Berlin Wall: The incredible story of a plot to dig a tunnel to freedom

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Joachim and his wife EvelineJoachim and his wife Eveline who fled the GDR (Image: NC)

The booties are the sole trophy kept by Joachim Rudolph to remind him of the audacious escape he masterminded beneath the streets of Germany's capital. He retrieved them from the secret tunnel he dug with his bare hands which led from East Berlin to the West. The gripping story is being retold in a BBC Radio 4 podcast, Tunnel 29 - named after the 29 people who used it to escape the dictatorship. It is 30 years today since the fall of the Berlin Wall brought about the collapse of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and sparked democratic revolutions in other Eastern Bloc countries.

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"As long as there are walls," Joachim, now 80, tells the producer of Tunnel 29, Helena Merriman, "people will try and get over them." Or, in Joachim's case, under them.

He was 21 when the Berlin Wall split his home city in half, trapping him in the sector controlled by the communists. It was August 1961 and Joachim was with friends at the seaside when they heard the news.

The travel restrictions placed on citizens by the Soviet regime after the end of the Second World War had done nothing to stem the tide of professionals migrating to the West, and soon there were villages in the GDR without any doctors, dentists or teachers.

In the dead of night, tens of thousands of East German soldiers went out into the streets of East Berlin and constructed con-crete barricades, cutting through streets, parks, playgrounds, cemeteries and squares. Where trees stood in the way, they were chopped down.

People woke on August 13, 1961, to find themselves cut off from husbands, mothers, children and friends. There were reports that newborn babies in hospitals in theWest were separated from their mothers in the East.

Joachim knew he had to get out. "I didn't want to be part of this new world," he says. "A world where you couldn't say or think what you want."

TunnelThe tunnel through which they escaped (Image: ullstein bild via Getty Images)

One night he crossed a river in a remote outer suburb of Berlin and made it to the West. He was taken to a refugee centre for East German escapees where he discovered the delights of pineapple marmalade.

"I melted. I had never tasted pineapple before - it didn't exist in the East.You cannot imagine what it was like. I was addicted."

Joachim ate nothing but pineapple marmalade and toast for breakfast, lunch and supper for days on end. He continued his engineering studies at a university in West Berlin but he found the switch difficult.

"In the West there were so many different options. It was all so new to me, the freedom, but it was too much. I couldn't cope with it."

Loneliness - he was separated from his family and close friends - may explain why Joachim accepted an extraordinary challenge: to tunnel under the most heavily guarded strip of land in the world, back into the GDR from where he had just escaped, risking his life in the process.

Two Italians at his university, Mimmo and Gigi, who wanted to liberate friends, thought with his engineering skills and knowledge of the East, Joachim would be the perfect recruit. And he was. "They wanted my help," he says. "We borrowed maps from people we knew in the local government which showed streets, underground pipes, water tables."

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They eventually chose a route which went straight under one of the busiest streets in Berlin, dissected by the Wall. They found a factory on the west side, owned by another East German escapee, who allowed them to dig in his basement.

As Italians, Mimmo and Gigi were able to travel to East Berlin and they got themselves invited to a party in an apartment block one street back from theWall.

They got into the cellar and stole a key, which they took an imprint of using plasticine and had a duplicate made.

The trio recruited more diggers which was no easy task as West Berlin was full of spies working for the dreaded Stasi, the East German ministry of state security. They made it their business to know everything about everybody, spawning the old East German joke: "Why do Stasi officers make such good taxi drivers? Because you get in the car, and they already know your name and where you live."

The students stole tools from a cemetery and on May 9, 1962, just before midnight, began digging at the factory.

"We had no idea where to start,"

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