Thursday, July 26, 2012

June 25, 1948 – Berlin Airlift Begins World War III


Postwar Europe became divided when territory liberated by the Soviet Union from Nazi Germany came under seemingly permanent communist rule.  The Potsdam Agreement in 1945 divided Germany itself into sectors held by differing Allies.  Berlin, one hundred miles inside the Soviet sector, was divided into four sectors with the West held by Britain, France, and the United States while the Soviets controlled East Berlin.  Stalin reorganized the communist and socialist parties into the Socialist United Party and told his comrades that he worked toward a Germany reunited under communism.  As part of his plan, he ended food delivery to West Berlin and limited Western allies to a single train per day, encouraging West Berliners to come to the Soviet sector for groceries.  The plan backfired, however, as the local elections in 1946 proved to be overwhelmingly pro-democracy.

Stalin was further infuriated by the 1947 announcement of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.  He preferred his hard-won “war booty”, seeing the American move as “dollar imperialism.”  Soviets further restricted travel through their sector in the spring of 1948.  Americans responded by delivering military material by air, and Soviets sent up planes to buzz the cargo planes.  A crash occurred between a Soviet fighter and a US airliner, killing everyone on both planes.  The Soviets reduced their interference with train travel but considered the exercise a victory as they seized all communication beacons within the Soviet sector for air security.

Stakes were raised again when the western Allies proposed the new Deutsche Mark to replace the devalued Reichsmark.  Currency had been so over-printed by the Soviets that bartering had replaced cash, creating a weak economy that forced German reliance on Moscow.  The British and Americans announced their attempt to revamp the economy on June 18, 1948, stating that the Deutsche Mark would be considered legal tender on June 21.  The Soviets refused and began halting all ground travel to prevent the flood of marks into Berlin, even though 250 million had already been shipped in.  Outraged, the Soviets announced the “Ostmark” as their own currency and forbade the use of Deutsche Marks.  On June 24, the Soviets ended all rail and water traffic from West Germany.  Travel by road was permitted, though heavily dogged.  Electricity produced by Soviet-held power plants outside of the city was cut off.  The Americans under General Lucius D. Clay refused to leave, and he announced an airlift of food and coal supplies as had been seen months before, expanding plans already put into place by the British. 

The endeavor required 1,500 tons of food and 3,500 tons of fuel to be transported daily into the city when the combined aircraft of the British and Americans in the area could carry only 700 tons.  Clay launched Operation Vittles, and planes were flown in to increase the tonnage.  The United States had already begun to demilitarize in Europe, and Britain was still recovering from the damage of the Blitz (the 1948 London Olympics, which the Soviets did not attend, featured no new construction of venues or housing).  The Soviet Union watched, eagerly anticipating the West to admit the transport cost was too great and to abandon Berlin.

All through July, the planes flew.  The Soviets carried out massive propaganda programs in print and on radio, lambasting the Western efforts.  However, nothing seemed to stop the planes until “Black Friday”, August 13, when a C-54 crashed at the end of the runway and two more planes crashed after it.  All planes awaiting landing were sent home, and the Soviets decided to make their move.  They publically claimed the airlift “unsafe” and moved troops to take the airfields under the guise of aiding in cleanup.  Fights began, and soon Soviet tanks rolled in to besiege the city.  War was declared between the Soviet Union and the Anglo-British alliance with France, fighting in Indochina already, seeking neutrality.  French forces were returned to their sector in the south, but the rest of West Berlin continued under heavy siege.  Despite psychological warfare, West Berliners refused to give up, such as the rousing speech by city councilor Ernst Reuter, "You peoples of the world, you people of America, of England, of France, look on this city, and recognize that this city, this people, must not be abandoned — cannot be abandoned!"  As winter approached, supplies ran out, and thousands of Americans, British, and Germans were taken prisoner.

American and British troops began campaigns attempting to penetrate the Soviet defenses, but the armies were unable to overwhelm heavy fortifications.  While the US had been demobilizing, Stalin had kept up his urgency of military preparedness.  Soviet forces swept into West Germany, finally realizing Stalin’s plans of reunifying the country.  Content with a French buffer and strong air defense, the Soviets moved toward Iran, seizing oilfields that had been the object of debate between Moscow and the British and recreating the People’s Republic of Mahabad.

The Americans threatened counterattack with atomic weapons, but the threat was hollow until 1949 when the first atomic-adapted B-29 Silverplate arrived in Britain.  The question of whether to use atomic weapons in Germany was brought to President Truman (who had won the 1948 election by a wide margin against isolationist Thomas Dewey), but he determined to use it only against Russia itself and encourage uprising from the “liberated” nations under Soviet control.  He expanded the war to a new front in Turkey and pushed for new air bases in preparation for wide-scale attack from the Black Sea on the Caucasus and across Ukraine.  After a great deal of deliberation, the US also joined the nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, reinforcing Chiang Kai-shek with aid and advisors.

In late 1949, the first atomic bomb fell on Russian territory, followed by dozens more.  Stalin used the fallout to his advantage through propaganda, but, while much of Russia continued to support him, the edges of his the bloc began to collapse.  Starting in 1950 after a revolt in Berlin, bloc countries began to rebel one after the other with American support, prompting stiff Soviet response.  Russian resources became strained while the Americans continued to remobilize, pushing up through the Caucasus into Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia and atomically bombing Stalingrad in 1951.  On the first of March 1953, Stalin was discovered dead in his bunker west of Moscow.  He had not left a clear successor, and internal squabbles destroyed the peoples’ faith in Soviet government.  Ukraine became liberated that summer in Operation King Cobra, and the road to Moscow was open to be taken by September.

Following the Third World War and the breakup of the USSR, capitalism and democracy had proven itself the victor over communism and fascism.  The Anglo-American alliance dominated the United Nations and began the long era of rebuilding in the Pax Americana.  Technology flourished, and international communication satellites began being launched in the 1970s, uniting the world on a new level, even though a manned mission into space had never gone beyond experimentation by the USAF.


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In reality, the Soviets did not move on the “Black Friday” crash of the Berlin Airlift.  On August 1, they offered free food to West Berliners who registered their ration cards with the Soviets, but few accepted.  Instead, Berlin was supported by air for eleven months in an unprecedented feat.  Crews began bringing in record tonnage, as was seen in the “Easter Parade” that carried nearly 13,000 tons of coal.  The Soviets decided to lift the blockade, opening the gates on May 12, 1949, and the Cold War would drag on for another four decades.

1 comment:

  1. For a reversal of this alt where the Western Allies give up Berlin at the Yalta Conference please visit the Today in Alternate History web site.

    ReplyDelete

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