Essence of berlin

10 Most Daring Berlin Wall Escapes

Sam Bavin 10 mins
10 Most Daring Berlin Wall Escapes

The 9th of November 2022 marks 33 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since its sudden erection on 13th August 1961, the barbed wire barrier put up by the East German government to stop their own people from getting to the West had expanded into the extensive ‘death strip’, consisting of two walls, anti-vehicle trenches, watchtowers, dog patrols, and guards ordered to shoot potential escapees on sight. 

Rather than risk this deadly obstacle course, some East Germans used a mix of cleverness, creativity, and bravery to make it out in other ways. Here are some of the most daring success stories, including a few lesser-known Berlin escapes. 


1. The Tunnel

Joachim Neumann was a 21-year-old engineering student who had escaped into West Berlin using a smuggled Swiss passport in 1961. He became involved with a group of university students digging tunnels underneath the Wall to help escapees to the West. In 1964 he and a group of students spent 6 months digging a tunnel –  12 meters deep and 145 meters long – from the cellar of a bakery in West Berlin that came up in a disused outhouse in East Berlin. 

East Berlin escape by tunnel

Between the 3rd and 5th of October 1964, 57 people, among them Joachim’s girlfriend Christa, escaped through the tunnel, making it the single most successful escape route into West Berlin. The tunnel was finally betrayed, however, and as the last of the escapees were making their way into the tunnel, they were fired upon by East German secret police. The escape helpers shot back.  A young border guard, Egon Schulz, was shot and killed. His death provided helpful propaganda for the East German authorities about the ruthlessness of those who wanted to leave the GDR. Only after reunification, when the Stasi files on the event were made public, did it emerge that Egon Schulz had in fact been shot accidentally by one of his own colleagues. 

Most Daring berlin escape by tunnel - Joachim Neumann escaping

Digging tunnels proved to be something of a penchant for Neumann, as he was later a head engineer during the construction of the Channel tunnel.

2. The Zipline

Heinz Holzapfel worked at the Haus der Ministerium: a six-story government administration office which stood unusually close to the Berlin wall. On 28th July 1965 he came into work, bringing his wife Jutta and 9-year-old son Günther with him. The three of them waited in a toilet until everyone had left for the night, then came out onto the roof of the ministry building. From there, Heinz threw a hammer attached to a wire over the Wall to West Berlin, where his friend and brother were waiting with their car. They secured the wire to the car, while Heinz attached the other end to the roof.  One by one they ziplined down the wire to safety in West Berlin, using harnesses they had made at home. The East German border guards deployed to shoot those trying to escape later reported that they had witnessed the whole event, but had mistaken the escapees for East German spies being sent into the West on a secret surveillance mission. 

3. The Tank

Rather than trying to go over or under the Wall, Wolfgang Engels decided the best way to get to the West was to go right through it. The 19-year-old was working as a civilian chauffeur for the army, so was in a position to get close to a group of tank operators, who showed him how the vehicles worked. On the 17th April 1963 he stole a Soviet tank and tried to smash through the Berlin Wall to the West. Even the 9-ton tank couldn’t break cleanly through to the other side, however, and the vehicle got stuck with its doors opening onto the East. Engels climbed out and immediately got caught in the barbed wire on top of the Wall. An East German border guard arrived on the scene. Engels shouted out “Don’t shoot!” - then felt a bullet ripping straight through his torso. The commotion caught the attention of West Berlin police, who began to return fire, giving Engels cover to fall into the West, where he was dragged into a bar, bleeding heavily. Seeing the western brands stocked on the bar, Engels realized he had succeeded. He tried to order a cognac to celebrate but was instead taken to hospital where he made a full recovery.  

4. The Convertible

Heinz Meixner and his fiance Margarete decided they would have a happier life in Heinz’s native Austria. As an Austrian, Heinz was allowed to cross into the West, but Margarete did not have permission to leave the country. When passing through Checkpoint Charlie, Heinz managed to measure the height of the metal barrier which dropped down in front of vehicles as drivers’ IDs were checked. Then he scoured car rental outlets in West Berlin. He rented an Austin-Healey Sprite and drove it back across the border to East Berlin and Margarete. Early on 5th May 1963, he returned to Checkpoint Charlie with his fiance hiding in the back seat and her mother curled up in the boot, surrounded by 30 bricks in case the guards started to shoot. Heinz had removed the windshield and let the air out of the tires to make the car as low as possible. When the guard asked for his ID he ducked his head, floored the accelerator, and sped under the barrier into the West. 


5. The Trojan Cow

If you had the money it was possible to pay Western people-smugglers to get you out of the East. They could provide fake IDs, or, naturally, conceal you in the hollow body of a model cow. East Germans paid 1000 Deutsche Marks to be hidden inside the cow, taken from a display window. They would then be driven through East Germany over the border into either West Germany or West Berlin. If the vehicle was searched, guards would be told the boxed cow was simply a display item being moved. The plan was successful twice, but on 7th July 1969 the border guards were tipped off, and the would-be escapee and two helpers were sent to prison. 

The trojan cow used for escaping the East Berlin

6. The Tightrope

Horst Klein had been banned from performing as a trapeze artist in East Germany because he had been classed as ‘anti-communist. Unable to imagine a life without performing freely, he put his skills to use in escaping. He climbed an electricity pole with a cable spanning the wall, then pulled himself along underneath it with his hands. It was January, and by the time he had inched down the wire and was hanging over the West, he had lost all feeling in his hands and fell into the West, breaking both his arms. Not the acrobat’s most graceful landing, but a success nonetheless. 

7. The Strip Club Membership

In the 1960s some members of the Munich Playboy club carried membership cards bearing the letters ‘CD’, standing for ‘Confédération Diplomatique’. They had been designed for members to impress women, as they were similar to diplomatic ID cards, on which CD stood for ‘Corps Diplomatique’ (member of the diplomatic corps). Dieter Jensch noticed the similarity when visiting a bar in Munich, and got a card of his own. On his way into the GDR, he decided to test out just how realistic these joke cards were and flashed the card at a border guard. At first, the guard was confused but waved Jensch all the same. When he returned to the border to cross back in the West he was accompanied in his car by several East Germans. Again, the guard waved through the car, even apologizing for the wait. Over the next 12 years, Dieter was involved in distributing 500 fake diplomatic IDs to East Germans. 

8. The Hot Air Balloon

In September 1979, two families took to the skies for their escape from East to West. Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel, along with their wives and children, built a homemade hot air balloon with the help of a sewing machine and various materials like bedsheets and weatherproof tarpaulins. The construction took several months, and they needed multiple attempts to successfully inflate the balloon. On the night of September 16th, the two families embarked on their daring escape, taking off from a field in East Germany. After a 28-minute flight, the balloon descended into West German territory, narrowly avoiding power lines. Their courageous escape inspired the 1982 movie "Night Crossing."

A picture of hot air baloon, similar to one used to escape the East of Berlin

9. The Surfboard

In 1987, Dirk Deckert and Karsten Klünder made a daring escape using an unusual method – surfboards. The pair planned to escape by paddling through the Baltic Sea along the coast to reach West Germany. They had to overcome the difficulties posed by the freezing water, strong currents, and the ever-present risk of being spotted by East German border guards. After paddling for nearly 5 hours and covering approximately 14 kilometers, they managed to reach the West. Exhausted, cold, and hypothermic, they were found by a local who helped them receive medical treatment.

These astonishing stories illustrate the lengths to which people were willing to go for freedom. While the Berlin Wall has long since fallen, their tales of courage, determination, and ingenuity continue to inspire and serve as a reminder of the human spirit's resilience in the face of adversity.

10. Last Train to Freedom

Harry Deterling, was a 27-year-old train engineer and a well-known critic of the East German government. When they threatened to send him to a work camp, he knew that his escape was imminent. In early December of 1961, he carefully prepared an escape plan with his friend, and coal stoker - Hartmut Lichy. They shared the plan with friends and family, who would join them. Deterling had worked in the railway long enough to know that the government hadn’t gotten around to removing the tracks in between the barrier between East and West Berlin. On December 5th, he was in charge of pulling a passenger train, so except friends and family, there were a few oblivious civilians that were along for the ride. As the train approached the gap, Harry didn’t ease off - instead, he pushed the throttle to the maximum. With a deafening roar, the locomotive crashed through the barbed wire and screeched to a halt in West Germany. Remarkably, no one was harmed during their daring escape. The railway line was closed off the very next day, giving the train its nickname, “the last train to freedom”.


If you want to learn more about crazy stories of crossing the Berlin Wall, check out our Private Tours and Shore Excursions from Port of Warnemunde and Rostock