THE BADGE – Preview Sample

Ashley Topham

 

His face lit up as though he had won the Lottery, he knew that capturing us was going to gain him brownie points.

So here we were, three soldiers, one twenty and two of us just nineteen, standing at gun point having accidentally crossed the East German border. We were the triggers of an international incident, and this within days would be at the desk of Margaret Thatcher. This had all happened within three hours of reaching the ski resort.

‘Papers, your identification? the officer shouted.

My mate handed over his card but as the other two of us had handed ours over at the ski shop, we could not prove who we were. We were then searched to see if we had any weapons on us. The officer kept repeating,

‘You are a soldier, who are these two?’ It was as though they thought he was Special Forces and he was helping us to escape from East Germany. He kept going on,

‘Why don’t you have identification cards like your friend?’ We tried to explain but I don’t think he believed us. He looked at us as though we were lying to him. For about ten minutes we tried to explain why we had no identification. But then he shouted, ‘Silence! Stand still, don’t move!’

We stood there for about another five minutes whilst the officer went to the top of the control tower and I could see him talking on a radio to someone. We were then one by one escorted into the tower. It was on three levels, the bottom being the entrance and the store room, the second floor being the sleeping quarters for the soldiers and the top being the watch tower. We were put into the middle tower and told to sit on the bunk beds. I thought they wanted us to go in to the top level, I started to walk as if that was where I was going but was met by an angry officer who pushed me back down to the second level, screaming at me and pointing his pistol in my head. The hatches were then closed. All three of us were now in the room on the second level.

Suddenly, it went pitch black. There were three guards still in there with us. We were kept at gun point and told not to talk, so we just sat there in the darkness, for thirty minutes. Those thirty minutes were probably the longest of my life. It hit me, the shock of realising we’d messed up and were in big trouble. It is a traumatising shock to suddenly realise you have had your freedom taken away from you, and to be put in a strange, hostile environment where you cannot do anything but wait. Only an hour beforehand we had been peacefully skiing down a beautiful ski slope; now we were locked in a dark room with guns pointing at us. I think the worst was the not knowing what was going to happen. In your head you have visions of all the bad stories you’ve heard about these kind of situations, and once you’ve imagined what you think is the worst scenario, there’s always an even more horrific one to conjure up in your head. It was pitch black so could not see my mates. I wanted to call the one who organized our little outing a twat for not knowing we were next to the border; if he’d said the mountain was near the border I wouldn’t have climbed any fences. I thought the skiing resort we were going to was somewhere in Germany and it never crossed my mind that it could have been in a dangerous location next to East Germany. I was also dying for the toilet so this and my head doing somersaults about blame and my own stupidity was sending me a bit bonkers. I decided I was not going to ask to go to the toilet at this stage. Suddenly the hatch opened and there was light again, the guards started yelling at us, the officer who spoke English shouting,

‘Get outside!’

This was all done with great urgency and they were defiantly stamping their authority and letting us know who the boss was. We were then met by another officer and about eight guards who had been sent to transport us to their headquarters. We were told to get onto a lorry which had four guards on it already. Again this was done with lots of shouting and in an aggressive manner. A guard sat opposite each one of us with a gun no further than two feet from our heads. There was one vehicle in front of us with an officer in it and one behind with more guards. They did not look like conscript soldiers but looked astute and very stern. After about a mile I noticed lots of soldiers skiing up and down the border (I guessed they had been called out to see if there were any more of us). We were told later when we got back that these were probably their Special Forces as they were all dressed in white ski uniforms. We then arrived at a fence which had a large iron gate which they had to open to get across the road. There was then another entrance which led to the same road we had been on before. Once through the two gates, the guards got out and started to rake the tyre marks out of the snow, this I imagined was so you could not tell if anyone had been through. The guard who had been performing this duty threw the rake back in to the truck, and it landed on my legs. I automatically bent down to lift the rake off my feet, the guards sprang into action and pointed their guns within two inches of my head and started screaming, I got the message pretty quickly and shot up and let go of the rake (the quickest I’ve ever moved). They thought I was going to use it as a weapon and were not afraid to use the guns. I think this was when we all became aware of the seriousness of our situation.

The scenery was spectacular, with mountains and forest and snow everywhere. It was a beautiful part of the world and would have been very enjoyable to look at had it not been for our unfortunate situation. I thought to myself that it would be good if they just took us to the border and let us go with no fuss, but I knew that was not going to happen. After what seemed like a life time but was probably only about forty-five minutes, we arrived at their headquarters in Magdeburg, East Germany. It was a large building with soldiers everywhere outside, and the sound of guard dogs barking their heads off. When I think back to what happened it is always the sound of the guard dogs barking that sticks in my mind. We entered the building where some high-ranking officers told the guards where we were to go. As before, this was done with shouting and with great speed as though it was a well-rehearsed procedure. We had to go up some stairs as the room we were being sent to was on the top floor of the building. This was not easy in ski boots. All the time the guards were pointing their guns in our backs and shouting at us to get a move on. At the top of the building, we were put in a large, conference type room with pictures of communist leaders on the wall and a large table in the middle. Each of us was placed in a corner of the room with three armed guards at the door. At this stage I was dying for the toilet due to the cold and the nerves, my bladder now the size of a child’s space hopper. I asked if I could go but they did not speak English, so I held my groin and acted as though I was peeing. I must have looked like a total idiot. They smiled and took me to the toilet with their gun barrels no further than a foot from my head, unfortunately for me and them I then needed to go about every ten minutes for the next hour. I think this was due to the shock of what had just happened and the old habit of needing to pee whenever I was nervous … I always seem to suffer from the peeing thing after one pint of lager as well. The guard just looked at me as though I was some sort of weirdo and was probably a bit suspicious by my constant need to use the loo. It was a little bit strange having to go to the toilet with two men in furry hats pointing their rifles at you. At least they let me go and I did not have to sit there and wee myself; a pool of smelly wee wouldn’t have been nice.

After about one hour of staring at the wall, my eyes focusing on a black mark, it sank in that the situation we were in was pretty shit. My mate glanced over to me and was immediately shouted at to keeping looking to his front. They didn’t want us to have eye contact with each other. An officer came along and called one of my mate’s names out and told him to stand up and follow him. I think he was called first as he was the only one who had an ID card. I got a quick glimpse of him, he looked worried but tried to give me a nervous smile, all I wanted to do was call him a twat for getting us into this situation. Little did I know at this point that this was the start of the constant interrogation. About thirty minutes later the same procedure happened to my other mate and I was left on my own in the room with the guard at the entrance. I started to wonder why they didn’t want to talk to me. The first lad returned after about one hour and I was then called for and was escorted to a room by two new guards. I had to walk down a steep set of stairs, the only problem was that I still had my ski boots on, which made manoeuvring quite difficult. Unfortunately I missed a step and fell to the bottom of the stairs, landing at the feet of some official looking officers. They stood there both shaking their heads, then I was picked up by the guards. They were looking at me as though I was some sort of muppet. I think the stupid nervous smile I had on my face did not help the situation and made them confused as to why I would find it funny. I was escorted into the room to find it was already occupied by three men sitting behind a desk, one of them in military uniform. It turned out that two of them were the main interrogator and his interpreter; the third man in a black leather jacket looked like a KGB man out of the films. (I was later told by our intelligence that he was probably the Russian representative and the other two were East Germans.) I was searched again and my wallet was taken out of the room to be checked. It was a small room with the three of them on one side of a table and me on the other. The main man started talking German which sounded like gobbledygook to me, then the interpreter began his job of deciphering what was being said. The problem was his English was very poor and he spoke slowly. It took ages for him to translate everything and became really annoying having to speak to him as though he was a two year old child. The first thing he said was that we do not know who you are and you need to speak and tell us everything from the moment you woke up today up until you were stopped by our soldiers. It is very important you talk to us as you are in a lot of trouble. I had to make the decision, do I stick to name, rank and number, or talk? This was not a war situation and I decided that if I stuck to just saying my name, rank and number, it would do me no good. I hoped to show them it was just an accident so I could get out of there. I also hoped my mates were doing the same. So I started telling him what we’d done that day. They kept interrupting what felt like every six or seven words to interpret what I was saying, going over and over my story until they seemed to be happy with what they had heard. During this time the man who I believe was the Russian representative did not say a word. After what seemed like hours they said I could rejoin my friends. I must admit I was in quite a bit of shock, but all they did was get our stories to see if they all matched up, so they could start to build a picture of what had happened and how we’d ended up where we were. Then the whole procedure replayed again and again, and we were forbidden to talk to each other. We managed to catch each others’ eyes every so often, which I guess gave us some sort of security that we were not experiencing this horrendous experience on our own. Every time I got a glimpse of my mate who had organised it I just wanted to call him a twat but as we could not talk I had to wait until after the ordeal was over. I sat in the room again thinking about everything they had asked me and what my reply had been. I was satisfied that I had done the right thing, and just hoped my mates had done the same and that our stories were matching up. I was then called for a second time and I managed to get down the stairs in my boots without falling down them. I felt really chuffed that I had done so and smiled at the officers who had witnessed me fall the first time.

As I entered the room I could see it was the same three that had questioned me before. This time, however, their line of questioning was totally different. Their first words were,

‘Ok we have heard what all three of you have had to say, now it’s time for us to ask you some questions.’

I was pleased to hear that my mates had not stuck to name, rank and number, and I was now sure that I had made the correct decision to talk. The first words they said to me were,

‘The British do not know you are here … no-one knows where you are … and do you know what happens to spies in our country?’

At this stage my heart sank as I thought, ‘This is it, I will go missing and no-one will ever know what happened to me!’ I had crazy and scary visions of ending in a work camp in Siberia as some Mongolian sex slave. They thought I was James Bond, some secret agent or something. At this stage they had sent people out to check our car was parked where we had said it was, and someone had been to check out the ski hire shop and ask the women if three soldiers had hired equipment from her, giving our names to check on the ID cards. Their first question was about our unit.

‘What job do you do?’

Now it was time to be clever. I had already told them what I had done that day to prove to them it was an accident, but now we were going into things that I could not talk about.

‘I’m just a private soldier’ I replied, ‘and do very little, I’m just a driver.’

That was a lie, I was part of an artillery self-propelled 155mm howitzer gun crew, but I didn’t want them to know I was part of a team that could fire ninety six pound shells on to them. I thought they might get angry.

‘Ok,’ he replied, ‘who is your Commanding Officer?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said, quite desperately trying to sound like I had no fear as I didn’t want them to know I was lying, ‘I am just a private soldier who does not know what goes on. All I know is the man above me, and he is called Corporal, I don’t know his last name.’

He then reminded me that the British did not know I was there and they didn’t know who I was, and as far as they were concerned I was a spy. He then added again,

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