The Berlin Airlift, Soviet Response – Part Three

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

With the Airlift gathering pace it became apparent that despite the pessimism and misgivings, the Western Powers had shown the political will and the military logistic prowess, to supply one of the largest cities in Europe entirely by air. The Soviets made a blunt evaluation. They could have easily have choked the city by interdicting the aircraft flying into Berlin and if necessary shoot them down. The Soviet ground forces were superior in numbers to the Western armies, but the US Navy alone greatly outnumbered the Soviet fleet. There may have been problems with the US nuclear forces, but fifty atomic bombs was sufficient to render the Soviet Union’s agricultural and industrial heartlands radioactive wastelands.

Initially the Soviets tried to disrupt and unnerve the flights going into Berlin by firing anti-aircraft guns away from the air corridors, dazzling the pilots with searchlights and by flying close to the Allied aircraft. Former RAF Dakota pilot Dick Arscott described one “buzzing” incident.

“Yaks (Soviet fighters) used to come and buzz you and go over the top of you at about twenty feet which can be off putting. One day I was buzzed about three times. The following day it started again and he came across twice and I got a bit fed up with it. So when he came for the third time, I turned the aircraft into him and it was a case of chicken, luckily he was the one who chickened out.”

The Soviets turned to political intimidation, a tactic that has served the Communist cause effectively throughout the world right up to today’s Momentum and Antifa thuggery. It became impossible for the non-Communist majority of the Greater Berlin Parliament, to attend sessions at the City Hall, which was located in the Soviet Zone. Communist mobs frequently disrupted sittings in all municipal buildings and physically menaced non-Communist members. On the 6th September 1948 the Kremlin attempted a putsch, to take control of Berlin by Communist SED Party members. On 9th September a crowd of 500,000 gathered at the Brandenburg Gate which was in the British Sector. They voiced fears that the Allies would eventually discontinue the airlift. Ernst Reuter an SPD city councillor took the microphone and proclaimed:

“You peoples of the world, you people of America, of England, of France, look on this city, and recognise that this city, this people, must not be abandoned – cannot be abandoned!”

The crowd then surged towards the Soviet Sector, the Brandenburg Gate was climbed and someone ripped down the Soviet flag. The Soviet military police responded and killed one of the crowd. To prevent the tense and unruly situation from escalating, a single British Deputy Provost intervened and pushed the Soviet MPs back with his swagger stick. The incident resonated around the world and induced a strong feeling of solidarity with Berliners and a determination not to abandon them.

The SPD Council members decided to meet at an alternative location at the Technical College of Berlin Charlottenburg, again in the British Sector. This was boycotted by the Communist SED members who called an “Extraordinary City Assembly,” which deposed all non-Communist Council members and replaced them with Communists. The December elections were boycotted by the SED which resulted in a de-facto West-Berlin only city parliament. Thus two separate city governments officiated in the city divided into East and West versions of its former self. In the east, a communist system supervised by house, street, and block wardens was quickly implemented.

The Winter

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The initial estimates of 4,000 to 5,000 tons per day to supply the city had to be revised as while the food requirement would remain roughly the same, the requirement for extra coal and fuel would be around 6,000 tons per day. More aircraft were available in the US and the British added the Handley Page Hastings to the aircraft ORBAT, which had a larger carrying capacity to the Dakotas and four engines. Serviceability was always a problem so ex-Luftwaffe ground crews were hired to help the turn-rounds and routine servicing.

But one major problem remained. There was a lack of runways in West Berlin and none of them had been designed to cope with the loads that were being lugged into the city. Many of the handling surfaces comprised of pressed steel planking and hundreds of labourers dumped sand on these between aircraft movements, to soften the surfaces and prevent excessive wear on the aircrafts’ tyres. To cope with the additional loads, between July and September 1948 an additional 6,000 foot runway was constructed at Tempelhof. To put this in perspective, it recently took two years to re-surface RAF Waddington’s runway. However, the approach to this new runway was a white-knuckle ride over Berlin’s apartment blocks. In the same period the British added a new runway at Gatow using concrete.

The French Air Force was heavily committed to operations in Indo China and was only able to provide Junkers 52s. These relics were too small and slow to be of any major help, but French military engineers built a new aerodrome on the shores of Lake Tegel. Using mainly female German construction workers, this project was completed in under ninety days. The construction required heavy plant that was too big to fly in, so the machinery was dismantled for the flights in and re-assembled in Berlin. Ground Controlled Approach Radar (GCA) was fitted in Tegel, which allowed flights into the city in all weather conditions. But the appalling weather of November and December 1948 did result in flights being curtailed, mainly because of the American crews’ unfamiliarity with GCA. As the weather improved, 170,000 tons were delivered in January 1949, 150,000 tons in February and 196,000 tons in March.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

On 15 April 1949, the Russian news agency TASS reported a willingness by the Soviets to lift the blockade. The next day, the US State Department stated that the “way appears clear” for the blockade to end. Soon afterwards, the four powers began serious negotiations, and a settlement was reached, on Western terms. On 4 May 1949, the Allies announced an agreement to end the blockade in eight days’ time.

At one minute after midnight on 12th May 1949, the Soviets lifted their blockade of the city and a British convoy immediately drove to Berlin. But flights were still needed for several months to come, to build up stocks in the city and provide resilience. By July the weekend flights were stopped and on the 18th August 1949, Flt Lt Roy Mather DFC AFC and his crew of Flt Lt Hathaway, Flt Lt Richardson and A W Marshall of 206 squadron, flew back to Wunstorf for the 404th time during the blockade, the record number of flights for any pilot of any nationality, either civilian or military.

The official end to the Berlin Airlift was on the 30th September 1949 and in fifteen months the USAF had delivered 1,783,573 tons, the RAF 541,937 tons, The RAAF 7,968 tons and at the height of the Airlift, an aircraft was landing every thirty seconds. There were 101 personnel killed, 40 British, 31 Americans and 30 other nationals. The Airlift is thought to have cost over US$ 500 million which would be $5.1 billion in today’s currency. This was at a time that a rationed and austere (real austerity) Britain was rebuilding itself after the war.

Aircraft used on the Berlin Airlift

Altogether, BEA was responsible to the RAF for the direction and operation of 25 British airlines taking part in “Operation Plainfare”. The British also used flying boats, particularly for transporting corrosive salt. These included civilian aircraft operated by Aquila Airways. These took off and landed on water and were designed to be corrosion-resistant. In winter, when ice covered the Berlin Rivers and made the use of flying boats difficult, the British used other aircraft in their place.  The following aircraft were used by all contributors during the Berlin Air Lift:

  • Avro Lancaster
  • Avro Lincoln
  • Avro York
  • Avro Tudor
  • Avro Lancastrian
  • Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter
  • Bristol Type 170 Freighter
  • Consolidated B-24 Liberator
  • Consolidated PBY Catalina
  • Douglas C-54 Skymaster and Douglas DC-4
  • Douglas C-74 Globemaster
  • Douglas C-47 Skytrain and Douglas DC-3 (UK: Dakota)
  • Fairchild C-82 Packet
  • Handley Page Hastings
  • Handley Page Halifax Halton
  • Junkers Ju 52/3m (operated briefly by France)
  • Lockheed C-121A Constellation
  • Short Sunderland
  • Vickers VC.1 Viking

Altogether, a total of 692 aircraft were engaged in the Berlin Airlift, more than 100 of which belonged to civilian operators.  The West had stood up to Soviet aggression and made a clear statement of intent that West Germany and Europe would not be abandoned.

The North Atlantic Alliance, an intergovernmental military alliance between 29 North American and European countries, based on the North Atlantic Treaty, was signed on 4 April 1949.  NATO constituted a system of collective defence whereby its independent member states agreed to mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party.  In just over a year, NATO would be galvanised from Cold War to very much a Hot War, in and over the Korean Peninsular.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

© Blown Periphery 2018

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