During the Cold War the West German government went to great lengths to inform and influence the East German populace, and the media played a prominent role in the effort. By the early 1980s ARD and ZDF’s broadcast coverage extended to virtually the entire territory of the GDR, save for a corner of the country near Dresden, which the Germans sardonically christened “Tal der Ahnungslosen” (Valley of the Clueless). Yet despite the gratis coverage, actually watching the programming was anything but “cost-free”. While the top echelons of the SED enjoyed unimpeded access to “Westfernsehen” and could even have special masts built to enhance reception, the East German government outlawed the viewing of such “propaganda” by the populace at large. Yet it did so in vain. Despite the significant risks involved and punishments meted out, East Germans high and low indulged themselves. (As I learned in the late 1990s from a former Erfurt resident, Bundesliga soccer matches were far more hotly discussed in the Kneipen of the GDR than the results of the East German teams… as long as the discussants were among friends.) Regrettably, though, sometimes the message that the information-hungry population took away from the broadcasts represented a dual-edged sword, as one tour in early 1985 made abundantly clear to me.
The Soviets had begun introducing the T-80 into the GSFG’s southern armies, 1 GTA and 8 GA, in the waning months of 1982. That tank represented a quantum, generational leap in capability over the T-62, which it was replacing. Consequently, extensive opsec measures surrounded the both the delivery effort and the operations of the new weapons system in the early years. While the Missions detected the initial deliveries almost immediately – then-MAJ Mark Beto photographed the dual-pin track protruding below the tarping of a T-80 on a ChMZAP transporter near Halle in April of 1983 – even making good visual sightings, much less obtaining good photography, proved difficult. True, over time we made many partial sightings and even conducted focused operations designed to “ambush” the tank, but Mission success came only December of 1984, when FMLM caught and photographed a small column of T-80s moving near the Königsbrück Training Area.) Yet even after that point collection remained difficult, and while our sightings of the T-80 increased, our information on it long remained fragmentary.
And so it was that on a cold winter’s morning in early 1985 then-SSG Ron Blake and I headed for Area B – in part to look for the tank. We knew that the Weimar regiments of the 79th GTD had it and took up an OP in a field east of their training area, near a road that defined the PRA border. From there we could easily hear the characteristic whine of the tanks’ turbine engines, but seeing the vehicles proved impossible. Fog limited our visibility to a few hundred meters, but we waited anyway, hoping against hope that one of the tanks might emerge along nearby a tac trail.
Instead, much to our chagrin, a scruffy shepherd with his flock appeared in our rear view mirror, heading to his home village. He approached the vehicle, recognized it immediately, smiled broadly, and wanted to chat. Hmm… I did not especially relish that idea, for while local EGs sometimes provided information of value, current circumstances made the situation dicey. Should Narks or Sovs appear and give chase, the last thing that we needed was to be stuck in the midst of a hundred sheep! Nonetheless, I rolled down the window and began speaking with the shepherd to see what he knew, all the time watching for signs of trouble. He was gregarious, but his sociability notwithstanding, after five minutes it became clear that he had nothing to offer us. I let the discussion wane, hoping to encourage him
to leave, but, to my dismay, he then turned to Tour NCO Ron Blake and asked: “Und wo kommst Du her?” Whereupon Ron, in his finest Texas-accented German replied, “Ich komme aus Dallas!” At this unexpected remark the shepherd’s eyes lit up like beacons, and he enthusiastically exclaimed, “Dallas – Tuesday night! Dynasty – Thursday night!” So much for the ban on “Westfernsehen”!
Unfortunately, these glitzy soap operas featuring untold oil wealth, J.R.’s ruthless machinations, and Alexis’ toxic allures formed the core image of “US reality” long harbored by this scruffy shepherd and most of his underinformed fellow-countrymen! For some, the vestiges of that image remain in place even today.