Checkmate in Berlin: The Birth of the Cold War

The Soviet blockade had the potential to be catastrophic for the Allies in Berlin, and was the opening battle of the Cold War.
Berliners watch a USAF supply plane land at Tempelhof Airport during the blockade.
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Checkmate in Berlin

Colonel Frank ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Howley had been in Berlin for three years when he found himself facing the greatest crisis of the post-war period. As acting commandant of the city’s American sector, his principal task was to supply food and fuel to almost a million Berliners. This had long been a logistical challenge, but now, in the summer of 1948, it became all but impossible. Howley found himself in a dramatic showdown with his erstwhile Soviet partners, one that risked flaring into full-blown war.

The Soviets had long been unhappy with the post-war agreement to divide the German capital between the victorious powers; the US, Britain, France and themselves. They were intent on driving the Western Allies out of the city, and Stalin had made it no secret that he wanted the whole of Berlin brought under Soviet rule.

The Soviet Military Administration made its move on 23 June, 1948. They issued a communiqué stating that it was cutting all road and rail links to Berlin’s three western sectors, virtually an act of war. Berlin lay 110 miles inside Soviet-occupied Germany, and the Western Allies were dependent on these links to bring food to their 2.4 million inhabitants.

The three air routes into Berlin, which was surrounded by Soviet occupied East Germany. Credit: Creative Commons

Once the road and rail links were cut, the only means of access to the city’s western sectors were the three air corridors pre-agreed in 1945. The Soviets had no means of preventing the Allies from flying into Berlin from Frankfurt, Lubeck and elsewhere, short of shooting down their planes, something Colonel Frank Howley gambled they would not dare do. Yet, he also knew that supplying 2.4 million inhabitants by air was logistically impossible, because absolutely everything needed importing into Berlin; salt, milk, potatoes, medical supplies, gasoline and coal. Without coal, there could be no electricity. Without electricity, there could be no functioning sewage plants. No heating. No lighting. No clean water.

In the weeks that preceded the Soviet blockade, the daily delivery of supplies to the capital’s western sectors had been 13,500 tons. Howley reckoned the minimum requirement for subsistence to be 4,500 tons. But the carrying capacity of a C-47 Workhorse of World War Two was just two-and-a-half tons. Therein lay the problem. It would require 1,800 flights a day to keep the city’s inhabitants alive, with a plane landing every 96 seconds at each of the two airports in the western sectors.

The British had just six Dakotas at Wunstorf airfield in western Germany, while the Americans had 50 battered C-47s. Such a motley collection of aircraft could not possibly keep Berlin alive.

The effect of the Soviets’ blockade was instantaneous, as journalist Anthony Mann noted, ‘Lights went out, machinery and pumping stations stopped, trains came to a halt’. Within hours, untreated sewage was flowing into the rivers and canals. More alarming was the fact that 89 per cent of the west’s electricity supply was generated in the east. The western sectors had just two small auxiliary generators to supply them with power.

Frank Howley said that the western sectors of Berlin ‘seethed with excitement when the people realized they were in a state of siege.’ It didn’t seem very exciting to Berlin resident Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, who had neither light nor power. The only glimmer of comfort came from Colonel Howley himself, whose radio broadcasts insisted that the Americans would never abandon Berlin.

Howley was given the green light to launch a full-scale airlift on 26 June, 1948. Messages were immediately flashed to American airbases across the globe. Captain Clifford ‘Ted’ Harris was stationed on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean when he got the call from Germany. ‘Ted,’ said his navigator, ‘we’re going to Berlin!’ From Alaska to California, Massachusetts to Alabama, American airmen received similar calls to action.

British airmen also received curt summonses. Flight Lieutenant Dick Arscott was about to set off on a weekend’s leave when his trip was abruptly cancelled. Within hours, Arscott and his comrades from Forty-Six Squadron were heading for Berlin.

Eight suitable airfields in western Germany had been selected for the airlift. These were to serve as giant larders for Berlin’s inhabitants, with food and fuel to be flown down the three air corridors. The two serviceable airfields in West Berlin – Gatow (in the British sector) and Tempelhof (in the American sector) were to receive dozens of planes every hour.

The airmen were to work a 16-hour day, seven days a week, with up to three return trips to Berlin each day. Along with exhaustion, pilots faced constant Soviet harassment, with Yak fighters swooping down on them in 370-mph dives. When flight engineer Albert Carotenuto made his final approach into Berlin, the Yaks’ piston-driven engines sent his plane into a violent shudder, ‘one micro-second on either side and it would be mincemeat.’

The commander of Berlin’s Soviet sector, General Alexander Kotikov, had powerful searchlights positioned so as to blind incoming flights at night. ‘A blinding, blinding flash of bright white light,’ recalled airman Gary Munn, ‘I couldn’t see from here to the windshield, let alone ten miles ahead’. It was a miracle the control tower was able to talk him down to the ground.

Frank ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Howley

Frank Howley watched the blockade-busting planes with a mixture of awe and pride. By July, some 50,000 tons of food had been delivered to besieged Berliners. It was less than half the daily minimum, and meant that a million people faced starvation, but Howley was already planning a massive increase in capacity.

At the end of July, the airlift was placed in the hands of aeronautical pioneer Major-General William Tunner, who’d spent his war years running guns to the Chinese forces of Chiang Kai-shek.

Tunner instigated two new rules that were henceforth to govern the airlift. First, all planes were to fly an unchanging flight pattern determined entirely by instrument. Second, any pilot who missed his landing slot was to return immediately to base. This enabled an unbroken succession of planes to land and take off.

Aircraft flew into Berlin at five different altitudes and at intervals of 500 feet, with planes taking off and landing every 90 seconds. This allowed 480 planes to land each day at Tempelhof, the principal American airfield.

Tunner’s shake-up of the airlift soon reaped dividends, with his British-American fleet delivering increasingly large quantities of supplies. But he knew that supplying Berlin by air during the winter months would be a huge challenge.

The first sign of serious trouble came in November, when fog forced the closure of Berlin’s airfields. The city was deprived of 1,500 tons of essential supplies, and conditions soon grew worse. In full, 15 days in November proved impossible for flying, with scarcely any planes getting through. On the worst-hit day, the capital received just ten tons of food instead of the 5,000 tons required to keep Berliners from starvation.

Even the bullish Frank Howley feared the worst. ‘The frightening way in which our stocks were disappearing warned us that unless we replenished them at once, they would be exhausted within a week or – at the most – ten days.’

And then came a sudden deep freeze that coincided with a complete rupture to West Berlin’s power supply. In the space of a week, Howley’s worst nightmare had come to pass; Berlin had been brought to its knees.

The Soviet commandant, General Kotikov, was confident that his siege would succeed. West Berliners were starving, and it would not take much more hardship, along with the inducement of extra rations, to cause them to throw in their lot with the Soviets.

But just when the airlift reached its deepest crisis, in January 1949 there was a sudden meteorological upturn that allowed planes to begin landing again. Within hours, the city’s empty warehouses were being slowly, but steadily, replenished.

For the first time in months, there was a renewed sense of optimism. ‘The airlift was running like clockwork’ wrote Howley. Supplies were averaging 8,000 tons a day, and on occasions, topped 10,000.

General Tunner was also feeling confident, for he now had a combined British-American fleet of 379 aircraft flying around the clock. In his airlift headquarters, 50 analytical charts were updated each minute. ‘A quick look, any hour of the day, would give me a clear picture of the entire complex operation.’

The most successful day of all was Easter Sunday, 1949, when a staggering 12,941 tons was delivered to Berlin. It was such an astonishing achievement that Howley knew the battle was all but won. ‘A succession of these record loads,’ he said, ‘would see us holding out in Berlin until the Kremlin toppled into Red Square.’

When the siege finally came to an end, it caught everyone by surprise. Howley was seated in his office on Wednesday, 4 May, 1949, when a sensational communiqué from the State Department clattered through the Teletype machine. It said that the Berlin blockade was to end in eight days, and that Stalin had agreed that the city’s future should be decided at a specially convened Council of Foreign Ministers. The Soviet blockade was to end at 00:01 hours on 12 May, 1949, the end to a siege that had lasted 323 days.

As radioman Rudolf-Gunter Wagner broadcast this news to Berliners, his words were drowned out by joyous whoops. ‘Hurrah!’ they shouted. ‘We’re still alive!’ The mayor’s son, Edzard Reuter, saw happiness on people’s faces and knew why, ‘freedom had arrived.’

Among those in the streets was Ella Barowsky, a member of the Berlin City Assembly. After struggling throughout that terrible year of siege, she found it hard to contain her emotions. ‘We’ve done it!’ she cried, before adding four words that gave her the greatest lift of all. ‘The West has won!’

Many felt as if they were living through a key moment in European history, one that would forever change the world. The idea of Soviet rule in West Berlin, Stalin’s dream, was now unthinkable. The western sectors of Berlin were to remain as allied outposts in the heart of Soviet-occupied Germany.

For Frank Howley, it was the crowning moment of his career. Never shy to blast his own trumpet, he praised himself. He had been the first to recognize that Berlin faced grave danger from the Soviets, and he had also realized the need to punch hard and low if you’re going to win. When summing up his four tumultuous years in Berlin, he was characteristically frank: ‘Only a fool would say that I had not done a good job.’ As so often with Howley, the statement was cocky, brash and outrageous. But it was also true. He, more than anyone, had saved Berlin from the Soviets.

Giles Milton is the author of Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World is available now.