Ex BERLIN HORIZON 19 A Shared History Revisited

The ability to forget painful memories is built into human psychology. We do it to protect ourselves or create capacity for new memories and experiences. Yet, even those generations who were not present to bear witness to the horrors of the Second World War should never forget the turmoil it created. For Berlin, being on the ‘wrong’ side of history created a divided city only unified with fall of the wall in 1989. Berlin’s Nazi history can shatter your faith in humanity and then slowly, piece-by-piece, reunification builds it back up again. You just have to watch a newsreel showing the relief and joy on the faces of Berliners as they tore down their wall to see this.

But there is a catch. You have to go there. You have to physically experience it to understand how a whole country could succumb to Nazi ideals. You need to walk through the infamous gates at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, as some RAF POWs did, and feel the watchtowers bearing down on you. You need to understand the momentous task the West had to sustain the Berlin population for over a year during the early Cold War. You need to stare up at the wall that divided Berlin and observe the graffiti simply stating the word, “madness”.

Flt Lt Kenny Murray, of the UK Joint Force Air Component (JFAC), did this by leading 16 of his colleagues on a Staff Ride, Ex BERLIN HORIZON 19. His extensive knowledge of the city’s RAF relevance, combined with his respect for the sensitive topics involved, made him the perfect Staff Ride Facilitator and guide for the group.

Eight weeks prior to departing the UK, we were assigned different ‘stands’-(15 min presentation followed by a 15 min discussion) to analyse, prepare and deliver at historical locations around the city. We were encouraged to be creative in our delivery methods and bring the history to life. Before flying to Berlin, at the RAF Museum Hendon, Kenny gave us an introduction to set the scene. Then under the nose of one of the first Lancasters ever built, Wg Cdr Byford described the development of tactics during the bombing of Berlin and the effect on morale. After the visit to the Soviet Cemetery at Treptower, Flt Lt Martland issued ID papers for East Berliners containing a hyperlink to an interactive “Stasi” interrogation ‘Quiz’, using it to test our knowledge retention and ultimately party loyalty, under threat of detention! During her stand, Flt Lt Sirley used a speaker to deliver a radio broadcast from an ex 30Sqn Dakota pilot, whilst standing under the wings of the very same aircraft type at RAF Gatow. This was one of three main airfields used during the Berlin Airlift. Aircrew involved were working shifts of ten hours on then ten hours off, for months on end to supply the city, with aircraft landing every 30 seconds. Describing the birth of NATO, Wg Cdr Powell used a moving human map made of his JFAC personnel to highlight the changing allegiances of Soviet Bloc countries after the collapse of the USSR. Each person would rotate until Kaliningrad and Belarus were left standing side by side with Russia.

Ethos plays heavily on all Staff Rides, and the history and importance of remembering our fallen was sympathetically delivered by Cpl Alex Cairns at the Berlin 1939-45 Commonwealth cemetery. This was followed by Flt Lt Crosthwaite, who focussed on the ill-fated mission of a crew who perished during the bombing offensive.

Before visiting the former Reichstag, Flt Lt King, the JFAC Info Ops Officer, described how a flawed democratic vote led to Hitler becoming Chancellor. Assisted by Goebbels, he used the power of propaganda to whip the country into frenzy.
The current day rise of the far right around the world goes to show the power of propaganda and how history can repeat itself in varying forms. Winston Churchill wrote that the Holocaust was “the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilised men.” The question is why do we need to physically go to Berlin to learn this when museums and the Internet can provide the same information from the UK? In a US study consisting of 1,500 interviews reflecting all age groups, it was found that on the whole, the population are becoming disconnected by time from the events that shaped Europe and desensitised to human suffering thanks to information overload.

The lessons learnt by the JFAC in Berlin are not pinned to a certain era in time, but Berlin from 1933 until the fall of the Wall. The development of the RAF’s lessons gained over these years, are relevant to our current operations. Op RUMAN in the Caribbean was based on years of experience delivering humanitarian aid stemming from techniques honed initially during the Berlin airlift. The impregnable Berlin Humboldthain flak tower (a similar example seen in a painting hanging in the HWY Officers’ Mess ante room) shows the importance of avoiding/destroying strong air defences and attacking the enemy’s centre of gravity. More recently, during the rise of Da’esh, Coalition forces showed sensitivity and care when dealing with persecuted populations and human security issues that arose during the Mount Sinjar crisis.

Berlin has come to terms with its past and the city is doing a marvellous job at preserving its history for two reasons: remembrance and education. The RAF history is so closely linked to Berlin that we would highly recommend this Staff Ride to other units. If you wish to organise a similar visit, please contact Flt Lt Kenny Murray at the UKJFAC.

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