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Victory: The Dramatic Conclusion of the Berlin Blockade

After 323 days of the Berlin Blockade, a weather system nearly brought the city to its knees. However, the strength of the Germans, tenacity of the Americans (and a little bit of luck), resulted in victory. 

By
Giles Milton
4-minute read
Episode #104

Fog arrived at the end of October, threatening serious disruption to the airlift. “Thick, impenetrable fog,” Frank Howley wrote as he stared out his window into a zero-visibility blanket of whiteness. Ice-cold fog had settled over four million square miles of Europe, from Finland to Italy, a thousand-foot cloud that thickened with every passing day.

Even General Tunner, director of the airlift, grew alarmed. “The weather closed in on us,” he wrote, only to learn that even worse conditions were on their way.

The first sign of serious trouble came on November 3, 1948, when the fog thickened to such an extent that all three of Berlin’s airfields had to halt their operations. Two hundred planes were forced to turn back as the runways were swallowed by the blanket, depriving Berlin of 1,500 tons of essential supplies. Visibility dropped from 50 yards to 20, before dropping once again and rendering it impossible to see anything.

Airfields in Berlin, West Germany, and across Europe were paralyzed. Britain’s supply hub for Berlin, Northfield airfield, was crippled completely, and most other airports were forced to close.

By the last week of November, the fog had reduced visibility to such an extent that even Tunner conceded defeat. “On November 30th one of those pea-soup fogs closed in on Berlin,” he wrote. “You couldn’t drive a car in the city that day, much less land a plane.”

Frank Howley now feared the worst. “We faced a grave situation,” he said. “The frightening way in which our stocks were disappearing warned us that unless we replenished them at once, they would be exhausted within a week or—at the most—10 days.

The fog caused a catastrophic disruption to the supply of fuel. “We heard that coal supplies were dwindling and would be exhausted within days,” said one young Berliner. “Then, Berlin would begin to die.”

And then came a sudden plunge in temperature that coincided with a complete rupture of West Berlin’s power supply. The outage happened in an abrupt and spectacular fashion. “Everything ground to a halt,” said Fräulein Gross, who was traveling in a streetcar when the vehicle suddenly shuddered to a halt and gave up the ghost. Frank Howley’s worst nightmare had come to pass: Berlin had been brought to its knees.

But just when the airlift reached its deepest point of crisis, at the beginning of January 1949, there was a sudden and dramatic meteorological upturn. “The weather miraculously improved,” wrote a relieved Howley, who saw the first glimmer of hope in the milder temperatures. Planes began landing within hours of the improved conditions, and the city’s empty warehouses were slowly but steadily replenished. For the first time in months, there was a renewed sense of optimism.

“More planes began to arrive daily,” Howley said, “our new radar equipment reduced the weather hazard[, and] we perfected loading and handling techniques.” It was the first tentative sign that the tide was turning. If the Western allies could keep replenishing supplies throughout January, the Soviet blockade would surely fail.

The renewed thunder of aircraft brought reassurance to Berliners, who knew that their lives depended on an allied plane landing every few minutes. Howley said that people who had once complained about the noise of the airfields were now welcoming it, and he counted himself among the converts. “To me, Tempelhof was a stirring symphony. The roar of incoming planes, dropping supplies, and rushing back for more, was great music in my ears.” As he lay in his bed listening to the noise reverberating throughout the night, he felt increasingly confident about the future.

“The engines seemed to repeat, ‘We’re licking the blockade! We’re licking the blockade!’ Every load that hit the ground meant another hole in the stockade around Berlin.”

By March 1949, Frank Howley knew he was on a winning streak. No longer did he anxiously scan the skies, as he had done during the forlorn period of fog and ice. Nor did he feel the need to make daily tours of Berlin’s storage depots. Ever since January, planes had been landing every few minutes at each of Berlin’s three airports, bringing in enormous quantities of food. “The airlift was running like clockwork,” he wrote that spring. “The swarm of planes overhead had become a noisy factor in humdrum metropolitan life.” Supplies were averaging 8,000 tons a day, more than was needed for subsistence, and on occasions, it topped 10,000. “Reserves were built to new highs. Rations were increased until they stood higher than in the Russian sector.” Those Berliners who had crossed into the Soviet sector to get increased rations now begged to be allowed back.

When it finally came, the end of the siege caught everyone by surprise. Frank Howley was seated in his office on Wednesday, May 4, 1949, when a sensational communiqué from the State Department clattered through the Teletype machine: "Agreement has been reached between the three western powers and the soviets regarding the raising the Berlin blockade . . ." The communiqué went on to say that the blockade was to end at 00:01 hours on May 12, 1949—the end to a siege that had lasted 323 days.

Thousands of Berlin families stayed up that historic night in order to hear official confirmation that the siege was at an end. As radioman Rudolf-Gunter Wagner drove around Berlin -- broadcasting the news from his loudspeaker van to the crowds of newly liberated Berliners -- his words were drowned out by joyous whoops and shrieks. “Hurrah!” they shouted. “We’re still alive!"  Berliner Manfred Knopf had lived through four years of uncertainty. Now he felt a sense of victory. “We belonged to the Western world!”

Relief and gratitude were the overwhelming emotions that night, along with a deep sense of joy. The mayor’s son, Edzard Reuter, joined the thronging crowds and saw genuine happiness on people’s faces for the first time in years. He knew why: “Freedom had arrived.”

Among those in the streets was Ella Barowsky, a member of the Berlin City Assembly. After struggling to stay alive throughout that terrible year of siege, she now found it hard to contain her emotions. “We’ve done it!” she cried, before adding four words that gave her the greatest lift of all. “The West has won!”

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.