The Berlin Airlift: The Partitioning of Berlin

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The Berlin Airlift: The Partitioning of Berlin

As World War II came to an end in 1945, the Allied powers held peace conferences at Yalta and Potsdam to determine how they would divide up Germany’s territories. The agreements split the defeated nation into four “allied occupation zones”: They gave the eastern part of the country to the Soviet Union and the Western part to the U.S. and Great Britain. In turn, those nations agreed to cede a small part of their territories to France.

Even though Berlin was located entirely within the Soviet part of the country (it sat about 100 miles from the border between the eastern and western occupation zones), the Yalta and Potsdam agreements likewise split the German capital into Allied sectors: The Soviets took the eastern half, while the other Allies took the western. This occupation of Berlin, governed by a multipower agency called the Kommandatura, began in June 1945.

The Soviets were dissatisfied with this arrangement. Twice in recent memory, they had been invaded by Germany, and they had no interest in promoting that country’s reunification--yet it seemed that was exactly what the U.S. , Great Britain and France had in mind. For example, in 1946 the Americans and the British combined their two sectors into a single “Bizonia,” and the French were preparing to join as well. In 1948, the three western Allies created a single new currency (the Deutsche Mark) for all of their occupation zones—a move that the Soviets feared would fatally devalue the already hyperinflated Reichsmarks that they used in the east. For the Soviets, it was the last straw.

The Berlin Airlift: The Berlin Blockade

The Russians were also concerned about a unified West Berlin: a capitalist city located right in the middle of their occupation zone that would likely be powerfully and aggressively anti-Soviet. They decided that something needed to be done to stop this creeping unificationism. They withdrew from the Kommandatura and began a blockade of West Berlin, a maneuver that they hoped would effectively starve the western powers out of Berlin. If West Germany was to become its own country, they argued, then Berlin, located more than 100 miles from its border, could no longer be its capital.

On June 15, 1948, the Soviet authorities announced that the Autobahn, the highway connecting western Germany to Berlin, would be closed indefinitely “for repairs.” Then, they halted all road traffic from west to east, and barred all barge and rail traffic from entering West Berlin. Thus began the blockade of Berlin.

As far as the western Allies were concerned, withdrawal from the city was not an option. “If we withdraw,” said the American military commander, “our position in Europe is threatened, and Communism will run rampant.” President Trumanechoed this sentiment: “We shall stay,” he declared, “period.” Using military force to strike back against the Soviet blockade seemed equally unwise: The risk of turning the Cold War into an actual war—even worse, a nuclear war—was just too great. Finding another way to re-provision the city seemed to the Allies to be the only reasonable response.

The Berlin Airlift: "Operation VITTLES" Begins

It was quickly settled: The Allies would supply their sectors of Berlin from the air. Allied cargo planes would use open air corridors over the Soviet occupation zone to deliver food, fuel and other goods to the people who lived in the western part of the city. This project, code-named “Operation VITTLES” by the American military, was known as the “Berlin airlift.” (West Berliners called it the “Air Bridge.”)

The Berlin airlift was supposed to be a short-term measure, but it settled in for the long haul as the Soviets refused to lift the blockade. For more than a year, hundreds of American, British and French cargo planes ferried provisions from Western Europe to the Tempelhof (in the American sector), Gatow (in the British sector) and Tegel (in the French sector) airfields in West Berlin. At the beginning of the operation, the planes delivered about 5,000 tons of supplies to West Berlin every day; by the end, those loads had increased to about 8,000 tons of supplies per day. The Allies carried about 2.3 million tons of cargo in all over the course of the airlift.

Life in West Berlin during the blockade was not easy. Fuel and electricity were rationed, and the black market was the only place to obtain many goods. Still, most West Berliners supported the airlift and their western allies. “It’s cold in Berlin,” one airlift-era saying went, “but colder in Siberia.”

The Berlin Airlift: The End of the Blockade

By spring 1949, it was clear that the Soviet blockade of West Berlin had failed. It had not persuaded West Berliners to reject their allies in the West, nor had it prevented the creation of a unified West German state. (The Federal Republic of Germany was established in May 1949.) On May 12, 1949, the Soviets lifted the blockade and reopened the roads, canals and railway routes into the western half of the city. The Allies continued the airlift until September, however, because they wanted to stockpile supplies in Berlin just in case the blockade was reinstated.

Most historians agree that the blockade was a failure in other ways, too. It amped up Cold War tensions and made the USSR look to the rest of the world like a cruel and capricious enemy. It hastened the creation of West Germany, and, by demonstrating that the U.S. and Western European nations had common interests (and a common foe), it motivated the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance that still exists today.

The Story of Gail Halvorsen

Growing up with "my face down in the dirt all the time" on a Utah farm, Halvorsen would watch planes fly overhead and wish he could be "up there with them." After getting his private pilot's license, Halvorsen joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. He received flight training with the Royal Air Force before returning to the Army Air Corps and spent World War II ferrying transport planes in England, Italy, and North Africa.

Halvorsen stayed in the military after the war, continuing to fly transports. At the end of June 1948 he was stationed at an Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama, when the call came for pilots to participate in the airlift. Halvorsen was given less than an hour's notice. He stuffed a bag full of handkerchiefs to help fight a nasty cold and left his new Chevy under a tree near the base. Halvorsen thought he'd be back soon; he figured the airlift would only last a couple of weeks. But Halvorsen never saw his car again.

From the beginning, the Allies lacked enough aircraft for round-the-clock operations, so when Halvorsen arrived in Germany in early July, he flew three round-trips daily and had about seven hours off to sleep. During one of his down times in the middle of the month, Halvorsen decided to do some sightseeing in Berlin.

After hitching a ride on a flight to Tempelhof airport in the American sector, Halvorsen noticed a group of children watching through barbed wire as the airplanes landed. Halvorsen loved children, and during his transport days, he had often been followed by packs of them, begging for candy. But these Berliners were quieter and more polite; all they asked was that the Americans not abandon the airlift when the weather turned bad. They could go without enough food for a bit, the children told Halvorsen, but "if we lose our freedom we may never get it back." Touched, Halvorsen dug in his pocket for a couple sticks of gum and distributed them, promising to return the next day with more candy. The children wondered how they would recognize his plane. Don't worry; as I approach, I'll wiggle my wings, the pilot replied. Back at his base, Halvorsen improvised parachutes by tying strings to the corners of handkerchiefs and then attaching those strings to candy bars. The next day he released the handkerchiefs on approach to Tempelhof and saw the kids joyously clutching their candy. Soon large crowds had gathered and Halvorsen was receiving mail addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings" and the "Chocolate Flier."

Operation Little Vittles

Halvorsen knew what he had been doing violated Air Force regulations, and when his colonel found out, the young pilot got an earful. But Berlin newspapers had already gotten wind of Halvorsen's candy drops, and airlift commander General William Tunner approved the continuation of “Operation Little Vittles." What began with a pilot's spare handkerchiefs and candy his crew bought at the local commissary soon spread throughout the airlift, with 25 participants in his squadron alone.

Halvorsen's home base got in on the act, with the commanding officer declaring any handkerchief seen would be requisitioned for Little Vittles, and the American Confectioners Association donated tons of candy for the cause. The treats arrived at Westover Air Force base in Chicopee, Massachusetts, where local school children assembled the candy parachutes and sent them on to Germany. By January 1949 some 250,000 parachutes had been dropped over Berlin, and the operation helped reassure citizens that the West would not abandon them. As one young Berliner later told Halvorsen, "It wasn't [just] chocolate. It was hope."

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