IT IS JUNE 1948. Germany is occupied by the victorious allies and divided into four administrative zones, each controlled by a Military Government from the United Kingdom, USA and the Soviet Union (USSR) – the ‘Big Three’ – and France, the only occupied nation that was able to claim the right to be treated as a victor over Germany.
The French sectors are a result of the British and Americans reducing their areas of occupation. Belgium and Luxembourg also have small Occupation Zones within the British and French zones respectively.
Berlin – an island deep within the Soviet Military Government’s area of control – is also divided between the Four Powers under the Potsdam Agreement of August 1945. (1) (2)
Berliners celebrate the restoration of road links between Berlin and Hanover after the lifting of the Blockade, 12 May 1949. The sign translates as ‘Hurray! We are still alive! Image copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference (BER 49-164-009). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205217715
Since that time relationships between the USSR and the Western Allies have deteriorated.
A point of tension is Germany’s future.
The Soviet Union wishes Germany to be kept economically week as a punishment for its wartime actions, to stop potential re-armament and to act as a buffer against Capitalism, while the Western Allies wish Germany to become a major economically power in Europe (with aid from the American Marshall Plan(3)) – and a buffer against the spread of Communism.
On 20 June 1948 in a sudden and until then secret move the Deutschemark is introduced in the western sectors of Berlin replacing the Reichsmark which had been the only currency throughout Germany since 1924.
Three days later the sectors outside Berlin not controlled by the USSR get the currency .
The plan for the Deutschemark (Operation BIRD DOG) (4) dated from 1946 but such was the mistrust of the Soviet Union and the possibility that it might frustrate the economic plans for Germany that the introduction of the new currency was delayed and notes printed and stockpiled in secret with the Soviets unaware of the plan.
A furious Josef Stalin introduces the Ostmark (East Mark) starting 23 June 1948. Initially it has the same value as the Deutschemark but would lose half its value by the end of 1948.
On 24 June Soviet forces blockaded rail, road and water access to Western Berlin – which had largely existed through Soviet goodwill – hoping to starve those areas of supplies and thereby putting pressure on the other governments to withdraw from the city.
In response Britain and the USA mount an ‘Airbridge’ or Luftbrücke – a shuttle service of military and ex-military transport machines now operated by fledgling airlines. They fly from bases far from Berlin to airfields at Hamburg, Bückburg and Frankfurt and then along ‘air corridors’ to Gatow, Tegal and Tempelhof airfields in the besieged city.
The aircraft carry all manner of supplies – military, industrial and domestic for use by more than two million German citizens and the Western garrisons alike.
First established by the Soviet government to allow Western participation at the Potsdam talks almost a year earlier the corridors are twenty miles wide and feed into a circular zone (the Berlin Control Zone or BCZ) around the city The centre of the BCZ and the air corridors being a pillar in the cellar of the Kammergericht building, where the Allied Control Authority were based.
The blockade increases tension between the Soviet Union on one hand and Britain and the USA on the other. All involved seem ready to resort to military force.
Amongst such measures the United States station nuclear-capable (but not nuclear armed – although this is not disclosed) Boeing B-29 bombers in Britain. (5) (6)
Besides international tensions the Western Allies are facing daunting logistics operational problems.
But a smooth and efficient operation gradually evolves.
Aircraft follow each other down the corridors at pre-set heights and speeds with a precise gap to minimise collisions.
If an aircraft misses its arrival time it returns and starts again.
A Douglas ‘Dakota‘ aircraft is towed out of a hangar at RAF Lubeck, Germany. Note the tractor driver who appears to be a prisoner of war and the Volkswagen ‘Beetle’ car. Image copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference (D 44287) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212558
The aircrew’s flying skills are matched by those of the ground crews in unloading, refuelling and servicing the aircraft quickly so that they can return and bring in more cargo – be it food, coal, aircraft spares, baby milk and much more. (7)
The unloading and ground handling was often done using German civilians and prisoners of war who, with fellow Germans in the western sectors, had a vested interest in Operations PLAIN FARE and VITTLES (the American operation) succeeding.
When in September 1948 there was a possibility that the Airlift might be abandoned and the Soviets gain the whole city, at least 300,000 Berliners demonstrated their desire at the Reichstag to remain free of communist influence.
The Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12 1949, but the flights continued so that a stockpile of supplies could be established in case it was reimposed.
On 30 September 1949 – fifteen months after it started – the British and American operations officially ended.
Although a logistics success the operation had a human cost with aircraft and crews being lost through accidents and acts of harassment by Soviet ground and air forces.
Pilots were on occasions temporarily blinded by searchlights at night, balloons were raised in the corridors and Soviet Air Force fighters would fly near to the transport aircraft.
A small part of the cost. The funeral procession of Flying Officer Ian Donaldson (aged 26), Sergeant Joseph Toal (Glider Pilot Regiment, aged 24), Navigator II William George Page (26), Alexander Dunshire and Engineer II Roy Reginald Gibbs (23) at the British cemetery in Berlin, 19 July 1949. Their Handley-Page Hastings aircraft crashed on take-off on 15 July in what was the twentieth and final fatal air crash of the Airlift. A Board of Inquiry found that the elevator trim tab had been incorrectly set. Image copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference BER 49-203-010. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/2052178
Some 277, 569 flights had been made to Berlin, delivering 2,325,510 tons of supplies – 1,783,573 tons flown by American aircraft (8).
The air corridors would continue to be used by civilian and military air traffic to cross into Berlin until Soviet Forces withdrew from Germany and the country was unified.
Sources vary as to the exact number of casualties, supplies delivered etc, presumably as different authors use either the lifting of the blockade or the ending of the operations to calculate their figures.
(1) https://www.nato.int/ebookshop/video/declassified/doc_files/Potsdam%20Agreement.pdf retrieved 29 June 2018
(2) https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-the-potsdam-conference-shaped-the-future-of-post-war-europe retrieved 29 June 2018 retrieved 29 June 2018
(3) https://www.marshallfoundation.org/marshall/the-marshall-plan/history-marshall-plan/ retrieved 29 June 2018
(4) http://encyclopedia-of-money.blogspot.com/2010/02/deutsche-mark.html retrieved 29 June 2018
(5) https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/berlin-airlift retrieved 29 June 2018
(6) http://www.spiritoffreedom.org/airlift.html retrieved 29 June 2018
(7) http://www.nationalcoldwarexhibition.org/schools-colleges/national-curriculum/berlin-airlift/facts-figures.aspx retrieved 29 June 2018
(8) https://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/berlin-airlift/ retrieved 29 June 2018
‘How The Allies Defeated The Soviet Blockade Of Berlin In The Cold War’
https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-the-allies-defeated-the-soviet-blockade-of-berlin-in-the-cold-war retrieved 29 June 2018
‘Berlin Airlift: 70 years on’
https://www.rafbf.org/news-and-blogs/berlin-airlift-70-years retrieved 29 June 2018
‘Sweet lessons: 70th Anniversary of the Berlin Airlift’
http://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1562878/sweet-lessons-70th-anniversary-of-the-berlin-airlift/ retrieved 29 June 2018