The Statesman’s Yearbook Online

edited by Dr Barry Turner

ESSAY

65 YEARS AGO - THE BATTLE FOR BERLIN

Three years after the end of the war in which American and British air forces had all but obliterated German cities, Allied aircraft were once again circling Berlin. But this time they were carrying not bombs but food and fuel for a city under siege by Soviet forces. It was, quite simply, the most ambitious relief operation of its kind ever mounted.

Berlin was a divided city in a divided country in a divided Europe. It was not supposed to be like that. In the immediate post war, the Western allies—America, Britain and France—hoped to cooperate with the Soviet Union to make a lasting European peace. But between communism and democracy there were few meeting points. Holed up in the Kremlin, the ever distrustful Stalin saw himself surrounded by enemies. Above all, he feared a resurgent Germany fed by democratic and thus anti-Soviet doctrine.

So it was that the four-power occupation of Germany and of Berlin settled into an East-West split. The problem for Berlin was that it happened to be a hundred and twenty miles inside the Russian zone. In the euphoria of victory, the Western powers had assumed right of access to the German capital but the only firm guarantee specified three twenty-mile wide air corridors linking Berlin to Hamburg, Hanover and Frankfurt. For road, rail and canal, the Russians claimed absolute control. As one Eastern European country after another—Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland—fell to Soviet control, Stalin saw his chance of raising the stakes in Germany.

Supposing all the land routes to Berlin were cut off. By Stalin's calculations the Allies had only two options—a humiliating withdrawal or buying the right to stay in Berlin by accepting Soviet terms for the rest of Germany. It was almost inconceivable to Kremlin strategists that their former allies would resort to force. Stalin decided to test their resolve.

Without warning, all land routes to West Berlin were closed. For the two million citizens trapped in the city, there was enough food and fuel for just 27 days. General Lucius Clay, the US military governor in Germany, was all for calling Stalin's bluff. His request to Washington was for authority to reopen the road and rail routes with all traffic accompanied by armed escorts ready to shoot their way through. Clay's British counterpart, General Sir Brian Robertson, urged caution. 'If you send an armed convoy, it'll be war,' he warned Clay. But apart from caving in, what possible alternative could there be?

The answer was provided by a mid-ranking Royal Air Force officer, a veteran of the Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe. Air Commodore Rex Waite worked away at planning an airlift. No one asked him to take on what was thought to be an impossible job. It was just something he felt he could do, like a crossword puzzle. The result was a brilliant exercise in logistics.

He first identified eight air bases in West Germany for loading and two receiving airports in West Berlin—Gatow and Tempelhof, both of which would need radical upgrading to bear the extra traffic.

But the most daunting task was to plot a schedule that would allow convoys of aircraft to land safely, unload and take off with precision timing. He worked alone, jotting drawings and calculations in a tiny notebook with the stub of a pencil.

Waite took his plan to his sceptical superiors, who passed it up the line until it reached Clay. For want of other constructive ideas, the general took it seriously. On June 26, 1948, he ordered the US Air Force to begin a daily routine of flying 225 tons of provisions into Berlin.

Clay conceded that the venture 'may prove me to be the craziest man in the world'. As for the Russians, they had no doubt that it would fail, and revelled in the fact.

That it did not was down to ingenious ways of improving carrying capacity. Fresh bread contained a third of its own weight in water, so bags of flour were sent instead. Sacks and cardboard replaced tins and wooden boxes for packaging.

Goods such as newsprint and cigars were given priority as morale boosters. Under the same heading came a grand piano for the Berlin Philharmonic.

Pilots who saw hungry children gathered outside the perimeter fence started dropping tiny parachutes made of handkerchiefs loaded with bundles of chocolate and sweets as they made their final approach. As word spread of the warm gesture of the 'candy bombers', so the loyalty to the West of a whole new generation of West Berliners was cemented.

The Americans flew into Tempelhof, which had been Hitler's showpiece airport close to the city centre. The British used Gatow, but only after tar for the runway was purloined from a factory in the Russian sector, barrels of it rolled through the wire at night by sympathetic East Berliners.

When the call went out for steamrollers to finish the job, one well-wisher drove his from Leipzig, 100 miles away, past the secret police checkpoints along the way.

Air traffic control, a technology in its infancy, was a nightmare. At Gatow, it amounted to a single radio operated from a van parked beside the runway. Rigid rules were learned, from hard experience.

No plane was to be on the ground in Berlin for longer than 50 minutes. There was to be no stacking over the airport. With planes landing so closely together, it one missed its slot, there was no going round: it had to fly back to its home base and start again.

With overcrowded air corridors and frequent engine failure, inevitably there were accidents. On what was dubbed 'Black Friday', the weather suddenly turned hostile over Tempelhof. Low, dense cloud and blinding rain cut out the radar and 'everything went to hell'.

A massive American C-54 Skymaster carrying ten tons of supplies missed the runway and crashed. Flames from the wreckage brought the next arrival to an emergency stop, which blew its tyres. Meanwhile, banks of waiting aircraft were at increasing risk of collision.

For months on end, the British and American relief planes roared in, one after another in a constant stream, often landing only minutes apart. In one 24-hour period, an astonishing 1,400 aircraft came into Berlin's two airports, one every single minute.

And the Soviets tried every tactic to stop them, short of shooting them down. They buzzed, they threatened, they tried to blind the pilots with bright spotlights.

But, for all the difficulties, supplies were getting through. By September, planes were delivering 4,600 tons a day, more than enough to meet minimum demands. Confidence that the Airlift was succeeding drowned out Soviet propaganda.

As winter approached, it became clear that everything now depended on the severity of the season ahead. It didn't look good when pea-souper fog grounded the planes for half of November. Then December was bitterly cold, putting an extra strain on the city's inhabitants.

Electricity and gas were restricted to four hours a day, and one hot meal a day was the best any ordinary family could hope for. Soap and clothing were scarce. Freedom came at a high price but most West Berliners were prepared to pay it.

In the end, a mild January came to the rescue. The planes were able to keep up their delivery schedules and the risk of a total shutdown of West Berlin's essential services vanished. Supplies were now coming in at an unprecedented 5,547 tons a day, and the Airlift organizers were confident of pushing that figure up by another 1,000 tons if they had to. The Soviets knew they were beaten. As early as mid-December, Stalin had ordered a toning down of triumphalist propaganda. On 12 May 1949, the blockade was finally lifted. It had been an extraordinary achievement.

Over eleven months, from June 1948 to May 1949, 2.3m. tons of supplies were shifted on 277,500 flights. Average daily deliveries included 4,000 tons of coal, a bulk cargo never before associated with air carriers. That record day of nearly 1,400 aircraft—close on one a minute—landing and taking off in West Berlin created a traffic controller's nightmare at a time when computer technology was still in its infancy. But just about every statistic of the Airlift broke a record of some sort. For those who took part, the sense of achieving something remarkable was to stay with them for the rest of their lives.

But for the Airlift the whole of Germany might well have fallen under Soviet control. France and Italy, with powerful communist parties, could have followed. Eastern Europe was already in thrall to Moscow. The Airlift sent a message to Stalin. America and Britain would stand firm. Less than a year after the blockade was lifted, America abandoned the last vestiges of isolationism with the creation of NATO and a commitment to lead the defence of Europe. There was to be no retreat. The confrontation in Berlin was the first and arguably the decisive round in the Cold War.

See also
City Profile, Berlin

For more information on the world 65 years ago see The Statesman's Yearbook Archive

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