The Three Amigos
In the spring of 1948 when Soviet pressure on the allies re Berlin began to ramp up, seven squadrons of allied day fighters were in Germany, four RAF and three USAF.
The RAF units were:
135 Wing, including
1. 80 Squadron at Wunstorf, Germany, equipped with the Spitfire 24
2. 16, 26 and 33 Squadrons at Gutersloh, all equipped with the Tempest II
The USAF fielded the 86th FG with three squadrons (525th, 526th and 527th) equipped with the P-47D-30 at Nordholz, Germany.
Airlift project replicates aircraft from RAF 80 and 33 because they were briefly stationed in Berlin for a period at the beginning of the Blockade. The 86th flew escort missions in the corridors.
First involved was RAF 33, whose Tempest IIs moved to Gatow in response to the April 5, 1948 Vickers Viking MIG 3 midair collision addressed in Part III.
When the Big Lift got underway on June 25 and in anticipation of Soviet harassment in the corridors, 80 Squadron moved its Spitfires to Gatow. These were withdrawn when it appeared the Soviets were not going to actively interfere (past harassment) with the air traffic in and out of the city.
By 1948 the 86th represented the only US fighter assets belonging to the newly created United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE) in the entire theater. In addition to escorting transports, the 86th also provided aircraft for the movie The Big Lift wearing suitable Russian markings.
With the Russians asserting a right to inspect passenger trains, arguing over how far guards might go to stop them made sense. It was also worth testing the Russians to see whether they would enforce Dratvin’s restrictions, rather than just accepting his declaration at face value. Yet the argument between the two generals seems oddly off target. Both seemed to forget that the Russians controlled the railway signals and switches. What could be done if they simply shunted the trains onto a siding?
Six trains approached the Soviet checkpoint at Marienborn after midnight. A French train submitted to inspection and was allowed to proceed. One U.S. commandant allowed Soviet inspectors aboard. After passengers were wakened and their identity cards checked, the Russians sent the train on its way. Clay court-martialed the hapless officer. Commanders of two other American trains denied the Soviets admittance, and the Russians did not try to force entry. After an overnight standoff, the two trains backed out of the Russian zone. Two British trains carrying rations for several days sat on sidings for more than twelve hours before giving up. Rather than submit to Soviet inspection, Robertson and Clay canceled military passenger trains to and from Berlin.
Clay was right about one thing. The reply to Dratvin proved unimportant, for it triggered no change in Soviet policy. The note, signed by Clay’s chief of staff, Brigadier General Charles K. Gailey, contended that the “agreement” under which American forces had entered Berlin “clearly provided for our free and unrestricted utilization of the established corridors.” Further, this transit agreement had been a precondition of U.S. withdrawal from Saxony and Thuringia. Dratvin airily dismissed Gailey’s history lesson. Regulation of transit across the Soviet zone was an “internal matter.” There never had been, “and there cannot be, any agreement concerning . . . orderless and uncontrolled traffic” across the zone. Gailey countered by insisting that American representatives in 1945 had understood that their forces would have free and uncontrolled access, a marked retreat from his initial claim. Like Brownjohn, he was ready to discuss new procedures, but no Soviet inspectors would be allowed onto U.S. military trains. Dratvin did not reply.
With surface lines of supply uncertain, Clay organized an airlift. On April 1, he ordered the twenty-five C-47s (military versions of the famous DC-3) at Rhein-Main air base outside Frankfurt to deliver 80 tons of supplies a day to the American garrison. Only 7.5 tons arrived on April 1, but 42.5 tons were delivered on the second, and more than 84 tons on the third. The garrison’s logistics staff could specify what it needed because it had begun analyzing requirements in January, after the Soviets interfered with British trains. The Royal Air Force (RAF) also organized an airlift, and the French began one flight a day from their zone.
Clay’s mind ran to retaliation. He ordered Howley to blockade the headquarters of the Soviet zone’s railway system, located in the American sector, after Kotikov posted armed sentries outside. American soldiers surrounded the building, and Howley cut off utilities and supplies until the Russian guards withdrew on April 4. The head of the Canadian military mission in Berlin, General Maurice A. Pope, recalled a “bellicose spirit” and “much talk of war in local OMGUS circles.” Clay’s deputy there, Major General George P. Hays, told Pope flatly, “if war was inevitable it would be of advantage to begin it without delay.”
War was on the minds of officials in Washington, too, but as a disaster to be avoided, not an opportunity to be welcomed. Wedemeyer warned overseas commands that the United States was “taking a firm stand” in response to Soviet restrictions, and an “incident could result.” When the National Security Council met, Lovett stressed that “we must have a very strong case to show publicly that we took every step possible short of shooting” and “make it clear that the Russians are the ones who are breaking the quadripartite agreement.”
The situation did not look as dangerous on April 2, strengthening the impression that Clay had overreacted. He reported that things had “settled down considerably” and he faced “no immediate crisis.” That was because the Soviets were not enforcing Dratvin’s new regulations. Highway traffic in and out of the city was normal, as was German civil freight. A British military freight train arrived following routine clearance at Soviet checkpoints. Russians at Marienborn made no attempt to inspect the train, declaring they did not care about inbound freight. Clay ordered a U.S. military freight train into the city. It arrived without incident on April 3, and another pulled in April 5. The Soviets suspended barge traffic into the city on April 2, but it resumed three days later.
Tension spiked again in the early afternoon of April 5 when a Yak fighter collided with a British European Airways Viking airliner over Berlin. The Yak’s movements reminded one eyewitness of wartime fighter attacks on bombers, as it dived on the Viking from above and behind, then pulled up in a steep left turn until it was directly ahead of it and on a collision course. The Russian pilot tried to swerve below the airliner, but the Yak’s right wing clipped the Viking. Both planes spiraled to the ground a thousand feet below. The Russian pilot, the Viking’s four RAF crew members, and ten passengers all perished.
This was clearly an accident, but the Western powers worried that the Soviets had begun a campaign of aerial harassment to match the one on the ground. Robertson went to Sokolovsky’s headquarters at Karlshorst to demand a four-power inquiry and assurances that British aircraft would not be molested. He ordered fighter escorts for all passenger flights. Clay followed suit. Sokolovsky was ill at ease during his meeting with Robertson. He offered regrets and assured his guest that the collision had not been intentional. Having thus tacitly admitted that the Soviet pilot was responsible, he went on to claim that the Viking had rammed the fighter. He insisted that any investigation be bilateral, because only British and Soviet aircraft had been involved, waving aside Robertson’s objection that two Americans were among the dead.
Through his anger, Clay saw political advantage. Chairman of the ACC during April, he had resisted British and French suggestions that he call a meeting to discuss Dratvin’s demands. Now he told Robertson that he would convene a session if asked, because “we shall never get a break under more favorable conditions.” Bevin immediately cabled back, “we do not want . . . a break,” and expressed the hope that the disaster would cause the Russians to reconsider.
Like Clay, the Soviets saw political advantage and tried to use the crash to restrict Western access. They revived old demands for stricter flying regulations and circulated new ones. On April 17, with Western nerves taut over the April 5 crash, three Soviet fighters made gunnery passes at a C-47 in the southern corridor but did not fire, and the Russians conducted antiaircraft gunnery practice in the corridor. Soviet fighters conducted exercises in the corridors on May 18 without notifying Western controllers in the Berlin Air Safety Center. Later that month, the Soviets announced vague fighter movements in the corridors, an apparent attempt to preempt Western use of them.
Harassment on the ground continued. On April 9, Soviet officials announced that they would no longer clear outbound German freight on the basis of bills of lading issued by the Magistrat; after April 16, a Soviet stamp would be required. The Russians issued the stamp in limited quantities, threatening the city’s trade balance. They no longer allowed U.S. communications teams to inspect repeater stations along the single cable that carried telephone and telegraph circuits between Berlin and the U.S. zone, and they expelled British signals technicians from Magdeburg. Russian officials delayed outbound mail, claiming that parcels contained food, in contravention of an imaginary Allied ban on food shipments from the city. Other officials began requiring individual clearances for barges moving through their zone, overturning the 1946 agreement with the British, whose request for a meeting was ignored. On April 24, the Soviets suspended the last Western rail passenger service to Berlin—two French cars routinely attached to a German train.
The April confrontation over passenger trains came to be known as the “baby blockade,” to distinguish it from the more extensive blockade the Soviets would impose in June. The name is misleading, and not just because it was applied in hindsight. This was not a blockade; supplies for the city’s residents continued, as did Western highway traffic. The main effect of the so-called baby blockade was the stoppage of Western passenger trains, and they halted because Clay and Robertson refused to submit to Soviet inspection. Although this was understandable from a Western perspective, it was not a reaction Stalin could have counted on. If Stalin had intended a blockade, he would have imposed one, rather than assuming the West would cooperate.
The notion of a baby blockade is also misleading because it implies a brief period of Soviet pressure followed by a pause. The Soviets did not relax their restrictions and allow rail traffic to resume. This puts a different light on the traditional criticism that Western officials ignored the clear warning provided by the baby blockade. The West could not look back on the baby blockade and mull over its “lessons” because it was never history. It was a daily fact of life from April 1 onward. Continuing harassment inclined Western leaders to expect more of the same and to discount the possibility of abrupt changes in the level of Soviet coercion.
Whatever we call it, the Soviets savored what they regarded as success. They had made the Western powers appear weak. Uncertainty and a feeling of powerlessness spread among Berliners, who feared war and Western withdrawal in equal measure. Still, the Western powers gave no sign of reversing their policies, so the only course seemed to be more pressure. Accordingly, on April 17, Dratvin and Semenov urged new postal procedures, restrictions on Western air traffic, and Soviet control of outbound freight.
Ironically, Western observers drew equally optimistic conclusions from recent events. Two preconceptions guided Western assessments. The first was the shadow of the March war scare, which led analysts to concentrate on whether the Soviets were about to start a war. The CIA thought “devious” maneuvers in Berlin made no sense if the Russians were on the verge of overrunning the Continent. Lovett detected indications that the Kremlin had no desire to push matters to extremes, including “the failure to follow up vigorously” its interference with Western access.
Ironically, now that the end was in sight and the airlift had triumphed, Soviet harassment peaked. With good flying weather returning, the Soviets began their spring maneuvers in March, taking little care to stay out of the way of British and American planes. There were 51 cases of deliberate buzzing or close flying (within 500 feet) in March, compared with 3 in February. In March alone, there were 96 instances of clear intent to interfere with U.S. planes, roughly one-quarter of 360 such incidents during the airlift. Considering the airlift flew more than half a million sorties (over 277,000 round-trips to Berlin), the number is remarkably low. So, too, are the documented cases of sabotage, which totaled only four.
Close students of the airlift may question the claim that there were only 360 instances of Soviet harassment of American planes. For many years, we have relied on a table listing 733 “corridor incidents.” The table summarized a USAFE report, and even a brief perusal of that document makes it clear that pilots were instructed to report anything unusual, not only attempts to interfere with the airlift. Over half the “incidents” involved no hostile intent. A June 1949 report about an unidentified object, for example, referred to a vapor trail twenty to thirty miles away. One crew reported flak in August 1949 about forty miles away. A May 1949 case of deliberate buzzing was by an RAF York. Several reports about searchlights specifically state that the light “did not molest aircraft,” “made no attempt to follow aircraft,” or “extinguished itself immediately” when the beam touched the plane. There were clearly instances of dangerous interference, including at least five cases of Soviet aircraft passing within fifty feet of an airlift plane, but the total is far less than we thought. Someone converted “incidents” into “interference,” and the mistake has been repeated ever since.
Why did the Soviets not do more to interfere? We do not have definitive answers. In the early stages, there must have seemed little point in interfering with something that was certain to fail. It also seems clear that Soviet leaders realized any such efforts ran a serious risk of war. By the spring of 1949, when it dawned on the Kremlin that the airlift might succeed, Berlin was not important enough to Stalin to run such risks. Better to accept a political defeat than risk a military one.