Apr/May 2011 Nonfiction

Berlin: the Vice-Consul and the Defector

by Patrick McDermott

Photo by Leeca Desforges

Photo by Leeca Desforges

Berlin, 1984: part of the West, deep in the heart of the Soviet empire. A legal remnant of the Second World War. A fulcrum in the world's First Cold War. The center for the exchange of spies.

At the time, I was a British diplomat and had two jobs—one real, one unreal. Together, they gave me access to Berlin's military and civilian worlds.

The real job was that of British Consul-General, responsible directly to the Ambassador in Bonn for all trade matters, visas, passports, VIP visits, British community and such things. There was also a heavy representational burden. The Consulate-General was on Uhlandstrasse, in the center of town—not far from the famous Café Kranzler.

The unreal job was that of Economic and Financial Adviser to the British Military Government, responsible to the Major-General commanding the British sector of Berlin. We were housed in the monolithic complex built during Hitler's Third Reich for the 1936 Olympic Games.

I was one of a small team of German-speaking diplomats supporting the British military through liaison with Berlin officialdom. Apart from a handful of junior staff, there was also a Political Adviser, a Legal Adviser, a Senate Adviser, a Protocol Officer, a Press Adviser, and a senior Foreign Office diplomat supervising the whole team. The US and French Commandants had similar diplomatic support.

Like any other federal government in Germany, the Berlin Senate ran the city. But Berlin was different. It was not a normal German city. It was suspended in a state of Limbo. Until the Wall was toppled in 1989, and Berlin reverted to being a united city, it was a demilitarized zone divided into four sectors—American, British, French and Russian—under the military command of the four nations. The Soviets had chosen to incorporate their sector into East Berlin and seal off access to it with a high wall.

Berlin's status meant that the Allies were still in charge de jure, but de facto we were stuck in a time-warp with nothing to do. We manufactured work to pass the days. Each set of Advisers had monthly meetings in the Allied Kommandatura building with its four tall, elegant white flagpoles. Three flying the British, US, and French flags. The fourth, for the Soviet flag, permanently unused. Nonetheless, we started our meetings five minutes late, leaving the door open for that period—a formal recognition that the Soviets had the right to attend. And we were always careful to record in the minutes of the meetings that we had waited but they had failed to appear.

If the weather was good, we would hold our meetings on one of the three motor launches provided to the Generals, the crew piloting us leisurely around the lakes. There was plenty of champagne and sandwiches to hand. At German cost, of course. Asked by the West Germans to justify the expense of a motor launch for each of the Generals, we simply said that they were needed to rescue downed allied pilots should they land in one of the lakes. We overlooked the fact that—our three sectors being demilitarized—no military aircraft were allowed to fly over them. It was a bogus but thoroughly enjoyable life. For their part, the Soviets ignored all rules. Their MIG fighters took off and landed at all hours, frequently breaking the sound-barrier (and some windows) in the process.

Chance sometimes presented us with the opportunity to flex our muscles, for there was a list of items that could not be manufactured without our specific permission. Berlin's demilitarized status meant that nothing could be made that had any military application. Parts for gyro-compasses was one such example. The parts could be used in civil and military applications, but we usually refused to issue a licence. To the British, it made no real sense to deprive the city of any opportunity to broaden its manufacturing base, particularly for small parts that were marginal cases. After all, the Soviets were manufacturing whatever they liked in their sector. But, at the end of the day, we could not overrule our allied partners. We were forced, on legal grounds, to acquiesce.

I was dismayed to note that the US diplomats seemed to take pleasure in such negative decisions, as did the French. They both enjoyed the illusion of power and seemed still to harbor some day-to-day anti-German sentiment. It was a mind-set easily assumed in our fantasy world. The British were always inclined to be more pragmatic and bore the Germans no petty wartime grudge, though the feeling that one had always to watch for signs of the resurrection of past mortal sins was deep in our government's psyche.

Having a German wife, I was particularly ill-at-ease with our handling of some aspects of the occupation costs budget, for it was not infrequently abused. That said, the Berlin Senate was not averse to some abuse, particularly when it came to property matters. They knew that any improvement to the allied estate, at the expense of central government, would pay off handsomely when the Wall eventually fell down and the property reverted to them. And so it proved to be.

We were instructed only to deal with Soviet officers when we ventured out of our walled city. We were not allowed in any way to acknowledge the authority of the East Germans. It became somewhat impractical—some might say plain silly—when we drove to Checkpoint Charlie, wanting to cross into the Soviet sector. There we encountered concrete blocks and heavy steel barriers. And the checkpoint was manned by East German border guards—not a Soviet soldier in sight. However, we devised a way of maintaining our legal status: we pretended to ignore the guards. We pulled up to the barrier, then pressed our allied military identity card flat against the car window. The guard then made notes. After a suitable period we turned the card over so that he could note the other side. The window of the car remained closed at all times, and we made no eye contact. We stared determinedly ahead. The guard then eventually chose to lift the barrier—sometimes quickly, sometimes after a long wait, depending on how relations were on the day and what he had had for breakfast—and we were on our way into the Soviet sector, legal status intact. So said our legal advisers...

Controls were imposed on us not only by the East Germans. If we wished to leave the city and drive along the one official road corridor to Helmstedt on the West/East German border, we had first to register with our military police. They issued a transit pass, logged us out, and gave us three hours to complete the journey. If we arrived at the allied checkpoint late, we were asked to explain where we had been. If we arrived early, we were fined for speeding.

It was a messy situation, but the three western generals contentedly sat in their five-star enclave, twiddling their thumbs. Whatever the cost, West Berlin had to be kept alive for the day when the two Germanys would once again be united. The legal status of the city meant that the generals could not be made redundant. They passed the time entertaining each other, training their troops, and holding military parades. The town was kept afloat economically by Federal German subsidies and hand-outs. Large German firms (such as Siemens) were paid to keep their headquarters there. Generous tax breaks ensured that enough firms stayed put.

From time to time, the Soviets made life unpleasant. It was not difficult to do so. Access by road was always vulnerable to their fabricating difficulties at the border crossings. On one occasion during my stay in Berlin—when the Soviets were seriously slowing vehicle access through the checkpoints—I remember thinking that they may well have learned something about slow border controls from the French, who at the time were being beastly to the Japanese over the importation of video-recorders into France. The French authorities could not disregard the fact that importation was legitimate under trade regulations and could not be stopped, but they effectively rendered it impossible by routing all video-machine imports through a tiny customs post in Poitiers, staffed by a part-time customs officer and a dog. In no time, a backlog of 60,000 video-machines had built up.

As history now teaches us, the one time that the Soviets seriously over-reached themselves was in 1949, when they tried to starve the city into submission by blockading the road routes. But they had not reckoned on the allied response, which was to transport all the food, coal, oil, pins and needles, and everything else that was needed by a large city, via a huge air armada, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Allied fighter-planes flew alongside.

That was the backcloth to my military responsibilities.

One June day in 1985, I had just left the British Military Government building and was walking down the wide and elegant main entrance steps to my car. I was en route to my other job at the Consulate-General. I remember that my back was playing up, and that I was inwardly groaning at the thought of lowering my 6'4" frame into the blue Rover 3500 that was provided for my use. It was a low-slung, powerful saloon suitable for fast police use when chasing gangsters, or for fast gangster use when being chased by police. (I believe the model has now become an iconic staple of the stock-car circuit, for which I am sure it is quite excellent.) What it was not, was a comfortable vehicle suitable for a diplomat. The trouble was that I was obliged to run a British car, and I was not senior enough to warrant a Jaguar or Rolls Royce. This left a Rover or, I suppose, a Morgan sports car—for that was the extent of British car manufacturing at the time.

I was just about to face the ordeal of getting into the car when I was hailed from one of the large windows above the Union Jack that stirred majestically in the breeze. It was the General.

"I hear that you have a defector down at the Consulate. I suggest you get down there as quickly as you can, Old Boy." With that, he promptly closed the window. I looked at my watch: 4.22 pm precisely. I braced myself for the pain and then slid into the car, telling the driver to hurry.

When I arrived at the Consulate-General, I acknowledged the salute of the armed policeman standing outside and briskly walked through the entrance door. I was expecting some air of excitement, but apart from a cheerful hello from the receptionist, there was silence. By chance, the Consul crossed through the lobby.

"We have a defector," I stated.

"A defector? No such excitement."

Puzzled, I went into the Vice-Consul's office. He was busy writing.

"Do we have a defector?"

"Oh, him. Yes. He turned up at just before 4 o'clock, as we were about to close. I told him to come back tomorrow morning at 11 o'clock."

With considerable difficulty, I suppressed my rage. The walk-in of defectors is not unusual at Embassies and Consulates, and sometimes results in significant Intelligence. Walk-ins require careful handling, and staff are trained to deal with them. Basically, it is assumed that any potential defector is very wound up and liable to bolt at the drop of a hat. One tries to put such a caller at ease, sit them down, and produce a senior officer to have a chat with them.

I tried to sound calm. "Please tell me more."

"Well, he seemed an intelligent man. Late 40s. Mediterranean, I would guess. Very good English. Medium height. Well-dressed. He claimed to be the personal chauffeur to President X [he mentioned a world famous ruler and distinct enemy of the British]. He said that he could provide a good deal of information that would be of interest to us."

I was astonished by his off-hand approach to such a significant event, but I could sense that, at least initially, he would not be made to see his actions as other than reasonable. Besides which, there was no time to be wasted arguing. I told him that I would handle the matter, but I could not stop myself adding that we had to hope that his rather casual reaction would not put the defector off turning up the next day. He looked at me somewhat blankly, nodded, smiled, and returned to his drafting.

I went straight to my office and wrote a "Top Secret and Flash" telegram to the Foreign Office reporting what had happened. Within hours, officers from MI6 were on their way to Berlin.

The following morning, we gathered in my office, and the Vice-Consul was questioned at length by MI6. He had little to add to what had been reported by me in my telegram. He was carefully briefed on the handling of the potential defector. There was considerable tension as the hour neared 11 o'clock, but sure enough, the chap turned up precisely on time. MI6 took over.

This left me with the dilemma of what sanction, if any, to take against the Vice-Consul. He had acted in a dangerously relaxed way and was, after all, a former Army officer, an Oxford graduate, and an intelligent man. He should have known better. Let me call him Roger Chamberlain for the purposes of this story.

Roger was in his late 40s and had been prematurely transferred to us from another Consulate-General in Germany. He had been there for a year or so, and had another 18 months to do, but something had gone wrong. The Foreign Office had not been entirely straight with me when seeking my agreement to his transfer to my Consulate-General. They led me to believe that the problem had simply been one of a personality clash with his immediate superior. I knew that this could be code for all sorts of things, but I reasoned that we were a very good team, and I was sure that if he were genuine, he would have no difficulty integrating with us. If he did not do his job, then I should have no difficulty in getting rid of him. We had to give him the chance. I therefore deliberately made no enquiries about his premature transfer.

It was not long before he telephoned me to introduce himself. We chatted about this and that, but I took care not to touch on his forced transfer. He had a strikingly resonant voice and accent, and he spoke in a somewhat old-fashioned way. The clipped, measured language of the educated Englishman. I remember that, in a Service dominated by highly educated Oxbridge graduates, it was strange that his voice should stand out to the point of being remarkable.

In due course, I received from the Personnel Department in London a very brief "put-up" letter. It gave the usual details and noted that he had been an officer in the Intelligence Corps and that he was an Oxford graduate with a second-class degree in History. He spoke German and French to higher standard and was receiving an allowance for both.

Time passed, and the day of his arrival came, but preoccupations with some urgent work rather pushed it all out of my mind. Late in the afternoon, my Personal Secretary put her head around the door. She seemed somewhat shaken.

"Roger has just arrived. I'll bring him in, and then make some tea."

There was no opportunity to ask her what was amiss. I stood up from my desk and moved towards the sofa and armchairs in the corner of my large office. I had built up a mental picture of Roger from our telephone conversations and the letter from the Foreign Office. I wondered how close I had got to reality. He came in.

I was almost dumbstruck. Thankfully, I was already moving towards him, and I was sure that my momentary surprise went unnoticed. He was black—very black—with the long-limbed, somewhat gangly gait of the Jamaican. It was the last thing that I was expecting.

He was instantly impressive. Of medium height with a slim, trim figure, wearing a dark blue pin-striped suit—clearly bespoke—a light blue shirt and yellow silk tie. He had a burgundy silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, and his shoes were highly-polished black brogues. A thin, pencil-moustache added to his elegant appearance. He had the aura of the natural gentleman. I took to him immediately. He was the most charming of men, endowed with an old-fashioned courtesy that belonged to a different age. His speech brought its own elegance.

He told me that at Oxford he had been a Rhodes Scholar taught by the eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. He talked of his Army days, saying proudly that he had been one of the first black officers in the Regular Army. When I told him that my eldest son was a Grenadier Guards' officer, his face beamed. That, he said, would be his dream, but entrance to the regiments of the Royal Bodyguard was not possible. He did not elaborate.

Roger soon settled in and proved to be a most conscientious and popular colleague, though there were occasional lapses of commonsense. He soon found himself a local German girl-friend. Life was good. I noticed that he kept away from the military, which surprised me, given his background. I invited him to a number of parties that I gave for military officers, but he always found a reason not to come.

The Consulate-General and the British Military Government were on opposite sides of town and had no over-lapping portfolios, so there was little social intercourse between them, but news of his arrival soon spread among the military. A few Army officers found some way negatively to mention my new Vice-Consul, but I ignored their pointed remarks. A retired Lieutenant-Colonel with whom I worked fairly closely took me to one side. Did I know that Roger had been discharged from the Army for stealing mess funds? I said that I did not and, on the basis of what I had seen of him so far, I found it hard to believe. In any case, he would not, I said, have been admitted to the Foreign Office if he had a criminal record. Well, back-tracked the Colonel, it was not quite as clear cut as he was suggesting. The case against Roger, though sound, had not been formally pursued for fear of bringing his Regiment's reputation into disrepute.

Time passed. A few months later, a full Colonel came to my office. We were on nodding terms, but I knew little of what he did save that he was part of the Army's cloak-and-dagger world. He said that rumors of Roger's alleged theft of mess funds were circulating. Had I heard them? I said that I had and, frankly, did not believe them. He smiled.

"I am glad to hear it. Neither do I, and I know him well. Let me tell you something about Roger."

He settled in to one of my armchairs and told me his story. They had served together in 14 Intelligence Company—an elite special forces' unit trained by the SAS specifically for the Irish Troubles. They had spent days together hidden in undergrowth, observing IRA members. They had done battle together. Roger had been very good at his job and had saved the Colonel's life on one occasion. Roger was a man of honor. He was quite clear that the alleged offence had never taken place. It was a purely racist matter, in his view. I said that I was grateful to him for confiding in me.

A year or more passed, and it was time for Roger to be considered for his next assignment. He came to see me. He said that he felt very much at home with us. Could he extend his tour? If not, a vacancy was coming up for a Vice-Consul in Hamburg. Would I support his candidature? I said that I would gladly try for both. I had a frank discussion with Personnel Department in London (who, unprompted, told me that he had a history of occasional lapses of judgment). They said that they were considering his future, but he should stick to the usual cycle of tour lengths. They saw no grounds for exceptional treatment. I then spoke to the Consul-General in Hamburg, who sent his Consul down to interview Roger. The conclusion was that he "would not fit in." I could do no more, and told Roger. He was deeply disappointed but accepted that he had to await the lottery that would decide his next posting.

The weeks passed. Eventually, the Personnel Department wrote to Roger. He was to be posted to Lagos. Roger fell deeply into the doldrums. An African posting was the last thing that he wanted, though he had no sound reason to offer for his view. There were postings at his grade coming up in the USA and in Scandinavia. Was one of those possible? I tried my best for him, but the reply from the Foreign Office was that he should go to Lagos. One could see their point. If all officers successfully challenged their next posting, Paris and Washington would be hugely oversubscribed and Outer Mongolia and the Yemen would close. And I suppose that the postings officer also felt that Roger could not possibly suffer from not "fitting in" with an African community.

Looking back, it was difficult not to conclude that he was at heart a white man trapped in a black skin.

We bade Roger a fond farewell with a round of parties. He flew to London to stay in his flat in Carlisle Mansions, a very posh block in central London not far from the Houses of Parliament. I heard that he continued to plead for a non-African posting. But to no avail.

The day before his departure for Lagos, he hanged himself.


Previous Piece Next Piece