I was a soldier in British Columbia, Canada, in the 1950s. My troop commander asked for one man to volunteer from our troop to fill our complement in the British Army on the Rhineland. My hand shot up. I bought a couple of German language books, and I was on my way.
My unit in Germany was the Royal Canadian Engineers or RCE, and we were there to build roads and airfields. We also transported and erected transportable bridges. And, we were trained on demolitions of all these things. I was a dispatch rider, and I had my own BMW 500cc motorcycle. I was able to use the bike’s mobility to explore the countryside that I soon came to love. It gave me many more options than the others in my unit who spent their time drinking beer at the local Gast-Hoff with fellow ‘sappers’.
It was a time after WWII when Germany was partitioned into East and West. My unit was stationed in Westphalia, a Province on the west side of Eastern Germany. The border with East Germany was loaded with Soviet troops. It was apparent to us all that they could decide to attack at any time. The mood was always tense; we were sensitised to the possibility.
At the time of my memory, we were engaged in demolition training exercises on roads and bridges that arched across highways and rivers. One such job was to practice charging and exploding a manhole on a road in the Hartz Mountains. The idea was that because it was high on the side of the mountain, it would deter any Soviet invasion through that route. We never used real explosives, but we had them back at camp, and the possibility always remained open.
Amongst this training, I went on 15 days leave in Venice. I remember having coffee at Piazza San Marco. I noticed two men across the Piazza genuinely alarmed about the news they were reading in their papers. I stood up and walked to the nearby newsagent to find an English language copy, and returned to my table to see a small photo of a Soviet ship loaded with a missile. I was immediately alarmed. The Soviets were gearing up to invade Westphalia.
I rushed to my hotel room, loaded my bag and took the first train back to my unit. I knew it was where I needed to be if an invasion began.
As history now shows the invasion didn’t happen, but the memory of such uncertainty has lingered with me throughout my life, and I often think of this time when I watch attacks across borders around the world.
I was lucky, but I know many people are not.
Photo from Pinterest, from WWII