With the Nazis defeated after World War II, the Western powers finally thought the string of wars was over. On the contrary, the USSR had other plans for the newly conquered Germany. Berlin, Germany’s capital, was divided among Great Britain, the United States, France, and Russia. While this division was intended to keep peace, the Russians were formulating plans to take over the other three sections of Berlin. The Berlin Airlift was the first major test of the Free World’s will to resist Soviet aggression. It all began in June 1948, when Soviet authorities claimed that “technical difficulties” would halt all traffic by land and water in and out of the western-controlled sections of Berlin. The only passages left into this territory that wouldn’t upset the Soviets were three 20-mile wide air corridors. The Western powers (United States, Great Britain, and France) were then faced with two options: abandoning the city, or supplying the 2.5 million people with enough supplies to live by air for the next 11 months. By choosing the latter, the Western powers embarked on one of the greatest aviation feats in history.
Operation Vittles, as the airlift was unofficially dubbed, began on June 26th with the USAF’s C-47s carrying in 80 of the 4,500 tons of food, coal, and various other materials needed daily to maintain a minimum level of existence. Soon the U.S. Navy and British Royal Airforce cargo planes joined in to augment this force. To increase safety and cooperation between allied countries, a unified command was established called the Combined Airlift Task Force and was under the supervision of Major General William H. Tunner of the USAF. Once again, a common threat has brought together the Western Powers of Great Britain, and the United States of America. The difference in this conflict was that it remained, for the most part, peaceful.
The airlift in Berlin was not only aimed at saving the city’s occupants. It was also a fight to keep Communism from spreading even further by passive means. To underscore the allied force’s determination, three bomb groups were placed in Europe, putting Soviet targets well within B-29 range. In response, the Soviets harassed the allied planes in the form of jamming radio channels, directing searchlights at aircraft taking off at night, the “buzzing” of cargo planes by Russian fighters, and barrage balloons allowed to drift into the air corridors. Throughout the entire operation, tensions rose. While this was intended to be a peaceful mission, more than 65 lives were lost comprising of British, German, and American personnel.
At midnight on May 12, 1949, so many months after closing them down, the Soviets reopened land and water routes into Berlin. However, the airlift continued until September 30 to build a backlog of supplies. Although the allies kept the airlift going long enough to keep the city alive, it didn’t resolve all the issues. Feelings of resentment were only increased between the United States and the Soviet Union. The leaders of the U.S. military did manage to keep peace, but soon the arms race would begin between these two major world powers. The events of the airlift only escalated the tension of the Cold War, although there wasn’t any alternative.
The only thing that could possibly have been done differently would be that instead of starting the airlift, Western countries could have tried to negotiate with the Russians resulting in a peaceful outcome. I find this a very unlikely outcome, however, because the Russians were planning for the expansion of communism, while that is the essence of what the allies were fighting against, thus their interests were dramatically opposed. The Western Powers chose the best possible route to solving the issue at hand; they saved the city without creating yet another blood-filled war.
Although this defused the crisis temporarily, the issue of a divided Berlin and Germany was not resolved. In the years after the airlift, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a multi-decade arms race. West Berlin, being under Western control, enjoyed more liberties than Eastern, communist, Berlin. The Berlin Wall was constructed to keep eastern citizens from escaping to the West, becoming a perfect symbol for the Cold War. Finally, in 1989, the Berlin Wall was destroyed, and East and West Berlin were united.
1. “The Berlin Airlift.” Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. Compton’s NewMedia, Inc. Simon & Schuster. 1996.
2. “The Cold War.” Microsoft Bookshelf Reference Library. Microsoft Corporation. 1998.
3. “Berlin Airlift.” United States Air Force Museum Webpage. Online. 6 May 1998.