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The Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the 2nd Squadron of the 14th Armored Cavalry

BG ( ret ) Albin F. Irzyk, 14th Armored Regimental Commander in 1961 and retired Colonels Ray Teel and Kurt Rosler recall the Berlin crisis of August 1961 and the actions of the 2nd Squadron in the border area.

No Ordinary Summer

The Summer of 1961 was fraught with international tension as Russian and American interests clashed over Berlin.  The conflict had been brewing since 1958 and at the heart of it was the Soviet demand that US, French and British forces leave Berlin.  This would allow the divided city to be fully absorbed into the East German Republic and this was something that the Americans, West Germans and the NATO partners would not stand for.

By agreement even before World War II had ended, the former German capital had been divided into four zones of occupation with each of the major allies claiming a portion of the city.  By 1960, the French and British had mostly withdrawn their token military forces and turned their sections over to the American administration which maintained a ready force of diplomats, spies and a military presence, the Berlin Brigade, in the city that floated like an island 140 miles inside of  East Germany.  West Berlin had a fully functional German civil and political administration that reported to the Federal German Republic in Bonn. 

The Russian sector of the city, East Berlin, was the capital of  Communist East Germany and maintained its own city administration.  Although the border lines elsewhere in Germany were now marked with a barrier system and guard towers as was the exterior of the western perimeter of the city, the city itself was surprisingly open.  Lines were painted on the streets where the east and west sections met, there was some barbed wire and there were a lot of  police check - points but that was about the limit of the division.  The two Berlins, the Russians and Americans and the Germans, both East and West argued frequently, reconciled rarely and grumpily coexisted.  Each party had a unique perspective on the city.

The Russians saw the divided city as a mid grade irritant, something left over from the war years and something they would rather do without.  There were problems with West Berlin, it served as a focal point for East Germans looking to flee to the West, it was an espionage hub in the middle of Communist East Germany; it was an inconvenient symbol of an early defeat in the Cold War.  By treaty, the Americans and West Germans were granted rail, Autobahn and air access rights to the city and when the Soviets had early on closed the ground routes in 1949 in an attempt to force the Allies out, the Americans kept the city supplied by air with the Berlin Airlift until the diplomats met and the Russians begrudgingly reopened the ground routes.

The East Germans likewise viewed West Berlin as a problem, it was the funnel point for thousands of fleeing East Germans who otherwise were penned in the country by the ever efficient border barrier system.  East Germany correctly feared that the youth and vigor of the nation would drain away through West Berlin.  Significant barriers had not been established on city streets because under agreement, the city was supposed to be viewed and administrated as a complete entity and governed through a spirit of cooperation between East and West and that included reasonable passage between the zones.  The East Germans also took great exception to the never ending string of West German politicians who would flock to Berlin and use the city as a backdrop as they lectured the East over the evils of the Communist  political system.

For West Germany, the divided Berlin was a major symbol of their resolve to reunite the country, sooner or later and have the capital once again in Berlin.  It was an expensive dream, however.  The western zone of the city could hardly generate the jobs to support even a fraction of the population let alone provide for the costs of rebuilding after World War II.  West German companies were reticent to invest in West Berlin due to the fear that all could be lost if the Russians simply gambled to take the entire city.  Through enormous subsidies, tax breaks and down right arm twisting to encourage investment, West Germany kept their part of the city alive and then thriving as a show place.  They had a saying, “ West Berlin is the Christmas tree ornament too precious too hide and too expensive to ever let fall. “

And in the United States, keeping West Berlin sovereign and free, maintaining the strict letter of the law according to the earlier signed treaties and never backing down in the face of Soviet provocations were major symbols of national resolve.  On the global stage where even small events could be magnified to outrageous proportions, Berlin was an important symbol and a significant poker chip with one question always lingering; was Berlin a city, a problem, an idea or an ideal worthy of what level of gamble and was it ultimately worth the risk of war?

1961 - A Most Dangerous Year

On June 4, 1961 Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy met in Vienna to discuss the pressing international issues of the day and foremost was Berlin.  The Russians argued that it was time to move past the old war time agreements that had led to the two Germanys and a divided Berlin.  They proposed  a separate peace treaty with East Berlin and this would end their formal oversight of the eastern half of the city.  The Americans would likewise end their official relationship with West Berlin and would withdraw. The issues of the divided city would be strictly German affairs and the logical solution was reuniting the city under the East German banner.  Kennedy would have none of this but offered no counter solutions beyond the current status quo.  Political cartoons of the time featured Berlin with a burning fuse, with Kennedy and Khrushchev oblivious as they postured and strutted.

Back in the United States as a response, from 1960 onward, the military had been steadily identifying and then activating select National Guard units.  This was a time consuming process, air force units took somewhat less time to bring up to combat standards, Army units, particularly divisions where units were spread across several states, took more time.  Ultimately, over 600 national guard units were called to service during this period effecting almost 50, 000 personnel and they all were earmarked for duty in Germany.  Whatever happened in Berlin and whether there might be a diplomatic solution, there would always be a military alternative 

On 13 August, the crisis came to a head.  The East German leader, Walter Ulbrecht, followed through with the plan to wall off the western half of the city and over 20, 000 police and para military police converged  to maintain order and guard the work crews.  In days, road and rail links were cut between the two halves of the city and the walls went up.  In days, the first shooting occurred on the border of the divided city as a civilian tried to cross to the west. 

In Washington and the Pentagon, this was not unexpected and one plan visualized American tanks in Berlin pushing down the walls at key points of the city in the belief that the East Germans would have stopped further construction.  This was not done, however, and the crisis in Berlin began to unfold in slow motion.  The US military did, however, quickly ramp up training and deployment of National Guard units to Germany and in public display of force and American commitment, it was announced that the First Battle Group of the 8th Infantry, led by Colonel Glover Johns, would rotate to Berlin and they would  take the ground route.  It was further announced that Vice President Lyndon Johnson would fly to Berlin, meet with West German leaders and personally greet the task force when it entered the city.

The 14th Cavalry Goes on Alert

In Army Magazine July, 2004, BG ( ret ) Albin F. Irzyk, Commander of the 14th ACR in 1961 wrote at length of his recollections of both the Spring and Summer 1961 and his actions as RCO.  Extracted here are a few segments from the article.

*****

With that news it appeared that the shoe had, indeed, dropped.  I spent only a moment speculating.  My wartime Army commander, Gen. George S Patton Jr. had preached, “ Do something now! “ Without hesitation I ordered the elements of my regiment to move at once to their operational  positions.  As out  vehicles moved through the streets of the German cities the inhabitants, as always were hanging out of their windows.  This time their faces showed puzzlement, anxiety and even fear.  Somehow intuitively, they  recognized that this was not a normal alert. That something important was afoot, before we departed, out families were also alerted to be ready in the event we were forced to implement the plan for the evacuation of non combatants.

I reported to Corps Headquarters that my regiment had moved and was in its forward positions.  I quickly learned that along with tension, there had also been some confusion.  I was now informed that Khrushchev had not made an overt threat to close the Helmstedt - Berlin corridor and that thus far there had been no interference with access.  A moment later, however, I  learned that I had made the right call.  I was provided with surprising and astonishing news - the kind that is totally unexpected.  President Kennedy had made a critical decision, but one fraught with danger.  He had decided that he would send a US battle group, consisting of about 1500 American soldiers, to Berlin along the Helmstedt - Berlin Autobahn.

*****

While the newspapers and magazines of the day gave extensive coverage to both the building of the Berlin Wall and movement of the Battle Group along the highway to Berlin, there was no coverage of troop alerts in Germany or the actions of the 14th Cavalry.  BG Irzyk continued his recollection on the day the Battle Group reached the border crossing at Helmstedt, located in the British sector of border responsibility.

*****

Then came the news that brought goose pimples and butterflies in our stomachs.  The battle group would kick off at 06.00 hrs Sunday, 20 August for the110 mile test ride to Berlin.

On the border, in our deployed positions, tension that had been increasing by the hour now reached an unbelievable pitch.  It became so tight and crisp that in virtually crackled.  We were holding our breaths..  It was not inconceivable that we might soon be in a firefight, so were leaning well forward in our foxholes.  We tried to visualize the possibilities and probabilities:  the convoy could proceed to Berlin without any attempt to stop it, the convoy could be stopped by a physical roadblock covered by military troops and ordered to return to the west or it could be fired upon by Russian forces perhaps including tanks.  If either of thee two provocations occurred what could be the actions of the US forces?  What orders had Col Johns received from the president?  If he had been told that his mission was to get to West Berlin and to shoot it out if necessary, World War III could well be hanging in the balance.   If US forces nearby and at the ready, the Russians could escalate the situation by moving to the west in strength.

*****

Col ( ret ) Ray Teel

I was the troop commander, Troop "F" 2nd Squadron 14th ACR. That tour in Germany was Sept. 1959 - Nov. 1962.  I started as the Asst. S-3, then S-3, then CO H Troop (tank), followed by the F Troop tour Aug. '60 -- Nov. '62.  Earlier in my career, I had been with the 2nd Armored Division in Germany so I felt very comfortable with the terrain and missions.

At 4:00 AM on Sunday 13 August '61, we were called out on what seemed at first a normal monthly alert. This changed dramatically, as before movement permission, all Troop CO's were called to the Squadron HQ where we were directed not to go to our normal alert locations, but to other pre-selected positions. These positions were quite secret. Some Troop CO's as I recall, had not ever seen them. I was familiar with my position because in my time as S-3, we had covertly selected them.

Today, I cannot recall exactly that location but it was closer to the Border than our usual alert site and on a closed surfaced road, where we could anticipate a strong force crossing. Having the farthest to go on the right flank of the Squadron I moved first, at about 05:00 hrs.  I remember the Troop moved out in good order and we even were towing some deadlined tanks (none mine). The only person I remember left back was the Asst. S-3 who was the NEO (Non-Combatant Evacuation Order) officer to implement that program if ordered.  Our Chaplain, Cpt Moorefield who also served as the Post Chaplain accompanied the squadron into the field 

Across the parade field, the 28th FA Battalion did not deploy and in one of those odd details recalled over so many years, I remember that the Sunday Chapel Services did continue with my wife, who was the choir director and the FA Bn XO cobbling together the services.

The Troop on normal border rotation, as I recall moved out in front, to the north, of the Border Camp, and continued the border patrol operations and communications.

We closed into our positions as covertly as possible about 10:00 AM. I immediately put out 3 OP/LP teams, again covertly, with a coverage of about 6 miles maintaining the Troop intact on a good blocking position. By about 3 PM, I selected patrol routes on routes about 500 - 1000 km from the Border as covert as possible and kept one mounted patrol out 24 hours. The mini radar, PPS-4 had been recently introduced and we put it to use nights on the center OP/LP. On two occasions there were reports of track movement. Whether these reports were accurate or due to  operator apprehension was never determined.  The Regimental commander, Col Irzyk,  inspected the position after 4 - 5 days and was pleased with our disposition plan.  As I recall we stayed at this alert site for about 3 weeks and then the crisis was over and we moved the Troop to Camp Wollbach for our normally scheduled cycle and began routine border patrol duties.

All in all, I recall the feeling quoted by BG ( ret ) Irzyk. We certainly felt that combat on the border as imminent and tried to keep the troopers ready for that eventuality.  About the 3rd day of the alert, we saw new East German fence building and reinforcement of the border barrier and they continued these improvements until the opening of the Wall and uniting Germany in 1989.

*****

Col ( ret ) Kurt Rosler

Yes, I remember the alert that occurred during the 1961 Berlin crisis. Along with all the other recon platoon leaders of the 2/14th Cav, I moved my Plt to it's final GAO position on high ground approximately 1.5 km from the actual border. As you know our mission was to delay the advancing Soviet forces by moving to battle position in our border area.

My platoon was deployed to delay along Hy 19 which we believed would be a major route of enemy advance. We were combat loaded and I was rather nervous, not about me but about my family in BK. We had a little Simca with a case of C-rations in the trunk. Myrna and the kids were supposed to follow an evacuation route from Bad Kissingen  to France. I just hoped they could make it; my own chances were pretty much nil.  I can't remember how long we were in the field on that alert, some weeks I guess, but we finally backed off and returned to BK.

Bill Copp was in H Company, and they were located to the rear of the Squadron as a  counter-attack force.  As you know I went back to the 2/14 for a second tour later in my career and other than that one alert in 1961, we never again deployed to those specific GAO positions.  It just so happens that I have my original border map in front of me right now and my position was on hill 353 just south of Eussenhausen off of Highway 19.  As BG Irzyk said, it was a sober event and those in command at Regt level must have been more informed than we were and certainly more nervous.

*****

What Happened Next

Surprisingly, all parties walked away with something from this first stage of the Berlin Crisis.  The Russians and East Germans were able to divide the city formally and stop the flood of refugees.  Much of the post war cooperation necessary to run the city as part of a four ally partnership simply faded away, Ulbrecht was able to posture as an equal partner with the Soviets and construction of the border barrier system picked up at a frantic pace.

For the Americans and West Germans, they had shown resolve, lost very little and had exercised the behind the scenes negotiation skills necessary to insure that Colonel Johns and his men would be granted free access to Berlin.  This ability to quickly act outside of public side of diplomacy would pay great dividends only one year later, when the world really did stand at the gates of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

The complete article written by BG ( ret ) Irzyk recalling the days immediately preceding and then the unfolding of the first phase of the Berlin crisis of 1961 is here as a PDF doc.

Great thanks to Colonels Rosler and Teel for their recollections.  As of this date, BG Irzyk is in retirement in Florida.

To view the full-sized picture, click on the thumbnail
Vice President Johnson greeting American troops in Berlin.  He made quite a splash in the city during the days prior to the arrival of the Battle Group to include hosting a huge affair for the West German dignitaries and diplomatic staffs featuring southern fried chicken. 

  To view the full-sized picture, click on the thumbnail

The second phase of the Berlin Crisis began in October of 1961, iconic photos of the Cold War caught Russian and American tanks lined up at Check Point Charlie seemingly ready to start World War III.  The incident began over East German demands to check the papers of American diplomats as they crossed into East Berlin, something only the Russians had been allowed to do previously.  Both sides worked the phones and the tanks were backed out of the square one by one.

Here is the PDF doc of BG Irzyks’s complete recollection of the events leading up to the Berlin Crisis.  This article appeared in Army Magazine in 2004 and was republished in 2005 in a limited edition recollection of those events.  Please see:

The 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment During the Berlin Crisis
BG Albin F. Irzyk
Star Group Book Division
ISBN 1 – 884 – 886 – 52 - 3

August 2014

 
 


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