THE BERLIN AIRLIFT
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.
2. “The Cold War.” Microsoft Bookshelf
Reference Library. Microsoft Corporation. 1998.
3. “Berlin Airlift.” United States
Air Force Museum Webpage. Online. 6 May 1998.