Breach­ing the block­ade

ROBERT BRIER en­joys a vivid ac­count of one of the most dra­matic episodes of the early Cold War

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Robert Brier is a teach­ing fel­low at the London School of Eco­nom­ics

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

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