Breaching the blockade
ROBERT BRIER enjoys a vivid account of one of the most dramatic episodes of the early Cold War
The Berlin Airlift: The Relief Operation that Defined the Cold War by Barry Turner Icon books, 320 pages, £20
Between 26 June 1948 and 12 May 1949, US and British aircraft undertook more than 270,000 flights to deliver 2.3 million tonnes of supplies to the western sectors of Berlin that had been blockaded by Soviet forces occupying east Germany. In this fine piece of popular history, Barry Turner provides an engaging and vivid account of this first major episode of the Cold War, known afterwards as the Berlin Airlift.
Turner’s approach is strictly chronological. He leads us from the first cracks in the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union, UK and US, through a detailed account of the airlift to its aftermath, concluding with the formation of Nato and the start of European integration.
In a dense yet highly readable narrative, Turner uses extensive quotes to immerse his reader in the experiences of the historical protagonists, demonstrating what a remarkable logistical achievement the airlift was. At its outset, Berlin did not have airports large enough to receive the huge aircraft fleet needed to supply the city. Aeroplanes, moreover, were particularly ill-suited for transporting bulky cargo. The dust from coal (one of the most important supplies needed) made breathing difficult for the aircrews, and corroded cables. Salt, meanwhile, attacked the planes’ frames – a problem solved by loading that cargo onto flying boats from the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command, landing them on the Havel lakes. The desperate economic situation of the German population, and the sense of camaraderie many Germans developed with their former wartime opponents, are also effectively conveyed.
Though the author embeds his account in a political history of the nascent Cold War, readers looking for a bold reinterpretation of these events will be disappointed. He adheres to the standard view that the Cold War began primarily as a result of assertive Soviet policy. In fact, his is overwhelmingly a narrative history with little in the way of analysis or argument. With references and bibliography reduced to a minimum, it is difficult to establish what use Turner made of the “new material from American, British and German archives” mentioned on the dustjacket.
One aspect on which Turner does present a clear judgment is in his unflattering view of the British government’s role in the early Cold War. In passages that could not be more timely, he demonstrates how London consistently failed to grasp its new role as a junior partner of the US, deluding itself instead about its power status and lecturing its American “cousins” on foreign policy.
Overall, Turner’s book provides a vivid account of a major event of the early Cold War, and hints at where the roots of Britain’s current predicament may lie. Though specialists will find little new material in The Berlin Airlift, it is highly recommended for the general reader.
Children watch an aircraft as it passes over the ruins of Berlin during the airlift