The Washington Post
Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of The Berlin Airlift-June 1948-May 1949by Richard Reeves
In the early hours of June 26, 1948, phones began ringing across America, waking up the airmen of World War II—pilots, navigators, and mechanics—who were finally beginning normal lives with new houses, new jobs, new wives, and new babies. Some were given just forty-eight hours to report to local military bases. The president, Harry S. Truman, was recalling them to active duty to try to save the desperate people of the western sectors of Berlin, the enemy capital many of them had bombed to rubble only three years before.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had ordered a blockade of the city, isolating the people of West Berlin, using hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers to close off all land and water access to the city. He was gambling that he could drive out the small detachments of American, British, and French occupation troops, because their only option was to stay and watch Berliners starve—or retaliate by starting World War III. The situation was impossible, Truman was told by his national security advisers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His answer: "We stay in Berlin. Period." That was when the phones started ringing and local police began banging on doors to deliver telegrams to the vets.
Drawing on service records and hundreds of interviews in the United States, Germany, and Great Britain, Reeves tells the stories of these civilian airmen, the successors to Stephen Ambrose’s "Citizen Soldiers," ordinary Americans again called to extraordinary tasks. They did the impossible, living in barns and muddy tents, flying over Soviet-occupied territory day and night, trying to stay awake, making it up as they went along and ignoring Russian fighters and occasional anti-aircraft fire trying to drive them to hostile ground.
The Berlin Airlift changed the world. It ended when Stalin backed down and lifted the blockade, but only after the bravery and sense of duty of those young heroes had bought the Allies enough time to create a new West Germany and sign the mutual defense agreement that created NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
And then they went home again. Some of them forgot where they had parked their cars after they got the call.
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“City of Zombies”
June 20, 1948
THE NEWSWEEK HEADLINE WAS “DATELINE GERMANY, 1948: the Big Retreat.”
The dispatch below was from James O’Donnell, the magazine’s Berlin bureau chief, reporting on the exodus of American and British officials and soldiers from the city as the Soviet Union took complete control of the old German capital.
After the Russians claimed control, O’Donnell reported, General Lucius Clay, the American military governor of Germany, had cabled Washington that he intended to order B-29 Superfortresses to begin attacking Soviet installations across Germany—and beyond. Washington responded, “Withdraw to Frankfurt.”
Then, the Newsweek story continued, “At 1000 hours Saturday, the American cavalcade rendezvoused with the British . . . The bedraggled and demoralized caravan proceeded along the 117 miles of Autobahn to Helmstedt in the British zone . . .”
At the bottom of the two-column account, published on August 8, 1947, Newsweek added that the story was a fantasy, but still a plausible scenario:
This fantasy does not sound so fantastic in Berlin as it does in the United States. For the German capital has been buzzing with rumors that the Western Allies would this winter recognize the irrevocable division of Germany and pull out of Berlin. The Germans probably envision some dramatic exodus. Actually, policy makers in Washington have seriously considered quietly leaving Berlin for the Russians to rule—and feed.
The magazine had found a way, an anonymous source, to tap into the cable traffic between Berlin and Washington that spring, as memos flew back and forth predicting Soviet pressure on the small occupation governments of the United States, Great Britain and France. Robert Murphy, the State Department’s man in Berlin, Clay’s political advisor, cabled back to Washington: “The next step may be Soviet . . . demand for the withdrawal from Berlin of the Western powers. In view of the prospect that such an ultimatum would be rejected, the Soviets may move obliquely, endeavoring to make it increasingly impossible or unprofitable for the Western powers to remain on; for example by interfering with the slender communications between Berlin and the Western Zone, taking further actions towards splitting up the city . . . Our Berlin position is delicate and difficult. Our withdrawal, either voluntary or non-voluntary, would have severe psychological repercussions which would, at this critical stage in the European situation, extend far beyond the boundaries of Berlin and even Germany. The Soviets realize this full well.”
It was not fantasy anymore on June 24, 1948. That day, the final edition of the Times of London reported:
NEW RUSSIAN RESTRICTIONS IN BERLIN
BERLIN—Shortly after 1 o’clock this morning the Soviet military administration for Germany announced that all railway traffic on the line between Berlin and Helmstedt had been stopped in both directions. The Soviet authorities have also given instructions to the Berlin electricity company that deliveries of current from the eastern to the western sectors of Berlin are to be stopped immediately. These measures followed the announcement yesterday that the three Western powers intend to introduce the new West German currency into their sectors in Berlin.
The instructions for the stoppage of this important railway traffic which, air traffic apart, is the only means by which Allied and German supplies can now be brought from the Western zones into Berlin means that Allied zones of the city are essentially isolated.
So, the rumors were true—about half of them. Talk of the introduction of new currency by the Western Allies to replace worthless Nazi Reichsmarks, and of a Soviet blockade, had been both boiling and freezing life in Berlin for weeks. The people of the broken city, with its four occupation sectors—Soviets in the eastern sector and Americans, British and French in western neighborhoods—had been trading information and rumors of devalued currency, or the withdrawal of American, British and French troops, or even another war.
There were hundreds of thousands Red Army troops (at least twenty divisions in various states of combat readiness) in and near East Germany. The Soviets also had more than 2,500 combat aircraft, fighters and light bombers in East Germany and another 1,500 or so in Eastern European countries. That compared with 16,000 Allied troops, most of them military police and engineers, fewer than 300 American combat aircraft and perhaps 100 British fighters and bombers. There were another million or so Soviet troops in the rest of Eastern Europe, surrounding East Germany. Allied troop strength in all of western Germany was 290,000 men but only one or two combat-ready brigades.
The military imbalance was a regular feature of secret reports submitted by a Berlin representative of the West German Social Democratic Party,* which was headquartered in Hannover, in western Germany. He signed each message “WB.” Willy Brandt was a thirty-five-year-old journalist who had fled Hitler’s Germany and become a Norwegian citizen. He returned to Berlin in 1945 as the press attaché at the Norwegian mission. Then, in 1947, becoming a German citizen again, he began reporting weekly to West German SPD leaders on the situation in Berlin. In a secret dispatch labeled number 59, on June 14, 1948, he wrote:
The English political officers are very nervous internally because of the new and possible Russian strangulation measures. An informant from SED [the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, controlled by the German communist party, which was in turn controlled by Soviet occupation authorities], might be interesting in this context: Walter Ulbricht, an important SED official, has said (privately) that the western powers will be forced to leave Berlin before July 15. These circles obviously believe that preventing supply will make the population prefer a withdrawal of the western allies to anything else. Personally, I am inclined to believe that the Russians will not carry it to the extremes. Talking to the English and Americans I gained the impression that they by now have realized the disastrous consequences of a possible withdrawal and are therefore serious in declaring their unwillingness to withdraw. Two days ago a well-informed American again explained to me that their highest offices recognize the political necessity to keep Berlin . . . The aforementioned source confirmed that the Russians had tested the waters in the past two weeks and that high American and Russian representatives talked about the currency reform . . .
Now, ten days after Brandt’s memo, which was wrong about American intentions, truck and automobile traffic from the western zones was indeed strangled. The Soviets announced that the Autobahn from Helmstedt in the British Zone, running through East Germany to Berlin, was being closed for “technical reasons.” The stated technical reason was to make repairs on the dozens of bridges between Helmstedt and Berlin. With Soviets preventing rail travel through East Germany by blocking or ripping up track, and using patrol boats to blockade rivers and canals, the 2.1 million people of western Berlin were effectively cut off from the world. The lifeline to western Berlin, bringing in its food and fuel, more than 15,000 tons each day, was cut. Allied statisticians estimated that the western sectors of the city had enough food to last about thirty-five days, and enough fuel to last forty-eight days.
There were, however, six months of medical supplies stockpiled in western Berlin. Dr. Eugene Schwarz, Chief Public Health Officer in the American Sector, had been told in January by a friend, Ada Tschechowa, that when her husband had delivered a Soviet general’s baby, the new father and his friends had drunkenly toasted both the infant and the day they would blockade the city and drive out “the swine”—the British and the Americans. Dr. Schwarz had passed the story up the line to General Clay, who dismissed it as drunken gossip. On his own, Dr. Schwarz had begun secretly filling warehouses with emergency supplies.
The first public reaction from the Allies came from one of Clay’s subordinates, the commander of civil government in the American Sector of Berlin, Colonel Frank Howley, a former Philadelphia advertising executive. He was, in effect, the city manager of one-quarter of Berlin. An Irishman, and a volatile one, he was called “Howling Howley” for a reason. Hearing of the blockade, he rushed to the studio of RIAS, “Radio in the American Sector,” on his own and announced: “We are not getting out of Berlin. We are going to stay. I don’t know the answer to the current problem—not yet—but this much I do know: The American people will not allow the German people to starve.”
General Clay, also the commander of all American troops in Europe, had been in meetings in Heidelberg, the U.S. military headquarters, and flew back to western Berlin, where he lived. He told his counterparts, the British and French commanders, that he was sure the Russians were bluffing, and he proposed sending an armored convoy of 6,000 men to race down the Autobahn from Helmstedt to Berlin, using American engineers to repair the bridges—if there was anything actually wrong with them.
Lucius DuBignon Clay, fifty years old, a 1918 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, was both brilliant and aloof, a courtly but distant man, a descendant of Henry Clay and the son of a U.S. senator from Georgia. He wore few decorations on his uniform and was a chain-smoker, rarely photographed without a Camel in his hand. He usually skipped lunch—he lost thirty pounds in Germany—but was said to drink thirty cups of coffee a day. He sometimes worked seventy-two hours at a stretch, with his Scottie, George, at his feet, and was one of the very few Americans ever to become a four-star general without commanding men in combat. An engineer and administrator, he was always needed more urgently at home than on fields of battle. In World War II, he served as what amounted to a national czar of military production and procurement. He came to Europe only once during the war, at the personal request of the supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to figure out how to move men and equipment inland from the beaches after the invasion of France on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Clay’s British counterpart in Germany, General Sir Brian Robertson, described him as “looking like a Roman emperor and sometimes acting like one.” Among the Americans who served him there was a joke that Clay was a real nice guy when he relaxed, but he never relaxed. He had what amounted to dictatorial powers in the American Zone of Germany and Sector of Berlin. Believing the Russians would back down in the face of force, he wanted his troops in motion before any of his superiors in Washington—the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley, Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and President Harry S. Truman—could order him to stop.
Clay had already discussed the convoy idea with General Curtis LeMay, commander of USAFE (United States Air Force Europe). LeMay was a bombing legend before he was forty for developing the block formation of B-17s and B-24s, Flying Fortresses and Liberators—bombers that destroyed much of Germany—and the use of incendiary bombing that destroyed Japan’s cities. Characteristically, he had already prepared a contingency bombing plan to begin if a convoy was blocked by the Red Army: LeMay believed American planes could destroy every Soviet airfield and every airplane on the ground in Germany in a few hours, because the Russians routinely and irrationally made their own planes perfect targets by lining them up in orderly rows. “They vetoed the plan,” said LeMay in disgust. In his lexicon “They” usually meant liberal politicians in Washington. “The Berlin crisis,” he said, “is a logical outgrowth of the God-bless-our-buddy-buddy-Russians-we-sure-can-trust-them-forever-and-ever philosophy that flowered way back in the Roosevelt Administration.” And, as far as the Soviets were concerned, he said, “We could have done a pretty good job of cleaning out the Russian air force in one blow. They had no atomic capability. Hell, they didn’t have much of any capability.”
But before Washington knew any of this had happened, Clay and LeMay’s plans were stopped by the British military governor, General Robertson. “If you do that, it’ll be war, it’s as simple as that,” Robertson told Clay. “If you do that, I’m afraid my government could offer you no support—and I’m sure the French will feel the same.”
The early hours of the next morning brought the daily American “teleconference”—Clay and officials in Washington held coded tele-typed conferences most days, with the decoded words slowly tapping out on huge lighted screens in the Pentagon and the bunker under American military headquarters in Berlin. By the time he left the bunker, the American commander had received his orders: Clay was told to take no action that risked war with the Soviet Union. It was a frustrating setback for Clay. He was sure that the Soviets did not want war. He was equally sure that a stable, free Europe depended on an economically strong and democratic Germany, with an elected parliament, an executive and an independent judiciary. Clay was a hard man, but, above all, he was a true democrat. His views of Germany’s future were often quite different from those in Washington—and in London and Paris—where many high officials preferred a Germany forcibly kept too weakened to begin another war. Usually he got his way by acting preemptively or threatening to quit in letters and during teleconferences. He was a man with many antagonists, beginning with Secretary of State George Marshall and his celebrated assistants, Robert Lovett and George Kennan, who usually believed Clay was trying to move too fast toward a self-governed Germany rebuilding its industrial power. All admired his talent, but few found it easy to work with him.* One of his adversaries was his superior, General Bradley, who had said secretly, back in April, “Shouldn’t we announce the withdrawal from Berlin ourselves to minimize the loss of prestige?”
Clay’s answer, via teleconference, was:
I do not believe we should plan on leaving Berlin short of a Soviet ultimatum to drive us out by force if we do not leave. At the time we must resolve the question as to our reply to such an ultimatum. The exception which could force us out would be the Soviet stoppage of all food supplies to German population in Western sectors. I doubt that Soviets will make such a move because it would alienate the Germans almost completely, unless they were prepared to supply food for more than two million people.
The official population of the western sectors was just over 2.1 million. The number for the whole city of 355 square miles, a bit more than the area of the five boroughs of New York City, was about 3.1 million, compared with 4.3 million in 1938. There were only 1,285,376 male Berliners after the war.
In that teleconference, Clay ended angrily. “Why are we in Europe? We have lost Czechoslovakia. We have lost Finland. Norway is threatened . . . If we mean we are to hold Europe against communism, we must not budge . . . If America does not know this, does not believe the issue is cast now, then it never will and communism will run rampant. Once again, I ask, do we have a German policy?”
Hearing of the latest temporizing in Washington from Clay, Robertson then suggested that perhaps the Allies could expand the daily flights that brought provisions into the city for their own troops. They had done that in March, three months earlier, when the Soviets briefly stopped trains from Helmstedt, using three twenty-mile-wide air corridors that had been agreed upon in a written air safety plan between the Soviets, Americans and British at Potsdam in November of 1945. The three air corridors coverged over Berlin from Frankfurt, Hamburg and Hannover, looking on a map like a hand-drawn arrowhead pointing into the city. Robertson’s bold talk was backed up by a bold British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, who had once been Britain’s most important and outspoken labor leader. Those flights in C-47s, the military version of the Douglas DC-3 airliners with a cargo capacity of three tons, were being used to help supply food and other essentials to just over 25,000 healthy young soldiers and some middle-aged diplomats and their families living comfortably among the West Berliners.
The Berliners themselves were a totally defeated people in every sense of the word. They were very old and very young, mostly women, hungry, sick, most of them burrowed into the rubble of their old neighborhoods in basements and damaged apartments assigned as shelter for four or five families. In Charlottenberg, a central neighborhood, only 604 of 11,075 buildings were still standing.
William Heimlich was a thirty-three-year-old lieutenant colonel in military intelligence from Columbus, Ohio. He arrived in Berlin in the summer of 1945, after Soviet troops had ravaged the city—just as the Nazis had ravaged the Soviet cities—and saw this:
Berlin at that point was a city of women. The men were dead or in prisoner of war camps. There were only the aged and the very young males available. They moved about the city like zombies. They were starving, that was clear. We saw such things as a horse dropping dead in the street and the women rushing out with pans and knives to butcher the horse on the spot to get some food. There was no food. There were no lights, there was no power.
Henry Ries, a Jewish Berliner who had escaped Germany in 1938 at the age of twenty-one, returned in September 1945 as a photographer on assignment for the New York Times. He wrote home to the United States that he thought the Berliners, who were forced to step into the gutters and tip their hats when their conquerors passed, still retained a secret attitude of superiority toward their conquerors. But a couple of months later, he wrote: “Of course they deserve [to suffer] at least a good part of them. But that doesn’t prevent me from feeling pain at seeing these hungry people, crippled people, diseased people, all smelling of filth . . . I saw a man with one eye and one leg moving along in a 3-wheel cart. Why him? Why not me? Of course they deserved it, but that doesn’t mean I want to see it.”
General Clay was more blunt, calling Berlin “a city of the dead.” LeMay used the same words as Heimlich, “a city of zombies.”
The Soviets had pillaged the city after they captured it in May 1945, removing 3,500 factories and 1,115,000 pieces of industrial equipment for transportation, bolt by bolt, back to the Soviet Union, along with thousands of German technicians and managers. There were an estimated one million rapes in the city during the sixty-two days between the Soviet capture on May 2, 1945, and the arrival of American troops on July 3, 1945.
Almost three years later, in February 1948, Collie Small wrote in Collier’s magazine:
Chronic hunger has taken the worst toll. In many cases, otherwise normal Berliners have skidded mentally through a lack of food until their sense of discrimination is fuzzy, their objectivity largely gone, their reactions dangerously slow. Crossing streets, they are easily confused and frequently wander uncertainly into the paths of oncoming automobiles, or, worse yet, stand fatally entranced in the swirl of traffic, paralyzed with fear and indecision. Industrial accidents have skyrocketed. In 1938, with industry in Berlin going at top speed, there were 1,867 fatal accidents. In 1946, the last year for which complete figures are available, there were 5,342 industrial fatalities in Berlin, and those with less than 15 per cent of the 1938 factories even operating. An accountant confessed that he was frequently baffled by simple columns of figures and that a problem in simple addition or subtraction often seemed like an advanced exercise in calculus. An optician complained that he could no longer muster enough concentration even to be sure of making the correct change in eyeglasses for his customers.
At the same time, school officials in the city questioned 41 boys between the ages of twelve and fourteen. This is what they found: 22 had no blankets, 14 no bed linen, 7 no shirt, 21 no shoes, 37 no overcoat. Questioning 34 schoolgirls between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, the officials reported that 7 had contracted a venereal disease and 14 had slept with men to get food. A sixteen-year-old living in eastern Berlin, Lutz Rackow, whose family lost their house for a year when Red Army telephone linemen appeared and gave the family thirty minutes to pack and get out, said, “Teachers tried to teach us declensions, but all we thought about was food, cabbage soup from the Russians, cookies from the Americans.”
Small added that cats and dogs disappeared regularly and graves were being robbed to use wooden caskets for fuel. And the city was dangerous; roving Red Army deserters were sometimes willing to kill to eat. Gerhard Rietdorff, a young man living on the streets of the eastern sector who was arrested (and beaten) more than a dozen times as a runner in the black market, carried a large cut of meat into the house where his group hid. “It looked abnormally red and smelled sweet,” he said. “We debated back and forth until somebody said, ‘Well maybe it’s not the meat of a human being.’ Our disgust, though, was greater than our hunger. We threw it away.”*
What Geoff Smith, an RAF mechanic, would never forget was the sound of the bicycles of Berlin in 1948. They had no tires and scraped along on metal wheels. He arrived in the early-morning hours of June 20, 1948, at Gatow airport, then a rarely used stopover for British military flights to Warsaw. With a dozen airmen he was ordered to unload crates and sacks marked “Bird Dog” from two Dakotas, the British designation for C-47s. The next day he realized that the sacks contained Deutschmarks, the new currency secretly printed in the United States by the Allies for use in West Germany, but not in Berlin. In the city, negotiations continued with the Soviets on establishing a new currency under quadripartite control. That day, Monday, June 21, at 7 A.M., American planes were also secretly flying crates of the new money from Frankfurt in the American Zone of West Germany into Tempelhof Airport. The American airmen were also carrying hand grenades and ordered to blow up the cases marked “Clay” and “Bird Dog” if something went wrong and they were forced down in Soviet-occupied East Germany. It was a nervous flight, with men on the ground speculating about the secret cargo: Americans thought it was dog food—Clay loved dogs—and the British thought it was parts to assemble an atom bomb.
A radio announcement of the new Deutschmark in the Allied-occupied zones of western Germany was recorded by Sergeant Robert Lochner, the American director of Radio Frankfurt. He had grown up in Germany as the son of an Associated Press reporter, and his message, a civil revolution, was played over and over again beginning on Sunday night. West Germans were told that they should turn in their old Reichsmarks at designated locations and would receive forty new Deutschmarks immediately and twenty more in two months. Lochner’s message emphasized that the order did not apply to West Berlin. But four days later, after the Soviets announced they would produce a new currency for both East Germany and eastern Berlin, western Deutschmarks, stamped with a large B—the bills in the “Bird Dog” crates—were distributed in West Berlin. Berliners in the western sectors waited in line for up to six hours to get their new money. In announcing their own currency reform, the Soviets added a phrase that persuaded many that worse was coming: “Bank notes issued in the Western zones of Germany are not being admitted for circulation in the Soviet occupation zone in Germany and in Berlin, which is part of the Soviet occupation zone.” Those last eight words, many believed, would lead to withdrawal by the Western Allies— or war.*
In fact, the Soviets were totally surprised by the timing of the Allied currency reform, so rather than attempting to print new currency, they pasted little stickers on old Reichsmarks, distributing them to party officials at a 1:1 rate with the new Western currency, then giving ordinary East German and East Berlin residents the same bills with exchange rates between 3:1 and 4:1, which quickly drifted as low as ten Eastmarks for each Westmark.
The currency reform was the immediate cause of the blockade of Berlin, or at least that is what the Soviets said. The headline on June 20 in Tägliche Rundschau, a Soviet-controlled newspaper:
WESTERN POWERS COMPLETE
THE DIVISION OF GERMANY
Separate Currency Reforms in Western Sectors—
A Heavy Blow to the Interests of Workers
Three days later, on June 23, an extra edition of Tägliche Rundschau filled its front page with the official text of Decree 111:
By the commander of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany . . . As of June 24, 1948, new notes will be introduced for the entire territory of the Soviet-occupied zone in Germany and the greater Berlin area: the Reichsmark and Rentenmark, as formerly, with special coupons stuck on . . . As of June 28, 1948, the circulation of marks issued by the Allied military authorities, as well as of the Reichsmarks without special coupons, is to be discontinued. Signed: V. Sokolovsky, Marshal of the Soviet Union.
Allied occupation authorities countered with a “special edition” of the Telegraph, a British-licensed Berlin daily:
The Soviet orders to change the currency in the greater Berlin area are in contradiction to the four-power agreement on a four-power administration of greater Berlin. In the French, British and American sectors these orders are null and void and do not apply to the inhabitants of these sectors. Contraveners will be prosecuted. The necessary steps will be taken to introduce the new currency of the Western zones into the three Western sectors of greater Berlin.
At the end of the war, the four powers had decided to continue the use of Hitler’s Reichsmark as legal tender in the four occupation zones of Germany and the four sectors of Berlin. The currency quickly went from being practically worthless—the Nazis had increased the money in circulation from 7 billion Reichsmarks to more than 50 billion during the war—to almost totally worthless. In addition to the German inflation, the Americans made a naive mistake in creating a new and separate Allied Occupation Currency and giving each of the four powers plates, made in the U.S.A., to print their own military money—and triggered a double inflation. The Russians used the plates given to them to print billions of occupation marks to give to their soldiers, who had never been paid as they fought for four years across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. For all practical purposes, bartering and a thriving black market, with American cigarettes as the preferred currency, became the real economy of Berlin. Shops showed empty shelves, their nonperishable goods hoarded in warehouses, waiting for a new currency. Men and women worked only long enough to earn enough Reichsmarks to cover what they could get with their ration cards. College professors asked for three pounds of flour from students before they began lecturing.
For the Allies occupying the western sectors, most particularly Clay, currency reform was seen as the only action that could even begin to make Berlin once again into some kind of normal city. And there were many among the occupiers and their leaders who did not want that to happen. The Soviets acted as if they believed economic chaos would deliver all of the city and perhaps the country itself to their control. The French, invaded twice by Germany in twenty-six years, wanted to see all of Germany remain a poor agricultural society. Important Americans agreed: Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau proposed a program called “pastoralization,” designed to make Germany into a pre-industrial country with a daily diet of 1,600 calories per person, leaving the people too weak to even consider revolt or aggression.
In fact, in 1947, Clay’s staff had estimated that the average Berliner in the American Sector was living on a little more than nine hundred calories a day. Anthony Mann, a correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph, visited a dozen German homes and described their diet.
Breakfast consisted of one slice of black bread and “tea” brewed from lemon blossoms or “coffee” made from acorns . . . At midday, each adult usually got two thin slices of bread and a potato . . . Supper was one bowl of watery soup made from carrots or barley. Occasionally there were minute scraps of various fats, and sometimes a little extra (mainly vegetables) could be obtained from a farmer after a trudge, in exchange for treasures such as shoe leather, nails or string.
A month before the blockade began, Elisabeth Poensgen, a woman who had been rich enough never to work, wrote a letter to relatives in the western zone, saying:
I had lost a lot of weight and my cousin Wergin gave me vitamin supplements that he had received from England. They did me good, but unfortunately, I was very hungry afterwards so that I nearly couldn’t think of anything else than food . . . This is all I can write for today. I am completely exhausted. My eyes are squinting because I am so tired. Getting used to work (as a schoolteacher) at an old age is extremely difficult, much more difficult than I had imagined.
She was forty-two years old.
The most famous diarist of the period, a forty-five-year-old book editor at the Ullman publishing house named Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, whose journals were published in two volumes in Germany, described life before the blockade this way:
Slowly one gets used to walk rather than spend twenty pfennigs for the streetcar. Twenty pfennigs! How much is twenty pfennigs? It is the price of the seventy grams of butter the average person is entitled to every ten days. On the black market it buys one and a third milligrams of butter. Ten grams, enough for a sandwich of bread and butter, costs fifteen marks. Seven legal butter sandwiches for every ten days will not help much and certainly will not fill the average person’s stomach . . .
For a portion of the population small change is a thousand-mark bill, while for another it’s a five-pfennig piece. The new capitalists are the dealers in scarce goods, the producers of scarce goods, the providers of scarce services, the black marketers, the factory owners, the farmers, the craftsmen—in food-supply terms they represent the upper classes of today’s Germany. Those to whom the monthly rations are providing a basic existence, but are not the sole means of subsistence, form the new middle class. Their modest sources of capital are—in case of need—their connections to farmers, chance bargains, Sunday hoarding excursions, and the exchange of remaining tangibles for additional calories . . . Silverware from one’s dowry for cigarettes, coffee, a winter coat or suiting. Great-grandma’s Dresden china for ten pounds of sugar, five bottles of schnapps, three packs of tobacco, twelve hundred pounds of coal and a pair of galoshes . . . Eighty-five percent of all Berliners live on additional products beyond their ration card allotments, a recent American opinion poll revealed. That means more than three quarters of the population is now involved in the black market . . . the unemployed citizen goes gathering. Half a box of soap powder equals 5 marks, equals three beers, equals 30 marks. A quarter pound of tea equals 100 marks, equals a pound of butter, equals 240 marks.
Another diarist, Inge Godenschweger, wrote of the “foraging trains,” with Berliners riding the roofs and clinging to the sides of trains going through the farmlands of East Germany, ready to trade heirlooms for food. There were stories of stables with Persian rugs covering bare earth. “We stole like crazy,” she said. “Farmers hired guards, who hid in the furrows of their fields. One caught us, standing over us, laughing. Then he walked away. He was stealing, too.”
As early as the summer of 1946, Andreas-Friedrich lived and understood the dangers of her city’s geography:
The Russians surround us. Only a narrow corridor, a single-track railway line, connects Berlin with the West. Our vegetables, our fruit, our potatoes—nearly all our food is obtained from the neighboring provinces. In a twinkling the occupying power there could sever our lifeline. All they need do is prevent a few trains from passing through—block a bridge, or let the single-track railway line deteriorate . . . If necessary, will the Western Allies supply three million Berliners with potatoes? With fruit, vegetables, coal and electricity? Or will they tell us that this problem, too, is a “German domestic matter”?
Andreas-Friedrich reported rumors of currency reform again and again in her diary during 1946 and 1947. But only in 1948 did the rumors become reality. Reporting on the buildup to the reform, Mann of London’s Telegraph wrote, as early as June 8, 1948, that there would be a 90 percent devaluation of the 65 billion Reichsmarks circulating in the western zones. On the 13th, he wrote: “Trade is almost at a standstill, as nobody will part with goods for cash which may be valueless.” Then he quoted a British economist as saying: “Our aim is to make money just as scarce as food so that it will be worth working for.” An American added: “There will be a vast upheaval: it will be like a bomb under the economic structure.”
Four-power Berlin was always a bomb, the most dangerous place in the world. The place had been ticking almost from the beginning, when the city was divided at American insistence. The symbolism of the city, capital of the Prussians and then Hitler, was such that the United States was willing to turn over to the Red Army two “lands,” provinces south of Berlin, Saxony and Thuringia, in return for part of western Berlin. An intelligence report from Berlin to Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov on October 3, 1947, stated:
Analysis of the materials at our disposal, and of the steps which were taken by the United States and Great Britain in Germany, gives grounds for the conclusion that we are not speaking about a propaganda maneuver or political blackmail, but about a real threat of political and economic dismemberment of Germany and inclusion of West Germany with all its resources in the Western bloc knocked together by the United States.
The report was essentially correct and so was a briefing for President Truman on December 22, 1947, from the new Central Intelligence Agency, along with reports from the United States Embassy in Moscow warning that the immediate goal of Soviet policy in Germany was to “force” the Allies out of Berlin. On February 20, 1948, a memo to the President from Secretary of State George Marshall was practically a mirror image of the intelligence traffic reaching Molotov: “Western Germany may at some time in the future be drawn into Eastern orbit with all obvious consequences which such an eventuality would entail . . . It has long been decided, in collaboration with the British government, that desire for an undivided Germany cannot be made an excuse for inaction in Western Germany. . . .”
Two weeks after the Marshall memo was written, communists in Czechoslovakia, backed by Red Army troops, staged a brutal coup d’état in Prague, overthrowing a coalition government there. The world was shocked and so was Clay, who on March 5 cabled Army Intelligence in Washington with a message he later insisted was meant to be secret, to be used only by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to argue for bigger defense budgets:
For many months, based on logical analysis, I have felt and held that war was unlikely for at least ten years. Within the last few weeks, I have felt a subtle change in Soviet attitude which I cannot define but which now gives me a feeling that it may come with dramatic suddenness. I cannot support this change in my own thinking with any data or outward evidence in relationships other than to describe it as a feeling of a new tenseness in every Soviet individual with whom we have official relations. I am unable to submit any official report in the absence of supporting data but my feeling is real. You may advise the Chief of Staff of this for whatever it may be worth if you feel it advisable.
Whatever Clay’s intentions, the memo was released to the press, specifically the Saturday Evening Post, and was seized upon by his adversaries and others to whip up war fears across the country and to question whether there was any point in clinging to Berlin at the risk of war.
Clay actually knew better. It was not war the Soviets wanted. It was Berlin. Premier Joseph Stalin, like the czars before him, believed that the city in the east of modern Germany, a city that had begun as a Slavic fortress and had been taken by Russian troops in the eighteenth century, was in fact Russian by historic right. Berlin, to both sides in 1948, was more important psychologically than militarily. On March 19, two weeks after Clay sent his war memo to the Pentagon, Stalin met, secretly of course, with East German communists, a group led by the German communist leader, Wilhelm Pieck. The German, trained in Moscow, told Stalin the truth, which was a rare thing. Usually, subordinates at any level, from military intelligence officers in Berlin to Foreign Minister Molotov, restricted themselves to telling Stalin only what he wanted to hear. Pieck, however, told the premier that the SED, the communist-controlled Socialist Unity Party in Berlin, was certain to lose badly in city elections scheduled for October, setting back the efforts to force the Allies to leave the city. Stalin responded: “Let’s make a joint effort, perhaps we can kick them out.”*
Stalin’s decision had probably been made a couple of weeks earlier, before or during a meeting with Marshal Vasily Sokolovsky, the Soviet commander in Germany, General Clay’s counterpart. On March 20, the day after Stalin’s meeting with German communists, Sokolovsky walked out of a meeting of the Allied Control Council, telling Clay, Robertson and the French commander, General Joseph Pierre Koenig, “I see no sense in continuing this meeting and declare it adjourned.”
That was the end of four-power government in Germany. Sokolovsky left when the British, American and French commanders refused to discuss the results of the London Conference of the three countries’ foreign ministers, who had convened in February to discuss the future of Germany. In fact, Russian intelligence services almost certainly knew the results as soon as the Allies did: the foreign ministers, along with their counterparts from the Netherlands and Belgium, gave up on obtaining Soviet cooperation and were ready to move toward creating a separate West German state. By April 9, Reuters in London was reporting early details of those still-secret plans:
The United States has proposed a five point program setting up a West German government within just over a year it was learned here today. The five stages in the plan are believed to be: First the formation of a provisional government embracing the present Anglo-American Bizone and the French zone. Secondly, territorial reorganization of Länder Provisional governments . . . Thirdly, election of constituent assembly. Fourthly, the drafting by this assembly of a constitution. Fifthly, the formation of a new West German government.
Two months later that proposal and decision were made public when the conference adjourned on June 6, 1948.
After the walkout in Berlin, Soviet troops began a sort of rolling blockade, unpredictably and intermittently stopping Allied trains and vehicle traffic down the Autobahn to the city. That was when Clay and Robertson responded by using the three air corridors to fly nineteen C-47s a day into Tempelhof and RAF Gatow with supplies for their troops and diplomats. Russian Yak fighters, named for the designer, Aleksandr Yakovlev, entered the corridors, buzzing and otherwise harassing Allied traffic, until April 4, when a Yak-3 collided with a British Viking airliner, killing all nineteen passengers and crew aboard as well as the Yak pilot.
The Soviets, claiming the airliner deliberately rammed the Yak, considered that first mini-blockade a significant success. Military commanders cabled Molotov on April 17, saying:
The plan drawn up, according to your instructions, for restrictive measures to be taken regarding communications between Berlin and the Soviet Occupation Zones and the Western Occupation zones is applied from 1 April, except for restrictions of communications by air, which we intend to introduce later . . . Our control and restrictive measures have dealt a strong blow to the prestige of the Americans and British in Germany. The German population believes that this testifies to the Russians strength . . . Clay’s attempt to create “an airlift” connecting Berlin to the Western zones have proved futile.
“Prices are rising. One scarce commodity after another disappears from the black market. Currency reform seems certain now,” wrote Ruth Andreas-Friedrich in her diary on June 1, 1948. Her family piled all the Reichsmarks they had on a little kitchen table and decided to spend it all before the old currency became worthless.
The stores are crowded as they are in peaceful times. Apparently we are not the only ones, these days, who are inclined to stockpile toys, bulky kitchen utensils and ugly lamps.
“What are we going to do with all this junk?” I grimly inquire as we walk along Steglitzer Hauptstrasse loaded down with our purchases. Six kitchen knives that do not cut, six tin spoons with edges that do, a useless soap dish, four wooden ladles full of cracks, two lamps without socket or switches, but with nightmarishly patterned lampshades, and in spite of all, six tubes of cement toothpaste, six crumbling tubes of lipstick, and toys—enough toys to open a toy store.
“Don’t worry,” Heike [her daughter] tries to comfort me, “at least we skimmed the cream. Those who come after us will fare worse.”
On June 11, 1948, she wrote:
“I buy coffee,” someone says. “One can always use coffee.” And he goes and buys twelve pounds of coffee at twelve hundred marks a pound. His savings from three years of work.
This person buys a hundred chisels, another buys two thousand test tubes, someone else spends three hundred marks on laxatives, and the next one, ninety marks on health tea. At the municipal railroad stations discreet briefcase carriers make profits like never before, selling American chocolate, candy and caramels. They disappear as soon as the police show up, only to return all the more numerous as soon as the coast is clear again. Berlin is selling out. Berlin is in a panic . . .
On June 15, 1948:
The prices go up every hour. One pound of coffee, two thousand marks. One cigarette, thirty marks. You are lucky to find one at all because the black marketers too are beginning to feather their nests. Hoarding . . . hoarding, rather than selling at all for Reichsmarks. The last useless products and decorative articles disappear from the shop windows. “Closed due to illness . . . temporarily closed due to lack of supply.”
I enter my favorite bar. The chairs are empty. One solitary customer drinking a modest seltzer. Beer—sold out, spirits—sold out, matches, cigarettes, tobacco—entirely out of the question! I ask. I beg. I implore the waiter, the porter, the owner. With great effort and distress, the latter struggles with himself, finally letting me have a crushed Chesterfield. “Because it’s you! My last one!” he says, and without the slightest scruple he charges me forty marks for it . . .
June 19, 1948:
Just now the Soviet Military Administration announced: “In connection with the currency reform the Soviet Military Administration has been forced to take the following measures in order to protect the interests of the population and the economy: All travel to and from the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany is suspended. Entry is refused to vehicle traffic of every sort coming from the Western zones, including all traffic on the highway between Helmstedt and Berlin.” Now we’re in for it! Snap, said the mouse, finding herself trapped! We poor little mice of Berlin!
June 22, 1948:
The price for a pound of coffee is three thousand marks. A loaf of bread, two hundred marks. One Chesterfield, seventy-five marks. One wonders where the goods are still coming from. There is a buzzing in the air as in the time of bombs. On short notice, the American military government has increased air traffic to Berlin several times over.
“We’re able,” General Clay tells us, “to supply the ten thousand Americans in Berlin via airlift for an indefinite period of time.” And he adds optimistically: “The Russian occupation authorities will not let the German population of the Western sectors starve.”
We are less hopeful.
Another diarist, a young man named Christian Seaford, wrote: “Life is empty, without color . . . There is a lead-like silence over the city. Kids collecting dandelions for the rabbits on the balcony. Everybody believes the Americans will give up Berlin . . . For many people suicide seems the only way out.”
The Times of London, June 25, 1948:
SEVERED WESTERN LINKS
General Clay, the American Military Governor, has stated that supply by air, on which the Western sectors are now entirely dependent, is not possible “as a long-term policy.”
Clay’s view, expressed in teleconferences that day with Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall and other officials in Washington:
It seems important to decide just how far we will go short of war to stay in Berlin. We here think it extremely important to stay . . . Except for our capacity to stick it out, we have few chips here to use and future actions would appear to be at governmental level. I regard the possibility of war with the Russians as rather remote, although it must not be disregarded.
As early as May 1948, officials in Washington raised the question of evacuating American dependents, the wives and children of the diplomats and soldiers in the city. Clay replied:
The evacuation of family members from Berlin would lead to a hysterical reaction and drive the Germans in droves into the supposed safety of Communism . . . Every German leader, except SED leaders, and thousands of Germans have courageously expressed their opposition to Communism. We must not destroy their confidence by any indication of departure from Berlin. I still do not believe our dependents should be evacuated. Once again we have to sweat it out, come what may. If Soviets want war, it will not be because of Berlin currency issue but because they believe this is the right time . . . Certainly we are not trying to provoke war. We are taking a lot of punches on the chin without striking back.
Looking back on that day years later, Clay would say:
Remember this, when the war ended we were sitting over there with the greatest army that had ever been seen, nobody was ever concerned about anybody blocking us on roads and railroads . . . The Japs surrendered and then the demand for bringing the troops home was great. Within a relatively short period of time our military forces had deteriorated until they were nothing but young high school boys not wanting to be there. It was pretty sad.
“Bring the boys home” was the American chant (and policy) as soon as World War II ended. The total strength of the U.S. Army in February 1948 was 552,000 men; the new Air Force, replacing the Army Air Force in 1947, had 346,000 men. The strength of the U.S. Navy was 476,000 men, including 79,000 Marines. There were just over 90,000 American soldiers in Germany and fewer than the 103,000 British soldiers in the country. The French had 75,000 men. The Soviet strength was estimated at close to one million men in East Germany and eastern Berlin. Said Secretary of State George Marshall, chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the war: “This is the disintegration of not only armed forces, but apparently of all conception of world responsibility.”
Added Clay: “It was under these conditions that I am sure the Russians made up their mind that it was time to push; that our actions didn’t indicate any desire on our part to stay in Europe.”
Still, there were East-West factors, having nothing to do with military strength, that the Soviets did not understand. As early as late June, a series of vivid “Top Secret” memos from the Central Intelligence Agency to the President emphasized the interdependence of the economies of the two halves of Berlin. In fact, though it had never been announced publicly, during the spring of 1948, the Allies ordered West German manufacturers to gradually reduce industrial exports to East Germany—and increased those measures, again without announcement, throughout the airlift. It was a tactic Soviet military officials did not take into account until it was too late. As the CIA reported to Truman on June 30:
A conference was held in Karlshorst on June 28 between Russian officials, and German members of the German Industrial Committee. Sokolovsky asked the industrialists what was the influence on the Eastern Zone of Germany of the [counter] blockades from the Western Zone.
A German representative stated that being cut off from the West meant a complete stoppage of production in sugar refineries for lack of 50,000 meters of steel piping on order in the Western Zone; it also meant a complete closing down of canneries since all raw material was received from the West; and a certain discontinuance of the Baltic fishing fleet in a short time because of a lack of machinery parts . . . The German member then stated that heavy industries, particularly the steel mills in Hennigsdorf, could not produce without the West and that other heavy industries in the Eastern Zone would be equally affected . . .”
American officials estimated that before the blockade eastern Germans were importing 320,000 tons of processed steel, 400,000 tons of chemicals and 110,000 tires from the west during the last year.
Sokolovsky was in a rage, reported the CIA. “He replied that the Russians had been led to believe the East could be independent of the West.”
Another Russian general shouted: “We had no idea of this situation; Russia is suffering from heavy droughts and is counting on German food supplies this year . . . If we had known this, we would not have gone so far.”
Angrily, Sokolovsky said this meant only three possibilities were available now:
“Start a war.
“Lift travel restrictions on Berlin.
“Leave entire Berlin to the West, giving them a rail line.”
After the meeting, Col. Serge Tulpanov, head of the Soviet Information Division in Germany, said that war was impossible due to bad harvest prospects and that lifting travel restrictions would make the Russians lose face. The third possibility was that the West would have to feed all of Berlin and would have more on their hands than they had bargained for.
Field comment: The above information is an indication that the Russians mean business in the present crisis. Having gone this far, it is difficult to see how they could back down.
In some ways, that Monday, June 28, 1948, defined the Berlin Blockade and then the airlift. The Soviets had gone too far on too little information. Later in the day, the President of the United States took his own leap of faith. At lunchtime in Washington, Truman called in Defense Secretary James Forrestal, Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall and Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett, representing Marshall, who was ill. They all dismissed the idea of an airlift, with Lovett beginning to list options for leaving the city. He was cut off by the President:
“We stay in Berlin. Period.”
* Social Democratic Party is abbreviated SPD, from its German name, Social-demokratische Partei Deutschlands.
* Clay’s most important biographer, Jean Edward Smith, did two hundred hours of interviews with his subject. Asked how well he knew Clay, Smith answered: “I would not presume to say I ‘knew’ him. He was not a first-name kind of guy.”
* Cannibalism in postwar Berlin was part of the plot of The Dark Arena, a novel written by a civilian employee of OMGUS (Office of Military Government, United States). The book, written in 1953 and published in 1955, received good reviews but did not sell well until fifteen years later, when its author, Mario Puzo, wrote his third book, The Godfather.
* Lochner, fluent in German, became famous years later for an odd mistake. In 1961, he phonetically taught President John Kennedy to say, in German, the phrase “I am a Berliner!” for a famous speech the President gave in Berlin in 1963. Somehow, the phrase became “Ich bin ein Berliner” rather than “Ich bin Berliner”—and thus could be translated comically as “I am a jelly doughnut.” “A Berliner”—the article is important—is not a citizen but a pastry.
* Few Soviet documents have been found concerning the blockade and airlift, except for minutes of a Politburo meeting of June 30, 1948, when there was a short discussion of Soviet anti-aircraft readiness. One Soviet military historian, Viktor Gorbarev, spent years searching archives and concluded that, as in the case of other historical failures of Stalin’s, records had been destroyed or never kept. “There was no settled Stalin policy for Europe or for Berlin,” said Gorbarev. “It was all action, counter-action.” Norman Naimark, author of The Russians in Germany, came to a similar conclusion: “Soviet documents never refer to a blockade except when describing Western propaganda.”
© 2010 Reeves- O'Neill, Inc.
Meet the Author
Richard Reeves is the author of presidential bestsellers, including President Nixon and President Kennedy, acclaimed as the best nonfiction book of the year by Time magazine. A syndicated columnist and winner of the American Political Science Association's Carey McWilliams Award, he lives in New York and Los Angeles.
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Richard Reeves book on the airlift, frankly, is a triumph. I could not put it down. So many human stories about how people reacted to being reactivated and sent to Berlin. Reeves also does a good job of describing what the citizen of Berlin went through during the airlift by mining some of the diaries and letters from the time period. He also looks at some of the major decisions made by the communist leaders of East Germany and the Soviet Union and does an admirable job of explaining how East and West Germany formed. While not completely comprehensive - it is a wonderful book about a very important time in world history. I highly recommend.
Great book. I recommended it to my son who is a pilot of business jets. He was surprised to learn of many of the advancements to aviation that came from the airlift as was I. I was a first-gr.ader in 1948 and I remember reading about the airlift in the paper and seeing the newsreels at rhe movie. But this book really brought it to life again and showed the true American spirit, how we can come to the aid of our former enemies, who are real people. This single event really helped end WWII and get the Europeans back together after a long and bitter struggle. Little did Stalin know what his attempt to cutoff Berlin would have on the west.
An excellent read on a poorly remembered subject. The book lays out the factual details of the airlift as well as its political difficulties and effects. The author takes the time to put a human face on a number of the participants in the airlift thus preventing this from being a simple historical description. If for nothing else, the book should be read to remind younger generations of Americans of the sacrifices made by their fathers and grandfathers on behalf of a besieged and defeated Germany as well as the free world.
Difficult to follow the chronology. Altho extensively researched many technical aspects were inaccurate. (I have flown those aircraft)
I ordered this book because my older brother flew as a flight mechanic during the Berlin Airlift and later served in the Air Force in Korea. Both events are almost totally forgotten in American History. To my surprise, the book provided more than just historical information that I was seeking, but also was very entertaining and captivating to read! I have talked to quite a cross-section of people since reading the book and not one knew the Berlin Airlift ever existed! The book prvoided me an insight into how important the Airlift was to U. S. Cold War Era Policy. And, how close we came to abandoning central Europe after WW-II. The author has a engaging style of "incident" or "Short Story Telling" to make his historic points, which keeps you coming back for more! A Great Read and a Historical Significant Book on a Group of "Daring Young Men" who were also part of the Great Generation!!
The story of the Berlin Airlift is one of American and British tenacity and courage. Some American politicans wanted to abandon Berlin to the Russians;Harry Truman's response was we stay in Berlin period!Richard Reeves writes about this epic story of suppling Berlin by air when the Russians cut off land access. It is a fabulous read.You will learn about General William F Tunner the man who really made the airlift work,and about the men who were called back to active duty by President Truman who flew the C-54's for the USAF and USN,some of whom had flown bombers during World War II,and about Britain's Royal Air Force flying smaller C-47's.You will also learn about the people of Berlin and the city where there was little food,and no lights or power. This book is enlightening,shocking,and superbly researched.It is an eye-opener and a part of history every American should come to understand.