the full, extraordinary story of the bravery of those that risked all the pieces for freedom.

Engineering pupil Joachim Rudolph friends into the black gap in entrance of him. It’s a tunnel stretching 260ft from West to East Berlin. All he can see is darkness.



Two companions, Hasso and Uli, crouch beside him. They are planning to guide 100 folks from the Communist-controlled East under the Berlin Wall to freedom in the West. 

The opening of the tunnel in West Berlin is in a manufacturing facility and the passage results in a home in the East in a road known as Puderstrasse, the place, they hope, a group of males, girls and kids will probably be ready to make the crawl to freedom.

Each of the trio have their very own causes for serving to the escapers. For months, they’ve been working in shifts, crawling and digging in the darkish, all the time fearing that the passageway may collapse, burying them.

Caked in mud (5), Evi and Peter Schmidt consolation Annet. Beaming Evi and Annet (6) clear up after their escape

The most harmful half of the operation will probably be the last push: crawling alongside the tunnel and smashing up into the home.

Joachim and his mates have armed themselves with two pistols, an previous machine-gun and a sawn-off shotgun. If they’re caught, they’re not going to be taken alive.

Numerous folks have been killed trying to scale the Wall, which had been constructed to complement the 900-mile barbed-wire fence working the size of East Germany. Initially the authorities let folks journey between East and West Berlin for work, or to see household and mates, however after the Wall was constructed, moms had develop into separated from their infants, brothers from sisters, mates and lovers separated and grandparents unable to see grandchildren.

East German border guards (VoPos) have been under orders to shoot all escapees. Gunter Litfin, a 24-year-old tailor, nearly made it to the different aspect by swimming throughout the River Spree, however when he got here up for air he was shot in the again of the head.

Among these Joachim and his fellow diggers needed to rescue have been Peter and Evi Schmidt and their child, Annet. Peter had labored as a graphic artist in West Berlin however lost his job when the Wall was constructed and he was not allowed to cross the border.

Friends of the Schmidts, Italian artwork students Mimmo Sesta and Gigi Spina, who have been allowed to cross the border, typically tried to persuade the couple to flee however Peter all the time stated no, it was too harmful. After being known as as much as be part of the East German Army, Peter modified his thoughts.

But how may they escape with the Stasi – East Germany’s feared secret police – so decided to stem the tide of escapes that each citizen was under surveillance from a community of spies monitoring the whole nation?

The Stasi needed to know all the pieces: the place you labored, what you learn, who you have been married to, who you have been sleeping with. 

They would break in to flats and conceal cameras and microphones in telephones and light-weight fittings to file each hour of folks’s waking and sleeping life. Find sufficient grime and they might take suspects to the Stasi HQ, referred to as The House Of One Thousand Eyes, for interrogation and psychological torture.

Flooded: Inside the original tunnel, which was later drained and repaired

Flooded: Inside the unique tunnel, which was later drained and repaired

Peter and Evi have been unaware that two of their neighbours have been Stasi informants who have been reporting on their guests from West Berlin. 

After discussing numerous choices for his or her escape, Mimmo steered they tried to flee by way of a tunnel and, in October 1961, he visited Joachim at his college dormitory in West Berlin to ask him to assist dig.

Joachim realised he risked being killed. Only not too long ago, a fellow West Berliner had been shot whereas serving to a girl escape by way of the barbed wire. He lay bleeding to dying as West Berlin and British police watched helplessly, afraid to trespass. In any case, in the event that they constructed a tunnel, what if it collapsed and Joachim was buried alive?

Yet he agreed to assist.

HOW do you dig a tunnel into the world’s most closely guarded nation? How do you discover someplace secure to dig from and someplace secure to dig to? First, the proprietor of a manufacturing facility on the Western aspect of the Wall agreed to allow them to use his basement, hidden from the VoPos’ binoculars.

So simply earlier than midnight on May 9, 1962, Mimmo, Gigi, Joachim and two others began digging. They dug for hours, till they have been 13ft down. Then they began digging horizontally.

After a few days, that they had the beginnings of a tunnel. It was simply 3ft by 3ft. They lay flat on their backs. They must dig like this for the size of a soccer pitch. Others joined them, together with Hasso Herschel and engineer Uli Pfeifer.

Hasso needed to rescue his sister Anita and her household. Uli had escaped from the East by way of a sewer however his girlfriend had been caught and sentenced to seven years in jail. He needed revenge towards East Germany.

They labored in shifts. After eight hours they have been exhausted, arms shaking, eyelashes clumped with mud, arms blistered. With their engineering ingenuity they put in respiration pipes, lighting and even telephones. But after two months of digging, catastrophe: a leak. The tunnel was filling with water. The escape couldn’t go forward.

Then they discovered about one other tunnel – deserted and unfinished. In order to make sure it was heading in the proper course, one tunneller crawled forward and caught a rod by way of the ceiling and into the air above so a colleague with binoculars may see the place it got here out.

They determined to proceed digging on this one.

The escape was deliberate for August 7, nearly a year after the Wall was constructed. Crucially, they wanted somebody to make contact with the escapees in East Berlin to inform them when to be prepared.

Siegfried Uhse, a 21-year-old hairdresser, volunteered. However, they didn’t realise he was a Stasi informant.

Caught smuggling cigarettes and alcohol into East Berlin, Siegfried had been interrogated by the Stasi, who discovered that he was gay – an imprisonable offence.

Faced with the selection of jail or turning into an informant, Siegfried made his choice. He reported all the pieces to his Stasi handler.

AND so, when Joachim surfaced from the tunnel in the home in the East on Puderstrasse, the Stasi have been ready, positioned exterior the window.

When Hasso and Uli climbed out, too, that they had no clue the Stasi have been able to pounce, with East German troopers inside the home, watching by way of a crack in the living-room door.

Just as the troopers have been about to burst in, they heard one of the diggers say: ‘My pistol isn’t working. Pass me the machine-gun.’

The Stasi guards paused. Their previous Soviet Kalashnikovs have been no match for Western machine-guns. However, in the event that they waited for back-up, the diggers may get away.

Suddenly, the diggers’ walkie-talkie crackled.

‘Come back now! It’s over!’ their mates’ voices may very well be heard, shouting from their vantage level in West Berlin the place they may see the Stasi and troopers.

The three tunnellers jumped down into the gap, crawling frantically again to West Berlin, dreading the second when the Stasi would face them and open fireplace. They scrabbled as quick as they may in the tiny, darkish area: crawling, crawling till finally they reached daylight.

Minutes later, the troopers’ reinforcements arrived. They have been too late. The tunnel was empty.

But due to informant Siegfried, they managed to spherical up 43 would-be escapees as they arrived in Puderstrasse, bundled them into vehicles and vans and took them off for interrogation.

Their best catch was Wolfdieter Sternheimer. He was a pupil who had been tasked with giving the escapees – together with his girlfriend Renate – particulars of when to get to the home. That achieved, he’d then headed for a border crossing, tingling with pleasure at the thought of seeing Renate.

At the checkpoint, Wolfdieter gave his papers to 2 males in uniform. ‘Come with us,’ the VoPos stated as they put him in a automotive.

His knees began to shake. Fifteen minutes later he arrived at the East Berlin police HQ and was handed to the Stasi.

After relentless interrogation and psychological torture, Wolfdieter was sentenced to seven years in jail. He’d be 29 when he was out. But what about his girlfriend, Renate?

Just a few weeks later he was taken again to court docket. To his dismay, she was in the dock. Renate had managed to get away from the Stasi throughout the aborted tunnel escape – together with Peter and Evi Schmidt – however somebody gave her title to the secret police.

With chilling vindictiveness, the Stasi had introduced Wolfdieter to court docket to observe Renate being sentenced. She obtained three years.

As the guards led Renate away, she put out her hand. Wolfdieter put out his, and for a few seconds their fingers curled collectively, earlier than their arms have been ripped aside and Renate disappeared.

Meanwhile, Wolfdieter had labored out that it was Siegfried Uhse who had betrayed them. But, now jailed, he had no means of telling the relaxation of the group.

That meant that when Joachim and the others determined to return to the unique tunnel to strive once more – the leak having been fastened – Siegfried duly knowledgeable his Stasi handler, though he didn’t know the actual location of this tunnel.

THE diggers feared they didn’t have lengthy earlier than the tunnel may collapse. They would both need to abandon it or rapidly begin digging upwards and emerge in another cellar, in Schonholzer Strasse. This could be a lot nearer the Wall, nearer to VoPos patrols and due to this fact way more dangerous and harmful.

In the meantime, Mimmo and Gigi used their Italian nationality to legally cross the border on September 9 to inform their mates Evi and Peter of the new escape plan: ‘Get ready to leave in five days.’ With Wolfdieter in jail, one other messenger was wanted to alert the different escapees. But who would danger arrest, or dying?

Mimmo’s girlfriend Ellen, who had a West German passport, agreed to do it, although she had by no means been to East Berlin.

Mimmo gave her a map and recognized three pubs. In every, he instructed her, a handful of escapees could be ready. Mostly households with younger youngsters. When Ellen walked in, she would give a coded sign that the tunnel was prepared.

Ellen memorised the map and Mimmo’s directions.

On the morning of September 14, Ellen coated her placing pink hair in a cream scarf. Her abdomen churning, she boarded a prepare for East Berlin whereas being filmed by a TV crew from the American broadcaster NBC, which had helped fund the tunnel in trade for filming the escape at the West Berlin finish.

In East Berlin, Evi Schmidt obtained prepared to go away her dwelling for ever. She and husband Peter had managed to evade the Stasi throughout the earlier escape try, however others who’d been caught have been now in jail. If it went flawed, Evi may lose her personal little daughter, Annet.

A brand new digger had joined the staff: Claus, a butcher, who instructed the others that he’d escaped from East Berlin months earlier however that his pregnant spouse, Inge, had been caught with their toddler, Kirsten.

Kirsten had been put in a youngsters’s dwelling and Inge despatched to jail however launched in time to present start to their son, Uwe, whom Claus had by no means met. He provided to assist dig if Inge and their youngsters may very well be included in the escape.

The others have been suspicious – they nonetheless didn’t know who had betrayed them final time. But they wanted one other digger and his story checked out.

In the tunnel, Hasso and Joachim began crawling. The moist clay squelched under them as they scrabbled under the Wall and into East Berlin. At the finish they stood up and checked out the ceiling. Hasso climbed on to Joachim’s shoulders and drilled by way of the brick, then smashed it till the gap was sufficiently big to climb by way of. They squeezed into the cellar.

The water in the tunnel was rising. They didn’t have a lot time. After checking that that they had the proper home, Number 7, Joachim phoned the escapees: they have been in the proper place.

The messages bounced from cellphone to walkie-talkie to cellphone, finally reaching the NBC cameraman in a constructing in West Berlin, excessive above the Wall. He flung a white sheet out of the window. On the different aspect of the Wall, Ellen noticed this sign. They have been prepared. She set off to alert the escapers. Striding to a bar, she loudly requested for some matches. This was the sign, and he or she hoped the escapees had seen it. They had. Others rapidly adopted.

Ellen’s work was completed. She needed to get out of East Berlin, quick. But at the railway station, a policewoman stopped her. She was taken to a small room and stripped bare. The policewoman searched her however discovered nothing and let her go.

Terrified and humiliated, Ellen ran on to the prepare. Moments later she heard with aid: ‘You are now leaving East Berlin.’

At 6pm, Peter and Evi arrived at the home on Schonholzer Strasse and have been led down into the tunnel. A digger took little Annet from Evi. Evi began crawling by way of the darkness. Joachim watched. He needed to keep there, in the East, till everybody had crawled by way of.

A gentle stream of escapees had arrived, together with Hasso’s sister, Anita, along with her husband and toddler. At the different finish, in the West, the NBC crew have been ready at the prime of the shaft that led into the tunnel, digital camera pointing at the gap. It was darkish. Nothing moved. Then a white purse appeared. Then a hand. An arm. A girl crawled out of the tunnel, coated in mud.

It had taken Evi 12 minutes to crawl by way of the grime and water. As she reached the prime of the ladder, she fainted and one of the TV crew caught her. Moments later, Mimmo appeared, holding Annet. She had lost her tiny sneakers in the tunnel. Evi bundled her little one into her arms, rocking her forwards and backwards.

The NBC crew filmed everybody as they crawled out of the tunnel: eight-year-olds, 18-year-olds, 80-year-olds. Each emerged wetter than the final – the water was now midway up the tunnel.

Claus was the solely digger nonetheless ready for somebody. He was dropping hope that his spouse Inge would come. At 11pm, a hand emerged from the tunnel, then a girl coated in mud. Claus didn’t recognise her.

A digger subsequent appeared, one thing white in his arms: a tiny child simply 4 months previous. Claus knew, one way or the other, instinctively, that the little one was his.

As he cradled his little one, Inge, too, realised that this mud-covered man was her husband. Claus and Inge moved in the direction of one another.

Joachim had counted 29 folks into the tunnel. It was time for him to comply with. The tunnel’s sides have been starting to fall in. He discovered a pair of youngsters’s sneakers as he crawled alongside and picked them up.

His thoughts raced with recollections of the previous 4 months. The leaks. The mud. The blisters. The individuals who escaped. Knowing they have been all secure in West Berlin, he felt intense happiness.

DESPITE his efforts, Stasi informant Siegfried had been unable to find the location of the tunnel.

Four days later, the story of 29 East Berliners fleeing by way of a 400ft tunnel was splashed on the entrance pages of newspapers throughout the Western world. The Stasi have been humiliated. On December 10, 1962, the NBC movie – The Tunnel – was broadcast.

The escapes continued, regardless of the Stasi’s efforts. Hasso and Uli dug different tunnels.

Wolfdieter was launched from jail after two years and married Renate. Evi and Peter’s marriage broke down, however she by no means forgot the man who helped her escape, Joachim Rudolph. Ten years later, they married. Joachim nonetheless has the sneakers that Annet – now his stepdaughter – lost in the tunnel.

At least 140 folks have been killed at the Berlin Wall earlier than it was pulled down in November 1989.

Even now, elsewhere, extra partitions are being constructed, dividing cities and international locations. As Joachim says: ‘Wherever there’s a wall, folks will attempt to recover from it. Or under it.’

© Hugely Ltd and BBC, 2021

Tunnel 29, by Helena Merriman, is printed by Hodder & Stoughton on August 5 at £20. To order a copy for £17.80, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or name 020 3308 9193 earlier than August 10. Free UK supply on orders over £20.


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