Zero Hour

E.S. Turner

  • The Berlin Blockade by Ann Tusa and John Tusa
    Hodder, 445 pp, £16.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 340 41607 6

The last Dakota to fly supplies into Berlin in 1949, at the end of the Soviet road-and-rail blockade of that city, was inscribed with one of those apt Biblical references which the Services (usually the Royal Navy) seem able to conjure up at will: Psalm 21, verse 11. The verse reads: ‘For they intended evil against thee; they imagined a mischievous device, which they are not able to perform.’

Berlin was (and still is) jointly occupied by the Soviet Union, America, Britain and France. Stalin’s intransigence was supposedly inspired by the Western Allies’ decision to introduce a new currency in the city and to reorganise their occupation zones in Germany. To the Allies this blockade seemed more than mere mischief: it was a pretext for driving them out of Berlin, preparatory to consolidating and expanding Soviet power westward, which would have been seen as an open invitation to World War Three. Those who lived through the months of the Berlin airlift need no reminding of what a nerve-fraying period it was. The Soviet presence in the heart of Europe was like one of those amorphous monsters which grip and immobilise the sleeper in a full-blooded cauchemar. Was it conceivable that Stalin, who looked on Berlin as his by conquest, would hesitate to destroy any ‘air bridge’ the West might inaugurate – either by putting up balloons and anti-aircraft barrages or by fighter interception (as distinct from hostile ‘buzzing’)? Or would he, knowing a casus belli when he saw one, and knowing that the West possessed the ultimate weapon, sit back and hope that the monstrous logistics of the airlift would cause the Allies to abandon their stake in Berlin? Could the West afford such a bruising defeat?

Luckily there was not too much ferreting about in Psalm 21, which contains plausible pretexts for dropping an atomic bomb. Verse 9 runs, ‘Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger,’ and verse 10: ‘Their fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men.’ The authors of The Berlin Blockade say: ‘The Joint Chiefs of Staff were asked to study when or whether an atomic bomb might ever be dropped. Its use was never contemplated by anyone in authority as a solution to the Berlin crisis.’ President Truman, we are told, declined to hand over control of the bomb to the military, for fear ‘some dashing Lieutenant-Colonel’ should ‘decide when would be the proper time to drop one’. According to Ann and John Tusa, Winston Churchill, then out of office, ‘went on a solitary rampage, growling that the Russians must be told to retreat from Berlin or “we will raze their cities.” ’ Perhaps he had only old-fashioned razing in mind. (Lord Boothby has put it on record that Churchill’s advice at the time was to say to the Russians, politely: ‘If we have to leave Berlin, you will have to leave Moscow.’)

It was the strangest of ironies that a city which had symbolised the worst of Prussianism in two world wars should now be treated as a symbol of freedom by the West. After only three years of peace it was time to love the thing we hated. Berliners had become ‘heroes’, meaning people who just had to take it, like Londoners in the Blitz. The reason for this improbable volte-face was to be found in the military map of Europe. In 1945 the Western armies, under Eisenhower, did not attempt a race to the German capital, seeing no reason to waste lives on a prestige exploit. After the victorious Red Army had been allowed a little ‘fun’, as Stalin put it, the city was placed under quadripartite rule, each power responsible for its own sector. Access to Berlin was by way of the long, exposed road and rail routes running through what was now the Soviet Zone of Germany. The city was ‘a first-class military liability’, as Field-Marshal Montgomery pointed out. The Allies had thrust their collective head into the bear’s mouth and the bear would have had to be very un-bear-like not to slaver from time to time at its good fortune.

The first experimental tightening of the jaws came at the end of March 1948 when the Russians sought to enforce documentation and searches of all Allied military trains entering Berlin. General Lucius D. Clay, Military Governor of the American Zone, at once alerted Washington saying he intended to fire on Soviet guards if they tried to board American trains:

Obviously, the full consequences of this action must be understood. Unless we take a strong line now, our life in Berlin will become impossible. I do not believe that the Soviets mean war now. However, if they do, it seems to me that we might as well find out now as later. We cannot afford to be bluffed.

This, say the authors, was ‘pushing things a bit for Washington’. Clay was far from being ‘a dashing Lieutenant-Colonel’, but President Truman was firmly against gung-ho exploits with military trains and Clay was ordered to cool it.

The British Foreign Secretary was Ernest Bevin, with the reputation of ‘a fixer and shrewd horse-trader’. His dislike of the Germans (‘I tries ’ard ... but I ’ates them’) had come about, we are told, ‘not as the result of Nazism and the war, but because he could never forgive the German socialists for backing the Kaiser in 1914’. However, he was opposed to Communism in Europe as in the trade unions and was determined that Britain should not pull out of Berlin. The problem for the West, as he well knew, was not just that of maintaining a military presence, but of feeding and administering millions of Germans; the alternative was to hand them over to Russian rule. Meanwhile, Montgomery was at pains to point out that fighting a convoy up the autobahn was ‘not a good way to start a war’.

The show-down came slowly: a steady accumulation of snubs, pin-pricks, walk-outs, challenges, ultimatums, aerial buzzings, as exasperating to read about now as they were in the headlines at the time. Only gradually did the Allies drift into the airlift, a policy of seeming despair. Bevin, sensibly, took his time and refused to be panicked. It was obvious, however, that the main strain of any airlift would have to be taken by the Americans, whose logistical skills nobody disputed. With an eye to showing the Kremlin that he meant business, Bevin urged the Americans to send their heaviest aircraft to Britain, including B-29s, which were capable of carrying atomic bombs, though not yet adapted for that purpose. It says something for the mood of the time that the Labour Daily Herald welcomed the deployment of these aircraft in Britain.

We are a long way into The Berlin Blockade before the airlift takes shape, so concerned are the authors to record and evaluate all the moves in the game. Soon the scope of the enterprise begins to catch the imagination. Aircraft streamed into Berlin as if in an air-controller’s holiday nightmare, now stacking over the city in fog, now giving ‘rude wiggles of the wings’ as they flew low over the Russian-occupied Unter den Linden. Many aircraft had the role of coal-carts and suffered all the hazards of dust in the electrical equipment. Civilian planes joined in the lift, rather in the spirit of the little ships at Dunkirk, though it seems there was friction between those who were bound by discipline and those who were not. The American Air Force opened up a ‘little Corridor’ at Great Falls, Montana, where 100 crews a month were taught instrument flying. The French risked Russian fury by blowing up two Radio Berlin transmitter towers which were an aerial hazard, but near Tempelhof a 400-foot brewery chimney which not even Goering had been able to move survived defiantly.

In the hungry city life went on, sometimes absurdly. Under the auspices of an Elizabethan Festival for Berlin the Cambridge Madrigal Society arrived, ‘with a lot of jolly elderly ladies trilling “Fa la la” and “Hey nonny no” ’. The Cambridge Marlowe Society put on Measure for Measure and Webster’s The White Devil; there were performances of Purcell’s Music for Circe, lectures on English 16th-century literature and poetry readings. Those who saw the television series Fortunes of War, based on Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, with its caricatures of British Council activities in wartime Cairo, will get the idea. The Berliners made suitably sardonic jokes, on the lines of ‘Don’t get the jitters, allies, we are in front of you.’ Much dried food came their way, so dehydration was a running gag. A newspaper cartoon showed a baffled couple looking at a flat baby just delivered by the stork with the label ‘Dehydrated. Soak in warm water for twenty minutes.’ The story of an attempt to start a Free University in the ruins is less heart-warming than it should be. The old Berlin University was in the Russian Sector and subject to Marxist pressures, so, by popular demand, a rival institution was launched in the American Sector, starting with a house in Dahlem containing no more than a table, some chairs and a telephone. ‘Had it been left to the British the Free University would have been suffocated at birth,’ the Tusas say. The British officials saw too many difficulties. A new university ‘would necessarily be “a very poor affair”, as Robert Birley, the British Educational Adviser, sniffed’. Along with academic snobbery went ‘an acid tinge of anti-American feeling’: the brash Allies were making a vulgar bid for popularity, and so on. They even had the effrontery to appoint an American journalist to run it; his first ‘woolly’ report, said Birley, was ‘one of the most dishonest documents I have ever read’. In a very few weeks the Free University had 5000 would-be students, thirty professors and 400,000 books. A footnote on its later vicissitudes would have been welcome.

By the spring of 1949 the airlift was firmly established and looked ripe to go on for ever; its success had been helped by a mild winter. To universal relief, the Russians called it a day. During the winter the Allies had been preparing the North Atlantic Treaty. ‘Before the siege was imposed West Europe was ruined and helpless; when it was lifted the states were welded in strong military and economic alliance.’ Soon afterwards Bonn was designated as the capital of a Federal Republic, to serve in that role until Berlin should be politically free. But in 1961 came the final and unimagined insult to Berlin: the erection of the Wall. Glasnost may mean little as yet in Berlin, but it is useful to be reminded, forty years on, of what the Cold War was like at its frostiest. The authors of The Berlin Blockade are to be congratulated on their wide-ranging research, leavened by such piquancies as the complex tale affords.