Within four months of arriving in Berlin, U.S. soldiers had sent home eleven million dollars from black-market trading. It was exciting, profitable, and extremely dangerous.
Berlin was in ruins when the Americans and British entered the city, with much of the center a charred and desolate wasteland. Yet makeshift bars and clubs sprung up within days of the arrival of the Allied troops: Roxy’s, Bobby’s, Chez Ronnie, Rio Rita, the Embassy, the Royal, the Blue-White, and Femina. Within weeks these clubs were attracting brisk business. “In all of them,” noted one British officer, “the drinks were expensive and the girls cheap.” And herein lay a big headache for army authorities – both American and British.
The extent of the problem was revealed by Wilfred Byford-Jones, a young British intelligence officer who only recently arrived in Berlin. He took himself off to Chez Ronnie’s and was astonished by what he found. “One blinked upon entering, after seeing the heaps of rubble, the jagged ruins against the sky, and the hundreds of homeless people.” The bar had a jazz band, dance floor, and an army of snappily dressed waiters. It was also equipped with starched tablecloths and newly upholstered chairs. But the real draw of the place was the abundance of young German women.
One blinked upon entering, after seeing the heaps of rubble, the jagged ruins against the sky, and the hundreds of homeless people. The bar had a jazz band, dance floor, and an army of snappily dressed waiters.
Byford-Jones knew that fraternization was forbidden. Allied soldiers were prohibited from talking to Berliners and most certainly banned from flirting with them. This latter offense carried the hefty fine of sixty-five dollars, a sum that led to the propositioning of Berlin girls becoming known as the “65-dollar question.”
“Do you know German women have been trained to seduce you?” read an army pamphlet issued to allied troops. “Is it worth the knife in the back?” The soldiers in Chez Ronnie’s ignored such warnings, just as they ignored the ban on fraternization. “Copulation without conversation is not fraternization,” they quipped.
Byford-Jones learned several new expressions that night, all coined by the Americans. A “frat” was a German girlfriend, while “to go fratting” was to pursue available women. A “frat sandwich” was an army-issued corned beef sandwich, appetizing enough to lure many a half-starved fräulein into bed. One British lieutenant contended that “corned beef was more precious than diamonds to Germans,” as were chocolate, cigarettes, and nylons, all available to Allied soldiers in almost limitless quantities. It made them lords of all they surveyed. A night with a German girl cost five cigarettes; twenty-five packets purchased a state-of-the-art Leica camera.
The ensuing breakdown in morality threatened to undermine everything that the British commander, Brigadier Hinde, had sought to achieve.
The ensuing breakdown in morality threatened to undermine everything that the British commander, Brigadier Hinde, had sought to achieve. He was prepared to turn a blind eye to overindulgence in the officers’ mess and accepted that high jinks were part and parcel of army life. But he expected his handpicked team to deploy a stiff resolve when exposed to the temptations of the flesh. He was to be sorely disappointed to learn of the scenes taking place in Chez Ronnie’s, where British and Americans alike were behaving with complete disregard for the rules.
One GI gave an exuberant account of his exploits, beginning with a blast against the army authorities. “Somehow or other we’d been led to believe that a German girl was fat and ugly, with fanged teeth, who beat her fist on Mein Kampf and shouted ‘Heil Hitler, I am a Nazi.’”
The truth was so very different. “When we came up against our first 19-year- old Rheinland blonde with blue eyes, pink cheeks, plaits, and very desirable, we were just clean bowled over. No one could help it, biology being what it was.”
'No one could help it, biology being what it was.'
Another American said the troops deserved unlimited sex after having fought their way from Normandy to Berlin. “The girls were pretty[,] and they didn’t wear much, just light-colored summer frocks, and we’d been living through hell, living hard, in the open. Yes, it wasn’t long before Army Div. was worn out.”
British soldiers recounted similar stories. “Here you’ve got girls competing for you,” bragged one young lad. “Strewth, you could have a dozen if you wanted, and I don’t mean prostitutes.” He described Berlin as a sexual paradise, but Wilfred Byford-Jones detected a more disturbing story beneath the banter. “These girls will take any treatment[,] and they treat you like a king,” whispered one soldier. “Doesn’t matter if you keep them waiting half an hour . . . They are thankful for little things, a bar of chocolate or a few fags . . . [I]t’s like giving these girls the moon.”
Lieutenant Byford-Jones felt sorry for the women of Berlin, yet not all were selling their bodies out of necessity. Some were happy to find themselves in the arms of a soldier who brought frivolity and optimism to a city devoid of both. Berlin was also devoid of eligible German men.
In the Lichterfelde district (population fifteen thousand), there were only eighty-one German males between ages sixteen and twenty-one. In Tempelhof, there was just one man for every ten young women, and most were in a state of decrepitude, having returned to Berlin from the battlefront on foot. “They shamble around like walking ruins,” wrote Ruth Andreas-Friedrich in her diary. “Limbless, invalid, ill, deserted, and lost.” Many had been left disabled by the war. “Sometimes all that’s left is the trunk. Amputated up to their hips, they sit in an old box supported by wheels.”
'It was like elephantiasis, all your joints and limbs and face and everything swelled up.'
The downside to all the womanizing soon became apparent. “Syphilis and clap all over the place,” whispered one anxious serviceman. “That’s why a guy’s got to be careful.” Another added that the Red Army rapes had bequeathed a nasty surprise on young women already traumatized by abuse: “a particularly virulent type of Asiatic syphilis which was rather unpleasant because you tended to swell up. It was like elephantiasis, all your joints and limbs and face and everything swelled up.”
Venereal disease, or VD, was joshingly referred to as “Veronica Dankeshön” by the young allied soldiers, but they knew it was no joke. The worst afflicted ended up looking like the bloated Michelin Man and required lengthy and uncomfortable treatment. That same officer told Byford-Jones that Russian syphilis was a serious condition, and “very different from the normal American blob-on-your knob kind of stuff.”
Soldiers were also using Berlin’s burgeoning black market to make serious amounts of cash, buying and selling illicit goods with German civilians and Soviet troops.
Soldiers were also using Berlin’s burgeoning black market to make serious amounts of cash, buying and selling illicit goods with German civilians and Soviet troops. It was so easy to make money from cigarettes, the city’s most sought-after currency because they were far more valuable than the debased German mark. British troops were issued fifty cigarettes a week and could buy a further two hundred at duty-free prices.
They could also buy cheap chocolate and soap. These commodities were then used to purchase sex, Leica cameras, antiques, paintings, tapestries, Meissen china, and German marks. These were then exchanged for sterling or dollars at the favorable army exchange rate, delivering an instant profit. “People were going home on leave and cashing huge amounts of cash into English money,” said the young sergeant James Chambers.
It was the same for American troops, many of whom sold their watches to Soviet soldiers for vastly inflated prices. Within four months of arriving in Berlin, U.S. soldiers had sent home eleven million dollars more than they had received in pay.
Wilfred Byford-Jones investigated the dealers engaged in trading antiques and uncovered a disturbing tale of exploitation and profit. “The Americans are our best customers,” said one such dealer, “far better than the Russians. The Russian prefers modern things like bicycles, telescopes, radio sets. The Americans buy on an average, according to what we have computed, over one million marks’ worth of antiques every week in Berlin alone.” They paid in food, cigarettes, or alcohol, with cigarettes being the currency of choice. Before long, Berlin had become a criminals’ paradise with a full functioning criminal underworld.
It was exciting, it was profitable; it was rewarding.
But it was also extremely dangerous.