The Unheralded: Men and Women of the Berlin Blockade and Airlift – Book Review
The Unheralded: Men and Women of the Berlin Blockade and Airlift
Victoria , BC , 2003
" The Blockade of surface and water routes into West Berlin by the Soviet Union in Summer 1948 was an act of war ."
Chuck Powell, airlift pilot
Indeed it was. The USSR’s action to cut off Berlin from contact with the west was the first shot of the first battle of the Cold War. Why then, do so few people, outside the participants and the Berliners, know so little of this monumental event? Thank fully, the author, himself a veteran of both World War Two and the Berlin Airlift, redresses that oversight.
It did not take long after the end of the war for tensions to appear between the USSR and the Western Allies. It quickly became evident that the Soviets intended making all of Western Europe their private fiefdom, aspirations that did not sit well with the western democracies. Indeed several analysts forecasted continuing and escalating turbulence with the Soviets in regards to Germany in general, and Berlin specifically.
Charles Bohlen, the State Department’s top Soviet expert, related to General Lucius Clay, the Administrator of the US Zone of Germany, that he (Clay), would come to distrust the Soviets more than anyone. Indeed, Clay harbored a roiling distrust of, and disdain for, his Soviet counterparts. Additionally, Bohlen reported that by the end of 1947, ". . .there appeared to be no room for compromise, no common ground, and it appears that each side is intent on making sole entity of its sector." Indeed, relations seemed to be able to go no direction but down. In this climate, some form of confrontation was inevitable. Continued harassment of Allied troops and convoy by the Soviets escalated throughout this period, reaching a very high level in April 1948, and continuing until the imposition of the blockade on 24 June 1948.
Mr. Gere deftly blends accounts of the mechanics of the airlift itself, with the accounts and remembrances of those whom the airlift touched directly – the people of Berlin, and the troops who contributed, in whatever manner, to the airlift. Pilots and navigators, radio operators and mechanics, administrative troops and MP’s, and several others – all played their part and were essential to smooth operation of the airlift. Another group were residents of Berlin who worked at the three airbases (Tegel, Templehof and Gatow), mostly as unloaders. For these workers, the job carried an extra bonus – a hot meal for each day that they worked. In a Berlin suffering privation and hunger, this was a welcome part of their work.
At the imposition of the blockade, many Berliners despaired of their fate, certain that the Western Allies would abandon them to the Red Army. After all, how willing would the Allies be to fight for people whom, only three years previously, had been their enemies? Regardless, Gen Clay and General Brian Robertson (British Administrator in Germany) resolved to stand fast and defend Berlin against Soviet encroachment. In fact, General Clay proposed sending a convoy, with armored escort, up, the southern corridor, dismissing the chance of aggressive action against such a convoy. Perhaps fortuitously, his proposal was dismissed by President Truman and his National Security Staff. The airlift started slowly, but swiftly gained speed reaching and then exceeding the absolute minimum of 4,500 tons daily, growing to 5,500 tons and on the "Easter Parade", 16 April 1949 , and at one point reaching 12,940 tons in 1,398 flights. Early on, General Clay summoned Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter to his office, explaining that the pivotal group in defeating the blockade was the Berliners. If they could weather the privations of the blockade – insufficient, food, coal and other necessities, the Allies would win. If however, their morale and determination broke, the Allies would be defeated – Reuter assured that the Berliners would do their part.
Another aspect arose frequently in accounts of the airlift – the non-participation of the French. On 24 April 1948, the US Ambassador to France, Jefferson Caffery, delivered the French position – they did not agree with the resolve to defend Berlin at all costs. Flying old, slow Ju-52 transports, the French flew in supplies sufficient to provision only their garrison.
Many visions come to mind when considering the Berlin Airlift – Allied transport aircraft with Soviet fighter "escorts"; German children look up in awe at arriving aircraft, and sometimes being rewarded with candy; the hurried unloading and turn-around of airlift aircraft; the tragic crashes of some aircraft, whether from poor weather conditions, aircrew fatigue, mechanical failure or otherwise; the menacing presence of the Red Army around the city. etc. Every person who contributed to the Berlin Airlift is a hero – the children and adults of Berlin, the pilots, navigators and radio operators, the air traffic controllers and ground crew, the administrative workers and supply troops, the MPs and others. Mr. Gere’s tour-de-force accounting of the Berlin Airlift and Blockade is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the immediate post war years, the roots of the Cold War and the level of animosity between the Soviets and the West.