Under Siege: The Berlin Blockade and Airlift

If there is one city to tell the history of the 20th century, it is Berlin. In 1900, it was the heart of imperial Germany, then turned itself into the seat of power of the new German republic after World War I (and the place-to-be for the avantgarde of the Roaring 1920s). The Nazis hated the tolerant, left-leaning Berlin and planned to rebuild it into the “World Capital Germania” once they had won the war. Those megalomaniac visions were shattered by the Soviet Army conquering Berlin in the single largest land battle in history at the end of World War II. During the Cold War, the divided Berlin was the focal point of confrontation between East and West. Finally, Berlin was re-united again in 1989/90. This article will tell the story of how the city became divided 70 years ago, why that was the better option (at least for one half of the city), and what that meant for the future of the city and the Cold War. As always, we’ll have a look at how board games represent our historical topic throughout the article, but there’s also a special section exclusively dealing with them.

Making a Move for Berlin: The Soviet Union and the Berlin Blockade

It’s important to remember that Germany was not immediately divided with barbed wire and a wall after World War II. While the country was quartered into occupation zones administered by the four Allied powers (USSR, USA, UK, France), it was initially jointly governed by those four powers via the institution of the Allied Control Council. Allied personnel and goods freely flowed through all the German zones – including from the Western zones through the Soviet sector to Berlin, which was also divided into four sectors, one per Allied power.

WSDV.spielplan.BIG

Berlin (in the northeast as well as in the top-right detail of the map) was right in the middle of the Soviet occupation zone in Germany (shades of violet). There was no land connection from the Western occupation zones (shades of green) to West Berlin. Game board of Wir sind das Volk!, ©Histogame.

However, the war alliance between the Western powers and the Soviet Union fell apart. Their differing ideologies (capitalist democracies in the West, a communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union) had made them unnatural allies in the first place, and now both sides feared the other would want to keep expanding their sphere of influence. Joint government of Germany was impossible under this mutual mistrust, so both the Western powers and the Soviet Union began building German proto-states in their occupation zones. As West Berlin was surrounded by the Soviet occupation zone, it seemed like a good point to which to apply Soviet pressure – either to swallow West Berlin and make it part of the Soviet-controlled sphere or to force the West to make concessions for keeping West Berlin. The Soviets began to harass the supply lines into West Berlin in early 1948 already. Routine procedures took longer, more ships, trains, and trucks going to West Berlin were stopped at the sector border, and entire routes were blocked due to “technical difficulties”. When the three Western powers announced they would expand the new West Germany currency also to West Berlin on June 24, 1948, the Soviets shut down the last land route into West Berlin and stopped transferring electricity there. The city was effectively under economic siege.

blockade_TS

The Soviet move for Berlin was intended to gain them either West Berlin or to weaken the Western position in West Germany. Image: Card “Blockade” from Twilight Struggle, ©GMT Games.

Resistance on the Ground, Supplies By Air: West Berlin as the Frontline City of Democracy

West Berlin was entirely dependent on outside supplies for food, fuel, electricity, and most consumer goods. When the Soviets cut the connection to the outside world, the Western Allies faced grim choices.
They could treat the Soviet action as a mere bluff and force their way through to Berlin. American military governor Lucius D. Clay advocated to send armed convoys through the Soviet zone to Berlin. If the Soviets tried to stop them, that would mean war.
Alternatively, the Allies could give in and abandon Berlin. Especially the French – who had been under German military occupation just four years before – were skeptical about “mourir pour Berlin” (dying for Berlin).
Eventually, the United States and the United Kingdom opted for a third way: They decided to supply Berlin by air. Although the French were not excited about such a costly effort for Berlin, they supported the airlift to preserve Western unity. The USSR did not take the challenge seriously. Supplying a metropolis exclusively by air seemed impossible. And indeed, West Berlin needed 3,400 tons of supplies daily – whereas the entire useable Allied air transport capacities did initially not exceed 700 tons.
Here the Soviets extended a “benevolent” hand to the citizens of West Berlin. They offered West Berliners to use their food ration cards in East Berlin. As ration cards could only be used once, this would have been a choice between Soviet and Western rations. The USSR intended this to become a “vote by ration card” – which, of course, should establish them as the reliable patron of all Berliners. However, the citizens of West Berlin did not turn against the Western allies – instead, they resented the USSR for getting them into the blockade in the first place. Mayor Ernst Reuter successfully framed the blockade as a conflict in which material shortcomings might be suffered if democracy could be defended. 98% of West Berliners stayed on their (lower) Western rations instead of turning East.
Reuter’s agitation for democracy energized the city. West Berliners took immense pride in being the frontline fighters for democracy. It gave them a feeling of readmittance to the international community from which the Germans had been shunned because of the Nazi atrocities. Their fierce resistance to Moscow’s offers surprised the Western powers. As the Western ambassadors had seen the airlift as nothing but a move to buy time for a negotiated settlement, they agreed with Stalin to include West Berlin into the Eastern currency bloc. Under the impression of West Berlin’s commitment to independence from the Soviet sphere, they reneged on that.

Berlin Airlift Legion

Box cover of Berlin Airlift (forthcoming). Image ©Legion War Games.

But all shows of resistance were only worth as much as the airlift would allow them. The Berlin airlift, however, turned into a tremendous success during the summer and fall of 1948. A steadily growing number of American and British planes delivered supplies. American and French forces built Tegel Airport as an additional hub for the airlift. The Soviets counted on General Winter to once more turn the tide for them. The storms would make flying harder, and the cold would increase the need of coal for heating. Unlike 1941, their hopes were shattered. The winter 1948/49 was the mildest in years. By spring 1949, the Berlin airlift was a well-oiled and unstoppable machine. At its peak on April 16, 1949, almost 4,000 takeoffs and landings were recorded in West Berlin – almost three plane movements per minute! While supplying West Berlin already got the Western Allies the gratitude of the West Berliners, the pilots did even more to win the hearts and minds of the populace. Many attached small gifts (often candy) to little self-made parachutes and dropped them off over waiting crowds of West Berlin children before landing – earning themselves the nickname “Candy Bombers”.
On the other hand, the Allies established a counter-blockade against the Soviet occupation zone which could not get any industrial goods from the Western zones anymore. And the Soviets did not have any alternative means of acquiring these goods, so the counter-blockade did more damage to Soviet-occupied Germany than the Berlin Blockade did to West Berlin. Under that impression, the Soviet Union aimed for a negotiated settlement. On May 4, 1949, the four powers agreed on lifting both the blockade and the counter-blockade.

An Ironic Bond: West Germany and the Western Powers

The Soviet Union had hoped the blockade would drive a wedge between the Western Allies and the West Germans. Ironically, the blockade bound them together much stronger than before. The West Germans saw the airlift as a generous act of support from their erstwhile enemies.

Berlin Airlift WsdV

At the end of the Berlin Blockade, the Western Allies had strengthened their position in Germany. Card “Berlin Airlift” from Wir sind das Volk!, image ©Histogame.

The Western powers, on the other hand, viewed their commitment to West Berlin henceforth as a pillar of strength in their policy towards the Soviet Union. Soviet dreams of possibly even achieving a reunification of Germany without the Western powers playing a major role in it fell apart. Instead, West Germany was founded as a state the same month the Berlin Blockade ended. The Blockade and Airlift therefore helped to deepen and perpetuate the division of Berlin, and of Germany.
West Berlin remained a Western island in the Sea of Eastern Communism. Ten years after the blockade, Soviet General Secretary Khrushchev threatened it again in what came to be known as the Second Berlin Crisis (1958). With his distinct rural bluntness, Khrushchev explained to his colleagues: “West Berlin is the testicle of the West. If I want the West to scream, I squeeze West Berlin.” However, the Allies did not back down. Khrushchev never went through with his threat, looking like a fool.
While West Berlin was thus a liability to the West, it also was an asset. It served as a window into the West for millions of East Germans – and a window they could climb through. Until 1961, three million East Germans had fled for the West, most of them through West Berlin. When Soviets and East Germans decided to close this window by erecting the Berlin Wall in front of it, they effectively conceded in the battle of attractiveness between East and West. However, the fear of a Soviet move against West Berlin only gradually waned.

Blockade 13 Days

Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 the threat of another blockade still lingered. Blockading Berlin might have been a strong way for the Soviets to pressure the US, but it would also have escalated the nuclear tensions. Card “Berlin Blockade”, from 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis, ©Jolly Roger Games.

Different Games, Different Perspectives

All the games discussed here focus on a different aspect of the Berlin Blockade. The Blockade event in Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games) reflects the Soviet goal of receiving concessions in West Germany in return for lifting the blockade. Being entirely driven from it is costly for the USA (often the four influence they put into West Germany at setup to control the country). Even more importantly, it can thrash the American strategic position: West Germany is a battleground state in the crucial region of Europe, and, what’s more, it is the most stable battleground state there. The Soviets will have no trouble controlling East Germany and Poland, and France and Italy are in danger of Soviet intervention (France is often empty at setup and can later be destabilized via De Gaulle or Suez Crisis, Italy can be couped in the beginning, both countries are vulnerable to Socialist Governments). The only time I’ve ever seen a victory via Europe Control was when I could take over West Germany via Blockade.
blockade_TS

However, Blockade can also be a boon for the US player. As it allows to discard a card (of value 3 or more) in exchange for keeping US influence in West Germany, it can be used to get rid of an annoying Soviet event (especially one that does not get removed from the game after play, like Socialist Governments).
In any case, the sheer existence of Blockade forces the US player not to take West Germany for granted, and it is also behind setup alternatives to the standard 4 influence to West Germany, 3 influence to Italy. Empty West Germany setups make blockade a safe play for the US (so they are especially attractive when the US receives Blockade on turn 1 and/or does not have an event they want to discard for it). However, as this runs an even greater risk of losing West Germany, Italy must by no means fall to Communism under such setups.
Berlin Airlift (John Poniske, Legion War Games) looks at the blockade from a completely different point of view. The scope of the game is much smaller, focusing on individual flights of planes and the technical and organizational difficulties of supplying an entire city by air. The game is still unpublished – it’s currently 14 orders away from making the cut for production at Legion War Games, so if you want to go really deep into the Berlin Blockade, here’s your chance to pre-order. Some things about Berlin Airlift stand out to me: First, it’s a semi-cooperative game. Players represent one squadron of Allied planes. So, while they all try to out-deliver each other to win individually, all players lose should the morale of West Berlin ever fall to 0. Second, it’s a very thematic game. Poniske experimented with a lot of mechanisms until arriving at the current chit-pull system, but the theme of the Airlift was always a given. Third, for a logistics pick-up-and-deliver game, it looks a lot like a wargame (unsurprising given Poniske’s track record as a wargame designer). Of course, I haven’t played the game yet, but it seems that Soviet harassment of the Allied planes is somewhat overstated (in reality, the Soviets were so assured that a major city could not be supplied by air alone that they left the Allied planes mostly alone, which they possibly regretted later). If you want to read more about Berlin Airlift, Grant from The Players’ Aid has conducted an excellent interview with John Poniske last year.

Operation Candy Bomber

The Berlin Airlift as a family game: Promotional image for Operation Candy Bomber, ©Cedar Fort Inc.

Another (also unpublished) game which approaches the topic somewhat similarly is Operation Candy Bomber (Kagan Eden, Cedar Fort Inc.). It’s a (fully) cooperative family game in which each player takes a character with special abilities, all of them working together to supply West Berlin. The players win if they can fly enough successful operations before winter sets in. I haven’t covered it in more detail as (sadly) publishing of the game seems unlikely now – two Kickstarter campaigns (in January and March of this year) have not yielded enough funding for the game. I guess a game with a not very well-known historical theme that is aimed at families might be a hard sell.
Berlin Airlift WsdV

Finally, Wir sind das Volk! (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame) turns to the outcome of the Blockade – a successful airlift (as the card is also named “Berlin Airlift”). As such, the card is a Western event with a plethora of public effects – both short- and long-term: First, it gives a build point (presumably all the fuel, food, spare parts etc. flown into West Berlin). While that is always welcome, playing the card not for the event, but specifically for build points would only give two of them (and none of the other event effects), so I almost always play the card for the event as West (if I don’t urgently need that second build point or need to play the card to create standard of living). Second, it reduces unrest by 2 in West Berlin, as the Airlift wins hearts and minds of the grateful citizens. That might not seem like a high priority when the card comes out, but it is worth a fortune in the second decade when several strong unrest events target West Germany (and sometimes specifically West Berlin). Berlin Airlift in play all but eliminates the chance of mass protests in West Berlin (and, in turn, in a supplier province) – just like in history most West Berliners and West Germans by default stood with the Western powers after the Airlift. Lastly, the event weakens the East’s position on the Western Currency track (as the counter-blockade cut off commercial contact). So, if Twilight Struggle’s Blockade card is what the Soviet Union intended, Wir sind das Volk!’s Berlin Airlift card is how things turned out.
Often, I have to put some variation of “Sadly, the topic is severely undergamed” in my history & board games articles. Not this time! The Berlin Blockade and Airlift have found warm welcomes by many designers who have all cast a different light on them. I mark the topic and the games that cover it with Clio’s Stamp of Approval!

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Games Referenced

Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
Berlin Airlift (John Poniske, Legion War Games)
Wir sind das Volk! (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame)
13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games)
Operation Candy Bomber (Kagan Eden, Cedar Fort Inc.)

Further Reading

A popular history of the airlift which has a plethora of original photos is Giangreco, D.M./Griffin, Robert E.: Air Bridge to Berlin. The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath, Presidio Press 1988. You also find a summary (and many of the photos) online at the Truman Presidential Library.
A short (but thoughtful) introduction in German is Wetzlaugk, Udo: Berliner Blockade und Luftbrücke 1948/49, Landeszentrale für Politische Bildungsarbeit, Berlin 1998.

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9 thoughts on “Under Siege: The Berlin Blockade and Airlift

  1. Pingback: Turning Weakness into Strength: Benefitting from Opponent Events in Twilight Struggle | Clio's Board Games

  2. Daniel B

    One thing you can do in TS is to start West Germany with 1 influence instead of leaving it empty, so that the Soviets cannot grab control of it in one move even with a 4-op card.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
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