On This Day: Berlin Airlift begins as Soviets blockade city in bid to drive West out

Julian Gavaghan
Yahoo News.

JUNE 25, 1948: The Western Allies began the 11-month Berlin Airlift on this day in 1948 to prevent a Soviet blockade starving them out of the divided city in the first big Cold War crisis.

British, U.S., Australian, South African and New Zealand air forces risked having their planes shot down to deliver food, medicine and coal to encircled West Berlin.

In the end, Moscow backed down after the airlift was so successful that more supplies were being delivered each day than before access by roads and rail was cut.

The crisis began when a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, was introduced in the U.S., British and French sectors of the former German capital to counter inflation.

The Soviets, who had occupied and controlled the eastern halves of both the city and Germany after World War II, protested.

The communist power, which had largely caused the inflation problem by printing too much money, feared the currency, which was also quickly adopted by East Berliners, would make Germany strong again.

This was unpalatable to the Soviets after 23million of their countrymen had died while facing Nazi aggression.

Dictator Joseph Stalin also wanted to get rid of the Western foothold deep in otherwise Soviet occupied territory because he wanted to expand communism.

So - with 36 days’ worth of food and a 45-day supply of coal in West Berlin – he bargained that he could starve his former allies out.

Instead Western air forces carried out a feat hitherto thought impossible and were eventually able to deliver 4,700 tons of supplies daily.

Crew of a plane involved in the Berlin Airlift, cheer after hearing that the Berlin Blockade has been lifted (Getty)


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A British Pathé newsreel shows UK Prime Minister Clement Attlee at RAF Gatow, which was used along with Tempelhof Airport, in April 1949.

When the Soviets finally ended their blockade on May 12, Allied planes had made an incredible 280,290 sorties.

As goods rolled in by land again, thousands of West Berliners gathered to thank U.S. General Lucius Clay – which would have been unthinkable only four years earlier.

Britain and America continued the airlift until September to ensure the city had three months’ surplus.

In total, it cost the two countries up to £3billion in today’s money.

In the aftermath, West Germany was granted independence on May 23, 1949 and became the Federal Republic with a democratic government and capitalist economy.

The Soviets followed suit and made East Germany independent on October 7, 1949.

Sacks of coal are loaded onto an aircraft for transport to Berlin during the Berlin Airlift (Getty)


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It incorporated East Berlin and became an authoritarian, communist satellite state that was ironically named the German Democratic Republic.

West Berlin would remain under the control of the three Western Allies, although it its residents would hold FRG citizenship and follow its laws.

Over time, the West became ever more prosperous, and, as the different zones in Berlin were porous, this became a problem for East Germany.

So in 1961 the Eastern rulers began building the Berlin Wall in a bid to stem the tide of millions of its people leaving the Soviet-backed police state.

By then, a total of 3.5million mostly well-educated residents of the communist state – 20% of its population – had already fled to West Germany via West Berlin.

The wall, which for propaganda purposes the communists called the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, slowed the number to a trickle.

The crew of a Skytrain load up a cargo of milk in Frankfurt Rhine-Main as part of the Berlin airlift (Getty)


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The barrier, which divided families and neighbours, was seen as a tragic calamity in crucible of the Cold War and prompted many protests and vigils over the years.

Between 1961 and 1989, when the wall fell, more than 1,000 East Germans died trying to escape, both in Berlin and across the main German border.

East and West Germany – along with East and West Berlin – were reunited on October 3, 1990 following the fall of communism.