“One option that was not raised was the possibility of creating an airlift to bring food and supplies into Berlin over our legally guaranteed and thus far unchallenged air lanes. But Clay had already thought of that… This was merely intended as a temporary expedient, not the ultimate Berlin solution, but as is so often the case, the man on the spot hits the best ideas.”
On today’s date, June 26 in 1948, an airlift began to supply the city of Berlin by air. And this was how General Omar N. Bradley put it in recalling how the only solution short of war was arrived at in defusing this first and one of the most perilous confrontations of the Cold War – the Blockade of Berlin by the Soviet Union. As Gen. Bradley points out, while arguments raged in Washington about what to do, the way to go was already being put in place.
The Cold War Leaves Berlin in the Middle
As the World War II drew to a close, the victorious Allies were on opposite sides of great ideological divide. The Soviet Union (Russians) wanted to impose communism (government control of political and economic life) on Eastern Europe. The western allies – The United States, Britain and it’s partners wanted to leave Western Europe under the freedom of Capitalism. This became known as “the Cold War” (no shooting, huge tension), and it started in Germany, centering on the capitol city of Berlin. With the Soviets controlling Eastern Germany, and the Allies controlling the West, Berlin was divided up into occupational zones… the Soviets in the east and the Allies in the west (see map, above ). The Soviet leader, Josef Stalin wanted to push the Allies out of Berlin altogether. Following the announcement of a new western-backed currency, the Deutschmark in West Berlin which might undermine the currency of East Berlin (and possibly East Germany as a whole), he clamped off all ground traffic from supplying West Berlin on June 24, 1948.
The West Reacts With the Berlin Airlift
With West Berlin lying 100 miles inside East Germany, the city faced starvation in a month unless the Allies could get food and fuel supplies there. In Washington D.C. debate raged about how to respond to the Soviets. General Lucius Clay, the Allied Commander in Europe (below) wanted to arm convoys with
whatever was necessary to shoot their way in. Recalled Bradley: “Had I enough hair on my head to react, this cable would probably have stood it on end.” This was a natural soldier’s reaction from Clay, but it may well have set off World War III. Part of the difficulty was that all of this happened around the time when President Harry Truman was just finishing up a very difficult Democratic Convention, and was then facing a tough re-election fight against the likely Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. Bradley had the view that during it’s early point the Berlin crisis did not have Truman’s full attention. Nevertheless when the question was raised whether the Allies should pull out Truman was most emphatic: “We stay in Berlin, period.”
But there was the question of how to supply the city without starting a Third World War. The previously used land routes had all been available on the “good will” of the Soviets. But happily the air corridors had all been guaranteed in written agreements signed by the Soviet government. So Clay ordered the Airforce
Commander in Europe, General Curtis LeMay (above) to mobilize every cargo aircraft he had to carry supplies to Berlin. This was begun on today’s date of June 26, just two days after the Soviets sealed off all land traffic. Dubbed “Operation Viddles” it was originally meant as merely a stop-gap to get the city by for the short term, Clay and LeMay gradually began increasing its scope, as Clay who was a genius of logistics began to see that the entire effort could be managed by aircraft not only of the the Americans, but also those contributed and flown by Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and France. The Soviets had not challenged these unarmed flights so far, in obedience to their legal commitments. In any event, they had already determined that an airlift couldn’t do the job.
Berliners Pitch In, and the Airlift Sweetly Works!
Realizing that their survival depended on the success of the airlift, the citizens of Berlin began pitching into the effort, tirelessly helping to unload the planes as began to arrive at a rate of over 1,500 per day. When LeMay reported to Truman in mid-July how well the airlift was working, the President decided to vastly increase the number of planes thrown into the effort. This began America’s close and positive working association with the people
of West Germany who had quite recently been bitter enemies. The story of “the Chocolate Bomber”, Colonel Gail Halverson (above) who would drop chocolate bars attached to little parachutes to the children of Berlin when he would fly over came from this period. Halverson would give a little wiggle of his plane’s wings so they would no which one was him, earning him the nickname “Onkel Wackelflügel” (“Uncle Wiggle Wings”). Other crews joined in this effort (officially called “Operation Little Viddles”) dropping chocolate, chewing gum and other candy. In fact, the Confectioners Association of America contributed large amounts of candy to this, and American school children cooperated in attaching the candies to parachutes.
The Soviets Throw in the Towel
The airlift involved nearly eleven months of very dangerous flights, but its obvious success even during the harsh winter of 1949 proved to be a very public humiliation for the Soviet government. So on April 15, they announced via there news organization, “Tass” that they were ending the blockade. Concluded General Bradley:
“I have always felt that we were very, very lucky in the Berlin Blockade. Clay’s brainchild, the airlift, worked out far better than anyone dared hope. The Russians did not interdict it. The common effort created a close bond between us and the West German people, who, in time, became staunch allies. Thus the Berlin Airlift became our single greatest triumph in the Cold War.”
“A General’s Life” by General of the Army Omar N. Bradley and Clay Blair, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1983
“Truman” by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster New York, 1992