The Airlift Begins
Chapter section from:
Airbridge to Berlin --- The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath
By D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin
(Used with permission)
There was a wide divergence of opinion amongst the US, British, and French officials about the feasibility and desirability of remaining in Berlin and almost universal disbelief that the city could be supplied totally by air over an extended time period. Although US and British political and military leaders immediately stated their forces would remain in Berlin, they were not certain they could or, if they could, for how long.
Although Clay had predicted to Bradley on April 10 that the currency reform would develop the "real crisis", the Soviets had taken the action Clay doubted they would risk: that of stopping all food supplies to Berlin because it would "alienate the Germans almost completely."(1) As so often, the Soviets were not worried about alienating any group if they could gain their immediate objective.
Regarding the reasons for remaining in Berlin, Clay summed them up in a cable to Washington on June 13, 1948: "There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin and it must not be evaluated on that basis. . . We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent."(2)
The British government was in agreement with Clay's views on remaining in Berlin, but the French, while agreeing to accept Western monetary reform in their sector of Berlin, foresaw grave problems and notified Clay: "The French Government is obliged to dissociate itself from all responsibility with regard to these consequences."(3) In spite of this written rebuke, the French government went along with all major decisions made by the US and British governments during the Berlin crisis of 1948-49.
Those who advocated withdrawing from Berlin did so primarily on the basis that Berlin was militarily indefensible and that it would be better to leave voluntarily rather than to suffer the humiliation of being forced out or to admitting they were unable to feed and supply the German population. In June 1948, the US Army and Air Force in Europe, as elsewhere, were mere skeletons of the mighty well-equipped veteran forces of World War II. The demobilization of 1945-46 and the end of the military draft in 1947 left a volunteer US Army in Europe of approximately 60,000 men consisting of just over 10,000 troops in the under-strength 1st Infantry Division and several light armored cavalry units, with the balance consisting of various support and military government units.
The Air Force, which had just become a separate military arm some nine months earlier, had a few tactical fighter squadrons, some weather and other miscellaneous aircraft, and two troop carrier squadrons equipped with C-47s which were used to ferry personnel and supplies. The C-47s were the only aircraft available to US Air Force Europe (USAFE) capable of hauling cargo. The British Royal Air Force was in no better shape and the French had almost no planes at all to offer.
Opposing the Allied forces were some 300,000 to 400,000 Soviet troops supported by a good tactical air force. Had a shooting war broken out, the Soviets would have had a tremendous advantage. One weapon the United States had in 1948 that the Soviet Union did not was the atom bomb. Could the Soviets be certain that, if the US vital interests in Europe were endangered or openly attacked, the United States might not choose to retaliate with the ultimate weapon?
While the decision to remain in Berlin was being debated in Washington, Colonel Frank Howley, US commandant in Berlin, went on the radio on June 24 to quiet the Berliners' apprehension about the Western powers' intentions and stated: "We are not getting out of Berlin, we are going to stay. I don't know the answer to the present problem-not yet-but this much I do know. The American people will not stand by and allow the German people to starve."(4) Later, the same day, Clay proclaimed in Heidelberg that "they [the Soviets] cannot drive us out by an action short of war as far as we are concerned."(5)
Government officials in Washington were not overjoyed by these statements from the field and Clay was instructed by Kenneth C. Royall, US Secretary of the Army, in a telephone conference on Friday, June 25 to explain the "by anything short of war" statement. Clay said he believed he had been quoted out of context and that he had no intention of provoking an armed conflict. Royall, evidently not realizing
that western currency had already been introduced into Berlin, asked about the feasibility of holding up on this issuance while Washington analyzed the decision.
After Clay explained that this was no longer feasible, Royall asked Clay for an analysis of the Berlin situation. Clay again expressed his opinion that remaining in Berlin involved US prestige in Germany and Europe and that the currency issue was being used by the Soviets as an excuse to provoke the crisis. Royall then advised Clay that the Army was considering the desirability of asking the Air Force to provide additional air transport if Clay had urgent needs to fill his requirements. Clay's answer clearly indicates that he had not, as yet, seriously considered a full scale airlift because he told Royall that he had sufficient planes to meet his needs, that he would check with General Curtis LeMay, USAFE commander, and then report back. Clay, meanwhile, cabled Army Under Secretary William Draper.(6)
I am still convinced that a determined movement of convoys with troop protection would reach Berlin and that such a showing might well prevent rather than build up Soviet pressures which could lead to war. Nevertheless, I realize fully the inherent dangers in this proposal since once committed we could not withdraw.(7)
The telephone conference with Royall made it clear that the possibility of such a potentially dangerous course of action would not be considered at this time. Soon after this telephone conference, General Robertson visited Clay and advised him the British government would not consider the armed convoy plan. Robertson then suggested to Clay that he consider the possibility of supplying Berlin by air and that Robertson had already secured agreement of the Royal Air Force to start supplying the Berlin garrison. The British government was also considering supplying the civilian population by air.(8)
Clay was not certain a city of two million people could be totally supplied by air. While mulling over his alternatives, Clay called in Ernst Reuter, the Mayor-elect of Berlin, who was accompanied by his aide, Willy Brandt. Also present was Robert Murphy, Clay's political advisor. Clay indicated for the first time that he was seriously considering an airlift operation. Clay told Reuter: "Look, I am ready to try an airlift. I can't guarantee it will work. I am sure that even at its best, people are going to be cold and people are going to be hungry. And if the people of Berlin won't stand that, it will fail. And I don't want to go into this unless I have your assurance that the people will be heavily in approval."(9) Reuter, although skeptical, assured Clay that Berlin would make all the necessary sacrifices and that the Berliners would support his actions.
Although we cannot be absolutely certain of Clay's thought processes on June 25, it would seem most likely that he weighed his options carefully. While Clay is on record to favoring an armed truck convoy, this had been vetoed, at least temporarily, by Washington. His only other option, other than an airlift, was some type of compromise or "surrender" to the Soviets on the currency issue and the possibility of opening up the entire German question, including the provisional government, which he was determined not to do. Therefore, by process of elimination, Clay was forced to choose the only option open to him-the airlift. He already had the support of the British through Robertson and the Berliners through Reuter on this course of action.
Clay then made his decision. He telephoned LeMay in Wiesbaden and ordered him to drop all other uses of transport planes and to begin flying supplies for Berlin. He also telephoned his deputy army commander in Frankfurt and ordered the movement of supplies to the airfields at Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden. The first planes began arriving in Berlin on Saturday, June 26.
Even with this decision, Clay was only thinking of a temporary solution to a problem that he believed would have to be solved by diplomatic or other more permanent methods. Clay estimated the maximum that could be expected was 700 tons a day and he knew from his planners this was far short of the minimum to sustain the population of the Western Sectors of Berlin with even bare sustenance. No-one, including Clay or any of his advisors, were thinking, at this time, of an airlift operation lasting more than a few weeks.
On June 26, Clay's decision to initiate an airlift was supported by Truman at a cabinet meeting and against the advice of some of his counselors. Truman ordered the airlift be put on a full-scale organized basis and that every plane in the European Command be pressed into service. It is evident that Truman was also thinking of a temporary measure because after making this decision, he stated, "In this way we hoped that we might be able to feed Berlin until the diplomatic deadlock could be broken."(10)
Clay's decision was also supported by two other important players, William Draper and General Albert Wedemeyer, the Army Chief of Plans and Operations. Draper and Wedemeyer were in Europe on an inspection tour when the Berlin blockade began. Draper had been Clay's economic advisor in Berlin prior to becoming Army Under Secretary and was familiar with the amount of food and other supplies necessary to sustain Berlin. Wedemeyer had been US Army theater commander in China during World War II and had been supplied by air "over the hump" from India by Army transport planes. (This operation had been commanded by General William Tunner, who was later named to head the Berlin Airlift operation.) Both Draper and Wedemeyer recommended that supplying Berlin by air be attempted and Draper telephoned Royall on June 24 to recommend the Air Force be requested to immediately move additional air transport to the European Command.(11)
From June 25 to June 30, 1948, there was a flurry of activity in Washington, London, and Paris. Although Clay and Murphy had sent numerous warnings over a period of months on possible Soviet actions against Berlin, no contingency plans had been developed. The Western powers contemplated sending a protest note to Moscow, supported a temporary airlift, and made plans to send several B-29 bomber groups to Germany and England to display to the Soviets their determination to meet force with force. However, many US military and government officials expressed the belief that sooner or later the Western powers would be forced to withdraw from Berlin.
British Foreign Secretary Ernst Bevin, who was a strong advocate for remaining in Berlin, indicated Parliament would support the basing of B-29s in England, and advocated the airlift be built up immediately to 2,000 tons a day. Clay was informed of the British support by Robertson and Clay cabled Draper on June 27 proposing the airlift be stepped up.
I have already arranged for our maximum airlift to start on Monday [June 28]. For a sustained effort, we can use seventy Dakotas [C-47s]. The number which the British can make available is not yet known, although General Robertson is somewhat doubtful of their ability to make this number available. Our two Berlin airports can handle in the neighborhood of fifty additional airplanes per day. These would have to be C-47's, C-54's or planes with similar landing characteristics as our airports cannot take larger planes. LeMay is urging two C-54 groups. With this airlift, we should be able to bring in 600 or 700 tons a day. While 2,000 tons a day is required in normal foods, 600 tons a day (utilizing dried foods to the maximum extent) will substantially increase the morale of the German people and will unquestionably seriously disturb the Soviet blockade. To accomplish this, it is urgent that we be given approximately 50 additional transport planes to arrive in Germany at the earliest practicable date, and each day's delay will of course decrease our ability to sustain our position in Berlin. Crews would be needed to permit maximum operation of these planes.(12)
Also on June 27, a Sunday, an emergency meeting was going on in the Pentagon to discuss three possible courses of action:
- to decide to withdraw from Berlin at some appropriate time,
- to decide to defend the US position by all possible means, including supplying Berlin by truck convoy or using force in some other manner, and
- to maintain the unprovocative but firm stand in Berlin by every local means and later diplomatic means while postponing the ultimate decision.(13)
No concrete decisions were arrived at during this meeting, but the following day Truman made a momentous decision. According to Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, when the question arose of whether or not the United States was going to stay in Berlin, Truman interrupted to say, "there was no discussion on that point, we are going to stay-period."(14)
Although this was not a final decision as Truman so indicated, it set the course for the immediate future. On June 29, Truman approved a British request for joint military planning and a joint Anglo-American military meeting was held the following day. It was determined that the airlift could deliver 2,000 tons a day at the present level of operations. Both countries agreed that the proposal of forcing armed truck convoys through the Soviet Zone to Berlin was too dangerous and impractical.
On June 30, Bevin announced to the House of Commons that Great Britain and the Western Allies would maintain their position in Berlin because there is "no alternative between that and surrender, and none of us can accept surrender."(15) Marshall, in Washington the same day proclaimed, "We are in Berlin as a result of agreements between the governments on the areas of occupation in Germany and we intend to stay."(16) The French are not on record for any public statements, but they had indicated through diplomatic channels that they would support the British and Americans by maintaining their position in Berlin.
Probably at no time in post-World War II history, with the exception of the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, has the world ever been closer to World War III than it was during the period from June 25 through late July, 1948.
- July 3: Clay, Robertson, and French General Roger Noiret meet with Sokolovsky in Potsdam at Sokolovsky's headquarters to urge him to lift the blockade. Sokolovsky makes it clear there will be no change in the traffic restrictions until the Western powers are willing to discuss the results of the London Conference concerning Germany. Sokolovsky does not mention the currency problem which is the supposed reason for initiating the blockade. It is clear the Soviets want to reopen the entire German question which the Western powers are unwilling to do.
- July 6: The three Western powers deliver almost identical protest notes to the Soviet Union. The notes emphasize that the Soviet blockade is a violation of Four Power agreements concerning the administration of Berlin and that the Western powers will not be induced by threats, pressure, or other actions to abandon their rights. They express their willingness to negotiate, on the condition the blockade be lifted prior to any discussions.
- July 10: Clay again recommends to Washington that, if the blockade is not lifted by a specific date, his plan for an armed convoy to Berlin be considered and that the Soviet government be advised in advance of this planned movement. Again, Washington, after obtaining specifics of Clay's plan which included infantry, tank destroyers, and engineers with bridge equipment, decides not to approve Clay's armed convoy plan at this time.
- July 14: The Soviet Union replies to the Western powers' protest notes of July 6 and blames the Western powers for the Berlin situation by initiating a currency reform in their zones, by introducing a separate currency in the Western Sectors of Berlin, and by planning to form a separate German government. The Soviet Union goes on to say it is not adverse to negotiations, but the Soviet government cannot accept any preliminary conditions and that the discussions must include Four Power control of Germany and not just the administration of Berlin.(17)
- July 15: The National Security Council approves the Dispatch of B-29 bombers to England after the British government agrees to receive and base them. The B-29s are widely known to be capable of delivering the atomic bomb and the implication of dispatching B-29s to where Moscow would be in their range cannot be missed by the Soviet Union. Unbeknownst to most, these B-29s do not carry atomic bombs, but there was wide speculation they do and the action emphasizes the Anglo-American commitment not to bow to Soviet threats.
- July 17: While visiting Berlin, William Donovan, the former head of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, holds a press conference and declares: "The place to make a stand against the Russians is right here in Berlin." Donovan, a civilian, holds no official government position at this time, but his statements are broadcast immediately in Berlin and receives wide coverage in the United States. Also this day, Bradley, after weighing all possible courses of action, including Clay's armed convoy plan, recommends the Air Force provide as many C-54s as the Berlin airfields could handle.
- July 18: The New York Herald Tribune equates the Berlin crisis with the Munich crisis of ten years earlier.
- July 19: Truman meets with his top military and diplomatic officials. Many proposals and options are discussed and Truman decides the United States would maintain its position in Berlin and and will take all necessary measures to insure its rights even at the risk of war.
- July 21: Marshall holds a press conference and, in an answer to a question about the possibility of war over Berlin, he states:
I can merely say at this time that our position I think is well understood. We will not be coerced or intimidated in any way in our procedures under the rights and responsibilities that we have in Berlin and generally in Germany. At the same time we will proceed to invoke every possible resource of negotiation and diplomatic procedure to reach an acceptable solution to avoid the tragedy of war for the world. But, I repeat again, we are not going to be coerced.(18)
- July 22: Finally, after almost a month of crisis and "brinksmanship," the decision is made to fully commit to building an airbridge to Berlin. The occasion for this decision is a meeting Truman had with the National Security Council and others, including Clay and Murphy who had been ordered back to Washington for this conference. Clay and Murphy, supported by some State Department officials, still advocate the armed convoy plan, but this is unanimously opposed by the Joints Chiefs of Staff. Clay also reports the airlift had far exceeded his expectations and is now averaging about 2,500 tons daily which is adequate to handle food requirements, but inadequate to include the necessary amount of coal. Clay estimates 4,500 tons was the minimum to sustain Berlin without extreme hardship, although 3,500 tons per day might suffice in summer. Clay estimates an additional 75 C-47s will enable him to reach 3,500 tons daily.