THE COLD WAR The Berlin Airlift

Introduction

In June 1948, three years after the end of Second World War, Germany became yet again a conflict zone, as the Soviets shut down all land routes into West Berlin. The Berlin Blockade, as it is now known, was resolved by supplying the city with food and raw materials through an impressive airlift. Considered by some to be the catalyst of the Cold War, this remarkable act has been mostly attributed to the Americans. But the role of the British, largely underdocumented by historians, has been brought to light with the opening of the British Archives, revealing the importance of these two Allies for the success of the Berlin Airlift.¹

Figure 1. Division of Berlin by the occupying forces.

Events leading to the blockade

The initial arrangements between the Allies and the Soviets, agreed upon at the Potsdam Conference of 1945, were that Germany would undergo “denazification, demilitarization, democratization, decentralization, and decartelization“², and most importantly, that the Allied Control Council should govern the country as a single economic power.³Given that the recovery of Germany was considered fundamental for the restoration of Western Europe, the three powers took over this task and the country was divided into three occupation zones. The Southern zone, which covered much of the more sophisticated industries, was to be presided over by the Americans; the Northwest, where coal and heavy industries were placed was allocated to the British and the Eastern zone, which contained the capital and quite a lot of farmland was to be governed by the Soviets⁴. Berlin was to be occupied and governed by all three powers working collaboratively. France joined later, occupying another area in Berlin, as well as part of Southwest Germany. The whole of Germany was likewise divided between all the occupying forces⁵.

According to the Potsdam Agreement of 1945, “each country’s reparations would come from that nation’s zone of occupation with the American and British zones of occupation providing additional industrial equipment to the USSR”⁶. This provision was included since the British and American occupation zones had significantly more industry than the largely rural Soviet zone. In exchange, the Soviets would send them raw materials and consumable goods to meet the nutritional needs of the Allies’ occupied zones.⁷ However, this did not go as planned. The Soviets felt entitled to exploit the natural resources of their occupation zone and sent what they yielded directly to the USSR. At the same time they demanded that the Allies supply them with industrial machinery and other goods as stipulated in the Potsdam Agreement. The British and the Americans did not deliver on their promise, since exporting any industrial equipment from their occupation zones would have entailed expending their own taxpayer money to import food to feed the German population. This would have been a very costly undertaking for the already fragile British and American economies. In response, the Soviets likewise reneged on their part of the deal to the Allies.⁸  The resulting friction was considered to be one of the catalysts of the Cold War.⁹

The different approaches to governance led to conflict and stalemates between the occupying powers – the Cold War and the arms race had begun. After frustrating meetings in London between November and December of 1947, which yielded no significant agreement, the British and the Americans decided to unite forces to undertake the creation of a separate West-German state.¹⁰ And the best way to consolidate such a state was, first and foremost, the creation of a common currency. In the spring of 1948 the value of the Reichsmark had significantly decreased, causing a downwards spiral of the German economy. A new currency was introduced in an attempt to revive the economy.  If this venture were to be successful, it would also have relieved the Allies of a big part of their financial responsibilities towards Germany.¹¹ The Soviets showed themselves resistant to the establishment of a single monetary system, but this did not stop the Allies from implementing their own currency—the Deutsche Mark. The Mark became one of the most successful currencies in the post-war era. The Soviet authorities grew increasingly discontent, arguing that such decisions had been made without their consent.¹²

The Blockade

As resentment grew, the Soviets were determined to retaliate “by applying pressure to the vulnerable Western enclave in Berlin”.¹³  And indeed, one fatal mistake in the Potsdam negotiations was that the Western powers had not drawn up rights of access to their own occupation zones, thus enabling the Soviets to exert pressure on them.¹⁴ This paved the way for the Berlin Blockade.

On the 1st of April 1948, the Soviets imposed their first partial blockade. Not long after, on the 24th of that same month they “severed all the rail, road and water routes between the Western zones of Germany and the Western sectors in Berlin”.¹⁵ As the British and Americans came together to discuss a plan on how to circumvent the situation, two ideas were raised. The first one, suggested by Winston Churchill even before the full blockade came into force, was to threaten the Soviets with a nuclear war if they did not retreat from the city.¹⁶ Ernest Bevin, the British foreign minister at the time, and British Prime Minister Attlee did not support this idea. General Lucius Clay, the American military governor, suggested an armoured Anglo-American convoy to break through to the Soviet occupation zone. This was met with opposition from the British, since the Soviet tanks could easily bring it to a halt. Additionally, in case of a shooting, the Soviets would very likely have had the upper hand.¹⁷ For the British, it was important to avoid armed conflict at any costs, but they also wanted to prevent the Soviets from driving Allied forces from the city, as this would limit the possibilities for negotiation.

On the 24th of June, the Soviets issued the Warsaw declaration, demanding the restoration of a four-power control of the country and a retreat of all four countries’ forces from Germany.¹⁸ The Allies were reluctant to agree to these conditions unless the blockade was lifted, while the Soviets were unwilling to lift the blockade unless the Allies complied with their demands. Faced with such a remarkable impasse, the Americans were unsure how to proceed. In contrast, the British moved forward with decisiveness and speed to formulate a plan that would both bypass the need to negotiate with the Soviets and avoid the need for armed conflict: the Berlin airlift¹⁹.

Figure 3. Sketch of British Prime Minister Ernest Bevin by artist Arthur Boughey, 1939-1946.

“If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan ‘orses will appear.”

Figure 4: B-29 Heavy bomber in flight

The Airlift

Although the land transport of supplies such as food and raw materials had not been formally arranged between all the occupying powers, the use of air corridors had been stipulated in writing. Three air corridors were created “between Berlin and Hamburg, Buckeburg, and Frankfurt-on-Main in Western Germany”²⁰ and were officially operational as of November 1945. They were 32km wide with an airspace of approximately three kilometres above sea level, which was advantageous to the Allies. The air corridors converged in a control zone in Berlin, and all air traffic was regulated by the Berlin Air Safety Centre, which was managed in turn by all four occupying powers. The use of commercial aircrafts had also been approved in writing, although the Soviets met this decision with some opposition. Additionally, air safety rules were codified by the Air Directorate in 1946, which meant that maintenance of the aircrafts or other administration-related difficulties could not be used by the Soviets as pretexts for obstructing the flying operations of the Western forces.²¹ Initially these agreements were also advantageous for the Soviets, as they ensured the safety of the Soviet aircrafts, and provided the Soviets with access to advanced technology and modern air safety techniques. No one could have predicted that these agreements would backfire later on.

General Sir Brian Robertson, the British Military Governor in Berlin, suggested to General Clay that he join them on the airlift, for which Robertson had already started making arrangements with the Royal Air Force. General Clay was at first somewhat sceptical about the idea, but eventually agreed and the plan was put into action on the 26th June, 1948, when the first aircraft brought food supplies to Berlin.²² A discussion regarding the amount of supplies to be delivered to Berlin ensued between Ernest Bevin, General William Draper—the Secretary of the US army—and Draper’s chief planning officer, General William Wedemeyer. Bevin suggested a daily delivery of two thousand tons. The American generals were somewhat unreceptive and suggested halving the quantity, but Bevin’s insistence proved successful in the end. As he argued, it was in the Americans’ interest to show the Soviets not only their humanitarian side but also their wealth of power and resources:—two thousand tons of supplies would be the perfect way to demonstrate this.²³ The Americans made their support official in the same month, when they agreed to send eighty-two B-29 heavy bombers to be based in the United Kingdom, which would then fly to Germany to accomplish this enormous task.²⁴ The decision to use these specific airplanes was a deliberate one. These aircrafts were known worldwide as the “atomic bombers”, and by placing these planes in bases in the UK, the message was clear: if the Soviets attempted any sort of retaliation, Moscow would be at a close enough distance to be bombarded.²⁵ Yet this was simply a very sophisticated bluff—the B29 aircrafts were incapable of transporting atomic weapons, and the planes that were capable of carrying nuclear bombs were never dispatched.²⁶

The American forces were not alone in expression reservations about the plan. The world was not convinced that the airlift could be carried out successfully, especially during the winter months, when people relied heavily on coal for heating and electricity. nevertheless, the operation proved to be remarkably successful. The deliveries met their target numbers, and at the peak of the airlift, one airplane was reached West Berlin every thirty seconds. They dropped off the much-needed food, coal, raw materials and other essential products, and returned to the bases for reloading without even stopping for a break. It’s important to note, however, that the population of West Berlin survived on a nutritionally poor diet, and had barely enough heat and electricity. Nevertheless, it was enough for the population to survive the rough winter months of 1948-49.²⁷

Figure 5: American aircrafts unload at the Tempelhof Airport during the airlift

The airlift would not have been so successful had the population not contributed to the mission to the extent that they did. For example, according to several reports, a German crew responsible for the unloading of approximately 10 tons of coal completed the task in six minutes and twenty-six seconds. A German radio technician also contributed, by creating a device capable of detecting malfunctions in airway navigation beacons.²⁸ This remarkable act of unity and strength from both the Allies and the German population proved itself incredibly fruitful—the Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12th 1949. During the entire blockade, 276,926 flights were made, and 2,323,067 tons of necessities had been delivered.²⁹ They had hoped to pressure the Allies into withdrawing from Berlin and Germany. Instead, the West demonstrated what they could achieve when they worked together. Due to the success of the venture, France fortified its ties with the US and the UK, and in April 1949 the French occupation zone was joined with “Bizonia”, a colligation formed by the Americans and the British in 1946, thus forming the state of “Trizonia”.

The Importance of the Airlift

The airlift was incredibly significant in several aspects, but most importantly, its success lifted the morale of many people of Western Europe. The close collaboration of the Allies and the joint efforts in the airlift project laid the foundations for the creation of NATO.³⁰  Additionally, since the Americans, British and French did not withdraw from Germany, it was possible to carry out their plan to boost the German economy. The possibility of a more united Germany became more plausible.³¹ The path to victory for the West was not completely lost, and hope triumphed once again.

Peplow, Emma. “The Role of Britain in the Berlin Airlift”. History 95.2 (2010): 207-224, 207;2. Turner, Henry Ashbey. “Defeat, Cold War, and Division”. Germany from Partition to Reunification: A Revised Edition of The Two Germanies Since 1945. Yale University Press, 1992. 1-32, 12; 3. Idem, 10; 4. Keen, Richard David. “Half a million tons and a goat: a study of British participation in the Berlin airlift 25 June 1948 – 12 May 1949”. PhD diss. School of Humanities in the University of Buckingham, 2013, 32; 5. Turner, “Defeat, Cold War, and Division”, 9; 6. Keen, “Half a million tons and a goat: a study of British participation in the Berlin airlift 25 June 1948 – 12 May 1949”, 33; 7. Turner, “Defeat, Cold War, and Division”, 12; 8. Idem, 13, 14; 9. Turner, “Defeat, Cold War, and Division”, 14; 10. SchlaimAvi. “Britain, the Berlin Blockade and the Cold War”. International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 60.1 (1983-84): 1-14, 2; 11. Turner, “Defeat, Cold War, and Division”, 24; 12. Idem.; 13. Idem, 3; 14. Idem.; 15. Schlaim, “Britain, the Berlin Blockade and the Cold War”, 3; 16. Idem, 4.; 17. Idem.; 18. Idem.; 19. Idem, 5; 20. Keen, “Half a million tons and a goat: a study of British participation in the Berlin airlift 25 June 1948 – 12 May 1949”, 40; 21. Idem.; 22. Schlaim, “Britain, the Berlin Blockade and the Cold War”, 6; 23. Idem.; 24. Idem, 7; 25. Schlaim, “Britain, the Berlin Blockade and the Cold War”, 8; 26. Idem, 9; 27. Turner, “Defeat, Cold War, and Division”, 26-27; 28. Hanson, David S. “Leadership Actions: The Berlin Airlift”. “When You Get a Job to Do, Do It”: The Airpower Leadership of Lt Gen William H. Tunner. Air University Press, 2008. 41–56, 52-53; 29. Idem, 54; 30. Keen, “Half a million tons and a goat: a study of British participation in the Berlin airlift 25 June 1948 – 12 May 1949”, 122; 31. Schlaim, “Britain, the Berlin Blockade and the Cold War”, 14. 

Figure 1: Division of Berlin by the occupying forces © Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/berlin-blockade
Figure 2: 5 Deutsche Marks © Wikimedia Commons 
Figure 3: Sketch of British Prime Minister Ernest Bevin by artist Arthur Boughey, 1939-1946  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:INF3-61_Ernest_Bevin_Artist_Arthur_Boughey.jpg#/media/File:INF3-61_Ernest_Bevin_Artist_Arthur_Boughey.jpg © The National Archives (United Kingdom), Author: Arthur Boughey  
Figure 4: B-29 Heavy bomber in flight © Wikimedia Commons 
Figure 5: American aircrafts unload at the Tempelhof Airport during the airlift, circa 1948-1949 © U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation, U.S. Air Force 

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