May 12 - Berlin Blockade Lifts!

Posted on May 12, 2020

At the end of a war, there is often a period of time when the winners occupy the nation that was defeated. It makes a certain amount of sense, actually - the winner might want to make sure that their enemy didn't sign a peace treaty but then go back to making more weapons and ammunition, as if preparing for another round of battles!

World War II the name suggests...a war that spanned the world! Almost every nation participate, with around 50 Allied powers against the aggressors: around 10 Axis powers.

At the end of this truly global war, Germany was divided into four sections for temporary occupation by various Allied nations. The 3 western portions of Germany were occupied by what is termed "Western powers," namely France, Britain, and the United States. Some of the eastern German territory was ceded to Poland or annexed by the USSR. The rest of East Germany was occupied by the USSR. 

Germany divided up for occupation

That was all according to the Potsdam Agreement. 

Of course the capital of Germany was located in one of these regions - as it happens, in Soviet-controlled East Germany. The Potsdam Agreement carefully divided up the city of Berlin, also, into four regions. Mirroring the divisions of the entire country, the three western portions of Berlin were occupied by France, Britain, and the US., and the eastern portion of the city was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Berlin divided up for occupation
The leader of the USSR, Josef Stalin, was anti-democracy and was positive that all of Germany would eventually become communist and would be dominated by the USSR. There hadn't been a formal agreement that guaranteed roads and railroads between West Berlin and the rest of West Germany... The Western powers had apparently assumed that the Soviets would show good will to them - after all, they had JUST been allies in a terrible war! - and that the restricted cargo access of 10 trains per day on just one line, plus just 3 air routes connecting West Berlin to Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Bückeburg would loosen up as the occupation continued.

But the Western powers were wrong.

Stalin and the Soviet government thought they could slowly undermine the British and that the US would grow weary of the occupation, and that they just had to wear them down so that they could snatch up all of Berlin and eventually all of Germany.

The Soviets took several steps toward restricting air, rail, road, and canal access to West Berlin. Soviet soldiers began to stop trucks and trains and search them, and they declared that West Berliners could no longer travel to the rest of West Germany without Soviet permission. Soviet planes began to harass Western planes. 

And since Berlin lay around 100 miles (160 km) inside the border of Soviet-occupied East Germany, Western leaders knew that the Soviets could make things even worse.

And that's what happened. In June of 1948, the Soviet Union halted all Western supply trains, turned back Western barges, and blocked highway routes into West Berlin. The number of Soviet soldiers in Germany and especially in Berlin way outnumbered the combined Western forces, and although Soviet leaders didn't want to start an open conflict, they were sure that blockading West Berlin along with their much larger armies would prompt Western nations to abandon their portion of Berlin.

However, the Western air forces dug down deep and made a commitment to fly at least 3,475 tons of supplies into West Berlin every day. We're talking the US Air Force, the Royal Air Force, the French Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the New Zealand Air Force, and the South African Air Force - cooperating with one another in a joint operation called the Berlin Airlift. Aircrews flew in food, fuel, and other necessities - and they met the goal of multiple tons of supplies flown in.

And they exceeded the goal. The Soviets were wrong - Western forces may have been "sick and tired" of the blockade, but they were not backing down or slinking away. Some days the combined Western air force crews flew almost 13,000 tons of supplies to West Berlin! 

The airlift was such a success, it was flying in more supplies than had been shipped by rail in the past, before the blockade!

Since the Berlin Blockade wasn't working, the USSR lifted it on this date in 1949. British and American aircrews continued to fly in supplies - they didn't trust the Soviets to keep their word! - but the Soviets really truly did back down on this fight, and West Berlin remained under control of the Western Allies (and eventually was de facto part of the fully independent and free West Germany). 

Here are a few stats about the Berlin Airlift:

In one year, the joint air forces flew more than 200,000 sorties.

In all, in a year and a quarter, 278,228 flights to Berlin carried more than 2,300,000 tons of supplies.

The planes that took part in the Berlin Airlift flew more than 92 million miles. That's the distance from the Earth to the Sun!

During the busiest time of the Airlift, one plane reached West Berlin every 30 seconds.

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