The Helmstedt-Berlin autobahn: An adventuresome strip of highway

An aerial view of the Helmstedt area, labeled with the various checkpoints.


By MARTY GERSHEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 18, 1961

THERE IS A STRIP of highway that runs out of West. Germany which still offers some sort of excitement to the adventure-minded traveler.

The road is the Helmstedt-Berlin autobahn -- the only official car route to the divided city used by members of U.S. military or government organizations.

U.S. travelers on the road are protected by military; police of the 287th MP Co under Capt Richard Giacomazzi and by the Helmstedt detachment of MPs under Maj Philip Kelsey. French and British military police work with the Americans in protecting the interests of their nationals who use the road.

Major role of the military police is to man checkpoints Alpha and Bravo and to make sure that you get from one to the other. Alpha is at Helmstedt; Bravo in Berlin.

Reason for the uncertainty is that between the two Allied checkpoints are two Russian checkpoints, while East German Vopos ("people's police") can pop up almost anywhere.

If you are approaching Berlin from West Germany, your first stop is at Alpha checkpoint in Helmstedt. Here a military policeman looks over your special orders which have a Russian translation. Here, too, you are briefed on the coming trip.

You are told that the U.S. does not recognize the sovereignty of East Germany, and that you should have nothing to do with any German official of the East Zone.

You are also told that the only people on the other side with whom you may deal are uniformed Soviet military people.

Then your car is checked to make sure you have enough gas to make it and all the necessary equipment for changing tires or performing other emergency repair work.

The speed limit on the road is 50 miles per hour and you are given between 2 1/2 to four hours to make the trip. Your mileage is checked and noted as is your time of departure. This is relayed to Checkpoint Bravo.

If it takes you' more than four hours to arrive at your final. destination, American officials will begin the search for you.

You are also briefed on the trip. You are told that after leaving the checkpoint you move 175 yards to an East German customs police barrier:

Here a Russian soldier meets you, directs you through the barrier and leads you to the Soviet checkpoint 50 yards inside of East Germany. You park your car in the center strip behind a low wooden building; the Soviet soldier checks your document and sends you into the building.

Inside the darkened room, where portraits of Lenin and Marx stare unsmilingly down at you, there. is a little window with the glass painted white. You tap it lightly and stand before it. It opens quickly and a hand reaches out to take your documents. In that instant you must ascertain that the hand belongs to a Russian military official in uniform. You may not deal with Germans or civilians.

You present the documents, then wait. Sometimes you are kept waiting 10 minutes, sometimes a half hour. Finally you get your papers back (they must be returned by a Russian military man in uniform), step out into the refreshing sunlight, show them to the Russian soldier again and get into your car,

Your documents are now stamped by Soviet authorities and they have also given you another barrier pass.

The Soviet soldier leads you for 100 yards, then you drive about, another half mile where there is an East German policeman. You hand the pass to him, but do not show him any other documents. He raises the barrier and you're on your own.

You go through the same process in reverse at Bravo Checkpoint in Berlin.

If your car breaks down, you have in your possession two accident report forms. You complete them and hand one each to an Allied or West German driver going in opposite directions. Once you hand in those accident repair forms you must wait where you are until help comes.

Even if you don't break down you can be harassed by East German police. They may stop you to ask for your papers, to claim you were speeding, to hitch a ride or to ask for a visa or an autobahn road tax.

You should not engage in any conversation with them, except to ask for a Soviet officer who in turn must contact American officials. If you do anything else, even show your documents, you are recognizing East German authority and are liable to prosecution by U.S. authorities.

As you approach Berlin there are other problems. There are three turnoffs to West Berlin and if you turn wrong you may end up in East Germany.

You are briefed on these turnoffs before you leave the Allied checkpoint, and you are given a map with you which you must return at the end of the trip.

Usually things go smoothly, but incidents do occur.

In 1960 there were 7,355 private vehicles and 364 military sedans that made the run. There were only 48 incidents.

It's an interesting trip, the run from Helmstedt to Berlin. It is seldom that anything happens, but you never know. The ride itself it dull because the countryside is flat and uninteresting.

But if you're looking for a drive that is different, try the road to Berlin -- on the Helmstedt approach, of course.

Checkpoint Bravo, on the Berlin end of the road through East German territory.