September 13, 2017

55 Years Ago: Preparing for Tunnel Breakthrough

replica tunnel color

“Replica of entrance to NBC tunnel near Bernauer Strasse”

While The Tunnels covers numerous excavations and other incredibly bold and daring escape operations at and under the Berlin Wall in 1962,  it focuses on two major operations–and U.S. media projects.  The first, in August ended in disaster, and with the Kennedy administration shutting down Daniel Schorr’s attempt to film it for CBS.  The second tunnel breakthrough took place on September 14, and was filmed by NBC, with its exclusive also drawing serious attempts at White House and State Department suppression.

Below we present an exclusive excerpt from the book, which picks up the story on this date in 1962, on the eve of that attempted escape (and filming).  The young diggers had planned to break through in the basement of a tenement three blocks beyond the Berlin Wall but due to a water leak/flood in their 380-foot long cavern they now had to scramble to come up in an unknown cellar one block closer.  (For reviews and overview of the book, go here,  published in hardcover last October and coming in paper next month.) 


September 13, Thursday (one day until breakthrough). After breakfast, Mimmo and girlfriend Ellen took a tram to Bernauer Strasse for a visit to what might be called their “ground zero.” Mimmo pointed to the window high in the sky where he or a comrade would hang the white or red sheet out the window of the NBC flat.   Then they climbed to that apartment for a look across the Wall–and at the battered tenement at 7 Schonholzer. Ellen returned to her room for more studying.

Hasso Herschel, meanwhile, led a team of diggers in preparing for the breakthrough. Shoveling and using a pick, they had the difficult task of digging upward for several feet, and at a 45 degree angle, until they hit something solid. Which they did, with a loud clank, and considerable relief. So now they were all set for the final push the following day. One problem: They were not certain the building they were actually under was 7 Schonholzer. Another: For all they knew, the Stasi had been tipped off (if not by Claus Sturmer, by someone else) and armed agents were already waiting for them on the other side of that cellar floor.

While this was transpiring, the tunnel originators met with key associates to go over assignments for the following day. Their fellow diggers, who still knew nothing about the breakthrough, would be told to come to the factory in late afternoon for a “special meeting.” There they would be assigned to posts inside the tunnel, spaced every few yards, to help usher escapees along the way. Some would be stationed in “cut-outs” where any refugee (some would be infants) on the verge of panic or having second thoughts, could be pulled off the center planks for a few moments, allowing others to crawl past. Some of the tunnel organizers would remain back at the basement in the West to greet the escapees and get them on the van to their new life.

But who would conduct the absurdly risky breakthrough and then wait in the 7 Schonholzer cellar, perhaps for hours, for refugees to arrive in small groups? At a meeting of the top echelon, Joachim Rudolph felt deep ambivalence, the memory of his near-death experience in the Sendlers’ cottage still fresh in his mind. So he was relieved, but hardly surprised, when Herschel again volunteered to lead the team into the East. This gave Hasso the authority to pick his mates. He wanted Rudolph and old friend Uli Pfeifer by his side. Hasso knew he could count on them. They had refused to panic in the Kiefholz operation, passing a very strenuous real-life test.

But Pfeifer was out of the question. His mother, after hearing about Kiefholz, had made Hasso promise not to put her boy in that kind of danger again.   So Hasso selected another tunnel veteran, Joachim Neumann. As one of the originators, Gigi Spina exercised his right to join them.   (Wolf Schrodter’s recent surgery would limit him to a supporting role on escape day.) Then they decided which weapons each would carry.

One more person needed to be contacted about the operation. Though some now regretted making that promise back in the spring, they had little choice but to invite on this adventure, however briefly, the son of the man who had donated so much lumber to the project. The kid had alarmed them with his naivete and foolhardy behavior on his latest visit, when he had waved around a shotgun–and displayed sticks of dynamite–as if ready to lead a one-man insurrection in the East. Gigi Spina considered him a “fanatic” and told him, “Man, you are crazy!”   But that lumber had saved them thousands of DMs, and a promise was a promise. They would have to allow him to enter the basement in the East for a few, hopefully quiet, moments before shooing him back to the West.

When Hasso’s sister Anita arrived at her friend Detta’s, husband and infant in tow, she vowed not to repeat the night before the Kiefholz tunnel escape, when they partied and overslept the next morning. Since she was barely even speaking to her husband these days, Anita was hardly in the mood, anyway.

That evening, Gigi visited Mimmo and Ellen over on Ansbacher Strasse. He revealed that Claus Sturmer had been ordered not to leave the swizzle stick factory that night, and would be kept under guard going forward. In about twenty-four hours, if they pulled off their miracle, he would be allowed to send a courier to his wife in the East.


Reuven Frank at NBC in New York had received the long-awaited call from Piers Anderton: Time to get to Berlin, post-haste. He knew it could only mean one thing, but he couldn’t guess how long he might have to stay. Delays, given what had happened so far, might push the climax back days or weeks.   Well, at least he would be nearby to offer advice–and try to keep his own staffers out of trouble, if possible. He ordered one of his top film editors, Gerald Polikoff, to cancel what he was doing and join him on a flight across the ocean. This made Polikoff only the fifth person in the RCA building to know about the project.

Landing at Tegel Airport in West Berlin after a twelve-hour journey, they were retrieved by Anderton, Stindt and cameraman Harry Thoess. Frank was informed, “They go through tomorrow night–the tunnel’s finished.” Then they drove Frank past the swizzle stick factory on Bernauer Strasse for his first glimpse of the tunnel’s home base. Frank noted that the previous year he had stood just a block away with David Brinkley the morning the Wall went up.

That afternoon the three NBC staffers started showing him some of the twenty hours of Dehmel footage. It amounted to about 12,000 feet in all, developed in high secrecy by a film processor in Berlin who happened to be a friend of Stindt’s late father.  Frank, in their office on the fashionable Kurfurstendamm, was impressed by the footage Anderton had assembled from his early visits to various escape sites, from sewers to checkpoints to early tunnels. But he was stunned when he saw some of the Dehmels’ film from the Bernauer tunnel, going back to its first weeks. Anderton identified the key characters: “the Italians,” someone named “Hasso,” and a “Wolf.” Then there was “home movie” footage shot by Sesta on visits to the Schmidts.

Frank was thrilled. He recognized that this went far beyond what he had expected for a wide-ranging documentary on a full year of Berlin escapes. This was infinitely more extraordinary. Most TV coverage was mere “news,” minutes or days after the fact, and sometimes you had to be lucky to get even that. This was history in the making, cinema verite, danger at every turn, happening right in front of the camera’s eye–one might call it something new for TV, a “reality show.” Frank knew journalists who had spent a lifetime without achieving this, and now, he felt, NBC had practically stumbled into it.

(For reviews and overview of the book, go here.  Click on button on right side of page to purchase.)