Berlin has more than its share of snow and just plain old lousy weather. I remember people saying, “Gosh, I hope summer falls on a Saturday this year so I can enjoy it.” While an obvious exaggeration, the sentiment is accurate enough. Lots of bad weather, and lots of snow. I wandered out to the Wannsee during a snowfall one year to take some photos. The picture of the Chateau at the Armed Forces Rec Center below is one of many I took that day. Snow in Berlin made me wonder what the winter of 1944-45 was like, on a personal level. My father-in-law was in a Signal Corps unit making its way across France and Belgium during that winter. My mother’s father was an Army Chaplain who likewise spent that winter alongside troops pushing the Germans east, getting pushed back west for a bit, and ultimately heading for the Rhine.
Being a Russian Linguist at Field Station Berlin meant that I spent no time in the field. None. The closest I got to being in the field was when I had to take a ride in a truck out to a firing range and requalify with the M-16. One such trip was on a winter day when the snow was coming down in bunches. Now marksmanship is like any other skill – it takes training to master and practice to maintain. I don’t recall any practice after leaving basic training, so my skills on that winter day were pretty rusty. We rode out to the range in the canvass-covered back of these big-ass Army trucks. Like I said, it was snowing and as we bounced along, M-16s in hand, helmets and web gear on, I imagined what travelling to the front rather than simply to a rifle range must have been like. I also realized that it is not something that can be conjured by those who didn’t experience it.
We arrived at the range. I recall a long tent that was sort of the operations center for the day. Hot coffee was available. Soldiers would enter the tent with their targets for scoring and recordation, and others would wait in the tent until it was their turn to go to the firing line. The firing range was covered so at least snow wasn’t falling on us as we tried to qualify. The targets were 25 yards or meters away and consisted of large pieces of paper with silhouettes of varying sizes to simulate varying distances. At least one of us, who will remain anonymous, was having trouble keeping her glasses on, not a good thing. The range NCOIC had seen it all before, no doubt, because he kept feeding some of the Field Station types, including the one with the slipping specs, bullets until the requisite number of hits for qualifying was recorded. In the event such assistance was not forthcoming, others figured out that a pencil and a round from an M-16 made about the same size hole in the paper target, so a lack of actual hits could easily be remedied on the trip back to the operations tent via the subterfuge of a no. 2 pencil. Although 40 rounds were allocated for each soldier on the line, many targets mysteriously ended up with 50 or more holes in them. I guess we’re all fortunate that the Soviets never tested the marksmanship of those at Field Station Berlin. Come to think of it, I’m guessing the same sort of activity was not uncommon on both sides of the Iron Curtain.