On This Day

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Associated Press
Children in West Berlin watch U.S. airplanes bring in supplies.

On This Day: Soviet Union Ends Berlin Blockade

May 12, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 12, 1949, the Soviet Union ceased its 11-month blockade of West Berlin, along with its effort to isolate and annex the city. The blockade was defeated by a massive daily U.S.-U.K. airlift of supplies.

Berlin Airlift Renders Blockade Ineffective

When the Soviet Union, which controlled East Berlin, closed ground access to West Berlin in June 1948, it hoped the Western Allies in control of that part of the city would depart, leaving the Soviet Union to control the entire city.

Instead the British and American militaries decided to supply West Berlin by air, and commenced the Berlin Airlift (aka Operation Plane Fare and Operation Vittles), to make daily deliveries of food, milk, coal and gasoline. The airlift began on June 26, and by August reached its goal of delivering more than 4,500 tons of food and fuel daily.

The massive humanitarian effort was epitomized by American pilot Gail Halvorsen, who, during a brief stay in Berlin, promised a group of children that he would drop some candy bars and gum from his plane the next day. Using handkerchiefs as miniature parachutes, he dropped the sweets to a group of waiting children near the airfield. His story was picked up by the media and soon the military launched Operation Little Vittles; Halvorsen and the “candy bombers” would drop 23 tons of chocolate, candy and gum by the end of the airlift.

On Easter Sunday 1949, almost 13,000 tons of coal were delivered in a single 24-hour span. Realizing the blockade was failing, the Soviets sought to negotiate. On May 4, the Soviets met with the three Western Allies in Berlin and agreed to end the blockade, effective on May 12.

The airlifts continued through September and in total the British and American pilots delivered more than 2.3 million tons of supplies in more than 275,000 flights at a cost of more than $224 million. The operation was a major political and public relations success for the Western Allies and an embarrassment for the Soviet Union.
The end of the blockade gave the citizens of West Berlin access to better quality food as well as more electricity and jobs. This seemed a fitting reward for their 11 months of dogged determination.

A Time magazine correspondent in Berlin said of the end of the blockade, “If ever there are monuments raised to commemorate democracy’s victory in the battle of Berlin, there are plenty of heroes to adorn them. In their weary, often grumbling and fumbling way, it was Berlin’s plain people who won the battle.”

Background: How Blockade Began

After World War II, Germany was divided into four zones, occupied by the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The capital of Germany, Berlin, was similarly divided, with the United States, Britain and France controlling most of the western part of Berlin, and the Soviet Union controlling the eastern section of the city. 

The city of Berlin was located in the center of Soviet-controlled East Germany, requiring passage through Soviet-controlled parts of Germany to access any part of Berlin by land.

Although the four powers had intended to rule Germany together, the Western Allies wanted to rebuild Germany’s economy, whereas the Soviet Union, fearing that Germany could again become a military power, wanted to keep it weak.

The Western Allies planned to introduce the Deutsche mark to West Berlin against the wishes of the Soviet Union. Post-war relations between the Soviets and the Western Allies quickly soured and the Soviets decided to push the West out of Berlin through the blockade.

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