The Amazing Escape of Three Brothers Across the Berlin Wall

May 22, 2024

Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961, symbolized the divide between the East and West during the Cold War. The 155-kilometer (96.31 miles) wall cut through the middle of Berlin and surrounded West Berlin. It was not only a physical barrier between communist Eastern Europe and democratic Western nations but emotionally separated families and friends from each other who lived in the two separate cities.

But the quest for freedom was too great for three East German brothers, who all escaped East Berlin at different times over 14 years. This is the extraordinary escape of the Bethke Brothers over the Berlin Wall using pure grit, a bow, an arrow, a zipline, and two ultralight airplanes.

Elbe River
The Elbe River

The Escape of Ingo Bethke

Ingo Bethke was the oldest brother and was only seven years old when the wall was erected. He later had to serve in the People’s Army, as every young man had to do. He ended up guarding the border that trapped him in the East, an 80-kilometer stretch of the Elbe River north of Berlin.

Ingo gained knowledge of the area and began formulating a plan of escape. In 1975, when he was 21, he worked as a street cleaner and, after waiting four months, obtained a rental car. He then drove out with a friend to the “green” border along the Elbe River on a weekend. Ingo hadn’t told anyone of his plan to escape.

He knew the area well from his time patrolling it. There was no wall, but there were dangerous and deadly hazards along the border, also known as a death strip. The death strip had a wide swath of neatly raked sand, followed by a metal fence topped by barbed wire and a tripwire that activated floodlights. Beyond that area were land mines.

Ingo and his friend navigated through the hazards one by one. When they were on the banks of the river, the pair blew up air mattresses to use as an impromptu boat. They successfully paddled to the other side and into West Germany, where they found a West German border police officer sitting in a van.

The escape didn’t go unnoticed, and the rest of the family paid the price as Ingo’s parents lost their jobs. But another Bethke brother wanted out, and Ingo would help him.

zipline
A Zipline

The Escape of Holger Bethke

Holger, the youngest of the Bethke brothers, was shadowed by authorities in East Germany due to Ingo’s escape, but this didn’t deter him from making his move out of East Berlin. On his 30th birthday in March 1983, Holger said goodbye to his other brother, Egbert. Egbert knew of Holger’s plan to escape and was the only one to know on the east side of the wall.

Holger practiced archery for two weeks in a public park, posing as a circus performer, before he and a friend were ready to pull off their plan. They dressed as electricians and made their way into a house near a narrow part of the death strip that Holger had previously scouted. They waited in the home’s attic for over 13 hours while keeping in contact by radio with Ingo on the other side.

It was finally time to make the shots with the bow and arrow. The first two attempts failed, but the third arrow traveled 40 meters (131 feet), over the wall and beyond the house on the other side. The arrow had a nylon line attached, which unraveled from a champagne bottle. Ingo got hold of the line, which was attached to a 200-meter (656 feet) cable, and began pulling it over the wall.

Ingo then attached the cable to the back bumper of his car and drove forward, pulling it taut. Holger tied his end around a chimney and began to affix a metal pulley to the cable, which he had fabricated, that had two handholds and straps for the wrists. He grabbed the handles of the pulley and launched himself to the other side of the border and safely to his brother.

Two brothers had made it to freedom, but one remained in East Berlin. His journey out would be the brothers’ most daring and dangerous escape.

Ultralight
An Ultralight Airplane

The Escape of Egbert Bethke

Ingo and Holger ran a pub in Cologne, West Germany, and tried to find ways to get their middle brother, Egbert, out of East Berlin. It wasn’t until Ingo saw a small helicopter in Playboy magazine that he had an idea for a plan.

The brothers went to see the helicopter in Hanover, but it was just a prototype and not for sale. They happened to meet two French pilots who told them about an alternative aircraft that might meet their needs called an ultralight. An ultralight is a fixed-wing aircraft made of lightweight materials, usually with the propeller behind the pilot.

It took Ingo and Holger a few years to prepare their plan, which was to fly over the wall in an ultralight, pick up their brother, and fly him back successfully. One would circle while the other landed on the east side of the wall. Their first attempt on May 11, 1989, failed, so they tried again on May 26.

The brothers wore military uniforms and helmets and painted the wings of the ultralight with Soviet red stars. At around four in the morning, Ingo and Holger took off from a sports field in West Berlin and turned toward East Berlin. Egbert was already hiding in a bush at Treptower Park, a park with a Soviet War Memorial. He had earlier received a signal from his brothers to be ready to go.

As Holger circled above, just in case something went awry with the plan, Ingo passed over the wall and made his way to land in the park. Egbert saw the ultralight land in front of him with Ingo at the controls. It had been fourteen years since they had last been together.

But there was no time for a reunion. Ingo got the plane to full speed and lifted off, just clearing the trees. Five minutes later, the men were in the West. Ingo and Egbert landed at the Reichstag Building, a historic legislative building, and came to a stop, followed by Holger in his ultralight. Egbert was free.

Less than six months later, the Berlin Wall fell, allowing others to finally taste the same freedom the three Bethke Brothers had risked their lives for.

Sources: Sky History, Reader’s Digest, SOFREP, The Los Angeles Times

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

Follow the Stew