City Under Siege: The Berlin Blockade and Airlift, 1948-1949, by Michael D. Haydock, Brassey’s, Washington, D.C., 1999, $24.95.
After the surrender of Germany in May 1945, its capital city was isolated by agreement of the Allies inside East Germany. The city was sliced into four sections, with the British, French and Americans having jurisdiction over West Berlin and the Soviets over East Berlin. But the Russians did not want the other three nations represented there and carried out a calculated harassment for months,restricting travel and occasionally blocking roads, railroads and communications. Then, on June 24,1948, the Russians sealed off Berlin’s ground travel arteries, and four days later the first American planes, the faithful old Douglas C-47 Gooney Birds, landed in Berlin with supplies of food. “Operation Vittles,” as the world press quickly dubbed it, had begun.
In City Under Siege, Michael D. Haydock describes how the Berlin Airlift stumbled at first, then gradually built into a force of planes and personnel. General Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the U.S.Air Forces in Europe, called for Major General William H. Tunner, deputy commander of the Military Air Transport Service, to take over Operation Vittles because of his experience running supplies over “the Hump” from India to China during the war. Led by Tunner (who was called “Willy the Whip” behind his back), the task force flew in thousands of pounds of food, coal and medical supplies, mainly in Douglas C-54 transports.
At least 10 books have been written about this historic military operation and many others that cover it along with other Air Force historical airlift missions. Haydock offers a welcome new slant on the operation, however, because he found recently declassified government documents and had access to diaries of some of the participants. Most valuable are his descriptions of what was being done in Washington and London to deal with the growing crisis and the cloak-and-dagger intrigue in Berlin during the pre-airlift period. For example, little was known in the United States about the Americans who were detained for days by the Soviets, the Germans who disappeared without a trace, or the millions of pigs, sheep and cattle that also vanished. Nor were many Americans aware that millions of Germans were on such short rations that there was a genuine danger of epidemics.
City Under Siege has been extensively researched and is notable for presenting detailed politicalbackground on both sides of the issue that other books do not begin to cover. Twenty-one shortbiographical sketches are included of the leading authorities on both sides, as well as a complete list ofthe 72 men who lost their lives in the operation.
Unfortunately, there is one omission that those of us who were members of the 36th Fighter Group under Colonel Henry R. “Russ” Spicer will notice. As one of the first operational jet fighter units, our group was sent hurriedly from the Panama Canal Zone to Germany in July 1948 with new Lockheed P-80s and were assigned to Furstenfeld bruck Air Base, near Munich. Our mission was to back up the lift with firepower if the Russians began shooting down the transports. Some of us were drafted briefly as co-pilots on the Gooney Birds before the C-54s took over the lift. Although Haydock does not mention the unit at all, it was one of the 36th’s senior maintenance sergeants who suggested mounting one of our jet engines sideways on a truck and driving it past the C-54s to melt the ice on the wings. It worked, and General Tunner was pleased.