The Soviet Union blocked Western rail and road access to West Berlin from June 24, 1948 - May 11, 1949. This Berlin Blockade was one of the major crises of the Cold War. The crisis abated after the Soviet Union did not act to stop American, British and French airlifts of food and other provisions to the Western-held sectors of Berlin following the Soviet blockade.
Postwar division of Germany
When World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (U.S., British, and French) troops were located in particular places, essentially, along a line in the center of Europe. From July 17 to August 2, 1945, the victorious Allied Powers reached the Potsdam Agreement on the fate of postwar Europe, calling for the division of a defeated Germany into four occupation zones (thus reaffirming principles laid out earlier by the Yalta Conference), and the similar division of Berlin into four zones. The French, U.S., and British sectors of Berlin were deep within the Soviet occupation zones, and thus a focal point of tensions corresponding to the breakdown of the U.S.-Soviet wartime alliance. (See Origins of the Cold War)
The dispute over Berlin
The Berlin blockade had its roots in 1945 and 1946 when the breakdown of the Four Power Allied Control Council rendered the reunification of postwar Germany impossible.
The Soviets sought to create a unified but demilitarized Germany under their tutelage, or as Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov told U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in 1946, a united Germany that could be neutralized after Russia received industrial reparations from Germany. This strategy was a response to a 150-year history of repeated Western assaults on Russia, including World War I and Napoleon's 1812 invasion. Stalin considered it essential to destroy Germany's capacity for another war, which conflicted with the U.S. desire to rebuild Germany as the economic center of a stable Europe. (Stalin assumed that Japan and Germany could menace the Soviet Union once again by the 1960s.)
The United States, however, stressed that postwar reconstruction in Western Europe depended on German economic and industrial recovery. The U.S. stance was that if it could not reunify Germany with Soviet cooperation, the West could develop the western, industrial portions of postwar Germany controlled by France, Britain, and the U.S. and integrate the areas into a new European sphere.
Led by the U.S., the three major Western former Allied Powers reached an agreement on this approach during a series of impromptu meetings in London from February to June 1948. As outlined in an announcement on March 6, 1948, the London Conference declared support for fusing the three Western zones of Germany into an independent, federal form of government, and bring the fusion of the three Western zones into the U.S.-led economic reconstruction efforts (See Marshall Plan). These plans created a crisis in Soviet foreign policy, which was predicated on a weakened Germany and ensuring reparations payments.
In addition, the dispute over Germany escalated after U.S. President Harry S. Truman refused to give the Soviet Union reparations from West Germany's industrial plants; Stalin responded by splitting off the Soviet sector of Germany as a Communist state.
The Berlin Airlift
Loading milk on a Berlin-bound plane
On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to the arteries of the three Western-held sectors of Berlin, which was deep within the Soviet zone of Germany, by cutting off all rail and road routes going through Soviet-controlled territory in Germany. The Western powers had never negotiated a pact with the Soviets guaranteeing these rights. Amid the fallout of the London Conference, the Soviets now rejected arguments that occupation rights in Berlin and the use of the routes during the previous three years had given the West legal claim to unimpeded use of the highways and railroads.
On June 28 the U.S. responded; Truman decided to launch a massive airlift (ultimately lasting 324 days) that flew supplies into the Western-held sectors of Berlin over the blockade during 1948-1949. This aerial supplying of West Berlin became known as the Berlin Airlift. Military confrontation loomed while Truman embarked on a highly visible move intended to humiliate the Soviets internationally.
The U.S. action was given the name Operation Vittles, and the British called theirs Plain Fare.
Hundreds of aircraft, nicknamed Rosinenbomber ("raisin bombers") by the local population, were used to fly in a wide variety of cargo items, including more than 1.5 million tons of coal. At the height of the operation, on April 16, 1949, an allied aircraft landed in Berlin every minute. The aircraft were supplied and flown by the United States, United Kingdom and France, but crews also came from Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand to help. Ultimately, 277,804 flights would be made and 2,325,809 tons of food and supplies would be delivered to Berlin.
The USSR lifted its blockade at midnight, on May 11, 1949. However, the airlift did not end until September 30, as the Western nations wanted to build up sufficient amounts of supplies in West Berlin in case the Soviets blockaded it again.
The three major Berlin airfields involved were Tempelhof, in the American Sector, Gatow in the British and Tegel in the French. Operational control of the three allied airlift corridors was given to BARTCC (Berlin Air Route Traffic Control Center) air traffic control located at Tempelhof. Diplomatic approval authority was granted to a secretive four-power organization also located in the American sector. It was called the Berlin Air Safety Center (BASC).
The Allied commander during the airlift was General Lucius D. Clay.
Following the end of the Berlin Blockade, two new military awards were created to recognize the efforts of the United States military in accomplishing the Berlin Airlift and preventing an all out war with the Soviet Union. The Airlift Device was created as an attachment to both the Army of Occupation Medal and the Navy Occupation Service Medal. An entirely new medal was also created, known as the Medal for Humane Action, to recognize those who had served over 120 days of duty in support of the Berlin Airlift.