Presidential biographer Reeves (President Reagan, 2005, etc.) recaptures the trepidation and righteousness of the Berlin Airlift.
In the face of the Soviet blockade of Berlin, the Allied occupation forces had to decide whether to abandon the city to the Russians or stay and somehow supply the inhabitants. Angered by Western currency reform, the Russians hoped that by strangling the western sections, the population would happily side with the Soviets. Rather than an aggressive response favored by the Americans, which the British feared would cause war, a proposed airlift drawn up by RAF commodore Reginald Waite was embraced, whereby coal, foodstuffs and industrial supplies could be delivered to the beleaguered city. A flotilla of unwieldy American C-47s was recalled from around the world, each with a capacity to carry a cargo of three tons, along with any old bombers the British could scare up, and reservist pilots were rapidly summoned to enact what became known as “Operation Vittles” (“Operation Plainfare” to the Brits). This “cowboy operation” grew over 11 months into a powerful humanitarian mission, with planes landing every 45 seconds, unloaded by German teams and returned to the West German airfield for more supplies. Despite the cold and fog of the brutal winter, occasional crashes, pilferage, Soviet anti-Western propaganda and general exhaustion, all of which Reeves ably depicts, the airlift was a huge success and a public-relations coup for President Truman. It also allowed the war-torn Berliners to invest newfound trust in the Western powers. The author provides insight into many of the mission’s key players, including Curtis LeMay and Lucius Clay, as well as the media’s response to the events.
An uplifting, evenhanded portrait of the characters behind this massive effort—a nice complement to Andrei Cherny’s enthusiastic account, The Candy Bombers (2008).