Wheeler tells how he fought the good fight

Michael Evans, The Times, 20 October 1997, page 8

BY MICHAEL EVANS, DEFENCE CORRESPONDENT

CHARLES WHEELER, now 74, looks back without regret on his days as a "Cold Warrior" when he was the BBC external Services' man in Berlin.

"I used to get regular visits from the Information Research Department. Peter Seekelmann used to come and see me with snippets which I think were taken from intercepts from the Berlin tunnel" - the 600-yard tunnel dug by MI6 and the CIA beneath the city's Soviet zone.

"I would pass anything interesting back to the German Service in London. It was all done on an old boys' basis. There was a quid pro quo: I handed over material to the IRD and they gave me stuff back. At that stage, before the Berlin wall went up, I used to have contacts with East Germans and, when they told me things, I would pass them on. Remember, this was the height of the Cold War."

He did not know that Major-General Sir Ian Jacob, Controller of the BBC European Service in the early part of the Cold War, was a member of the Foreign Office's secret Russia Committee, which devised propaganda strategies against the Soviet Union. Jacob later became BBC Director-General.

Wheeler said: "I wasn't sent out from London with any particular instructions, but I knew that the stuff I was sending back was being used in the propaganda broadcasts into Eastern Europe. That was the job in those days. That didn't mean it was lies. It wasn't black propaganda.

"The German Service used to put on some very clever dramas that were broadcast in East Germany. During the war the service used to run a programme called The Two Nazis but in the Cold War it switched to The Two Communists. It was very effective."

Wheeler described how he got the job in Berlin. "I had lived in Germany before the war, my father worked there. I spoke the language and I had been in Naval Intelligence at the end of the war, so when the BBC's External Services correspondent in Berlin needed to be replaced someone came into the news-room where I was a sub-editor and asked for volunteers. I went out to Berlin in 1949. I was only supposed to stay for six months, but I loved it and stayed until 1953.

"I suppose I was a Cold War warrior. I had seen the Nazis in the war and East Germany didn't seem any different after the war from what it was like under the Nazis. It was as much of a police state under communism as it had been under the Nazis.

"The domestic service had nothing to do with the propaganda side. My domestic counterpart in Berlin, Patrick Smith, was totally straight and disapproved of what I was doing. He thought I was just a propagandist. I didn't see myself like that."