Berlin Airlift: The Cold War Begins – Extra History


June 1948.The Oval Office. The cabinet gathers for a conference with President Truman. Four days prior, the Soviet Union blockaded the American, British, and French occupied sectors of Berlin. With the divided city located a hundred miles inside the Soviet controlled zone of East Germany, there’s no way for American food and fuel the lifeline of its undernourished populace – to get through. The city only has 36 days worth of food remaining and only 45 days of coal. Allied troops are surrounded, outnumbered 62 to 1. The cabinet lays out three options: One,American forces could withdraw… But that would signal that Western democracies are unable to counter Soviet aggression. Two,they could stay in Berlin until the starving population forces them out and accepts Soviet rule out of desperation. Or 3 they could send an armed convoy to open the roads, but that would start another World War. They advise Truman to withdraw. Truman says,”We stay in Berlin. Period.” You remember that series on Hiawatha we did a while back? Those episodes were sponsored by the folks at DomiNations. And we enjoyed doing those so much that when they said – “Hey, we’re about to introduce the Cold War era into our game, you want to do some episodes about that?” Our answer was “Heck yeah, we do!” So today, we are gonna talk about the Berlin Airlift. An event that not only set off the Cold War, but established how it would be fought. You see, after Germany’s surrender in WWII, the Allies divided Germany into four occupation zones. The Soviets in the East, and the Americans, British, and French in the West. And Berlin, though it lay in the Soviet zone, was divided as well. The problem was that the Allies had two competing irreconcilable visions for Germany. The Soviets had suffered two German invasions in the span of 30 years. They wanted this country broken and subordinate, so it could never threaten Russia again. They also wanted it to function as a buffer zone to keep the Western powers at bay. In the end, Stalin’s goal was a communist puppet state in Germany, and the Allies out of Berlin. But America and Britain believed that Nazi extremism had arisen due to the Great Depression, and that the best chance for a peaceful Europe was a prosperous, democratic Germany. They also hoped that it would be a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. So this joint occupation effort was doomed to failure from the outset. But the final showdown came over currency. Berlin was an economic ruin. Allied bombing had destroyed most of its industrial foundation, and even three years after the war most Berliners lived in the basements of shattered buildings. Some were living on just nine hundred calories a day. The biggest problem was the value of German currency, which was so low that a loaf of bread often cost an entire paycheck. The city’s real currency at this point was American cigarettes, and most civilians survived by a combination of black-market, food aid, and prostitution. The Allies made an attempt at currency reform, but this attempt failed when the Soviets sabotaged the effort by printing billions of extra notes. By 1948 the frustrated Western powers were secretly planning to introduce a new currency: the Deutsche Mark, and met behind Stalin’s back to discuss forming a West German state. The Soviets found out about this, and in protest, abandoned the Four Power Council. In response, the Western Allies released the new currency. And Stalin had his pretext. On June 23rd, Soviet troops encircled Berlin, blockading the road and rail line the Allies had been using to supply the city. The city’s power stations, located in the Soviet sector, cut electricity. The Berlin Blockade had begun, and Truman had to choose between retreat or war. But there was another possibility. The Soviets had interrupted traffic to Berlin before, months earlier. But the Allies had continued supplying their troops via air. Truman wondered whether a similar airlift could supply all of Berlin. After all, the only way you can stop a plane is to shoot at it…which would be an act of war. American generals dismissed this idea as impossible, but the Royal Air Force thought different. After years of war shortages, the British were experts in rationing, and they ran the numbers. They concluded that it would take 4,000 tons of food and fuel per day to keep Berlin from collapsing. But to move that much cargo in C-47 transports would mean over 1,300 flights every 24 hours, and only the Americans had that capacity. Under pressure from Truman, the U.S. generals agreed to try. The first flights began on June 26th. Despite Soviet threats, the anti-aircraft guns stayed silent. They had called Stalin’s bluff. But the airlift didn’t have enough planes or crews. The Air Force tried bringing in air wings from as far away as Guam, but it still wasn’t enough. Two weeks in, the airlift was only delivering 1,000 tons per day – – a quarter of what they needed – and conditions were perilous. The American airport at Tempelhof was a grass field that needed to be patched between landings. An apartment block stood directly on the approach path, its roof just 17 feet below the landing gear. Those C-47s were old leftovers from the war. Coal and flour dust, both of which were explosive by the way, filled the plane’s cargo holds. The 24-hour nature of this operation strained both the airmen and their antiquated planes, and all the while, Soviet Yak fighters buzzed the transports, keeping the pressure on. But despite the shortfall on the cargo quota, the airlift spurred a wave of enthusiasm. Across Europe, people set aside wartime grudges in an effort to keep Berlin from starving. Blitz survivors in London sent care packages to Berlin. Many RAF mechanics didn’t even wait to be called up… they just grabbed their tool boxes and hitched a flight to Hamburg. Germans, previously hostile to the pilots who had leveled their cities, instead began plying Allied airmen with beer. It was a chaotic cowboy operation. So Washington dispatched a man to tame it. General William Tunner was a taciturn man who loved him some charts. During the war, he had commanded an airlift that flew supplies over the Himalayas and into occupied China. Now he was given the objective of delivering 4,000 tons per day. First thing first, he created a tight schedule. Planes would take off and land at precise 3-minute intervals. The flights would stack at five altitudes, maximizing the number of planes in the air. When the crews landed, they’d have 30 minutes to unload before taking off again. Tunner also enforced maintenance checks, brought in fresh U.S. Navy pilots, and replaced the C-47s with larger-capacity C-54s. To make up for the ground crew shortage, he hired Germans to unload cargo and patch runways, and after translating the maintenance manuals, he assigned former Luftwaffe mechanics to repair planes. Men who had been shooting at each other only three years before, now worked side-by-side. Tunner’s shakeup worked. On August 12th the airlift reached its target for the first time. 4,500 tons. Then – Tunner discovered that one of his pilots, Gail Halvorsen, had been making unauthorized cargo drops. Every time Halvorsen came in for a landing, he would drop off little handkerchief parachutes containing parcels of candy to the children that gathered near the runway. Berliners loved it, and Tunner saw the PR potential. He ordered the candy drops expanded and sent Halvorsen on a press tour back home. The airlift, a humanitarian effort without traditional military heroes, finally had a public face. And that PR victory was good news, because winter was coming. The Soviets had been stalling diplomatically for exactly this reason. Surely, deteriorating weather would put a stop to this airlift for good. Fog came in heavy that season. At times, it lay so thick on the runways that ground crews had to crawl, for fear of walking into an unseen propeller. Aircraft landed in zero visibility with iced-up engines. They collided in mid-air, they smashed into mountain ranges. Exhausted pilots fell asleep at the stick. Meteorologists, circling in B-29s, alerted ground control of 15-minute breaks in the weather that would allow flights to get through. And somehow they did! On New Year’s Eve, 1948, Allied forces delivered over 6,000 tons a new record. And as winter passed and the weather began to let up, the airlift had began to deliver more supplies than the city had ever received by rail. This success emboldened anti-Soviet politicians within Berlin. In September, Ernst Reuter, elected mayor in 1947 but blocked from taking his seat by the Soviets, gave a fiery speech before a crowd of 300,000 Berliners, imploring the world not to abandon the city to totalitarianism. That December, he won the mayor’s office, appearing around the world as the face of free Berlin. In retaliation, the Soviets installed their own communist city government in East Berlin. Stalin’s strategy had backfired. Instead of preventing a West German state, he had fueled it. Far from revealing Allied weaknesses, he had allowed them to take the moral high ground – – demonstrating their commitment and turning Germans from an occupied people into comrades. And the blockade was damaging East Berlin’s economy. Its factories couldn’t function without goods from the Western sector. The Soviets had been outmaneuvered. On May 12th, 1949, Soviet soldiers removed the roadblocks, and allowed the first American supply convoy to pass into Berlin. That road would never close again. In 15 months of operation the airlift delivered over 2.4 million tons of food and fuel, saving Berlin from famine. 79 Allied personnel and German civilians lost their lives to the effort, and the world would never be the same. Stalin’s willingness to starve civilians marked a turning point, uniting Western Europe in a coalition to contain Soviet influence. A month before the end of the blockade, this new alliance – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO – was formally signed into being. And within weeks, West Germany formally became its own country, followed by Communist East Germany. Europe was divided in half, and two months later the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb. It was the beginning of a new kind of war. One of political influence, fought by great powers over proxy states. A war of threat and restraint, where governments tested just how far they could push the other, without starting a full-scale conflict. But the Soviets and the Americans would never again square off as directly as they did during the airlift. When nuclear armament is in play, that is just not the kind of gamble you take. Thanks again to our friends at DomiNations for sponsoring this episode. We’ll see you soon!

100 thoughts on “Berlin Airlift: The Cold War Begins – Extra History”

  1. The Soviet Union has blockaded half of Berlin. The people will soon starve. Only the daring, impossible Berlin Airlift can save the city and prevent another World War.

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  2. Am I the only one who imagined Truman pushing his glasses up like an anime character when he said "we stay in Berlin, period"?

  3. Hey the guy who would drop the candy the kids in Berlin called him Mr. Wiggle Wings because he would wiggle his planes wings to tell them

  4. I would like to see why France was included in the 4 powers agreement. I get that they didn’t want to leave them out for future relationships but didn’t France have enough problems rebuilding their own country?

  5. Stalin: Blocks Roads In Order To Stop People From Aiding Berlin
    Everyone else: Uses Aircraft
    Stalin: Wait. That's illegal.

  6. West Germany: Look Up Stalin

    U.S Plane: You Can Block The Roads

    Canada: But We Are Flying In…

    Australia Over-Radio: With Peaceful Payloads

    All of Berlin cheers

    Soviet Union: STUPID Yanks

  7. “Never squared off like they did over the air lifts” how about the Cuban missile crisis??? We were ready to blow up Soviet ships. The US basically did what the soviets did to Berlin to Cuba. Fortunately the soviets turned around but that was close.

  8. Allies: Hey can you not shoot down our planes please
    Stalin: To transport tourists?
    Allies: Yes

    ACTUALLY AIRLIFTS GOODS TO BERLIN

    Stalin: Cyka Blyat

  9. When I start to dwell on the fucked up things humans have done, I remember things like this. Maybe we should have more faith in our species.

  10. Berlin Wall got Destroyed When Polish Solidarność Happen because Russia Doesnt got Road to their Zone so When solidarność Happen, SOVIET Union been Near falling

  11. RAF Pilot: Listen, Stalin, you can block the roads, but the Brits are flying in with peaceful payloads!
    Another RAF Pilot: Ha, good on you, mate, how about credit to the US, Aussie, Kiwi and Canadian effort?
    RAF Pilot: We be dropping 9.000 tons of supplies a day, mostly coal and potatoes, hardly gourmet, now give me a runway, I need to hit the ground!
    Another RAF Pilot: You can head home, mate, Stalin's just backed down!

  12. CRAZY how the same people who firebombed German cities were jumping at the chance to supply Germans with food after the war.

  13. no no no the cold war was started by Churchill's Iron Curtain speech and the ensuing marshall plan. Blame it all on the soviet side like you did in this video is not fair at all.

  14. The Berlin Airlift was also notable for being the first major operation by the USAF as an independent branch of the US Military. It was less than a year old at the start of the operation!

  15. Is anyone rewatching old series and respecting how good their design and animation is doing now? It looks so good now.

  16. How much did a Berlin prostitute charge in 1948? Was it the same dirt cheap price tag of 1923 Weimar Republic? If a prostitute was working when she was 18 years old in 1923, did that mean that she did the same in her early forties too? And did she get raped by the red army prior to that as well?

  17. The lessons learned in the Berlin Airlift also were applied within a few years to air travel in general and especially to the air transport of packages.

  18. This gave me an idea for an alternative Chess gamemode.
    I call it "The Cold War."
    How it works:
    The two opponents have to make moves each turn.
    If a Chess piece is moved into a position where it can attack any piece, it HAS to.
    The goal is to get as close as possible to being able to attack, but not actually ever attacking, for as long as possible.

  19. I really like how even the Luftwaffe came around and started helping out. You have to wonder how, after they'd suffered so many crippling defeats, the Allies still gave them a real chance to help out their country. That must have really helped their pride.

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