Shrewsbury School

20 Jun 12 – Talk Given by Major General Sir Robert Corbett, KCVO, CB

Thursday 28 June 2012

At the request of the history faculty, Sir Robert Corbett (I 1953-58) accompanied by his wife Lady Susan came to Shrewsbury on 20 June and gave an excellent presentation on the collapse of the Berlin Wall. 

In front of a packed audience, he began talking about the gift of languages, and how his knowledge of French and German, which has its roots in his time at Shrewsbury, had stood him in very good stead throughout his military career.  Sir Robert underlined this by describing an incident on his first visit to Berlin as a young Army captain in the early 60’s.  A flare-up occurred between one of his soldiers and an East German border guard, resulting in weapons being drawn and cocked by British and German military personnel.  Through his ability to speak German, Sir Robert was able to diffuse the situation and managed to get his troops safely delivered to West Berlin albeit a few hours later than anticipated.  He did not realise at the time, that one day he would return to the city as the Commandant of the military garrison. 

He went on to give a fascinating insight into the days leading up to German reunification, its immediate aftermath and the political and military considerations at that time.  His diary entry on the night the wall came down, on 9th November 1989, reads “A busy night.”  His listeners learnt that there were many sleepless nights leading up to that particular evening (and after), as NATO military commanders prepared contingency plans in response to the civil unrest in E Germany.  The fact that the surge of East German residents flooding into West Berlin on that historic November evening went peacefully was due in no small measure to the military and diplomatic skills of Sir Robert.  He took steps to ensure that West German riot police were present to protect a small contingent of Russian troops based just inside West Berlin and visited the Soviet soldiers on that extraordinary evening to let them know that they would be safe.  This action may well have prevented unnecessary bloodshed, which could easily have resulted in a very different outcome to that remarkable event. 

Sir Robert finished his talk by stressing the importance of a good education at a school such as Shrewsbury and learning the art of communication.  His talk struck a chord with many of the younger members in the audience, and there was a long queue waiting to shake his hand at the end of his riveting lecture.

Report by Alex Baxter

Pictured (above) Ian Haworth, Laura Whittle, Sir Robert Corbett, Lady Susan Corbett and Dan Nicholas.

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