e Berlin airlift
Dec 30th 2009
From The Economist print edition
A human history of the allies’ airlift that saved West Berlin
Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949. By Richard Reeves. Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; $28 and £16.99.
HEROISM, geopolitics and new technology make an ideal mixture for a popular historian. The story of the Berlin airlift in 1948-49 has all that and more. The Anglo-American decision to circumvent the arbitrary Soviet closure of road and rail routes to the German capital marked the start of the cold war. For the first time, the Western allies were signalling their willingness to resist the creeping Soviet takeover of the eastern half of Europe. The airlift’s end, with Soviet acceptance of a new West German currency in West Berlin, was a stalemate that remained in place in Europe until the collapse of communism 40 years later.
By the end of the airlift, an astonishing 2.25m tonnes of cargo had flown in and out of the city, more than three-quarters of it on American planes. Among the fatalities, the proportions were rather different: 39 British citizens and 32 Americans.
The airlift was not just the only time in history when large quantities of coal have been delivered by air. It also brought leaps in air-traffic control and cargo handling. It even featured a primitive but effective electronic data interchange, jury-rigged from telex machines.
But as the book’s title suggests, Richard Reeves’s main emphasis is on the human side. At centre-stage are General Lucius Clay, the iron-willed military governor of the American sector of Berlin, and the workaholic logistics chief William Tunner, who during the war had supervised a trans-Himalayan military airlift. Behind them stands the figure of Harry Truman, the American president who overruled his entire military, diplomatic and security staff to insist that Berlin be saved.
The veterans’ stark descriptions of flying in foul weather, the exhaustion and danger, the rickety under-maintained aircraft and the newly wed brides stranded on the other side of the world, are undimmed by time. (Indeed, in some cases, a sceptical reader might wonder if memory has honed the wisecracks and dialogues, transcribed verbatim after 60 years.)
In Berlin and the other Western-occupied parts of Germany, the airlift marked the start of a shift from life as a defeated and distrusted adversary to one as an inseparable friend and American ally. At the beginning of the blockade, Berliners were still a brutalised and resentful subject people, expected to doff their caps to the occupying forces. A year later, they were still cold and hungry and living in bombed-out cellars—but cheering the airmen who had saved them from starvation and slavery. Had the airlift failed, the revenge of the communist authorities on those contaminated by contact with the Western allies would have been ruthless. In passing, Mr Reeves mentions some hapless policemen from West Berlin arrested at the city’s town hall (in the Soviet sector); most were never seen again.
In one of the many compelling vignettes the author describes how the allies hired German mechanics and loading hands. Only three years earlier, American or British pilots shot down over Germany risked being lynched. Now they were trusting their lives to the Germans who maintained their planes and stacked the cargo.
Although highly readable, the book includes no groundbreaking historical research. It mentions no German-language sources. A prolific American author, Mr Reeves is writing for a home audience. But he gamely tries to widen his focus to include at least a bit of the British viewpoint. Few Americans will know that rationing in Britain was worse after the war than during it, making the cost of the airlift sharply greater. American pilots liked to drop sweets in little parachutes as a personal gift to the hungry children waiting at the airport’s edge. Their British counterparts had no sweets.
Tuesday, January 05, 2010
e Berlin airlift