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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: µFor 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 µair bridge¶ the West might inaugurate ± either by putting up balloons and anti-aircraft barrages or by fighter interception (as distinct from hostile µbuzzing¶)? 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, µThou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger,¶ and verse 10: µTheir fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men.¶ The authors of The Berlin Blockade say: µThe 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 µsome dashing Lieutenant-Colonel¶ should µdecide when would be the proper time to drop one¶. According to Ann and John Tusa, Winston Churchill, then out of office, µwent on a solitary rampage, growling that the Russians must be told to retreat from Berlin or ³we 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: µIf 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 µheroes¶, meaning people who just had to take it, like Londoners in the Blitz. T he 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
With an eye to showing the Kremlin that he meant business.. now stacking over the city in fog. as Stalin put it. he was opposed to Communism in Europe as in the trade unions and was determined that Britain should not pull out of Berlin. We cannot afford to be bluffed. rather in the spirit of the little ships at Dunkirk. 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. The city was µa first-class military liability¶. The show-down came slowly: a steady accumulation of snubs. Meanwhile. the city was placed under quadripartite rule. however. took his time and refused to be panicked. Bevin. that the main strain of any airlift would have to be taken by the Americans. if they do. challenges. Clay was far from being µa dashing Lieutenant-Colonel¶. as exasperating to read about now as they were in the headlines at the time. ultimatums. whose logistical skills nobody disputed. a policy of seeming despair. we are told. but because he could never forgive the German socialists for backing the Kaiser in 1914¶. However. The American 2 . was µpushing things a bit for Washington¶. now giving µrude wiggles of the wings¶ as they flew low over the Russian-occupied Unter den Linden. 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. Only gradually did the Allies drift into the airlift. aerial buzzings. sensibly. with the reputation of µa fixer and shrewd horse-trader¶.prestige exploit. The British Foreign Secretary was Ernest Bevin. The problem for the West.. Civilian planes joined in the lift. but of feeding and administering millions of Germans. We are a long way into The Berlin Blockade before the airlift takes shape. our life in Berlin will become impossible. pin-pricks. but President Truman was firmly against gung-ho exploits with military trains and Clay was ordered to cool it. which were capable of carrying atomic bombs. it seems to me that we might as well find out now as later. General Lucius D. It says something for the mood of the time that the Labour Daily Herald welcomed the deployment of these aircraft in Britain. the full consequences of this action must be understood. Unless we take a strong line now. was not just that of maintaining a military presence. walk-outs. µnot as the result of Nazism and the war. After the victorious Red Army had been allowed a little µfun¶. exposed road and rail routes running through what was now the Soviet Zone of Germany. though not yet adapted for that purpose. at once alerted Washington saying he intended to fire on Soviet guards if they tried to board American trains: Obviously. His dislike of the Germans (µI tries ¶ard . It was obvious. Bevin urged the Americans to send their heaviest aircraft to Britain. I do not believe that the Soviets mean war now. as Field-Marshal Montgomery pointed out. Military Governor of the American Zone. say the authors. Montgomery was at pains to point out that fighting a convoy up the autobahn was µnot a good way to start a war¶. Access to Berlin was by way of the long. This. Aircraft streamed into Berlin as if in an air-controller¶s holiday nightmare. as he well knew. so concerned are the authors to record and evaluate all the moves in the game. though it seems there was friction between those who were bound by discipline and those who were not. Many aircraft had the role of coal-carts and suffered all the hazards of dust in the electrical equipment. but I ¶ates them¶) had come about. Clay. However. the alternative was to hand them over to Russian rule. each power responsible for its own sector. including B-29s. Soon the scope of the enterprise begins to catch the imagination.
where 100 crews a month were taught instrument flying. the Russians called it a day. The Berliners made suitably sardonic jokes. as Robert Birley. µHad it been left to the British the Free University would have been suffocated at birth. and so on. of what the Cold War was like at its frostiest. al lies. will get the idea. µBefore the siege was imposed West Europe was ruined and helpless. The authors of The Berlin Blockade are to be congratulated on their wideranging research. 3 . In a very few weeks the Free University had 5000 would-be students. sniffed¶. when it was lifted the states were welded in strong military and economic alliance. But in 1961 came the final and unimagined insult to Berlin: the erection of the Wall.¶ the Tusas say. thirty professors and 400. Those who saw the television series Fortunes of War. Montana. a rival institution was launched in the American Sector.¶ Much dried food came their way. Under the auspices of an Elizabethan Festival for Berlin the Cambridge Madrigal Society arrived. by popular demand.Air Force opened up a µlittle Corridor¶ at Great Falls.¶ Soon afterwards Bonn was designated as the capital of a Federal Republic. so dehydration was a running gag.¶ The story of an attempt to start a Free University in the ruins is less heart-warming than it should be. leavened by such piquancies as the complex tale affords. sometimes absurdly. Soak in warm water for twenty minutes. but near Tempelhof a 400-foot brewery chimney which not even Goering had been able to move survived defiantly. some chairs and a telephone. the British Educational Adviser. said Birley. to serve in that role until Berlin should be politically free. During the winter the Allies had been preparing the North Atlantic Treaty. was µone of the most dishonest documents I have ever read¶. In the hungry city life went on.000 books. with its caricatures of British Council activities in wartime Cairo. µwith a lot of jolly elderly ladies trilling ³Fa la la´ and ³Hey nonny no´ ¶. The French risked Russian fury by blowing up two Radio Berlin transmitter towers which were an aerial hazard. A newspaper cartoon showed a baffled couple looking at a flat baby just delivered by the stork with the label µDehydrated. we are in front of you. The British officials saw too many difficulties. To universal relief. By the spring of 1949 the airlift was firmly established and looked ripe to go on for ever. The Cambridge Marlowe Society put on Measure for Measure and Webster¶s The White Devil. They even had the effrontery to appoint an American journalist to run it. his first µwoolly¶ report. Glasnost may mean little as yet in Berlin. A new university µwould necessarily be ³a very poor affair´. Along with academic snobbery went µan acid tinge of anti-American feeling¶: the brash Allies were making a vulgar bid for popularity. A footnote on its later vicissitudes would have been welcome. but it is useful to be reminded. on the lines of µDon¶t get the jitters. starting with a house in Dahlem containing no more than a table. its success had been helped by a mild winter. lectures on English 16th-century literature and poetry readings. based on Olivia Manning¶s Balkan Trilogy. The old Berlin University was in the Russian Sector and subject to Marxist pressures. so. there were performances of Purcell¶s Music for Circe. forty years on.