In the summer of 1945, Berlin lay in ruins. The Nazis had been defeated, but at great cost. The allies realised Germany would have to be re-built so it could pay its war reparations. To ensure Germany could never again wage war, the country was split into four zones, each administered by one of the victors.
Four occupied sectors were created – British, American, French and Soviet. Berlin, in the Soviet zone, was also divided four ways. But fears of Communism caused a rift among the allies. The British, American and French zones introduced new money, the Deutsche Mark, while the Soviet sector was isolated with the Ost Mark. The deepening mistrust on both sides led to the blockade of West Berlin.
And so, three years after the end of the fighting, a new war, the Cold War, began and the eyes of the world were on Berlin. By late June 1945 the Soviet blockade was complete. Nothing entered West Berlin and nothing left. Two million Berliners were effectively held hostage. The allies had to act, and launched the biggest delivery of food and supplies in history. Three air corridors allowed the planes to reach West Berlin, landing at the rate of one every three minutes. Some 8,000 tonnes of aid were delivered every day for nearly a year.
The operation is remembered affectionately by its former pilots, including Earl Moore, the President of the Berlin Airlift Veterans: “If we had been feeding a former enemy, they would not have gone over with a flip, we would not have wanted to do it. But when we saw what we were doing, and what the Communists were doing to the people, that is when we said ‘Oh, we have got to change this,’” he said.
Berlin survived against the odds. There were no medicines, no heating and disease was rife. Ration cards re-appeared. The pilots came up with an idea for the children, the famous Chocolate Bombers. Using handkerchiefs, they made tiny parachutes, and 23 tonnes of sweets floated down to eager hands.
Now grown-up, Mercedes Wild remembers the excitement: “I knew that little chocolates were hanging from the parachutes, so I wrote to what I called my ‘chocolate uncle’ at Tempelhof Airport pleading with him to send just one chocolate down to my garden,” she said.
The Berlin Airlift ran until May 1949, achieving its mission of keeping the city alive. But Cold War tensions would divide the world for years to come.