It was the time before television became widely used. World War II was over but the Cold War had started. We were dependent on the BBC Home Service for our news and much of our entertainment. For most it was ‘the Palace’, the papers, the pub or ‘the pictures’. Those who could afford holidays, were most likely go, by train, to Blackpool, Fleetwood or Morecambe; those on the other side of the Pennines headed for Scarborough or Filey. Londoners might choose Brighton or Margate. A tiny handful would venture abroad to Paris or the Belgian coast.
I was a devotee of the pictures. There were 28 cinemas within the boundaries of Bolton. My mother had worked as a cinema projectionist and took my sister and me every week, often to the Tivoli, where I was greatly impressed by the Lady Vanishes, and at the Odeon, The Four Feathers, Dangerous Moonlight, and Casablanca.
Later I ventured out by myself to the Capital or the Lido. Earlier, Hollywood’s version of All Quiet On The Western Front made an impression me at the Theatre Royal. Why I chose the Lido’s screening of Decision Before Dawn, in 1952, I’ll never know. The war had been a decisive influence on me – Dunkirk, the Blitz, Stalingrad and the liberation of Belsen.
Life during the Blitz
During the Blitz the German bombers flew over most nights targeting Liverpool or Manchester. They did not seem to care about the 1938 De Haviland aircraft factory, near Bolton, producing Spitfires.
However, one night in early 1941 the sirens sounded as usual and minutes later our small flat in the centre of Bolton, shook violently, and the whole place lit up. We’d been hit! Our mother got us down in the cellar immediately. We had not been hit. The bombs had fallen on the other side of the square where there were a few victims. The Odeon, only yards from the blast, had not been evacuated. Our dad only knew of our shock when he finished his shift with the police.
A short time later, we were on one of our country walks with dad and we passed a group of young German prisoners, from the Luftwaffe. Dad reassured us, “They’re just the same as us, but they’ve been to the wrong school.”
This view influenced me when I saw Decision Before Dawn about a group of German POWs who volunteered to work for the Americans as spies equipped with radios to transmit information from behind the German lines. I particularly liked Oskar Werner and Hildegard Knef and thought a lot about the German prisoners. The American officer, Richard Basehart, in charge of them, was also impressive a fluent German speaker. Who was he, I wondered? Sadly, I was not sophisticated enough to notice the director, Anatole Litvak, a Ukrainian-born American filmmaker.
An invitation to East Berlin
Years later, after a research scholarship at Hamburg University to study the post-war Social Democratic party (SPD), I worked in London as a journalist. A fellow journalist invited me to write an article for the weekly, Peace News. I agreed and wrote about the troubles uncovered by the parliamentary commissioner for the newly established West German armed forces, the Bundeswehr. These were complaints brought to the commissioner, Admiral Hellmuth Guido Heye.
It was not long before a letter arrived from East Berlin inviting me to go and find out what the ‘peace movement’ there was doing for world peace. My wife and I were hosted by Kurt Hälker, a leading member of the DDR Peace Council, who ate plenty but said very little about himself. Without any pushing by me, Hälker arranged for me to interview Walter Ulbricht, head of the ruling SED, and the East German state.
After the SED regime collapsed in September 1989, the CIA invited me to a conference in Berlin at Teufelsberg. Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Mountain, is a massive hill of wartime rubble 80 meters high. This now the highest point in Berlin. In 1961, the US and British installed the structures that still stand today, four radomes that give Teufelsberg its characteristic appearance. Men were stationed around the clock to eavesdrop on East German and Russian communications during the Cold War.
A surprise meeting with Peter Sichel
Having dinner, the lady sitting next to me asked me how I got involved in the Cold War. I was soon mentioning Decision Before Dawn. She mentioned the US officer and said, “He’s my husband and he’s sitting opposite!” He was Peter M Sichel who served in Berlin during the 40s and 50s.
Sichel told the conference, “On the first of October 1945, I was assigned as acting head of US intelligence in Berlin … Our targets were ferreting out Nazis who had gone underground, members of the German Intelligence Service, members of the Gestapo, and most importantly, finding scientists and technicians whom we could ferret out to the West and [thereby] deny to the Russians … Our targets changed according to the information we collected on the changes in the political situation in East Germany.”
Who was the pre-war Sichel? Sichel was born in Mainz, Germany, in September 1922, in to a Jewish family, where his grandfather’s family wine business, H Sichel Söhne had been established in 1857. He was educated in Germany and then in England in 1935. While he was at school in England, his parents escaped from Germany and settled in France. The firm had offices in London and Bordeaux. After the fall of France in 1940, he escaped and via neutral Portugal got to the USA. There he was called up and was soon on intelligence missions.
Sichel’s long career after the war
After the war Sichel continued to work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Berlin, Washington and Hong Kong until 1960, when he resigned. He had come to disagree with various US policies.
He took over the family wine business in Germany but made his principal residence New York City, where the family also had an import business, which he dissolved, instead appointing Schieffelin, then a large drinks company, US importer of his family’s wines.
At this time, wine was taking off as a drink in America, and he worked with Schieffelin to develop Blue Nun, one of the wines in his family’s portfolio, as a wine “you can drink right through the meal”, using widespread advertising. At its peak in the 80s, annual sales in the US reached 1.25 million cases and three million cases worldwide. Peter Sichel celebrated his 100th birthday in 2022.
I had one last surprise which took me back to Decision Before Dawn. Kurt Hälker was one of the prisoners who used his wireless skills behind the lines. He had deserted from the German navy, joined the Free French resistance and was later recruited by the Americans. He died in 2010 aged 88.
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