The postwar allied occupation of Germany saw the country divided into 4 zones, one each run by the US, the UK, France and the USSR. Its capital, Berlin, was divided into 4 similarly controlled zones. On June 24th, 1948, the Soviets suddenly blocked access routes across East Germany to West Berlin. They cut off road, rail and water-borne transport and traffic. It was a response to the introduction of the Deutsche Mark in West Germany and West Berlin.
The Western allies were reluctant to force a land corridor through to West Berlin for fear it would provoke a conflict in a theatre in which the Soviets had massive military superiority in conventional forces. Rather than give in to Soviet blackmail, they decided on an airlift to ferry supplies into the besieged city. It was a huge undertaking calling for high-level logistical planning.
Several air forces took part, including those of the US, the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It came to involve hundreds of flights a day into the city’s two airports. Initially they used mostly C-47s, the military version of the DC3 Dakota, but later added the heavier C-54s. They soon exceeded the estimated 3,475 tons of supplies a day it would take to sustain the population. Indeed, by the time the airlift ended a year later, they were flying in more food, fuel and supplies than had previously been coming in by rail.
To cut down on the time the crews needed for refreshments, the overall commander had jeeps equipped as mobile snack bars to refresh crews on the runway while their planes were unloaded. Allied pilots noticed that German children would crowd the flight lines below them to watch the stream of planes coming in, and took to dropping sweets and chocolates to them, a gesture much appreciated given the rationing then in place.
In one year over 200,000 sorties were flown, one every few minutes in a constant line of landings and take-offs. On May 12th, 1949, the Soviets realized their bullying tactic had failed, and lifted the blockade. By then the Deutsche Mark had established itself as one of the hardest currencies, and the German Economic Miracle was under way as free markets and deregulation worked their magic. The Airlift was not without cost. There were !01 deaths during the operation, including 40 British and 31 American airmen, mostly killed in non-flying accidents. The financial cost was estimated at between a quarter and a half million US dollars, perhaps just over $5bn in today’s money. It was worth it, in that West Berlin survived as a free city. There are monuments in the city to those who died to save it.
Wars are often caused by uncertainty. When potential aggressors do not know if they will be met by force, they might be tempted to try it. If they are made aware in stark terms that force will be responded to in kind, they are usually deterred. The Berlin Airlift made it abundantly clear to the Soviets that the Western Allies were not prepared to lose West Berlin. It was a measured response, in that an attempt to force open a land route might have provoked war, but an airlift was not aggressive.
The lessons of the Berlin Airlift remain. Enemies must know that acts of aggression against us or our allies will be met with a measured but forceful response. Jeremy Corbyn might want to leave NATO and renounce our nuclear deterrent, but these, not the goodwill of the Soviets or of Russia today, are what has kept the peace these past decades. Corbyn seems ignorant of the most basic rule of defence: "si vis pacem, para bellum."