Yesterday, 12th May, was the 60th anniversary of the ending of the Berlin blockade by Stalin, and therefore the end of the absolutely incredible Berlin airlift.
Stalin blockaded Berlin in June 1948, after Winston Churchill had already spoken with misgiving of the “Iron Curtain falling across Europe”.
After the end of the Second World War, Germany was occupied by the Allied Power – the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and the USSR. Each power had a chunk of Germany, and also a chunk of Berlin – but Berlin was cut off from the rest of what would become West Germany by the future East Germany – it was surrounded.
Stalin got unco-operative. His aim from VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) in 1945 was to encourage, push and oblige the other Allied powers out of the whole of Germany. He wanted to have a united country, which was Communist and under his control, much as Poland and Czechoslovakia were.
In the first major crisis of the Cold War, therefore, Berlin was targeted. Communist candidates in the elections of 1946 were overwhelmingly voted against – Berliners had only too recent memories of the sustained campaign of rape and theft carried out by the USSR’s Red Army.
Starting in March 1948, the USSR began to insist on prior clearance and permits for any barges, trains or lorries crossing the Soviet Zone, including those in Berlin. They also started searching all Allied transport, checking passports, and generally making themselves as awkward as possible.
Berlin was the first stage in Stalin’s plan to grab all of Germany. USSR foreign minister Molotov (who had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Hitler in August 1939) said, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”
The crisis came to a head in June 1948, when the USSR stopped all land-based transport into and out of Berlin, from and to the other Allied sectors.
The Allied forces were in trouble. British officers had calculated that Berlin needed 1,500 tonnes of food and 3,500 tons of coal, petrol and oil a day to keep it alive, a total of 5,000 tonnes per day. The Royal Air Force had, at the time, a daily airlift capacity of 400 tonnes, which could be upped to 800 tonnes fairly easily with the transfer of additional planes from the UK, and the US airforce 300 tonnes per day.
The Berlin airlift started on 28th June 1948. The first week, only 90 tonnes was flown in, and the second week, 900 tonnes. But the operation built up steam fast – by the end of July, 3,400 tonnes a day was being flown in, and by September, the necessary 5,000 tonnes a day.
The Soviets tried their best to derail the operation. They shot near (but not at) Allied planes, and flew their own planes in the way (a couple of crashes were caused when they got too close). They also initiated a sustained programme of radio propaganda, trying to persuade Berliners that the airlift was hopeless and offering incentives for the people to move to Soviet areas.
The original 5,000 tonnes per day depended on a very limited diet, intended to be short-term, and summer weather. By the winter, the daily lift necessary was 11,000 tonnes. The Allied powers, joined now by France, were determined not to back down, and more planes and crews were brought in.
By April 1949, the daily supply into Berlin was actually greater than had arrived by train before the start of the blockade.
The Soviets had been embarrassed, and on 12th May 1949, lifted the blockade. The airlift continued for some time, however, as the Allied Powers didn’t trust Stalin further than they could throw him, and wanted to build up large reserves of food and fuel in Berlin.
100 people died during the airlift, including 40 RAF pilots.
The scale of the operation was absolutely amazing. At the height of the airlift, a plane landed every 90 seconds, and near misses were alarmingly common.
It was a real achievement, and prevented a significant expansion of Soviet power throughout Europe.
You can read a fascinating account of RAF pilots’ experiences of the Berlin Airlift here, in this BBC article, “Bitter-sweet memories of Berlin Airlift“