Berlin airlift

Book interview: Barry Turner, ‘The Berlin Airlift’

Image credit: Getty Images

In 1948, Berlin was a divided city in a divided country in a divided continent. With Stalin’s Russia blockading essential supplies, the Western response was an airlift programme of massive proportions, says author Barry Turner.

Three years after the end of the Second World War, Berlin was Europe’s biggest bone of contention. “It was an extraordinary situation,” says historian Barry Turner. “The Allied forces sweeping into Germany from the west and the Russians from the east divided Germany at the river Elbe.” They decided that the city of Berlin should be shared between the victorious forces. The problem was that Berlin was inside the Russian sector.

“Ultimately Berlin was divided between the western Allies – America, Britain and France – and the Russians,” says Turner, whose book ‘The Berlin Airlift’ has just been published in paperback. “Europe was divided between democracy and dictatorship, and Berlin was slap bang in the middle of it. By the time the dust had settled and Germany was under new management – it had lost sovereignty after its unconditional surrender – Russia decided that this was an aberration.” As Turner says, the Russians were left wondering why the “Allies didn’t just shove off and leave it to them”.

Meanwhile, Washington took the opposite view, leaving Berlin to settle into “peaceful confrontation, with the Russians trying their best to interfere with communications”. But the city would come to a crisis, largely because “there wasn’t really anything on paper. There was, however, an agreement that the Allies could fly into Berlin. But there was no agreement about rail, canal or road. The crunch came when the Russians decided to close these.”

With Berlin effectively under siege, and with the blockade being tightened by the Russians, essential supplies of food and fuel started to run low, not just for the occupying militia, but for the two million civilians living in Berlin’s ruins. “So the whole essence of the problem was whether it was possible to keep not only the American, British and French garrisons supplied, but whether they could keep the whole western sector of the city going. That was the crux.” Not many thought it could be done.

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‘The Berlin Airlift’

It was the most ambitious relief operation of its kind ever mounted. Employing thousands of American and British servicemen, the Berlin Airlift, which lasted 11 months from June 1948 to May 1949, shifted 2.3 million tonnes of supplies on more than a quarter of a million flights into the besieged and ruined capital in a time when air traffic control technology was still in its infancy. In his history of the airlift, Barry Turner explains the political machinations surrounding how the wartime Allies, with only three narrow air corridors along which to approach Berlin, managed to keep the city alive with deliveries of fuel and food. ‘The Berlin Airlift’ documents an event that is now seen as the Cold War’s defining episode, whose repercussions – the role of the USA as a global leader, German economic ascendancy and the Russian threat – are with us today.

Berlin might have been “in chaos”, but Turner thinks the Russians never seriously intended to starve the city to death. The blockade did, though, have the effect of forcing the hand of the citizenry that chose to live under democracy in hardship rather than accept the apparently inevitable outcome of living under a dictatorship in comparative comfort. After the mass bombing of the war, Berliners were living in appalling conditions, with malnutrition and disease widespread. Something had to be done, and this was the start of the Berlin Airlift, an 11-month humanitarian effort that shifted supplies into the city via just two airports. At the peak of the operation there were 1,400 daily air movements either in or out of these airports. “One of the most extraordinary things about the airlift was that it was decided to fly coal into the city at great risk to the pilots who were surrounded by coal dust. But they did manage to keep people in minimum conditions. Nobody was comfortable. But they survived.”

Seventy years ago there was no digital technology to assist with the logistics of getting the endless stream of aeroplanes in and out of Tempelhof and Gatow airports. “It’s hard to explain and I wish I knew how they did it. One of the most powerful photographic images is one of a queue of planes coming into Berlin. And yet it wasn’t so much the technology – we’d learned a lot about radar and traffic control during the war – but the way it was used. On this sort of scale, which was unprecedented, to get those planes in and out, with a turnaround of a few minutes, meant that the logistics were almost miraculous.”

‘To get those planes in and out, with a turnaround of a few minutes, was almost miraculous’

Barry Turner

One of the main aspects of this miracle was the installation of ground control approach radar, without which the airlift could not have succeeded on the scale it did. “These days,” says Turner, “when we think of air traffic control, we think of people sitting at huge screens, leaning back on their chairs, pressing buttons and flicking switches. But by contrast, photographs of the day show little vans sitting alongside the runway, inside which would be three or four people peering into tiny black and white screens. They knew what was happening in terms of air traffic, but when it came to interpreting this, especially when the fog came down, much depended on the ability of those in charge of the operation. Life and death decisions such as whether to turn back and head for base or to carry on and land were taken by people looking at shaky screens.”

Berlin’s frequent fog meant difficult operations were often almost impossible. “Everyone thought that the airlift would end before winter because there was no way that it could continue due to the fog.”

But the airlift did continue for almost a year. And it would have gone on indefinitely, says Turner, had it not been for the fact that the entire operation was a public relations disaster for the Russians, who sensing global opinion shifting against them, eased the blockade by opening the railways, canals and roads. Despite no Russian guarantees being offered, the airlift was wound down.

“The Russians blinked first. Don’t forget that they were on a crusade at the time to spread communist ideology worldwide and the airlift was a triumph for the Allies.” It was also a humiliating defeat for the Russians who began to think that “the sooner they could get out of this, the better”. Life in the city progressed towards some sort of normality, “until the Berlin Wall went up and the city remained divided until relatively recently.”

Seventy years after these events Turner thinks of the Berlin Airlift as one of the “definitive confrontations of the Cold War, in that it gave the Allies confidence that Russia could be beaten by peaceful means. After the Berlin Airlift, propaganda for the western democracies increased substantially. Before the airlift there was the temptation in Washington to distance the US from Europe. But after, America’s commitment to Europe became 100 per cent.”

‘The Berlin Airlift’ by Barry Turner is now out in paperback from Icon Books, £10.99


Technology to the rescue

The greatest disruption to schedules was caused by the shortage of spare parts, which were gobbled up at an unprecedented rate. A stock of windscreen wipers that should have lasted six months was exhausted in a fortnight. Because there were so many landings in relation to flying time, tyres and brake drums had to be replaced more frequently than had ever been anticipated. Ready to break the rules when it suited him, William Tunner [a general officer in the United States Air Force] took to raiding reserves of military hardware scattered across Germany. But having been left to moulder, much of the purloined equipment was sub-standard or ill suited to the latest aircraft. Tunner did better with programming aircraft maintenance. Holding to his axiom that the secret of productivity was the repetition of specific tasks, each mechanic knew precisely what he had to do, over and over again. A coup for Tunner was to be allowed to employ German mechanics. Despite events being three years after the end of the war, this was a sensitive issue.

The biggest breakthrough was the installation of ground control approach radar. From pint-sized vans lined up along the runway, air traffic controllers, seated at radar screens, were able to talk directly to pilots, giving them precise instructions whatever the weather. The schedule of convoys of aircraft to land, unload and take off at premeditated intervals was now possible even when there was zero visibility. With two or three air corridors reserved for incoming traffic, air command was able to have the sky at night as busy as it was throughout the day. In late August, 75 C-54 Skymasters arrived, bringing the USAF total of planes on the Airlift to close on 200. Now there was a manpower problem to solve.

Edited extract from ‘The Berlin Airlift’ by Barry Turner, reproduced with permission

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