Source: Douglas Botting, From the Ruins of the Reich: Germany 1945-1949 (New York: New American Library, 1985)

The Berlin Airlift of 1948

On January 1, 1947, the British and Americans merged their zones for economic purposes into a single unified zone called Bizonia. They handed over much of the administrative responsibility for running Bizonia to the Germans-in particular to an elected economic council of fifty-two Germans who, under Allied supervision, shouldered the task of economic reconstruction.

These developments were bitterly opposeed by the Soviets, who rightly saw in them the embryo of an independent German state. The British and Americans were nevertheless determined to push through their plans for western Germany irrespective of Soviet opinion. On January 7 the composition and the powers of the German Economic Council for Bizonia were changed in order to create the nucleus of a future German government. Plans were made at the same time for the economic merger of the French zone with Bizonia to produce a federated West Germany.

I. Currency Reform

Six months later the USA, Great Britain, France and other West European countries agreed to a plan to create a West German state which would enjoy a limited degree of sovereignty by 1949. A prerequisite for an independent nation was a revival of its economy. In West Germany the only active economy was then the black market. This now had to be destroyed, and this could only be done by currency reform-the substitution of the almost worthless Reichsmark for a brand new currency, the Deutsche Mark, with a stable and universally accepted value.

The currency reform operation was carried out in the utmost secrecy, for any leak would have led to grave international repercussions. One of the few people in the European command entrusted with prior knowledge of the operation was the civilian head of the U.S. Currency Bank in Frankfurt, Frank C. Gabell, whom some remembered as an American Military Government officer wrapped in an SS flag in the front-line town of Homberg in 1945. On Gabell fell the responsibility for directing the shipment and distribution of the new currency in the western Occupation zones.

Twenty-thousand cases of the new notes arrived in Frankfurt from the USA, where they had been printed, each case weighing 90 lbs. and marked "Bird Dog"-the operation's codename. Only Frank Gabell and five others knew what they were. "Some of the soldiers who helped load them thought they were dog food," Gabell recalled. "Others figured they were atom bombs. But it was only money. We thought about it in truckloads. For eleven days and nights the distribution went on...Then on June 18 the new currency was announced to the world."

The result was electrifying. West Germany's economic miracle began on that day. The black market was wiped out almost overnight, and the back-market barons were beggared. The cigarette, which for three years had been Germany's only valued unit of exchange, became once again merely something to smoke, as confidence in money was restored. Traders abandoned the barter system and returned to selling goods for cash. But for the ordinary German the greatest wonder of currency reform was the magical, virtually immediate stocking of shop windows with a variety of foodstuffs and consumer goods which had not been seen legally for years.

The Soviets were caught off-guard and reacted angrily. The first step toward the independence and economic revival of the western zones aimed at the heart of their German policy. Hot on the heels of the Marshal Plan (the American aid program for European recovery) and the Treaty of Brussels (the European mutual defense pact which preceded NATO), currency reform goaded the Soviets into massive retaliation. Their target was the isolated outpost of Berlin. The first sign of trouble had been at a meeting of the four-power Allied Control Council in Berlin on January 20, 1948, when the Soviet Military Governor, Marshal Sokolovsky, formally condemned the British and American plans for an economic merging of their two zones. Bizonia, Sokolovsky complained, amounted to the establishment of a separatist German government in western Germany, and was a violation of agreements reached by the Allies at Yalta and in the Control Council.

At subsequent meetings of the Control Council in Berlin efforts were made to reach a joint agreement with the Russians over currency reform, but without success. Finally, on March 20, Sokolovsky brought matters to a head. Britain and America, he said, had in effect broken away from the system of Control Council rule in Germany by making a bipartite agreement between themselves which was in contravention of existing Allied agreements. That being so they would have to face the consequences of their actions. From now on, said Sokolovsky, the Control Council had ceased to exist as an organ of government. He then adjourned the meeting and the Council never met again (until shortly after the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989).

Shortly after the March 20 meeting General Clay's political advisor, Robert Murphy, sent a report to Washington containing a very shrewd interpretation of the situation. The Soviets, he claimed, were now embarked on a program to force the Western Powers out of Berlin in order to liquidate this remaining "center of reaction" east of the iron curtain. Sokolovsky's charge that Britain and America had destroyed the Control Council was the first step.

The second step would be to make a formal demand for the withdrawal of the Western Powers from Berlin. If the Western Powers refused, the third step would be to apply pressure tactics to make it difficult for them to stay-for example, by interfering with the fragile lines of communication between Berlin and the Western zones. "Our Berlin position," Murphy wrote, "is delicate and difficult. Our withdrawal, either voluntary or involuntary, would have severe psychological repercussions which would, at this critical stage in the European situation, extend far beyond the boundaries of Berlin and even Germany."

The day after Murphy wrote this report the predicted Russian interference began. The Russians demanded the right to board and enter Allied trains coming to Berlin from the West. At the same time they interrupted vital telephone links. These actions were trivial in themselves but were clearly sighting-shots in a more ambitious campaign. Murphy advised against hasty concessions; Clay advised against the evacuation of American dependents. Any compromise, he said in a phone call to Washington on the evening of April 2, would have a serious adverse effect for the Western Powers throughout Europe. But the British and American governments were against any retaliatory action-certainly nothing as drastic or potentially catastrophic as the course put forward by Winston Churchill, who proposed that the soviets should be forced out of Berlin and eastern Germany while America had the atomic bomb and the Soviet Union did not, and that their cities should be razed to the ground if they failed to comply.

Though four-power government had come to an end for Germany as a whole, the four-power Kommandatura which controlled Berlin struggled on for a little while longer, though the meetings grew chillier and more ill-tempered from week to week. Finally, after a futile and petulant meeting lasting thirteen hours on June 16, the Russian Commandant walked out and never returned. This marked the beginning of the division of the city. Two days later the British and Americans launched the new currency in the Western zones.

II. Russian Reaction

The Russians' reaction was instantaneous. On the evening currency reform was announced they stopped all passenger traffic between the Western zones and Berlin by road and rail. On the autobahn at the Helmstedt checkpoint, Soviet guards turned back all eastbound traffic. At the border station of Marienborn trains carrying German passengers were also turned back. Patrols of Russian and East German frontier guards were greatly increased in strength along the entire length of the Soviet zonal border. Equally drastic, the Russians imposed major electricity cuts. Two days later Russian guards stopped an American military goods-train at Marienborn and removed a rail in front of it. The blockade of Berlin had begun.

The halting of all rail, road and water traffic between Berlin and the West had various implications and presented various options to the Western Allies. Over two million inhabitants of the British, French and American zones of Berlin were largely dependent for food on supplies from the west. By cutting off West Berlin from overland supply the Soviets had launched-in General Clay's words-"one of the most ruthless efforts in modern times to use mass starvation for political coercion." For their part, the Western Powers-meaning to all intents and purposes the Americans and the British, for the French were in political crisis at home and vacillated weakly over Berlin-could do one of three things.

They could give way to Soviet pressure, move their forces out of Berlin and abandon the West Berliners, who were staunchly anti-communist, to communist rule. For trenchant political as well as humanitarian reasons this option found favor with almost nobody on the Western side. "We have lost Czechoslovakia," General Clay warned the Department of the army. "Norway is threatened. When Berlin falls, West Germany will be next." Berlin had to be held in order to sustain the morale of the peoples of Western Europe. Alternatively, the Allies could slug it out with the Russians. At the very beginning of the confrontation General Clay favored the use of tanks to force the Allies' overland entry into Berlin. "I am still convinced," he reported in June, "that a determined movement of convoys with troop protection would reach Berlin and that this might well prevent, rather than build up, Soviet pressures which could lead to war. Nevertheless, I realize fully the inherent dangers in this proposal, since once committed we could not withdraw."

One of the most cogent reasons for not using force on the ground was the fact that Stalin had seventeen Red Army divisions deployed in the Soviet zone, while the US Army in Germany had been drastically weakened by demobilization and redeployment since the end of the war, and neither the British nor the French, heavily committed to colonial wars and policing actions in other parts of the globe, were in a position to contemplate a new war in Europe so soon after the last one. In general the armed forces of the Soviet Union, now the world's greatest land power, were stronger in men and conventional weapons than the combined forces of the USA, Great Britain, Canada and France.

Sending an armored convoy down the autobahn was not recommended, the American Defense Secretary, James Forrestal, reported on July 28, "in view of the risk of war involved and the inadequacy of United States preparation for global conflict." But he added: "contingency planning for an armored convoy would go ahead in case every other solution were to fail, and in case evaluation showed that the armored convoy was likely to get through, and in case the United States decided the risk of war for the Berlin cause was acceptable."

III. The Idea of an Airlift

This left the Allies a final option-to vault over the Russian blockade and supply Berlin by air, an idea first put forward by Lt.-General Albert Wedermeyer, former U.S. Commander in China, whose forces had been supplied by an airlift over the Himalayas during the war. This option raised two objections. The first was that technically it might prove impossible to supply West Berlin's needs-which amounted to 4,500 tons a day in food alone-purely by air. General Clay was one of those who simply could not believe that a major metropolis could b e relieved for an indefinite period from the air alone. The American Ambassador in Moscow, Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's wartime Chief of Staff at SHAEF, was another. Even if the Berliners could be saved from starvation, he cabled Washington, the economic life of West Berlin could not be supported by food alone. "Time is till working entirely in favor of the Soviets if they desire to make the position of the western powers untenable."

The second objection was that the Russians might attempt to cut the air corridors from the West, just as they had cut the land corridors-though there were few who believed that the Soviets would risk such a serious escalation of the crisis by sending up fighters against US Air Force and RAF transport aircraft, which would be tantamount to an act of war. The Soviets were doubtless well aware that American bombers capable of flying deep into the USSR had been adapted to carry nuclear weapons. They may have suspected, if not actually known, of American contingency plans, the first drawn up less than two months after the surrender of Japan in September 1945, for a nuclear air-attack on key cities in the Soviet Union.

A revised plan, codenamed "Charioteer" and drawn up by the Joint Chiefs of the Joint Intelligence Group at about the time of the start of the Soviet siege of Berlin, envisaged dropping 133 atom bombs on 70 Soviet cities and industrial centers, including eight on Moscow and seven on Leningrad, thus destroying the political and administrative centers of the USSR, the whole of the Soviet petroleum industry, 30-40 percent of all other industry and nearly seven million members of the work force.

All in all, it was not fear of what the Soviet Air Force could do but what the Allied Air Forces could not do that worried the critics of the airlift option to the Soviet blockade. On June 26, 1948, the Commander of the US Air Forces in Europe ordered the air-lift to begin. He had 70 aircraft and he lifted 225 tons a day. With another thirty aircraft he would be able to lift another 275 tons. But this was still only one-ninth of the daily total of 4,500 tons which was considered necessary simply to keep the population of West Berlin alive-not counting fuel for domestic heating, raw materials and normal consumer goods. The chances of an airlift succeeding seemed slim. But there was, finally, no alternative.

The British and Americans were resolved to stick it out. The retreat, Murphy told the American Secretary of State on the evening of the first supply flights into Berlin from Western Germany, "would be the Munich of 1948"-a craven admission of lack of courage to resist Soviet pressure short of war. The same day the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, recommended that the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington and London make a joint assessment of the military situation while the Allied authorities in Berlin looked at he logistics of feeding the civilian population by air. A force of heavy American bombers should be sent over to Europe, he suggested, as evidence that he Western Allies were in earnest. President Truman concurred, as did Secretary of State Marshall.

The problem over Berlin was not one of currency but of four-power government. The Russians wanted the Allies out of Berlin: it was as simple as that. The Soviet position was made plain at a subsequent meeting between Stalin and the three Western Ambassadors in Moscow. Stalin told the Ambassadors that Germany was now divided into two states with two capitals-Berlin and Frankfurt. Since Berlin was no longer the capital of the whole of Germany but only of Eastern Germany he could not accept the introduction of a separate West German currency in West Berlin. The Soviet government would only lift the blockade if the Western Powers accepted East German currency as the only legal tender in Berlin-meaning Soviet control of the whole of the city. This the Western Powers would on no account agree to. "We are going to stay, period," President Truman declared.

On July 1 Britain and America publicly committed themselves to the support of the West Berliners. Three weeks later, when all attempts at diplomacy with the Soviet authorities in Berlin and Moscow had failed, the National Security Council in Washington authorized the transfer of seventy-five Skymaster transport planes to reinforce the airlift and the construction of a third airport (which was built in only three months) at Tegel in the French sector. The Airlift was on. To run it the Chief of the Air Staff of the US Air Force, General Vandenberg, sent for the most experienced air-transport officer in either the American or British air forces-General William H. Tunner.

Turner had learned his business in World War Two when he had been in charge of a remarkable operation which had kept the American forces in China supplied by air "over the hump"-across the Himalayas-from India. He arrived in Berlin on July 28 at a time when the tonnage being flown into the city was still far below the minimum required. He recalled later: "My first overall impression was that he situation was just as I had anticipated-a real cowboy operation. Few people knew what they would be doing the next day. Neither flight crews nor ground crews knew how long they'd be there, or the schedules that they were working. Everything was temporary. I went out to the Wiesbaden Air Base, looked around, then hopped a plane to Berlin-confusion everywhere."

A successful airlift, Tunner knew, was an unglamorous exercise in pure efficiency measured in maximum turn-round of aircraft and unbroken build up of tonnages. Planes were either in the air or at the loading and unloading ramps. Crews were either flying or resting in order to fly again. There were no heroics, just getting on with the job. Tunner's first act was to make sure the air-lift was under a single command. The Combined Air-Lift Task Force was an Anglo-American operation under his command, with an RAF officer, Air Commodore G. W. F. Meren, as his deputy. His second act was to lay down a set of guiding principles for the conduct of the airlift to be observed by all aircrews and all airfields. The first principle was that aircraft would fly at three-minute intervals all around the clock. The second was that if a plane could not land in Berlin at its first attempt it should fly straight back to the west. The third was that all pilots would fly under the same set of rules at all times-namely instrument rules, i.e. flying by instruments as if in fog. The fourth was that pilots would not be allowed to leave their aircraft in Berlin but would take off for the return leg as soon as the plane had been unloaded.

There were technical problems peculiar to the airlift. One was lack of repair facilities, so that if a four-engined transport came in with one engine dead it would have to take off and fly out with only three engines on the return leg. Another problem was navigation. The approach to Tempelhof left a lot to be desired. Lt. Gail Halvorsen of the US Air Force, who became renowned among Berlin children as the "chocolate bomber," because of his custom of dropping bags of sweets through the signal chute of his C54 transport, recalled getting in to the American air base at Templelhof in the south of the city: "As we came in looking for this place all we could see were bombed-out buildings all around. Then we spied this grass field-it seemed more like a pasture than an airfield-and came over the homing beacon. We came right on over the top of an apartment building and over a little opening in the barbed wire fence and there we were. It kind of reminded me of the feeling that a crop duster would have in western America, landing on a highroad or in the pasture he's dusting."

IV. The Airlift in Progress

There were three air corridors allowed for Allied flights into Berlin-two inward and one outward bound, each of them only 32 kilometers wide and patrolled by Yak fighters of the Red Air Force, which often buzzed Allied transports or held mock dogfights near the air lanes. In the early weeks of the air-lift there were only 160 aircraft, most of them small twin-engined C47s and Dakotas with only 1.5 3.5 ton cargo capacity. But gradually bigger aircraft, such as C54 Skymasters with a 10-ton cargo capacity, began to arrive from American bases all over the world and the daily tonnages started climbing. In July it had averaged 2,226 tons or just under half the necessary minimum; in August it rose to 3,839 tons; by October, at 4,760, it had exceeded the minimum requirement for the first time.

During the winter months the main worry was not food, but fuel. West Berlin needed three times as much coal as it did foodstuffs to keep the populace from freezing to death, as well as diesel oil and petrol amounting to nearly 100,000 tons (flown in by British civil airlines planes). By the spring of 1949 the airlift was in full stride and running as efficiently and tidily as a railway freight line. There were now over 400 aircraft-250 American, more than 150 British, and all makes from Skymasters to Dakotas-shuttling back and forth between the three airfields in Berlin and the airfields in the American and British zones, one plane every three minutes, twenty-four hours a day. At the peak of the airlift a plane was landing or taking off from Berlin's airfields every thirty seconds round the clock and daily tonnages were averaging 8,000 tons. "The sound of the engines," wrote one Berliner, "is music to our ears."

At Easter 1949 General Tunner mounted what he called his "Easter Parade"-an all-out effort to achieve a record lift and convince the Soviets of the futility of their action. Between noon on Easter Saturday and noon on Easter Sunday, the air forces flew 1,398 sorties and carried just under 13,000 tons of supplies into the blockaded city. In the course of over 550,000 sorties in thirteen months the planes from the west brought in over 500,000 tons of food-much of it in super-lightweight from, such as dehydrated eggs and potato, boneless meat and saccharin-and over 1,500,000 tons of coal. The planes also brought in special cargos-feed for the animals in the Berlin Zoo, special diet packs for nursing mothers, the sick and elderly, chocolate for Christmas, newsprint for west Berlin's free press, two million seedlings to replace the trees that had been cut down, Volkswagens for the Berlin police. The planes did not always leave Berlin empty. Nearly 175,000 people were airlifted tout of the city, most of them children and TB patients, along with thousands of tons of manufactured goods stamped "Made in Blockaded Berlin."

V. Consequences

Still the Berliners did not have an easy time, especially during the bitter winter months. There were drastic power cuts and the Berliners had to learn to live yet again by the light of candles and oil lamps. Food was strictly rationed and fresh vegetables were scarce. Materially it seemed that little had changed since the end of the war-people were still cold and hungry, they still lived in ruins, still had to forage from the bomb sites and chop down trees in the parks for firewood.

But in reality they knew, the Allies knew and the Russians soon learned that the Berlin airlift had brought about an historic change. It could not be regarded simply as a colossal exercise in logistics, the US Air Force's major operation in Europe at the time, and the greatest relief operation in aviation history. Nor could it be looked upon as just a great Allied victory. It was Robert Murphy who first pointed out that the airlift had actually achieved little except demonstrate that a big city could be kept going from the air by anyone who had the resources to afford it. Politically, diplomatically, the Allies had won nothing from the Russians. The problem of West Berlin was the same before the airlift as it was after it, and the city remained an island in a Soviet sea.

What had changed was the relationship between the members of the Allied Occupation and the people of Berlin-and by implication the people of Western Germany as a whole. Whatever the political motivations of their leaders might be, the American and British soldiers and airmen looked upon the airlift as humanitarian mission, and began to see their ex-enemies as comrades in adversity. "The airlift," said one German housewife, "was the intermediary between us and the rest of the Western world." On May 17, 1949, General Clay reported to Congress: "I saw the spirit and soul of a people reborn. This time the people of Berlin cast their lot with those who love freedom." The attitude of the West Berliners to their ex-enemies can be judged by the fact that to this day a quarter of the population of West Berlin turn up on Air Force Day to give thanks for the airlift and pay honor to the men who made it possible, including the forty-eight British and American airmen who lost their lives in twenty-four flying mishaps during the course of the operation.

The position of West Berlin remained as precarious as it ever was. But West Germany's alliance with the USA and the West sprang directly out of the circumstances of the Berlin blockade. That is the measure of the Allied victory and of Russia's loss.

A few days after General Tunner's "Easter Parade" the Soviet Union threw in the sponge. The blockade had not only failed, it had hurt them. They had been made to look silly and suffered a moral defeat. The West Berliners had spurned all Soviet blandishments, and only twenty thousand of them accepted the Soviet offer of East Berlin ration cards. The trade embargo between the Western zones and the Soviet zones had severely hampered the development of the East German economy, whereas the West German economy was beginning to take off in the wake of currency reform. On May 12 the siege was lifted. Vast crowds gathered to welcome the first Allied trucks that arrived overland from the West down the autobahn into Berlin. The locomotives of the first trains to roll in were garlanded with flowers. But the airlift continued in full spate for another four months so that stocks could be built up in case the blockade was reimposed.

The year 1949 was the watershed, not just for Germany but for Europe as well. It was the year when Germany's future was decided and most of the world's political and military divisions were resolved. On May 23, eleven days after the lifting of the Berlin blockade, the Federal Republic of Germany was created out of the Western zones. On August 24 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed, in which the USA, Canada and most noncommunist European countries pledged themselves to mutual assistance in case of foreign aggression. On September 23 President Truman announced that the Russians had successfully exploded their first atomic bomb and thus achieved nuclear parity with the West.

Finally, on October 5, 1949, the German Democratic Republic was formally created out of the Soviet zone of Germany. Equilibrium of a kind was reached, with the frontier between the two halves forming the front line of the Cold War in Europe.