Escape from East Berlin

The building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 triggered a rush of escape bids – none more ambitious than one masterminded by a student named Joachim Rudolph. Helena Merriman tells a story of flooded tunnels, Stasi spies and families reunited – filmed live for American TV

Setting a trap: East German soldiers construct the Berlin Wall, 13 August 1961. The barrier was an attempt to stop the flood of Germans fleeing from east to west – yet, as scores of audacious escape bids attest, it didn't entirely succeed. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

It’s the middle of the night and Joachim Rudolph is wading through a river. There’s a watchtower above him with border guards inside; he knows they’ll kill him if they see him. He clambers up a bank, crawls through a field, and as the sun begins to rise, he realises he’s made it. He’s escaped to West Berlin.

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This was September 1961, a little less than two months after the Berlin Wall had gone up. It was built by the East German government to stop the flood of people leaving the communist dictatorship for a better life in the west. What made this wall so extraordinary was the speed at which it was built. Ten thousand East German soldiers had gone into the streets in the dead of night, stringing barbed wire from posts and making concrete barricades. When people woke up on 13 August 1961, they suddenly found themselves on one side of the wall: wives were cut off from their husbands; brothers from their sisters. There were even stories of newborn babies in the west now separated from their mothers.

That very day, the escapes had begun. Some just jumped over the barbed wire; others were more inventive, like the couple who swam across the river Spree, pushing their three-year-old daughter in front of them in a bathtub. Joachim had spent weeks planning his escape, and now he’d done it. He enrolled in an engineering course at a West Berlin university and was beginning his new life, when one morning there was a knock at the door. It was two students. They had a plan to build a tunnel to get some friends out of the East and they wanted Joachim to help dig it.

A nest of spies

There’s an old East German joke: why do Stasi officers make such good taxi drivers? Because you get in the car, and they already know your name and where you live. The Ministry for State Security (otherwise known as the Stasi) was the most powerful part of the East German government. It combined the secret police and the government’s intelligence services, and its mission was to know everything. While they got some of their information from hidden microphones, their greatest assets were their informants. They had hundreds of thousands of them, a higher proportion than most other secret police in history. On 28 September 1961, they were just about to recruit one: a hairdresser called Siegfried Uhse. They’d caught him carrying smuggled cigarettes for a “homosexual orgy” and told him he could avoid prison if he became a Stasi agent. Much of what follows comes from the files connected to him, which are kept in the Stasi Archives, a huge underground vault in East Berlin, in what used to be the Stasi headquarters. There are 2,735 documents about him, recording everything from his favourite books (he hated cheap romance novels, loved Tolstoy) as well as his first assignment: to look for fluchthelfers – the German word for escape helpers. These were people in the West who helped people in the East escape. In other words, he was now on the hunt for people just like Joachim.

As Siegfried began his secret assignment, Joachim and the others were getting to work on the tunnel. They stole spades and pickaxes from a cemetery, recruited more diggers from the university and persuaded a factory owner to let them start digging from his cellar. Then on 9 May 1962, just before midnight, the group drove to the factory, went into the cellar and began digging. “We had no idea where to start,” Joachim told me when I interviewed him for the Radio 4 series Tunnel 29. “We’d never seen a real tunnel. But we’d seen footage of tunnels on TV, ones that had failed, and that gave us ideas about how to dig one.” They hacked into the concrete and dug out the screed and clay until they had a small hole. They made it deep enough so they wouldn’t run into the city’s water table and then started digging horizontally towards the East. After a few weeks, they were exhausted, but they hadn’t even reached the border yet. They needed two things: people and money.

Thousands of miles away in New York, Reuven Frank, a hot-shot TV executive at the American network NBC, was thinking about how to tell the story of Berlin. He had an idea: what if he were to tell an escape story? And what if he could film it as it was happening? It could revolutionise television news. He took his idea to the NBC correspondent in Berlin, Piers Anderton, who began the search.

At the same time, the diggers were asking around in media circles whether anyone might stump up some money. Eventually, they met Piers Anderton and brought him to see the tunnel. He was impressed and went straight back to his boss, Reuven Frank, to ask if he’d agree to fund them. Reuven said yes: NBC would give the diggers money for tools and materials (limited to $7,500) and in return, NBC would have the right to film everything. And with that, Reuven Frank had just made one of the most controversial decisions in the history of TV news: a top American news network had agreed to fund a group of students building an escape tunnel under the Berlin Wall.

A hot-shot NBC executive had an idea: what if he were to tell an escape story? and what if he could film it as it was happening?

By the end of June 1962, thanks to the NBC money, the group of student diggers (now around 12 of them) had dug almost all the way to the border between East and West Berlin. The tunnel was now looking very hi-tech, with Joachim its chief inventor. In the NBC footage you see the electric lights that he strung up, as well as the motorised cart that whizzed along the rails.

Soon the tunnellers were under the death strip, a section of land next to the wall patrolled by guards on the look-out for tunnels. “They had special listening devices that they’d put on the ground,” says Joachim. “If they heard something, they’d dig a hole and fire a gun into it or throw in dynamite.”

Double trouble

But it wasn’t the guards that did the first bit of major damage to the tunnel: it was a leak from a burst pipe. They bucketed out gallons of water, and eventually managed to get the pipe fixed, but it would take months for the tunnel to dry out. They were now stuck: tunnellers without a tunnel. Then they heard about another tunnel which had been dug into the East, but had been abandoned by its crew. Though the diggers had left, the students organising the escape were still around. They asked Joachim and the others if they’d be up for helping. They could combine their lists of escapees and get them all through at the same time. “It seemed too perfect an opportunity to pass up,” says Joachim. “We were a group of diggers without a tunnel, and here was a tunnel that needed diggers.”

On 7 August 1962, they were ready to go. They’d dug the final few metres right up to a cottage in the East and they’d been sending out messengers to tell the escapees that the tunnel was ready. One of these messengers was a hairdresser. His name? Siegfried Uhse. Remember, he’d been asked to look for escape-helpers in the West, and he’d found some. In other words, the escape operation that Joachim was now part of was being watched by the Stasi. A Stasi file records how Siegfried Uhse told his handler the details: “The breakthrough would happen between 4pm and 7pm,” he said. “One hundred people were expected.” The Stasi were now onto the biggest escape operation so far from West Berlin. They sent “soldiers, an armoured personnel carrier and a water cannon” to a base near the cottage, as well as plainclothes Stasi agents. The trap was set.

Back at the tunnel, Joachim and two of the other diggers were preparing to break into the cottage. They crawled to the end of the tunnel, carrying axes, hammers, pistols and an old Second World War machine gun. As they started hacking into the cottage, escapees were arriving, ready to crawl through the tunnel. They had no idea they were surrounded by Stasi agents. One by one they were bundled into cars and driven away.

The escapees had no idea they were surrounded by Stasi agents. they were bundled into cars and driven away

Joachim and the other two diggers were now climbing into the living room, unaware that soldiers were standing just outside the door. Stasi files from that day reveal how the soldiers were just about to burst in when they heard one of the tunnellers mention “a machine gun”. They waited for back-up: their Kalashnikovs were no match for machine guns from West Germany. Then Joachim and the others heard a message over their radio, telling them the operation had been blown. They jumped down into the tunnel and started crawling back into the West. A few minutes later, the soldiers’ back-up arrived and they rushed into the room, jumping down into the tunnel. It was empty; they were too late. But they weren’t empty handed; they had dozens of prisoners to interrogate.

Prisoners of the Stasi

That night, everyone arrested at the tunnel was taken to Hohenschönhausen prison, a former Soviet jail now run by the Stasi. Prisoners weren’t allowed to talk to each other and in their cells, they had no control over anything: the light switch was on the outside, as was the button to flush the loo. Everything was designed to make the inmates feel powerless. The transcripts of their interrogations show they were long: running more than 12 hours at a time with no food or breaks. Most of them eventually confessed, giving up the details of their part in the escape tunnel. After their show trials, many of them were sent to prison, which could mean years of hard labour as well as time in solitary confinement.

Back in West Berlin, the diggers had decided to try again. By early September, the first tunnel they’d dug had dried out and so they set an escape date: 14 September 1962. That afternoon, Joachim and Hasso, one of the other diggers, crawled to the end of the tunnel and hacked a hole into the cellar of No 7 Schonholzer Strasse. Meanwhile one of the girlfriends of the diggers, a 21-year-old called Ellen Schau, had volunteered to go into the East to give out the final signals to the escapees. As a West German passport holder, she could go in and out of the East when she liked. When she got there, she had to go to three different pubs to give the signals to the escapees waiting there. In the first one, she ordered matches, in the second, she ordered water. In the third pub, she was meant to order coffee but it had run out. “It was a terrible moment,” she says. “How could I give the signal if the pub didn’t have any coffee?” Instead, she complained loudly about the coffee, and then ordered a cognac (at least they both begin with the same letter.) She just had to hope that the escapees all understood her signals: that the tunnel was ready.

Gripping their guns

As Ellen returned to West Berlin, groups of people walked towards the apartment with the tunnel underneath it. Joachim and Hasso were waiting for them in the cellar, guns in their hands. Just after 6pm, they heard footsteps. “We stood there, hardly breathing, gripping our guns tightly,” says Joachim. The door opened and there was a woman, Eveline Schmidt. She was with her husband and their two-year-old daughter. “It was dark,” remembers Eveline. “There was just one lamp by the entrance. One of the tunnellers took my baby and then I started crawling.”

At the other end, in the West, the two-man NBC film crew were standing at the top of the shaft that led to the tunnel. When you look at the footage, for a long time you see nothing: and then a white handbag appears. Then there’s a hand, and then, finally, you see Eveline. She’s covered in mud and barefoot. She’s lost her shoes in the tunnel. It’s taken her 12 minutes to crawl through. As she reaches the top of the ladder, she collapses. One of the NBC cameramen helps her to a bench and then a tunneller brings her child to her. She bundles her into her arms, nuzzling the nape of her neck.

Over the next hour, more people come through the tunnel: the diggers’ friends and family. One of them, Claus, a butcher who’d escaped from the East, helps a woman through, only to realise it’s his wife, Inge. He hasn’t seen her since they were separated while escaping a year ago. She was caught by border guards and imprisoned while pregnant with his child. Then Claus hears a noise from the tunnel: it’s a baby, dressed in white, carried by one of the tunnellers. He’s only five months old. It’s his son, born in a communist prison camp. Claus takes him in his arms, holding him for the first time.

Back at the other end of the tunnel, Joachim is still in the cellar. He’s stayed there, at the most dangerous point of the tunnel till the very end. Twenty-nine people have made it through and he knows it’s time to go. “So many things went through my head,” he says. “All the things we’d gone through digging it. The leaks, the electric shocks, the mud, the blisters on our hands. Seeing all those refugees come through, I felt the most incredible happiness.” There’s one final bit of footage from that night: the escapees walk, one by one, to the door. They push it open and disappear into West Berlin.

But that’s not the end of the story. A few months later, the documentary aired on NBC. Although President Kennedy’s White House tried to block it (fearing a diplomatic incident with the US), Reuven Frank persuaded the network to run it and 18 million people tuned in. It was described as “without parallel” in television history. The tunnellers heard that Kennedy himself watched it and that he was moved to tears. Some of the diggers then went on to build other tunnels (including the Channel Tunnel), and in the East, Siegfried Uhse was given one of the Stasi’s top medals for infiltrating the tunnel.

What, then, about Joachim? A few years after the escape, he fell in love with Eveline, the first woman who came through the tunnel. Her marriage had broken up and they fell for each other. Ten years after he rescued her, he married her. On the wall of their apartment today, there’s a pair of shoes that he found in the tunnel after everyone had gone home. They belonged to Annett, Eveline’s daughter. And so the tunnel that Joachim built, which brought 29 refugees from the East, also brought him a family.

Before it was pulled down 30 years ago – on 9 November 1989 – at least 140 people were killed or died at the Berlin Wall. But while the wall has gone, the idea hasn’t. Right now, all over the world, walls are being built, not just in the United States, but in India, Turkey, Morocco, Norway. The reasons for building them are different. But Joachim says there’s one thing they have in common. “Wherever there’s a wall, people will try to get over it – or under it.”


Great escapes

Five other audacious bids to flee East Germany

High-wire act

Horst Klein was a trapeze artist living in East Berlin. He’d been banned from performing (for being anti-communist) and in 1962, he told a local newspaper that “he couldn’t live any longer without the smell of a circus”. In December 1962, he climbed an electricity pole near the wall and made his way onto a cable, hanging on it from both arms. Steadily, he inched his way into the West, moving one hand over the other. Just as he made it over the border, his arms gave way and he fell from the cable, breaking both his arms. But he recovered and performed again.

Booze cruise

On 7 June 1962, 13 young East Berliners boarded an excursion boat. They’d brought alcohol with them for a “party”, and they plied the captain and mechanic with it until they passed out. The group then locked them in a cabin and hijacked the boat. They steered it towards West Berlin, under machine gun fire from East German border guards. When it reached the riverbank, West Berlin policemen fired shots back into the East to protect the group, and under that cover, the escapees jumped ashore.

Armoured breakout

On 17 April 1963, 19-year old Wolfgang Engels climbed into a stolen Soviet armoured personnel carrier and drove it to the border between East and West Berlin. He tried to smash it through the wall, but the vehicle got stuck in the barbed wire. As he lay there, trapped, an East German border guard approached him. Wolfgang pleaded “don’t shoot!” but the border guard shot him anyway. “The bullet went in through my back and out the front,” he said. Incredibly, Wolfgang Engels managed to climb out of the car, over the bonnet and into the West. He was severely injured, but he’d escaped.

Runaway train

Harry Deterling was a train engineer. He lived in East Berlin with his wife, Ingrid, and their four sons and he’d wanted to escape ever since the wall went up. He’d heard that there were some train lines that still connected to the West but that they were soon to be dismantled, so he knew he had to act fast. In December 1961, he told his bosses he wanted to run an extra train to improve his engineering skills. They said yes, and at 7.33pm on 5 December (his birthday), he, his family and some friends boarded locomotive 234 and Harry then steered it onto a disused track. There were 32 passengers – not all of them would-be escapees. At 8:50pm, he drove the train past Albrechtshof, the last station in East Berlin, without stopping, then disconnected the safety brake. A few minutes later, the train and its passengers crossed the border into the West. The next day that railway line was cut off.

Up, up and away

One night, Hans Strelczyk, a former aircraft mechanic, was watching a TV programme about the history of ballooning. It gave him an idea. He’d long wanted to escape East Germany: perhaps this could be the way? With his friend Gunter Wetzel, he built a hot-air balloon engine from four old propane cylinders. Their wives stitched the balloon together out of pieces of old canvas and bedsheets. On 16 September 1979 the two couples and their four children floated over the border at 2,400 metres. They landed in Bavaria in a blackberry thicket.

Helena Merriman is a journalist and broadcaster. She is the presenter of the 10-part BBC Radio 4 series Tunnel 29, which airs in late October.

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This article was first published in the November 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine