I recently picked up an Mi-8 helicopter from GHQ. And whenever I buy a miniature I of course start pondering a good paint scheme for it. This article is an example of the kind of rabbit hole you can end up in from a simple google image search like “gdr mi-8 paint scheme.” Join me for the story of the storm of the century.
The storm of the century
During the winter of 1978/1979, Northern Germany suffered a historically severe snowstorm. Over Christmas, the weather had been fairly warm, causing snow from earlier in the month to start to thaw. However, at the end of the month, a massive and sudden cold front caused temperatures to drop drastically and quickly. In Freiburg, the temperature dropped from +15 degrees celsius to -20 in a matter of hours. The thawing snow was almost flash frozen. This was then followed by a new, immense snowfall.
Both West and East Germany were caught off guard. In West Germany, the Bundeswehr was deployed to help civil services. Tanks and engineering vehicles were plowing streets, and the signal corps had to establish communications as telephone wires encased in ice had broken down. Even amateur HAM-radio enthusiasts helped relay the emergency radio broadcast network. In general, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that different civil services had not coordinated their radio frequencies and struggled to cooperate smoothly.
In the German Democratic Republic the situation was similarly dire. It was also worsened by the fact that 66-75% of the country’s power generation came from brown coal fired power plants. The coal was shipped by train to the plants, but the trains were inoperable due to the ice on the overhead electrical wires. Moreover, as brown coal contains a lot of water, it froze stuck in the carrier cars. This caused a massive outage of both electricity and heating for many parts of the GDR. Thousands of workers had to use whatever tools available to break the brown coal out of the train cars and ship it to the power plants.
Even more isolated and exposed than those on the mainland were the inhabitants of Rügen. The island, located north of Stralsund, had become completely isolated as a snow cover of up to 1 meter had covered all roads, and the island was highly exposed to the freezing winds from the Baltic.
Marine helicopter squadron 18
On the mainland just across the sound from Rügen lies Parow, which at the time hosted one of two GDR naval aviation squadrons, namely marine helicopter squadron 18 Kurt Barthel (MHG-18). The squadron normally flew maritime patrol missions over the Baltic Sea with their different variants of the Mi-8 (NATO reporting name Hip) and later Mi-14 sub hunters (NATO reporting name Haze), as well as trained for supporting amphibious operations of the volksmarine in case of the end of the world.
However, on new years eve of 1978 the pilots were put on alert in anticipation of rescue missions in the snow storm. Pilot Lutz Weibezahl describe switching from champagne to water as ever more worrying weather updates started coming in over the phone. The squadron were to fly many resupply and evacuation sorties in the coming days.
On the 2nd of January, another pilot named Rotraud Hoge flew one of the most nailbiting missions. His crew got a call regarding a pregnant woman in labor stuck in the Rügen village of Putbus. She needed to be quickly delivered to the hospital in Stralsund on the mainland. Hoge describes the stress of flying almost blind through the blizzard and looking for the designated improvised landing zone in the form of the Putbus football court. And when he saw flickering lights in the dark, he recalls the relief of realising it was the villagers of Putbus who had gone out in the snow with torches to lead the helicopter in. The 25 year old mother to be, who had already experienced several complications with the pregnancy earlier in the year, was delivered to the hospital in Stralsund safely. She gave birth to a little Bettina via c section. Bettina was to become a sort of mascot for the squadron after that, up until its dissolution after the German reunification.
As previously mentioned, the marine helicopter squadron’s missions were mainly search and rescue and maritime patrol during peacetime. But in wartime, they would have supported amphibious operations and conducted insertions of the elite frogmen of Kampfschwimmerkommando 18.
In 1977, the squadron started receiving the improved Mi-8TB which had the capability of launching anti tank guided missiles in the form of the 9M14 Malyutka. They started their first live fire exercises against moving targets with this missile in 1979.
One of the squadron’s Mi-8TBs, number 814, was particularly interesting. Rather than reserving its cargo space for transporting troops and equipment, the interior was filled with advanced reconnaissance and electronic warfare equipment. It carried a surveillance camera with powerful optics and night vision equipment, as well as equipment for radio interception reconnaissance. Like the other helicopters of MHG-18, it was painted a navy blue except for the underside of the fuselage which was painted a light grey.
So it’s an Mi-8 with guided anti tank missiles, advanced recon sensors, and electronic warfare capability. With an unusual colour scheme. It’s like something straight out of Metal Gear. And it’s from a squadron whose only real action was to save people rather than you know, murdering them a lot with rockets. How could you not go with that as your paint scheme? So without further ado, here’s my 6mm interpretation of Mi-8TB Nr. 814 of Marinehubschraubergeschwader 18:
And with that, I say hats off to the marine aviators at Parow for braving the storm of the century to save Bettina and many others.
Wait, what about Kurt Barthel?
Oh yeah, I mentioned above that the squadron was named after Kurt Barthel. Who was that guy anyway? Kurt Barthel, or KuBa, as he was called, was a writer, poet and playwright. He was born in Germany in 1914 and become a politically active socialist at a young age. In 1933 he emigrated to Czechoslovakia after the nazis took power. From Prague, he would write his first pieces for the socialist magazine Red Flag, founded by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. He later fled to Great Britain, where he was briefly interned as an Enemy Alien (similar to citizens in the US with a Japanese heritage).
After the war he moved back to East Germany and joined the ruling Socialist Unity Party, becoming a kind of official party poet and writer. For example, he wrote a pamphlet that was handed out to the striking workers in the Berlin protests of 1953 saying “The government has lost confidence in the people, and the people can only regain it by doubling their work.” Der Spiegel’s obituary of KuBa from 1967 sardonically quoted Berthold Brecht: “Would it not be easier, in that case, for the government to dissolve the people, and elect another?”
In 1967 the Rostock People’s Theater travelled with KuBa to Frankfurt in West Germany to perform his play 50 Red Carnations. At the theater, the German Socialist Student association staged a huge protest. The students claimed to support the in their view oppressed members of the ensemble, who they tried to rouse by interrupting the play with songs of worker’s rights. This became too much for KuBa, who suffered a heart failure and died in the ambulance at the age of 53.
So why was MHG-18 named after KuBa? None of the sources I’ve found explicitly specify the reason, but I’m guessing it’s because he was the chief playwright at the Rostock People’s Theater for many years. Rostock is kind of sort of in the same neighbourhood as Parow and Stralsund, where MHG-18 was based, and his plays played at the Rügenfestspiele festivals for many years.
A final caveat
Pretty much all information in this article comes from German sources that I’ve tried to decipher with my almost non-existant knowledge of German, combined with the whimsical output of Google Translate. There are bound to be inaccuracies and misinterpretations. As always, thank you for your time.