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The Strangling of Berlin

The Soviets' siege of Berlin did not begin with a bang, but rather a series of smaller infractions, starting with stopping trains to check passengers' papers to cutting off routes for trucks that delivered milk.  Giles Milton dives into another moment of Unknown History.

By
Giles Milton
4-minute read
Episode #100

Colonel Frank ‘Howlin Mad’ Howley’s greatest concern in the spring of 1948 was that his Soviet opposite number, General Kotikov, would cut supplies to the Western sectors of the city and thereby starve its military garrisons into submission.

To preempt this, he drew up a “Basic Assumption Plan” that set down the minimum stockpile needed to keep those garrisons alive. His “assumption” was that the Soviets would stop supplies of both food and fuel: if so, everything needed to support the 6,500 allied soldiers, along with their families and staff, would have to be transported along the single-track railway that ran through Soviet-controlled territory from Marienborn to Berlin, a distance of 110 miles.

That was one logistical headache. A far greater challenge would be if General Kotikov also cut supplies to the two and a quarter million inhabitants living in the Western sectors of Berlin. This would create an untenable situation. It was simply not credible to keep the entire city alive by bringing in everything necessary by rail.

Frank Howley’s idea of supplying Berlin’s troops by train laid bare the very real problem of access to the city. For the previous three years, the Western powers had been using one of two railway lines that linked the capital with the Western-occupied sectors of Germany. The first of these lines crossed the British-Soviet border at Helmstedt (in Saxony), while the other crossed the American-Soviet border at Hof (in Bavaria).

The drive was a bleak experience in the winter months when the difficulties of dealing with truculent Soviet border guards were compounded by snow, ice, and Arctic conditions.

The only other means of access was via the two sanctioned autobahns, which followed more or less the same routes as the railway. The drive was a bleak experience in the winter months when the difficulties of dealing with truculent Soviet border guards were compounded by snow, ice, and Arctic conditions.

But it was with the railways - not the roads - that the trouble first began. In the small hours of April 1, 1948, the Frankfurt–Berlin steam express Berliner was approaching the Soviet frontier town of Marienborn, the last stop before the German capital. The train was carrying three hundred American army officers and enlisted men, many of whom were rejoining wives and loved ones in Berlin.

The Berliner shuddered to a halt at the border post, hissing steam and coal dust into the freezing night air. As it did so, armed Soviet border police could be seen emerging from the dimly lit station office, their faces illuminated by their mercury vapor lamps. There was nothing unusual about this, for they had the right to check the documents of German passengers. But on this occasion, they also demanded to inspect the papers of the Western-allied military personnel.

The train’s commander refused point-blank and warned that his military police would open fire if the Soviet border patrol dared board the train. Among those on the Berliner that night was Capt. Clarence Cummings, who listened in alarm to the escalating tensions. Voices were raised, and angry cries broke the silence of the night.

“If they want to shoot, we can shoot too!” an American voice shouted. “Come on, Colonel, let’s go through!”

A tense standoff ensued while the train’s commander phoned Berlin in an attempt to get orders. The American troops grew increasingly bullish and declared their willingness to fight their way through to the capital. But when dawn broke, they were still in Marienborn, and as the day drifted toward noon, it became clear there was to be neither shooting nor any progress toward the capital. At 8:20 p.m., more than eighteen hours after their arrival, the engines fired up steam, and the train headed back to Frankfurt. It was a humiliating experience.

The American climbdown encouraged the Soviets in their harassment, and they now began stopping every train and interrogating the passengers on board. Soon, the border crossing at Marienborn became a dangerous gamble.

A tense standoff ensued while the train’s commander phoned Berlin in an attempt to get orders. The American troops grew increasingly bullish.

On June 11, General Herbert was told that no more freight trains could enter the capital because of “congestion in the Berlin yards.” This was to cause severe problems for the few factories that had started to function, notably the Blaupunkt radio works and the Osram lightbulb manufacturer. The ban was soon rescinded, but it was followed by restrictions on imports of coal and fuel. Next to be cut was the milk supply to the Western sectors of Berlin.

The first Frank Howley knew about this was when he received a visit from his medical officer. “I’m sorry, Colonel,” he said, “but the Russians have cut off our milk supply. Unless we get that fresh milk, six thousand German babies in our sector will be dead by Monday.”

Howley now had a very real problem on his hands – one that was set to get worse. Shortly after the milk debacle, the Russians closed the bridge over the River Elbe near Magdeburg, claiming it was in “urgent need of repairs.” This was a serious provocation, for the bridge carried all autobahn traffic from Helmstedt to Berlin. Henceforth, vehicles had to cross the river by hand ferry, two at a time.

More sinister was the Soviet decree that any Berliner traveling to the Western zones was obliged to buy their tickets at Friedrichstrasse station, in the Soviet sector of the city. This enabled the authorities to keep a precise track of the movements of people.

And then came the final rupture. On the evening of June 23, 1948, the political editor of Der Tag, Margot Derigs, was checking the final set of the newspaper’s galley proofs when the newsroom clock struck 11 p.m. and she suddenly heard the Teletype machine of the Soviet ADN news agency starting its characteristic tac-tac-tac.

A message was coming through on the Teletype paper, and it was sensational: transport division of the soviet military administration is compelled to halt all passenger and freight traffic to and from Berlin tomorrow at 06.00 hours because of technical difficulties.

The Soviets were also stopping all deliveries of coal and food to the Western sectors of Berlin and cutting electricity supplies.

Frau Derigs knew that the Soviets meant business. The siege of Berlin had begun.

Image use under Creative Commons License

About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.