Soldier brought Berlin Wall home

The beginning of the end of the Cold War began 30 years ago this weekend when the Berlin Wall began to fall. Senior reporter Nicola Jordan spoke to a former soldier from Gillingham who played his own small part in the historic event.

Former Sapper Jason Farnell at the Royal Engineers Museum. Picture: Chris Davey

Former soldier Jason Farnell has a permanent reminder every working day of his part in the fall of the Berlin Wall – a momentous decision which changed world history. A section of the 11ft-high barrier between West Berlin and East Germany is now housed in the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham.

And that’s largely thanks to Sapper Farnell and his colleagues from 38 Field Squadron, who lobbed it on the back of their truck as a souvenir.

For four years the panel, daubed with graffiti sprayed on by ecstatic Germans from the east, remained outside the guardroom of their barracks. But when the Royal Engineers’ unit disbanded in 1994, the section of the Iron Curtain found itself in the museum where Jason now works as an IT manager. He was 21 when he was posted to Germany in 1988, a year before the Communist regime decided to dismantle the structure, ending 28 years of the divide between Soviet-led politics and the democracies of the west.

The trained combat engineering blacksmith has fond memories of his three-year stint in the German capital. He said: “It was like an island isolated from the rest of Germany, a vibrant nightlife, a modern city.

“There were no emails or social media and we relied on BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) to keep us up-to-date with what might be happening.” He said at the beginning of November 1989, rumours emerged about the relaxing of the checkpoint frontiers, cars from East Germany were spotted over the border and there were signs of the Communist bloc weakening.

Sapper Jason Farnell on the Brandenberg Gate

On November 9, Jason and his colleagues were due to take part in a massive military exercise, which was cancelled at the last minute.

That evening an East German government official blundered during a press conference by announcing: “Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between GDR (East Germany) into FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin.” Over the weekend, more than two million people from the east crossed to the west and joined forces in a celebration that one journalist described as “the greatest street part in the history of the world”.

Jason added: “The atmosphere was incredible.There was beer, fireworks and singing. There was an overwhelming feeling the world was going to be a better place.

There were people chipping away at the wall with hammers and picks.” Like thousands of others, he made his way to the Brandenburg Gate where they climbed to snatch a glimpse of the world behind the Iron Curtain.

People climbing the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Picture: iStock/PA

He said: “There were no real immediate signs of change. “Berlin was already a cosmopolitan city but there was a noticeable influx of Poles and Czechs.

I certainly did not notice any tension.” It was a year later his squadron were dispatched to remove a section from the Staaken Checkpoint area. He said: “Once the checkpoints were open, there was no real rush to demolish the whole thing.”

It was his job to remove the metal bolts welded onto the top of the wall and then the concrete panels were winched out onto a truck.

Sappers dismantle section of Berlin Wall

The 52-year-old came out of the Army in July 2009 and now lives with wife Carol, 68, in Gillingham. He said: “For many it was a lump of concrete and regarded as scrap. I’m glad it has found a place here and I feel privileged to be part of history that changed the world in two days.”

Jason will be available to give his insights and answer questions on the Berlin Wall at the Prince Arthur Road museum from 2pm on Saturday. The wall

The section of the Berlin Wall at the Royal Engineers Museum photographed in situ before the wall came down

The section of wall in Gillingham is believed to be the largest outside Germany. Barriers went up in the dead of night on August 13, 1961, while most Berliners were asleep and blissfully unaware of the powerful impact.

The purpose of the wall was to stop disaffected East Germans fleeing the Communist regime for a better lifestyle in the capitalist west. Previously, city residents were able to walk freely across the border while trains and underground lines ferried passengers back and forth. Overnight, soldiers and construction workers dug holes, put up concrete posts and strung barbed wire across the border.

One of the marker stones for the line of the Berlin Wall at the museum. Picture: Chris Davey

It cut streets in two, blocked bridges halfway, severed railway and road links and snapped telephone lines.

Many workers could not reach their place of employment on the other side. About 60,000 commuters were unable to get to their well-paid jobs in the west. Boyfriends and girlfriends were arbitrarily separated and sons and daughters cut off from their parents and other family members.

Basically, whatever side you went to bed on the night of August 12, you were stuck there for the next 28 years.

A Trabant car at the Berlin Wall

The construction did stop the flood of refugees from east to west, but escape was not impossible. It is estimated about 5,000 people made it safely across but the estimated death toll ranged from 136 to 200. Some early bids were basic, like throwing a rope over and climbing up.

Others were more audacious, such as ramming a truck or bus into the concrete and then making a run for it. The more desperate killed themselves jumping from top floor windows of apartment blocks.

The Berlin Wall. Picture: iStock/PA

And over the years as the wall was strengthened, some dug tunnels under their homes. The fall of the wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on October 3, 1990.

Meanwhile, pieces of the wall have become collectible and there is now a Berlin Wall Memorial at the site on Bernauer Strasse. The total length of the Berlin Wall was 91 miles – 155km. It sliced through the centre of Berlin and wrapped around west Berlin, entirely cutting it off from the rest of East Germany.

Sappers dismantle section of Berlin Wall

The wall itself went through four major transformations during its 28-year history.

It began life as a barbed-wire fence with concrete posts. Just days later, on August 15, it was quickly replaced with a sturdier, more permanent structure – concrete blocks topped with barbed wire. The first two versions of the wall were replaced by the third version in 1965, a concrete barrier supported by steel girders.

The final edition was built between 1975 and 1980 – concrete slabs reaching nearly 12ft high and 4ft wide.

Sapper Jason Farnell at work on the Berlin Wall

It had a smooth pipe running across the top to hinder people escaping over it. By the time it came down in 1989, there was a 300ft “no-man’s land” established on the outside. Soldiers patrolled with dogs, electric fences were installed and there were 302 watch towers.

There were just a few official openings, or checkpoints as they were called, for officials or those with special permission to cross. The most famous was Checkpoint Charlie, which became an icon of the Cold War, featured in films and books. To read about the Armed Forces and how they have served Kent and beyond, click here.

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