Berlin Blockade

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As one of the first serious East-West confrontations of the Cold War, the Berlin Blockade refers to the period, from June 24, 1948 to May 11, 1949, when the Soviet Union cut all land routes to Berlin. Berlin, deep inside the Soviet Zone of occupied East Germany, had a population of 2,500,000, which seemed dependent on the Soviets for food, fuel and other necessities of life.

Occupation boundaries of Germany and Berlin

The Western Allies, of the United States, United Kingdom and France found a way to keep Berlin supplied during the effective siege, which the Soviets eventually lifted. In 1948, the Allies were taking steps to rebuilding their three separate occupation zones into a unified West Germany. Since the Soviets had captured the printing plates for German paper money, among their first steps was to introduce a new currency, to protect against possible Soviet economic attacks such as mass counterfeiting. 24 hours before the new currency was to go into effect, the Soviets announced their own currency for East Germany, and then, [1] imposed a blockade, cutting off all road and rail transport. The only guaranteed way into the city was through a 20-mile-wide air corridor granted to the three western Allies. GEN Lucius Clay, allied military governor, described it as

When the order of the Soviet Military Administration to close all rail traffic from the western zones went into effect at 6:00AM on the morning of June 24, 1948, the three western sectors of Berlin, with a civilian population of about 2,500,000 people, became dependent on reserve stocks and airlift replacements. It was one of the most ruthless efforts in modern times to use mass starvation for political coercion...

Clay, working with his air force commander, Curtis LeMay, began a supply airlift, using available resources, called Operation Vittles; it began deliveries on July 1. It would become better known as the Berlin Airlift. In the history of military logistics, no one had successfully supplied a large population with air support alone. The Germans had failed at Stalingrad, and the only, very limited success was "Flying the Hump", supplying the China-Burma-India theater with military transports flying through the Himalayas. In this case, however, the focus and effectiveness were much greater, although it took a national commitment from the United States, with substantial help from the United Kingdom and lesser logistical action but strong political support from France. See Berlin Airlift for details of the beginnings, and then the mature operation.

Policy, or lack of policy, background

Direct military confrontation with the Soviets was the first thought of many leaders, but the West generally did not fight a war over the issue, and recognized that a land war in East Germany would be meeting the Soviets under conditions most advantageous to the Soviets. The Soviet Red Army was larger than the Western forces, which had been reduced greatly at the end of the Second World War.

At the strategic level, the West needed to decide on its policy of supporting Berlin and defying the Soviets, and at an operational level, the West had to find a way to supply Berlin, if that was the strategic decision. Not only would the policy and military capabilities need to be in place, but the West would need a coherent plan to carry out the decisions. Of the three Western powers involved, the U.S. had the largest available forces.

From a foreign policy standpoint, the U.S. had assumed its brief monopoly of nuclear weapons made it dominate any other power. The Soviets were actually to demonstrate a nuclear capability, but after the Berlin crisis ended. They were, however, quite willing to use their other strengths: their large conventional military forces in Germany, and subversion and political warfare elsewhere in the world.

Planning in the absence of guidance

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, the Truman Administration was most interested in demobilizing large military forces and rebuilding both the civil economy and civil society. Soviet intentions had not been immediately obvious at the end of the war, although some individuals, dismissed as hard-liners, wanted to continue the war in Europe with the new enemy being the Soviet Union. Statements like these caused GEN George S. Patton Jr. to be stripped of his command.

Without specific policy guidance, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had begun planning independently in the fall of 1945.[2] There really was no coherent national policy, until George Kennan started the process with his "long telegram" of 22 February 1946,[3] Winston Churchill made his "iron curtain" speech,[4] and President Harry S Truman ordered formal policy drafting, in 1950. That policy, at a high level, was to be expressed in National Security Council document 68 of [5]

Its Joint Intelligence Committee, the only U.S. intelligence planning agency after the termination of the wartime Office of Strategic Services]] (OSS), began analyzing the situation; the Central Intelligence Agency would not even exist, on paper, until 1947.

The JIC's principal assessment was that the Soviets wanted to consolidate their gains on their borders. They believed that it the Soviets needed to repair war losses to be able to fight a major war, which would take until at least 1950. Should the Soviets launch an immediate offensive, however, they were judged capable of overrunning one of three areas:

  1. Continental Europe
  2. Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan
  3. Korea, Manchuria and North China.

JCS general contingency thinking

At the time, the greatest American strength was in nuclear weapons, but the stockpile was limited and there was no detailed war plan. The Joint War Plans Committee recognized that "the only weapon which the United States can employ to obtain decisive effects in the heart of the USSR is the atomic bomb delivered by long-range aircraft." The committee estimated that 196 atomic bombs would cause "…such destruction upon the industrial sources of military power in the USSR that a decision could eventually be obtained." [2]

In other words, at the start of the Blockade, there were concepts but no specific plan, even in the area of greatest strength. Four interim plans were created between April and June 1946, with their the primary task "a prompt strategic air offensive" that would "destroy the Soviet war-making capacity." The first specific plan, BROILER, would be available in November 1947.[6]

Immediate response

At the end of the Second World War, Berlin had two airports, Templehof in the American Sector and Gatow in the British Sector, both of which had been bombed heavily. Neither was ideal for heavy transport traffic.

Templehof's runway was grass, not tarmac or concrete, and was surrounded by tall apartment buildings. U.S. engineers had built a 12-foot-deep rubber runway base and covered it with pierced steel planking (PSP), a material used through much of WWII for fast but interim runway construction. This served for the immediate U.S. military needs. After the Airlift started, another runway was built quickly, without interrupting service, and a third one stared in the fall.

The U.S. started 102 C-47s, each with a cargo capacity of 3 tons, and 2 of the larger C-54s that could carry 10 tons of cargo.[7] In modern terms, these are tiny transport aircraft, but the C-54 was available and would become the principal instrument of the Airlift. Deliveries began on June 26, composed of flour, powdered milk, and medicine. Luckily, it was the summer, as Berlin used coal for heating — and techniques had not been developing for the air transport of coal. Luckily, the weather was good at the start of the operation, but all knew that Berlin tended to have bad flying weather; Berlin, compared to U.S. airports of the time, would have the worst weathern pattern, but it also had one of the best in central Europe.

The operational response emerges

It was quickly obvious that the airlift would call for an unprecedented amount of coordination and scheduling. BG Joseph Smith, the original Airlift operational commander reporting to LeMay, began developing a tight scheduling system, with time slots assigned to each flight. Especially as more C-54s arrived, they became the principal aircraft, because using one main type could standardize radar tracking and air traffic control, as well as loading and unloading.

Soviet countermeasures

The blockade ends


  1. , People & Events: Berlin Blockade"The American Experience", Public Broadcasting Service
  2. 2.0 2.1 Borowski, Harry R. (July-August 1981), "A Narrow Victory: the Berlin blockade and the American military response", Air University Review
  3. Kennan, George (February 22, 1946), 861.00/2 - 2246: Telegram fromThe Charge in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Secretary of State
  4. Churchill, Winston (March 5, 1946), Sinews of Peace, (the Iron Curtain Speech), Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri
  5. National Security Council (April 7, 1950), NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security
  6. Gentile, Gian P. (Spring 2000), "Planning for Preventive War, 1945-1950", Joint Forces Quarterly
  7. Air force Historical Studies Office, The Berlin Airlift