A TRIP TO POLAND

By Willie KeaysEngines


It was quite a culture shock in changing from lecturing at DSGT at Cranwell to lecturing in the Polytech of Wales in that, the "City of dreaming spires". . . Pontypridd. The subject matter was much the same, if not on such a lofty level, but the dress code was variable, to say the least. The person I missed most from Cranwell was Mr Evans. He was a sort of gofer which could be found in the corridor outside the lecture theatres. When a lecturer had filled the blackboard with scribblings, Mr Evans was called into action to clean it. An officer could not be seen carrying out such a menial task as cleaning a blackboard! Not so at Ponty!

The approach of autumn was the time for Poly lecturers to head off to far-away placing with strange sounding names. It was the conference season. It wasn’t just the attraction of travelling. It was the garnering of smarty points for your CV. Planning for a trip began in the back-end of the previous year, first searching for suitable "Calls for Papers" by conference organisers. When a conference aligned with one’s research interests, an abstract of your "Good News" of about 500 words was sent to the conference sponsor. I sent my first stab at this game to the Polish Academy of Sciences in Wroclaw in December 1988. The title of my paper was A Fault-tolerant System for Safety-critical Control Laws. It was accepted in February 1989 for the International Conference on Systems Science in the Technical University of Wroclaw in the following September. All presentations would be in English. (Wroclaw had been Breslau until the Germans had been expelled by the Soviets in 1945 and replaced by Poles also expelled, from a vast swathe of Poland seized by the USSR in 1939. Frontiers in Central Europe have been moveable for centuries).

It was Sunday 17th September 1989 that I landed at Tempelhof in West Berlin. It was about midday. I found a cheap hotel next to the Olympic Stadium where Jesse Owen had confounded the indoctrinated Germans in 1936 by winning four gold medals. In the evening I visited the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, mostly constructed after being bombed during the war but retaining the old spire that seemed to point an accusing finger towards the heavens. Its interior was thought-provoking. My thoughts were the millions killed in other countries because of the German thirst for war and also with the fifty-six thousand RAF aircrew who perished, mainly over Germany, many ex-brats amongst them. I was not in a forgiving mood.

Next morning, I boarded my train at the Tiergarten station after having my papers checked. I was surprised to see the carriages, which were East German, still bore the legend Deutsches Reichsbahn. I was the only one in the compartment. We trundled across the border into East Berlin. It was just coming up to 8 am and looking out of the windows I could see lots and lots of people walking to work and not a lot of cars. It was redolent of T S Lawry’s "Matchstick Men". We crossed the border into Poland at Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. I then changed trains at Poznan. The next leg took nearly four hours. The Novohotel was just over the road from the station. There was what looked like a bottle of beer in the room but it turned out to be bottled water. The so-called hot water wasn’t, and it was brownish! I had a little nap and took an early evening stroll around the town.

In February 1945 Hitler designated the city as Fortress Breslau. The Germans there held out until the end of the war. The Red Army had given it a good battering during the siege, as was evidenced by the shell-holes and other damage still apparent in many of the buildings. Protective scaffolding had been erected over the pavements to protect pedestrians from falling masonry. It was over forty years on! The Oder flows through the city. I crossed the river on a bridge that still showed war damage. The foot-pavement consisted of concrete slabs. Many of these had parted company with each other and care had to be taken to avoid the gaps and falling into the river below. The city was served by trams. I counted three rust-bound ones laid up by the side of the road, with vegetation growing through them. I bought some chicken and chips from a café. It came on a cardboard plate; real cardboard cut from a box. I was feeling a bit downhearted as I returned to the hotel. I had hoped to meet people like the gallant Polish Lancers that charged German tanks in 1939 but the citizens I met seemed as depressed as I had become.

I was one of the first to go in my session on the Tuesday. I was given thirty minutes followed by ten minutes of questions. I then stayed to listen to other presenters. I was joined by a swarthy bearded gentleman in a nice dark suit and tie. At break-time he collared me and told me how interested he was in flight-control software. He gave me his card. He was from a university in Tehran. He stuck to me like glue. I was surprised he was in Poland. It was not long since the citizens of his country had played ‘Toss the Ayatollah’ and avowed hatred for anything Western. I managed to shake him off when I went to the conference Travel Office. Although I was able to buy a ticket to Poland, outbound tickets had to be bought in Poland. I was dismayed to be told that the only direct train to Berlin was on Wednesday night. Alternatively, on Friday at the end of the conference, I could go first to Warsaw and then on to Berlin, quite a trek. My flight back to London was on the Saturday evening. It didn’t need a lot of thought. It was a choice between two more days in Wroclaw and three days in West Berlin. At the end of the afternoon sessions, until then accompanied by my Iranian shadow, I headed for the railway office in town. I got there at 4 p.m. and joined the long queue outside. I had just got to the door when it was slammed shut, dead on 5 p.m. Others in the queue told me to get there by 7 a.m. otherwise I could be there all day.

I got there at 7 a.m. The queue shuffled slowly forward. It was 8.30 a.m. before I got into the office. There were in fact three queues. The one I was in was the queue for Travel Permits. Then, once the traveller had secured a Travel Permit, he went to the tail of another long queue and eventually was issued with a train ticket. This then had to be taken to another desk to pay and where it would be validated. There was a woman official in the concourse who was keeping order. I quietly went up to her and gave her a sob-story about an urgent need to give a lecture at the conference, and slipped her a jar of Nescafé. That worked, for she took my Travel Permit, went behind the ticket desk and brought my ticket back. Next to the payment desk, shepherded to the front of the queue by my new Nescafé-drinking friend. 'You pay dollar?' asked the clerk. Like any well-informed traveller behind the Iron Curtain I had a fistful of dollars in my back pocket. 'How much?' I asked. 'One dollar'. That was for a seven hour overnight train journey to Berlin! It had gone 9 a.m. before I got back to my hotel for breakfast. I attended more presentations for the rest of the days. My Iranian shadow was now cultivating other presenters.

There were three elderly Polish couples and a young German man in my compartment. Dawn was just breaking when the train reached the border at the Oder. It was held there while the border guards checked everybody’s papers. An attractive blond girl in a smart khaki uniform with a rather short skirt, black jackboots and a big peaked hat, entered our compartment. The German was hauled off the train; his visa had expired. He gave me a rueful smile as he went. I sensed the old couple's fear as the guardess, without a word, demanded to see their papers by snapping her fingers. I was last to be checked. Boy, was I proud of my nice blue British passport. (She didn’t offer to take me to a darkened room. Pity!) Then into Honecker’s DDR detraining at the Friedrichstrasse Station in Berlin to join yet another huge queue at the Friedrichstrasse Crossing near Checkpoint Charlie. One Polish old dear was lugging a cabin trunk so I took it over. As we shuffled slowly forward, A German voice complained very loudly about my "grosse koffer". The Poles quickly shut him up. Then two great-coated Russian officers came barging through the crowd, accompanied by much muttering. I did my best to impede their progress with my "grosse koffer" but they just shoved me and it aside. Then I was in West Berlin!

I spent the next three days exploring West Berlin including a cruise on a river-boat. Later, at an Imbiss coffee-stall in Kantstrasse I asked for 'Einen kaffee bitte'. It was served with ill grace, black in a plastic cup. 'Milch, bitte?' I asked. The request was met with a barrage of complaint addressed to passers-by about a stupid foreigner who didn’t know how to order coffee. Then I really set him off. 'Zucker?'. Another barrage. I stood there fuming, sipping the coffee. I tried hard to remember German grammar studied for the MOD Interpreter’s Exam in 1975. I went back to the counter. Looking this unpleasant fellow in the eye I said, 'Mein vater war auch hier nicht willkommen'. He looked suspiciously at me, 'Eh? Ihr vater? Wann?' 'In 1943, mit seinem Lancaster!' I threw the empty cup into the trash-can and strode briskly away.

My father was not in the RAF during the war; in those years he was a canteen manager with the USAAC at Burtonwood, Lancs.. Feeling sad about that, I decided to pay my respects to many of those who had served, and now lay in the British War Cemetery not far from RAF Gatow. The sight of those meticulously-arranged headstones, many with the same date of death lying next to each other and probably members of the same crew, brought tears to my eyes, especially as many were only in their early twenties. There were many many more NCOs than officers.

In a poignant corner of the cemetery lay a few dozen soldiers of the Indian Army, Muslim and Hindus, separated of course. I stopped to ponder how on earth humble Sweeper Shib Lal had come to be buried in Berlin. Years later, by using the marvellous Commonwealth War Graves website, I discovered that he had served in the 5th Mahratta Light Infantry. His battalion was one of those that were captured by the Afrika Corps when Tobruk surrendered in June 1942. He may have died of disease or may have been killed by RAF bombs, on 5th December 1944.

Before I went back to Tempelhof to fly home, I went to one of those viewing platforms that enabled West Berliners to look over The Wall. It was 23rd September 1989. The Wall fell about seven weeks later. Poland was never the same, thank God!

This is my last article in the last edition of our Journal. I must thank Mike Stanley for creating the idea and for Brian Spurway for turning it into such a splendid publication.