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Berlin 1985-1987

At the end of the Second World War Berlin was divided into four sectors - Russian, French, American and British - with the city itself marooned 100 miles within Communist East Germany. Road and rail access to Berlin from West Germany was through controlled corridors, which remained under the threat of arbitrary closure by the East Germans, depending on the international situation. These factors combined to make Berlin something of a showpiece for the western democracies. Inward investment was huge, the standard of living was very high and, for military personnel stationed there, the job was extremely high profile. It was vital that military training and exercises, constant guard duties and frequent parades demonstrated the British Army's resolve and professionalism. Whether on or off duty, military personnel in Berlin were never out of the public eye. The 1st Battalion moved into Brooke Barracks in April 1985. Familiarisation with the new role included border patrols, providing observers on the military train, visits to both parts of the divided city, preparations for the summer parade 'season' and, as a welcome contrast to Ballykinler, a taste of night life!

On 7 June 1985 the Queen's Birthday Parade took place on the Maifeld, used by the Nazis for May Day parades and also for polo matches and gymnastics displays during the 1936 Olympics, in front of HRH The Prince of Wales and some 20,000 spectators. Just a week later there was a celebration of the Regiment's Tercentenary with a drumhead service, a street party and sports in the afternoon. Seven days after that came Allied Forces Day Parade, with representatives of the three Allied occupying forces marching from the Brandenburger Tor, past the Siegessäule, or Victory Column, along Strasse-des-17 Juni. The 1st Battalion led the British contingent, almost exactly 40 years after 2 Devon had marched along the same route at the Allies' 1945 Victory Parade. The next major public occasion was Charlottenburg Friendship Day on 31 August for which each Army unit in Berlin was affiliated to a civilian district and organised Jannerinspired entertainments, which included climbing the greasy pole, bowling for a pig and tossing the hay bale.

After all these public commitments the 1st Battalion spent the first three weeks of September in Schleswig-Holstein on ExGreen Bear, which involved some real infantry soldiering. The pace quickened from platoon training, to company tactics and a 50-mile march, before concluding with a Battalion exercise covering many phases of the infantryman's war: attack, defence, patrolling and helicopter assault. This was an essential preparation for the Berlin Brigade's Ex Hungry Bear, which took place at Soltau two months later. One of the more mundane tasks undertaken on a regular basis by members of the Battalion was the provision of a guard for Spandau Prison, where Rudolf Hess was by now the sole survivor of the seven Nazis imprisoned there after the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials. When Hess died on 17 August 1987, having been the only inmate for the previous twenty-one years, the British authorities swiftly demolished Spandau Prison in order to prevent it becoming a shrine to Nazism.

The following February a Brigade call out, testing Berlin Garrison's readiness to deploy on operations, acted as a precursor for the next training season, field-firing at Sennelager and the end of an era as the anti-tank Wombat was fired for the last time at the Brigade Skill-at-Arms Meeting. In July there was a ceremony commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme: the 1st Battalion provided a Guard and the Regimental Band from Berlin while many Old Comrades visited from the UK. Following the main commemoration at Thiépval, the Colonel-in-Chief and the Regimental contingent repaired to Mametz, where a service was held to dedicate a replacement memorial at Devonshire Cemetery, one of the most moving on the Western Front. No less than seven battalions from both Regiments had fought in those desperate battles in 1916: 1, 2, 8 and 9 Devon and 1, 5 and 6 Dorset. The original wooden memorial, which marked the old front line trench of 8 Devon and 9 Devon, in which those who fell there on 1st July 1916 were buried, had decayed. A fine Portland stone replacement still bears the proud words: 'The Devonshires Held This Trench … The Devonshires Hold It Still'.

It was the parade season that distinguished Berlin from the 1st Battalion's other postings. In 1986 the now-familiar annual parades were supplemented by a visit from the Colonel-in-Chief on 21 July and the Berlin Tattoo on 25 September. For the latter the 1st Battalion performed a colourful re-enactment of the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757, as a result of which the Regiment acquired the unique battle honour of Plassey and the title 'Primus in Indis', or First in India. The Berliners were somewhat bemused by the degree of realism injected by the use of elephants from Berlin Zoo! Ex Green Bear, another regular feature of the Berlin training cycle, took place in Schleswig-Holstein that November, and provided another opportunity for the Battalion to escape the rather claustrophobic atmosphere of Berlin. The curtain was now coming down on a challenging and interesting tour in a city on the cusp of change, although that wasn't so obvious at the time. Less than three years later the tearing down of the Berlin Wall would be the catalyst for the collapse of European Communism: the two halves of the city were reunited after forty-eight years of forced separation and Berlin would once more be the capital of a greater Germany.